In today’s Silicon Valley, the hacker wunderkinds are ascendant. Boy-kings are running billion-member social networks, founding massive new venture capital firms, building incubators that churn out hundreds of new startups ever year, and even fighting poverty and disease by drilling for water in Ethiopia. Materially, at least, their revenge on whatever high-school cliques once excluded and demeaned them is complete.
But do they understand women?
In the community of coders, there’s a sincere belief that systematic thinking and action isn’t simply the key to making a guy rich and carrying him to the top of the corporate ladder—it can also help him win dates and maybe even a spouse. But I’ve been spending some time lately with a new novel that challenges those notions. It’s called The Unknowns (Little, Brown; $25). It’s the kind of book that, like Less Than Zero or Infinite Jest or A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, singles out a certain type of young American male—in this case, the programmer-entrepreneur—and holds up a sympathetic but not entirely flattering mirror.
The book’s narrator and protagonist is Eric Muller, who is in his early twenties and lives in San Francisco; the year is roughly 2002. Eric has recently earned $18.4 million by selling his behavioral-targeting startup, Demographic of One, to another company. But he isn’t doing much with his fortune. In fact, he’s settled into an aimless existence punctuated by awkward dinner parties with his old high-school friends, the occasional Ecstasy-fueled sexual encounter, and lots of time with his Xbox and his comic books.
Eric finds solace in code, but none in other people, who mainly distress and puzzle him. His parents are needy, self-involved, and distant. While San Francisco represents a kind of meritocratic refuge from his past as a misunderstood teenager in suburban Denver, he’s still flustered by the city’s hilly emotional topography. More than anything else, Eric wants to find a girl who will appreciate his talents and perhaps bring him out of his shell.
So he decides to “hack the girlfriend problem” by doing everything he can to win the heart of Maya Marcom, a witty, cuttingly perceptive journalist for an alternative weekly newspaper. Thereby hangs the tale. And if the ending is a little predictable, the journey there is compelling, in what a book-jacket blurb writer might call a funny, affecting, tragicomic way.
Eric Muller’s creator is Gabriel Roth, a Brooklyn-based writer and software developer who covered San Francisco for the Bay Guardian during the years of the dot-com boom and bust. The Unknowns is his first novel. Because it focuses on a world I also inhabited (as San Francisco editor for Technology Review) and a personality type I’ve come to know well, I was eager to read it and to pick Roth’s brain about its themes. Our full interview follows below.
On one level, the book asks a timeless question: can human relationships, even in principle, be reduced to logic, algorithms, and craft? It’s a question Ovid explored two thousand years ago in his version of the Pygmalion-Galatea story, and novelists and filmmakers have revisited it many times since. I think of 2001: A Space Odyssey, where HAL is such a diligent student of human nature that he learns to lie and murder, and of Richard Powers’ 1995 novel Galatea 2.2, whose artificially intelligent protagonist, Helen, ultimately chooses suicide over sentience. Roth even has a contemporary competitor in the form of Scott Hutchins, whose 2012 novel A Working Theory of Love, about a project to create a conversational computer, is also set in the San Francisco startup world. (I haven’t finished reading it yet, so I can’t tell you where Hutchins comes down on the moral implications of AI.)
Roth’s book is about people, not machines. But what gets tested in the novel—this is, after all, a coming-of-age story—is Eric’s belief that negotiating a relationship, like building a complex computer program, boils down to understanding and managing all the variables. With his engineer’s mindset, plus his theoretical understanding of what people want, Eric thinks he can at least simulate a kind of closeness with another person—and that maybe this will lead to the real thing. (“With enough calculations per second you can generate the impression of spontaneous compatibility, the way a grid of tiny pixels becomes a photograph,” he postulates in one passage.)
More importantly, Eric believes that if he can figure out what’s going on in Maya’s head—if he can know all the unknowns—he can make himself into the perfect boyfriend. Unfortunately for him, the baggage that Roth has given to Maya’s character comes with some unbreakable locks. As Roth put it in our interview, “The problems in his relationship with Maya aren’t just problems of complexity, they’re problems of ambiguity or opacity.”
Given that each one of us is, to some extent, ambiguous and opaque to the people around us, Eric’s approach to intellectualizing “the girlfriend problem” seems disastrously incomplete. The genius of the novel is that it makes us care sufficiently about Eric—he’s perceptive and sweet, even if he’s stuck in emotional amber—that his failure with Maya, in the end, seems sad and poignant despite its inevitability.
My conversation with Roth covered not just the “hacking love” question, but mechanics of novel writing, the San Francisco startup scene of the early 2000s, the Turing Test, and his favorite science-fiction authors. An edited transcript follows; it contains mild plot spoilers.
Xperience: First of all, I want to say I know how awkward it can be for a writer to have to talk about his or her book, since a book is supposed to be self-explanatory, to some extent. So, thanks in advance for putting up with my questions.
Gabriel Roth: There are always a lot of thoughts or ideas that don’t find their way into a book, for whatever reason, and I’m sort of eager to talk about them. So, no problem.
X: What brought you to the point where you started to write your first novel? Are you the kind of person who’s always had a novel bubbling up in them somewhere?
GR: It wasn’t like that for me. I always enjoyed writing, and felt relatively competent at it, but I was never able to write fiction that was at all satisfying to me. I found myself working in San Francisco as a journalist, and I sort of realized it wasn’t something I was especially good at. There were important skills for a journalist that I just didn’t have. It seemed like writing a novel might work better for me than figuring out how to be a really good journalist. So I left the paper, did some work on my own, did an MFA at San Francisco State University, and tried to figure out how fiction works.
X: The narrator of the novel, Eric, is a programmer who’s living in San Francisco, just after the dot-com crash and 9/11 and around the time of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. What parts of your own story relate to the startup scene during those days?
GR: I got to San Francisco in 1996 and left 10 years later, so I was there for the whole first boom and bust. So some of it was from doing reporting in various contexts. I moved there right out of college, so a lot of it was that my friends were going to startup jobs.
At that time, the thing for a company to do was to spend as much money as you could, as fast as possible, and hire a ton of people. So I knew a lot of people who were getting jobs that they couldn’t properly … Next Page »
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