Hacking the overmind

John Sundman's nanotech thriller is a tribute to geekly passions -- and a warning of imminent disaster.

Published February 21, 2001 8:15PM (EST)

"Acts of the Apostles" is a nanotech science-fiction thriller packed with everything you would expect a hardcore geek to like. Nanotechnology -- the design of molecule-sized machines -- may still be the stuff of future fantasy, but the references to software code, silicon chips and DNA that run through this novel reek of realness. It's just what you would hope for from an author who spent nine years working for Sun Microsystems: a book with geek heroes and heroines, written by a geek, and concerned with geek passions.

But it's also a book infused with a sensibility that you don't normally expect a "hard science fiction" novel to have: real emotions, real heartbreak and a real sense of the craziness at the core of the human condition. So-called "hard SF" -- a subgenre of science fiction that strives to get its facts and figures as correct as possible -- usually isn't very good at depicting real people. "Acts of the Apostles," a first-time novel by an amateur writer, may be a bit buggy at times, but it still achieves a rare thing: It makes you care both about the code and the characters.

And, for a reviewer, the book even goes one step further: It makes you care about the author, John Sundman. I first heard about "Acts of the Apostles" from a likely source -- Slashdot, where, back in May 2000, the book was given a hefty plug by Slashdot co-founder "Hemos." But at the time I just downloaded the first couple of chapters, glanced through a few pages and then, after becoming distracted by something else, never went back.

Cut to January 2001. The author, Sundman, e-mails me to personally promote his self-published novel. After sending along a hard-copy printed version (say what you will about the online world, but it's still a LOT easier to read a book on paper than on a monitor), Sundman kept the pressure on with follow-up e-mails, follow-up phone calls, daily updates on the progress of a Web site devoted to the book, and bits and driblets of his own harrowing life story. He simply would not be denied.

First novels are often drawn from the lives of their authors. Sundman spent time in Senegal as a member of the Peace Corps -- so does the protagonist of "Acts of the Apostles." Sundman was shunted into a dead-end job doing a worthless project after a power struggle at Sun -- and so was his protagonist, at a company called Digital Microsystems. Sundman sacrificed swaths of his life to finish his novel; he put his wife and family through hell, he put his career on hold, he reneged on work commitments. And so, too, does hero Nick Aubrey lose all connection with normal responsibilities as he seeks to stop a mad plot to turn all of humanity into unthinking slaves of a Borg-ian overmind.

One of the popular images of the hacker at work is of a programmer who gives up everything for the pursuit of the code -- staying up all night, ignoring personal hygiene or human relations, caring only about getting the code to work. That, in fact, is the opening scene of "Acts of the Apostles" and that, it seems, is how Sundman went about writing his novel. It's a point worth noting: A significant subset of the programmer community is convinced that you can only be a hacker if you work with code. But as "Acts of the Apostles" proves, it's not so easy to circumscribe the ambit of hacking. Hacking is about passion, and passion can be directed at anything.

In "Acts of the Apostles," Gulf War syndrome is discovered to be the result of biotech war crimes committed by the Iraqis with the help of U.S. software companies and multinational pharmaceutical conglomerates. And that's just the beginning. By the end, "Acts of the Apostles" is nothing less than a point-blank condemnation of biotech-computer convergence.

Sundman reports that none other than Eric Raymond, the articulate and outspoken advocate of open-source software, declared "Acts of the Apostles" "immoral and deeply ugly." The reason: Capitalism doesn't come off so good in the novel, and that's not something that libertarian free market acolytes like Raymond want to hear.

But it's hard to argue with the central thesis of "Acts of the Apostles," which is that advances in computer technology and biotechnology are proceeding so quickly that we are speedily approaching the day when scientists and programmers are able to design machines that can alter our genetic structure and reshape our brains. And what is the engine of this change? Why, capitalism, of course. In particular, Silicon Valley-style capitalism -- the relentless search for products that can generate vast revenue through innovations in high technology.

In Sundman's view, this is a progress that can't be stopped. Ethicists can't stop it, governments can't stop it, and even the band of heroes in "Acts of the Apostles" is essentially powerless. They can deflect it, but not derail it. His horror at the future echoes Sun co-founder Bill Joy's warning about technological progress. But whereas Joy argues that the dangers of technological progress call out for restraint and/or government intervention, Sundman, at least as far as his novel is concerned, seems convinced that little can be done to stop it. The capitalist imperative is too strong. Even if you stop one megalomaniac software czar, a hundred more will jump to take his or her place.

Seen in this light, Sundman's abandonment of his career and his single-minded devotion to finishing his novel make sense. Like a programmer working to ship code before an all-or-nothing deadline, Sundman had to get his message out -- the world must be alerted.

But why? If there's no way to stop it, why the necessity for protesting it?

"I could no longer ignore my misgivings about the cult of technology," writes Sundman in his autobiographical note on his Web site "and my role in sustaining it."

His misgivings explain part of it, but his autobiography goes further:

My novel erupted from within me, like the monster erupting from the belly of the crewman in the first "Alien" movie. I was like the Richard Dreyfuss guy in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" -- the guy who abandons a family he loves, compelled by circumstances he does not like or understand to address the meaning of his life. I now know what artists and writers have talked about through the ages: how their art controlled them, not the other way around. I am sure it all sounds like bullshit -- it is bullshit -- but it's the only answer I have. I was trying to do something meaningful that I and my family could be proud of, and at the same time I was trying to make a lot of money. But the simple fact is it was impossible for me to stop. In the meantime my wife sold her jewelry -- family heirlooms -- to put food on the table.

The odd thing about this quote is that Sundman claims to finally understand how artists and writers have acted over the ages. But the self-consuming passion he describes just as closely resonates with the compulsion of hackers to hammer out their code -- a compulsion that he depicts in his novel with searing accuracy. "Acts of the Apostles" is a gripping read on an important topic, but it's also a testament to the motivating energy that unites anyone engaged in the act of creation, whether it be of a software program or a silicon chip, whether it be untangling the genome or the syntax of a paragraph.

That creative power cannot be stopped. That's good news for novels, but, as "Acts of the Apostles" demonstrates, it might not be so hot for humanity. Ready or not, overmind, here we come.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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