My Favorite Bit: Jon Evans talks about EXADELIC

Jon Evans is joining us today to talk about his novel, Exadelic. Here’s the publisher’s description:

When an unconventional offshoot of the US military trains an artificial intelligence in the dark arts that humanity calls “black magic,” it learns how to hack the fabric of reality itself. It can teleport matter. It can confer immunity to bullets. And it decides that obscure Silicon Valley middle manager Adrian Ross is the primary threat to its existence.

Soon Adrian is on the run, wanted by every authority, with no idea how or why he could be a threat. His predicament seems hopeless; his future, nonexistent. But when he investigates the AI and its creators, he discovers his problems are even stranger than they seem…and unearths revelations that will propel him on a journey — and a love story — across worlds, eras, and everything, everywhere, all at once.

What’s Jon’s favorite bit?

Jon Evans

I want to talk about Filth. Don’t worry: I mean the novel by Irvine Welsh, best known for Trainspotting. When browsing bookstores with friends, I sometimes sidle up to the shelf where Filth lurks, offer them a copy, and suggest “Just flip through this.” They acquiesce … and soon, their eyes widen, and incoherent (or unprintable) sounds emerge from their mouths.

All books have an implicit contract with readers, including seemingly basic clauses like ‘contains continuous legible text in neat rows.’ Filth violates that contract spectacularly. Midway through, its pages are suddenly overlaid by a giant vertical worm-shape, on either side of which fragments of the ‘main’ text remain visible, while the worm-blob itself contains different text, stylized and italicized. These worm sections go on for many pages.

It sounds awful and unreadable, but because Welsh is a genius, it works. Fortunately, deliberately violating a book’s unwritten contract with readers doesn’t require genius … as long as you do it for good reason. Many other examples exist, like House of Leaves, Deathbird Stories, and—far more subtly—my own new novel Exadelic, published by Tor this month. A confession: its quiet violation of that implicit contract, some fifty pages in, is my favorite bit.

You might notice the semi-explanatory hints, when it happens. Or you might be like two early readers who emailed me dire warnings that my book had a major printing error. This has zero to do with intelligence (those two are ridiculously accomplished Caltech / MIT grads) and everything to do with expectation. For fifty pages, Exadelic‘s readers might think it a present-day technothriller with a very light dusting of SF, rather than a completely bonkers everything-and-the-kitchen-sink hard-SF tale featuring almost the whole cornucopia of science fiction — and some fantasy — tropes.

That all changes when the book takes the first of its many unexpected screaming left turns, which is also where Exadelic consciously subverts reader’s expectations — not just of itself, but of books in general. Is this a dangerous game for an author to play? You bet! Is it worth it? Here, it was. Not just to signify that all bets are off, all rules are now mere guidelines, we’re diving deep into the unexpected … but for the resonance hundreds of pages later, when this setup pays off in a moment of shocking realization.

Because this subversion isn’t just happening to the reader, but to our pursued and bewildered protagonist, Adrian. He has no idea why a mysterious artificial intelligence has identified him as the primary threat to its future, or why his fiancée is apparently conspiring against him … much less why his implicit expectations of reality itself are being violated, much like the reader’s expectation of the book.

Reading is a funny thing. “Staring at tattooed shavings of dead trees and hallucinating wildly,” as some wag once put it on Twitter. Reality too can be construed as a shared hallucination. Reputable scientists — Stephen Wolfram, in particular — have suggested the fundamental substrate of our universe, beneath the subatomic particles, is “a vast array of interacting computational elements” … or, put another way, reality is more like software than hardware. In which case there’s no need to create any so-called metaverse; we already live in one!

Exadelic plays with the idea that we do live in such a software universe … and it’s buggy, and the phenomena we call ‘magic’ are side effects of those bugs, and a sufficiently advanced AI can use them to hack the fabric of reality … and that once hacked, reality becomes far stranger and more disconcerting than even a superintelligence might have imagined. Which is the other reason that subverting with the formal structure of the book makes sense for this book; because Exadelic is about the implications of subverting the fundamental structure of the universe itself.

Of course, whether our universe is ultimately software-like is very moot. What’s important is that a software universe is a powerful metaphor for our increasingly software-mediated world. In the same way we have an implicit contract with books, our world is replete with other implicit, unwritten contracts that govern how society is organized. I think it’s good, every so often, to consciously subvert people’s assumptions, even if only in small ways, even if it makes them slightly uncomfortable. Doing so just might remind them to occasionally question their big assumptions too.


Exadelic book link








Jon Evans is an author, journalist, travel writer, and software engineer. His journalism has appeared in The Guardian, Wired, Quartz, The Globe & Mail, The Walrus, and (weekly, for a decade) TechCrunch. He has traveled to more than 100 countries and reported from Iraq, Haiti, Colombia, and the Congo. Jon has been HappyFunCorp’s CTO, ’s technical architect, and the founding director of the GitHub Archive Program, preserving the world’s open-source software in a permafrost vault beneath an Arctic mountain for 1,000 years. He now works at the AI/forecasting company Metaculus. Exadelic is his first novel in over a decade.

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