Born Against’s Sam McPheeters on His Eerily Realistic Dystopian Novel About Police Surveillance
His second novel, 'Exploded View,' sets its sights on the LAPD of 2050.
Photo by Lisa Auerbach
Sam McPheeters was the singer for New York hardcore punk legends Born Against, a band that took every chance to poke an angry finger in the eye of dogma and orthodoxy. His subsequent music projects, the bizarro absurdist theater Men's Recovery Project and the caustic Wrangler Brutes, were no less confrontational. But the thing about McPheeters' music was that his anger was never kneejerk, but laden with purpose, a calling out and demand for accountability absent from the most of the genre.
McPheeters self-released his own fanzine Error and wrote columns for Punk Planet while playing in bands. After curtailing his vocalist duties, he focused on writing novels. His first, 2012's The Loom of Ruin, was an intricately plotted series of cliffhangers culminating (spoiler alert!) on the destruction of Los Angeles.
In Exploded View, to be released on October 18, McPheeters trains his critical eye on Los Angeles once again, but focuses on the Los Angeles Police Department, this time in the year 2050. His protagonist, detective Terri Pastuzka, investigates a murder that tendrils out into the city's refugee crisis—the city is overrun by illegal asylum seekers following a catastrophic war between India and China. Pastuzka uses her PanOpts (think Google Glasses, but useful) to access video recorded by citizens and surveillance cameras all over the city.
PanOpts and EyePhones, their civilian equivalent, are ubiquitous in Exploded View. Rather than simply watching television, these devices allow users to command their favorite television shows and movies to end however they wish, skewing the very notion of journalism—and of truth.
As we near the election, this notion of manipulating facts grows more ominous. This is just one of the topics McPheeters and I tackled in this interview.
Noisey: How much attention did you pay attention to the media coverage surrounding the Boston Marathon bombing?
Sam McPheeters: The bombing happened six weeks before I finished Exploded View. Meaning, I was unhealthy, unhappy, and viewing the news through the fearful lens of having current events overtake my subject matter. But although this particular event involved much of my subject matter, I was mostly frustrated at how little discussion there was over martial law unofficially descending on a large American city. I still don't get that.
The reason I ask is because on page 240 of Exploded View, Terri wonders "why didn't she live in a universe where it was okay to crowd source a murder case." In the days before the FBI released info on the Tsarnev brothers, a bunch of internet sleuths tried to figure out who committed the bombings, and in doing so identified and harassed the wrong guy—and just today Glenn Beck settled out-of-court with a guy he accused of being involved. It read like an intentional nod.
I didn't consider that you might be trying to keep the world out while writing—rather than taking it in. But it makes sense: I noticed you dialed back your internet presence after Loom of Ruin. How long/how extreme was your attempt to keep the world and news out of your novel?
No, it was just the opposite. I absorbed as much information from the outside world as possible. I was able to write this thing so quickly—ten months for the first draft—partly because I treated each writing session like a dream; anything that happened in my life got sucked in and reconfigured. If I hurt my shoulder, a character hurt his shoulder. If I read about Internet knuckleheads trying, and failing, to crowdsource a murder investigation, I had a character ponder this same concept. Although I'd completely forgotten I'd written the thing on page 240.
Were there, or are there, specific incidents from real life that were catalysts to this line of thought in your book? If not, where did the idea come from?
There wasn't any one incident; it's the story of this decade. I started writing Exploded View during the 2012 race, right around the time the phrase "post-truth politics" became a thing. The political implications are already fucked. CNN has just released a poll showing that Trump's assault on the media has worn public trust in journalism down to a nubby 30 percent. Now consider what this will be like in two decades, when anyone, anywhere, can falsify news.
It's a frightening prospect. There's ample evidence of truth becoming less and less relevant. And in the wake of police shootings, there's always public outcry for police to wear cameras—it's only a matter of time, in such a case, before footage is outright forged. Maybe this has happened already in a police context; I don't know.
Forging footage currently takes a lot of work. There was an uproar last year in Europe, when the German Jon Stewart made it look like the Greek finance minister had flipped the bird to Deutschland. The entire forgery took less than two seconds, and still required the skills of a TV studio to pull off. Also, conspiracies are porous. It would be very hard for any police department to keep falsified footage secret. But give it a decade or so. Although, by that time, any one will be able to "remix" bodycam video in real time.
You do a great job in Exploded View of coupling post-truth with surveillance. Terri reconstructs crime scenes using her PanOpts—nice pun, by the way—which merge all existing footage. All of the attention to technological detail in your book is a joy—every layer of surveillance and device is so well-thought and believable. Because the world is so rich and nuanced, I was especially surprised that it only took you ten months to write the first draft. I'm on novel number four and they never get easier to write, especially first drafts. Aside from the dreamlike state you already mentioned, what else might have been responsible for the fast output? And how does your process this time compare to when you wrote Loom Of Ruin?
The first novel I wrote took me 16 years. It's a rookie book, and largely unreadable. A large chunk of that novel takes place in 17th century Turkey. I spent years on my research—there was a period in my life where I could have schooled anyone on Ottoman inflation. It was fun—I'm never going to complete my bachelor's degree, so when else will I be able to make time to read Turkish history? But it also consumed a lot of lifespan. When I wrote The Loom of Ruin over the course of three years, I decided to skip any research that wasn't absolutely necessary. I'd devised a tight system by the time I wrote this book.
And it wasn't a fun ten months. I wrecked my health, put on a lot of weight, had to go on antidepressants and get physical therapy and an ultrasound for suspicious pains. I wouldn't recommend working the way I did.
Speaking of The Loom of Ruin, that book's short chapters had a cinematic sort of feel. Exploded View did, as well, though the cityscape was far bleaker. The near-future scenario and the technology reminded me of Blade Runner. How conscious are you of film when you're writing fiction, in terms of tone and mood?
I'm not sure. Both novels are built in three acts, script-style, only because I never learned any other way to set up outlines. I did have Blade Runner in mind when I wrote this, but not as an influence. My book jumps ahead the same span of time—38 years. Go back 38 years and you hit the mid-1970s, a period I remember well. The world doesn't look that different now. We have more gadgets and better clothes, but the essentials are the same; people have jobs, drive cars, run up debt, etc. I love science fiction that shows continuity. Meaning, I loved seeing old junkers in Blade Runner, but I thought it was silly when Harrison Ford mentions a bar in "the fourth sector." I like the idea of exploring a future LA partially through civic change. What's the future of Boyle Heights? What becomes of LAX after peak oil? What happens when the per-square-foot cost of office space inevitably plummets?
So, with all this said, why writing? This book made you bummed out and physically ill while writing it. Why writing now, and not playing music?
I'm not a musician. Here's the thing about playing music: if you can't actually play music, it's fucking wretched. Bands are basically business ventures with a crappy selection of consolation prizes—artistic expression, spotty camaraderie, brief moments of glory—substituted for actual business. By definition, it's an irrational pursuit. For a variety of reasons—some mental illness-related—I forced myself to overlook all these objections when I played shows. The month after my last band imploded, I went to a concert and felt queasy. None of the familiar rituals made any sense to me. So I stopped going. The world is a big place. I've got other things to explore.
I like writing. I'm borderline competent at it, and I can't say that about many things. I made some urgency-based mistakes in the writing of Exploded View, but I'm good at learning from my errors. Next time around, it'll be a better experience.
This is what I wanted to do when I was a kid. Ten-year-old me would be really excited that I have a science fiction novel coming out.
Are you working on your next project already? If so, what can you say about it?
One of the errors I've learned from is announcing big projects before they happen. So I keep mum on new doings. Even now, with the book release less than a month away, I'm still paranoid that a rogue tornado or something will destroy the printing plant. Fingers crossed.
Exploded View is out on October 18. Read an excerpt here.
Michael T. Fournier is the author of two novels on Three Rooms Press and wrote about the Minutemen for the 33 1/3 series. He's on Twitter - @xfournierx