In the year 2150, the state of Apollo is a thriving community which offers free education to all citizens and strongly emphasizes music and the arts. Everyone tends to their own gardens where they grow fresh fruits and vegetables, and people are encouraged to question all topics with just one catch—talking about or looking for the imposing wall that surrounds them in the far depths of the forest is strictly forbidden. Flora, a 19-year-old college student, leads a happy life with her parents, golden retriever Ernest and best friend Andrew, yet she can’t help but wonder what’s on the other side of the wall.
The Apollo Illusion, the debut novel from award-winning journalist Shari Lopatin published on May 19, explores what happens when curiosity gets the best of Flora, and she learns that, overbearing government aside, life in Apollo is better than what she’ll find on The Other Side. Lopatin considers how fast technology might evolve over the span of a century and what effect that would have on our society. Flagstaff Live! recently spoke with Lopatin to learn more about her writing process for the novel.
FLAG LIVE: You’ve said the idea for this book had been in your head for a while, but what was the catalyst that brought you to finally put it out into the world?
LOPATIN: I actually finished the first draft back in September 2014, so I finished it a few years ago, but the idea came about during Rosh Hashanah dinner in 2013. My mom, while we were eating, started talking about a news story she had seen about how babies were learning the swiping motion of tablets before learning to communicate with their parents. I began to consider the repercussions of a society where people are more comfortable with technology than each other. What would happen if you took someone who lived today and threw them into that society? That became the premise for The Apollo Illusion. Once I came up with this idea it was like this frenzy took over me and I couldn’t stop writing. I’d go to work and come home and just write for a few hours.
Frankly, after the election of our current president, a huge surge in interest for dystopian novels just swept our society. According to Signet Classics, [George Orwell’s] 1984 increased in sales by 10,000 percent in the days following the election. There’s a huge demand for this type of story right now, so I thought, “If I want to do this, I have to do this now.”
Apollo is set where the city of Flagstaff used to be before the Virtual Revolution erased all borders and created five sectors throughout the world instead. Did you always plan to set the story in Flagstaff?
When I started writing the book I started writing it immediately with that first scene of [Flora and Andrew] riding bikes in the ponderosa pines, and the setting in my head just looked like Flagstaff. I loved living up there, I loved going to school at NAU and there are just so many unique individuals in Flag, so it was the perfect setting to make Apollo.
In the society outside of Apollo, journalism no longer exists as a career which leads to a sense of mindlessness among the citizens. How do you feel journalism is important these days?
Reputable, unbiased and independent journalism is essential to a functioning democracy. It’s the fourth arm of government, the checks and the balances. There’s been some legitimate criticism of the media, and I think a lot of that is due to the 24-hour news cycles and the constant need to get things out first. Before, you just had to meet the deadline for the next day’s paper. I think that’s played into it, but I think there also have been some unfair attacks of reputable reporting, and I think that the moment that an independent, reputable, unbiased media begins to be silenced, whether that silence is through force, whether it’s through propaganda, whether it’s through persuasion, whatever method is used, that’s when I think control of the facts and control of free speech becomes a danger and I think that people need the truth and they need it straight. They don’t need it with a slant, they need the facts and they need the attribution of where the facts are coming from so they can make up their own minds.
People are the ones that elect judges, they’re the ones that elect presidents and these are the people who create laws. If you control information you control how people think and that creates outcomes that affect others. Enterprise journalism, investigative journalism are so pivotal to our society and it’s so unfortunate they were the first ones that were cut.
I had to leave newspaper reporting around the time of the recession and went into PR. I had planned to go back to journalism, but the demand and jobs didn't come back with the same ferocity, so I was going through a little bit of a depression when coming to terms with, “Am I going to ever be a reporter again?” Writing this book gave me something to look forward to. At the time when I wrote this book I guess you could say I was witnessing the changes to the industry from an exterior perspective, the decline in enterprise and investigative reporting. In ‘08 or ‘09 I think, the Rocky Mountain News in Colorado closed its doors. That made me really concerned as a former reporter, and I thought, “What does this mean about how society will find information eventually?”
Where did you find inspiration for the technology used in these future societies?
There was an article I read about the printers, the 3D printers—now they're becoming more commonplace, but back then I was thinking, “I could totally use that.” Same with the self-driving cars and the contact lens technology. At the time I was working at a job where I got to use Google Glass, and it gave me this whole perspective of the real world fused with the virtual, and I thought this was totally the crazy future.
There’s a scene with a mass shooting in a hospital on The Other Side, and a nurse tells Flora they happen every day now. Did you anticipate that hitting so close to home?
When I started thinking about what happens when you take someone and throw them in that society I wanted to think about the psychological effects of humanity as a whole and one of the things I researched was the isolation and how that affects us. When people don’t have these connections, they are going to act out in other ways.
I wrote that mass shooting scene in early- to mid-2014, and there had already been mass shootings of course, but it was not at the level it’s happened recently. I was in high school when Columbine happened and it shocked all of us. At my high school, a week after, there was a bomb threat and my mother was the typical “You go to school even if you’re not feeling well” Jewish mother, so she never let me stay home, but she kept me home that week because of the fear. I feel very lucky that I didn't grow up in that world. I’m hearing from friends that their kids go through mass shooting drills the way we used to go through fire drills and it makes me so sad. I never anticipated that in only four to five years we’d be looking at this being much closer to reality.