BUCKHANNON — Are you being watched? Is your home safe? How do you value privacy in an increasingly connected society?
Those are some of the questions swirling at the center of a new novel penned by West Virginia Wesleyan College professor Peter Galarneau Jr.
In “Dr. One,” Galarneau uses near-future fiction to examine the issues of today, including cyber surveillance, autonomous technology (including drones and self-driving cars), virtual reality and more.
The novel, which was released Tuesday, begins in Marlinton, W.Va., which by 2041 is a bustling tourist destination due to its location along the Greenbrier River.
“Marlinton becomes a vacation spot in the future,” Galarneau said. “They’ve actually created a beachhead down there, and people come from the cities and hang out just as if they were at the ocean.”
The reason for Marlinton’s newfound popularity is a terrorist attack in 2029 that poisons much of the nation’s freshwater supply. In the wake of that event, the government establishes what Galarneau calls the “surveillance society” — one in which your entire life is registered and tracked through technology.
The book’s main character, Shaun Winston, is a high school senior who lives in a trailer and tends the grounds for his neighbor, the mysterious scientist Dr. One. Just two days before graduation, Shaun finds the doctor dead and embarks on a journey that takes him from the radio telescope observatory at Green Bank to a futuristic Kennywood to New Pitt — no longer the steel city, but the water city.
Shaun is happy in West Virginia and doesn’t want to leave, Galarneau said. He is also a technophobe and deeply distrustful of the surveillance state. The book examines the consequences when Shaun is forced to face both leaving home and entering the high-tech world of the future.
“It’s 25 years in the future,” Galarneau said. “This young man, Shaun Winston, he doesn’t want to leave. Shaun works for an outfitter, and he’s the kind of guy who doesn’t really like big city life, big city people. He wants to stick around. He kayaks, he bikes, and he doesn’t want to leave that. But all his friends are leaving.
“One of the book’s themes is familiar in West Virginia: When you graduate high school, what do you do with your life? Do you stick around, or do you take off?”
“Dr. One” is Galarneau’s first foray into science fiction. He previously wrote the 2012 trilogy about the apocalyptic predictions of Dec. 21, 2012, and the young adult horror story “Crazy House.”
“It’s my first dip into science fiction,” he said. “Inspiration came from Orwell’s ‘1984,’ except it’s not dystopian. I like to think of it as the time before the dystopia — whatever happens after this novel could go 1984, Gattaca, Blade Runner, all those kinds of directions.”
Galarneau said he tried to visit the locations in the book so he could better bring those places to life for his readers.
“I make it a habit, if I can possibly do it, to visit every place I write about,” he said. “I rode the Greenbrier Trail, as far as Sharp’s Tunnel, took pictures and experienced it. It still smells just like a [train] engine going through there.”
With the real-life revelations of Edward Snowden and the “Vault 7” information published by Wikileaks just this month, questions about the nature and extent of government surveillance have never been more relevant, a fact not lost on Galarneau.
“The relevance is just mounting like crazy,” he said, “from Wikileaks to [FBI Director James] Comey coming out and saying that no American citizen can be secure in their privacy.”
The author predicts a future in which the ability to collect and analyze data becomes ever more advanced. And while the Facebook of today is primarily interested in selling ads, that might not be the case forever.
“They target you right now for consumer products, but maybe in the future it’s not something so innocent,” Galarneau said. “In the suspicious society, everyone is suspicious of everyone else, because they are afraid. They’re afraid of everything. As we see in today’s society, fear is a big deal.”
The role of fear and its influence on people is a key element of the book. Following the attacks on fresh water, the government uses the ensuing panic to convince people to willingly trade their privacy for a sense of security.
“It’s mostly a warning —watch what you put on the net,” Galarneau said. “Not only from the social media standpoint, but financial data, and of course all the surveillance cameras out there. All that is collected and centralized, or it can be.”
Despite the topical relevance, Galarneau said the novel is not political.
“I’m staying away from political statements,” he said. “I don’t write politics. I don’t put them in my social feeds. I have my own opinions, and that’s where they’re going to stay.”
Galarneau, who took a sabbatical from Wesleyan in the fall to finish writing “Dr. One,” has firsthand experience with the way the younger generation has embraced social media — both for good and for bad.
“Science has shown that social media can be good for people who are lonely or introverted,” Galarneau acknowledged. “But I think the youth society today feels they need that feedback mechanism, and they need it constantly. They are willing to give up personal information to get that feedback, but like my daddy always told me, nothing is free. It makes it easy, but there are consequences.”
“Dr. One” is on sale now locally at the Buckhannon Fast Stop (located two doors down from The Record Delta), the Fast Stop on the Vicksburg Road and at Wesleyan’s Bobcat Den. The paperback book can also be purchased on Amazon for $14.95. A digital version will be available later this spring.