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Matt Browne

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Interwith with Jim Baen's Universe: Stephen Euin Cobb - The Future And You
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Extinction Level Events - Apex Interview
By Matt Browne   
Rated "PG13" by the Author.
Last edited: Sunday, February 10, 2008
Posted: Sunday, February 10, 2008

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Science Fiction Novel 'The Future Happens Twice' by Matt Browne exploring Extinction Level Events

AR: Matt, thanks for joining us for this interview. We appreciate having this opportunity to learn more about The Future Happens Twice series.

Where did you get the idea to write The Perennial Project?

MB: Everyday I have the fortune of experiencing the immense complexity of humankind, ranging from the love and support that my family gives me to the sheer ugliness of the many natural, political and economic tragedies in the world. These contrasting human and natural activities drove me to question what it really means to be a "human being" in this universe of ours, how we plan to spend our future and what the future holds for us. There are great opportunities as well as dangers that everyone should be aware of. We need a discussion of the ethical issues related to new technologies, especially in genetics and bioengineering, but also in artificial intelligence and nanotechnology. The plot itself grew out of my strong interest in space and my desire to make space-related topics known to a broader audience.

In the year 2000 the Sunday Times newspaper carried an article by their medical correspondent Lois Rogers with the title "Couple seek to have twins born years apart". This was the first time I learned about the newly developed technology of embryo-splitting and decided to use it in my novel. I was particularly interested in the psychological aspects and the ethical implications. Besides that, I was also inspired by Bill McGuire's books Apocalypse and Surviving Armageddon - Solutions for a Threatened Planet. His main message is: "As a race, we survive on planet Earth purely by geological consent."

AR: Please share in more detail for our readers exactly what an Extinction Level Event is.

MB: I think the online encyclopedia Wikipedia offers a pretty good definition: an extinction-level event or ELE is a sharp decrease in the number of species in a relatively short period of time. Mass extinctions affect most major taxonomic groups present at the time such as birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish, invertebrates and other simpler life forms. Since life began on Earth, several major mass extinctions have significantly exceeded the background extinction rate. The most recent, the Cretaceous–Tertiary extinction event, occurred 65 million years ago, and has attracted more attention than all others because it killed the dinosaurs. In the past 550 million years there have been five major events when over 50% of animal species died.

Causes of mass extinctions include: meteorite impacts (asteroids or comets hitting the Earth), massive sustained volcanism and flood basalt events, nearby supernovae or gamma ray bursts, sustained global cooling or global warming. Sadly, our species has added a number of man-made threats to the list: global nuclear war, a pandemic caused by biological weapons such as genetically engineered viruses, uncontrolled proliferation of malicious nanotechnology or the advent of a technological singularity i.e. a smarter-than-human entity who rapidly accelerates technological progress.

AR: Is the chance of one happening in our near future more probable than we realize?

MB: We have to distinguish between "high impact - low frequency" events on one side and "low impact - high frequency" events on the other. The latter would include minor earthquakes (less than 4 on the Richter scale) or car accidents. It's our good fortune that high impact events are very rare. Yet they are still possible. Unfortunately, many people do not realize this possibility. We should also pay more attention to the events in between, which are of the type "medium impact - medium frequency". Larger tsunamis would fall into this category. Scientists knew and predicted that deadly tsunamis would affect the coastal areas of the Indian Ocean. Yet no warning system had been installed in that region before the terrible tsunami hit on December 26, 2004.

My point is: we should take Nature's powers very seriously. This includes extinction level events as well. Again, they are not probable, but they do happen. We should be prepared for that. Supervolcanoes are a reality. Meteorite impacts are a reality. Global warming with the potential of a very dramatic greenhouse effect is a reality. I strongly recommend watching Nobel Prize winner Al Gore's movie "An Inconvenient Truth". Even if a combination of man-made carbon dioxide emissions and our entering a warmer period in a natural cycle is responsible, it's still a very serious issue. We need to do something about it. In the long run we have to look at space as well. Space exploration matters. Our species should not be confined to one planet or one solar system forever. The famous physicist Stephen Hawking once said: "It's space flight or extinction." Increasingly powerful technologies make man-threats even more perilous. The Lifeboat Foundation for example develops strategies helping humanity to survive the aforementioned existential risks.

AR: Many people (who have probably watched too many old movies) have mistaken notions of exactly what androids are. Please expound on their significance, as well as how that plays out in your story.

MB: Again, Wikipedia offers an excellent definition: an android is a robot designed to resemble a human, usually both in appearance and behavior. This means that at least on the outside an android looks like a normal human being. An android can understand and speak human languages and the robotic features allow him or her to climb stairs or catch balls. Why are androids so significant in my story? Until we can send deep-frozen, hibernating people on interstellar missions, we have to rely on cryopreserved human embryos. This technology is available today and applied in numerous in vitro fertilization clinics. Artificial wombs will very likely become available over the next ten to twenty years. Babies are helpless creatures. On a starship that will have traveled for thousands of years, the use of androids to take care of the babies and raise the children is the most logical approach. This can be complemented by virtual reality environments that will provide additional stimulation during the children's upbringing and education.

AR: Though the book borrows many devices from the conventional Sci-Fi realm, the way that you combine them in the unfolding of the story is very unique and innovative. Who have been some of your writing influences?

MB: My favorite science fiction author is Sylvia Engdahl. I was particularly influenced by her book "The Children of the Star". It's also a trilogy in which human psychology and biotechnology play a crucial role. Other authors that had an influence on my career as a writer are Michael Crichton, Stephen Baxter, David Brin, and Robert Sawyer. I also admire the non-fiction books written by Carl Sagan, Nigel Calder, Marcus Chown, Alvin Toffler, and Thomas Friedman.

AR: What kinds of reactions have you gotten to the book?

MB: I was quite overwhelmed by the large number of female readers stating: "Hey, I never thought that science fiction could be so interesting and appealing to women." In general, most readers appreciate the focus on the human element without the science and technology parts ever getting too dominant. Most people are intrigued by the plot after the first 30 - 40 pages and like the idea of the cat and mouse detective story woven into the overall plot. It fills me with pride that people find the book intellectually stimulating. The science-keen readers appreciate the unique combination of visions and ideas that are explored through a diverse range of emerging technologies. It also became clear to me that my novel appeals to readers who like complex characters and epic storylines. Some prospective buyers may be daunted by a 730-page book. On the other hand, there are numerous book lovers who enjoy exactly that. And those who did keep asking me: "Where are the next 700 pages?"

AR: The Perennial Project is the first book of the series. What inspired you to create this ongoing story as a trilogy?

MB: All of my early peer reviewers got curious about what would happen to the newly founded colony on planet Acantarius. Everyone agreed that the colonists would always wonder about the fate of the people left behind on Earth. Would they eventually attempt to get back? How would they travel back? What would they find on the planet of their origin? Those questions became the basis of Human Destiny, the second book in the trilogy.

AR: Care to share with our readers a bit of what they can expect in the next two books?

MB: As the embryo-splitting technique can always be repeated, another set of identical twins of the last crew, together with their androids, are chosen to man the retrofitted starship Perennial. When they arrive on Earth 42,000 years later they find that there are still humans surviving. But all technology has been lost and the cultures are living on a Stone Age level: the Forest People and the Cave People. A long ice age that has lasted for thousands of years has prevented speedy human development.

Now at a time of climate change, farming has just been reinvented, but tools are still made of stone. The Cave People have developed a new religion that prohibits them from entering the Old Cities where some skyscrapers can still be seen in southern areas that were out of reach of the powerful glaciers. The ground is covered with debris from the gigantic volcanic eruption. Julara and the others are confronted with the question of intervening in the people's nature-oriented lives.

In the third book for the first time in history, human civilization makes an attempt to travel to another galaxy: Andromeda. Further progress in starship propulsion systems limits the travel to eighty-nine million years to bridge the enormous distance between the two galaxies. Julara and her fellow crew grow up in the distant future where Perennial sets a course to the star system where an intelligent signal originates. Their mission is to make first contact with a peculiar alien species.

AR: Any final thoughts you'd like to share with our readers?

MB: I'd like to quote the famous artist Michelangelo who once said: "The greater danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it." Ever so true !

AR: Thanks again, Matt, and best of continued success to you in all your endeavors!

Web Site: Author Website of Matt Browne

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