When Tech Moguls Act Like Galactic Overlords

The protagonist of Max Gladstone’s new novel Empress of Forever is Vivian Liao, a tech mogul in the vein of Steve Jobs or Elon Musk. As the story opens, Liao is working to oppose the misuse of big data by a dystopian near-future government.

“I think Viv really despises the people who have used many of those levers to gain control over the American political sphere,” Gladstone says in Episode 374 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, “and she’s been fighting back using basically every tool available to her.”

Liao soon finds herself transported to the distant future, where things have only gotten worse. The galaxy is now ruled by an all-powerful Empress, who controls her subjects through her mastery of the Cloud, a ubiquitous hyperspace data network.

“In the future that Viv’s waking up in, most people are composed of smart matter, and have a projection of their consciousness—what they would call their soul—into the Cloud,” Gladstone says, “and they can move around, given the appropriate tools, by more or less ‘computing’ themselves across vast reaches of space.”

The Empress’ authoritarian rule will remind some readers of the capricious way that tech companies police their platforms, and this is no accident. The novel also uses the character of Grey, a sort of nanotech-powered genie, to explore the way that recommendation algorithms can foster extremism. “When the algorithm can figure out what you want—or what it thinks you want—better than you can, you can end up in one of these desire loops, where you always want the next thing that’s one step out of reach, and Grey was a great venue for exploring that,” Gladstone says.

He hopes that readers will enjoy Empress of Forever, but also that it makes them think about where our technology is heading.

“That’s one of the challenges that Empress engages with—or tries to—again and again, even through all the planet-smashing and post-human kung-fu battles and all, this question of who are we? What are we? And what kind of world are we trying to make? Let’s try to be really honest about that,” he says.

Listen to the complete interview with Max Gladstone in Episode 374 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.

Max Gladstone on sound in space:

“In a future in which human decision-making about spatial relationships is important—like say that you still have fighter pilots in this particular future—you’d need some way to tell humans about what’s going on behind them, and you can put up a whole bunch of instrument panels, which will be incredibly confusing for the user, or you can just have a clear rendering of the soundscape, an interpretation of the soundscape. People respond very well to something they hear coming up behind them. So that’s my head canon for why TIE fighters always make the same sound in the Star Wars universe. It’s not that that’s the sound that the TIE engines make, it’s just a sound that everybody’s decided means ‘That’s a TIE fighter.’”

Max Gladstone on Journey to the West:

“One day I found a very brief English rendering and retelling of a couple of key episodes of Journey to the West that was called Monkey: A Chinese Odyssey, or something like that, and the tag on the back was ‘Cosmic kung-fu on the scale of Star Wars.’ And if you’ve read Journey to the West, that’s not really what Journey to the West is. It’s a wonderful, vaguely Buddhist adventure story about magical disciples of this one monk who are traveling from China to India to get scriptures. But that description stuck in my head, and in a way you can probably trace Empress of Forever all the way back to that description—just what would ‘Cosmic kung-fu on the scale of Star Wars‘ look like? What kind of story would that be?”

Max Gladstone on the Cultural Revolution:

“A teacher of mine [in China] would tell stories about neighbors torturing each other, stringing each other up by their thumbs, and how 30 years later you still have to live with those same neighbors. Some people left, some people died, but for the most part everybody’s just trying to get by on a day-to-day basis. You can’t forget that that ever happened, but maybe you can try to live in spite of it. A teacher at the school where I taught was telling stories of his childhood where the students attempted to storm the main school building at the time, which was at the top of a hill, to destroy the library and a bunch of biological samples that had been collected and stored up there, and other students tried to stop them, so you had kids throwing rocks at each other on this hill as they were trying to come up and burn the place down.”

Max Gladstone on John Crowley:

“In college I had the great fortune of taking a few classes from John Crowley, the author of Little, Big among many, many other works, and it was especially fortunate because I did not know a great deal about him before I took the class. I applied to it, I sent in the best work that I possibly had, and I was lucky enough to get in. So I had a whole semester of responding to student stories, having great conversations with my professor, writing stuff, getting really on-point critiques about it, and just getting more and more serious about writing. Before I went home over Christmas break, I sat down and read Little, Big, and walked away just totally overwhelmed and shaken by the sheer awesomeness of artistic accomplishment that it represents. I went back and had another class with him, and it took me weeks to get over feeling like, ‘I can’t possibly talk to this guy. The book is too good. He is too good. How could I ever even remotely measure up?’”

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