As a working engineer -- first in the space program, more recently in the field of robotics -- I'm constantly immersed in a technical world where the laws of physics and the limitations of technology really matter in an everyday sense. People often ask me how this affects my writing, but really, it's a misleading question. I don't write about my work; in the patient business of real engineering, it's easy for a year's work to summarize down to a single sentence.
What my background does provide, writingwise, is a point of view. With a good grasp of what is and isn't possible, and also which problems are hard to solve and which ones are easy, I tend to come up with a particular kind of story, fleshed out with a particular kind of detail. I'm also an avid scuba diver; I know what it's like to be in an alien environment, dependent on a life support system, sometimes performing life-or-death calculations under very adverse conditions. And like all writers, I'm a student of human nature, and an environment of high-pressure technology development can be a wonderful microcosm of the world at large.
I tend to be leery of labels and the preconceptions that attach to them. "Hard Science Fiction" can mean different things to different people; reviews of my work include terms like military, cyberpunk, nanopunk, biopunk, nuts-n-bolts, myth, fairy tale, space opera, mystery, even "literary." These sound like very different things, but they're really just facets of my particular worldview. In SF, I tend to gravitate toward authors like Bruce Sterling, Vernor Vinge, Walter Jon Williams, Greg Egan and Larry Niven -- people with broad interests, wild imaginations, solid characters, and a well-grounded sense of realism. But I do think my own voice is unique, not an echo of any specific influence or movement.
The real world doesn't specialize -- it's made from a little bit of everything -- so my approach is to take the principles of science, politics, human nature, etc., and make them disappear into the background of a fast, tightly plotted story. When I do this, I generally find a sense of inevitability accumulating; however outlandish the events and settings may seem, they follow a tough logical chain from start to finish. The impossible doesn't interest me -- I'm after the frontiers of what *is* possible. A lot of science fictional ideas and inventions have found their way into the real world, and being the first one to think of something -- or the first to hold a clear vision of its real-world implications -- is one of the best rushes a science fiction writer can have.
In THE COLLAPSIUM, I deal with two fundamentally new technologies. The first of these is the source of the book's title: collapsium. In researching quantum mechanics, I came across some fascinating theories about the origin of gravity and inertia, which led me to the idea that humans could not only create miniature black holes, but actually arrange them in "crystalline" structures which would locally affect things like the speed of light. The most obvious use for this is in telecommunications over interplanetary distances, so in the book people are able to "fax" themselves from place to place using quantum teleportation, mediated by enormous "collapsiters." And there's a project to build a Ring Collapsiter all the way around the sun, but the project runs into serious difficulties which threaten to destroy the solar system. This is the starting point for the novel.
The other new technology is wellstone, a form of programmable matter based on electronic components called quantum dots. The quantum dot -- an experimental device which exists today -- is able to trap electrons in atom-like configurations which are actually capable of interacting with each other, and with ordinary matter, just as though they were real atoms.
Looking ahead to the future of this technology, I realized how easy it would be to create "atoms" with properties that don't occur in nature, and to place their composition under real-time computer control. Add the detail that the computers themselves are made of quantum dots, and you've got wellstone, a substance whose strength and color and reflectivity and conductivity are under the direct command of human beings. It can emulate "real" materials like wood and steel, or hypothetical ones like superstrong, 100% efficient mirrors or solar collectors.
Nanotech is often misused in science fiction as a "magical" technology which can do anything, but in fact the need to pull energy and raw materials from the immediate environment places sharp limits on what nanocritters could possibly build, and how quickly they could do it. Wellstone, by contrast, is capable of the sort of dramatic and instantaneous transformations we associate with "real" magic.
For this reason, THE COLLAPSIUM, despite being a rigorous work of science fiction, has a kind of "fairy tale" feel to it which many people find pleasant, or even funny. The story also takes place in a monarchy -- the Queendom of Sol -- which could be interpreted as a fairy-tale element, or a Utopian one, though it's drawn more from evolutionary biology. People are naturally attracted to charismatic leaders -- even figureheads -- a factor which I'm sure will be exploited by future societies in the interests of efficiency.
The book does assume a basic level of scientific literacy on the part of its audience, but the physics involved are rather advanced. Some people like that and some don't, so everything obscure, difficult, or challenging about the science has been sequestered in a long and detailed appendix, which has actually been received with a surprising amount of interest and approval. This science actually leads to an entirely new view of the universe, and I wanted to share this with readers, both for its own sake and to demonstrate that the "fantastic" events in the story could actually happen. But the story itself was not the right place to do this, not in the level of detail I wanted to. So the appendix -- which includes both fictional and documentary chapters -- wound up being a substantial project in its own right, evolving alongside the novel.
The first section of the book -- published in Science Fiction Age magazine as "Once Upon a Matter Crushed," garnered a Sturgeon Award nomination and a slot on the 1999 Locus Recommended Reading list. I also got a lot of mail about that story, mostly asking if there was more Queendom of Sol stuff in the pipeline. This was important because I was way out on a limb at that time, having invested over a year in this project that was definitely not a "normal" science fiction novel. However enthusiastic I felt about it personally, it was nice to hear that other people were getting excited about it too.
Any writer will tell you, that's what this business all about.