The following interview with Bill was conducted by Paul Goat Allen for Barnes & Noble’s SF newsletter Explorations. This version restores portions excised from the final publication for reasons of length.
What was the motivation behind writing a novel like Singularity?
It’s all Carl Sagan’s fault! Here’s why:
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 where Carl talks about meteor and cometary impacts.
So, midway through, Carl gets around to the Tunguska Event — a still-unexplained impact that wiped out an area half the size of the state of Rhode Island. And from there, he goes on to the Jackson-Ryan hypothesis: that the Event was a collision between the earth and an atom-sized black hole. And then he’s refuting J&R, citing the standard missing exit-event objection — namely, that the mini-black hole should have cut through the solid body of the earth like a knife through morning mist, and come exploding up out of the North Atlantic an hour later, wreaking all manner of havoc. Never happened. QED.
And, next thing you know Carl’s gone on to Meteor Crater in Arizona or some such, leaving me sitting there, staring off into space.
“But, Carl,” I say slowly, “What if the damn thing never came out?”
Little did I know it at the moment, 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.
So has a consensus been reached about what caused the “cosmic mystery of the millennium,” 1908’s Tunguska Event?
If you’re asking whether some theories are more popular than others, I’d have to say, yes — that, over the past few decades, a consensus has grown up around the proposition that Tunguska was either an asteroid strike or a cometary impact.
But, fashionable as they may be, those two hypotheses can’t both be right. And science isn’t supposed to be a popularity contest anyway (good thing, too, or we might still be saddled with Ptolemaic astronomy and the phlogiston theory of combustion and elan vitale and the luminiferous aether — all of which were pretty popular ideas in their day). So, maybe a better way to ask it is: Is there a preponderance of evidence in favor of any one theory? And there I’d have to answer: not that I’ve seen so far.
The problem with the leading contenders is that the asteroid advocates have leveled some pretty damning arguments against the cometary hypothesis, and the comet theorists have given back as good as they got. (You’ll find the gory details in the “Star Wars” seminar on our Vurdalak Conjecture website.) But, to make that long story short, neither the cometary nor the asteroidal explanation seems able to account for all the observed Tunguska phenomena. In fact, the best thing they’ve got going for them is that no viable third alternative has emerged — yet.
When it comes to actually publishing a novel, was it easier or harder than you anticipated? Any advice for would-be novelists?
Orders of magnitude harder. What I hadn’t appreciated were the structural impediments that stack the deck against a newcomer. In particular, the fact that today’s publishing industry is starting to look an awful lot like the venture-capitalist business did just before the dot-com bubble burst. By that I mean there’s more and more money at stake, but the talent needed to put that money to good use is in as short supply as ever. So, you’ve got a fixed number of people (VCs in the one case, editors in the other) trying to allocate an ever-increasing number of dollars. And, since there’s an upper limit on how many deals that fixed number of people can handle per year, the only way the math works out is if the deals themselves keep getting bigger! Till they’re so big that only a surefire megabestseller prospect can justify the advances. First-timers need not apply.
The good news, though, is that the technology has reached the point where small, focused presses have begun springing up like mushrooms after a rain. And the operative term is “focus.” Precisely because a small press like Per Aspera will have many fewer titles than the big New York houses, they can lavish a lot more attention on each one. That’s certainly paid off for Singularity, and I’m far from unique. For a first-time novelist, I can’t think of a better launch pad than a small, committed press.
As for advice, there’s one piece of advice to aspiring authors that’s no less true today than it was back when the Egyptians first invented papyrus. And that’s: “The difference between a writer and a published writer is — persistence.”
So, stick with it. I did.
After reading your novel, I was struck by how much Singularity reminded me of hard science fiction stories by authors that I loved to read while growing up: Robert A. Heinlein, Larry Niven, Frederik Pohl, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, etc. Do any science fiction authors — or science fiction novels — stand out in your mind as inspirational?
First of all, let me say I’m profoundly honored — and humbled — to be mentioned in the same breath with the giants of the field. Most of the writers you name were my favorites when I was growing up too. In terms of influences and inspirations, I’d even add a few more: Poul Anderson, Greg Bear, James Blish, Michael Crichton, Vernor Vinge, Roger Zelazny.
Oh, and Ray Bradbury’s “Night Meeting” from his Martian Chronicles, which I chanced to read in Russian translation before I ever encountered the original English, but which spoke to me across that linguistic divide, just as its characters speak across gulfs of time and space. If Damon Knight was right about the core of the science-fiction experience being a “sense of wonder,” then that little story has remained my touchstone for the feeling all down the years.
Now, having said all that, let me turn around and subvert it by adding one more thing. Which is that I don’t really regard Singularity as science fiction. (I’m not alone in that: I’ve had more than one science-fiction editor say the same.)
Instead, what I was trying to do in Singularity was to take one or more of the traditional tropes of SF, and braid them into a mainstream science thriller. Still aiming to instill that sense of wonder, but without the mandatory suspension of disbelief that usually goes hand-in-hand with it. Less “Gee whiz,” in other words, and more “Well, of course.”
Did I succeed? The readers will decide that. Is it even doable at all? It sure ought to be, now that our everyday lives are fast becoming the stuff of the science fiction you and I grew up with.
Can you give readers a hint about what happens in Dualism, the sequel to Singularity?
Well, it’s early days to be disclosing plot details, but thematically Dualism will (as the title implies) explore Descartes’ mind/body dichotomy, filtered through the prism of near-future developments in artificial intelligence and quantum computation.
It’ll feature Jonathan Knox and Marianna Bonaventure, too — turns out I’m not through with them yet, nor they with me. And (as the title also implies) Dualism will be exploring the next move in the dialectic of their relationship as well.