To fans of sci-fi thrillers, Bill DeSmedt is the author of Singularity, the first book in the “Archon Sequence.” But to me, Bill DeSmedt is my friend’s dad. With a second book in the series, Dualism, hitting bookstores and eReaders, I spoke to Jeff’s dad, I mean Mr. DeSmedt, about the impetus for his new book, the importance of science facts in science fiction, and the future of his series.
I always like to start with the basics: What is Dualism about, and how does it connect to your first book, Singularity?
Okay, here’s the elevator pitch: When Fatimah, the six-year-old daughter of billionaire industrialist Davoud Ansari, is kidnapped, uber-consultant Jonathan Knox and counter-terrorism agent Marianna Bonaventure must team up with an experimental artificial intelligence to rescue her, never suspecting that the little girl is the key to a plot that could destroy the NSA’s most advanced analytical capability, and go on to kill every man, woman, and child in the United States.
Why did you decide to write a sequel to Singularity, as opposed to writing a stand-alone novel?
Well, to begin with, I’ve got to say I don’t really consider Dualism to be a “sequel” to Singularity. No more, say, than I’d consider Ian Fleming’s Thunderball to be a sequel to Goldfinger. They’re two successive books in a series, is all. Other than the fact that both of them center on apocalyptic themes — albeit quite different apocalypses — Dualism’s main connection to Singularity is via its lead characters, Jon Knox and Marianna Bonaventure.
That said, the reason I wrote another book featuring the same protagonists in the same basic situational matrix — and doesn’t that sound better than “sequel”? — is simply that, having written that first book, I found myself wondering what would happen to Jon and Marianna going forward.
The titles of the two books evoke that, in that they reflect the evolutionary dynamics of Jon’s and Marianna’s relationship even as they echo the plotlines themselves.
Where did you get the idea for Dualism?
Two ideas, actually. Corresponding to two short scenes I had in my head from the outset. I knew they both had to be in the book; the hard part was figuring out how those two “anchor” scenes fit together. Once I did, the rest of the plotline sort of fell into place around them.
By the way, readers: you’re invited to guess which two scenes I started out with, and email your guesses to email@example.com. The first reader to correctly name the chapters and scene numbers for those two seminal scenes will win a coveted ticket to join me at the FanFest party being held during this year’s ThrillerFest conference. [For more details, see dualismthebook.com/contests]
You’ve said that Dualism is the second book in your “Archon Sequence.” How much of the “Archon Sequence” do you have planned out? Like do you know it’ll be five books, and you know what the plots of the other three are and how they’ll wrap things up, or are you just winging it?
The thing about the “Archon Sequence” — and the reason it’s called a sequence — is that, once you’ve cracked the rather transparent code, you see that the ordering of the titles corresponds to the sequence of positive integers: Singularity=single=one, Dualism=two, Triploidy=three, and so on to infinity. And that’s a good thing insofar as it means that while I may run out of plots eventually, I can never run out of titles.
As to those additional titles, I plan to extend the series at least as far as a fourth book, Tesseract, dealing with extra dimensions, and a fifth, Quintessence, about the ultimate nature of reality. Any further than that and my crystal ball fogs over.
Gotcha. Singularity earned you comparisons to such writers as Tom Clancy, Larry Niven, Greg Bear, David Brin, and Michael Crichton. Do you consider these writers to be influences on your work?
Demurring at any such comparisons, I’d have to say the middle three of the authors you listed have been my biggest influences. Greg Bear’s Darwin’s Radio has always been a template for how to do the social impact of evolutionary advance right, and David Brin’s recent Existence is a cornucopia, so bursting with ideas that it should have been two books. It’s a big influence on how I’ll write my own first-contact book, Triploidy. Larry Niven lives in those rarified heights at the top of the field, of course; he has a spare, muscular prose that I can only envy and try to emulate.
Are there any writers that you see as an influence that other people haven’t picked up on?
Sure: Vernor Vinge, arguably the best stylist working in sci-fi today. His A Fire Upon The Deep still stands as a monument and a model for how to make of science fiction a lens through which we glimpse our own times and ourselves.
What about non-literary influences: movies, TV shows…
Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey comes immediately to mind. That opening shot of earthrise, and then sunrise, as seen from beyond the moon to the fanfare from Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” proclaimed a new aesthetic all by itself. And I’d be a liar if I didn’t admit that there’s more than a little HAL 9000 in Dualism’s own resident artificial intelligence, Nietzsche.
Then there’s James Cameron’s Aliens for the quintessential female action hero. Think of Ripley [Sigourney Weaver] girding herself for battle while descending into the depths of the queen’s hatchery to rescue Newt. To my mind, this brief scene rivals anything in Kurosawa for evoking that mythic moment when “the warrior prepares.”
As for TV, I’ve always been partial to the work of Joss Whedon, due not least to his infatuation with kick-ass heroines. But I’m perhaps a bit to the left of the bell curve median, fessing up as I do to more of an affection for Firefly/Serenity than for Buffy The Vampire Slayer.
One of the more interesting accolades you got for Singularity came from Scott A. Hughes, a Professor of Theoretical Astrophysics at M.I.T., who complimented the science in the book. Given that most readers of sci-fi don’t care whether the science is accurate, only that it sounds accurate, why was it important to you that the science in Singularity be correct?
I’m pretty proud of that quote from Scott. But I have to take issue with the assumption that most sci-fi readers don’t care about the science. As a presenter at multiple science fiction conventions, I can tell you there’s nothing the fans enjoy more than skewering one of their favorite sci-fi authors for some minor lapse in verisimilitude. Even the great Larry Niven was not immune from such fannish persecution. He himself recounts how a group of M.I.T. students ran through the halls at the 1971 World Science Fiction Convention chanting, “The Ringworld is unstable! The Ringworld is unstable!”
I hadn’t heard that.
When it comes to my own stuff, I guess the reason I strive to make the science as authentic as I can is so that I can bring the readers along with me when I suddenly switch gears and take them off the deep end into uncharted — and unscientific — speculation.
So when it came to Dualism, how much research did you have to do?
I sort of lucked out when it came to Dualism. While I still had a good deal of background reading to do in areas like philosophy of mind and Muslim apocalyptic, when it came to one of the book’s main themes, artificial intelligence, I was able to draw on my own experience as an avocational researcher/practitioner in that field. Along those lines, I’ve been spending the past several months creating an A.I. agent to portray Dualism’s own A.I. protagonist, Nietzsche. One machine impersonating another, so to speak.
Interested readers can check out — and talk with — the results of that mini-project at the Psyche Industries website, beginning on May 15th.
Was there anything significant that you learned through this research that directly impacted the plot of Dualism? Or at least changed something you were planning to do in the story?
Actually, the reverse. Turns out I’d done too much research into such minor — to the book, anyway — plot elements as entanglement and quantum internets, and had to dial back the intensity on the explanatory exposition so it wouldn’t overwhelm the storyline. Hopefully I’ve got the mix calibrated about right at this point.
Given that Dualism is as much a thriller as it is a sci-fi novel, were there any times when the science would’ve conflicted with making Dualism a thrilling read?
There were some struggles in that regard, not so much with the science per se as with its corollary philosophical underpinnings, the mind/body problem, the nature of consciousness, that sort of thing.
And, on that score, there were some epic battles with my editor as to whether or not one scene in particular had crossed the line into full-blown unthrillerishness…if that’s even a word. That scene went through I don’t know how many rewrites until we finally had something both he and I could live with.
Which brings me to another reader participation moment. Can you guess which scene I’m referring to here? There’s another FanFest ticket waiting for the first reader to email in the right chapter and scene number to firstname.lastname@example.org. [Again for details, point your browser at dualismthebook.com/contests]
In Dualism, as in Singularity, the story centers around a secret agent named Marianna Bonaventure. Why did you decide to make the secret agent a woman? And did you ever consider making the secret agent a man instead?
It all goes back to the film version of Michael Crichton’s Congo and its inversion of gender roles, with Karen Ross [Laura Linney] as the action hero and Peter Elliot [Dylan Walsh] as nurturing caregiver to Amy, the signing gorilla. Something about that attempt at role reversal rang false to me. I mean, I had a hard time believing that a guy could be as motherly as the Elliot character was made out to be.
Anyway, when I was gearing up to write Singularity, I decided to try a different tack, keeping my female protagonist in the more physical, action-oriented role, but endowing my male protagonist, not with a woman’s empathy but with something of a woman’s intuitiveness instead. So you might say it was the challenge of trying to go Crichton one better in this regard that was the original impetus behind the characterization of Marianna Bonaventure and Jon Knox.
That said, I’d like to think this trope has served well on any number of levels: After all, the covert operative character in Singularity — and, to a lesser extent, in Dualism — is cast as a rookie, a secret agent wannabe. And that aspect only seemed enhanced by making the character in question a quintessential outsider: namely, a woman in the male-oriented, male-dominated profession of arms. The uphill battle Marianna has to wage for recognition and respect is brought to the fore every time she interacts with her benevolently paternalistic boss Pete Aristos, for example. The situation also makes for some fun contrasts between her fashion-plate exterior and how lethal she really is underneath. That’s something Jon Knox immediately picks up on, of course, imbuing their evolving relationship with an ever-present tinge of trepidation.
When it came time to write Dualism, I found the male/female dichotomy worked equally well from the perspective of the mind-body problem that the book grapples with: Marianna’s brash physicality playing off against Jon’s cerebral detachment. And I’m going to definitely need the whole man/woman thing for the third book.
So, yes, the action-hero half of my mismatched pair was always going to be a woman, and, no, I’ve never looked back. Of all my characters, Marianna Bonaventure is the only one I created from the ground up. I don’t know anybody even remotely like her — not that I wouldn’t want to — which is why it’s always been a trip writing her, just to see what she’ll do next.
Given that having accurate science was important to you, was it equally important that your portrayal of a secret agent also be accurate? Or did you just watch a bunch of James Bond movies?
Actually, I did serve some time as a Russian translator-interpreter for one of our military security agencies, but that post was too far down the totem pole to lend much insight into the wider world of clandestine operations.
What maybe counted more was my subsequent career as a consultant to Fortune 50 mega-corporations and government research organizations. That at least helped me get the bureaucratic aspects of the intelligence community right, I think. And then penetrating the field-agent mindset became more a matter of imagining everything the bureaucrats were not.
And, yes, I did watch a lot of James Bond movies. Where do you think my anti-hero’s name comes from? I can just see him up on the big screen: “The name is Knox. Jonathan Knox.”
Speaking of movies, there was once talk of Singularity being made into a movie. Is that still in the works?
No, not really. Back when Singularity was first published, my then-Hollywood agent and an independent producer brought it to an exec at a major motion-picture studio. Rather than have a treatment written up, though, they simply threw the two-pound, 500-page book on his desk and left him to mull it over. When his response came back it was pretty terse: “too dense and difficult to get through.”
If he had liked it, and made into a film, and he asked you to pick who would play Jon and Marianna, who would pick to play those roles and why?
Call me crazy, but I’ve always thought of John Cusack in the role of Jonathan Knox. In his best work he’s got an air of edgy bewilderment that seems spot on.
Marianna’s tougher…in so many senses of the word. For a long while there I was talking with Danica McKellar about the role. For those who don’t know, Danica’s not just Winnie Cooper from The Wonder Years, nor Elsie Snuffins from the fourth season of West Wing, she’s also hands down the smartest starlet in Hollywood. And I’m not just saying that because she read Singularity cover to cover…and got it. No, Danica is arguably the only Tinsel Town celebrity who has co-authored a published math theorem — entitled “Percolation and Gibbs states multiplicity for ferromagnetic Ashkin-Teller models on Z2” — and has written a series of books introducing teenage girls to the joys of mathematics.
Though with Danica on Dancing With The Stars nowadays, I’m leaning toward Olivia Wilde, who looks to have just the right mix of athleticism and intellect. When John Pavley — the comic artist and technology guru who’s been putting together a gallery of original work for the dualismthebook.com website — asked me what I thought Marianna looked like, I sent him images of Olivia as Quorra from 2010’s Tron: Legacy. Not to mention that Ms. Wilde is on record as calling for more substantive female lead roles in science fiction films.
And then, of course, there’s Cobie Smulders, who was Maria Hill in The Avengers.
So now that Dualism is done, where are you with the third book in the “Archon Sequence”?
I don’t think it’s giving too much away to say that I’m currently finishing up the plot outline for Triploidy. And once readers reach the last line of Dualism, they’ll be in a position to hazard a guess as to what that title refers to. More broadly, Triploidy turns on what I believe to be a never-before-explored scenario for first contact with extraterrestrial intelligence, bonded into a plotline deliberately intended as a science-thriller version of the TV series 24.
Interesting. In my author interviews, I often ask which of their other books people should read. But since you just have the one previous book, I want to go a different way: If someone enjoys Dualism and Singularity, what other sci-fi novels or thrillers do you think they might enjoy?
Well, I’ve already mentioned Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon The Deep, but there’s also his Marooned In Real Time, which is excellent in its own right. I’ve been bugging Vernor to write the Graduation Night sequel to that one for some time now.
The first three books in Larry Niven’s Ringworld series — Ringworld, The Ringworld Engineers, and The Ringworld Throne — are also unquestionable must-reads for anyone interested in science fiction post-Hugo Gernsback.
Finally, it’s sadly not uncommon for an author to have a past indiscretion ruin their career. Given that, how worried that someone might ruin yours by posting a video of you singing Bob Seeger’s “Old Time Rock And Roll”?
Arrgh! Will I never live this down?
Tell you what: I’ll leave a stash of unmarked, small-denomination bills in the hollow tree out by the Old Milford Road if you’ll promise to destroy the negative and all existing prints.