Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Interview with Ransom Stephens & Contest for THE GOD PATENT


"...a narrative that sings of the heart and the scientific method as two parts of the same song."
San Francisco Chronicle

"Ransom Stephens got it right. The Petaluma scene. The suspense software. The dark side in all of us that is battling our hardwired angels."
The Petaluma Democrat: Book Case
I'm quite delighted to have a certifiable brainiac as my guest today. Ransom Stephens is not only the author of the newly released The God Patent, but a former professor of particle physics, which is all kinds of awesome.   He's also a pal and well-known in the San Francisco literary scene, where he participates in conferences and hosts the writers' program Speakeasy.

Now, Ransom is a thoughtful fellow, so his answers are well considered.  This makes for a long Q&A, but I highly recommend that you read to the end.  He has interesting observations for both readers and writers trying to get that first deal.

The publisher describes the book as "“Nick Hornby meets Stephen Hawking and writes a Neal Stephenson novel.”  Ransom is offering a signed copy of his book for a contest here, so read to the end of the post to learn how to enter.


MARTA: Welcome to Vampire Wire, Ransom! Congratulations on publishing The God Patent. Would you tell us a little about it?

RANSOM: Love to! The God Patent has three primary plot-lines. Foremost, it’s about a man named Ryan McNear who, in the course of salvaging a life ruined by bad choices (“Was it meth, hookers, or gambling?” Dodge asks, and Ryan replies, “Well, it wasn’t gambling…”), moves into an old house-turned apartment complex. His landlord, Dodge Nutter, is a former lawyer, current conman (and is a lot of people’s favorite character) and his neighbor is an 11 year-old girl named Katarina. Katarina’s father died a year before so she’s sort of obsessed with figuring out what death is; her mother hasn’t recovered from her husband’s death and isn’t much of a parent. Ryan becomes Katarina’s mentor and discovers that, in addition to being obsessed with death and a nasty adolescent skate-rat, she is a math prodigy. Most of the story is about Ryan and Katarina growing up together.

The arc of the story is the culture war between science and religion. Ryan’s old friend Foster is an evangelical Christian who believes that he can prove the existence of God by developing technology that he and Ryan proposed as a joke back in the heady days of the dotcom/tech boom. Well, Ryan needs money to fix his life so it’s not too hard for Dodge, the landlord/attorney-conman, to convince Ryan that he should sue his old friend – which means debunking the technology in a very public way.

This is where Emmy comes in. Emmy is Dodge’s sister and she is a professor of particle physics. An interesting side note on Emmy is that I based her on my fantasy of Emmy Noether who was mathematician at the turn of the last century. Noether’s theorem is, in my mind, the most important discovery in the history of humanity! So I think it’s a crime that so few people know who Emmy was. Other than dedication to the truth embodied in mathematical science, my Emmy actually has little in common with the real Emmy, but maybe (maybe!) if Emmy Noether had grown up in Los Angeles in the 1980s instead of the Kaiser’s Germany in the 1900s, Emmy Noether might have been like my Emmy Nutter.
Anyway, Emmy immediately understands what Ryan’s friend is trying to do and why it can’t work. She also understands the political motivation of the fundamentalist Christian right in pushing this technology whether it work or not.

Ryan falls for her immediately and soon find himself stuck in the middle of the science vs religion culture war. On the one hand, his best friend has gotten funding from a cynical military contractor to develop this limitless energy source and on the other is his girlfriend trying to show the world that it’s a big con.

All the while, Katarina is alongside Ryan, trying to figure out where the science ends and the religion begins. Most of the science in the book emerges from Katarina’s quest to understand what happens after you die. Over the course of the story Katarina grows from an 11 year-old with scratched up knees to a 14 year-old desperately in need of a parent. Ryan does his best and you can judge for yourself whether or not his best is good enough.

The book concludes with Katarina’s concept of the eternal soul. The cool thing about this concept is that whether or not you believe it can be boiled down to your answer to a single question of faith.

MARTA: I think people too often see creativity and science as mutually exclusive. Any thoughts?

RANSOM: I think that the creative people are the ones who become great in any field. The difference is that arts tend to be considered more “creative” than the sciences. I haven’t found this to be true in my experience as a particle physicist. Some of the most creative people I’ve known have been physicists, engineers and mathematicians – people who invent things out of thin air whether they’re gadgets, ideas, or new ways to understand the universe. Ultimately, I think that where we invest our time is where our creativity emerges.

I’ve found writing novels almost alarmingly similar to writing software. If you change one thing, you have to go back and debug everything else or it won’t work. Novels are wily; they’ll slip away if you’re not careful. And, of course, ideas are the heart of all creativity.

I guess the only real difference between the creativity of writing fiction and that of understanding nature is that nature will let you know if you’re right or wrong and no one can tell you if you’re “right” or “wrong” with fiction. Critics certainly try and they’ve been awfully nice to me so far so I’m not going to say anymore about them.

MARTA: You write a lot of nonfiction, including scientific papers and a memoir on raising your daughter. Did you discover anything about writing in general and your writing in particular when you were writing The God Patent?

On WritingRANSOM: What Steven King says in his book, On Writing, is true: Do it for the buzz. The buzz from science writing is different from the buzz of writing fiction or memoir. In science writing – I write a lot of papers for high tech company marketing departments, which is what paid my bills while writing The God Patent – it’s more like puzzle solving and documenting the solution, the buzz is in the solution, not the documentation.

Writing fiction though – what a rush! The months I spent in this world of Ryan, Katarina, Dodge and Emmy were wonderful. I felt everything each one of them went through.

Most of the book is set in Petaluma where I now live and every day I’d walk by the wonderful old Victorian that the “Nutter Mansion” is based on. I’d look up in the second floor and wonder what Ryan was up to, down the street, to the old Phoenix Theatre that inspired the Skate-and-Shred skate park+gig venue in The God Patent and it was easy to picture Katarina painting murals inside. In the middle of the night I’d wake up and streams of novel-reality, possibilities and backstory would run through my head to the point where I didn’t really want to fall back asleep.

Of course, in addition to the buzz, is the craft. I am a craft junkie. I’ll talk about it for as long as you want. How to integrate backstory so it increases tension, ways to use point of view to keep things clear and edgy, the right way (imo) to build similes and metaphors, … all that stuff. Mastering the craft has been my strength in every job I’ve had. I don’t so much mean grammar and spelling, they are important, but they’re mechanics, not craft. I have a web page with most of my craft notes included.
MARTA: Are scientists or non-scientists your primary audience? Is your book difficult to follow for those of the “science makes my brain hurt” set?

RANSOM: Non-scientists are the primary audience for The God Patent. Novels have to deliver a story first and any thematic intellectual stuff should come second; it mustn’t be forced, and it should be integral, organic to the plot and served in small doses.

My publisher has described The God Patent as “Nick Hornby meets Stephen Hawking and writes a Neal Stephenson novel.”  The Amazon reviews, comments and all the email I get indicate that The God Patent appeals to a lot of different people.

There is authentic science in The God Patent, though it is never comes in longer than 4 page bites, which is still more than the big publishers probably would have allowed. Numina Press believes the science adds a lot of value; they don’t like to publish the same old stuff. Truth is, they let me keep way more science than I thought a publisher would ever let through. So far, no one has been put off by the science content – not even my sister who loathes all things technical. Most of my readers are drawn in more by the human story of Ryan trying to emerge from his problems with his teenage sidekick Katarina.

We spent a terrific amount of time working on the scenes where science emerges to make certain that there are at least two major sources of plot tension intertwined in those scenes. For example, in the most science-centric scene, where Emmy describes the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, Ryan is hitting on Emmy and Katarina hassles him for it mercilessly, plus Ryan is in the course of realizing something that, well, I can’t tell you what because it would be a spoiler.

And, just to make sure, there are little sign posts before the few scenes with science to fill you in on enough to enjoy the story without having to taxing your neurons enough to digest the science completely.

That said, ultimately, my readers should expect me to provide some good gee-whiz science in every book I write and they should be confident that the science is all legit. There will be no Michael Crichton BS science in anything I write.

MARTA: During the dot.com bubble, there was a lot of magical thinking going on in business, that something can come of nothing. What are you trying to say about that craziness in your book?

RANSOM: Engineers love this book because they can relate to the little games. The games were not isolated in the days of the dotcom bubble, they’ve been going on for as long as Intel, Microsoft, HP, etc, have been encouraging people to work ridiculous hours.

This Is the Part Where You Pretend to Add Value: A Dilbert Book (Dilbert Book Collections Graphi)There is just a bit of Dilbert in the plot. The people who develop technology are well aware that you can’t get something from nothing, but their bosses frequently can’t tell the difference between something and nothing so sometimes engineers like to mess with their heads. I know a guy who works for Intel who holds over a hundred patents. Some of them are quite valuable, but many are jokes that he squeezed through the system. I’ll never tell you his name!

MARTA: So is anyone actually trying to make a God gene?
RANSOM: I suspect that biochemists play the same games. I had a biochem roommate once who insisted that creating a life form would be the greatest experience possible. I used to chide him with questions like: “Would you kill it if it didn’t believe in you?” 

MARTA: You went a new route to publication, posting your book on Scribd first and garnering a following that led to a book deal. Any advice for writers trying to get published?

RANSOM: The whole problem that we face in this business is signal-to-noise. There are so many books out there that it’s impossible for the system of agents and publishers to be efficient filters. What worked for me was getting on Scribd early when the amount of content they had was small enough that, with a little bit of promotion, I could get enough people to look at my book. Once you have lots of people looking, you quickly find out whether it has enough appeal to make it on a larger field.

I was blown away the first few weeks that The God Patent spent in Scribd’s top 5 most read e-novels; then the weeks kept accumulating and at week 13 I got a note from Numina Press who had already obtained rights to three other books that did well on Scribd.

It’s still doing great on Scribd, too, I think it’s accumulated over 25 weeks in the top ten by now. 

The PrestigeMARTA: Tell us a few books or movies that you think integrate fascinating science themes with thrilling fictional themes.

RANSOM: The movie, “The Prestige,” has the same little germ of idea that the concept of the soul in The God Patent has. I saw the movie two months after I started work on The God Patent and thought I’d been scooped. But no, it was only obvious to me.

Cryptonomicon.There are very few books that integrate real science into the plot that are not science fiction. That’s not a rap on SF, but the science in SF tends to be the heart of the fiction. I don’t do that. My science is the truth as far as we know it when the book goes to print. Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon shows how to work math, technology and history into an awesome plot.

Never Cry Wolf : Amazing True Story of Life Among Arctic WolvesMy favorites are the naturalists Loren Eisely and Farley Mowat. Never Cry Wolf is one of my favorite all time books.

MARTA: Ransom, I hate to do this with a man of your capacious intellect, but I always have a obligatory inane question. I was forced to attend team-building exercises based on the “Wizard of Oz,” which I hated (both the movie and the team-building). If you had to create and anti-team-building exercise, one meant to foster disharmony, what fantasy or paranormal story would it be based on?

RANSOM: “The Prestige” would do the trick! Two guys who manage to destroy a great friendship over one’s huge blunder. “Office Space” would help prevent people from buying the company line.

“Life of Brian” has some choice pieces about how not to form committees.

ExcaliburThat’s kind of tough, isn’t it? Most fantasies are more about the milieu, the world, than about the characters or plot so they tend to foster team-building. My favorite movie is “Excalibur” and, I guess, you could say that sending a bunch of people on a quest for the Holy Grail is a good way to destroy the team…

MARTA: What’s next for you and where can readers find out more about you and your writing?

RANSOM: Everything is at The God Patent website: the calendar, a reader’s guide including a bibliography, reviews all that stuff.

I’m about to start revising my next novel – I finished the first draft just before The God Patent was released in print. The Sensory Deception is an all out enviro-thriller. It features Somali pirates, burning rainforests, a really cool type of virtual reality based on the most up to date theories of neurology, and some designer drugs. Moby Dick makes an appearance, too.

I have to admit that my favorite character in The Sensory Deception is the migraine-suffering bad guy. One thing I *hate* in fiction are black and white good-guy/bad-guys. We should always understand what drives the bad guy and it ought to be buried in that character’s concept of good.
Meanwhile, I’m giving a lot of speeches on things tangentially related to The God Patent. I also recently accepted the offer to be the National Science and Society Examiner with examiner.com so there will be a lot of nibbles of controversial science available there soon.

MARTA: Thanks for visiting, Vampire Wire.

RANSOM: Marta, it was a pleasure – I owe you a drink. Edinburgh Castle

MARTA: Ransom, you’re a man after my own heart!  Edinburgh Castle, it is.


CONTEST RULES:  To enter the contest, just leave a comment about science.  Do you hate it, love it, love science fiction that's mostly fiction?  Are you obsessed with "Star Wars" (you geek!), or do you like more apocalyptic scenarios, like "Road Warrior"?  The contest runs through May 15, and a winner will be selected at random. 

You can also leave questions and comments for Ransom.  His schedule is pretty crazy, but he'll try to drop by and respond.


 Oh, I couldn't find much, but I did find these videos from "The Prestige" and I will have to see it.


SandyG265 said...

I like sci-fi. Most of what I've read has been mostly fiction but I wouldn't mind reading something based on facts as long as there's a good story too.

Marta said...

Hi, Sandy! I used to love scifi when I was young, but I haven't read it in years. I'd need a little guidance on what's interesting and character-driven. When a book is all about world-building, I drift off.

writtenwyrdd said...

Not being a scientist of any flavor, but not being entirely ignorant, either, I really hate seeing "junk science" informing science fiction. I look forward to reading your book, it sounds fascinating.

radfox59 said...

syfy is my way of viewing life if we could only incorporate the books of science fiction into required reading more people would have a more realist viewpoint of life around (for every action there is a reaction)okay the visual presentation in movies gets a little extreme but think about most scifi writers and film makers are ahead of their times think Julius Vernes writing about supermarines way before they were invented not only that but in literature the composition of the prose used in the book writing is top notch (most english teachers won't admit this)the only semi scifi book we were let to read was George Orwell's 1984 pre-computer and cell phones but big brother monitering of everyone so the book The God Patent by Ramsom Stephens will stand up right next to Dean Koontz and Stephen King

Debbie F said...

I not real big on scifi. I used to read some years ago but I haven't read a scifi book in a long time. This one sounds interesting, especially the relationship between the main character and the young girl.


dcf_beth at verizon dot net

Books and Bane said...

Love sci-fi and I really loved Stephen Kings' On Writing! Great book!

Linda Henderson said...

I haven't read that many sci-fi books, but I love sci-fi movies. Star Wars, Star Trek, Bladerunner, Battlestar Gallactica, I liked them all. I was a big science geek when I was in school, took every science course they offered. This sounds like a very interesting book.

seriousreader at live dot com

Julie said...

The sci-fi genre is pretty fascinating.


Dottie (Tink's Place) said...

I'm a huge fan of science fiction, straight science, not so much, LOL.

Yes, I'm a Star Wars fan, Star Trek maniac, and a Battlestar Gallactica fanatic! (I have the word Geek stamped on my forehead...)

Dottie :)

Ransom Stephens said...

There was an argument in am Amazon discussion about whether The God Patent qualified as science fiction -- I think a beer was riding on the outcome -- and since it is the story that is fiction, not the science, it was determined that The God Patent is not science fiction. In fact, Amazon (in it's dubious wisdom) call The God Patent a "techno-thriller" as well as a "religion & spirituality --> fiction." I don't know what to make of that. Ultimately, I only care what you think (and Marta, of course).

The Bookish Type said...

I've only recently gotten into science fiction, but I love it! I really want to read more of it, but there's so much I hardly know where to begin! As for actual science...well, I was more of an English person in my high school days ;-) but I do like astronomy.

Zita said...

SciFi (NOT SyFy) rocks. I got started with Heinlein in Jr. High and never looked back =)

Anonymous said...

Science is probably the number one subject kids should be studying. I think the general population doesn't realize the reach of the scientific world. Flying through space -- how awesome is that? Looking for a cure for cancer -- un-freakin-believable. Cochlear implants -- holy cow. Discovering the R -- wow. It's an important subject to pass on to our successors in the world.

We need to ban the phrase "sharp as a bowling ball"... we all need a solid education. As the mother of a 24 year old child in graduate school, I think there's no where else she should be right now.

kalynnick said...

I actually hate the subject science but as far reading fiction of any kind of science, U'm for it.

kalynnick AT yahoo DOT

julstew said...

I love science, and I love science fiction. Reading my first Heinlein novel changed my reading habits forever.