In 1970, Paul "Tesla" Simmons and his best friend Toby Jessup were college seniors more interested in computers than politics. President Nixon's escalation of the Vietnam War and their friendship with student activist Meg Wells drew Paul and Toby into the antiwar movement and a choice between violent and non-violent protest. Today, Paul is a leading software designer. HYDRA, his visionary new program, will alter the course of history.
Today, Meg Wells is a dedicated social justice advocate, a Nobel laureate, and the director of Vietnam's Mekong Clinic. In 1970, she was a college senior and an organizer in the anti-Vietnam War movement. Her gift? Call it leadership, persuasiveness, or the courage of her convictions. Call it manipulation. For better or worse, Meg's gift is getting people to do things, whatever things she decides need doing—even if it means reshaping history.
In 1970, all Toby Jessup wanted was a college education, time on Wellston University's IBM 650 mainframe computer, a good game of pinball, and a pepperoni pizza. His ideals and his friendship with Paul and Meg led him to oppose America's involvement in the Vietnam War. His unwavering commitment to non-violence changed history. Today, Toby is a fugitive.
Today, Melora Kennedy lives in a world where access to computers is limited by law to a select few military programmers. Despite her youth and lack of formal education, she became a cyber genius who revolutionized computerized warfare for the United States military. Together with Toby, Tesla, and Meg, Melora's choices in the face of her generation's war will determine our future.
May 1970. Vietnam. Cambodia. Kent State. Jackson State. Violent protests erupt on college campuses across America. Paul "Tesla" Simmons and his best friend Toby Jessup are college seniors who spend their time writing programs on Wellston University's IBM 650 mainframe computer, playing pinball in the back room of the Beef 'n' Bun restaurant, and dreaming. The invasion of Cambodia by American and South Vietnamese forces, the shooting deaths of unarmed student protesters at Kent State, and their friendship with Student Mobilization Committee leader Meg Wells draw Paul and Toby into the antiwar movement and a fateful choice between violent and non-violent protest. As the war and opposition to the war reach their climaxes, Toby, Paul, and Meg become ever more radicalized, only to have their plans overshadowed by an incident that alters the course of their personal histories forever.
Decades later, Paul, a successful programmer in an era transformed by the rise of the computer, makes a revolutionary technological discovery. Realizing he now has the means to change a tragic, yet seemingly minor historical event, Paul acts, and unwittingly sets history on a deadly new course.
Living in the world his actions created, a world where computers are the province of a select few, seeing life as it was only in his dreams, can Paul, with the help of the brilliant young hacker Melora Kennedy, return history to its proper path and restore the dreams of his youth?
From New England's ivy-covered college halls, to New Jersey's crumbling cities, to the beaches of Florida's Gulf coast and the ruins of post-war Vietnam, VIRTUAL FIRE's four narrators relate their experiences of war, resistance to war, the power of friendship and the power of dreams.
Paperback and eBook editions include a compendium of links to books, movies, and music for those who want to learn more about the Vietnam War and the anti-war movement.
Author's Note: VIRTUAL FIRE contains scenes concerning warfare, post-traumatic stress disorder related to the Vietnam War, violent acts committed by and against antiwar protesters, and explicit language.
I’m too young to dream about the '60s. But I know my history. Toby made sure of that. He’s the one who told me about all those Vietnam War protests. Marching, burning draft cards, singing, “All we are saying is give peace a chance!” But singing didn’t stop that war.
Protests aren’t the only things Toby told me about from the '60s. He talked a lot about how back then girls wore their hair long and free. He showed me pictures from Life magazines he’d checked out of the library, pictures of shaggy-haired, denim-jacketed boys marching arm-in-arm with shy girls dressed in jeans and Navy pea coats. “Look, Melora,” he said, “it’s like a casting call for ‘Hair’!” I didn’t know what “Hair” was, but I flipped through the old magazines, looking at photos of white girls with rivers of brown, gold or red flowing over their shoulders and down to their waists, and black girls rocking naturals backlit like angels' haloes.
He keeps two framed pictures from those times on his desk. One is blurry, but I can still tell it’s Toby, towering over his best friends Tesla and Meg in front of what looks like some ancient Greek temple, all three of them dressed about the same, all three flashing peace signs. The other is crisp and clear—Toby and his pals standing next to a huge black horse. Only Meg's flashing peace signs in this one. Flashing peace signs and a big, sunny smile. From Toby's bed I can see her clearly. And her hair is long, lush, and beautiful.
Not like mine.
But those '60s girls didn’t wear Net interfaces riveted to one ear with surgical stainless and looped across to the other by epoxied fiber optic threads. I mostly cut my hair to get it out of the way.
Sometimes I think Toby wants me to be more like them, all soft curves, smiling eyes and brushed-shiny hair. I think he loved those women—even though they couldn’t do shit to stop their war.
Maybe the drugs kept them from finishing the job. For all I know it was the music, or the dancing, or those stupid beads they used to wear. Or maybe it was because back then they did whatever the fuck their men wanted.
None of that will stop me...
Mendy Sobol's VIRTUAL FIRE is a breakout novel! I couldn't believe how well—and how accurately—it thrust me back in time to 1970s Vietnam War protests, then forward into a parallel future where computer use is limited to jacked-in military cybergrammers, corporations live-stream combat snuff videos, and gamblers bet on the daily bag count. With impeccable descriptions of place, culture, and historical details, Sobol's rilliant novel shows our vulnerability in a tech and corporatedriven world, while shining a ray of hope that we can set aside our selfish desires and change history for the better.”
Valerie Brooks, author of the femmes-noir novel Revenge in 3 Parts
VIRTUAL FIRE invites readers into the past and the future in new and inventive ways, playing with time and themes of war and rebellion. I genuinely loved reading it and found the storytelling unexpected and cool. This book will convince you that every decision matters.”
Danielle Rogland, author of IGNITE
I read this book in less than four days and only because I usually have a busy schedule. Otherwise, I would have devoured it in a few hours.... If you like emotions, struggles, intrigue, love, dedication, and timeline messing, then this book is for you. Grab it and enjoy.”
Reviewed by Keyla Damaer for Readers' Favorite
You began writing Virtual Fire in 1995. Why did it take so long to finish it?
Believe me, that wasn't my original plan. I completed a first draft in 1999, and after several revisions, copyrighted it in 2003. I always loved the characters and story, but it was a first novel. As in many first novels, I was telling a story I had to tell, as opposed to telling a story I wanted to tell, and I was eager to move on. In 2015, I published The Speed of Darkness, finished writing a volume of speculative short stories, and began work on my next novel, The Eternal Blue Sky. During those years, I often set VF aside, but just as often reopened the file and wrote a new passage or rewrote an old one. I'd learned a lot about writing during those twenty years, and each time I returned to VF, I saw new problems and new ways to fix them. The United States' continuous involvement in foreign wars and the legacy of the Vietnam War also motivated me to keep working on it until it was ready for publication.
Is Paul Simmons's narration early in the novel autobiographical?
Anyone who knew me in college would laugh at that idea! In VF I drew on my experiences and those of my friends more than I've done in later works. Like Paul, Toby, and Meg, I was a college student in 1970, and like them I spent many afternoons at the racetrack. Like Toby, I graduated from a military high school. Like Melora, I love the ocean. Unlike Paul and Toby, I was a Creative Writing major and never used a computer until 1995. The first draft of VF was handwritten and later rewritten on my first desktop computer. Each of the VF narrators includes bits of me and other people I've known, but VF is not autobiographical.
What motivated you to write Virtual Fire?
In the early 1990s, I was coaching a college ice hockey team. Two of my players, Darin and Damian (still close friends), asked me what it was like going to college "in the '60s." Some of their teammates saw it as a magical time of peace, love, and solidarity, while others pictured a bunch of drug-crazed hippies burning down buildings.
I wrote them a short story set in 1969, entitled Dreams. It was about two friends, Paul and Toby, training as antiwar parade marshals in the middle of a city street in the middle of the night. In 1990 that would be weird, but in 1969 it seemed normal.
One day over lunch, I read Dreams to Darin and Damian. As the story expanded, my parents and their friends read it. As it grew into what became Virtual Fire, my kids and their friends read it. I've always hoped that regardless of generational differences or views concerning the Vietnam War, VF will increase understanding of divisions that affect us to this day. I believe the power of friendship and the power of dreams can overcome those divisions and bring us together in pursuit of a more peaceful future.
You said you had little experience with computers when you began writing Virtual Fire, yet computers play a big role in the story. How did that come about?
By the 1990s, computers had become a part of the culture for college students, so it made sense that fictional computer wizards from the past would be more interesting and relatable. As I learned about computers, computers became more interesting to me, and their role in the story grew. That worked out well from a speculative fiction / science fiction and character development perspective. Leaving messages on an IBM 650 is complicated, so I took some literary license with that.
You've written about coincidences affecting your writing. Did any coincidences play a role in Virtual Fire?
In VF's first draft, I wrote that Toby died three days before his May 9 birthday. For Paul's birthday, I chose August 14, the date World War II ended. In a draft written two decades later, I added a chapter about the 1969 draft lottery. That's when I discovered the randomly drawn draft numbers for Toby's and Paul's birthdays were 197 and 198.
We picture writers slaving away in isolation. Is that what the experience of writing Virtual Fire was like for you?
Not at all. I love writing. For me, writing fiction is like going on the coolest vacation ever and meeting fascinating creatures—human or otherwise—who surprise and inspire me.Dozens (and with VF, hundreds) of people have generously read my work and offered ideas that made it better. I wish I'd kept a list of the friends, family members, editors, and strangers who contributed to VF, but because I didn't, let me say right here that I love and appreciate all of you!
What are you working on now?
The Eternal Blue Sky. It's a BIG space opera about genetic engineering, intergalactic warfare, space-faring hippies, and the descendants of Genghis Khan.
Is there anything else you'd like to add?
The EXTRAS section at the end of Virtual Fire includes a compendium of links to books, movies, and music for those who want to learn more about the Vietnam War, the anti-war movement, and other topics related to the novel. When I become aware of new media that may interest readers, or when links listed in the book have been discontinued, I'll periodically post new or substitute links on the Mendy Sobol Facebook Author Page. I invite readers to check for new links and stay in touch by visiting me on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/fictionfire/.
Thanks to F.J.S. for interviewing me for this Q & A, and thanks to everyone for their interest in Virtual Fire.