The Big Idea: Rusty Coats
Posted on January 6, 2017 Posted by John Scalzi 16 Comments
I’ve known Rusty Coats since he and I were twenty-something newspaper columnists geeking out over Coen Brothers films together, so it’s no surprise to find him today with a novel, Avalon, full of noir and speculative elements. Today in 2017’s first Big Idea essay, he’s talking about how to build a virtual city, meant to be a haven, but ending up as something else entirely.
The Big Idea behind Avalon is a dystopian future where a virtual reality city, once built as a beacon of hope for a world that has fallen down, has become a hedonistic destination full of brothels and bloodsport. Basically, VR meets Prohibition, with a conspiracy to seize control of the city – and humanity itself.
Avalon is told in the first person by Jack Denys, whose parents were part of the global project to build the virtual city. Jack had grown up on Campus, believing in the promise of a city that would unite a world scarred by nuclear exchanges, pandemic and economic collapse. But his encryption program was deemed an act of treason, and Jack, the last privacy hack, was sent to prison.
Now it’s eight years later. Still incomplete, Avalon was outlawed after a mysterious “programmer’s disease” killed thousands and left millions hopelessly addicted. The United Nations tried to destroy the metropolis but failed when a new mafia called the Digerati seized control. In an age of Prohibition, the Digerati have retooled the City of Light into an online Babylon. And Jack, who has vowed never to return to Avalon, has been hired by one of them for a job that turns out not be so simple.
I had been on a noir kick, reading a lot of Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain, while talking a lot with a friend who was launching a virtual reality company to document big-building construction. (Bonus: You can see through walls.) Throw in my love of Depression Modern design, an infatuation with FDR’s Works Progress Administration and a love of all forms of encryption and you get the major ingredients. I wanted to blend the language and style of Depression-era and noir fiction with an alternate future where VR is simultaneously a source of hope and despair, told through the flawed voice of an antihero.
To design the virtual-reality city, I turned to Norman Bel Geddes, the early 20th Century designer responsible for the iconic designs of the 1939 World’s Fair. Since Depression and Prohibition historically breed fanatics, I added an agrarian/Luddite sect called the Sons of David – a blend of my former work as a reporter covering Amish and Northern Californian off-the-grid communities. And, since everyone likes a good global conspiracy, I created technocratic cult, the Neuromantics, which promotes itself as benevolent caretakers of a wounded populace but, well, we’ve all seen how that usually turns out.
The Big Idea, then, is an amalgamation, and a bit of an homage. My grandfather worked in the Civilian Conservation Corps, part of FDR’s New Deal, and it was the first step in moving my family out of poverty in Southern Indiana. The designs of Bel Geddes and others were symbols of hope – that a streamlined, futuristic design could accelerate the country out of the Depression. And, as someone who has worked in media for 25 years, I’ve seen how every digital development – from AOL chat rooms to virtual reality immersions – are met with equal parts ecstasy and dread.
And we all need a little privacy in the promised land.
Avalon: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Ink n Beans Press
Mr Coats must be mistaken about his grandfather’s and family’s experience—everyone knows that Big Gummint never did anyone any good, and any little bit of socialism leads inexorably and quickly to most of us either in the gulag or cowering in our over-crowded apartments eating thin holum-root soup.
I have to say that you have piqued my interest Mr. Coats. I have always loved literary amalgams that cross many genres. I will be reading this posthaste.
Just bought it!
Hey John, interesting take on this one. I realized pretty early that mobile apps will be the bridge between virtual and physical reality. As this continues to happen, it really is important to keep our privacy as a top priority.
I’m not even halfway through the sample, and I’m sold. Hell, you had me with Denys and the doorboy screwing with each other in the opening paragraphs. Now that’s the way to start a book–with an interaction that, with almost no exposition, tells the reader a lot about the main character and about the world of the story and makes one want to follow the narrator in through those doors and up the elevator.
I keep trying to stop buying books for a while, and then something intriguing and well written comes along …
Thank you, BW. I’m not a fan of the slow pan-in intros. Wanted the readers to get the novel’s world and protagonist in just a few paragraphs. Glad you like it so far.
Perhaps your “trying to stop buying books” stack looks a lot like mine. Beefy.
Presumably he meant the 1939 World’s Fair, not 1929.
Yes, thank you, Jeff. My typo. And my apologies.
Great idea, and for four bucks? Sold.
I will read this. Right up my little dystopian alley.
€3,50? Bloody Amazon. I should boycot the bastards but I’m weak.
I enjoyed the book very much, Rusty, and reviewed it on Amazon. Echoes of Chandler noted!
At $3.99 on Amazon U.S., I thought it was a bargain. Reading it as we speak–or type.
Rusty actually sent me a note correcting the error but then I forgot to update. So the error is actually mine! Also, fixed.
Sounds absolutely fascinating! I’m sold.
“Neuromantics” is brilliant! Buying this for that word alone.