March 05, 2007
| by Steven Castle
Novelist Joseph Finder (rhymes with “cinder”) has found a niche writing thrillers that take place in the cutthroat world of high technology. His latest work, “Killer Instinct,” takes readers behind the scenes of a fictional flat-panel display manufacturer, where a salesman’s rise to the top of the corporate ladder comes at a perilous cost.
Finder conducted research on the display market by spending time at plasma screen manufacturer NEC and asking plenty of questions. He even incorporated some very cool OLED (organic light-emitting diode) technology into the fast-paced story. NEC and the book’s publisher, St. Martin’s Press, gave away 10, 42-inch plasma screens during the author’s book tour. The paperback version of “Killer Instinct” is due to be released in May.
The Boston-based Finder is no newbie to the bleeding edge. His previous book, “Paranoia,” is about a high-tech company employee who is forced to spy on a competitor. Finder is also a member of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers and has written extensively about espionage. We recently caught up with the author, who is currently working on a book centered in the aviation industry.
Red Sox Provide TV and Book Inspiration
“I really wanted to get a flat-panel TV in 2004, because we were watching a lot of the Boston Red Sox. So I started doing research, and I became fascinated with the technology and the marketing. Choosing it as a topic allowed me to appeal to something that’s cutting-edge and sexy.”
Flatpanels from the Inside
“I went into my research only knowing about flat panels from a consumer point of view. I didn’t really get it from the inside. I didn’t know how much the business is dominated by Japanese firms. It showed me how interesting it would be to have my character work for a Japanese company.”
Displays Have their Own Plot Twist
“I was surprised at how little money is actually made in the display business. For the most part, companies are making very little on these things, and the prices are really set centrally in Japan.”
Finder’s Cutthroat Experiences?
“Not at NEC, though I’ve talked to companies that seemed really cutthroat. There’s a real cutthroat character—Gordy—in the book, and when I met a person like that at another company, I thought, “‘You are so going in this book’.”
Fictional Tech Becomes Real
“I wanted a breakthrough technology to be in the book. So I made up this technology that was like an LCD screen that you could roll up, and then I found a guy at MIT who is developing this [using OLED]. I found out that the technology is feasible, but it’s not out there yet. New technologies are hard to get to market, because there’s so much already invested in the manufacturing of other systems. The roll up ones will happen. Granted, they may go the route of the videophone, but science fiction is where a lot these inventions are rooted.”
“As a gadget guy and a techie, I love speculating on what might be possible and interviewing people who can do that. There’s a scene in “Killer Instinct” where the main character, Jason, goes to Fenway Park and sees that the screen is lousy. That happened when I was there with my daughter, and we looked up at the screen and we could hardly make out what was on it. [The stadium now has a new high-definition screen.]
“I was also talking to salespeople about how they sell flat panels. I started thinking like a salesperson, and I thought, why not have flat screens in the bookstore and at Starbucks? The head of NEC’s USA plasma division thinks like that. The top executives tend to. That got my own juices flowing.”
The Privacy Implications of Technology
“There’s a lot of surveillance technology in the book. I drove around downtown Boston with a friend who was a security director at a local corporation. He got a laptop out, and we started reading emails from other companies. I was shocked that they didn’t have any password protection or very little and how easy it is to penetrate wireless Internet networks.
“We don’t have the privacy we think we do. All the stuff that Kurt [the book’s bad guy] does is possible. I know, because I sat down with people and asked them if it were possible to do this or that. All our emails can be scanned. Now I’m actually a lot more careful about emailing people at companies.”
His Own Tech
“I ended up getting a Pioneer LCD. It’s 32 inches, and it turned out that for that size, it was the right technology. The problem is I’m always seeing things that I want. While I was writing “Paranoia,” I was doing research at Apple Computer. They took me down the hallway and said they were working on a device that was going to revolutionize the world. I thought, “Yeah, sure.” And it turned out to be the iPod.”
An Excerpt from “Killer Instinct”
The following is an excerpt from Joseph Finder’s novel, “Killer Instinct.” This section includes a mention of the next-generation organic light-emitting diode (OLED) technology discussed in Finder’s interview.
Gordy sank into his ergonomic desk chair and leaned back, and I sat in the chair across from him. His desk was a ridiculously large oblong of black marble, which he kept fanatically neat. The only thing on it was a giant, thirty-inch Entronics flat-panel LCD monitor and a blue folder, which I assumed was my personnel file.
“So, man,” he said with a long, contented sigh, “you want a promotion.”
“I do,” I said, “and I think I’d kick ###.”
Believe in yourself one hundred percent, and everyone else will have no choice but to follow you, I chanted silently.
“I’ll bet you would,” he said, and there was no irony in his voice. He seemed to mean it, and that surprised me. He fixed me with his small brown eyes. Some of us in the Band of Brothers — not Trevor or Gleason, who were famous suck-ups — referred to Gordy’s eyes as “beady” or “ferret-like,” but right now they seemed warm and moist and sincere. His eyes were set deeply beneath a low, Cro-Magnon brow. He had a large head, a double chin, a ruddy face that reminded me of a glazed ham, with deep acne pits on his cheeks. His dark brown hair — another Just For Men victim, I assumed — was cut in a layered pompadour. There were times when I could imagine him as the tubby little kid in school he must have been.
Now he hunched forward and studied my file. His lips moved a tiny bit as he read. As he flipped the pages with a stubby paw, you could see a flash of monogrammed cufflink. Everything he wore was monogrammed with a big script KG.
There was no reason for him to be reading my file right in front of me except to rattle me. I knew that. So I repeated to myself, silently: “Expect good things to happen.”
I looked around the office. In one corner of his office he had a golf putter in a mahogany stand next to an artificial-turf putting mat. On a shelf in his credenza was a bottle of Talisker 18-year-old single malt Scotch, which he liked to brag was the only Scotch he drank. If so, he must have made a real dent in the world supply of it, because he drank a lot.
“Your annual reviews aren’t bad at all,” he said.
From Gordy, this was a rave. “Thanks,” I said. I watched the surf crashing against the dazzling white sand, the palm trees swaying in the gentle breeze, the seagulls circling and diving into the azure water. Gordy’d had the latest Entronics QD-OLED prototype PictureScreen installed in his windows, and the resolution and colors were perfect. You could change the high-definition video loop to one of a dozen scenes, any of which were better than the view overlooking the parking lot. Gordy liked the ocean — he owned a forty-four-foot Slipstream catamaran, which he kept in the Quincy marina — so his background films were always the Atlantic or the Pacific or the Caribbean. The PictureScreen was a real breakthrough in display technology, and we owned it. It could be manufactured in any size, and the screen was flexible, could be rolled up like a poster, and there wasn’t a better, crisper picture available anywhere. Customers and potential customers who visited Gordy in his office always gasped, and not just at what a pompous jerk he was. It was strange, though, when you walked into Gordy’s office at seven or eight in the morning and saw mid-day Caribbean sunlight.
“You were Salesman of the Year three years ago, Steadman,” he said. “Club four years running.” He gave a low whistle. “You like Grand Cayman?”
The Cayman Islands was one of the trips the company sent the Salesman of the Year on. “Great diving,” I said.
“Diving for dollars.” He tipped his head back, opened his mouth, did a silent bray.
“I’m impressed you were able to sell UPS those self-keystoning projectors. They wanted compression technology, and we don’t do compression technology.”
“I sold them on future-compatibility.”
“Booya,” he said, nodding.
That was Gordy’s way of congratulating people. He was being too nice, which made me nervous. I was expecting his usual frontal assault.
From “Killer Instinct” by Joseph Finder. Copyright (c) 2006 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.
Steven Castle is Electronic House's managing editor. he has been writing about consumer electronics, homes and energy efficiency topics for two decades. He is also the co-founder of GreenTech Advocates