This book was sent to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
02.05.19 / Picador / Science Fiction / Paperback / 400pp / 978-1509809851
About Julian Gough
Julian Gough is the author of three comic novels and was formerly the lead singer of the underground literary band Toasted Heretic. He won the BBC National Short Story Award in 2007 and was shortlisted for the Everyman Bollinger Wodehouse Prize in 2008 and 2012. In 2011 he wrote the ending to Minecraft, Time magazine’s computer game of the year. He draws on his knowledge of computer games in his novel Connect.
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Nevada; the near future; a family in crisis
Biologist and single mother Naomi is worried about the impact her ground-breaking research might have on the world. And of the impact the world might have on her painfully awkward, home-schooled, ever-growing teenage son, Colt.
Colt is so brilliant he can code virtual realities our world hasn’t even thought of yet; and so socially inept that he struggles to order takeaway pizza.
When Colt secretly sends his mother’s breakthrough research paper to a biotech conference in New York, and the conference is closed down, Naomi’s worst fears come true. Colt’s father crashes back into their lives, backed by the secretive security organisation he heads. The US government wants Naomi’s research . . . and Colt.
Colt will soon have to leave the comfort of his virtual reality world, and face the challenge of discovering who he really is.
And Naomi will have to decide how far she will go to protect her child. Would she kill a man? Would she destroy the world?
From one of the most original voices in Irish writing, Connect by Julian Gough is a thrillingly smart novel of ideas that explores what connection – both human and otherwise – might be in a digital age. It is a story of mothers and sons, but also about you, your phone, and the future.
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Q&A with Julian Gough
Thank you Julian for taking some time to answer a few questions about your brilliant new novel Connect. Could you give us your own personal overview of what we should expect in within Connect?
Thrills! Spills! Big emotions! Big ideas! Basically, I took the things I really like about the Irish novel – its psychological realism, its careful attention to the strange dynamics of families – and I combined it with the things I like about American near-future science fiction – its exuberance, its willingness to play with big ideas, its glee in technology, its wild plots. So Connect turned out to be an unusual hybrid: it’s a fast-moving techno thriller that draws on the tradition of William Gibson’s Neuromancer, or Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash; but where the standard male hero would normally be, there’s a mother and a child. And a lot of the book is about putting their relationship under pressure, and seeing what happens. And a technothriller plot set in and around Las Vegas and Area 51 gives you a lot of chances to put them under pressure!
What was the initial inspiration for your novel?
Like everyone else, I have been watching technology transform the world, and human relationships, faster and faster in my lifetime. I wanted to think about that, explore that, and also entertain the hell out of the reader. Ray Kurzweil’s fascinating non-fiction book, The Singularity is Near, made me think deeper about that accelerating change, and where it might be going. But as a novelist, how do you make an idea into a story? Well, ever since Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, science fiction has been great for providing big, dramatic metaphors for what is going on in our own time. So my literary inspirations were mostly science fiction. Gibson, Stephenson, but also Philip K. Dick, Ursula Le Guin, James Tiptree Jr, Frederik Pohl, Charles Stross, Ted Chiang… I even gave Ted’s surname name to a major character, which was a bit cheeky.
I also wanted the book to be very visual, very cinematic, to unfold like a movie in the reader’s head: and so I was also inspired by a couple of my favourite science fiction films with female protagonists; Alien, which is the best-ever film about fear of pregnancy, and Terminator Two, which is an amazing film about a mother and a child with the world at stake.
Can you give us a few details about what themes you explore within Connect?
It’s about our strange new relationship with technology, and where that might be going. So it’s about the world wide web, and the development of surveillance societies, and ubiquitous drones, and the death of privacy, and talking fridges – but it’s also simply about you and your phone, right now. If you really want to understand your weird, dysfunctional relationship with your phone, or why your kids vanish into their computer games and come back changed, read Connect…
Is there a particular character or element in Connect that you especially enjoyed writing about?
Naomi (the research scientist whose discovery is in danger of changing the world), and her teenage son, Colt. I think the mother and child relationship is a fascinating one, because the dynamics are so weird; the mother puts all this love and energy and sacrifice into a relationship, with the aim of making the other person, the child, able to survive on their own, away from the mother. It’s a bittersweet thing; if you succeed, they leave you. That relationship is normally, and understandably, explored through realistic domestic fiction; I liked the idea of putting it at the heart of a thriller, of dramatising it to the point where the thing that the mother must sacrifice for her child might well be the entire world.
What sort of challenges did you face when writing about vitual reality, biotech breakthroughs and human connections?
The real world kept catching up! I wanted the feel of the book to be very near future, just a few years away. But that’s a tricky place to set something, because technology is advancing so fast. I invented things in early drafts of the book that were already appearing in the real world by the time the book was published. But I see that as a tribute to how good I am at predicting the future!
Had you always wanted to become an author/writer?
Yes, pretty much. I fell in love with books from the time I learned to read: I didn’t just want to read them, I wanted to understand how the trick was done, how books worked. It seemed magical to me, uncanny, that these modest black marks on white paper could call up an entire technicolour world in your mind that felt completely real. So I started writing books almost as soon as I started reading them. At the start, age seven or eight, they were little animal stories, and by the time I was a teenager they were thrillers about a teenager with an unfeasibly powerful motorbike, and by the time I was in university they were about love… They weren’t any GOOD for a long time, and I didn’t know how to structure them or finish them, so they all faded out after ten or a hundred pages, but I knew that I wanted to be a writer, and so I kept going, until I became good at it.
Are there any authors that you look up to as a writer that has helped shape your work?
Dozens, of all kinds. Some I love for their structure, some for their style. Some are highly literary, or experimental, some would be considered genre writers. I was an indiscriminate reader, growing up, and I still am. I loved Samuel Beckett’s Molloy, but I also loved Alistair MacLean’s Where Eagle’s Dare. Jane Austen’s Emma is glorious, but so is Larry Niven’s Ringworld. They’re doing completely different things, but doing them really well. Anyone who shows you a whole new world, or a new way of looking at the world. Frederik Pohl, Ursula Le Guin, bell hooks, Philip K. Dick…
How long did it take you to plan and write Connect?
Connect took me seven years, more or less, from beginning to end. Which sounds scarier than it was! It was a stop-start process, and I was doing other writing as well. In fact, I began an entire new career in there somewhere, as a children’s writer. In between drafts of Connect, I wrote and published the first three Rabbit & Bear books, which have been translated into 29 languages now.
Can you tell us in five words what writing means to you?
Well, as Lou Reed says in the song Heroin, “It’s my life and it’s my wife.” OK, that’s seven words. I’ll do an edit: “My life, and my wife.”
Did you take the time to celebrate the conclusion of writing your and its release?
Writing a book, you end it a bunch of times. The first draft! The final draft before it goes to your agent! The final draft after you’ve done all the edits with your editor! The final, FINAL polish after the copy edit! By the time it’s actually published, you are exhausted, and have read it and edited it and polished it so often you just want a long lie-down. But a book launch is a good excuse for a party, and, as I normally live in Berlin now, I don’t get to see my friends very often. So for the release, I organised three Irish launch events, in Dublin, Galway, and Limerick, and so I was able to celebrate the launch with all my friends and relatives. After seven years, it was GREAT to finally see it out in the world, and to celebrate it with my favourite people.
Have you got a hobby/activity you do to wind down from all the work and writing?
I have a really nice mountain bike that I bought second-hand when I sold the book (it’s important as a writer to keep your overheads down, to protect your freedom), and I love to really stand on the pedals and bounce across some rough ground. Right now I write in a co-working space that is the other side of the Tiergarten, Berlin’s biggest park. And so my commute is a cycle through the woods, often off the paths and through the weeds and bushes. Through the sprinklers, in the summer. I love it.
Have you got plans for another novel or comic in the future?
A million plans! The problem is finding the time to write them all. Plans are easy, writing’s hard.
Finally, have you read a book/article recently that you would personally recommend to the readers of this post?
Well, a lot of my favourite books recently have been read as research for writing projects. And they are brilliant, but some of them might be a bit specialised! For instance, Everything Flows: Towards a Processual Philosophy of Biology, edited by John Dupré and Daniel J. Nicholson is a collection of essays that’s deeply intellectually stimulating. The essays treat living things as processes unfolding in time, rather than as static objects. And that really changes everything. Fascinating book.
Another book that changed how I think, this time about perception and the human mind, is The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain And the Making Of The Western World by Iain McGilchrist. His argument that the two hemispheres of our brain see the world totally differently, and his exploration of the consequences of that, is deeply convincing.
Some other books I’ve enjoyed recently… The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read (And Your Children Will Be Glad That You Did) by Philippa Perry is a wonderfully enjoyable book about how parents talk to children (spoiler alert: often badly and counter-productively), and how they could communicate much better. I’d recommend it to anyone with kids. Or with parents.
Ursula LeGuins’s posthumously published Dreams Must Explain Themselves – which collects the best of her non-fiction, spanning four decades – is absolutely packed with wisdom about people and animals and science fiction.
Michael Pollan’s How To Change Your Mind: The New Science of Psychedelics is a fun book, combining a masterful history of these intriguing drugs with an amusing personal journey. Wait till you get to the bit where he smokes toad venom…
Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity, by Sarah B. Pomeroy is a mind-blowing reconstruction of the lives of women in classical Greece and Rome, from all layers of society. Beautifully researched, dispassionately written by a professor of classics, it is a real eye-opener. I think everyone should read this book (especially blokes).
Ray Dalio’s Principles is useful and thought-provoking. Basically, it’s a well-structured book of stoic philosophy, written in a clean style by a multi-billionaire hedge fund manager. I liked it a lot.
The Real World of Technology collects the CBC Massey Lectures of scientist Ursula M. Franklin. I don’t tend to read this year’s books, as the most interesting books are prophetic and were written long before the moment you need to read them. This is a fine example: a book about technology as a system, as a mindset, and how it has changed our realities of time and space, and reordered and restructured the relationships between absolutely everything. Thirty years old, and a superbly useful read right now.
A final, fun, read (especially if you like pop music): The KLF: Chaos, Magic, And The Band Who Burned A Million Pounds, by John Higgs. A mind-expanding, soul expanding, book. It filled me with glee, and made me glad to be alive.
I hope you find something in that list that appeals to you!
Thank you Julian for delving into what makes Connect such a must read novel. That has to be the longest recommendations list I have ever seen on my Q&As! Julian is obviously passionate about themes, details and pushing boundaries and it translates well into his work. I hope you enjoyed the post and make sure to check out Connect out now in paperback. Cheers for coming by and come back soon for more Q&As soon!