It was my pleasure to interview Eric Dallaire, author of the thought provoking and action packed Science-Fiction novel “Shades: The Gehenna Dilemma”, an awesome book that I recommend everyone check out ASAP! For the full review, click here
Below are my questions in italics followed by Eric’s complete, unaltered answers.
Could you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Hello Anela! First, thanks so much for inviting me to interview on your blog. I’m a fan of the site and appreciate what you do for self-published authors. THANK YOU!
I’ve worked in the video game industry since 1995 as a writer, producer, and game designer. After graduating from UCSD (biology and writing degrees) I started working at Presto Studios. Back then, I worked on The Journeyman Project, a classic time travel adventure game on CD-ROM (similar to Myst). The challenge in those days for interactive writers was to craft engaging stories with branching multi-linear plotlines that altered the story as the player made gameplay choices.
In early 2000, I was fortunate to work as a writer for several Star Trek Next Generation games. One of my biggest thrills was having Patrick Stewart and Brent Stewart read my lines for a game script (I still have the signed shooting scripts framed!).
In 2006, I took some time away from the video game industry for a passion project. I formed TeachTown with three other great co-founders with the mission to create online learning activities for children with special needs.
After launching TeachTown, I returned to making video games and worked at Electronic Arts on games like The Simpsons on the Wii and Nintendo DS and Pogo Games for the iPhone.
What do you do when you’re not writing? Do you have a day job as well?
When I want to get away from tech and relax, I enjoy running, surfing, and spending time with my son! I enjoy reading – print books when I’m at home, and when I’m traveling I take my Kindle paperwhite. I try to balance classic books with current fantasy and science fiction.
During the work week, I do have a day job. I’m a game designer for a company called Age of Learning. My main duties include design documentation for learning activities, drafting up wireframes for game mechanics, crafting narrative stories, and generally sketching up fun concepts for games that promote education. The last project I worked on was a mobile application that taught English to foreign students.
The next project hasn’t been announced yet, but has a broader scope for using games to help teach critical concepts to a wide variety of students. I’m a big fan of using game theory and motivating principles, intertwined with fun stories, to engage students of all ages to learn. I write whenever I can, mostly nights and weekends. My commute allows me to take a train to work, which I love! Every trip feels like a mini-adventure and there’s something about being on a train that stimulates my imagination.
Has writing always been a passion of yours or one that came over time?
Yes! I’ve been writing since I was seven years old. My first story was done in crayon with stick figures and featured a little known side adventure of Bilbo Baggins (little known since I imagined it). My father introduced me to science fiction at an early age. We watched Star Trek together and I read many of his golden age science fiction books. He reared me on names like Asimov, Heinlein, Pournelle, AE van Vogt, Niven, Bear, and the greats of that age.
At school, I was fortunate to grow up around friends who also enjoyed writing. All of us wrote short stories, or wrote adventures for our tabletop gaming group. This taught me the importance of writer group collaborations at an early age, and sharing your stories with peers to receive honest feedback.
One Christmas I received an Atari 400, It was the computer that had the fancy membrane flat keyboard. I wrote a fantasy choose-your-own adventure story and challenged my friends to get to the end of it. They loved controlling the story, and seeing those reactions and watching people get involved in my story made me happy. I knew then that I wanted to be a storyteller.
Do you usually write in the Science-Fiction genre or do you delve into other genres as well?
I’m interested in science fiction across all sub-genres, and fantasy of all genres. I subscribe to the belief that at some level the genres really can blur together. Jack Vance’s Dying Earth blended science and magic together effectively. As did Dragonriders of Pern (the dragons were genetically engineered). In Shades, you’ll see this influence in the later chapters with the v-cast game meta.duel, where cutting age VR technology is used to create realistic fantasy constructs.
In “Shades”, zombies serve as de facto slaves and are owned by businesses and individuals as property. They are more tragic creatures than frightening (though there is some of that too!). Was this an allegory for the way debt can destroy lives in our world today? Can you expound a bit on how this idea evolved in the creative process of the book?
Great question. I agree with your assessment, shades are absolutely pitiable tragic characters….to some! I made a point in the book to emphasize that opinions remained split about the near certainty that most middle class people faced the eventual fate of becoming shades. Some fought against it, seeking out lawyers to help them avoid their debts. Others decided to break the law and asked their kin to hide their bodies. This created an industry of debt collectors, called ghouls that went after these lawbreakers.
Given today’s commercialism, I also predicted that some people would not care about their bodies after their deaths. Less altruistic than organ donors, these people would sell their bodies in the future for cash now. It is an indictment on general greed that can exist in some people’s hearts, but the story also highlights the compassion and hope that keeps many of us going in difficult times.
More and more, the economies of today rely on debt and risky ventures to fuel their economy. I think Shades and the concept of future debt is a relatable concept to many readers because it’s such a constant part of current society. The recent economic crisis in Greece is just one more recent example of this cycle of how debt can affect people on an individual scale and at a state level.
There is a lot of hacker and tech jargon in the story, giving it that delightful Sci-Fi feeling readers enjoy. Do you have a background in tech at all? If not, what steps did you take to learn the needed vocabulary to give it a realistic feel in the book?
Long ago, in my college life, I studied biology, doing Alzheimer’s research for UCSD. I did writing on the side for a friend’s video game company. It turned out, I was a much better writer and game designer than a scientist. However, I LOVED science and I was able to use my technical background to write for Star Trek games, which I think many of your readers will agree, is sort of the king and queen of technical jargon.
As my career gravitated more toward programming and game design, my writing evolved to include more of those technical aspects. Unlike my main character Jonah, I’m not an expert hacker. While writing Shades, I asked several senior computer-programming colleagues, who are all much smarter than I am, to read the book as scientific advisors. They informed me if I wrote anything that sounded incorrect from a technical point of view. This helped to ground the book’s invention of new programming terms, like the echelon programs, with plausible descriptions and mechanics.
The story also speaks to the philosophical question of what qualifies as a “person”, especially when it comes to artificial intelligence. Do you feel this is a question we could potentially face one day?
I’m so glad you brought this point up! The idea of ‘what is sentience’ and ‘what is human’ are both major themes throughout the book. In the story, the public is told that shades are not alive and possess no souls. Over the years, this has becomes an ingrained truth to the public. Early on, only criminals and major debtors are forced to take the shade serum to pay for their crimes and debts. Twenty years after the serum is introduced, afterdeath service becomes a form of currency to the wider public as a way of generating income. A growing minority, roughly a quarter of the populace, are comfortable enough to mortgage their afterdeath years to purchase goods in their lifetime.
The book also deals with the consequences of the virtual world on humankind. More and more, people outside the United States and shade-dealing countries rely on virtual casting, or v-casting, to do business in places that allow the shade-trade. V-casting is form of projected tele-presence, or combining Skype with 3-d printing. You can hook up to a machine at home, and transmit your mind to another place with the help of local WiFi-like terminals that have become ubiquitous in this world. Most law-abiding citizens treat v-casters as real people. There are some that enjoy the v-cast system as a recreational hobby, and there are others that allow their minds to stay in the online worlds constantly, almost evolving into a new type of incorporeal life form. I really enjoyed delving into the psychology of how these technologies would affect different people. I think that level of detail helps to make the book feel more realistic.
From my point of view, I do think that online presence and gaming is becoming an even larger part of life, and we are seeing this affect the culture and lifestyles of people around the world. If you look at this year’s recent E3, Microsoft’s recent Hololens technology is taking us closer to Virtual and augmented reality than ever before. Additionally, the world of Shades does tackle the issue of artificial intelligence. In the novel’s backstory, an event took place where a group of AIs went berserk and killed humans. This led to the ratification of the Promethean Laws that restricted how sentient AIs operate, think, and evolve. Essentially, it became an insurance program against a singularity event (where AIs take over the planet) from happening. In a very direct way, it is a repression of the artificial life form.
Personally, I share the concern with other futurists that we should be cautious in our constant drive to create living computers. More discussion on the ethics and ramifications of sentient AIs should continue at a faster pace. I find this topic fascinating and it’s a strong theme throughout Shades. In this book, when thinking robots were outlawed, corporations turned to the shades to fill in the ranks of hard-laborers. It allowed for a rich backstory of corporate espionage and politics.
When it comes to drafting your books, are you a “pantser” or a “plotter”? And do you think once is preferable over the other?
I’m a hybrid, I do some plotting along the way for sure. But if I had to pick one, it would be more pantser. When I imagined Shades, the concept stemmed from a conversation I was having with a friend about debt and working. We were discussing how more people these days worked into their later years and how retirement continued to be pushed back for our generation. I joked that I would be working up until the day I died and that even then someone from the IRS would probably come to my funeral to dig me up to work a few more years. After I made that joke, the first quarter of the book flooded into my brain – I had to go write the first chapter immediately!.
After I calmed down a bit, I planned out the major milestones of the book. To do that, I used Keynote as an initial planning tool. While it is presentation software, it’s also an excellent wireframing and planning tool. Each slide in my project file was like a ‘notecard’ for me, with an important plot element, scene, or chapter on its own page. I could easily move these cards around in the panel view while I considered my plot flow. I even used Keynote’s simple Shape tool to draw out locations like the moon colonies and Jonah’s apartment to help me visualize locations.
Even though I did some planning, my plotting was at a high level. I filled in most of the details as I dove back into more seat-of-the-pants-writing. Several of the characters, like the White Djinn, evolved on the fly while writing about the virtual realm. Another example: in my early notes, the AI character Sasha was a minor character, but as I started to write, her personality demanded more attention and I followed her lead. To me, writing is an ebb and flow between planning and inspiration. I found it to be an organic process. Around the three-quarter mark, I returned to more detailed planning when I needed to tie together different plot points and drive to a satisfactory conclusion.
One additional note: I took a software development-like approach to my writing. I sent chapters over to friends at an early stage of my writing. I would write, get feedback, iterate, and send back revisions for more feedback. I also did this as a test – if my early readers came back and asked for more chapters, I knew I had something. Getting feedback along the way helped me catch errors, validate concepts I wanted to try out, and generally gave me a sense about the direction I was going. This was a personal style choice for me. I know that some writers (and several in my writing group) prefer to do a full rough draft before showing their work to anyone. I say go with whatever works for you!
Why did you decide to self-publish versus going through traditional publishing route?
I’ve created two companies in the past, both software companies. One was an education company that helped children with special needs and autism. The other was a more traditional games studio that made mobile games. That same entrepreneurial spirit pushed me to tackle the challenge of creating a book and treating it like my own business. It’s exciting (and a bit scary) to have complete ownership of taking the book from page one to finish, hiring an editor, hiring a cover artist, and then marketing. As most self-published authors will confirm, it’s a tremendous amount of work. I had plenty of days of self-doubt and I worried about decisions. However, I was fortunate that I knew many talented friends who helped and encouraged me along the way. For instance, the cover artist, Ron Lemen, was an early reader and fan of the book. I also worked with him years ago at Presto Studios. He created a gorgeous cover and helped define the look of that world. So, relying on my extended family of friends and trusted contacts has allowed me to build an extended team of contributors.
When can we hope to see the sequel of “Shades”??
I’m working on a sequel alongside several smaller short story pieces. The way my brain works, sometimes I need to recharge the batteries with a quick fresh project to get short amount of distance from a larger novel. I feel like this allows a writer to come back with more perspective and new ideas about how to proceed with a sequel. I just wrote two short stories that I have submitted for publication, and now I have returned to writing the Shades sequel. I have a trilogy planned, an audiobook version of Shades that I’m exploring, and I’m speaking with interested artists about a graphic novel adaptation of the story. With the pace I’m going, Shades: Civil War will be coming out early next year.
Many thanks to Eric Dallaire for taking the time to be interviewed on Amid the Imaginary!
And thank you Anela, it’s been a true pleasure speaking with you! I appreciate your time and consideration, and of course for all your support of the authors you feature!
Have a look at the book trailer for “Shades” here
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To learn more about the author and his work, explore his website here where you can also have a look at the first four chapters of the book!