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'Killing Time' in the future

New book is not another 'Alienist,' says Caleb Carr

graphic
"Killing Time," a futuristic thriller, is a departure for author Caleb Carr, taking him away from the Olde New York setting of his previous books  

In this story:

Gloomy dystopia

'How things could go'

'The need is in the Other'



NEW YORK (CNN) -- It's 2 p.m. on a gusty afternoon in Manhattan and Caleb Carr looks like hell. His lips are cracked and his long hair is snarled, and for someone popularly associated with the top hats of Gilded Age New York City, he looks very much like a suburban teenager of more recent vintage, just waking up after a night of mischief.

He has come into the city to be interviewed. Not that he looks out of place this close to Columbia University, nor does he act that way -- Carr is home, a native of the dirty New York streets and polyglot history he knows so well, and which he described so uncannily in his bestsellers "The Alienist" and "The Angel of Darkness." New York also makes a cameo appearance in his futuristic new novel, "Killing Time," but that book is not along the same lines as his previous bestsellers. That, he says, is what everyone was expecting, and he wants to set the record straight.

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Excerpt: 'Killing Time'
 

"This is not a New York book," he states emphatically, citing some negative initial responses. "The thing that worries me about the angry reactions to this book is that people pick it up expecting (that). ... We decided very early on ... that a lot of the 'Alienist''s audience would actively dislike this book, and we accepted that. We wanted to see what other kinds of audiences we could reach.

"It's risky that way," he continues. "I have no idea how this book will do."

Gloomy dystopia

"Killing Time" is definitely not about Olde New York. Set in 2023, the novel follows Gideon Wolfe, a bestselling author and criminology professor at John Jay University, as he is sucked into a dangerous web of intrigue surrounding a digitally altered photo of a recent presidential assassination. The investigator who first involves Wolfe is murdered, and Wolfe himself is kidnapped by a group of high-tech criminals flying a super-stealth machine, hell-bent on exposing the machinations of rogue private interests who manipulate public opinion through information technology.

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Wolfe's world is a gloomy dystopia whose origins are uncomfortably close to the calamities of our own day. Financial crashes, explosive epidemics and tribal wars over dwindling natural resources dot the landscape, with public opinion swayed this way and that by competing Internet forces. Wolfe himself is a somewhat detached observer of this world until events overtake him, says Carr.

"Gideon is unaware of it; he's grown up in it, and accepts the shortcomings until -- it's sort of a typical Everyman situation -- you accept the shortcomings until you get shoved up against an uncomfortable wall by them and have to look at them. And that's what happens to him. It's not a voluntary process," Carr says.

That is a crucial difference between this novel and Carr's previous ones. He knows that, and defends it with a typical rush of words. "If I had set this novel in the 1890s, with the exact same plot with a bunch of people in a fantastic flying machine trying to warn the world about the dangers of increased mechanization and materialism, people would eat it up," he says. "But put it in the near future and people get pissed off. Because they think, 'We're not like that, that's not really what's happening.'

"The point of the 'Alienist' books is that they're not about the past. I set them at the turn of the century because psychologically I could speak about exactly the same issues and draw direct parallels with similar problems today," he observes. "But because it's in the past, people are comfortable with it. I was tired of that. I simply didn't realize how comfortable people were in accepting the past. A lot of people didn't hear the terrible things in the book, they just focused on the period detail. You always get the result you don't want."

'How things could go'

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Much of the rich historical background of "The Alienist" and "The Angel of Darkness" is noticeably absent in "Killing Time." Rather, Carr emphasizes his focus on the potential dangers of the future given current political and economic trends.

"I don't pretend that the book is a prediction. It's how things could go if certain other things weren't done," he says.

He cites government regulation as an example. "What most people don't understand is that you've got two choices in life: you can have government regulation, or you can have corporate regulation -- that is, business regulation. There are a lot of people who are trying to return us in many ways to a time we experienced 100 years ago when there was no government regulation. And terrible things happened as a result. If certain things are not managed more effectively, or, as has been the case of information technology, not regulated at all, there is a terrible danger that things will get out of hand."

The mind behind the machinery, Carr claims, is where the real danger lies. Being accused of a crime is as effective as being convicted, he says; your life can still be destroyed. "Fact becomes a tool, and anybody's facts are as good as anybody else's, as long as they're believed. ... When false facts create damage in the public perception, there is no effort to repair the damage that's done. People just move on to the next story. The idea that we are a society that is extremely open to being manipulated is not outlandish at all.

Information, he continues, is a double-edged sword. You have to know how to look underneath it.

graphic

"We have a lot of kids in this country who are great at assimilating information ... but they know nothing," he says. "It's very sinister. It's exactly what is necessary if you're going to create a society composed of drones or a corporate world. Government regulation is not a great thing, but it's better than corporate regulation, which is aimed at only one thing: profit. And what brings profit is not often humanly beneficial. In fact, what brings profit is often what's most brutal."

'The need is in the Other'

"Killing Time" has already been misread, Carr says. Not long ago, he was interviewed by Wired magazine in conjunction with a review.

"I sort of knew going in what it was going to be about: 'The book's OK, it's fun to read, but what's your problem with the Internet?' "

They're missing the point, he says. In essence, "Killing Time" is about "The American need to manufacture threat. ... If one doesn't exist, we will make one up." In bad times, machinery and aliens are an escape -- they're good. But in good times, they're bad. "The need is in the Other, the threat," he says. "In the '70s, with oil crises and American hostages, you got 'Close Encounters.' As times got better and people got fat, you got 'The Terminator,' and eventually 'The Matrix,' which is ultimately a perfect movie for the 1950s."

Carr's new direction has been received with some cautious optimism by the book world. "All the foreign publishers say, 'We absolutely want this book. We're not prepared to take as much a risk on it as we would if it were a third 'Alienist' book. But we definitely want to publish it.'"

As for its success? "Killing Time" has started well. But, as Carr knows, only time will tell.



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