The Millions

Writers to Watch: Spring 2020

Kevin Nguyen:
Crash Override

Say what you will about New York City’s oft-delayed transit system, but the subway helped Kevin Nguyen write his first novel, New Waves (One World, March). Riding the train, Nguyen jotted down sci-fi stories, dialogue, and aperçus about technology on his phone. “I wrote all of this in one note, and then one day the note got so long that the app crashed,” he says.

Pasting the nearly 20,000-word note into a document, Nguyen, 33, thought, “Just as an exercise, maybe I should try to connect these dots through fiction.”

Nguyen’s agent, Sarah Bowlin, says, “When he mentioned shyly over drinks a couple years ago that he had been writing a novel—on the subway! on his phone!—I was certain that whatever he was working on would be urgent and alive.”

The resulting novel is about mourning and the moral abdication of technology companies. It tells the story of Lucas, an Asian-American content moderator at a messaging app startup, who is grieving his deceased coworker, Margo, an African-American server engineer. “It has a lot of ideas in it, but it’s not an ideas book,” Nguyen says.

Originally envisioned as a secure communication tool for dissidents and reporters, the fictional app explodes among teenagers using it to lob vicious messages. “It’s really easy when you’re on the inside of a tech company to not grapple with or take responsibility for the implications of what you’re doing,” says Nguyen, who, after graduating from the University of Puget Sound in 2009, worked various “start-up-adjacent jobs” before landing at Amazon’s books division in New York City. He then pivoted to journalism, first at GQ and now at the Verge.

At the novel’s core is the relationship between Lucas and Margo, who leaves behind a trove of speculative fiction she has written. “There’s this

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