Today I have as my guest “Netwars” author M. Sean Coleman. Several weeks ago I was contacted by
the PR firm handing the promotions for the project to see if I would like to have Sean visit as Wednesday’s Guest. I must say this is quite a departure for me. “Netwars” explores the threat of cyber warfare, and it is a cross-platform product that can be used across a variety of platforms—a graphic novel app, e-book, enhanced e-book, audio download, web documentary or TV documentary –or used individually. I’ll admit that I am pretty much lost when it comes to all that technology, but I know computer savvy folks and gamers will be all over this. Since the project comes from Germany and I know Germans do like a nice cold beer, I thought we could share a mug as we get to know more about “Netwars.”
Q: Where did the idea behind “Netwars” stem from?
The idea came when I was approached by filmtank – the German production company responsible for the whole cross-platform project that became “Netwars”. They were already making a documentary about the threat of cyberwar and cyberterrorism, and they wanted a fictional element to go with it. They wanted to do a graphic novel, and they asked me to come on board as the writer. We had a big meeting with everybody involved in the project in Berlin where we workshopped possible ideas. Then I wrote up some of the options.
At first, my ideas were wild and Bond-like and a bit silly, really. It was all conspiracy theories and urban myth. But, because the graphic novel was going to tie in with a documentary feature and a web documentary, I worked with the cyberwar and cyberterrorism experts that were feeding into those pieces in order to come up with something plausible for the graphic novels. Then, when the publisher came on board for the graphic novels, they asked if I could write a novel too. I was thrilled, but I knew that the story had to stand alone, and yet feel like it was part of the same world. In the weeks that preceded the commission from Bastei Lübbe, I had been reading a lot about the Deep Web – that place underneath the World Wide Web that isn’t scanned by regular search engines and on which you can openly and (almost) anonymously buy drugs, weapons and even hire a killer. It’s a crazy place, and one which most people still believe is in the realms of fantasy.
Q: Did you learn anything surprising while doing research for “Netwars?”
I think the two things that surprised me most were a) how vulnerable we all are and b) how unaware of the real risks we all are. So many people have spoken to me about the project as though it is pure science fiction. Perhaps that is because of the computer element, but I think it is because it just seems so unreal. When I tell them that it is actually possible to hack right now a (modern) car, or a building, or their smartphone, and with enough ingenuity, use it to cause a terrible accident, they are shocked.
Obviously, the book makes it seem easier and more glamorous than it is in reality, but that’s my prerogative as a fiction writer. For my own part, I wasn’t shocked at all when I discovered exactly how dark we could go using tech against humanity, but I was surprised at how easily available the information to carry out those kind of hacks was. I think the thing that really surprised me was that we don’t see more attacks of this nature happening, but then I was reminded by many of the experts that I spoke to, that it is still easier to rob, kill, and even deal drugs in person, rather than online.
Q: Your publisher, Bastei Lubbe, is releasing e-books and digital apps in the U.S. for the first time. How do you think “Netwars” will be perceived by an American audience?
Of course I’m hoping they’ll love it. I have tried hard not to make it a ‘British’ book, despite it being predominantly set in the UK. The graphic novel is set in Germany and Norway, and I hope that it is also accessible to anyone. I read a lot of American crime thrillers, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the style feels familiar to US audiences. I’m hoping that good story will translate across the ocean as much as it does in Europe. I think, in popular culture, we borrow a lot from America anyway, here in the UK, so I hope I haven’t made the world too insular.
Q: What do you want the people who immerse themselves into the “Netwars” world to take away from the experience?
As a team, we wanted to give people a solid understanding of what the current and future risks of cyberwar, cyberterrorism and cybercrime. We wanted people, from the ground up, to think about the risks they were taking every day, and how vulnerable they were making themselves every time they went online, and shared their location, and gave away their personal details. Social Media has made us too complacent about our private data, and rapid advances in our technologies have made our power stations, hospitals and national infrastructures vulnerable to attack.
One of the phrases that stuck out to me most was that many of our most vital national infrastructures run on systems that were designed before terrorism. It seems like a silly thing to say, but the reach of terrorist organisations, or malicious actors, has been extended by technological advances, and we are all struggling to shore up our defences. I guess we just wanted the audience to be aware that they are not as safe and protected as they might think. The only way to get that message across successfully, we believed, was through immersive, engaging experiences and good story. Hopefully we have done that. What I like about the scale of the Netwars project is that each of the parts can, and do, stand alone, but they are all connected too. You don’t have to have experienced all of them for the project to make sense, but the more you consume, the more you learn about the subject matter, and the subject matter is vast! When you find a theme that is so rich, it would be an injustice to just make a single platform project about it.
You know what? After playing around on the “Netwars” site for a while, I almost understand some of this tech stuff. What a shock. My kids and grand-kids who are avid gamers will be thrilled. And the graphic are amazing.