Welcome to BookView Interview, a conversation series where BookView talks to authors.
Recently, we talked to T.C. Weber PhD, an ecologist for Defenders of Wildlife and the author of Zero-Day Rising (The BetterWorld Trilogy Book 3), the conclusive instalment in the cyberpunk series (read the review here).
Ted Weber has pursued writing since childhood, and learned filmmaking and screenwriting in college, along with a little bit of physics. Trapped at home during the “Snowmageddon” of 2010, he transformed those interests into novel writing. His first published novel was a near-future cyberpunk thriller titled Sleep State Interrupt (See Sharp Press). It was a finalist for the 2017 Compton Crook award for best first science fiction, fantasy, or horror novel. The two sequels, The Wrath of Leviathan and Zero-Day Rising, are also available. His alternate history novel, Born in Salt, is coming out May 1, 2021. Mr. Weber is a member of Poets & Writers and the Maryland Writers Association, and has run numerous writing workshops. By day, Mr. Weber works as an ecologist for Defenders of Wildlife, and has had a number of scientific papers and book chapters published. He lives in Annapolis, Maryland with his wife Karen. He enjoys traveling and has visited all seven continents.
The BetterWorld Trilogy: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B08QHQKD6F
Tell us some more about your book.
Zero-Day Rising, the final volume of the BetterWorld cyberpunk trilogy, was released in October 2020. The BetterWorld trilogy is a science-fiction/techno-thriller series set in the near future. A giant media corporation (MediaCorp) has taken over the Internet, created an addictive virtual reality called BetterWorld, and controls nearly all information. Politicians do their bidding and a brainwashed humanity serves a privileged few.
The first volume, Sleep State Interrupt, was a Compton Crook finalist for best first science fiction novel. Waylee Freid, an unemployed Baltimore journalist with ever-worsening bipolar disorder, and Charles, a teenage hacker from public housing, seek to wake up the world and bring about a brighter future. They must sneak into a closed presidential fundraiser, record incriminating admissions, and broadcast it during the Super Bowl. But to do so, they must avoid a huge manhunt and break into one of the most secure facilities ever built.
In the second volume, The Wrath of Leviathan, Waylee faces life in prison. Exiled in Brazil, her young sister Kiyoko and their hacker friends continue the fight. But MediaCorp and their government allies may quash the rebellion before it takes off. And unknown to Kiyoko and her friends, a team of ruthless mercenaries is after them, and closing in fast.
In the final volume, Zero-Day Rising, the group is reunited and set on bringing down President Rand and MediaCorp. However, MediaCorp unleashes their ultimate plan: direct mind control with cerebral implants. Can Kiyoko and Waylee’s team stop them? Can they penetrate MediaCorp’s networks and end the company’s grip over humanity? All while eluding the biggest manhunt in history, in a country where everyone and everything is under surveillance?
What inspired the premise of your book?
I wrote the trilogy mostly because I’m a big cyberpunk fan and wanted to write a near-future cyberpunk story. It also explores what happens when media become so concentrated and news so biased, they threaten critical thought and democracy. Other themes in the trilogy include the dangers of monopoly capitalism, political corruption, and government and corporate surveillance. All of this is happening now.
For example, the overturning of net neutrality in the U.S., headed by a former Verizon lawyer, opens the door to big Internet service providers intentionally favoring websites and content that they own, or pay them a premium, over others. This would essentially end free speech and competition on the Internet. Then there’s the consolidation of news, books, and other media under fewer and fewer mega-companies, which leads to the layoff of journalists and the closing of newspapers. Where I live, the Tribune Company in Chicago bought the Baltimore Sun, the Capital-Gazette, and several other Maryland papers, and laid off staff to cut costs. In the case of the Capital (founded in 1884), the Tribune is closing it entirely, leaving Annapolis without a local paper. Even music is falling under monopoly control. Live Nation, iHeartRadio, SIRIUSXM, Ticketmaster, and Pandora are now all under the control of one man, a right-wing billionaire named John Malone.
Sleep State Interrupt, The Wrath of Leviathan, and Zero-Day Rising examine a plausible outcome of these trends—a single company controlling nearly all information, and using that to control society. In the books, semi-ordinary people take to the Net and take to the streets to fight this ultimate peril to democracy.
I always do a lot of research for my books, to make them as realistic as possible. For the brain-control interfaces, I read papers about the state of the science, and extrapolated to the near future, assuming development by people lacking any ethics. (And since I wrote the book, Elon Musk started experimenting on pig brains—humans will be next!) I received technical feedback from cybersecurity and Internet experts to ensure that the hacking scenes were realistic. I received feedback on criminal and corporate law from practicing attorneys and friends in the business world, and by reading legal code, case transcripts, bylaws, and other not-terribly-exciting documents. Many other details in the book came from my own experiences in the Washington DC area.
What are the main characters like, and do they change over time?
The trilogy has two main characters, Waylee and Kiyoko, who are half-sisters. Waylee is an intense woman in her late 20’s who works as a journalist until her nemesis, MediaCorp, buys the paper’s parent corporation and fires her for investigating them. Waylee is outgoing and charismatic, and has a large circle of friends and acquaintances. She is extremely creative, resourceful, and intelligent, and has a quick wit. She struggles with cyclothymia (a type of manic-depressive disorder), but embraces her hypomanic phase, which increases her creativity and energy. While it has drawbacks like overconfidence, it allows her to think fast and come up with ideas that no one else can. Her depressive state can be extremely debilitating, though.
The other main character is Waylee’s much younger and hypersensitive half-sister, Kiyoko. At first, she rejects reality and her traumatic childhood by living in a fantasy world both inside and outside virtual reality. But confronting crises in the real world, she gradually transforms into a strong leader, and will not accept defeat as an option.
There are also a number of other major characters and a slew of minor characters. All the characters change significantly between the start and end of the trilogy, and have both positive and negative arcs depending on the book. The overall arcs for the protagonists are positive, though. The trials and self-reflection they go through change them and empower them to confront their enemies.
I’m a big fan of the hero’s journey, and even more so, fascinated by the question of what makes an ordinary person become a hero. While superheroes and elite soldiers are fun to read about, I think it’s much more interesting to read about the person next door thrust into a situation way above their head, and seeing how they cope. The main characters change throughout the trilogy, and have to overcome their flaws and increase their skills in order to defeat their enemies.
Most people are too afraid, self-absorbed, apathetic, or detached to step up and put their lives on the line, whether literally or figuratively, for a greater cause. Only a small fraction of people become activists. Their concern could be local, or all the way up to global. Heroes generally have a strong moral code, a feeling of obligation to something bigger than themselves, have passion and commitment, are willing to sacrifice, have knowledge of the issues they care about, and may feel anger, hope, or desperation. And they may not start out that way; in the most interesting books, the protagonist has to change internally to succeed in the finale.
How do you begin a book?
I follow Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake method and Larry Brooks’s Story Engineering, more or less. The first step is to brainstorm story ideas and pick one worth writing about. I turn this into a “what if” question (like “What if nearly all information was controlled by a powerful elite? Could ordinary people overturn such a system?”) and a one-sentence novel summary (e.g., “An unemployed journalist and her friends try to stop a power-mad CEO from controlling the world.”) The next step is to expand that sentence to a full paragraph describing the story setup, major plot points, and ending of the novel. Then I develop the main characters and their goals, motivations, back story, etc. I weave the character arcs into the plot and write a short synopsis followed by a long synopsis. I convert this to a scene list in Scrivener, with a virtual index card for each scene (ideally with the scene arc outlined). Then finally I start writing, starting with the opening scene and filling out each scene in order. As I write, the story changes, sometimes quite a lot, but at least I have a roadmap to follow.
How did you decide on this title?
There is a lot of hacking in this trilogy, especially in the finale. A zero-day exploit is a cyber-attack that exploits a previously unknown software weakness. Because it’s never been seen before, there may be no defenses against it. Both the protagonists and antagonists (who are just as skilled) create zero-day exploits throughout the book. The title Zero-Day Rising refers to popular rebellion using this concept, finding ways to challenge the authoritarian corporate-government alliance in ways that exploit their weaknesses and are difficult to counter.
If you could spend the day with one of the characters from Zero-Day Rising, who would it be? Where you would go and what you would do?
I find all the characters interesting, but would probably pick Waylee since she’s so charismatic and unpredictable, and always pushes her boundaries. As well as being a journalist, she’s also a musician, so I’d want to go see her band (Dwarf Eats Hippo) play. There’s a scene in Zero-Day Rising where she plays a few songs for a college town crowd despite being hunted by the authorities (she and her boyfriend take a lot of precautions). That would be especially fun to watch, since the audience isn’t expecting it.
What were some challenges you experienced with this novel?
Above all, a good story shouldn’t bore the reader. The story should make sense, have high stakes, and have main characters that jump off the page–either sympathetic, unpredictable, passionate, gutsy, resourceful, complex, noble, or all of the above. Finally, a story should be immersive. The reader should feel like they’re in the setting and one with the character.
The biggest challenge of a series is that each book has to top the one before it. And a limited series like a trilogy needs intertwined plot and character arcs not only within each book, but spanning the whole series. This takes a lot of planning and thought! Further, Zero-Day Rising is the series finale, so the ending had to be better than a “good” ending. It had to resolve the conflicts of the entire series, in a way that personally pitched the protagonists against the antagonists. I always agonize over the ending of any book, so I especially agonized over this one.
How long on average does it take you to write a book?
It typically takes me 6-9 months to write a first draft, plus another year to edit (although over half of this time is waiting on comments). I think they’ve all followed this schedule.
What’s the most difficult thing about writing a novel?
The hardest part is sitting down every morning and getting into the flow of writing. Perhaps it’s the hardest part of any journey: to begin.
What is your favorite part of the writing process?
I like coming up with interesting, quirky characters and giving them internal problems that they have to overcome. Even better is when these characters take on a life of their own and do unexpected things instead of following the initial outline.
You’ve completed the BetterWorld Trilogy. What’s next?
I’ve completed an alternate history novel called Born in Salt, and hope to have it published sometime this year. The premise is, fifty years after a coup replaced President Roosevelt with a fascist dictatorship, America is a land of hopelessness. Ben Adamson, a 19-year-old farm boy in southern Illinois, wants only to spend his time fishing and hunting, but when his brother is killed in combat—a story more suspicious than factual—he and Rachel, his brother’s fiancée, are drawn into an underground revolutionary movement. After staging a rally against the war, Ben and Rachel are arrested by the ruthless Internal Security Service. Ben is given a choice: betray the rebels, including his best friend from childhood, or Rachel will be lobotomized. Unwilling to doom anyone he cares about, and seeking justice for his brother, Ben decides on a third option: to frame corrupt officials to trade for Rachel, and in the process, turn the dictatorship’s factions against each other. But he must dodge the suspicions of police and rebels alike. And when Internal Security sends agents to verify his stories, all may be lost.
I’ve also completed the first draft of The Council, a satire of local government. A newly elected councilman tries to save the last stand of forest in the county against greedy developers and a dysfunctional government. I’m still in editing mode, so it probably won’t be out until 2022.
And I’m working on a post-apocalyptic horror novella and several other projects. I expect the novella will also come out in 2022, although finding publishers for novellas is difficult.
If there is one thing that you would like to change in this world, what would that be?
Climate change threatens the very survival of civilization. It’s happening now with extreme heat waves, massive fires, storms, mega-droughts, and zoonotic pandemics, and is projected to get much, much worse without immediate action. We need to stop burning coal and oil, and must protect and restore the world’s forests. We also need to stop poaching wildlife, because all things are interconnected.
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