Contracts Are Signed with a Word

I suspect this is true of all writers, but I crave feedback. When someone tells me they bought one of my books, the first thing I say is “Thanks.” Because, really, thanks. I couldn’t do any of this without my readers.

The second thing I say, almost without fail, is, “You’ll have to tell me what you think of it.” Neither comment is an empty pleasantry. I say both with with utter — almost desperate — sincerity.

I don’t stop with that friendly little sentence, either. I’ve talked about it before on my writing advice blog, but I have a whole list of Reader Response Questions ready for any reader willing to face the unyielding interrogation that grows out of my vain curiosity.

The first question on the list is, “What was your favorite (or most memorable) scene?” I can learn a lot about my book (and about a reader) from the answer to that one question.

I’ve been surprised, though, how often the answer (with regard to Gods Tomorrow) has been a scene fairly early in the book, after Katie’s first day at work, when she’s riding home in a taxi. The thing is…she’s new in town. She doesn’t have a home here.


It’s our second real chance to see Hathor Tech in action. She calls up her personal shopper and asks it to find her an apartment here in town. Then (right then) she scrolls through some photos on her handheld, sorts the list by price and then by proximity to work, and spends a moment considering them all. Really, though, she likes them all. And why wouldn’t she? One and all, they were hand-picked just for her.

She chooses one out of the list — like you might choose a donut from the case at your neighborhood bakery — and says, “Okay, I’ll take that one.” And just like that, the place is hers.

I suspect the people who choose that as their favorite scene are all ones who’ve gone through the grueling ordeal of a real estate closing (probably recently). Still, it’s got a strong appeal for all of us. The drudgery of paperwork, the bureaucracy of a credit application…it’s an insidious and all-too-familiar evil.

In Katie’s world, though, there’s no need for it. Think through what goes into that mountain of paperwork. It’s all about clarifying who you are (as the buyer or the seller), capturing your commitment to a major financial transaction, and ensuring (for legal purposes) that you have access to certain critical information about the property in question.

Let’s take a moment to consider just that last item. With Hathor in place, for any belonging worth the hassle of preparing such paperwork, it would be worth putting the critical information into the database, and then you know the buyer has access to it. Everyone in the world has access to it.

Not only that, you’d have access to far more information. If you were buying a house, you wouldn’t just learn whether or not the buyer had personally encountered evidence of water damage. You could find out how often the previous owner needed to call a plumber, and for each visit, why.

You could check on the previous occupants, searching their conversations for keywords related to home improvements — paint, carpet, foundation, termites — and see how often those conversations were followed up with actual work on the house. Better yet, you could hire a Service to run all those checks and more, and give you a letter grade on the house (or tell you how much to take off the offer for red flags).

As far as the rest of it — your identity and your commitment (and ability to pay) — well, you’d better believe Hathor is also paying close attention to both of those things, and you can rest assured they’ll get their own blog posts in due time.

So what’s to lose? A two-hour ordeal, and cramped, ink-stained hands. That’s it. In a world with everything on the record, financial transactions safely in the hands of the database services, signing a contract, selling a house, starting a new job…it’s all as easy as ordering a donut. Just say, “Okay, I’ll take that one,” and it’s done.

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You Have a Personal Shopper…Everywhere

I’ve told the story of my inspiration for Gods Tomorrow in the thought of ordering a pizza. That thought experiment became pretty central to the Hathor universe. In fact, that was what inspired the idea for Services. Before that, it was all going to be a traditional video surveillance, boring old Big Brother stuff, but instead it became a prayer engine continuously responding to voice commands.

The simple thought of ordering a pizza impressed on me the importance of voice recognition in this universe. For the Services to know what kind of pizza you want, they would need to know more than just what kind of pizza you ordered last time (which is about as much as we get now). In a perfect world (and, yes, we’re working our way toward a perfect world), they would need to know what you ordered last time and how much liked it and why you ordered it. (After all, maybe you got it with no cheese because your date was lactose intolerant, but now that that’s over you’d never order it that way again!)

If this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s what I was talking about in the last post. These are the things Hathor wants to know about you: what choices have you made in the past, and how have you liked the results?

That’s the kind of information your friends have about you, and it’s what lets them say, “Hey, we tried out that new Italian place last night. Don’t go there!” It’s also what lets a buddy say, “Oh, hey, try the fajita nachos here. Just like Bennigans used to make, but spicier. You’ll love it!”

Your friends know those things by listening to you. If I want to write a world where I could say, “Give me a pizza” and count on the universe to give me a perfect pizza, then I need a surveillance system that listens to me the way friends do.

Incidentally, the main objection people often bring up to the end of privacy is a fear of advertising. I don’t understand that. I don’t like ads any more than the next guy, but what I dislike about them is having to sit through them…and that’s going to happen. No matter what, that’s a part of our culture.

The kind of data gathering I’m talking about here (and that the authors of the two books mentioned in my last post were talking about) doesn’t add new ads to your life — it makes the ads much, much more relevant. It could even get to the point (dare I say it) where the advertisement becomes a Service.

That’s what Personal Shopper is all about. You walk into a store and a Service that’s been eavesdropping on your every spoken word for the last decade speaks up and says, “Hey, why don’t you try something new?” And you know what? The Service is trying its hardest to sell you something you’re going to like.

Now, to make that all work…that takes some pretty phenomenal technology. And it’s technology I look forward to talking about…but it’ll have to wait for another post.

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Hathor Knows What You’ve Done

Shortly after I finished writing Gods Tomorrow I came across a book review at my favorite science and technology site (Ars Technica — you’ll come to know it well). The review featured two new non-fiction books about…well, Hathor Tech.

One was called Click: What Millions of People Are Doing Online And Why It Matters. It described the behavioral scientists tracking and studying where people go online and how they respond to things they find there. Why? Targeted marketing.

It all boils down to two things: recognizing groups that tend to make similar decisions, and targetting members of those groups with appropriately-crafted calls to action. The other book — the one that really intrigued me — was called The Numerati. From that review:

In the future, human motivations won’t be sifted only by the psychologists and ministers, but increasingly by the “numerati,” those high priests of data who, like God, know us better than we know ourselves.

That book sounded like the structural foundation for my novel. (Thinking back, it’s hard to believe I built the world of Hathor before I read The Numerati.) As soon as I finished the review, I rushed off to Amazon to buy both books, and I devoured them. I even wrote a bit of fan mail to Steven Bake, author of The Numerati.

The main thing I took away from both books was a general astonishment at what we’re capable of doing with information. I read through them and thought, “I aimed too low. Hathor isn’t thirty years away. It could be three!”

Actually, it can’t. I’ve said it before, but the main barrier between us and Hathor isn’t technological, it’s social. The same is really true for Hippocrates and Personal Shopper (which I’ll talk about next) and all the fancy Services running on Hathor data. The problem isn’t processing power or recognition algorithms, it’s gathering data in the first place.

In the world of the novels, Hathor already has it all. I try to work through how and in what format Hathor has gathered any details critical to the stories’ plots, but for the most part I assume it’s all there:

  • What you had for breakfast today (and every day for the last decade)
  • What you wanted to have for breakfast
  • What you would have tolerated for breakfast
  • How often and how well you were satisfied with your breakfast

And they’d have the same data for lunch, for snacks, for the shoes you’re wearing, for your hobbies, your jobs, your romantic partners….

And the scary thing, the amazing thing, the inspiring thing…is they could do all of that right now, with a little bit of extra data.

Seriously. Give The Numerati a read. It’s fascinating.

(The links above are Amazon affiliate links. If you buy either book through those links, my publisher gets a small commission. Thanks!)

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The Idea for Gods Tomorrow

One of the most common questions writers get asked is, “Where do you get your ideas?”

Some writers love the question. Many of them come to hate it. When it comes right down to it, the idea is generally the least significant part of the writing process. It’s the characters, the voice, the setting of a scene, the narrative structure and pacing…things like that combine to make a truly remarkable setting.

Generally, the story idea is just a starting point. It’s the piece of paper we start with, and the story is the words that cover it up.

It’s the same with Gods Tomorrow, of course, but given the purpose of this webpage it’s still a conversation worth having here.

Instant Accountability

The idea for Gods Tomorrow grew out of a religious discussion with a friend. We were talking about privacy, and about the inevitable death of it in the information age, and I mused,

It will be interesting to see what that does to traditional religious morality. So many religions build everything upon the threat (or promise) of total accountability at some future point. But we’re rapidly approaching a point of total accountability in real life, in real time. I wonder what that will be like.

I found the question fascinating. I couldn’t let it go. I wrote Gods Tomorrow, not so much to answer the question as to create an environment to explore it.

The Services

Sometime in the first week after I started on the book, while my mind was still ablaze with the newness of the setting, I found myself walking into Wal-Mart trying to imagine what it would be like to do the same thing in a world with Hathor. I figured I could easily look up the precise locations of all the things I needed.

Then I realized I wouldn’t have to. I could just check my display (a smartphone, a heads-up display on some augmented-reality glasses, or the ubiquitous handhelds I settled on for the series), and the system would tell me everything I needed, because it had tracked when I’d used things up. It had tracked when I told a coworker, “Ooh, Cheez-its sound good! I should get some.” It had tracked that I had chili for dinner the night before and already knew I was low on antacids so it probably added some of those to my shopping list, too.

I started thinking through how I would access all that information. How would I choose which information I wanted? How would I filter it all? And how would I request it?

The answer was Services — programs that filtered all the data in the massive database just looking for the specific information I needed at any given time. When I walk into Wal-Mart, I want my Shopping List service to help me out. When my heart rate spikes, I want my Medical service to help me out. When I want a hot, delicious dinner but don’t want to go out for it, I want my Pizza Delivery Service to help me out.

Voice Recognition

And that last thought turned out to be one of the most important in the design of the series. It cemented the idea of services firmly in place, and it showed me how the whole system would work: voice recognition.

Because if I had a standing subscription to a Pizza Delivery Service, and if that service was monitoring all the data in a world-wide surveillance database, I would want that service to notice when I said, “I’d like a large pepperoni pizza, please,” and make sure one got to me. Wherever I was, whenever it became convenient for me, with the right type of cheese, the right type of bread, the right everything….

Right then, I stopped in my tracks. In the middle of Wal-Mart. And I said out loud, “That’s prayer.”

Gods in the Machine

The service Hippocrates notices when your heart skips a beat, and sends paramedics rushing your way if you need them. The service Midas watches over your income and expenses and makes sure you have what you need, even if you can’t always get what you want. And the service Pizza Delivery Pronto listens when you say, “Please give me a pizza,” and it gets a pizza to you.

That’s where the title came from. The promise of this future is a waitstaff of perfect technology, a host of heavenly angels always ready to serve your slightest whim. They respond in realtime to your needs, your requests, your desperate utterances.

It’s all doable, too. It would be challenging (especially on the scale the novel assumes), but voice recognition software is powerful and getting better. In fact, Google just announced an update to their own Voice Search tool to help it respond to an individual’s voice, learn to understand it better, and even recognize the speaker.

Of course, Google played a big role in inspiring Hathor, but we’ll talk more about that later. For now, imagine what it would be like to live in a world where the vast power of all the world’s computing resources were dedicated to listening to your voice, and responding to it instantly. Constantly.

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Introductions Are in Order

Welcome to, official home of Katie Pratt and the Ghost Targets universe. Before I get to that, though, let me answer the question posed by the URL.

For the technical folks out there:

Hathor is a revolutionary database architecture that makes possible a high-fidelity record of the human experience. Hathor is the company that licenses and maintains that database. And Hathor is the software used by governments, corporations, and private individuals to monitor and research every detail stored in the system.

For everyone else:

Hathor is the perfect surveillance system. Well…almost perfect.

Hathor exists within a near-future science fiction series by author Aaron Pogue. It creates a world in which privacy is virtually non-existent, but in exchange we’ve got a perfect record of everything anyone does, writes, or says.

That’s scary in some ways, but it also offers some remarkable conveniences. The constant monitoring responds to the public’s every whim. Want a pizza? Say, “Hathor, I want a pizza. Thanks!” A pizza will come right to your door.

Hathor knows what kind of pizza you want. Hathor knows how much you can afford to spend on it. And, of course, Hathor knows who you are. And where your door is.

As you might imagine, such perfect scrutiny has had quite an impact on crime. In the world of the novels, nearly every crime is captured in perfect detail, the criminal known at once, and authorities dispatched instantly.

But there are people rich or powerful enough to tamper with the record. Their actions disappear within the archive, earning them the nickname “ghosts,” the books in the Ghost Targets series follow Katie Pratt and an elite team of FBI agents who specialize in tracking down these special criminals and bringing them to justice.

The books are half mystery and half thriller. They’re science fiction, but only really in the setting. The protagonist isn’t very interested in the technology that makes her world possible, so the story only rarely bumps up against it.

That’s tragic, really, because the technology behind the series is really cool. What’s more…it’s real. Virtually all of the technology seen in the Ghost Targets series exists in prototype form right now.

At, we’ll talk about that technology. We’ll discuss the discoveries we’re making today that make Katie’s world a realistic possibility for our own future — and the obstacles that stand in the way of it.

If that sounds interesting, subscribe to the RSS feed or sign up for our newsletter.

And if you’re like Katie and you’d rather skip the technology mumbo-jumbo and get straight to the story, dive right in with the first book in the series, Gods Tomorrow.

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