Friday 22 June 2018

Meet Sandra: A Hero Behind the Scenes of Disco Sour

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Disco Sour is a novel that explores how technology is changing why we vote, who we love and how we live. Set in a parallel timeline where Europe is hit by a civil war, it revolves around the story of Bastian, a dating app-addicted politician, who embarks on an existential odyssey to save democracy.

One of the perks of writing I enjoy the most is to build characters from scratch, dig into their motivations, their backstory, and many other aspects that don’t necessarily appear in the final text. It’s what makes these people alive, and real.

Bastian monopolises the attention. But there is Sandra, her deputy. Despite not being that visible, she is key to the novel. In this post, I’ll walk through her backstory, based on my scratch notes during the writing. No spoilers presented, but you may read the book with a different perspective while getting to know more about her.

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Sandra Müller used to work as Human Resources advisor for Volkswagen at the Export Processing Zone of Wolfsburg, before the civil war. The factory was mainly exporting cars to the United States. But because of the closure of the USA market by President Sarah Palin (yes, in this universe she became the President), the export zone stagnates and it is difficult to reroute to other markets the huge number of cars ready to be sent overseas.

In the imagined economic and political scenario of the book, the European markets are declining. Only China and the Middle East are growing, but there are VW factories in China producing for these markets. With Sandra’s factory closing, a wave of protests sparks among workers while riots happen in Greece, Italy and Spain paving the way for the civil war. A new legislation is passed, allowing the use of private military contractors against the protesters and the Export Zone of Wolfsburg becomes a battlefield.

As the human resources manager, Sandra is torn between the workers she has been recruiting and closely accompanying in their professional paths, and the management, which she is part of. She is at her desk when the military contractors start shooting at the workers, and she sees the horrible scene from the window. That’s when she promises to herself that she would do everything in her power not to make such things happen again.

She gets stuck in the factory with colleagues for two days, during the battle. Finally, the company evacuates all the management via helicopter. The Insurance company of Volkswagen selects based on a randomly discriminating algorithm to fly people to different places. Sandra is assigned to an abandoned Special Economic Zone of Mut in the desert in Egypt, which is transformed in a refugee camp managed by Emirates Airlines.

Overcrowded, the special economic zone camp is hell, and forgotten. From time to time, they get the slight attention of Egyptian media when someone wants to escape and they shoot them. In this fictional universe, there are many anti-refugee xenophobic people in Egypt.

In her new situation, Sandra gets angry with the algorithm that randomly chose her to go there. In the refugee camp, there is a mantra. People blame algorithms for anything that goes wrong, from the lack of water in the showers, to food rationing.

As she knew a bit of coding, Sandra finds an old computer and a terminal in one of the abandoned labs of the special economic zone. She uses it to hack the distribution system and increase her deliveries, food and convenience products. It is a survival strategy, but it turns out to be lucrative when she decides to start selling the goods and creating a black-market business.

Eventually, from her outpost in the Egyptian desert, she also plays a role in the civil war ravaging back in Europe. She breaks the algorithm of Lukoil, the private contractor who had troops deployed in Wolfsburg, Naples, Toulouse and Rotterdam harbour. She hacks the codes of the mapping system linked to the wearable devices of the soldiers, and by changing street names and few other data about their geolocalisation systems, she manages to confuse the private troops and give a competitive advantage to the rebels to fight back.

She never claimed to work for one faction or the other. She just wanted to contribute to end the bloodshed she had witnessed for the first time from her office desk, and free herself.

She’s repatriated when the war is over, and hired by the Federation as deputy of Bastian, the protagonist of the novel.

While everyone else in the book is speaking about big scenarios (Bastian has that grand scheme to contribute to a post-nation democracy; Nathan, the villain, has a new kind of revolution in mind, saying that he would buy democracy to transform it) Sandra's primary drive is to “normalise” the world she’s living in. She feels committed to Bastian’s trust and mission, but she doesn’t fully believe in his methodology. So, she pursues her own way.

I had great fun bringing Sandra to life, and it was an interesting character building process. In the beginning, she was simply an accomplice of the protagonist, but the more I was digging into her personality and how she survived the war, the more she became a kick-ass individual in her own right.

I could imagine even the possibility to write a parallel novel to Disco Sour, where she would be the protagonist and we would follow her whereabouts more closely. But, as Michael Ende used to write, that is another story and shall be told another time.

As a political geographer, Giuseppe Porcaro has always been interested in how the intersection between technology and politics is moving towards uncharted territories in the future. He has recently published a series of scientific articles about how the Internet of Things and algorithms will change policymaking. Disco Sour is his first experiment with fiction. Giuseppe currently works as the head of communications for Bruegel, an international think tank specialised in economic policy. During his free time, he DJs, reads, dreams and writes. 

Disco Sour is available to buy now. For more information about Giuseppe and his writing, you can check out his website or follow him on Twitter.

Do you think Sandra deserves to star in her own spin-off series? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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