Pareidolia

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I recently completed my first stab at a novel, a science fiction thriller with the working title Pareidolia. (Click here for the table of contents.) The very quick and dirty premise is below. Fans of Neil Stephenson and Peter Straub — and, let’s be honest, The X-Files — will feel at home here.

The premise:

Kenneth Holcomb, a physicist working for a military contracting company in the ’60s, is tasked with back-engineering pieces of recovered alien technology that appear to have profound effects on human perception and behavior. Finding his inner whistle blower, he steals a cache of sensitive documents, quits, and fakes his own death. He lives underground as a transgendered man for decades, surrounding himself with a growing circle of students, programmers, and believers. His goal is to expose the conspiracy, and thirty years later he gets his chance: Roland, an old friend with ties to the FBI, informs Kenneth that one of the pieces of alien technology has just escaped custody and is up for grabs.

The circle is dispatched to find it before the government does, but it’s closer than they think. New inner circle member Zeke reports that the alien artifact has just been spotted at a New Age expo, next to a young woman named Leah who has just given a live demonstration of her sudden ability to communicate with the dead. The device is stolen before Zeke has a chance to bring it back to the circle. When Roland is shot by mysterious assailants, Zeke is forced to find a way to vindicate Kenneth’s life’s work without getting himself killed in the process.

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Why not self-publish Pareidolia as an ebook? Or shop it around to agents? Why am I just giving it away for free?

The truth is that Pareidolia was more of a gigantic writing exercise than anything else. I’d taken a stab at some short stories, but this was my first major effort. Along the way I learned many lessons about common pitfalls and amateur mistakes, many of which I’m sure made it to the final draft.

The other reason is that the story is constructed in a fairly experimental (read “unpublishable”) way. I was heavily inspired by some postmodern novels from the ’80s and ’90s and thought it would be fun to try that approach for size: multiple first-person perspectives, worlds within worlds, bizarre situations, no satisfying resolution, etc. What wound up happening was a long and painful lesson in how not to write. Early drafts of the first few chapters were impressionistic to the point of incomprehensibility. The worse of it has been cut away, but the spirit remains throughout the current revision.

Finally, most people don’t get their first novel published. Hopefully some day I’ll come back and delete this hacky stab at upmarket fiction, once I’m established and experienced enough to see it for the train wreck it truly is. Until then, this train wreck is going to shine as my biggest and proudest effort to date.

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I felt compelled to start writing because of the many novels I inhaled between semesters as a computer science major at the University of Minnesota. Particularly influential were Foucault’s Pendulum, Infinite Jest, Ghost StoryHouse of Leaves, and Donna Tartt’s unforgettable The Secret History.

While none of these could be considered science fiction — my genre — there was something in these particular books that sucked the air out of my lungs and made my skull throb. For the first time in my life I had a visceral reaction to literature, and the only cure seemed to be trying my own hand. I wrote my first short story in 2010, wrote a few more shortly thereafter, and finally said “Fuck it—I’m writing a novel!” sometime in early 2013. The end result, finished in 2016, is Pareidolia.

I believe the amount of hubris involved to declare “I’m a writer now” can topple a cement mixer. In the last few years I’ve learned more about the process of writing than I ever thought possible, and it’s been a terrifically humbling experience. Lessons learned include how to meet the reader halfway, how to keep backstory off the stage (except for when it’s absolutely necessary), how to not let good writing get in the way of a good story, and how to let go when the plot wants to run screaming into uncharted territory without my permission.

Pareidolia was a very long exercise in teaching myself how to write, one that continues to this day.  I spent three and a half years perfecting it, and I hope to take those lessons into my next venture. Because of this, whatever comes next will be leaner, meaner, and (hopefully) weirder.