Sunday, 27 November 2016

Down those mean tweets… Why I wrote Sockpuppet, by Matthew Blakstad

Copyright Paul Treacy
The average Brit spends three hours a day on their smartphone – and that’s just the average. For teenagers it’s more like eight hours. In fact, by the time a child reaches the age of seven, she’ll have spent a whole year of her life in front of a screen. These days so much of our time and emotional energy are committed to interacting with, and through, devices that our very identity is partly constructed on-screen. So it’s perhaps inevitable that more and more of the bad stuff in the world is also starting to happen online. The social media we interact with day-to-day can be threatening enough, especially to women and minorities who dare express their views; yet this visible internet is only the surface of an ocean whose depths are broiling with sharks. Most of the net is dark.

The internet has become the petri dish where every day the global criminal fraternity cooks up some ingenious new way of stealing from, shaming or cyber-bullying the public – and even, as of November 8 2016, influencing elections. Many of these online crimes are all too familiar. Want to buy some blow? Hire a thug? Order an assassination on an Amazon-style website? No problem. Get yourself a copy of the TOR browser and these things are but a click away.

Yet the internet is also breeding completely new varieties of mischief; crimes that threaten our identities as much as our skins. Much of the evil done online isn’t even a crime yet, because the law simply hasn’t caught up with it. Legislation against revenge porn, for instance, only passed into UK law a few months ago, even though this vicious practice has been around for years.

What crime writer could resist the opportunity to explore this uncharted territory?

The answer is, most of us. Crime fiction has – with some notable exceptions – been a little slow to respond to these trends. Perhaps this is because a lot of us writers are, with the best will in the world, not the kind of click-happy millennials who spend their time immersed in digital culture. Many of us see tech as cold, abstract and distancing. Crime writing is meant to be visceral. It’s supposed to explore the capacity for horror and violence that lurks inside us all. Surely smartphones and web browsers are the very opposite of these raw human emotions? I can understand this perspective, but I don’t agree. People online feel. They feel! Perhaps more extremely and more violently the they’re able to do in the physical world.

Of course, there’s a much more specific reason why many writers shy away from the digital world, with its constant surveillance and always-on communications. The smartphone is no friend to the crime writer: it makes a criminal way too easy to find. The new technologies of detection and surveillance make mystery stories ever harder to write. Who’d want to read about Poirot using Google to crack a case, instead of his grey cells? When everything can be known by looking at the data, what need for the instinctive spark of genius that marks out the great detective?

Some writers respond by fleeing to the past, to find a setting where DNA – let alone DNA tests – hasn’t yet been discovered. I’m a big fan of period pieces – I’m writing one myself – but I can’t help feeling that the genre also has an urgent role to play back here in the present. If crime fiction is to keep pace with the world, it needs to embrace technology, not shy from it.

That’s why I chose to write my debut novel, Sockpuppet. It’s a crime thriller, but the crimes are committed in the cloud. The story starts when a chatbot – a piece of mindless software that jabbers inanely on social media – goes rogue and stirs up a political scandal and an army of vicious trolls. The ensuing chaos centres on two women: a government minister called Bethany Lehrer and a young software developer called Dani Farr. Between them, they need to work out who’s really behind these attacks, or risk seeing their darkest secrets shared on every smartphone in the land.

In telling this very digital story, I’ve tried make my characters’ experience of the online world both rich and emotive. Stories, after all, begin and end with their characters. Whether they’re being attacked by thugs or by trolls, we still need to care about how these flesh-and-blood people feel; how they face up to their challenges; how they change as a consequence. I hope my readers will experience the thrill of my on-screen twists and turns as vividly as they would if the action took place in the ‘real’ world.

Although Sockpuppet is first and foremost a riotous thriller that I hope is fun to read, it also tries to speak truthfully about the world we inhabit now. In writing it, I wanted to make the online world accessible to readers who feel confused or disturbed by tech. One of the really gratifying things about reader responses so far is how many non-technical people tell me they’ve found the book engaging – and often terrifying. A common response is, ‘I read your book and now I want to delete all my online accounts and live in a bunker.’ So that’s a win, I suppose…

And I’m not done yet! Sockpuppet is just the first in a planned series of separate but interconnected novels called The Martingale Cycle. These stories will span eight decades, from the postwar era to the near future. Along the way I hope to explore how tech and surveillance have changed us over the decades; how they’ve been used in the interests of both power and protest. We’ve already put out a little taster for the cycle, in the form of a short e-novel called Fallen Angel, set in the dot-com crash of the year 2000. In 2017 the cycle will continue when Hodder publishes Lucky Ghost, the story of a criminal conspiracy that starts inside a virtual reality game. After this, I’m going to dial the clock back to 1969, and the very birth of the internet and the personal computer.

Whether you’re a hacker or a luddite, I hope you’ll join me for the ride.

Sockpuppet is available now from Hodder & Stoughton in hardback, e-book and audiobook. The paperback is out on 26 January 2016. Fallen Angel is now just 99p on Amazon.

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