Bill DeSmedt and his novel Singularity are the first podcast novel recipients of our SFFaudio Essential designation. Bill’s novel is a thrill-ride for the cognoscenti of Hard Science Fiction. As a special treat Bill has agreed to let us grill him about the origins and construction of his unabridged novel. Special thanks to Evo Terra of Podiobooks.com and Steen Hansen (our SFFaudio reviewer) for making this interview a reality.
JESSE: One question I’d like to hear answered is about your personal background. You’ve got more than a passing familiarity with Soviet and Russian history, politics, military – were you a Cold War warrior?
BILL: Actually, the answer is Yes and No. I did spend some time in the US Army Security Agency at the height of the Cold War, and learned Russian at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey CA. But none of that was nearly as instructive as the year I spent as an exchange student at Moscow State University in the mid-70s, at which point I was out of the Defense Department, and into Harvard.
JESSE: So what, without killing me after, can you tell me about what you did at for ASA?
BILL: Nothing very exciting, I’m afraid: I was a Russian linguist, and basically spent my time eavesdropping on low-level Red Army radio traffic. That said, it was probably still better preparation for writing thrillers than selling insurance!
JESSE: Was CROM modeled after the interactions you had with the NSA back in the 1970s then? The first thing I thought of when I heard you mention “Critical Resources Oversight Mandate” AKA CROM, was the Robert E. Howard deity. You a Howard fan?
BILL: No, CROM the agency is strictly my own invention — not that I don’t hope there’s an analogous agency sequestered somewhere amid the coils of the bureaucracy. Failing that, there’s always the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a high-powered nongovernmental group whose VP for Russian/CIS Programs, Dr. Laura Holgate has more than a few traits and career points in common with Marianna Bonaventure. As to CROM the acronym, there’s no Conan reference intended there (I’m for better or worse so not a Howard fan I hadn’t even realized the connection). Rather, CROM originated from an early draft since-deleted passage in the book, which described the furnishings of Pete Aristos’s office as including, in addition to the mountains of greenbar printout, a knock-off of an R. Crumb poster hanging on the wall, featuring Mr. Natural in characteristic full stride over the caption: “Keep on Trackin’ — R. CROM.”
JESSE: As an exchange student did you stumble across any interest in Science Fiction in the USSR?
BILL: Not me personally. I, like Knox, was working on a more or less clandestine research project, and maintaining a low profile in consequence. On the other hand, one of my fellow stazhory, Pat McGuire, was actually researching the political aspects of Soviet science fiction, and wound up writing a book about it called “Red Stars.” In that vein, too, I did pass my annotated copy of Nagel and Newman’s “Goedel’s Proof” along to a Latvian colleague. I’ve always wondered what role, if any, that deeply subversive little book might have played in undermining the monolith a few years hence…
JESSE: Were you self-conscious during the reading? At the beginning of the podiobook you sounded nervous, at the end you seemed self assured.
BILL: Did you mean the very beginning of the book (the Prologue), or the early chapters in general. If it’s the Prologue, you might be interested to learn that the version you hear on the podcast is a do-over, and is actually one of the last chapters I recorded.
What happened was, when I had most of the audiobook in the can, I played the first chapters for a few folks. They universally agreed that the Prologue in particular was way way too laid back — that it lacked a sense of excitement commensurate with the subject matter.
So I resolved to do better, or at least different. I re-read the thing as fast and frenzied as I could, shaving several whole minutes off the runtime. The result is the version you hear. (I’ve still got that old original kicking around somewhere, though. Maybe I ought to haul it out and do some comparison auditing.)
JESSE: Why did you read Singularity yourself? Was it for the experience, because of the cost, or artistic control?
BILL: None of the above actually. The deep dark secret behind the audiobook version is I never started out to make an audiobook for general distribution at all. The recording conditions and equipment I had to hand were far from ideal, and I’m not my own favorite reader anyway, so I never envisioned the finished product appealing to a wide audience. All I was really trying to do was to record something I could pass around to a few well known Science Fiction in the hopes they’d write blurbs for Singularity. These were busy people, well-established in the field, who might well not have the time or inclination to work their way through a 500-page galley by somebody they’d never heard of — but might just stick a CD into their car’s CD-player on the way to work. [EDITOR’S NOTE: Check out the the dust jacket of the print version to see how well it worked]
In any case it was only long after the event that I decided to repurpose the material for release as a podcast on Podiobooks.com.
JESSE: Will you read your next novel Dualism – can we expect any short stories to tide us over in the interim?
BILL: Read Dualism??? Right now, I’d be happy just to finish writing it!
Mention of short stories brings to mind Blaise Pascal’s famous one-liner about how he didn’t have much time, so he wrote a long letter. Point is, short stories are hard, harder than folks might think (they’re so easy to read, after all). The best are exquisite miniatures, marvels of
narrative economy in which each element is perfectly attuned to its role in unfolding the story toward its denouement. Novels by contrast are big, clunky things that leave lots of room for error. Much simpler and safer — for now at least.
JESSE: What was the originating book idea?
BILL: It’s all Carl Sagan’s fault, I swear! It all started several summers back. I was sitting around on a rainy Saturday afternoon watching a rerun of Cosmos, Episode IV, “Heaven and Hell.” That’s the one about meteor and cometary impacts. Well, you can’t go on very long in that vein without mentioning the Tunguska Event — only the biggest, most destructive thing to fall out of the sky since humans first started looking up, after all. Carl didn’t. He not only gave the Event its due, he went so far as to recount most of the theories — comet, meteorite, antimatter, UFO — that have been advanced in a so-far fruitless quest to definitively explain it. Among them, he included the Jackson-Ryan hypothesis — that the Event was a collision between the earth and an atom-sized black hole — before countering with the classic objection to J&R, the “missing exit event.” You see, any self-respecting mini-black hole should have cut through the solid matter of the earth like a knife through morning mist, and come exploding up out of the North Atlantic an or so hour later, wreaking as much havoc as it did coming down in the first place. Never happened. QED. Next thing you know, Carl had moved on to Meteor Crater in Arizona or some such, leaving me sitting there, staring off into space.
“But, Carl,” I said slowly, “What if the damn thing NEVER CAME
Little did I know it at the time, but I’d just been hooked. I wanted to see where things went from there. In my effort to find out, I tried giving the idea away to the few published authors I could reach, hoping one of them would write the book so I could read it. No takers. “Great
concept,” they’d say, “but I wouldn’t know where to start with the science.”
Finally it dawned on me that the only way I was ever going to find out how that book came out in the end, was if I wrote it myself. So, with more than a little trepidation, that’s what I did.
JESSE: Who are your favorite Science Fiction authors? And your favorite authors in general?
BILL: Favorite SF&F authors, Larry Niven, Vernor Vinge, and Roger Zelazny. Favorite authors, period: Tolstoy and Thoreau.
JESSE: I’d not heard of Max Weber’s role in the events of the Tunguska Event, as depicted in Singularity, is this true? Holy Cow! Why has more not been made of this?
BILL: Ah, I think you mean Ludwig Weber, the physicist, rather than Max Weber the pioneering sociologist (no relation, far as I know). Though I’m not really positive about the “Ludwig” part, since he signed himself using only his initial: “Herr Professor Doctor L. Weber, Physics Institute of Kiel University.” But it’s a good guess — German just doesn’t have that many men’s names starting with “L.”
Anyway, unlike his far more celebrated namesake, this Weber’s sole claim to fame is that he contributed a note to Astronomische Nachrichten [Astronomical News] (1908, Vol. 178, No. 4262, pp. 239-40), describing some curious observations he’d made on the three nights preceding the Tunguska Event. [EDITOR’S NOTE: You can Bill’s translation of Weber’s article HERE]
JESSE: What evidence in real life points to there being an actual black hole orbiting within the earth?
BILL: As I left off saying at the end of the last question, there are always Weber’s observations. He tracked a set of magnetic deviations over the three nights leading up to the Event, and was convinced they were related to the “light show” observed across Europe on the night of June 30th. As the real Dr. Jack Adler has pointed out in his “Soapbox Seminars“, you’d need a ferrous meteorite to carry a magnetic charge like that, yet the conventional wisdom is that the Tunguska Object would have had to’ve been made of extremely friable, fragile stuff in order to completely self-destruct the way it did.
As for more evidence, the bad news is you tend to find the evidence your theory tells you to look for. And, since nobody took Jackson-Ryan seriously after the exit-event fiasco, nobody’s been looking in the right places.
The good news, though, is that we’re just getting to the point where we could prove or disprove Al and Mike’s conjecture once and for all. I’m thinking of the Gravity Recovery And Climate Experiment (GRACE) mission that NASA’s been running jointly with the German Aerospace Center. GRACE is designed to detect anomalies in earth’s gravitational field. It would require some retooling and/or reprogramming to pick up one as fast-moving as Vurdalak — nobody’s looking for seismic point-sources moving at multiple kilometers per second, after all.
But the bottom line is: a conclusive test of the evidence for Jackson-Ryan is beginning to look doable.
JESSE: Early on in Singularity you have two scientists arguing over which scientific explanations for the Tunguska event fit the facts and which do not. What is your feeling for the role of such debates in the scientific process and what’s your take on the Tunguska event? Similarly, what’s your take on the possible String Theory debacle?
BILL: Well, my knee-jerk, democratic (with a small “d”) reaction is to say yes, of course, debate in science is a *good* thing. But then I’m immediately reminded of the kindergarteners and the cat.
* * *
Seems a kindergarten class finds a cat prowling the playground during recess. Of course they bring it back to the classroom, and — after the requisite petting and pampering with milk and cookies — the question arises as to whether it’s a boy cat or a girl cat.
“Oo-oo, Ms. Schroedinger,” little Jimmy’s hand shoots way up in the air,”I know how we can tell!”
Ms. Schroedinger, doubtless imagining how reports of this incident are going to play with the movers and shakers of next month’s PTA meeting, does her best to ignore little Jimmy, but neither he nor the class as a whole are about to let her off the hook. Finally she gives up, sighs, and says:
“All right, Jimmy, how can we tell if it’s a boy cat or a girl cat?”
Buttons busting with pride, Jimmy replies, “We can VOTE!”
* * *
Where am I going with this? Just here: debate is a good thing, and the will of the majority (the influencing of which is, after all, the ulterior motive behind debate) is a good thing — but only in the absence of more objective standards by which to determine the truth. Of course, when it comes to the momentous issues of the day, those standards are pretty nearly always absent, or at least are open to debate themselves, so debate is the obvious and at times the only, path to truth in questions of politics and social policy.
But science, fortunately, is not (or is not simply and solely) a debate; it’s first and foremost a method. And as such it lays down rules of evidence and experiment by which we can attain a more reliable (though still always imperfect) conception of the way things really are. In other words, whether or not the kindergarten teachers of the world want it blurted out, there is in fact a way to determine the sex of the cat, and it’s not “majority rules.” (Same story with regard to the ongoing “debate” about evolution vs. intelligent design: it’s just bad science, and probably bad theology too, to keep on arguing among ourselves when the evidence has already spoken so decisively.)
In science, then, it’s not scoring debating points that wins the Nobel Prizes, it’s making testable predictions and having the experimental evidence bear them out. And once that’s happened, it’s pretty much case closed — at least until more, disconfirming evidence comes in. Contrariwise, the annals of science are littered with once widely-held theories that were unceremoniously consigned to the dustbin of history when they couldn’t account for the evidence. Ptolemaic astronomy, the phlogiston theory of combustion, the luminiferous aether, the solar-system model of the atom, you name it — there’s enough of them to fill a book. And, to prove it, John Grant has written one; it’s called “Discarded Science: Ideas that Seemed Good at the Time” (published by Facts, Figures & Fun. 2006)
Now contrast that with the situation in, say, political economy — where you can still find any number of academics ready and willing to take up the cudgels on behalf of communism, or laissez-faire capitalism, if it comes to that — and you can see the advantage of being able to close off debate by reference to an objective, impartial standard of truth.
So maybe the real question about the role of debate in the scientific process is — do we need it at all? And the answer is: of course we do, in precisely those instances where we don’t have enough unambiguous evidence to decide the question one way or the other. Or in precisely those instances where the ruling theory continues to hold sway despite mounting evidence that it can’t possibly be the whole story.
The Tunguska Event, I would argue (to answer your question about my “take” on it), might be one such instance. For the evidence tending to cast doubt on the current meteor-or-comet paradigm, one need look no further than the writings of the meteoric and cometary theorists themselves — each side in that debate has made a career of demolishing the other’s case.
Another such instance, as you imply, just might be String Theory. At least in its most recent, “landscape” incarnation, String Theory seems to have made itself all but impervious to disproof by any imaginable experiment (not that it was all that amenable to experiment in the first place). But if it can’t be disproved, neither can it be proved. And that renders its explanatory power nil. It can’t help us to understand why things are the way they are, because it’s compatible with things being any which way at all.
If things have truly reached this pass (Lee Smolin says yes, Brian Greene says no — both of them rather vociferously), then String Theory becomes just another way of saying “Don’t bother looking for explanations — there are none.” And in that respect, it’s not all that different from the appeals to the will of God implicit in just-so stories like intelligent design and the strong anthropic principle.
So here I’d say, yes, more debate is definitely a good thing.
JESSE: So would you think then it’d be fair to say Karl Popper’s falsifability should be more to the fore in the public mind?
BILL: “To the fore in the public mind” — what, you mean like NASCAR and American Idol? Let’s face it: in an era when public discourse on science policy has sunk to the level of slogans like “X is not a fact, it’s just a theory,” there’s not going to be a whole lot of people tuning in for the falsifiability vs. verifiability debates.
In any case, falsifiability is not altogether free of problem itself. Imre Lakatos, for one, argues against Karl Popper’s notion that one piece of disconfirming evidence can invalidate a hypothesis by pointing out that, if you see one red swan, you’re less likely to abandon your theory that all swans are white than you are to go looking for some joker with a can of red spray paint and too much time on his hands.
To steer clear of such controversies, it might be better just to say that a scientific theory ought to yield testable predictions (or retrodictions in the case of a science like paleontology). And it’s not like every one of those experimental tests has got to prove out. But, by the same token, every theory has, or ought to have, what my friend “Jack Adler” calls an “elastic limit” beyond which its credibility can’t be stretched.
The original meteorite-impact theory of the Tunguska Event (not to stray too far from the topic at hand) hit that limit and snapped back in 1927 when Kulik failed to find his crater. People have been scrambling to find a testable substitute for it ever since.
JESSE: Here’s a question I got from somebody I was talking to about your book:
The solar system is full of ordinary matter, why would you expect that “theoretical matter” such as a miniature black hole would cause the Tunguska Event? Shouldn’t Ockham’s Razor suggest that the object that caused the Tunguska Event would be composed of the most common substances in the solar system — namely an object made of ordinary matter, rocks or water-ice, and not a theoretical object? Given this, what could you say to Mr. Ockham that would
convince him it couldn’t have been ordinary matter — that ordinary matter couldn’t have done the job?
BILL: Ockham’s Razor, because my friend “Jack Adler” actually addressed that
question a while back, here:
I’m not sure your friend’s basic assumption — i.e., that an “ordinary matter” explanation is readily available — quite fits the circumstances. Because what you’d need to fit both the Weber observations (discussed previously) AND the Kulik et al. NON-observations of a crater, or indeed fragments of any kind, is a species of matter that’s capable of carrying a high magnetic charge and yet is also capable of totally self destructing. The total self-destruction scenario works best for a carbonaceous chondrite, whereas the magnetic effects imply a ferrous material of some stripe. Gets less and less “ordinary” all the time, don’t it?
JESSE: That’s what I thought! That’s what I said to my friend too (though not so eloquently).
BILL: And in the same vein, prior to taking their own run at demolishing the Jackson-Ryan hypothesis, Jack Burns, George Greenstein, and Ken Verosub laid down some ground rules for the study of the Tunguska Event that latter-day devotees of William of Ockham might well wish to ponder — namely:
“The apparent uniqueness of this event requires that all possible explanations must be seriously considered and that no explanation can be discarded merely because it has a low probability of occurring.”
– -Jack O. Burns, George Greenstein, and Kenneth L. Verosub, “The
Tungus Event as a Small Black Hole: Geophysical Considerations,” Monthly
Notices, Royal Astronomical Society, vol. 175 (1976), pp. 355-357.
JESSE: Jason Rennie, host of the Sci-Phi Show Podcast would call that “taking it seriously”. And I’m all for that! But on the other hand I don’t yet feel knowledgeable enough to claim I know what caused the Tunguska Event.
With regard to your answer on verifiability over falsifiability. Wouldn’t it be fair to say that much of the problem with the “NASCAR and American Idol” mindset is that it doesn’t distinguish between a proposition being scientific or not? And if that’s true, might it not also be the case that falsifiability is the first step, or the minimum requirement for something to be justifiably considered a “theory” – verification, prediction, repetition, are these not subsequent or follow-ups to this minimum standard?
BILL: I must have misstated my case last time around, since I never meant to advocate verifiability over falsifiability. That whole verifiability vs. falsifiability debate is better left to the philosophers, in any case. As to whether falsifiability is even a minimum criterion for considering something to be a theory, the string theorists have gotten along for twenty-odd years now calling what they work on a “theory” without ever having met that test. If you press them on the point, they’ll just say things like “string theory is too beautiful not to be true.”
Not that elegance isn’t a criterion in its own right, but sooner or later even the most elegant theory needs to touch base with reality — if not to actually pass experimental tests intended to differentiate it from its rivals, then at least to describe what such tests might be.
JESSE: Indeed, I think that’s what worries me so much about the string theories, their complete isolation from falsifying conditions. And I’ve always been frightened of elegance, simplicity and even Occam’s Razor because they seem even further from what we all could agree on as objective.
Now to change the subject completely, let me tell you, though for me the podiobook version you did IS the ultimate version I’ll sink down to the “NASCAR and American Idol level” for a moment and ask you who you’d like to see starring in “Singularity: The Movie”?
BILL: Hey, I’m glad to hear you enjoyed the podiobook, especially since it could be a while before Singularity hits the big screen. Still, I found it helped while I was writing the book if I had someone definite in mind to model a character on. So, from that perspective, here’s my dream cast:
* Finley “Mycroft” Lawrence – Joe Morton (“Terminator II”)
* Academician Medvedev – John Rhys-Davies (“Raiders of the Lost Ark”)
* Euripedes “Pete” Aristos – Dabney Coleman (“War Games”)
* Arkady Grishin – Udo Kier (“End of Days”)
* Sasha Bondarenko – Elya Baskin (“2010”)
* Jonathan Knox – here I’m sort of torn between John Cusack, Johnny Depp, and maybe David Duchovny
* Marianna Bonaventure – Danica McKellar (she’d be a newcomer to film, having done most of her work in TV, but she’s drop-dead gorgeous and, as a former UCLA math major, she’s very, very bright)
Well, okay — so I’ve got a rich fantasy life.
Incidentally, you’ll notice I haven’t nominated anybody for roles like Galina Postrelnikova, Jack Adler, or Yuri Geladze. …Maybe the SFFaudio fans would like to join in?
JESSE: Sounds good. They can leave their casting calls in the comments section!
Here’s another question unrelated to any previous. Singularity appears to be set just a tad into the future. There’s a lot of technology that sure looks like it could exist a few years from now. Can you talk about some of that, you know some of that gear that Marianna Bonaventure and her agency has?
BILL: Sure, although to quote Peter Watts, “You might be surprised at how much of this stuff I didn’t make up.”
For instance, web-cannon have been in the arsenals of metropolitan police forces since the nineties, as a non-lethal (albeit sticky) means of perpetrator restraint and crowd control. Marianna’s “Squirt Gun” is just a scaled-down portable version.
And her nanobloc leotard is getting realer all the time too. In fact, there are some research projects afoot that bid fair to surpass CROM’s fool-the-eye tech with Honest-to-God, I-kid-you-not invisibility. Check out if you don’t believe me!
But of all the futuristic technologies in Singularity, the one I’d most like to see in real life is Mycroft’s “Replicator” solids prototyper (“the last kitchen appliance you’ll ever need”). And — would you believe — MIT is working on that. Last I checked, they’re not doing bolases yet, though.
So, forget about this gear coming into existence a few years from now — the real challenge is in keeping up with what’s already out there. It’s fun, though, and you can bet there’ll be more of it in Dualism.
JESSE: Near the beginning of Singularity there’s a sequence set in a steel mill — a chilling scene and a gruesome death — is this purely from your imagination?
BILL: Not a steel mill, exactly (although steel-mill accidents did figure in a couple of the analogies). Rather, the scene you’re referring to takes place at Resource Recovery, Inc., a recycling plant that uses a bath of white-hot liquid iron to break down all manner of hazardous waste, from pesticides to VX nerve gas, into their harmless constituent elements. That technology is quite real, having been pioneered back in the nineties by Molten Metal, Inc. And it works too — though not well enough to keep the company itself out of financial hot water (which would, incidentally, have made it a perfect target for a hostile takeover by Grishin Enterprises).
To my knowledge, though, I was the one who came up with the idea of using the technology as a way to dispose of an inconvenient witness.
JESSE: I guess that’s good, well maybe not. Should I be scared now?