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The Insecure Mind of Sergei Kraev
by Eric Silberstein

Published: 2021-08-05T00:0
Paperback : 392 pages
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Math is perfect; people are not.

The year is 2100 and the chaos of the early Internet era is long behind us. Mathematical proof ensures that neural implants can’t be hacked, and the Board of Reality Overseers blocks false information from spreading.

When undergraduate Sergei ...

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Introduction

Math is perfect; people are not.

The year is 2100 and the chaos of the early Internet era is long behind us. Mathematical proof ensures that neural implants can’t be hacked, and the Board of Reality Overseers blocks false information from spreading.

When undergraduate Sergei Kraev, who dreams of becoming a professor, is accepted into a prestigious graduate program in computer science, he is thrilled, and throws himself into his assigned research project—one important enough that if he succeeds, he’ll earn the academic appointment of his choice.

But Sergei, plagued by insecurity, falls under the influence of Sunny Kim, the beautiful and charismatic leader of a K-pop cult. Sergei then makes a decision that leads him into a terrifying trap and places the lives of billions at risk.

With the clock ticking towards catastrophe, can Sergei escape and save the world?

Weaving together compelling characters and exotic locales, The Insecure Mind of Sergei Kraev is a classic tale of love, ambition, and self-interest building to a shattering finish. Praise “Where do we go from the global disinformation and pandemic of 2020? A history told from multiple voices, an evocative projection of the world we may invent to protect us—and the ways in which humans being human can game any system—this is a fantastic read that I couldn't put down.” —Cindy Alvarez

“I’ve read thousands of sci-fi stories, and the thing that stands out for me here is the originality—it doesn’t quickly fall into some typical genre or pay tribute to some other great novel. This made it especially enjoyable…it deserves to be read and enjoyed widely!” —Bryan Gaensler, PhD

“An absolutely riveting read—a can’t-put-down look at a world very much like our own, but with all our trends fast-forwarded. —Drew Hansen

“Sci-fi isn’t the genre that I usually gravitate towards but I’m honestly glad I stepped a bit out of my comfort zone. It kept me hooked and I gobbled it down. The tension was real and palpable. The characters spoke with honest emotion and I cared about them. Sergei is everyman without society’s required hard, masculine shell. I loved him.” —Roxanna Sue O’Connor

Review by Jeffrey Liss

In so many ways, the world Eric Silberstein shows in this debut novel is the one we all want—the world we just know is coming. It is a world of nice things, where humans are online from birth, not merely masters of our technology but, finally, universally enhanced and empowered by it. Neural interfaces connect us to each other while protecting our privacy and gently compensating for our deficiencies.

Inside every utopia there’s an unwelcome guest: human nature. What happens when a perfect world is inextricably linked to the minds of its imperfect creators? Are we the reason we can’t have nice things after all? Has it always been this way? Silberstein’s answer is both an incisive critique and jarring for its feeling of inevitability.

I loved and pitied Sergei for his innocence, his brilliance, and his ability to get lost in a crowd of his own thoughts. For all his talents, he suffers for want of what we all need: to love and to be loved, to feel a part of something lasting; to make things better than they are. Who am I to judge his mistakes? Would I have done any better?

Like all great Sci-Fi authors, Silberstein entices us with a good story, but holds up a mirror. In the end, I reached the conclusion I hope many other readers will enjoy reaching: I am Sergei, and I am why humanity can’t have nice things.

Editorial Review

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Excerpt

Prologue

April 14, 2220

One hundred years after 4-17

Singapore Island

Children,

This is my ninety-fourth annual message. It’s hard to believe there are now 2,978 of you, including my two great-great-great-great-grandchildren born today.

My message this year breaks with tradition. Instead of celebrating your accomplishments from the past twelve months, my subject is a chain of events that started before I was born.

I was thirteen on 4-17. Now, one hundred years later, I’m ready to tell you our family’s story—a story I’ve reconstructed from implant recordings, my great-grandfather’s glasses, and speculation.

If you have questions, please ask them soon. My great-grandfather was 113 when he brought me and Ora to Singapore. Today I turn that same age. I’m in good health and, as far as I know, my mind is sharp. However, predictively speaking, this is my final decade.

Love,

Leon Levy

Chapter 1

April 17, 2120

Haifa, Israel

4-17 was a Wednesday. Ora and I were home because it was school vacation week in Israel. I spent the morning the same way I had spent every other day of vacation up to that point—in my room, absorbed in a game, avoiding my overdue homework.

Our house was in a quiet, hilly neighborhood, not far from our parents’ university. Great-grandpa, who was visiting us for lunch, paused outside our front door and caught his breath after walking up the few steps from the road.

“I’m so proud of you, Karima,” he told Mom in his American-accented Hebrew when he finally stepped inside. “You and Danny have made your mark.”

The day before, after over a decade of testing, the olfactory interface algorithm my parents developed in grad school had been promoted to production. Overnight, as the world’s population woke up and smelled virtual coffee for the first time ever, my parents went from respected professors to global celebrities.

Great-grandpa kissed Mom on the head. “How are you handling all the publicity?”

Mom didn’t answer.

My parents had become a subject of media fascination—especially Mom, who, with her striking mixture of Chinese, Ethiopian, and Ashkenazi features, did not match anyone’s mental image of a theoretical quantum computer scientist.

Great-grandpa placed his hand on Mom’s shoulder. “Karima?”

“Sorry, Grandpa,” Mom said as she blinked once and refocused her eyes on him. “I may be a bit distracted today. Danny and I are looking into something. I’m in the middle of kicking off a simulation. One sec.” Mom’s eyes defocused, then a few seconds later her attention returned. “Hungry?”

Great-grandpa followed Mom through our living room to the deck. Our house was built into a hill, so the deck was at tree level, with chirping parakeets flitting back and forth between nearby branches. Mom helped Great-grandpa sit down at our table and poured him a glass of water.

“Where’s Danny?” he asked.

Mom explained that Dad was in our study, tied up with something urgent.

“The kids?”

Mom checked. Ora and I were still in our rooms.

Leon, Ora—get down here right now.

Ugh, not now, I thought, and ignored Mom.

And then two minutes later: Leon—get down here!

I shifted just enough attention to physical reality to navigate our house.

Out on the deck, Great-grandpa was asking Ora a question. When he saw me, he pivoted in his chair and reached out for a hug. I inhaled his familiar, earthy smell and felt his spindly arms wrap around my back. He planted a wet kiss on my forehead. My hair smudged his clunky glasses, which he took off and placed on the table. I felt bad for him whenever I saw him wearing those things. Even with them, he was cut off from so many aspects of life, not by choice, but because by the time implants became available, his brain was too old to receive one.

“What are you learning in school?” he asked after I sat down.

I looked vaguely in his direction but didn’t respond.

“Leon?” he said.

“Leon! Great-grandpa’s talking to you!”

Mom’s tone broke through.

“Uhhh. . . .” I played back the last few seconds of input from my eyes and ears at triple speed, “. . . in what subject?”

“I’m blocking games.”

“No, Mom! I’m on the Quest leaderboard. I’ll multitask.”

Mom raised her voice and gave me an icy stare. “You’re not multitasking. You shouldn’t be playing at all. Did you finish your homework? Did you even start? I’m disconnecting you.”

“What about Ora? It’s not fair.”

“I’m disconnecting both of you.”

“Five minutes, let me finish, then I’ll do ninety percent present.”

“No.”

And without any more warning than that, Mom hard disconnected us. It felt like my eyes were yanked out, like all of a sudden everything was flat and grainy and dull. For a fraction of a second I was stunned. Then I shot up, threw my chair against the railing, screamed at Mom, ran to my room, and slammed the door.

Ora, who was ten at the time, stayed seated, paralyzed, a look of disbelief on her face.

Mom had used parental controls before to block gaming, block network access, block recording, but she had never disconnected my implant. I’d never even heard of anyone being hard disconnected. I knew the ability to do so was a fundamental human right, and one that for me and Ora, as minors, Mom and Dad controlled on our behalf, but I’d always imagined it as a strictly theoretical thing.

Mom turned to Great-grandpa, stress coating her every word. “Sorry, Grandpa. I’ve never done that before. I just . . . I’ve been under so much pressure.”

“Karima, honey, let me help. How about I watch Leon and Ora for a few days? You and Danny take a vacation. You certainly deserve it, and it sounds like you need it.”

“No, I’m grateful, but, it’s not about the kids, it’s other stuff. Things were under control until last summer.”

Mom explained how a single case of pediatric blindness in Moscow had threatened promotion of the olfactory interface. She and Dad put everything aside and threw themselves into proving that their algorithm was not at fault.

“But then,” Mom said, pressing her hand into her forehead, “I was drowning in all the work I had put off. Overdue grant submissions, desperate grad students, and this whirlwind of media interviews that Danny insisted we do for our launch.”

She then mentioned something whose significance I now understand, but would not have back then, even if I had been present to hear it. That morning, she and Dad received a message from Korea, from the wife of Sergei Kraev, their old friend from grad school. The message concerned implants, and it was why Dad was holed up in our study and Mom was running simulations.

Great-grandpa leaned forward. “Karima, sweetie, I don’t want to be adding to your stress. If you have work to do today, do it, and I’ll take Leon and Ora out for lunch.”

“Grandpa, no. I’m glad you’re here, and I want us all to spend time together.”

Great-grandpa placed his hand on Mom’s. “Let me give you advice from the perspective of someone who has been on this Earth for a hundred thirteen years. There will always be problems. There will always be time to work on those problems. Slow down and take a moment to enjoy. The whole world is celebrating you.”

Mom was silent for five seconds. Then, for the first time in her life, she hard disconnected her own implant. “You’re right,” she told Great-grandpa, then stood up from the table, walked inside, and came upstairs to get me.

I was sitting in my room, calmer, when Mom opened the door. I apologized and begged to be reconnected, but she stayed firm. “You’re thirteen now and it’s time you start acting like an adult. Come downstairs and eat lunch with Great-grandpa. Or stay here. It’s up to you.”

Mom left my room and a minute later I followed. As I passed our study, I noticed Dad was still there, wearing only his sleeping scrub bottoms, staring blankly at the wall. It’s not fair, I thought: Dad gets to skip lunch.

By the time I got back to the table, Great-grandpa, Mom, and Ora were eating. I retrieved my toppled chair and joined them.

Great-grandpa held his spoon over his bowl. “This caldo is so good. The aroma, the way the potatoes melt on your tongue . . . it brings back memories from a hundred years ago . . . the pandemic. We were home all day every day, my parents started making proper dinners for the first time, and a caldo like this became a staple.”

I lifted a spoon of broth to my mouth. “There was a pandemic when you were a kid?” My attention was finally where it should have been all along, on Great-grandpa. “Weren’t pandemics from the Middle Ages?”

He smiled at me. “Maybe history won’t be your field, Leon. Yes, 2020, caused by a virus.”

“Computer virus?”

“No, biological. The only way to block transmission was to isolate people. One day we were at school, and the next day we stayed home, and didn’t leave our house for months.”

“Why didn’t GHO destroy it?” Ora asked.

“Sweetie, they couldn’t. It’s hard to imagine how much has changed in a hundred years. The technology you take for granted didn’t exist when I was growing up.”

Great-grandpa explained that had people back then been equipped with even the first generation of onboard health diagnostics, precision quarantining would have contained the virus.

“Things were primitive. We thought we were living in an age of modern medicine, but oh boy, the pandemic was a rude awakening. Forget about a cure—in the beginning we could barely test people. And our main technique for fighting the infection—we called it ‘social distancing’—was the same thing humankind had been doing for centuries.”

Ora looked up from her bowl. “Great-grandpa, did anybody in our family get sick?”

“No, we were lucky. My parents were also—”

12:34:25 p.m.

Great-grandpa stopped speaking midsentence, and I saw movement in my peripheral vision. I turned my head. Dad half fell, half stumbled off the stairs into our living room. “Don’t reconnect,” he whispered. His body spasmed once and he collapsed on the floor. Mom stood up, and in the few seconds it took her to rush over to him, she screamed, “Brain death! I—” Then a mumbled slur of words and she collapsed next to Dad.

+3 seconds

Ora raced to Mom. “Mommy! Mommy!”

I was paralyzed for a second, then I ran inside and got down next to Dad. He was gasping for air and I tried to roll him onto his side. Great-grandpa pushed himself up and out of his chair and shuffled over faster than I had ever seen him move.

“Karima! Danny!” Great-grandpa looked at me. “My glasses!”

I got up, dashed back to our deck, and grabbed them from the table. He wrestled them on and gave verbal instructions: “Critical emergency. Grant access to Karima Yaso and Daniel Levy’s health systems.”

“Damn twenty-second rule—” I heard him say to himself, but then a moment later, in a tense voice, “It gave instant access. And . . . shit.”

I was crouched on the floor again. I looked up. “What?”

“Three hours. For ambulance.”

I saw Great-grandpa’s eyes scanning information in his glasses. “Brain death. Karima and Daniel. No, this can’t be.”

Great-grandpa put his hand on a chair and started to lower himself. “Help.”

I jumped up, put my arm around his back, supported him from under the shoulders, and helped him into a sitting position on the floor. He put his hand on Mom’s chest.

Ora was leaning over Mom. “Mommy stopped breathing!”

I put my ear over Dad’s mouth. I didn’t hear anything.

I was desperate to get online. To get help. To search for what to do. I looked over at Great-grandpa. “Reconnect me. You should have perm—”

“Something is very wrong,” he said, cutting me off, and all of a sudden speaking at a frustratingly slow pace. “Panic can make things worse. I’m going to count to five.”

He took a deep breath. “One . . . two. . . .”

It took what felt like an hour.

+1 minute 11 seconds

“Children, listen to me,” he said, speaking rapidly again, but with complete thoughts, full sentences. “Dad said not to reconnect. But Mom must have, in the split second she ran over, that’s how she saw Dad’s diagnostics. What if Dad was also telling you two not to reconnect? No, I’m not risking it. Leon, find the neighbors. Get help.”

As I ran out the door, I heard Great-grandpa giving more instructions to his glasses. It felt maddeningly slow for him to be doing this by voice.

+3 minutes 34 seconds

I ran back inside, breathless. “I tried the neighbors. They’re not home or they couldn’t hear me shouting and banging.”

I saw that Great-grandpa and Ora had slid pillows under Mom and Dad’s heads.

There had to be something else. My brain was screaming to be connected, to get help online, to get information. I was sure Great-grandpa, who was studying the display in his glasses, didn’t know what he was doing.

“How do you know we’re doing everything possible? What if your glasses aren’t compatible with Mom and Dad’s implants? What if we need to manually switch on implant-controlled breathing? Or reboot Mom and Dad’s health systems? You have to reconnect me!”

There was fear in his eyes. He understood so little of our modern implant-centric world. But despite his fear, Great-grandpa stayed firm.

“Ann,” he said. An old friend, she’d been an emergency room physician and still lived in the Democratic Union.

He woke her up and they spoke in rapid English. He gave her access to Mom and Dad’s health systems. She instructed him. I watched him get close to Mom, examine her chest, neck, and face, and then slide over to Dad and do the same.

Ora wrapped her arms tightly around Mom and pressed her mouth into Mom’s cheek. I squeezed Mom’s hand and kept repeating “Mom, Mom.” Then I looked into her eyes. They were glazed and unfocused, and that’s when I understood that whatever had happened to Mom and Dad was likely irreversible.

+4 minutes 33 seconds

Great-grandpa stopped examining Mom and Dad. He took off his glasses, wiped his eyes with his sleeve, and stared blankly out at the deck.

Ora looked up. “Please, Great-grandpa, do something, please.”

“Children.” Great-grandpa reached out for us, wrapped us in his wrinkled arms, and began weeping. view abbreviated excerpt only...

Discussion Questions

The title of the novel is The Insecure Mind of Sergei Kraev. How is Sergei insecure and how are the other characters insecure? Looking back at your life, can you point to actions you wish you had taken but failed to due to your own insecurities???Why do people follow Sunny? What, if anything, do you find admirable in her path through life and her leadership style? Have you ever had a manager or worked with someone like Sunny, and if so, what was the culture like???Who deserves the most blame for the catastrophe–Sergei, Sunny, Daniel, or Karima? Who deserves the least? Could you make a reasonable argument for each bearing either the most or the least responsibility???The novel is set in a future where two problems we face today–conspiracy theories and computer hacking–have been solved through technology and regulatory oversight. Do you think a group like the “Board of Reality Overseers” could or should ever exist? Do you see other types of solutions emerging to bring people together around a shared set of facts???You could argue that Lynette is the most principled character. Do you agree with that? Why does she have a hard time persuading people to her point of view? Do you see yourself in Lynette? Do you know anyone like Lynette???Many scenes are set in Korea, Israel, Singapore, and Russia. Have you been to any of those countries? Do you recognize the sights, foods, and music described in the novel? What countries have you traveled to? How might the US role in the world be changed by the turn of the next century?

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  "Surprising"by bwolfer (see profile) 04/19/22

When I first started this book, I was afraid it was going to be too sci-fi for me, but was surprised with the story. I did enjoy the story even tho some of the computer science was above me. I joined... (read more)

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