The Write Stuff – Monday, July 30 – Bill DeSmedt Interview

This week’s featured author, Bill DeSmedt, describes his life this way:

I’ve spent my life living by my wits and my words. In my time, and as the spirit’s moved me, I’ve been: a Soviet Area expert and US/USSR exchange student, a computer programmer and system designer, a telecommunications consultant, an Artificial Intelligence researcher, a son, a husband and lover, a father and grandfather, an omnivorous reader with a soft spot for science fiction and science fact, and now, Lord help us, a novelist. I’ve tried to pack as much of that checkered history as I could into my Archon Sequence technothrillers, beginning with Singularity.

My previous writing credits include an unconventional two-part attempt to marry the fields of cognitive psychology and software engineering for the journal DataBase Programming & Design, a chapter on artificial intelligence in foreign language learning for Melissa Holland’s Intelligent Language Tutors, a beginner’s guide to natural-language processing for the Proceedings of the 1997 Computer Game Developers Conference, and a treatise on storytelling as a tool of military command for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The publication of Singularity marks the first time I’ve committed an act of fiction.

Bill’s novel, Singularity, released by WordFire Press on June 23, 2018, takes its terrifying premise from an actual occurrence termed by scientists the Tunguska Event.

TUNGUSKA, JUNE 30, 1908: The most catastrophic impact in recorded history rocks the Central Siberian plateau, flattening thousands of square kilometers of ancient forest and sending shockwaves around the globe, yet leaving behind not a shred of evidence as to what caused it.

Could the culprit have been, as Albert A. Jackson IV and Michael P. Ryan Jr. theorized in the pages of Nature, a primordial black hole? Earth’s encounter with such a fantastic object—smaller than an atomic nucleus, more massive than a mountain, older than the stars—could account for all the phenomena of the Tunguska Event.

All, save one: An infalling micro-hole should have burrowed unhindered through the solid mantle of the earth, bursting up out of the North Atlantic hours later with as much multi-megaton force as the original impact. Absent any trace of such an “exit event,” the Jackson-Ryan hypothesis was swiftly consigned to the dustbin of astrophysical history.

And yet …

110 years after Tunguska, maverick cosmologist Jack Adler is researching a new and improved scenario: What if there was no exit event because the black hole itself never came out? What if it fell into orbit around earth’s core instead? What if it’s still down there, tunneling through the lithosphere, slowly consuming the planet?

Unfortunately, Adler’s not alone in his surmise. A renegade Russian oligarch is plotting to capture the orbiting micro-hole and expose what lurks at its heart: a naked singularity—a gravitational point-source powerful enough to warp space and time itself.

Now only a rookie government agent and the ueber-consultant she’s drafted into helping her are standing in the way of a world-spanning conspiracy aiming to reshape the future by rewriting the past.

What do you want readers to know about your book?

Kip Thorne, Nobel-prize-winning theoretical physicist and close collaborator with the late Stephen Hawking, had this to say about Singularity:

“Bill got the vast majority of the physics right, which is highly unusual—especially in a book that is such a good read.”

Aside from the plot, is there a story behind it?

It took a lot of books to make this one. But this one started with a TV program. Perils of couch-potatohood, I guess.

It was years back, a rainy Saturday afternoon in mid-summer. I was sitting around watching a rerun of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, Episode IV: “Heaven and Hell”—the one that deals with meteor and cometary impacts.

So, about midway through, Carl gets around to the Tunguska Event. And from there to the Jackson-Ryan hypothesis: that the Event was a collision between the earth and an atom-sized black hole. And then he’s off refuting J&R, citing the standard missing exit-event objection—namely, that the black hole should have cut through the earth like a knife through morning mist, and come exploding up out of the North Atlantic about an hour later, wreaking all manner of havoc in the North Atlantic sea lanes. Never happened. QED. And, next thing you know Carl’s gone on to Meteor Crater in Arizona or some such.

Meanwhile, I’m sitting there, staring at the TV. “But, Carl,” I say to myself, “What if the damned thing never came out?”

Wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then. The idea wouldn’t leave me in peace. It kept rattling around in my hind-brain, gradually accreting mass as more and more pieces from my personal history fell into place: my background in Sovietology, my career as a consultant, just enough physics to glimpse what the successors to the KGB might want to do with a captive black hole… Over the next couple years, that one minuscule germ of an idea grew into a plotline.

Finally, on an equally rainy Saturday over a lost Memorial Day weekend, I sat down at the word processor, and Singularity began to write itself!

Why is your writing different from other authors in this genre?

I can’t presume to speak for other authors, but I do feel an obligation to my readers to try and keep the science as accurate and understandable as possible—to get, in Kip Thorne’s words, the “vast majority of the physics right.”

What was your path to publication?

Arduous. Right up there with sausage and legislation as one of those things regarding which you don’t want to know how they come about.

What are you working on now?

Triploidy, the third installment in the Archon Sequence.

What else have you written?

Dualism, the second book in the Archon Sequence. All the rest to date has been non-fiction for various corporations and government agencies—oh, yes, a series of blogs on artificial intelligence and related topics for Huffington Post and LinkedIn.

Are there any awards or honors you’d like to share?


Singularity was also named to the following “Best of 2004” lists:

  • Barnes & Noble Explorationseditor Paul Goat Allen’s Top Ten Novels of the Year
  • com’sBest Books of 2004 list in not one, but two Categories—Fantasy/Science Fiction/Horror and Mystery/Thriller
  • SFSignal’s Year in Review: The BestList and “John”’s List of “Top X favorite genre books read last year (Where X is 5 or less).”

What is your writing routine?


Do you create an outline before you write?


Then I stick it in a desk drawer and never look back.

Why do you write?

Initially, it was the inciting incident of the Carl Sagan broadcast (see above). Thereafter, I became intrigued by my protagonists themselves—I wanted to explore the evolution of their relationship, assuming such a thing is even possible nowadays.

What life experiences inspire or enrich your work?

I’d have to say my marriage to Kathrin. We’ve been going at it for decades, and it’s always reminded me of Thornton Wilder’s line in Our Town:

“Once in a thousand times it’s interesting.”

Do you have another job outside of writing?

I am a senior ontologist at semantic search firm NTENT, Inc.

Would you care to share something about your home life?

My wife Kathrin and I are serial wirehaired dachshund adopters.

Do you have any pet projects?

In my copious spare time, I’ve been working to create MetaLang, a knowledge-based, language-independent, end-user authorable conversational agent technology suite. MetaLang agents employ natural language processing and knowledge representation and reasoning capabilities to hold up their end of a conversation. Rather than parroting canned responses, or matching wild-carded patterns, a MetaLang agent relies on its “mindset”—the totality of the memories, beliefs, opinions, and knowledge comprising its simulated personality, based on Minskyesque frames populated from a homegrown, mid-sized (~12K concept) ontology—to extemporize like a human improvisational actor across a broad spectrum of instructional, entertainment, and customer-service interactions.

Who are some of your favorite authors?

David Brin, James Morrow, Larry Niven, Robert Pirsig, and Vernor Vinge

Thank you for taking the time to share with us. Before I present an excerpt to our readers and provide your book buy links, I’d like to engage in a Lightning Round. In as few words as possible, please answer the following:

My best friend would tell you I’m a: polymath.

The one thing I cannot do without is: Intellectual stimulation.

The one thing I would change about my life: Pretty much nothing.

My biggest peeve is: The sad yet increasingly undeniable fact that nothing can defeat logic but ignorance.

The person I’m most satisfied with is: Marianna Bonaventure.


Prologue: The Tunguska Event, June 20, 1908

The remnant had sailed the empty spaces between the stars since time began. Had journeyed far, far in space and time from its birth at the beginning of all things, far from its forging in the primal fires of Creation.

There was no destination on this voyage, though there were occasional ports of call. Here and there throughout the void tiny orbs circled their parent primaries, huddled close against the cold and the dark. Most such solar systems were bypassed without incident. Still, every once in an eternity, some unlucky world would chance to swim out into the remnant’s path.

As one is doing now.

* * *

In this, the summer of 1908, there is no science or technology anywhere on earth that might avert the impending catastrophe. Heavier-than-air flying machines have only just begun their conquest of the skies, while space flight remains but a distant dream, the exclusive province of visionaries like Jules Verne and Herbert George Wells. The controversial theory that the entire physical world might be made up of tiny particles called ‘atoms’ is still waging an uphill battle for scientific acceptance, against the strenuous opposition of influential physicist-philosopher Ernst Mach. It will be another fifteen months before a young Albert Einstein will leave his safe berth at the Bern patent office and devote himself fulltime to generalizing the theory of relativity he first broached a mere three years ago. For all the secrets that nature has yielded up in the two centuries since Newton, the scientists of earth still stand helpless before the threat posed by the remnant.

But they can, just barely, detect its approach.

In the main physics lab at Germany’s Kiel University of Applied Science, beginning at six in the evening on June 27th and continuing over the following two nights, Professor Ludwig Weber has been observing faint but regular disturbances in his magnetometer readings. After ruling out streetcar vibrations and Northern Lights, he concludes that a powerful magnetic point-source must be nearing the earth from somewhere out in space. But when Weber points the observatory telescope at the likely region of night sky, he sees—nothing.

What could be close enough and charged enough to interfere with the magnetic field of the earth itself, yet remain invisible to the most sensitive instruments early twentieth-century optical technology can muster? This is the question that confounds Weber throughout the evening of June 29th as he watches the magnetic disturbances grow in strength. He is still wrestling with the riddle when, at 1:14 on the morning of June 30, 1908, the frenetic jitter of his magnetometer needle comes to a sudden dead stop.

* * *

Six time zones to the east of Kiel, far out on the Central Siberian plateau, there yawns that vast, silent emptiness known as the Stony Tunguska basin—three hundred thousand square miles of watershed, peopled, even in this eighth year of the new century, by fewer than thirty thousand souls. Here, in this land of expatriate Russian frontiersmen and nomadic Evenki tribes, there are no telescopes, no magnetometers, precious little technology of any kind. Here in Tunguska, nothing but a dying shaman’s vision has foretold the remnant’s coming, and nothing more than the naked eye will be needed to witness its arrival.

Here in Tunguska, the morning of June 30th has dawned bright and clear, scarcely a wisp of cloud in the sky. By seven, the sun has been up for hours, banishing the chill of the brief subarctic summer night, promising another sweltering noontide. Herds of domesticated reindeer, lifeblood of the Evenki nomads, are already grazing on new shoots in the thickly-forested taiga. Dense veils of mosquitoes swarm the pestilential bogs of the Great Southern Swamp. The living world goes on unchanged, just as it has for centuries. All this despite the shaman’s warning.

Perhaps no one finds more comfort in the very ordinariness of this fine summer morning than a young Evenki herdsman by the name of Vasiliy Jenkoul. For today Jenkoul must tend to his father’s southern herds. And that will mean riding down the long Silgami ridge, directly into the Tunguska heartlands.

Directly into the lands where—to believe the shaman’s deathbed prophecy—on this morning, the great god Ogdy, Old Man of the Storms, will send forth his thunderwinged minions to visit death and destruction upon the clans of the Stony Tunguska.

* * *

7:14 A.M. The forest falls silent. Even the ceaseless susurration of the Great Swamp’s insect life fades. Far off in the southeastern skies, clearly visible in broad daylight, a bright blue star appears.

The remnant is close now. Four hundred miles out and a hundred miles up, just beginning to brush the lower edges of the ionosphere. The resulting shockwave fluoresces in the ultraviolet. Thickening atmosphere absorbs the radiation and re-emits it at longer wavelengths.

Trailing a plasma column of cerulean blue, it descends.

* * *

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