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An Interview with Novelist Michael Olson, Author of Strange Flesh

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This novel, Strange Flesh, is one of those books where you have no idea, as you start it, quite what you’re getting into. When I was asked if I wanted to get the book and interview the author I blushed when I saw mentioned prominently the word “teledildonics” (as one of the book’s topics and plotlines).

However, when I saw name-dropped some of my favorite authors — Neal Stephenson, William Gibson, Stieg Larsson — I decided I had to give it a try. I’m glad I did. That said, I was careful about where I lay the book’s front cover for reasons you can probably figure out by looking at it.

Some parts of it made me uncomfortable. This piece about “torture porn” at xojane gets at some of what made pause and say, “I can’t believe I just read that. I found myself posting a link to that piece on Facebook then backpedaling and explaining, “just to be clear I am not a fan of torture or porn and this book made me uncomfortable.” There are scenes in the book that go too far. This is not a book for prudes or the squeamish and if you have a sensitive stomach, as I do, you may want to learn from my mistake and not read this while eating.

That said, if you have an open mind Strange Flesh is a fascinating novel about emerging technology and particularly technology involving sex and sex toys… but it’s more than that. It’s also a bit like a detective story as the protagonist, James Pryce, tries to track down a man, Billy, who has a weird idea of fun, the kind of guy who sets up a game where people reenact stories from the Marquis De Sade “masterpiece” the 120 Days of Sodom. 

Let’s just say that those scenes evoking de Sade are some of the more difficult-to-read-and-stomach parts of the book because it’s so offensive. But I am glad Olson himself, in the interview below, agrees the Sade stuff is difficult sledding. Strange Flesh also has twists and turns many of which I did not see coming. There are times when you forget who you’re rooting for or against and just stop and appreciate the atmosphere, the action, the wild creativity of the author.

So the book, which which lends itself to  a different perspective from another Blogcritics author, Georganna Hancock, does have elements of those authors I named — Stephenson, Gibson, Larsson as well as Ernest Cline’s great Ready Player One. If you enjoy those authors and a fresh look at where things might be headed with our technology this is one intriguing read. Just keep it away from those more close-minded because it might freak them out.

Strange Flesh is Olson’s first book and, as he says in the interview below, some of the ideas came from prior work he has done. It’s an amazing debut.

After graduating from Harvard, Olson worked in software engineering and investment banking but then decided to focus on emerging technlogy and virtual reality. He earned his master’s degree from NYU’s Interactive Technology Program. He has since served as an adjunct professor at IDP and taught classes in Massively Multiuser Media. He grew up in San Antonio but now lives in Los Angeles.

Let’s start, literally, at the beginning. Why did you decide to dedicate the book to your parents? I did a double take when I saw that (no offense intended) because going in I didn’t know a lot about what would happen in the book but I did know it involved teledildonics and some other lurid things. So let me ask also what they thought of the book?

Honestly I didn’t really feel like I had a choice. The gratitude I feel for a lifetime of their overwhelming love and support just demanded to be honored. Luckily, my parents are both avid readers and quite worldly people, so while I’m sure they found some of the material a little outré, it would take more than what’s depicted in my book to really shock them.

How would you describe to people what the book is about? I thought I would ask that since I’m sure you’re not crazy about those who might describe it as sex and games.

I tend to describe it as a sanguinary mystery concerning the dawning age of Neterosexuality. Since that often produces quizzical expressions, I can certainly see the appeal of the “sex & games” tag. Now, I wish we’d gone with something more like “Fifty Shades of Games.” In any case, since I finished it, I’ve really been amazed at how much of what a book is “about” gets manufactured in the reader’s mind.

How did the idea for this book develop?

As an adjunct professor at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, I’d been researching a non-fiction book proposal about virtual worlds. Of course, given the level of interest in the topic among technophiles, one of the chapters was going to have to be about teledildonics. Due to the pretty nascent state of the art, and since my graduate education was all about creating electromechanical devices, I couldn’t help but imagine how I would address “the problem.” Through some kind of alchemical quickening the “models” I was using in my mental design became characters about whom I couldn’t seem to stop thinking. I decided to spend “a month or two” pounding the keyboard to get the idea “out of my system.” But that only made it worse.

Can you tell me about your thesis? I’m curious if the thesis, which I believe deals with virtual worlds, helped inspire the plotline involving virtual sex and teledildonics?

I designed and built a fairly primitive prototype of an omnidirectional locomotion interface. The idea being to create a machine that can keep a person in one place while they walk around a virtual world wearing a Head Mounted Display. It’s a reasonably hard problem, and researchers have come up with a wide variety of fascinating solutions. Everything from motorized roller skates to giant hamster balls.

Certainly my technical interests are manifested in the book. An idealized version of my thesis actually appears in one of the later scenes, which I guess is obviously some kind of creative transference. Now that the book is finally done, I find myself back in the garage more often working on a new, hopefully much improved version.

Put another way, were you able to draw on your knowledge and experience with emerging technology and virtual reality when creating this fascinating first novel?

Absolutely. As a first time writer, it seemed important to work in domains with which I was intimately familiar. Many of the main characters are Harvard alums. I’d recently given a class called Massively Multiuser Media which taught students how to program for Second Life. I would never call myself a practicing hacker, but I became familiar with network security while working for an internet bank during the boom. Of course writing fiction demands certain speculative leaps, but in the broadest terms, the book is very much drawn from my life.

What kind of research did you do for this book? What were you surprised to learn? I suppose one thing you researched and learned about was gaming – gaming itself has its own fascinating history doesn’t it?

Since I’m quite conversant with much of the book’s milieu, it wasn’t a tremendously research driven project. A lot of the more intensive research I did do doesn’t really appear in the final draft. I’d say the thing I found most surprising was the amount of energy in the teledildonics arena channeled into device bondage scenarios rather than developing systems that might be more attractive to couples.

Gaming history really is a scintillating field of study. Strange Flesh makes much of this “Sex drives technology” idea that you hear about all the time, but of course games have a very rich relationship with new media as well. Given the current explosion we’re seeing in game-related innovation and the energy being channeled into “game-ifying” our daily lives, I think we’re living right now in a pretty significant moment with respect to that history. 

How far away are we from the teledildonics (the word makes me blush each time I type it) and virtual sex as you describe it in the book?

There already exists an ecology of companies and inventors working in the space. A few have released various products such as the RealTouch, vStroker, and the Highjoy devices. Though I wouldn’t say there’s anything on the market right now much like the setup I described.

Tech development is rarely a very linear progression. It’s exceedingly subject to trends, market dynamics, and even luck. So it’s foolhardy to predict when a specific type of device will see the light of day. The honest answer is “maybe never,” because someone else might come up with a better solution. For example, some observers contend that the future of artificial sex lies with elaborate androids and gynoids, rather than the VR haptic interfaces I’m envisioning.

What I’d say about the teledildonic setup depicted in my book is that there’s no underlying technical principle that still needs to be worked out. And no ancillary capabilities that need to come up to speed to enable it. It’s just a question of some smart people getting together, raising some capital, working out the design problems, and then nailing the engineering. Certainly not trivial, but not cold fusion either. If the right team had started on it when I began writing my book, I think we’d already have seen a pretty good version. Whether it would prove successful in the market is another issue entirely.

I want to mention a few authors and ask you to share your opinions of them because I’m already seeing them namechecked even in your own publicity materials… So what do you think of Neal Stephenson? William Gibson? Stieg Larsson? Bret Easton Ellis? Nicholson Baker? Were any or all of those influences on your work?

Strange Flesh is my debut novel, so I certainly wouldn’t directly compare myself to any of those writers who are, in one way or another, giants in their respective fields. It makes me blush when names like that come up in conversations about the book. Three of those guys are in my personal top ten.

With regard to specific influences, I’d say they all have pretty distinct prose styles which it would be embarrassing to be caught imitating. That said, I set out to write a novel that tries to really capture the culture that forms around a specific technology. Gibson and Stephenson are absolute masters of that kind of book, and so I’d have been incredibly silly not to pay close attention to their work. Whether mine derived any benefit from that, I’ll leave to readers to decide.

And I feel a need to ask you straight on your thoughts on the Marquis de Sade. Did you do much research on him? What were you surprised to learn?

I don’t by any means pretend to be a Sade scholar, but he’s certainly a fascinating character. I read a couple biographies, principally Neil Schaeffer’s The Marquis de Sade. And then a selection of his books, plays, and essays.

I could go on at length about all the interesting surprises Sade holds in store for his students, but I think the fact that most intrigues me is that 120 Days of Sodom the “novel” that many consider his masterpiece is really only about a quarter finished, the rest appearing mostly as notes. He wrote it on a single scroll while imprisoned, but it was actually lost during the storming of the Bastille. Somehow the thing survived, but it wasn’t published until 1904. 120 Days can be pretty rough sledding, though it does hold one’s attention in an “I can’t believe I’m reading this” kind of way. Learning the manuscript’s story really enhances that effect.

What are you working on next? Something else in this style or something completely different?

I’ve got a pretty eclectic collection of projects in various stages of outline at the moment. Now that Strange Flesh has left the nest, I’m hoping one of them will eat its brethren and step to the ledge.

What did you think of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One?

I really enjoyed it. Though I have to admit my reading pleasure was tainted by jealousy that someone had beaten me into print with a novel containing the terms “teledildonics” and “omnidirectional treadmill.”

I’ll end with what I call my bonus question: What question would you like to be asked that I and other interviews have failed to ask?

Q: If you could virtually get together with anyone, living or dead, who would it be?

A: The Octopus.

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About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been doing special education work for about five years He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.