Exclusive Interview: The Chaos Function Author Jack Skillingstead

We’ve all wondered what it would be like if pivotal moments in our lives had gone differently; if we hadn’t taken that job, if we hadn’t made that mistake, if we hadn’t kissed that certain someone. But in his new sci-fi thriller The Chaos Function (hardcover, Kindle), writer Jack Skillingstead has someone accidentally making such a substantial change that the outcome doesn’t just change their life, but everyone else’s as well.

Jack Skillingstead The Chaos Function

Photo Credit: ©️ Liza Trombi


To start, what is The Chaos Function about?

A self-described “disaster journalist” named Olivia Nikitas is covering the seemingly endless war in Syria when she stumbles into possession of a power that allows her to choose an alternate probability outcome and save the life of a guy she is close to. The first time she uses this power she does so unwittingly. Unfortunately, the probability she’s created has also created a world in which weaponized smallpox virus is successfully smuggled out of Aleppo and unleashed upon the world. The book follows Olivia’s efforts to find a probability that saves both her friend and the rest of the planet, and she does this while being pursued by agents of the secret society that until now held the power.

Where did you get the idea for TheChaos Function, and how did that idea evolve as you wrote the book?

I wanted to write a road novel with some kind of alternate or shifting reality premise. I tried out a lot of different ideas, played around road maps of the United States, but nothing really gelled until…

A couple of years ago I read a piece about Elian Gonzalez. You know, that little Cuban boy who made the crossing with his mother in 2000? His mother died, and his father, who was still in Cuba, wanted the child back. A huge legal battle ensued, going all the way to the Supreme Court. Eventually, Elian was sent back, and much of the Cuban community in Florida was not happy. That was an election year. Remember hanging chads? One theory of Gore’s loss in Florida was his waffling position on the case.

Now add one more element. The famous photograph of the federal agent in tactical gear, including a semi-auto military rifle, pulling the boy out of the arms of the fisherman who had rescued the kid from drowning. Hearing about the boy being sent back is one thing, but seeing this dramatic photo heightened everyone’s emotional reaction. Remember, this was before smart phones, where pretty much everything is filmed and instantly uploaded. Back in 2000, the AP reporter who took the picture had to get into the house during the confusion and grab his shot before being kicked out or arrested. It made me wonder what would have happened had he been unsuccessful, if the picture had never been taken. Would Gore have squeaked out a win in Florida? It would have given him the presidency — and the first decades of the 21st Century would have been drastically different. It was a crisis point. History is full of them. Think of the Cuban Missile Crisis, or the raid on Germany’s heavy water experiments. And my mind being what it is, I started thinking about a machine that zeroed in on crisis points and manipulated the end point selection, deliberately bending history. And that lead to the secret society and the rest of it.

As for the story evolving: of course it did. Books always evolve in the writing, at least mine do. In the case of The Chaos Function, the core idea of a probability machine and the secret society of Shepherds was always rock solid, but the mechanism of the plot and the evolution of the characters evolved naturally through various drafts. The adage that books are not so much written as re-written is apt, I think.

Oh, and it may not sound like it, but The Chaos Function is very much a road novel, and one I’m happy to have written.

The Chaos Function also sounds like a science fiction story. Is that how you see it, or are there any other genres, or combinations of them, that you think describe this story better?

Certainly the book contains science fictional elements, and the core idea is unarguably science fiction, but the story’s sensibility and deliberate momentum are closer to the thriller genre. So it’s a combination, I’d say: a science fiction thriller, with an emphasis on pace and escalation.

Now, The Chaos Function is not your first novel. Are there any writers or specific stories, that had a big impact on The Chaos Function, but not on your earlier stories?

I could name a few books that may have been involved in the simmering part of the recipe that eventually resulted in The Chaos Function. I say “may have” because, as far as I know, I wasn’t consciously modeling the book after any other work. So: [Neil Gaiman’s] American Gods, specifically the road scenes involving shifting realities. The Flicker Men by Ted Kosmatka, which also combined quantum physics with a thriller, action-oriented plot. And, going back a few decades, [Roger Zelazny’s] Nine Princes In Amber. Readers might be puzzled to see that one on the list, since it is solidly in the fantasy genre. But I really loved the traveling-through-Shadow aspect of Amber. Shifting realities under the, at least initially, slippery control of the protagonist.

How about nonliterary influences; are there any movies, TV shows, or video games that had a big influence on The Chaos Function?

It’s funny, with my other books I can come up with specific media that provided influence. But with The Chaos Function, which is probably my most cinematic book, I’m drawing a blank. I guess maybe old movies like Fail-Safe and Dr. Strangelove, with their race against the clock to avert apocalyptic disaster. Maybe Inception, for the reality-bending aspect…

Now, as you know, some sci-fi books are stand-alone stories, and some are part of larger sagas. What is The Chaos Function?

Chaosis a stand-alone novel, for sure. I always saw it as a self-contained ride built into a classic three act plot structure.

Earlier I asked about the movies, TV shows, and video games that may have influenced The Chaos Function. But has there been any interest in adapting it into a movie, show, or game?

Naturally, I think it would make a great movie. Alas, there is no deal in the works as of right now, though we’ve gotten some interest and requests for the manuscript. With the movies, you never know. I think you could even do a cool Netflix or Amazon Prime series, but that’s not happening at this time. There will be an audio book this summer, though. That’s a done deal.

If The Chaos Function was to be adapted into a movie, who would you like to see them cast in the main roles?

Zoe Kazan [The Monster] would be a good Olivia Nikitas. Or maybe Amy Adams [Arrival], though you would have to tweak the character’s background a little. Maybe [Lady Bird‘s] Lucas Hedges for Brian? I dunno.

Jack Skillingstead The Chaos Function

Finally, if someone enjoys The Chaos Function, what similar-ish novel of someone else would you suggest they read next and why that one?

The two that spring to mind are Blake Crouch’s Dark Matterand Ted Kosmatka’s The Flicker Men. These books run around in the same literary territory of thriller / science fiction.


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