Interview with John Be Lane, Author of The Future Lies
Thanks so much for visiting YAOTL, John. Please tell us about The Future Lies:
Thanks for inviting me!
The Future Lies is my first novel, set in Denver, decades in the future. It tells the story of a collapsed society, overseen by an Artificial Intelligence network, and a small group of teenagers who struggle to figure their way out of it.
You call this a post-dystopian romantic thriller. Can you tell us more about this categorization? (I had a friend who joked about post-dystopian being when everything got back to normal. But that’s not quite what we have here…)
When I finished writing the book, I’d been so focused on the specifics of the story that when people asked me what it was about, I wasn’t quite sure what to say. I didn’t have a decent log line ready. But the off-the-cuff responses I attempted were obviously not doing the job. I think that was in part because there’s a lot going on in the story.
Finally, that phrase just popped into my head: it’s a post-dystopian romantic thriller! It’s not really a log line, but it just seemed to fit. As you point out, “post-dystopian” is a category that’s open to interpretation. We’re used to hearing “post-apocalyptic,” or “dystopian,” but what’s this “post-dystopian” all about? I asked myself the same question, but I ended up liking the ambiguity. It has a nice ring to it, too. It felt like it worked as a hook.
I usually ask about inspiration, but this time, I’m really curious when you started drafting The Future Lies. What would you do if you found out the A.I. that ran everything was not quite as bright as it seemed? This feels ripped-from-today’s headlines, in so many ways. But you had to start writing this several years ago. What brought you to this subject?
A healthy dose of caution! I’ve felt AI looming over the horizon for the past ten years or so. It’s not a monolithic thing as of yet, but there are scenarios that have earned my concern. The potential for total surveillance and control, for example, in which AI would integrate the Internet of Things that we’ve been casually allowing into our lives. That’s really how I envisioned the Network in The Future Lies.
Where that leads to, in the book, is a society in which not only does nobody have to do anything; they’re no longer allowed to do anything. To ensure that’s sustained, people have been groomed to no longer be able to do anything. Although the book is set later in this century, I don’t view that kind of a world as some blue-sky projection. I worry that we’re already on an trajectory to a very similar end state. My intention was to raise an alarm.
I was intrigued by the use of second person at certain points–the Prologue, or for example, from page 322: “It was never a good thing to run for your life…” Tell us about what fueled this choice? The desire to immerse the reader even deeper into the story?
That was definitely my intention in the Prologue, which begins with, “You never questioned what the Network wanted you to do…” It was used there to immediately immerse and engage readers. To get them to place themselves, personally, within the context of the story. Even if it’s subliminally. Second person wouldn’t have worked for the overall book, but the Prologue felt like a necessary moment to play that card.
You mentioned the other prominent place that second person shows up; the “run for your life...” section. It was used there more to convey immediacy and a sense of the stakes. That’s where the climax of the story kicks off. But I have to say it was an instinctive choice as I was writing that scene, not at all premeditated. Part of the fun of a first draft, for me, is to write from the gut, and then evaluate the results in the cold light of some other day. In that case, upon further review, it felt best to leave it in second person.
Let’s talk genre (or really, age categorization) a bit. The Future Lies doesn’t quite feel as firmly YA as other books I’ve read this year–it really could have gone adult as well. Why did you decide to go YA?
The first part of your question speaks to the crux of what happened. At no time while I was writing the book did I think of it as intended for the YA genre. I had this story, and I wrote it as well as I could. That was my only goal. But the story revolves around characters who fall into the YA demographic. That detail was never in question, because that’s how the story presented itself to me. But I think there were reasons why that was the case.
For starters, I think my (Baby Boom) generation, overall, has done a disgraceful job as the stewards of what we inherited. There are no excuses. I remember the first Earth Day observance at my school in Omaha. Climate change, or “ecology” as it was referred to in those days, didn’t sneak up on anybody my age. Not in this country, anyway. And that’s not to mention the erosion of integrity and the rule of law itself, that too many have either enabled or stood by and allowed. It’s been a wholesale moral failure. I felt an obligation to address that.
Another reason is that I remember what it felt like at that age, to be maturing out of the cocoon you were raised in. Until then, the world seemed to more or less make some kind of sense. And then one day, you start noticing things. You think, “Wait a minute. Some of these things don’t make sense at all. In fact, some of it’s just downright wrong.” And you realize you’re on the short end of a lot of those things. But you feel powerless to do much about it. And maybe you’re not sure that anyone else even feels the same way. I remember all that, because I still feel that way.
The book addresses that sense of disorientation, unease, and injustice that I imagine a lot of young adults must be feeling these days. And yet as I was writing it, I was writing about that audience, not consciously for that audience. Not that it necessarily makes a difference. It’s just that after I finished it, it came to my attention that books with YA protagonists are generally considered YA by genre. I embraced that.
I agree that it could have gone adult, probably in part because I was age-agnostic while writing it. So it may well appeal to adults beyond the YA demographic. But I really hope it finds traction with young adults, too. As daunting as the cards are that they have been dealt, young adults do still have all kinds of agency. They just need to realize that, and empower themselves to actually use it. Greta Thunberg would be one good example of all that potential.
We’ve had a year of A.I headlines–and we’ve all played around with ChatGPT. What’re your current feelings on A.I, at this point? Any different than they were when you wrote the book?
Except for some final fine-tuning, I was done with the book when ChatGPT was launched at the end of November, 2022. Even though I’d been keeping a close eye on AI developments, I didn’t expect it to, overnight, become another app on a smart phone. It felt like they just suddenly started handing out candy bars with Pandora’s Boxes inside. Whereas the book imagines AI as a mature, late-stage technology.
So it’s been fascinating to see how the past year has unfolded. Aside from my profound concerns about the unlicensed data scraping of writers’ and other creatives’ work, not too much has surprised me. At the top of the pyramid, the Lords of Technology have positioned themselves to compound their already-excessive power and wealth. In the middle, you’ve got politicians (with the recent exception of the European Union), artfully wringing their hands as a substitute for action. And at the bottom, a whole lot of people seem happy to dive in head first, no matter how shallow the untested waters might be.
By now, it’s a familiar pattern. Smart phones conquered us with hardly any resistance. The “goners” in my book were inspired by people I see walking down the street every day. Or driving their cars. Take GPS as a modest example. In a pinch, it’s a great tool. But when you trade a useful skill like reading a map for some lines of code that lead you around, you’re giving up part of your privacy, your cognitive capacity, and your freedom of choice, not to mention the unexpected pleasures that may await your wrong turn. In exchange for…not having to use your own head.
So I’m as concerned about what we seem so willing to give up, as I am about what AI and the digital ecosystem wants to take away from us. But it’s been fascinating to watch AI enter our cultural bloodstream in real time. There are signs that it might end up being both more, and less, that what we currently think it will be. So far though, I haven’t seen anything that seems inconsistent with the AI character in the book.
As a book publisher myself, I’m interested in the layout of books. I found it interesting that the paragraphs were all left justified, with no paragraph indents and an extra space between—it mirrors a non-fiction book. Is that intentional? (I felt playing off the non-fiction layout actually gave it the appearance of a real-life true-fact story.)
I hadn’t thought of that non-fiction aspect, but you’ve made me feel better about what began inadvertently! What actually happened is, that’s just how I typed the original draft. I wasn’t even thinking about it. After I’d done the whole draft, it dawned on me that this wasn’t the typical format. I had a moment of panic – it would have required some effort to undo.
I took a closer look at the news websites I read every morning, and realized that’s their format too, even down to the ragged right margins. That’s where I may have subconsciously picked it up. I started thinking it might ring a bell with other people who read a lot online. (Or, maybe I was just rationalizing what I’d done!)
Either way, I needed another opinion, so I showed it to Julz Greason, who was about to start designing the book. After a careful assessment, she thought it would be fine to keep it like it was. Especially because there are quite a few one-line paragraphs that might have looked odd if they all were indented. We also liked how it seemed to give the text some extra breathing room. A little more white space on the page. I’m for anything that might make it easier for a reader to sink into a book. But Julz gave it the critical vote of confidence.
Can you talk about the use of music throughout? You even include songs in your citations at the end, as well as a playlist.
Music really helped me find my way into the mood of this story, before I could put it into words. Another portal was a TV series called Babylon Berlin, about Germany in the late 1920s. The Future Lies tells a completely different story, but there was something about that atmosphere in Weimar Germany that resonated with the world I imagined. I keyed in on the music from that period, including the music from a show called The Threepenny Opera. A decadent-sounding accordion in particular.
I started this playlist of songs that gave me the same disoriented, melancholy feeling. After The Gold Rush, by Neil Young. A song by Tom Waits called Strange Weather. The Beatles’ Strawberry Fields Forever. The playlist turned into the soundtrack for a movie I hadn’t seen, or in this case, written yet. But I could immerse myself in the underlying feeling, and that did help me understand what I was after. All of that infused itself in the story as I was writing it.
At certain points in the story, music has a strong effect on the characters themselves. As it did for me when I started the book, it seems to help them connect with a world they’re struggling to understand. And I thought the absence of literacy in their world would give any music they heard that much more currency.
There are snippets of lyrics in the story, too. I didn’t read a lot of poetry growing up, but I absolutely loved the lyrical treasures in the songs I was hearing. Lyrics were my poetry. I can’t quote Shelley or Keats, but I can throw down some Slim Harpo, Melanie Safka, or Robert Hunter!
I’ll be wearing my publisher hat for a while, trying to help this book and its audience find each other. That’s its own creative challenge, which I’m fortunate to also enjoy. It gives me a chance to let the writing well fill up again. I have a few ideas in mind for my next project, but haven’t locked in on any one of them yet. I do have a book of poetry that’s pretty much ready to go, but I’ll save that till the timing seems right. And I’m beginning to expand Global Arts Press beyond my own writing. I’m working with several other writers who have projects in various stages of completion. Actually, work seems like the wrong verb. I love all these things I’m able to do at the moment.
Where can we find you?
Besides finding me now at YA Outside the Lines (thanks to you!) the two best ways would be via publicist extraordinaire Simone Jung (firstname.lastname@example.org), or through my contact page at https://johnbe.com/.
John Be Lane’s first book, The Beatin’ Path – a lyrical guide to lucid evolution received a Living Now Evergreen Award as “one of the world-changing books published since the year 2000.” His new novel, The Future Lies, will be available in February, 2024. He lives in Colorado.