I've been a reader of Young Adult novels ever since I first grabbed "Sargasso of Space" by Andre Norton off the shelf of a local paperback shop and lost myself in a science fiction world that even a teenager like myself could understand. Not only did I read the novel with a great sense of wonder, I enjoyed the fact that many of the characters in the novel were just like me. And now, at 51, the simplicity and brevity of the Young Adult novel still appeal to me. It seems to me that many modern Science Fiction novels are just too long and overly technical to engage me. I often turn to a good Young Adult novel for clear, simple writing that treats me as a smart reader and allows me to enter into a fictional world with ease. Many Young Adult novels are often more creative and genre-bending than their mainstream counterparts. Garth Nix, Nancy Farmer, Meredith Ann Pierce and Michelle Paver have all written books that I found as entertaining and moving as most of the adult novels I read in 2006.
Which brings me to the recently published (August 2006) Young Adult Science Fiction novel, "The Softwire: Virus on Orbis 1" by PJ Haarsma. Original, intelligent and immersive, "The Softwire" is a perfect example of why the young adult novel is so good. I was very fortunate to have lunch with the author of this excellent novel on a sparklingly clear Los Angeles Sunday afternoon. We met at a Little Tokyo restaurant called East, and over a superb Japanese box lunch, my partner, Lisa Morton, and I talked with PJ Haarsma about "The Softwire".
PJ Haarsma is a handsome, stocky man in his thirties who speaks with passion about how "The Softwire" came to be written. PJ was at a cross-roads in his life. Twenty years of success in the world of advertising had left him feeling uncomfortable and unhappy. He told me that he wanted to "do something creative" with the second half of his life. He was tired of how advertising paid little attention to the products it was actually trying to sell, and since he didn't want to be a part of that world anymore, he quit his advertising job and decided to become a filmmaker initially. He wrote and produced the film "Devious Beings" in 2002, but once again, he found himself living in the same world as the one he just left. Hollywood was all about finding work and playing the game. This was a far cry from the creative, happy life he wanted to build for himself.
So, PJ quit Hollywood and decided to become a novelist. Although he never considered himself a writer ("English was my worst class in school", he says), he started "journaling" until one day Johnny T (the main character of "The Softwire) appeared on the page. PJ started asking himself "what if" questions about the character and about the world this character might inhabit. Eleven months later he had written what would become "The Softwire", a first person young adult novel centered around a young man born parent-less on a space ship during a voyage to the mysterious Rings of Orbis. The bulk of the novel is about Johhny T's struggle to understand who and what he is after he arrives on Orbis 1, for Johnny T is a "softwire": a person who can interface with computers using only their mind. This fact becomes a catalyst for the various alien races that want to use or obstruct Johnny's unique ability.
After friends helped him place the book with a New York agent, PJ decided to take the first good offer that came. So, not three months after finishing his first novel he was signing a 4 book contract for a Softwire series.
PJ's descriptions of working on the "The Softwire" indicated that the writing was a great joy for him. This pleasure in writing comes through very clearly in the novel. He likes his characters (even the villains) and there is such a sense of wonder in the writing that "The Softwire" story draws you in exceptionally well. You really care for Johnny T. and his friends. I think this is partly due to the fact that PJ is writing a kind of self-portrait in Johnny T, and after meeting him it becomes obvious. Both author and character are curious, sensitive and intelligent people with a special ability that makes them stand out from others. In Johnny's case it's his softwire ability; with PJ, it's his determination to free his creative self in order to become more alive.
While the novel loses a little momentum in the middle sections where the plot becomes more of a mystery than SciFi, the pace is generally quick and suspenseful. And it's clear to me that PJ is interested in the deeper questions of identity and friendship and otherness, as opposed to trying to create the strangest alien or self-conscious (and lengthy) descriptions of scientific phenomena that plague so many modern adult Science Fiction novels.
In discussing the writing of "The Softwire", PJ indicated that originally he had written the novel entirely in the third person point of view, but somehow it didn't quite feel right, so he re-wrote the opening chapter in the first person and asked his wife, Marisa, and selected friends to read both and tell him which version they liked best. The first person account was the favorite, so he re-wrote the entire book from the first person point of view. This was not an easy task since it meant a complicated re-working of the story from just Johnny T's perspective. Considering the fact that Johnny was raised in a starship with minimal exposure to the common metaphors and phrases that we would expect from a normal Earth boy, this wiped out whole sections of the book. But ultimately all of PJ's hard work paid off. Johnny is a completely sympathetic and compelling character and you follow his thoughts and fears each step of the way. PJ was telling me that he wants to use the game to tell other points of view as the series progresses. Perhaps even publishing a novel in two parts: one would be the story from Johnny's point of view; and another would be the same story, but told from his closest friend. I think this is a marvelous idea.
What I find most impressive about PJ Haarsma is the range and variety of his ideas. Interested in technology and the Internet, he decided to "extend the world of the Softwire novel" into an online flash-based game, and so he commissioned hand-picked artists and programmers to create the "Rings of Orbis". Interestingly, the game allows you to interact with the world in the same way as the young adult characters in the novel. This is a unique idea and one that will allow for a lot of imaginative growth as future novels of the series come out in August over the next three years. I spent several pleasant hours as the character "Etheleon" exploring and trading in beautifully designed 2d worlds. At present, PJ tells me, there are 2200 players who have signed up and are playing regularly in the game. It was a completely unique experience to read a novel and then find yourself as a player in a game that takes place in the same world. PJ is so excited about developing the "Rings of Orbis" site that he worries it will take over his writing. I don't think he has much to worry about really, since both the game world and the novel world will probably give him new ideas for many years to come.
PJ is a self-professed "bulldog" about promoting his book and companion on-line game. After heroic diligence, he even managed to get NASA to work with him on a grade-school level presentation that, as PJ tells it, "gets kids absolutely thrilled by the end". PJ told me that he managed to sell 1,000 of his books in Canada while touring schools there with his NASA program. He's excited about the prospect of doing the same thing in the Los Angeles area schools. With his winning personality and great ideas, I don't think he'll have much of a problem if he can just get a presentation to the right people.
As I was talking with PJ Haarsman, I had the growing feeling that his publisher, Candlewick Press, was missing a golden opportunity in using PJ's ability to promote "The Softwire". Any smart publisher would be overjoyed to have such a self-promoting author, but Candlewick seems to be stuck in an older, traditional model of how publishers interact with their authors. One where authors are supposed to just stick to the writing and let the publisher handle everything else. Unfortunately, you won't find a link or a mention of the "Rings of Orbis" game on the Candlewick site. Something that PJ found extremely frustrating. This is really too bad, since an author who sells 1,000 copies of their own books, has a free online game designed around his novel, and has children and adults enthused about "The Softwire" series, should be rewarded with co-operation and enthusiasm. I sure wish Candlewick would wake up.
"The Softwire" series books will come out in August over the next three years. I'll certainly be reading each one as it comes out. Thank God, PJ is resisting the urge to sell them to Hollywood. He mentioned that he wanted to first create the world himself so he can keep the details consistent. Nathan Fillion (of Serenity fame) has recorded the first three chapters of the book. They are available as a download at IGN.com. After listening to the recordings, I sure hope he finishes the whole novel.
Two hours of lively and engaging conversation with PJ Haarsma has left me with even more respect for "The Softwire" and it's author. It's not easy to leave a successful career for another in which you will have to start all over. I congratulate PJ Haarsma for re-building his life in a way that makes him creative and happy. It takes courage to step out and do something you've never done before.
PJ spoke to me of extending "The Softwire" into many more books than just four. He also has an idea for a horror series where he wants to "create a new horror hero, like Dracula or the Frankenstein monster". In conversation, his imagination and enthusiasm seemed boundless. And you know, while he was telling me about his ideas, he just kept smiling and smiling. I think he's found what he was looking for.
I'd like to thank PJ Haarsma for meeting with me and for being so forthright in conversation. And, of course, my partner, Lisa Morton , who paid for the lunch and proofed this review.
The Softwire: Virus on Orbis 1 (Book one synopsis)
When the children on the seed ship, Renaissance, are orphaned in outer space, thirteen-year-old JT and his sister Ketheria are forced to work as knudniks on the Rings of Orbis. Instead of beginning the new and better life he had hoped for, JT and his sister spend their days sifting through trash for their new Guarantor.
But JT soon discovers that he is the first human Softwire - he has a special gift that allows him to enter any computer with his mind. And when the central computer on Orbis mysteriously malfunctions, the Citizens point their fingers at the newcomers, especially the Softwire.
Before long, JT is embroiled in a struggle between the Keepers who rule Orbis and the Trading Council, which wants him dead. As he learns to harness his newfound ability, JT uncovers a virus wreaking havoc inside the computer. Now he must convince the powers that be on Orbis that the virus is real before they make war on each other and destroy his new home - along with JT's dream of a better life.
-The short YouTube video was created from footage taken with a cool CVS disposable camcorder that I recently hacked. It's a really cool camera that's idiot proof.