Monday, November 25, 2013

Author Spotlight: Mike Maden

Day and night, CIA drones armed with missiles scour Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan, hunting terrorists. Pakistan is manufacturing its own homegrown military drones for domestic deployment, even as its own people protest American drone strikes on Pakistani soil. China reports glowing test results for its first stealth combat drone. A recent Freedom of Information Act lawsuit reveals federal agencies operate drone missions for a variety of state and local agencies in the U.S. CNN, the Associated Press and News Corporation use drones to shoot video of natural disasters. Drones broadcast Australian sporting events, and capture intimate shots of unsuspecting wildlife doing the things wildlife does when nobody’s watching. In Europe, the smarter celebrity now commonly scans the skies for drones dispatched by paparazzi to document his inevitable faux-pas. The days when American celebrities will be pursued the same way are coming, very soon.

Why should governments, corporations and journalists have all the fun? Right this moment for a mere $64.99 plus S+H, you can order the “Micro Drone 2.0.” Imagine, your very own diminutive technological wonder carrying a camera with both still photography and motion video functionalities, sporting a swiveling lens to surreptitiously capture the juiciest angles of sights otherwise invisible to you. After all, that one guy down the street seems pretty suspicious, so why not fly your little robot around his windows and see what dirty secrets a mere twist of your joystick can expose. Just make sure you keep your blinds drawn tight—he might have a drone of his own.


Our guest for this edition of the Author Spotlight is Mike Maden, author of the new UAV-centric techno-thriller titled, simply and fittingly, Drone. Maden earned a Ph.D. in political science from the University of California (Davis), focusing on the interaction among conflict, technology and international relations. He combined his laudable academic achievements with jobs as a campus lecturer, political consultant and media commentator to parlay his work into Drone, a timely and riveting novel exploring the proliferation of modern unmanned aerial warfare.

How good a book is Drone? Clive Cussler and W.E.B. Griffin applaud it with words like “astounding,” and “unforgettable.” Suffice it to say such high praise from such esteemed writers doesn’t come easily.

How good an author is Maden? Well, that’s why he’s here now, squarely seated in our infamously unforgiving wooden chair, steeping in the sharp glow of our blazing klieg light array. So without further ado we’ll get this Author Spotlight underway, and leave you to decide for yourselves what kind of a maestro Maden is with the turn of a keen phrase for your edification and entertainment.

Gazala:    In my omnipotence, I've sentenced you to be stranded alone on a desert island for offenses best left unnamed. In my beneficence, I've decided to allow you a limited amount of reading material to make your stay a little less bleak than it would otherwise be. I'll spot you your religious text of preference, and the collected works of William Shakespeare. In addition to those, name the one fiction book, and the one nonfiction book, you'd choose to take with you, and tell why you choose them.

Maden:    For fiction, I’d want to bring my favorite genre book along with me so I’d haul in a copy of the original military-political techno-thriller, The Illiad, by Homer. But I’d want a parsed interlinear Greek-English version which means that for my non-fiction book I’d want a decent Greek grammar. That way I could not only read and re-read the first great literary text of the Western canon in my own native tongue, but acquire another (dead) language in the process. The stories would enlarge my soul even as the language acquisition would hold at bay the debilitating mental impairments of old age, for surely the literary offenses that exiled me to the island in the first place would merit a life sentence. Maybe two.

Gazala:    Your new book is an excellent and gripping techno-thriller titled Drone, centered around the unpredictable consequences of relying on drones to conduct wars officially declared, or clandestine. I've read it. I enjoyed it immensely, and recommend it highly. Shockingly enough, however, from time to time my bare recommendation doesn't always motivate a book's potential reader to become a book's actual reader. Tell us something about Drone, and why its potential reader should make the leap and become its actual reader.

Maden:    First of all, I can’t even imagine the possibility that your gracious recommendation of Drone—based, no doubt, on your impeccable taste and keen literary insight—would be insufficiently motivating to your audience to make a purchase. (Who is this gentle, misguided soul, and how might they be contacted directly? Sounds like an intervention is called for.)

In answer to your hypothetical question, Drone is unapologetically a member of the species, Techno-Thrillum Militaria. It’s chock full o’ military-thriller violence and the usual tropes of the genre, but that might not be enough of a draw for your discerning reader. In truth, the book is not just about drones; it’s also about identity. The factual drone technology in the novel is absolutely fascinating, but the people who operate those systems are even more interesting. I write about damaged people because I am one myself, and the series protagonist, Troy Pearce, is definitely a wounded man. Troy’s arc throughout the series follows his struggle to answer the question: What does it mean to be a true warrior in service of a government you no longer trust? That’s a variation on a question many American citizens are asking today. Drone poses a number of answers; I leave it for the reader to decide which one is best for them. Don’t get me wrong—I don’t believe in moral ambiguity. There really are bad actors out there who mean to do us great harm. But I do believe in moral complexity, and sometimes my most dangerous enemy in the world is the guy in the mirror staring back at me in the morning when I’m shaving. So what I’m trying to say is this: if you shave, or know someone who shaves, you MUST buy my book. Period.

Gazala:    What are books for?

Maden:    All fiction is a lie, but the best novels can still tell the truth.

Gazala:    W. Somerset Maugham said, "There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are." Do you agree, or disagree, and why?

Maden:    Only a moron would argue with a genius like Maugham…so here it goes. There are actually four rules of writing that are quite well known among professional writers, but they are closely guarded secrets. However, because this blog has an extraordinary readership, I’m willing to share them despite the great personal risk it entails. Here they are: 1. Write the first draft. 2. Re-write it again and again and again until you can’t re-write it anymore. 3. Write the first draft of the next novel. 4. Repeat 1-3 until you die. 

Of course, the really advanced writers also lay hold of Pressfield’s Corollary: “Writing is hard work.” And they also cling to Rilke’s Apothegm: “Write because you must.” And finally, every professional writer has had to wrestle through Iglesias’s Conundrum: “You must learn how to write, but nobody can teach you,” which is resolved, in part, by the precept, “You only learn to write by writing.”

The bottom line is that the answer to any question regarding the writing process is best answered: “Get your butt in the chair and write!” It’s really as simple and as impossible and as thrilling as that.

Gazala:    I need to venture outside and deal with the annoying unmanned aerial vehicle buzzing my rooftop. This may take a while. Ask yourself a question, and answer it.

Maden:    I’m often asked what the future holds in regard to drone technologies. The easy answer is: Watch any six random episodes of "Star Trek" (or any other great sci-fi show) and you’ll get a pretty good idea of where this stuff is going, for good and for ill.

In my research, I found two emblematic trends in the emerging technologies, and I touch on each of them in my novel, Drone. I mention these two trends because I think what people really want to know is: Should we be afraid of what the drones of the future might bring? That depends.

The first trend to consider is LARS—Lethal Autonomous Robotics. Essentially, we’re talking about a "Terminator;" a killing machine that operates completely independently from human control, relying entirely on software and sensors to find, pursue and destroy the enemy. There are lots of great reasons why we may not want to let machines fight our battles independent of our control (again, check out "Star Trek") but the logic of war and physics will inexorably drive us to LARS. Why? Humans are always the weak point in combat systems. Our bodies are fragile and not only need protection in hostile environments, but truthfully, hinder the performance capabilities of our most advanced weapons systems, e.g., fighters. Pull humans out of the cockpit and drone planes can fly faster, turn tighter and carry more payload than is currently the case. But there’s another reason to pull human’s out of the loop: our brains are fallible. A moment’s hesitation in a high-speed combat scenario (measured in nano-seconds) might mean the difference between victory or defeat in the battle, and maybe even the war. Don’t forget, the best human chess player in the world was defeated by IBM’s Big Blue, and isn’t chess a war game? Doesn’t logic also suggest that computers, then, should not only fly our jets or captain our ships, but also be the future generals and admirals? As humanitarians and Western liberal democrats, we might shrink at the idea, but our enemies surely won’t. And that’s why, inevitably, we’ll pursue LARS as well.

On a brighter note, another fantastic drone-related technology I touch upon in my novel is neuro-prosthetics.  This is the stuff of pure science fiction, only it’s happening today. (Maybe we should call it “science faction.”) In short, we are now able to jack into the human brain and connect it to a computer interface. (We’re close to doing this wirelessly, by the way.) Why is this exciting? Imagine the medical possibilities. A quadriplegic human whose brain is wired to a computer can be attached to an exo-skeleton suit and with the power of their thoughts be able to walk, run, lift, etc. Dr. Nicolelis at Duke University plans to do this very thing next year at the 2014 World Cup. I can’t wait to see it happen. Blind? No problem. Jack into the brain and wire it to a video camera. (Yeah, I know. "Star Trek.") Deaf? Wait—we already do that one, don’t we? You might ask how this is drone related technology, but think about it: the ability to fly a drone or drive a tank at the speed of thought would be a tremendous advantage in battle over opponents relying on throttles, yokes and steering wheels, wouldn’t it? (Extra points: Which 1980s movie featured a Soviet plane that could be piloted by human thought? Hint: Clint Eastwood.)

So there you have it: the possible perils and promises of drone technology. At the end of the day, drones are neutral things. It’s the people who operate them who are the most fascinating, and that’s why I wanted to write a fictional story full of characters interacting with this amazing new technology. Characters like Brother Gazala who, apparently, is still on his roof swatting at drones.

Not only is "Brother Gazala" swatting at those pesky drones, but he even captured one. Said drone is now repurposed to hunt robo-calling sales bots that disregard do-not-call protocols, and dispatch them with extreme prejudice. Profuse thanks to our guest for his invaluable inspiration in this regard. To enjoy the terrific thriller Drone, and perhaps procure some drone-repurposing guidance of your very own while you enjoy it, all you need do is click here to make your wish’s command.