I recently sat down with Michael Isenberg, author of the book Full Asylum that I reviewed just recently:
We discussed his novel, the ideas expressed in it, its relevance in a nation hurtling toward the nanny/police state dystopia of the book, and its place in libertarian science fiction.
KL: Could you tell us a little about yourself?
MI: I’ve had a checkered career: among other things, I’ve been an astrophysicist, a weapons merchant, and a manufacturer of cigarette filters. So basically I couldn’t hold a job. Most recently I was a subcontract manager at a defense company. When the contract I was working on was coming to an end I looked at my bucket list and realized that managing another subcontract was nowhere to be found, but finishing Full Asylum, which I had been working on in my spare time for several years, was at the top of the list. So I left corporate America and became a full-time writer.
KL: How would you describe yourself ideologically? Would you call yourself a libertarian, a radical, or even an anarchist?
MI: Right-libertarian and, to steal a phrase from Ayn Rand, a radical for capitalism.
KL: Would you please describe the plot of your latest book, Full Asylum, for my readers?
MI: Full Asylum takes place a few years in the future, and it shows what the country will look like if we stay on the path of big government. It’s an America where the economy is in shambles, the Nanny State is out of control, government CREEPS are ready to kick in your door if you don’t fall into line, and I won’t even go into what I did with airport security, but it involves a privacy curtain and a rubber glove. By the way, it’s a comedy. It’s fiction and I want it to stay that way. The book tells the story of a software engineer, Gimbel O’Hare, who gets it into his head that he’s James Bond, and starts to fight back. Car chases, shoot-outs, and crazy people attacking the Department of Justice building in Washington follow.
KL: Who is Jon Dunn?
MI:Should I give Dagny Taggart’s answer to “Who is John Galt?” “We are.” I couldn’t actually use James Bond in the book since he’s copyrighted, so I invented my own movie superspy Jon Dunn, Secret Agent Beta-11. It’s kind of funny how I came up with the name. There actually was a James Bond – he was an ornithologist – a bird watcher – who wrote a book called Birds of the West Indies. Ian Fleming, who invented 007, had a house in Jamaica and he had a copy of this book and that’s where he got the name from. A few years back I was in the Virginia Tech bookstore and they had this book, Birds of the West Indies by James Bond. Next to it was Warblers by Jon Dunn.
KL: How does he fit into the ideas expressed in this work?
MI: Jon Dunn – like James Bond – is the best at everything. Part of the reason he resonated with Gimbel so much is that Gimbel is a great cryptographer, but the government banned the product he was working on – can’t have people sending encrypted messages that the NSA can’t read. So Gimbel could have been the best, but the government wouldn’t let him. I think there’s this deep connection between freedom and excellence. You can’t excel by doing the same thing as everyone else; you have to have the freedom to try something different. As Rush Limbaugh says, “It’s freedom that allows ordinary people to do extraordinary things.”
KL: Can you tell us more about the main protagonists?
MI: The heroine is a redheaded lady wrestler named Cheri Tarte and I describe her in the book as “the perfect blend of sweet and tangy.” Her story parallels Gimbel’s in that she’s also prevented from excelling. She pisses off her boss and he puts her to work using her trash talking skills to promote recycling and saving water with fewer flushes. She gets her revenge though. Never piss off the redhead.
In many ways Cheri Tarte is modeled after the heroines of the James Bond movies. Those movies received a lot of criticism over the years that they’re sexist and portray women in a negative light. I don’t think that’s true – the Bond movies were ahead of their time in portraying strong female characters. So it’s been interesting to me that a lot of the women who have read Full Asylum really like Cheri Tarte. One woman I know started reading the book and posted on Facebook – without providing any context – that she wanted to be a 6’3″ professional wrestler. It came as quite a shock to her mother.
One of my favorite characters is Brownie McCoy. He’s this old hippie – but he’s a hippie for the right. Definitely the most libertarian character in the book. In the James Bond metaphor he’s the Q character. He makes all the neat gadgets in a secret basement laboratory in his house in the suburbs.
The villain, Isaac Ross, is a crony capitalist (which is a contradiction in terms) who made his money trading on his influence with the government, rather than coming up with the best products. Some of his products are actually dangerous. In his spare time he writes bad philosophy books. Any resemblance to George Soros is purely coincidental.
KL: How did you create the world surrounding the story? Considering your astute observations of Northern Virginia in the book, especially the passage about the ubiquitous NoVA office park pond and fountain, how did you research this book?
MI: I came up with the book because of that scene that appears in most of the James Bond movies where 007 returns to his hotel room and there’s a beautiful woman in his bed. Now I’ve stayed at a lot of hotels and that never happened to me. Not once. But I thought, wouldn’t it be cool if it did. So I invented this kind of nerdy engineer, which is what I used to be (now I’m not an engineer anymore), who gets to be in all these James Bond situations, including the situation with the woman in his bed.
I tried to give the book realism by doing the things that Gimbel did and going to the same places wherever I could. For example, when I was writing the paintball scenes, I went out and played paintball, although unlike Gimbel I didn’t do it in the Pentagon City mall. Like Gimbel, I’m a University of Virginia graduate so many of my friends live in Northern Virginia and I spent a lot of time there, and also my company had some offices there. So I saw plenty of office parks and apartment complexes with fountains in the middle like in the book and I though the sameness and conformity of them all were grounds for satire.
I also spent a lot of time walking around Washington figuring out the route for the car chase at the end. I tried to get a tour of the Department of Justice building where Gimbel confronts the Attorney General at the end, but they didn’t return my phone calls. I even asked my Congressman’s office for help, and the lady I worked with there was very nice, but the DOJ wouldn’t return her phone calls either. Shouldn’t the executive branch show some deference to the legislative? That’s Holder’s DOJ for you. So I had to settle for walking around the outside of the building and looking in the windows. It’s too bad because from the pictures I saw on the web, the inside of the building is a very beautiful example of art deco design.
IQPhone is a cross between iPhone and Smart Phone. SoshNet didn’t require much imagination – it’s pretty much Facebook. The name is short for Social Network. One reason I didn’t use real brand names is that Full Asylum takes place in the future and I don’t know what brands will still be around. I didn’t want to have a situation like the movie 2001 where they showed Howard Johnson’s on the moon, and by the time the real 2001 rolled around Howard Johnson’s had all but disappeared.
There actually is a George Mason Bridge. Although it was mentioned in the book mainly because it happened to be where the story was taking place, I was happy to be able to give a shout out to the author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights. In fact all the public monuments and structures mentioned in Full Asylum – even the monument to the first air mail flight – are real, although some of them get renamed in the future in an effort at revisionist history.
KL: What is FESA?
MI: FESA stands for the Federal Economic Sabotage Act. In the book it was passed in the wake of a future financial crisis. When piling on regulations didn’t fix things, the government started looking for someone to blame and they came up with this idea that saboteurs or “sabos” were undermining their efforts. So they passed this bill, but it was really just a way to lock up their critics.
I got the idea from something similar that happened in Soviet Russia when Lenin’s economic policies weren’t working and hundreds of people were imprisoned or shot for “economic sabotage”or “wrecking” if they made mistakes like using equipment incorrectly or not doing maintenance on time.
In Full Asylum, there’s a court challenge to the Constitutionality of FESA, but the Supreme Court upholds the law. The language of the court’s opinion is almost identical to the real-life opinion where the court upheld speech-rationing via campaign finance laws. Not only can it happen here, it’s already happening.
KL: How does it compare with Rand’s Directive 10-289?
MI: In a way, FESA is much worse than Directive 10-289. 10-289 had very specific provisions like companies had to maintain the same level of production as in the base year and employees couldn’t leave their jobs. FESA is more of a blank check – the crime of economic sabotage is so vague that it lets the government accuse anybody of anything. One of Gimbel’s neighbors is a tax accountant and he gets arrested for finding deductions for his clients and thereby keeping money out of the hands of Uncle Sam. When he points out that that’s his job, the authorities take that as a confession. We find out later that the government had an ulterior motive for arresting him.
The other thing about FESA is the enforcement mechanism. The government set up a “civilian military” force to fight the sabos – The Coordinated Response Emergency Economic Protection Squad. The acronym is CREEPS. I originally invented the CREEPS because I didn’t want the FBI to be the bad guys – I didn’t want to rag on the many hard-working real-life FBI agents who are protecting us from genuine crimes. But as we get more and more stories about the militarization of our police, I very much fear the CREEPS are becoming prophetic. We just had a story here in New England where the police in Concord, New Hampshire applied for a federal grant to buy a tank. Seriously? A tank? In the application they wrote that they needed it to fight terrorists. As examples of the threats they faced, they cited Occupy Wall Street and the libertarian Free State Project. Except they used Orwellian language to imply those groups were terrorists without actually saying so. Scary stuff.
KL: How would you characterize the Beta 11s created by the Betamaker?
MI: At one point in Full Asylum, Gimbel is captured and sent to a military hospital because of his Jon Dunn delusion. He’s put in a ward with about two dozen other patients *all* of whom think they’re Jon Dunn. They’re similar to Gimbel in that they all tried to excel at something and were stopped by the government. For example, there’s a teacher who wasn’t permitted to teach the benefits of the industrial revolution, and there’s an owner of a van service that helps people in a poor neighborhood get to work – but when they started giving rides to the airport they got shut down by politically-connected limo drivers.
KL: What are your thoughts on the Daniel Webster quote in the book?
MI: The Daniel Webster quote was something he said during a debate after the financial Panic of 1837. The Democrats responded to the crisis by trying to pass the “Subtreasury Bill”, basically a bunch of new regulations on banks, which Webster opposed. He pointed out that the bill and all their rhetoric was just a front for taking other people’s money. So the Democratic Party hasn’t changed in 170 years, from the Subtreasury Bill to Dodd-Frank.
KL: Are you a sabo?
MI: According to the government I am – if you read the training manuals that are being written in the DoD and the Department of Homeland Security which characterize the liberty movement as extremist.
KL: Considering your references to Groucho Marx and the panel format of the show, did you base the show Sorry on the classic game show What’s My Line?
MI: I didn’t have a particular game show in mind when I wrote the Sorry chapter – it was sort of a composite of every game show I ever saw. Although now that you mention it, the layout of the set was very similar to What’s My Line, with the spiral staircase from Hollywood Squares thrown it – so maybe that was working at a subconscious level.
I saw a video on YouTube of Groucho’s appearance on What’s My Line and he was a riot as usual.
KL: Is the show included to make a statement or simply as backdrop for the plot?
MI: We have all these examples in real life of public figures who offended someone – think Paula Deen for example – and they get harassed publicly and mercilessly to apologize. But then the apology is never good enough and the person loses their career anyway. It’s a form of emotional blackmail really. I thought it would be funny to take that whole dog and pony show and air it every Tuesday night on a major network so I invented this game show Sorry where people in that position have to apologize on TV and a panel of celebrity judges decide whether their apology is good enough. I really believe – like in War Games – that the only way to win is not to play, which is why I put that Disraeli quote “Never apologize, never explain.” in the chapter heading.
KL: What is the dichotomy between the two interpretations of cooperation in the book?
MI: The “Cooperative Society” is Isaac Ross’s vision for the “utopian” future – it’s based on Plato’s Republic. I doubt I can explain it any better than one of the characters in the book did: “It sounds good, ‘cooperative society.’ We’re all in business; we all know how important it is to cooperate. But when Isaac uses the phrase, it has a darker meaning. It means society tells you what to do, and you will cooperate. The cooperative society tells you what to eat. It tells you what to do with your garbage. It tells you what health insurance you have to buy. It tells you how much to pay your employees. It tells you what jokes you may tell. As we learned the hard way, the cooperative society tells you what you can do with your software library. If you consider doing something different, a team of CREEPS is standing by to set you straight.”
KL: What are your thoughts on digital cryptography as it applies to the novel?
MI: We’ve seen in the NSA scandal that the government spies on us and that we can’t rely on the courts to protect us. Combine that with the fact that we’ve got so many laws that no one can possibly go through life and obey them all, and we’re all in danger of persecution by prosecution. If someone like Gimbel can come up with a digital cryptography algorithm that the NSA can’t read, more power to him.
Yes, I realize that would make it more difficult to capture genuine terrorists, but so does every civil liberty we enjoy. It’s part of the price of a free society.
KL: Are you a supporter of open-source?
MI: I’m like Kong when he talked about recycling: I’m agnostic. If programmers consider it in their interest to write open source software, no one should stand in their way.
KL: Are you Gimbal or Brownie?
MI: Apparently Brownie. http://www.boston.com/thingstodo/2013/08/03/scenes-from-the-boston-comic…
KL: How do you think this book compares to other allegorical books, such as those by Orwell, Rand, Heinlein, and others?
MI: One of the reader’s that reviewed it on Amazon wrote, “After I read this, I couldn’t help wondering why the likes of George Orwell and Ayn Rand had to be so grim.”
KL: What would you like the reader to take away from this book?
KL: What would you like them to ponder?
MI: Although Full Asylum is a comedy, I hope the reader will ponder the very serious message I mentioned earlier about freedom, and excellence and why you can’t have one without the other.