Set in Seattle, Steve Toutonghi’s second novel, Side Life, is a dazzling, intriguing, and philosophical blend of literary science fiction—perfect for fans of Blake Crouch, Philip K. Dick and Ex Machina.
What if every possibility of every life were within your reach?
Vin, a down-on-his-luck young tech entrepreneur forced out of the software company he started, takes a job house-sitting an ultramodern Seattle mansion whose owner has gone missing. There he discovers a secret basement lab with an array of computers and three large, smooth caskets. Inside one he finds a woman in a state of suspended animation. There is also a dog-eared notebook filled with circuit diagrams, beautiful and intricate drawings of body parts, and pages of code.
When Vin decides to enter one of the caskets himself, his reality begins to unravel, and he finds himself on a terrifying journey that raises fundamental questions about reality, free will, and the meaning of a human life.
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|Publisher:||Soho Press, Incorporated|
|Product dimensions:||5.80(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.20(d)|
About the Author
A native of Seattle, Steve Toutonghi studied fiction and poetry while completing a BA in Anthropology at Stanford. After various professional forays, he began a career in technology that led him from Silicon Valley back to Seattle. He is the author of a previous novel, Join.
Read an Excerpt
The Axis on which It Turns
The man was defying traffic, striding slowly down the center of the merge lane that Vin and the line of cars behind him were waiting to use. The man was big and lean in a black T-shirt and black denim jeans, a long dark mane flaring like a sadhu’s, a full beard softening his heavy jaw; and he looked preposterously confident, as if he were separate from the world and impervious, as if he were parting illusion. One lane over, cars flew by, their wakes gently tugging his long hair while he walked within two feet of Vin’s new Tesla S and didn’t even tilt his head to acknowledge the driver or the machine. Eyes forward, fixed on a vague middle distance, a derisive smile tightened the corners of his lips.
“Shithead,” Vin said under his breath, one hand poised on the horn. He began to ease into the merge lane but couldn’t stop watching the man, who was now stepping directly into the first lane of oncoming traffic. Cars slowed to negotiate a way around him but, incredibly, no one honked. Perhaps his riveting indifference silenced them; maybe he was violent; maybe he didn’t believe he could be hurt.
He strode across two more lanes to the concrete barrier. Vin was glancing in his mirrors now as he accelerated past the tangle of spring greenery erupting from the northeast slope of Queen Anne Hill. Before him was the clear span of the Aurora Bridge, its sides railed by a high suicide barrier. The man hopped onto the concrete median and swayed precariously toward southbound traffic.
“Shithead,” Vin said again, worry stabbing at him.
Yet his impulse to do something was already fading. Turning around would mean exiting, crossing under the bridge and driving back in the southbound lanes. And then what? There was no place to pull over. If he did find one, he would have to walk across express lanes to reach the man. And the man seemed altered, probably high. And Vin had already driven away.
He parked west of the stained and stately Guild 45th Theater, a favorite holdout from the Seattle he’d grown up in. Over the last few years, as he was finishing his PhD and starting his company, Sigmoto, the region’s economic titans had been transforming the city, unleashing forces that sparked flaring skyscrapers and culled weak businesses. Running his own company had protected him from the arrogant beauty of new things; it was how he had fought feeling lost and small among the stone-footed pedestals and high shells of evening light. But in the weeks since his ouster from Sigmoto he had begun to feel useless again, as if he had fashioned himself into a complex and intricate piece of living machinery, closely engineered for a now obsolete purpose.
His meeting with the guy who replaced him as CEO would be a courtesy, and Vin planned to keep it short. He was done volunteering information. It had been Vin’s interest in cliodynamics and statistical physics, his understanding of big data, his focus on user experience and his design insights that had birthed the first iteration of Sigmoto’s “Decision Turbines” (an absurd but actually kind of descriptive name that his investors basically stuck him with). And it wasn’t an exaggeration to say that he had probably been the only person capable of guiding the company to its true potential. Sigmoto should have been a new kind of data aggregator, forging the tools needed to finally bring shape and weight to opportunity costs—the options unchosen, the things that didn’t happen. But after a slower than expected start, the board said they had diagnosed the company’s problem and they removed him.
He passed a handful of twenty-somethings wearing lanyards with ID cards and swatting jokes and fragments of sentences at each other—“whatever they need”; “he’s such a bozo”; “Stan’s going to fire him.” Vin picked a lane through their scrum and ignored the templated bonhomie.
Hiring and managing a team at Sigmoto may have been the first time in his life that he felt fluent in friendship. But while selling the product he’d also had to fight unnervingly poor execution by his technical hires, and he’d slowly come to see a painful truth: if Sigmoto’s Decision Turbines hadn’t existed, the world wouldn’t have noticed. That realization punctured his self-confidence, and then, worn down by conflict with his investors, he hadn’t effectively resisted a “strategic pivot” toward gesture recognition. After that, all of his best ideas were off the roadmap and Sigmoto’s potential was lost forever. So he didn’t have a team anymore and he was feeling overwhelmed by the ambiguity and scope of his own ambition. But the challenge of motivation is only one part of the raw difficulty of doing something worthwhile. The answer is to work harder and smarter. It always is.
His phone started buzzing just before he reached for it. “Son!” His father, who smelled like sour white wine and described himself as a “Gaelic hustler,” worked to make his voice a goad toward action. “I have a deal for you. Meet me for lunch at Fadó. I’m going to bring my friend, a very well-connected attorney by the name of Joaquin Brooks, who’s looking for a house sitter.” His father gave the name a conspicuous flourish. He wanted something from Joaquin Brooks.
“You don’t have an income. You shouldn’t be paying rent.”
“I’m doing fine.”
“Look, I didn’t mind helping when you were building something.”
Vin had asked his father for help with seed funding, to get Sigmoto off the ground, but his father had done nothing. Then, after Vin raised enough money to get started, his father had introduced him to two bankers, one of whom eventually helped out. After that, his father acted as though he had personally saved Vin from disaster.
“Okay, so you’re young,” his father was saying, “you were a bit too reckless. No surprise. But now you don’t have a job anymore, so you have to move on. You have a chance to start again. And to focus this time.”
“That’s what I’m already doing.”
“Meet us at noon, at Fadó. Or will you be gardening?” Vin’s mother loved gardening. After a bitter divorce, his father started using it as shorthand for a low-priority activity.
“Gardening improves quality of life.”
“You can worry about quality of life when you’re dead.”
The new CEO didn’t ask many questions. Instead, he avowed enormous respect for Vin’s technical vision and skill, and offered to reach out to his own contacts on Vin’s behalf. Within moments of their morning glory muffins arriving, Vin found himself describing his hopes for Sigmoto with a sloppy passion that embarrassed him even as it unshackled an ache in his gut. The guy changed the subject and started talking about other “interesting projects” in their “formative stages.” But Vin knew he could find a job. People were in awe of what he could do. He got off a few decent barbs about rudderless, generic “innovation” (he used air quotes), without impugning anything specific. The guy listened calmly and replied with a grounded sympathy that made Vin feel ludicrous.
The morning was faded and blustery by the time he recrossed the Aurora Bridge. He was distracted by the odd wobble of a hunched and hairy man standing on the other side of a swiftly approaching bus stop. Despite the serrated chill, the man appeared to be wearing only black jeans and a T-shirt. Vin slowed his Tesla. The guy was rocking, nearly pitching forward from his spot on the curb. Beneath a thick beard, his jaw moved as if he were chewing air. It was the same man who had been jamming up northbound traffic only an hour earlier.
He punched the Tesla’s control screen and told his phone to call 911. When a dispatcher answered, Vin got worked up by the possibility that the man might tip himself into the busy street and he started to yell. The dispatcher was patient. She needed more information about where exactly the man was standing. Vin calmed himself and told her where the bus stop was. He told her that the man had been crossing traffic only an hour earlier as if he were Moses parting the Red Sea. Only this Moses hadn’t been leading anyone out of bondage but just might wreck cars and kill innocent people because he wanted to part the goddamn Red Sea for no good reason when he didn’t have a safe way to do it. The dispatcher still didn’t understand where the man was. Vin concentrated on clearing his anger and answering her questions.
At the lunch with his father, Joaquin Brooks offered Vin a house-sitting job for at least a few months, but possibly much longer. The house had been custom built to the exacting specifications of a client, a woman named “Nerdean” (no last name), and Joaquin said it was worth a visit even if he didn’t want the job. That evening, Vin arranged to meet his friend, Bill Badgerman, at a Caffé Vita near the house and they walked over together.
Bill showed up late, per usual, and wanted to hang out first and “decompress.” While Bill downed two macchiatos, Vin got excited explaining what had been lost when he left Sigmoto and he accidentally backhanded his twelve-ounce triple latte. A barista rolled out a bucket and mop to clean up while Vin was throwing paper napkins on the floor in an attempt to help. After the barista fended him off, Vin took the last quarter inch of unused paper towels from the counter and dropped them into the compost, then wiped his hands on his jeans and joined Bill outside.
“Why did you do that?” Bill asked.
“What? It was an accident.” He didn’t want to defend the spill, but he would if Bill was going to make a big deal out of it. “Why did you throw away what was left of the paper towels? Those were perfectly good.”
“Oh. I guess the spill seemed important enough to use the whole pile.”
“It wasn’t, man. That was just you.” Bill seemed annoyed at being embarrassed in front of a new barista, Charlotte, whom he’d been trying to flirt with. Bill and Vin had been friends since third grade and though Bill could be painfully shy, he was always thinking about women.
Vin was slimmer than Bill, his shoulders narrower, his skin a little darker. Vin’s mother was the reedy youngest daughter of a dermatologist from a village in Gujarat. Bill knew nothing about his own biological parents, beyond the fact that his mother was Native American and had given him and his sister up for adoption. He was narrow eyed, with jet-black hair and broad, muscled shoulders. He asked, “You going to see Beth later?” as they started walking toward the house.
“No. Like I told you earlier, she doesn’t want to see me anymore.”
“I guess I don’t remember. If you did tell me.” Bill was dragging the pace, showing he wasn’t fully placated on the subject of the spill.
Vin said, “You know, I think about her every once in a while,” and regretted it right away when he saw Bill’s fractional wince. His own pulse jumped.
Bill said, “Who do you mean?” Pretending he didn’t understand. Vin changed the subject.