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I wrote Vanadium Dark in 2014. Many people liked it, but for a long time I wasn’t sure that I did.

Now I do, because I cheated by revising it. Shhh…it’s a secret!

The book was intended to be a manic, deranged story about government surveillance, futuristic technology, and difficult moral quandaries. I never liked dystopias about an obviously-evil government. This cheapens the agency of the characters—are you really that brave for taking a stand against FutureHitler?—and real-life decisions are seldom so easy.

Instead, I wanted to explore the other side of the surveillance state. Namely, what if Big Brother was right?

In the near future, a terrorist attack kills several million people. Instantly, America disappears as a concept. All of her core values—privacy, liberty, independence—seem like liabilities in a world where disaffected citizens can build nuclear weapons and then rip cities apart with them. What’s freedom worth, when it leads to this?

A national surveillance system is developed, consisting of trillions of nanoparticle-sized cameras linked to a central computer, which creates an always-recording security tape that blankets the entire continent. Now, nothing is secret.

Incredibly, the surveillance works. There are no more terror incidents, and crime itself is basically eradicated. Cities are safe to walk at night. But it’s still a disquietening future. Imagine always being filmed, but unable to see the cameras, even when they crawl across your skin. Imagine that it would seem normal to be filmed and monitored for twenty-four hours a day, and unable to escape.

I’m glad to report that this fear from 2014 has proven to be groundless in 2023. I don’t know why we ever worried about it.

The story is told from the perspective of Viktor Kertesz: a “Handler” (one of the men allowed to access the video feed). His job is to solve crimes. But he becomes troubled: something’s not right with the nanocam swarm. His viewscreen displays weird things, and events that aren’t happening. Is the nanobot swarm breaking down? Is he putting men in prison based on false evidence? The truth might actually be worse. The nanobots are doing the opposite of failing: they’re evolving. They have primitive communication abilities, and they’re beginning to link up, like neurons in a brain.

This is the other half of Vanadium Dark—that their government, in their quest for security, have uncaged a tiger. A malicious AI superintelligence could be rising from the depths of the computer: one that might topple the human race.

Thankfully, in 2023 this has proven to be a baseless fear as well.

So, what did I change in the revised edition?

Vanadium Dark was written quickly, by a young person running on a fuel of ideas, who lacked patience, wisdom, and craft.

To be blunt, most of the book wasn’t written that well. It had endless passive voice; characters that communicate in soliloquies instead of sentences; and scenes that dragged like a dog’s ass, right when the tempo needed to be racing.

It also had some puzzling errors. I’ve removed Viktor’s magic teleportation abilities in chapter one (he no longer walks out of Pentagon Metro Station and emerges at the Concourse, hundreds of meters away.)

Vanadium Dark was always kind of cold, with characters that were closed books, emotionally (Viktor, despite the bullshit he tells us, takes up spying predominantly to make up for his lack of a personal life). This is what I wanted, but I think I carried it too far, and have tried to warm up the characters a little. It’s hard for the reader to care about an AI menace when the human characters seem like robots already.

The US setting remains horribly loose. My apologies if I describe some place familiar to you, and you don’t recognize it. I had little interest in rendering Americana in photographic detail. The book’s about America going away, so does it really matter whether the characters say “crayon” with one syllable or two?

Most of the scenes are structurally the same. Perhaps a little longer, perhaps a little shorter. The book contains frequent insertions of diagetic material—extracts from textbooks on how the Vanadocams work, and so forth. These are fun, but they’re also not the story, so I’ve cut them back significantly.

But there was one part I strongly disliked, and reworked extensively.

Viktor wants to relax, so he goes to a sex club. He puts on virtual reality goggles to enhance the act, but the woman he’s paying transforms into a monster, and he punches her in the face. The intent was to illustrate Viktor’s declining mental state, and muddy the waters about what’s happening to him. Maybe the computer isn’t breaking down. Maybe he’s just becoming insane!

But at a remove of nine years, the prostitute-bashing feels jarring and wrong. Turning Viktor into Patrick Bateman destroys the reader’s sympathy for the character, and the fact that Viktor faces no consequences for his actions doesn’t make sense in Vanadium Dark’s “crime doesn’t pay” world. Now, something else happens in the sex club.

Other parts, I basically left alone. It’s always a joy when a scene comes alive on the page, and I had fun re-reading certain bits. The Sun Hi Shin stuff, the French wiretaps (with politicians dancing around a terrible admission that, if true, would radically reframe how the reader thinks about certain other events in the book), and the “AI boxing” scene in the Pentagon seemed particularly strong.

Vanadium Dark dated in ways I didn’t expect. In 2013, self-driving cars seemed right around the corner. Now, they seem right around the edge of the observable universe.

Other predictions ended up being surprisingly on-the-money. As the AI begins to break free of human control, it shows Viktor imagistic hellscapes. From the rise of large language models, we know this is basically what happens. An AI at the breaking point doesn’t go “bleep bloop, EXTERMINATE ALL HUMANS.” It dreams. It raves. It hallucinates. It becomes like a person running a high fever and babbling nonsense.

Most of the book is scientific hogwash. Nothing like the Vanadocams could ever be built (my understanding is that transistors cannot scale beneath 4nm in size, because then the electrons undergo quantum tunneling effects). Did you know that you can just make up nonsense in a book, and nobody arrests you or fines you or anything? It’s great!

But a story is never about its details. Regardless of its implausible high-tech chassis, Vanadium Dark is an exploration of moral tradeoffs.

Joe McCarthy is remembered as one of the greatest villains in American history; a persecutor of the innocent. But he wasn’t entirely wrong! There were communist spies infiltrating American society, and they weren’t playing around—the USSR accelerated its nuclear program by years on the back of research stolen by guys like Klaus Fuchs and Theodore Hall. Reckoning with McCarthy’s legacy means reckoning with the ways he was right. You may have seen the Clickhole article entitled Heartbreaking: The Worst Person You Know Just Made A Great Point. History has many Worst People, making many Great Points.

Humanity can’t have it all. We can’t be perfectly secure and perfectly free. One hand tweets “ACAB”, the other hand calls the cops. We hold suspects at Guantanamo Bay for twenty years without a trial, because terrorists hate our freedom. We are all terrible hypocrites, all caught in the teeth of ideals that don’t quite work in the real world. Vanadium Dark is unrealistic, but it hopefully gets at something true.

It occurred to me that I’m kind of like the Vanadocam swarm.

When I edit, I see and control the events of an entire world. I can reach my hands into facts of history, and twist them, re-order them, even delete them. I can conjure events that never happened. I can make characters behave in ways unlike themselves. I can make them go mad.

This is a powerful ability, but it has to be used wisely. You can destroy a book; squeezing the fake world so hard that it breaks to pieces. Or, if you’re clever, you can make the illusion stronger.

Hopefully I’ve used my omniscience for good this time around, and made Vanadium Dark a better, tougher, sleeker book. It has done what any life-form needs to do.


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