An Unlikely Interview with Barry King

The title of Those Who Gave Their Island to Survive is drawn from Peter Gabriel’s ‘Here Comes the Flood’. To what degree did the song inspire the writing of this story? In general, do you frequently turn to music for writing inspiration?

I was cheating, really. Copyright law doesn’t cover titles, so stealing a snippet of a song is sometimes a convenient way to set tone and content from the outset for a known audience. This is a story I wrote for that X-er generation that built Internet culture. Gabriel is and was very popular in that crowd. Is it “fair use” to appropriate a line like that? I think so. Culture is all about borrowing and modifying: repurposing meaning for new variants on a theme.

But to actually answer the question, I have a very over-active right brain, and I (usually to my wife’s annoyance and/or amusement) find associations too easily, especially quotes and lyrics. ‘Flood’ is the kind of song that acts as a signpost to a story. Towards the end of writing it, I found myself returning to the song, because it was subconsciously providing a window into a particular state of dramatic tension. Later on, I looked up the origin of the song and found that it was taken from a dream that resembles my story, so I used the key line as the title.

But stories, for me, come from stewing a lot of things together. In this stew, the main theme, the meat, was the incoercible nature of play, which was appropriated from James P. Carse. His Finite and Infinate Games was a big influence on me early in life, and it continues to shape how I look at issues like privacy and access to information.

Speaking of inspiration, you’re also somewhat of a photographer and a cook. Do those pursuits feed into the same creative place your writing comes from, or are they a way to switch gears when your brain is stuck?

Feed out from more like. I love emerging patterns and try to capture or participate in them. Sometimes this is a photo of an alien structure in a commonplace plant, sometimes it’s getting three impromptu dishes to be ready at the same time and complement each other in flavour, sometimes it’s getting rhyme, meter, meaning, and tone to work together in a poem, sometimes it’s an elegant solution in code to a complex data problem—they’re all whole-brain exercises in that you have to trust yourself to do them, and when you do, they arise apparently out of nothing.

So in reading and writing stories, I love watching complex plots that emerge from simple motivations that fugue together into an inevitable conclusion. Good art mimics life, and life is nothing if not complexity arising from simplicity and headed towards an inevitable conclusion.

A similar question, related to your background in programming — particularly for a story like this one, does your day job help your writing, or does being so familiar with the subject matter ever get in the way?

Following the same theme, I’d say computers are the most complex tools we’ve ever made, but they are also made up of simple parts, and the conceptual baggage you need to understand them is actually very small. Most of what I do in my day job is re-interpreting those basic concepts in whatever the flavour of jargon, framework, and platform marketers have convinced us is the acme of our time and finding ways to use those latest variants to accomplish my clients’ ends.

There’s help and hinderance in this. Cyberpunk is very jargon-heavy, and so there’s plenty of window-dressing to borrow, and not always for good reasons.

For example, 3DES is an encryption standard that is both very well known in cryptography circles, and also somewhat distrusted, because it was made early on by IBM for the U.S. Government, and it is suspected, although not independently proven, to have some hidden flaw that only *ahem* a certain agency knows about. So when an expert cryptographer, like Marvin, uses it, it implies a certain degree of naïveté… or does it?

Well, if you know this about 3DES, like most security professionals and cypherpunks, you’d understand this implicitly, and know that Marvin uses it as a decoy message to hide his true intentions. Should a writer limit his audience’s access to a story? Thomas Mann wrote essential parts of The Magic Mountain in French, and if you don’t speak French, you miss some of the juiciest parts of the book. But he’s Thomas Mann. I’m not Thomas Mann by any means, so I have to keep a rein on the jargon, while still using valid lingo.

But the biggest way understanding computers on a fundamental level gets in the way of this kind of story is that there are some hoary old chestnuts of the genre I simply can’t stomach using: the magic box that decrypts passwords (Sneakers), blurred physical and virtual reality (Inception), nerve-like networks with instant sensing (The Matrix), and organism-like programs freely moving from device to device without being copied (Max Headroom).

What would any of those films be without those bits of magical hand-wavery? Very dull indeed.

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