Roland Allnach

multi-award winning author of the strange and surreal
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The Digital Now

Finalist, Science Fiction, 2016 Pacific Book Review Book Awards
Silver Medal, Science Fiction, 2016 Feathered Quill Book Awards

 From the back cover:

 Just another day...

 In the dystopian urban grime of The Digital Now, Patrolman Carly Westing is jarred from her rough life to discover her reality is built on lies and veiled secrets. When the authority she once protected turns on her, her life is catapulted into a violent cat and mouse game of shifting perceptions. Will she remain a tool of the forces at work around her, or become their master and change the future?

 The Digital Now is my fourth book of fiction, and my fifth book overall.

  What do the critics say? Check out the reviews here.

  This page contains the following topics of discussion (all spoiler-free, unless noted):

The Digital Now is available at Amazon in both print and Kindle formats. Signed copies are available at this site at the Bookstore.

 

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  Background: Realizing The Digital Now:

  The Digital Now is my fourth work of fiction, and my fifth published book (The Writer's Primer beat it to the presses by a few days). It's a departure from my previous books, being that it is a full length novel. That said, it certainly is not the first full length novel I've written; on the contrary, it's the product of refining my novel skills after several attempts at a single story novel. I always wanted to publish a full length piece; my choice to do anthologies with Remnant, Oddities & Entities and Prism was a matter of marketing and trying to define a place for myself in the publishing landscape.

  All that aside, The Digital Now was my first choice for a novel publication because it not only embraces my love for science fiction, but it also delves a twisting road of shifting perceptions and deals with a rich menu of ideas and issues. It embodies all the things I love in my short stories and novellas, including its reliance on characters first and foremost, and lets them run on a stage all to themselves.

  The book followed a curious path to its creation. I'm a fan of dystopian books - or I should say, my thoughts when I hear the word 'dystopian' are shaped largely by two books, George Orwell's 1984 and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. Those visions of dark and desperate futures were at play in my head when I saw the first Matrix movie, and that's when inspiration struck. I decided to concoct a novel with both gritty physical action and philosophical overtures.

  Easier said than done. The original three chapters went without a hitch, and then I hit a bit of a wall. Not in terms of conventional writer's block, but more so in how exactly I was going to guide the plot toward the resolution I wanted. Part of that problem was that I realized I didn't have as quite a clear idea as I thought for the progress of the book. In short, big problem.

  After taking a break to write some other pieces, I came back with a better sense of what I wanted and, more importantly, how I was going to get there. My younger son was in pre-school at the time, so I figured this would offer me the perfect opportunity to write while sitting in my car outside the school. The plan worked, although some days I did end up with pages of k's and l's after falling asleep with my hands on the keyboard of my laptop. 

  The Digital Now also marks another landmark for me, in that it is the first fiction title that I published on my own using my own imprint. That's not a criticism of the publisher for my first three books; indeed, I probably wouldn't be where I am without the opportunity offered through my first book, Remnant. Rather, this step represents a further exploration of publishing options, and a way expand my options in the publishing world. I enjoy challenging myself. Taking the lead on an entire publication process, even with the help of a professional editor and cover artist, was nevertheless a huge undertaking.

  However, as the saying goes, the greater the challenge, the greater reward.

   Now, about that cover art...

  For my first novel I wanted a striking cover, something that really hit home to represent the book. Good fortune did not let me down. I had already enlisted the aid of Nancy Barnes at Stories to Tell for editorial services, and it just so happened that she was contacted by an established graphic artist looking to break into the business of book covers. Nancy thought of The Digital Now, and things moved from there. The cover you see is the work of Alicia Hollinger, and it was quite a thrill to see a character I envisioned subsequently interpreted through the eyes of an artist. (If you like sci-fi pin-up art, check out Ms. Hollinger's website, Wonderland Art.) With the artwork done, Nancy came up with the title graphic, and presto, a cover was born.

   The internal structure of the novel was a bit of a different matter. In its final form, the novel weighs in at 130,000 words; not a lightweight narrative, but not by any means excessive in the realm of science fiction. In its original form, however, the narrative ran almost ten thousand words longer. I was working on a wide canvas with large ideas, and the word count was unavoidable. What troubled me from day one was that perhaps I tried to put too much in the narrative. I had my suspicions as to what needed to be trimmed, where there had to be more focus, and indeed where some sections had to be revised in total. Unfortunately, I was yet to learn the confidence to trust those instincts.

  And this reason, fellow authors, is why we need to understand the importance of an editorial relationship.

   When I sent the original draft to Nancy Barnes for editorial consult she replied with suggestions that all but mirrored what my gut had told me to address. Not only was it a learning process, but it was a great confidence boost to trust my writer's gut. I burrowed into an extensive three month revision, addressing all the issues from page one to the closing sentence. As some sections went out, some characters were simplified, others expanded, some new sections put in and others rewritten, I started to feel the excitement of the book realized in the form I had always desired. After that was done I rewrote the first chapter to tighten it up, as well as adding the opening sequence, and so the book came to present form.

   All good lessons to learn. It was the first editorial experience I had for a full length novel, and it was a priceless growth opportunity. 

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  Expanded Summary

  For a deeper look into the plot and flow of The Digital Now, here's a more detailed look at the narrative.

   The Digital Now is an intelligent sci-fi thriller that re-imagines the convention of a corrupt, all-controlling government of the future. What is better, a “freedom” that will endanger the future of humanity, or a security that crushes the human spirit?

  Carly Westing can’t remember why she did what she did yesterday. A Patrolman doesn’t question, she breaks civilian heads, and it feels right proper. She lives in the digital now, where all events are trivialized as just another day. When an electrical surge overrides her programming, Carly glimpses the vast peer-to-peer network Central uses to control its citizens. She has the rare, new evolutionary ability to see the data, and even as a rogue, on the run, she learns to pull its threads.

  Carly’s lover, the charismatic hero-rocker Endo, believes that Central is humanity’s only hope. Earth has been ravaged by war, and Central is essential to allocate scarce resources and build a new home in space. If Carly’s newfound mental abilities are a threat, he must execute her. Her father, an outlaw, enlists Carly to overthrow Central in a bid to regain the freedoms that humanity has lost. Carly must unravel the painful secrets of her forgotten past, and discover her own free will, to solve this paradox.

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  Thematic Elements of a World Gone Awry

  It was quite a few years since I first assembled the ideas that would inhabit the future depicted in The Digital Now. Without a doubt, it's a bleak, disheartening world - but then, that's inherent with a dystopian speculation as to one possible future. Nevertheless, beyond (or perhaps within) its fictional construct there are roots of concepts that I feel are more relevant today than when I first considered the structure of the reality Carly Westing experiences.

   Perhaps the most obvious manifestation is the planned forgetfulness of Carly's world. It's an extension and thinly veiled critique of our modern lust for whatever is next on the horizon of informational instant gratification. Even ten years ago there was the idea in marketing of what was current, what would be 'new' in a proverbial fifteen minutes, and those things that were 'so fifteen minutes ago'.  From where society operates now, those conceptual windows have narrowed to five minutes or less. In effect, the thirst for what is next has overwhelmed awareness of what has just happened or is currently in progress. Stories in mass media germinate and wilt at an exponential pace; one doesn't need to look far to cite instances where stories took on lives of their own ahead of vetted facts, only to wilt and be forgotten before more valid research and reporting can explore their reality.

  At the heart of this process, of course, rests our reliance on digital media. In Wells' 1984 all hardcopy is banished because it provides the ability to contest a current message broadcast by the ruling body. In today's world - and in a future rapidly overtaking us - digital media has supplanted most traditional news sources, such that the narrative of events can evolve faster than the facts can attest an objective truth. Combine that process in a digital world where success is basically measured by an intrinsic popularity contest (through likes, re-tweets, shares, etc.) and the resonance of a message transcends its actuality.

   Where does that leave society? That's a question of heated debate. The goal of the society depicted by Central is not to weigh to one or side of the other on that issue, but more so to depict one extreme extension of the process in which resonance is more important than fact.

   When I was first considering how a society like Central could manage such information control, the technology of wireless networks was still relatively new to the wider consumer market. Cell phones were still limited in their capability, and ubiquitous Internet connections were discussed but a rarity. The idea of wireless devices linking the minds of people directly to a wider network was not something unique to my thoughts; rather, it was considered the natural progression of device capability and the strong market indication from consumers for increasingly seamless integration of online content with local content. As time has passed to today's world, online content has gained even more importance than local content. The case can even be made that local content is an archaic concept. Consumers - particularly those in the business world - want instant access to everything. From this demand has stemmed the concept of the Cloud, where applications and user data reside in online caches.

   In my mind, once user data is surrundered to the Cloud the slippery slope to data control begins. Yes, that may be somewhat paranoid, but there's no denying that corporate and government entities have capabilities to tap any data they so desire beyond any notions of encryption and password protection.

  The society I propose in The Digital Now lives under an authority that has taken all these processes to their darkest extremes. Thoughts are merely another thread of data to be manipulated - and that links the inhumanity of Central back to the undeniable humanity of its citizens. If nothing else, perhaps the most important theme or message of the narrative is the potential triumph of our better nature despite all efforts of dehumanization. Ultimately, it is this 'sacred' aspect of human existence that drives all the machinations, aspirations, and inclinations of the narratives very human players, and their reckoning, that then propels a conclusion.

   After the themes of data manipulation and our unquenchable humanity, another theme driving the application of Central is the squandering of our natural resources. Within the context of the narrative, Central in fact triggered the collapse of the world (dis)order we currently experience to derail the eventual exhaustion of all our resources. Central, in its infancy, became aware that no matter how well managed, our resources are in fact finite in quantity, and if we don't find our way off Earth before those resources deplete, than we as a species are doomed.

   Years ago, when I was in junior high school, I remember watching a documentary that claimed world oil reserves would run out sometime around 2020. This grim documentary proposed that as oil reserves dwindled global stability would unravel as modern industrial processes ground to a halt. Mass agriculture, power generation, etc. would all see their end. Society, as we knew it, would cease to exist. It hit me hard to consider that within my lifetime all the modern advances of mankind would collapse to pre-industrial levels, or perhaps worse. At that time the movie The Road Warrior was out in theatres, and the idea that I might see a world of smash and grab desperation was, in the least, a disturbing prospect.

   Technology, our greatest ally and sometimes our greatest weakness, has of course extended the horizon of oil depletion well beyond 2020. How far is a matter of intense debate but, regardless, we have time. Unfortunately, the more time we buy for this critical resource's depletion, the less a priority it seems to hold among world leaders to move us from a petro-fueled world to one of renewable fuel sources.

   Nevertheless, I hope the book does ring some alarm bells. The world Carly Westing knows is a product of manipulation, deprivation, and creeping paranoia. Fortunately for us, her future does not have to be our future. That said, in a certain sense Central is redeemed, because it's methods, while heavy-handed and austere, serve a purpose.

   As Endo Stutts tells Carly, Central isn't the best solution, but it's the solution that worked.

   Consider it a lesson in the pitfalls of crisis management. If we don't take care of our resources, if we don't keep our minds open and stay informed, the cold edge of expediency will find its due application.

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  The Wider World of Seven Hills

  Some of the stylistic elements of the world portrayed in The Digital Now will be familiar to the general aesthetic of dystopian fiction. Where I part company with that overall style is in some of the more pointed descriptive elements of Carly's world.

   Before jumping into that discussion, though, I would be remiss if I did not mention the significant sytlistic influence of anime, most notably the masterworks of Akira and Ghost in the Shell. Japanese artists have managed many brilliant urban protrayals in animated cinema, but perhaps none more so than in these two classic features. Both continue to figure in my own imaginative realm when envisioning urban realms. The grit, threat, and yet glittering brilliance the Japanese evoke - again, for me, epitomized by these two movies - were significant factors when I considered the overall aesthetic and color palette for the world Carly experiences in Seven Hills, and for its contrast of Inward.

  (For those familiar with Ghost in the Shell...from a purely artistic standpoint, the sequence which follows Kusanagi's seemingly random stroll through the city, with the haunting musical score, culminating with an apparent image of herself, is one of my all-time favorite cinematic sequences.)

   Yes, the City of Seven Hills stays true to dystopian style in that it's a fairly dreary place to live. However, I disagree with the usual embodiment of dystopian or post-apocalytpic portrayals in which there really is no color other than a wash of gray. The cultural history of humanity teaches us that no matter the austerity of conditions, people always look to introduce splashes of color in their world. It seemed to me that even a repressive dictatorial government of a speculative future would at least understand this facet of human character, and so distort this penchant of human aesthetics for its own end. As an example, just consider how many dictatorial regimes in recent history have employed bright red flags.

   In short, the cheap glitz Central employs to distract humanity from its greater woes are founded on rather basic concepts. Although the city is a mass of concrete block buildings, they are sheated in polarized glass, storefronts are lit with neon, and kiosks bombard people with a steady stream of propaganda broadcasts. Such 'cheap' aesthetic influences are done by design to dispel and, yes, cheapen any higher aesthetic, emotional, or philosophical notions of Central's subject population.

   That said, story environment and world building are elements of my narratives that I take great pride in developing. One of my beliefs as an author is that if the narrative doesn't feel real to its characters, it won't feel real to it's readers. In every way I tried to imagine how the austere squalor of Carly's world would smell, how it would look, how people would interact, and what simple things would gain sudden appeal in a world that has very little to offer. If nothing else, humanity is very quick to adapt to situations. I've seen more than enough pictures of people shopping in open markets in cities that are active war zones.

  The extreme can become the mundane in the blink of an eye. Portraying that kind of duality is one of the facets of The Digital Now's narrative that has provided me with an author's sense of satisfaction. 

   Compress sandwich, anyone?   

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  Social and Philosohpical Aspects

  NOTE: This discussion alludes to certain aspects of 'The Digital Now' that might be considered spoilers; that said, the following discussion will probably be more relevant to those who have already read 'The Digital Now.'

  On its surface, the world portrayed in 'The Digital Now' is quite brutal and simplistic. While there's no denying the brutality employed by the all-invasive dictatorship of Central, as the narrative progresses the structure of Central is revealed to be anything but simplistic.

  As a member of Patrol, it's Carly's duty to protect the order of Central. In the opening of the book everything is portrayed from what Carly knows and understands; in this sense, I wanted to immerse readers in Central's society. When depicting fictional societies in literature it's important to maintain consistency between the narrative and the characters; that is, the characters shaped by the system under which they live should interact with that system in ways which they know. Only after an element of change enters the narrative can the characters then begin to deviate from what they know and entertain larger questions about their lives.

  Depending on the society in question, this can be a subtle or stark process. Given Central's methods and controls, the process Carly endures had to be rather arduous. It's important to note as well that when portraying a dictatorial society - one that has governance over the ways in which people are able to think - characters can't simply question everything around them, because they have not been mentally equipped to do so by their upbringing in that society. The processes that open opportunities for questioning must be framed in ways the character can think, and then move forward from there. Once the questions start, the process can gain momentum and the narrative can entertain larger questions. Once you open Pandora's box, it can't be closed.

  This sets the stage for Carly's catharsis, and hopefully illustrates the reasons I depicted it as I did within the plot of the book. That said, what about the rest of Central's society?

  This is where I like to think that the book transcends its surface plot of Carly's story to explore wider thematic elements. Yes, it once again may seem that Central's society is one of simplistic reductions. In some ways, that's an exact description. Central has worked very hard to reduce the human experience to immediate needs and fulfillments: desire and passion are reduced to aimless sex, love is meaningless, food is a stark staple, and the answer to any personal problems is either drunken delirium or sanctioned violence in the form of riots. Central understands there is a basic frustration to the life it allows; riots, alcohol, and sex dens are the distractions and vents to alleviate that pressure in ways that only suck Central's citizens deeper into its fold. Central has succeeded in muting philosophical questions of its citizens through visceral/peripheral excess.

  Put another way, how could someone contemplate the whisper of some distant abstract question when the tactile world six inches in front of his or her face has the volume turned to eleven? 

  Central employs a rather stark ploy of social psychology. Put in its base form, people can't - and won't - question greater things when their world view is compressed to the few moments in front of their face. When life appears as a cheap commodity, day to day existence is fraught with mortal danger, and people are filled with subconscious paranoia that their every thought and action are being spied by their neighbors - with any deviation met by swift and brutal reprisal from Patrol and Drive Control - how could anyone conceive of greater questions? Combined with the daily subliminal purge of individual thoughts and memories, the mass of society is reduced to a mob that can be shaped and driven to Central's dictate.

   From this situation stems the nature of the envens and the notion of a self-fulfilling market economy. Given that Central effectively controls what people want through the actions of its predilectors, Central has full anticipation of what it needs to manufacture to satisfy the very desires it created. It's a vast exercise of manipulation to an outside perspective, yet within that system it simply is what people know, and so it transcends question or challenge. People may not like the system, but the system is accepted as the only exercise of reality people experience.

   It should be of little surprise when I say that much of my thought process in shaping Central stemmed from the old Soviet system in existence during the Cold War. I had the opportunity to witness the difference between Western and Soviet society on a drive from West Germany through East Germany to West Berlin, prior to the Soviet collapse and the tearing down of the Berlin wall. Having grown up in the United States, it was a jarring experience to drive through a country with only two or three broadcasting radio stations, where the countryside was stripped of population to minimize the exposure of East Germans to western cars, and then pass through another militarized (and very intimidating) checkpoint into West Berlin. Like magic, the radio was full of broadcasts, airplanes and helicopters filled the sky, and the city was alive with commotion and commerce.

   The real wake-up call came when I went up an observation tower to look over the wall into East Berlin. For all purposes, it appeared as if World War 2 had ended a few days earlier. The buildings in the vicinity of the wall were still riddled with bullet and shell impacts, some of them were still blackened from fires, and a wide belt of land had been leveled along the wall and transformed into a mine field. Other than East German security forces - who made a practice of glaring with clear menace at westerners like me in the observation towers - there was no sign of life. Nothing moved, no cars were on the roads, there was nothing but an eerie silence.

   And yet, when the wall came down, after the initial jubilation from people freed from the Soviet system, there came a curious process. A generation of people who were taught and shaped by a system that controlled their every movement and phase of their lives suddenly had to think on their own. There grew a fairly vocal sentiment among these people that after getting their VCR's and cable television they wanted to put the wall back up and go back to the way things were. They weren't necessarily unhappy with the system they knew; they just wanted some luxuries. Now that it's twenty five years and counting since the collapse of the Soviet system, a new generation has been born that can be taught a different way to think to dispel the hold of the old ways.

   Which leads to my final point here. People who read dystopian fiction, or any type of fiction that depicts a totalitarian/dictatorial society, often dismiss it's reality on the grounds that 'it can never happen here' or on the belief that people would have resisted the spread of such a system. History answers those oppositions. First, remember that until the Soviet system spread into Europe, the citizens that fell under its sway were people who knew the same freedoms and rights as people in Western Europe. They did in fact resist, but their resistance was crushed. Nevertheless, how did the system succeed in penetrating the thoughts of the people?

   It comes in only three generations. The first generation - the generation that lived under a prior system - will understand the difference of the old and new system. They will resist until resistance proves futile; others will capitulate for fear of losing what little they can retain. The second generation - those born under the new system - will be raised in a society and educated in schools instilling them with the values and thought modalities of the new system. However, the parents and grandparents of this generation will still be around to remember the old system, and so can still testify against the new system. This may sow the seeds of some resistance, yet the second generation may feel powerless to topple the new system. By the entrance of the third generation, the first generation will have passed away, and the second generation will have made their choice - conform, capitulate, or be crushed - so that this final generation only knows the new system. Any portrayal or discussion of the old system at this point is told strictly from the perspective of those who manage the new system, so that the historical truth can be completely manipulated or erased to suit the needs of order.

   If a system can maintain its hold over a society into a third generation, its hold is set. Barring external pressures or internal collapse (both of which combined to topple the Soviet system), the system will perpetuate from generation to generation. The further it progresses in time, the deeper its hold on the historical record. In the case of Central, the historical record was effectively eliminated, aside from a few cursory condemnations of old times that led to the ruin and rubble left behind.  

  As the saying goes, it's just another day. I wonder what's on my enven tonight - oops! I mean, my television...

 

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  Deconstructing Carly Westing

  NOTE: This discussion alludes to certain aspects of 'The Digital Now' and contains spoilers (spoiler alert!); that said, the following discussion will be more relevant to those who have already read 'The Digital Now.'

   As the central character of 'The Digital Now', it may seem backward to talk about so many other things before talking about Carly, but I look at it from a different perspective: Carly doesn't make sense without understanding her world and, likewise, it's hard to begin to understand her without understanding her world.

  Carly erupts in the book's opening in a fit of devastating violence. Her introduction is both dominant and appalling for her glee in pummeling so many victims around her. However, no sooner is this impression made than she's revealed to be as much a victim as a victimizer: she's hit in the head with a brick, drugged into submission, and effectively raped by Patrolmaster Bayard. It's a shocking entry to the life she knows, but I wanted to establish the duality of her existence literally from the first pages at the same as establishing her inability to understand the duality in which she lives.

  Carly is naturally a product of Central's society. I wanted to make it clear that Central treats everyone under its sway with the same ambivalence and the same casual dismissal it in turn asks of its citizens. It posed a welcome challenge in crafting the progression of the narrative. With Carly's memories in tatters, her world view sculpted entirely by the societal forces that make her prey and predator, and the shocking treatment of anyone who opposes Central's order, it wasn't going to be an easy process to wake her from her life and slowly shift the balance between her and Central.

  The answer was in her childhood. I had always envisioned that her past would be the key to her future and, indeed, a driving force of the book. There's a huge dose of irony, or paradox, that in a system working so hard to erase the past that her individual past would in fact change everything. Likewise, in a society that hammers its residents that the individual is of little consequence, Carly comes to learn that there are certain people who are of principal consequence - and she becomes foremost among that rank. More importantly, Carly's childhood, and its combination of brutality and violation, build within her the core to resist Central and thereby question her life. Without that tumor of past abuse lurking within her, her wanton acts of violence and dissolute behavior would leave her as a caricature rather than a character. As Carly comes to learn, she is bound to her past, and it is her past that gives her the power to effect change in the future.

  At the same time, it is her past that fuels her resistance to the forces that seek to crush her. Her defiance, the subconscious embodiment of her rage over her defilement in her youth, fuels her as much as consumes her. Indeed, toward the end of the book, Ian Gadwick is convinced her rage will destroy her, only to learn she's stronger than he thought - a lesson he learns at the cost of his well-deserved mortal ruin.

  The changes Carly experiences over the course of the book are substantial. She's first met as a violent dissolute thug, only to transform to something much different, the living embodiment of social responsibility against the very things that both victimized her and turned her into a victimizer. Her role is to stop the cycle of abuse grinding humanity underfoot. It's a huge leap for a character arc, yet her experience and the plot events around her become entwined to propel her toward her evolution.

  She's a tough cookie. Right proper to that, because Patrol never backs down. 

 

 

 
     
All original content copyright by Roland Allnach.  Content may be linked and/or quoted, but not reproduced without permission.
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