The gig economy is an awful, yet unavoidable, part of living in the twenty-first century. Whether bouncing around from different jobs or picking up random tasks to earn a few extra dollars, it seems near-impossible to hold down a job with decent benefits, pay, and coworkers. In Joanne McNeil’s debut album, that’s her protagonist, Theresa’s problem — she’s a well-intentioned worker who, for the majority of her life, has flitted around between different jobs with little to no success. There’s always an odd coworker, sleepy workdays, or disruptive events that make it near-impossible to continue. That’s why AllOver is so attractive to her. A futuristic company hiring new controllers for their driverless cars, it’s a quiet, near-solitary job where you can work your own hours, plan your own routes, and silently observe the private interactions of all your passengers, who think that “driverless” equals “self-driving.”
McNeil’s first novel is a frightening look at the future of how we’ll work going forward, desperate situations we put ourselves in, and the stories we tell ourselves to make it all seem worth it.
Our Culture talked with McNeil about tech companies, science fiction, and the fallibility of predicting the future.
Congratulations on your debut novel! How does it feel so close to being out?
It feels great! I’ve been working on it a while, and I’ve had some really great reactions recently, so I’m pretty excited.
You previously released the excellent nonfiction work Lurking in 2020 — how does the process change when it comes to fiction?
What’s interesting is that I started out writing fiction — my first experience writing was short stories, especially science fiction, but there came a point where I was trying to get that work published and trying to find a community of writers, and I had some difficulty. This was the late aughts, when the sci-fi community was a bit more conservative and not as experimental as it was even years previously. I’m very much inspired by ‘70s style, new wave sci-fi. This was a moment where a lot of the sci-fi community was becoming fan-driven with a lot of the authors being inspired by people like Joss Wheden, which was stuff that didn’t really interest me. I was a little bit alienated by the sci-fi writers I was meeting.
I started an essay-style blog about culture, art and technology, and from there, I started hearing from editors who would commission stories from me and I had these opportunities to write criticism and essays. That was where my career shifted a bit, and with those experiences I became a professional writer. Always, even when I was working on Lurking, I’d had ideas for novels and I’ve continually written fiction. but the difference with this project and others is that I started Wrong Way some time the week after I turned in the first draft of Lurking, in the summer of 2018. I already had this experience, sitting at my desk, putting in these hours and knowing what happens when you do this over time. Not only knowing what happens when you finally finish a book, which is what I love — when you have a completed draft, and you know there are errors, and you’re going through to revise to create something that is cohesive and solve the puzzles you’ve created. I found that experience really exciting, and when I finished Lurking, I found I was craving it again. I knew what it took to finish a book, when it feels good. Thankfully, this time, things came together.
At the heart of Wrong Way is AllOver, a ubiquitous tech company that has ties to everything that’s expanding to driverless cars, which our protagonist Theresa is being employed to work on. When did the idea for the novel first start to take shape?
It’s something a lot of sci-fi writers do talk about — if you come up with an idea for a novel, you risk seeing that idea come to market before the book comes out. I’m really good at coming up with an idea for a novel, but whether it’s an idea I can commit to myself, that I can stay excited about for many years, if needed, that’s a little bit trickier. But I came up with this idea and the thing that struck me immediately was, ‘Okay, it’s 2018. I assume that means by the time I finish this book, the technology of self-driving cars is still not going to be available to the public.’ A very funny situation occurred where last year, when I was doing the final copy edits that meant I’m committing every word to print, no take-backsies, I was hearing all about these cruise vehicles and [the company] Waymo, and I was a little nervous. The self-driving technology in my book is set in 2028, and there is some component of self-driving tech, but it isn’t as flawless as one would expect of something road-worthy.
I took a trip to San Francisco, seeing these vehicles everywhere — I scheduled a trip in January to ride some of the vehicles, which are available to the public in Phoenix. When I requested them like you’d request a Lyft, it happened to be one of the handful of days it rains there, because it almost never does. Each time I requested a Waymo, a driver was in the front seat, driving, hands on the steering wheel, as any human driver would. There was no AV technology at all in the process. It confirmed my suspicions that perhaps these vehicles work a little bit, but there’s a lot of glitches. Just this past week, there was a huge story about [the company] Cruise in The New York Times revealing that the remote operators were heavily involved in the process of driving these allegedly driverless vehicles. So the funny thing about starting with this idea of self-driving cars, having my own instincts that they weren’t going to be ready by the time my book came out, I guess if nothing else, I was proven correct.
I also think Theresa’s background is very relatable — she’s this older woman living with her mom, who has been through decades of jobs and is just happy to have some stability with AllOver. How did you go about forming this character?
I love hearing people say that she’s relatable, because I really tried hard to make her eccentric, to make her unusual, to make her very imperfect — someone who is not always making right choices for herself. In the process of developing this character, I was struck by other novel projects where I either had a protagonist that was very different from me, or too similar. If it was someone who was too similar, I felt like I was revealing too much about myself in a way that felt uncomfortable. But if it’s someone too different, I get a little hung up and I have to do this research and learn about their background. With Theresa, it felt like I could bring enough of myself to this character, but also have strict boundaries between who she is and who I am. In earlier drafts, a lot of Theresa’s reactions to the company AllOver were too similar to how I would have reacted. I really had time to think about who she was. She’s inspired a lot by the women I grew up with.
I felt it was important to capture her belief that ambition is greed, in a way. That uneasiness with ambition, the conversations that women need to just ‘get past sexism,’ and ‘be ambitious,’ but there is a way of being ambitious that is greedy, that means stepping on people. We all, as people, have to make these decisions where it comes to surviving in this world and be decent to everyone else. At what point am I exceeding what is decent? These are tricky questions, but I felt it was important for the novel to show someone who is grappling with this, and maybe not in a fully self-aware way.
There’s a definite element of horror to how the driverless cars actually work, and when they’re doing the initial demonstration of how the AllOver employees will manage, there’s this very unsettling feeling you get as a reader. Did you set out for the novel to be a bit chilling, or was it just part of the process?
Part of it was my own discomfort with the idea, because one of the things I was grappling with in the process of writing was that I wanted to come up with gig labor that wasn’t more horrible than exists today. For example, base level would be content moderators for social media like Facebook, the people scanning through videos of beheadings and sexual assault: that’s their job, and they’re not being paid very much. I personally feel like there are ways to make that job not exist, but it does right now, and it feels like it’s not going away anytime soon. I wanted to imagine something that would involve surveillance and also corrode at someone’s self slowly. Perhaps you can handle it, but it’s more of a boiling frog situation, where it boils away at your everyday life. This is already happening, it’s horrible, and people are traumatized by it. It is a creepy and exploitative experience. I hope the horror that comes through is that potential of reality and horror reflects that reality.
Early in her AllOver career, Theresa notices an incident in her car, where it’s blurry, but there’s a possibility of sexual assault. This really disrupts Theresa, who works hard to report the event, but is met with resistance as she can barely get a real-life administrator at AllOver to talk to her about it. Why do you think this sticks with her?
In this experience, I was trying to depict a very common thing, which is that when you have a sense something is wrong, but it’s incredibly difficult to resolve — the broader system is running out the clock on you. I wanted to explore her sense of hopelessness and her own unease and stake in that situation. Part of her motivation ultimately, is not only that she’s a fairly empathetic person, but it dawns on her that she feels traumatized by having observed it. That’s part of the reason she wants to get answers. Also, I was writing this book as the Me Too movement was quite vocal and visible, and I had been thinking a lot about experiences that might not be possible to blow up at that level, but were still painful to individuals who were victimized in these circumstances and how common it is to experience and observe of other peoples’, and how difficult it is to intervene.
I really love the enigmatic head of AllOver, Falconer Guidry, who wrote the book Holistic Apex, and is convinced of the good that the company can bring to the world. Were you inspired by any real-life entrepreneurs or tech-heads for this character?
I really was. Right now there are quite a few that have decided solving capitalism is their new goal, which is hilarious to me because it’s the one step they won’t take — the first, most obvious step, giving their money away, is not on the table. This moment we’re in, where words seem to be easy to distort, easy to take on a slogan and not mean it. If you’re a person in power and you don’t have actions to back up these words, how meaningless it is… I think one of the ideas I did have was, ‘What if Elon Musk, instead of being very visibly alt-right and committed to horrible fascist politics, were very visibly using slogans that might be associated with the [Democratic Socialists of America]? What if he were doing everything he is doing except calling for a ceasefire? Or saying every billionaire is a policy failure but not giving his money away?’ That was something I was toying with as a experiment when I thought about this character, but there were a few start-up founders, especially now with Silicon Valley being an enormous sphere of power, there are many start-up founders maybe not with famous names, but rich and powerful people that are used to saying what other people want in order to get what they want. That’s where I came up with this character.
In the last few pages of the book, Theresa goes through another pretty traumatic event. But she’s pretty much unshaken — she says she’s glad to have reached her “Holistic Apex,” and is so excited to go back to work the next day. Why do you think the company’s messaging has so gotten through to her?
It comes through just enough for her. Just enough to give her what she needs. There are ways you can fool yourself to believe a positive message and ignore the actions. It’s terrifying because in this present, there are so many people that are so visibly awful and use slogans that signal their awfulness, that even a little bit of dissent goes a long way. I felt it was important to show Theresa, someone who is struggling to believe, and is quite a trusting person, she can also fool herself into believing the service the company is providing will, at scale, lead to a better world. Which is another unfortunate thing about this moment, where investment in public welfare and infrastructure is so flimsy to nonexistent, these private companies step in and it’s either the tradeoffs or nothing. It’s been the story for at least the past decade, for Airbnb, Lyft, Uber, where if you’re in a region without great public transportation, there might’ve been a time where an Uber would make sense. Obviously, over time, the benefits are a little bit less obvious, now that they’ve snagged you, your routine has changed, and you’re more dependent on them. I felt that a company like AllOver would follow these scripts, where it seems to be following a script that would mean more pedestrian-friendly streets in the long term, but ultimately is driven by scale over everything else.
Usually for my final question I ask what people are working on next, but on your website it says you’re writing a new project called Too Early For The Future, about early speculation. Not to be too ironic, but talk a little bit about this work and how it’s going.
I’m always working on a fiction project, that’s been true for basically the past twenty years of my life. But with this next nonfiction book, that is definitely a little more clear and defined as of yet. It’s called Too Early For The Future, and it looks at various organizations and companies that have tried to predict the future and therefore end up controlling the feature. They offer a vision, and a vision can be better than nothing.
Wrong Way is out now.