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Dansplaining the Technothrillers

 

Dansplaining RAINBOW  Published September 2020

I finished a new technothriller in mid-November 2019, and a funny thing happened... Its name evolved from the working title of CIVITAS to the final title of RAINBOW. Quite a change, I know, but once you read the story, the name change will seem obvious to you. RAINBOW should definitely keep you guessing until the last page, but let me tease you with a little Dansplaining...

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Quantum computer liquid helium jacket

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Mythical Civitas Townhall

I'm a close follower of historical and political happenings, and I assume that’s all a throwback to my early days when I was aiming to be a lawyer. My first undergraduate degree was in political science and history with the thought being that I would go to law school. Well, that never did happen, though I was never sorry that I chose a career in education instead. That said, we are witnessing a funny thing over the past several decades. The Western-style liberal democracy goes back two, three, four hundred years to European Age of Enlightenment, the French Revolution and the founding of the United States. This classical liberalism is based on individual rights and is characterised by free elections, the separation of powers and the preservation of human rights, civil liberties and the rule of law.

I'm a bit overly simplistic here, but in a sense, if you look at what statisticians call the “standard bell curve” shown here, Western democratic governments have tended rule citizens that might have fit that sort of curve. By that, I mean that the peak of the curve represents the millions and millions of citizens whose interests and desires are found somewhere there amongst the great so-called silent majority. That has more or less been a reflection of government across Europe, North America and Australia certainly through most of the 1800s and well into the twentieth century.

A funny thing has happened over the past few decades, though, and the trend seems to be enhanced by the explosion of social media we now have. That standard bell curve seems to have abruptly shifted to a “U curve” as seen in the second graph here. What this represents are two polarised sides that seem pretty much set at the extremes in nearly all social and political arguments nowadays. Consider the nearly even split within the United Kingdom over Brexit. For a once united people, the Brexit issue easily fits the U curve. The same is true in Greece, France, Hungary and Poland. The United States has increasingly polarised to a point at which many fear it is ready to split in two.

This problem of polarisation on a broad scale level got me to thinking of how human development could be used in a tale. Enter Hayden McNally, an IT guru born in Western Australia, but who spent the better part of his career lecturing at the University of California at Berkley. He then founded his own tech company, Eye-Safe Corporation, and that propelled him to become the richest man on Earth.

 

Two sad events changed McNally’s life in peculiar ways: first of all, his only daughter succumbs to social media bullying and suicides, and second of all, his wife’s university lecture hall is terrorised by a gunman who kills a dozen students and her in a rain of bullets. McNally is crushed, but instead of using his billions to revenge their deaths, he chooses to build a model community to overcome the polarisation of cultures.

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That is the basic premise of RAINBOW. McNally conjures up what he thinks is a solution to the emotional cry of populism and seeks to level the governmental playing field by turning a portion of the power over to the most advanced artificial intelligence imaginable. He purchases hundreds of square kilometres of land in the Western Australian outback and founds a new town he names Civitas after the Roman concept of the social body of citizens. The idea is to build everything new from the ground up, make Civitas the envy of Australia and the world, and moderate the government structure by having a Triumvirate of three supercomputers (AI Red, AI Blue and AI Yellow) overseen by a moderator supercomputer (AI White Light) act as a primary source of advice. McNally’s vision is for the system to

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summarise the collective findings of the Triumvirate into the members of the city council before they make decisions on all matters. In a sense, McNally plans to use the system of supercomputers to allow the U curve of polarised citizenship to somehow return to a more sustainable Bell curve-shaped population.

The novel is not at all political per se, and I have made sure that I haven’t headed down that rabbit hole. I have stuck to looking at the possibility of using a less emotional arbitrator in a system of government and of all problems that might entail. Since I love writing thrillers that can keep you guessing, I’m sure your imagination can conjure up directions I might take. I still aim to surprise you.

 

Why the name RAINBOW? I could tell you, but then I'd have to... well, you know where I was going with this statement! Now, I need to get back to finishing the final touches of RAINBOW.

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Australian National University's new Gadi supercomputer in Canberra, Australia.

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The Galaxy-Pawsey supercomputer in Perth supporting telescopes used in astronomical research.

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Dansplaining DREAMS           (Published September 2019)   

 

Hey, it’s probably not fair for me to say this, but I think DREAMS might be my favourite novel so far. It results from my frustration with how to communicate the urgency of a scientific reality that may not be obvious for decades into the future. Frankly, it bothers me that though I will be dead and gone, our children and grandchildren will all face the consequences of my generation’s excesses. How can I possibly communicate that in a novel? Dreams?

It’s funny how I got the idea for this, but like all ideas, the best inspirations seem quite unexplainable. It started out with me sitting in my dentist’s waiting room reading David Wallace-Wells book The Uninhabitable Earth. [I highly recommend it as an excellent read.] In short order, I went into Sash’s office, and we had a bit of a pre-treatment chat, which for some reason turned into a conversation about dreams. Well, we all know what it’s like in a dentist’s chair... You lie back and open wide, Dr Sash on one side and dental assistant Taylor on the other, both determinedly moving equipment in and out of your mouth with great gusto. It tends to keep even me about as quiet as anyone ever can keep me! Somewhere in the middle of the anaesthetics, the rubber dam, a high-speed drill or two and some composite resin, it dawned on me that just maybe the best way to span a century-plus period of time in one novel and with one lead character would be to use dreams as a literary device. Well, I won’t go farther than that here, since I do want you to read the story, but that is the source of the inspiration – Wallace-Wells, my dentist and friend, Shashika, and her trusty assistant, Taylor.

That said, my best mate and wife, Karn, spent her entire working life as a registered nurse and the last portion of her career was in the aged care sector. I learned from her that aged care can offer some of the best of memories and yet some of the saddest memories all at the same time. We are all heading in the same direction as long as we maintain our health long enough to wind up in aged care. Regrettably, we all expect old people to die, so when they do, we mostly don’t give it a second thought unless it’s one of our own rellies and those closest to us. But what happens if a series of deaths in aged care facilities become “in-your-face” blatant murders? How do you get to the bottom of that?

Again, I tried to span the globe in DREAMS, starting with a bombing of an aged care facility in Washington, DC, that kills over 20 seniors. Metro Police Detective-Sergeant Nick Corcoran and Investigator Jo Satterfield head a team looking into who set the explosion. Close on the same trail is journalist Samantha Holloway who quickly learns that similar suspected murders of older people were popping up in England, Malaysia, Singapore, Japan, Australia…

As has been the case in all my novels to date, I have great fun painting differing settings from around the globe as a background to the search for answers. Several behavioural researchers in America and Australia play a big role in trying to decipher the common threat in all of these suspicious deaths. They eventually realise that every oldie involved in foul play reported a series of episodic or serial dreams before their untimely deaths.

Sam’s hunt for answers leads her to Western Australia where she meets Leah Ferguson, a young emergency department doctor who’s 78-year-old grandpa, Laurie, is experiencing a similar series of dreams. There is particular local interest here since both Leah and her best mate Akiko Nakamura  both work at Fiona Stanley Hospital, not far from where Karn and I live. As is always the case with Dansplaining, I’m not going to spoil the story here, but it all does come together in the end.

I guess I had so much fun writing this novel because I could relate to it. No, no… I don’t remember having many dreams, so that isn’t that aspect with which I identify. To me, the interpersonal relationships I’ve had with so many young folks over the years is what pushed me into writing DREAMS. I just can’t tell you how strongly I feel about somehow trying to leave them with opportunities open to them that were open to my generation. There are days I don’t feel as optimistic about that as I would like. When I look at the website World Population History and put in my birthday, I’m amazed to see that there were less than 2.5 billion people on the planet the day I was born. Next I go to the World Population Meter and find that there are some 8 billion folks around today. Damn… that works out to close to a 320% increase in global population in my lifetime... in ONE lifetime! Then I read that the most wealthy 8… eight… EIGHT… people have more wealth than the bottom 50% or humanity (that’s about 4 billion humans!). I don’t know about you, but that startles me. Do you think there’s a refugee problem today? Just imagine what it’ll be like tomorrow, next year, next decade.

These are some of the things that were rattling around in my head when I wrote DREAMS. I am anxious for you to read it and have high hopes in with be published before the end of this year. As usual, let me know how you liked it.

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Dansplaining FEVER      (published June 2019)

For starters, I published FEVER in June 2019, about six months before COVID19 became know to humanity. It's not that Ebola is in any way similar to COVID19, save for being a virus, but it surely did portend of things to come. 

FEVER plays out on a truly global scale, though the bulk of the novel is set in 2024 Australia. The tale investigates a series of microorganism mutations that seem to be happening at an accelerated pace. Could Mother Nature be acting up in ways that could cause us problems?

The novel is set in Australia locations from Townsville in Queensland to Melbourne in Victoria to Fremantle in Western Australia. The theme running through FEVER has been chasing around in my brain for years and incorporates the Gaia Hypothesis into a creative story that might make it more understandable. This all comes from work done by an Englishman, chemist James Lovelock and his American colleague, microbiologist Lynn Margulis, back in the 1970s.

I first learned of James Lovelock while teaching high school chemistry and physics back in the late 80s when he published his book, Ages of Gaia. Though their notion of Gaia was around for a decade or more at the time, it was misunderstood by many science and non-science people. The trouble with the Gaia Hypothesis (Gaia was Mother Earth in ancient Greek) was that many people erroneously concluded that the theory somehow argued that the Earth to be a living organism. That was never Lovelock and Margulis’s point. Rather, they believed that Mother Earth was a system of physical laws that maintained a planet that was singularly hospitable to life.

Lynn Margulis is gone now, but James Lovelock is still with us at the ripe old age of 99! They were the amongst the first to warn of a heating Earth and considered just how our homo sapien species interacts with the planet and the impact that has on the observed changes. So, consider when microbes infect a human, one of the first natural defences that your body throws up is a fever. Could the Gaia theory also portend that when a planet has an ‘infection’ with one species threatening the existence of all others that Earth, too, might get a fever? I trust you like the cover, both because we see Australia from space for a change and that the Earth is on fire! Enter FEVER.

The story starts with a terrorist event over the Great Barrier Reef off Townsville and leapfrogs to a team of journalists chasing deadly zombie microbes crawling out of melting permafrost in Alaska and Siberia. Global News Network journo Asha Sharma, a Fremantle native, returns to Australia chasing the ‘biggest news story ever’. She quickly discovers the explosion of the research vessel over the Great Barrier Reef was not an accident and inadvertently stumbles across the first “murder-by-Ebola” case in Melbourne, the first active Ebola infection to ever impact Australia.

The pursuit of the bad guys follows local police, federal police and a keen ASIO agent. One of the elements that make FEVER different from other crime thrillers is that in addition to the police tracking the perpetrators, they are joined by a team of scientists and several journalists in the search for the facts.

I’ve always enjoyed reading a thriller, but I guess that coming from a scientific background, I like a tale that has some meat to it. For that matter, I enjoy a good, old murder mystery, but that same technical background makes me want more than just another ‘cops-and-robbers’ mystery. I reckon there are basically three professions that are based on the common premise of finding facts that are open to corroboration amongst peers. The three career paths I speak of here are in law enforcement, scientific research and journalism.

We certainly hope that our law enforcement officers all commit to getting to the bottom of a crime no matter how far they need dig and the check and balance over their work is the court system, at least in most of the western world that is the case.

The same is true for scientists. I realise there has been a concerted effort to point to researchers as somehow ‘bought off’ by grant money, but anyone who has spent weeks or months of work to win a few thousand dollars in funding knows that claim is laughable. Scientist work long hours chasing answers that may never be found, but they are held to the most rigorous accountability of all – peer review through the process of the replication of findings. Scientists thrive on pulling apart colleagues’ findings, and that is precisely what allows the scientific method to produce evidence-based facts.

I can argue that the final career path that seeks to dig out the ‘facts’ is legitimate, top-line journalism. I reckon if I hadn’t chosen the path of science in my career, I’d have been a journalist. I think that journos are the unsung heroes of the 21st century, what with cries of “fake news” and “enemy of the people”… I always appreciate the words on the masthead of

THE WASHINGTON POST that read, “Democracy Dies in Darkness”. Oh, how true. As a science nerd, I often think many people miss the point that a true journo is every bit as exposed to peer review as a scientist. Consider for a moment that when one media outlet gets a story wrong, just how quickly the rest of the pack are eager to correct them!

I hope you enjoy FEVER and if you do, give it a good review.

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Researchers at Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology (OIST) image of the structure of a central component of the Ebola virus at near-atomic resolution.

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