Book Nerd Interview
Dr David Batchelor earned his undergraduate B.S. in Physics from MIT and his Ph. D. in physics from UNC-Chapel Hill. The PhD dissertation was based on work he did investigating solar flares as part of the science team for NASA's Solar Maximum Mission spacecraft. He later was hired by NASA and has been employed by the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD, since 1988. He has performed scientific research in medical physics, and in astrophysics and elementary particle physics at NASA. He also managed educational web software development, and joined in space mission proposal writing. Currently he is a Radiation Physicist (forecasting the solar and cosmic radiation doses that may be encountered by NASA space missions). He is also an adjunct Associate Professor at the University of Maryland University College, where he taught Introduction to Physical Sciences for 6 semesters. His http://www.nasa.gov/topics/technology/features/star_trek.html about "The Science in Star Trek" is the most-read article about its topic on the Internet, and has been widely republished. Consequently he has been consulted on futurist topics by Wired Online, The Economist, Star Trek Communicator, The San Francisco Chronicle, National Geographic Online, NBC Nightly News, Fortean Times, and numerous other publications. His first science fiction novel, The Metalmark Contract, was published in 2011 by Black Rose Writing. He and his wife Laurie recently celebrated their 35th anniversary.
The epic of Metalmark is continuing. I've completed a draft of the first chapter of the next book, which continues where The Metalmark Contract ended. I have kind beta readers considering it. I have the plan in mind for the entire book, with working title The Triton Transformation. Metalmark is getting good reviews from most science fiction fans, and the book has had what I think is a good first year for a book from an up-and-coming publisher like Black Rose Writing. I will be at Balticon and Shore Leave science fiction conventions in Hunt Valley, Maryland, to promote Metalmark and talk about the science of advanced alien beings.
How would you describe yourself in three words?
Science loving husband. My first love (after Mom) was Science, but the center of my life became my wife Laurie and our 38-year love story. She has a quite scientific approach to life – one reason I married her – so she is also included in the science-loving, along with my career as an astrophysicist at NASA.
What’s one thing that readers would be surprised to find out about you?
My dad was a Baptist minister in rural North Carolina. I boggled his mind with factoids like the age of the Universe being around 15 billion years. But he was a big believer in the value of my MIT education and my choice to go on to the Ph D in physics.
What fiction most influenced your childhood, and what effect did those stories have on your writing?
I was a reader of the complete Tom Swift, Jr., series (33 books!) and the work of Isaac Asimov, Sir Arthur C. Clarke, and Robert Heinlein. I also read Scientific American and the science fiction magazines like Analog and Galaxy. My writing probably became grounded in sequences of amazing events rather than in colorful descriptions and probing character studies. I strive to overcome a tendency to write tersely, not vividly enough. Another effect of the influential authors was to give me a perspective of mixed pessimism and optimism. I think that as a species evolving in the future we will neither find technological nirvana nor spiral down into dystopia, but thrive in an accumulation of strangeness. Who could have imagined 50 years ago that everyone would have a computer, but most of the cycles of computation would be used for gaming and exchanging messages and funny movies?
Did it take a long time to get your first book published?
Yes, I finished The Metalmark Contract story in 2006 and got 12 beta readers to enjoy it. But the 2007 recession hit before I could find an agent, and all of the publishers I was considering required agent submissions. Then there was an era when all queries were answered “No” or no reply. I think the science fiction market was glutted, and every publisher wanted authors with proven selling power. I read about Black Rose Writing in Writers' Digest in 2010, and sent them a query with Chapter 1 because the WD said that BRW would consider manuscripts from new authors. Reagan Rothe asked for the full manuscript and accepted it in December 2010. The Metalmark Contract was published March 3, 2011.
For those who are unfamiliar with your novel; The Metalmark Contract, how would you introduce it?
In the near future, an alien visits Earth in an advanced starship and an artificial humanoid body to offer mankind a deal: his technology and a starship in exchange for rights to Mercury and Triton. He knows from our TV broadcasts how to communicate, and that the United Nations declared that planets and moons are the property of mankind. Also we have nuclear-armed missiles. So Metalmark, as he introduces himself, offers a contract to the UN. “What could go wrong?”
The Metalmark Contract combines a vision of how realistic, advanced alien beings might arrive on Earth with insights into how we could be our own worst enemies if that happened. Our religious beliefs, laws and political habits will govern how we respond when aliens arrive. If that happened in the next decade (the timeframe of the novel) then we would not be prepared to take full advantage of the opportunities.
Our baggage of mystical delusions, militaristic preconceptions, oppressive treatment of even the most accomplished women, and reactionary politics all sabotage our liaison with an advanced being who offers us a quantum jump in technological progress. Our only hope is the alien's forbearance and vulnerability, which make him persist in the hope of combining forces with us to save himself from lethal pursuers.
Contemporary events like the faltering of the US space program and the rise of repressive Chinese governance shape the lives of the characters in The Metalmark Contract. Our chance to join advanced beings and travel the stars is hostage to ancient beliefs, and seems doomed. Can it be saved?
The world after Metalmark arrives is transformed, as well as the Solar System, which he begins to reshape. Our best role is partner to his sculpting, but adversaries rise at the book's end. And politics in the polarized USA sabotages the greatest nation's partnership with destiny.
Why do you feel you had to tell this story?
I love the possibility that we could go star traveling if we had help from advanced friends. It's the next-best thing to my childhood belief that we would be able to visit the stars ourselves in my lifetime. Even really alien lifeforms like the silicon-based Metalmark can conceivably visit and have enlightened self-interest to help us. Finding a way that it could happen, as in this story, with everything being consistent with the science I know, consoles my heart in my knowledge that I won't get to go in the real world.
I also wanted to comment on the unrestrained impulses that bedevil our politics today. A benign alien with enlightened self interest could be a great partner, but in our world today I believe that such a being would be sabotaged by our flaws and suspicions, particularly in the USA. However, a much worse problem is the domination of nations such as China by repressive and unethical governments. The Chinese in The Metalmark Contract don't play well with the alien visitor either.
What chapter was the most memorable to write and why?
Chapter 3 was memorably sad, because of the things that go so wrong. Chapter 4 was memorably exciting; I really enjoyed writing such a tense space adventure with such a strong female protagonist, and the illustration of how repressive governments take self-defeating missteps. Chapter 8 left me unspeakably sad. In Chapter 9, the last, the characters go through such a trial that I have often re-read it, unable to believe it’s my work.
What is the single worst distraction that kept you from writing this book?
Science fiction writing is my second job for now. If I could just make a living without this NASA Astrophysics gig, I’d get so much more writing done! [It’s a joke!]
If you could leave your readers with one legacy, what would you want it to be?
We must keep striving to improve and advance. In our present state we are primitive and our own worst enemies. Progress is vital to our future. Science is the essential tool for achieving that progress, and if we can wield that tool with compassion and mutual tolerance, then we will build an awesome destiny together.
Can you share a little of your current work with us?
Metalmark is going to be true to his contract with us, although to many humans it seems to be a contract with a devil. It won’t turn out as we might naively expect, or as Metalmark expects because he doesn’t know everything. The blank parts of his memory of the masters who built him and beings that he doesn’t even know about will complicate the fulfillment of the contract.
When asked, what’s the one question you always answer with a lie?
“Would you like to be a manager?” I always say, “Yes.” My real feelings are much more ambivalent. But management is the only path to career advancement, it seems.
Which author would you love to co-author a book with?
George R. R. Martin. His short stories “A Song for Lya” and “Sandkings” are singularly brilliant.
If you could have written one book in history, what book would that be?
I would choose the Bible, but it's not really one book. My favorite book is Intelligent Life in the Universe by I. S. Shklovskii and Carl Sagan (1966). It was career impetus like nothing else I ever read.
What is your favorite Quote?
“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.” – Richard P. Feynman
What’s the worst job you’ve had?
Lawn mowing at a college was pretty bad. They tried to move me up to helping with construction, but brick hauling was an epic fail for me. So it was back to the lawns that summer.
Where can readers stalk you?
Café Azafran, Lewes, Delaware. Laurie & I will show up there sooner or later.
David’s skills of presenting amazing new concepts and sci-fi technologies are simply remarkable. His writing style is so gripping that his creativity allowed for his out-of-this-world ideas to be feasible. When Metalmark claims his species to be similar to a butterfly, readers are caught off guard and thinks of them as the cute and harmless ones found on Earth. However, readers are reminded that butterflies were once bland little worms which leave a lot to the imagination as to the exact physical description of Metalmark’s species. David’s writing style of presenting a story of a fictional Earth coming into terms with an alien life-form’s offerings is superb. It contains many original ideas. The ending was satisfying but raised more questions than answers. But since it is the first book in a series, it is expected and I’m certain that subsequent installments will continue to add improvements to an already stellar book.
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