Saturday, June 20, 2020

Q&A with Brian Nelson

Brian Nelson is the author of the novel The Last Sword Maker. He also has written the book The Silence and the Scorpion, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Christian Science Monitor and The Virginia Quarterly Review. He lives in Denver. 

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Last Sword Maker, and for your cast of characters?

A: The Last Sword Maker is about a modern arms race between the United States and China as they attempt to make a new generation of weapons, so the seminal idea came from both the future and the past.

Looking to the future I became fascinated (perhaps a little obsessed) with emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, and nanotechnology and how the military might mix them together to make weapons.

At the same time, I looked to the past, to events like the Manhattan Project and Operation Paperclip (bringing German scientists to work for the U.S. military after World War II) to get a feel for how these epic weapons projects took shape.

The characters evolved from my desire to create an authentic 360-degree panorama of an international power struggle.

For example, Admiral James Curtiss is the leader of the United States weapons program and he is pitted against his Chinese counterpart, General Meng Longwei. Throughout the novel they are constantly trying to outsmart each other using spies, sabotage, and covert military action.

You also see the conflict from the perspectives of the scientists (both American and Chinese) as well as soldiers and spies. For example, Eric Hill and Jane Hunter are two scientists who get caught up in the espionage and have to fight for their lives to escape from China.

I think readers will really connect with these characters because they are much more fleshed out than in your typical thriller.

This was a big priority for me. I have an MFA in fiction, so I understand the power of strong, multi-faceted characters. But I also love action and adventure. Which is why I sometimes feel like a classically trained musician who enjoys playing heavy metal.

Q: What kind of research did you do to write the book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?

A: The big surprise for me was just how scary some of this technology is as well as how soon it’s coming. In fact, it isn’t a matter of if it will happen, just a matter of when.

The book begins with a strange outbreak in Tibet that kills thousands of people. Admiral Curtiss is at the Pentagon and discovers that it’s not a disease at all, but a weapons test. The Chinese have figured out a way to selectively kill based on a person’s genetic traits.

What’s more, the weapon is designed to appear like a real disease so that it is difficult to trace.

But Curtiss soon learns that this is just the tip of the iceberg. The Chinese are nearing a major breakthrough called “replication” that will completely change the way wars are waged.

The scientific basis for these new weapons is absolutely real. We’ve actually known it’s been possible for a long time.

Back in the 1950s, the Nobel-prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman wrote: “The principles of physics, as far as I can see, do not speak against the possibility of maneuvering things atom by atom. It is not an attempt to violate any laws; it is something, in principle, that can be done; but in practice, it has not been done because we are too big.”

That idea is the basis for much of the technology in the book. And it’s an amazing concept when you think about it. When humanity figures out how to make microscopic machines that can move atoms around, then almost anything will be possible. After all, the difference between cancer cells and healthy cells is the arrangement of atoms.

In the case of the military, they can apply this concept to dozens of things. For example, in the future, a fighter plane won’t be manufactured, it will be grown. Or a synthetic virus that can be engineered to hunt for specific genetic traits or a specific person.

And the reason we know this will happen is because these microscopic machines already exist…inside of us. The proteins and enzymes that move atoms around in our bodies (to fire our muscles or get the nutrients in our food to the right place) are the models that scientists are using to create these tiny machines.

That’s why it’s so interesting…and so scary.

Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?

A: It’s funny you should ask me that because it wasn’t until the very final stages of the editing process, when I was already working with the editor, that we figured out the ending.

I even wrote out two different conclusions that were in tight contention. The first ending would have kept the book firmly in the techno-thriller genre, but the second ending (which we ultimately chose) nudged the book into the realm of sci-fi.

We chose that ending because it made the book a lot more unique. There are a lot of techno-thrillers, but this made it into something new.

Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?

First and foremost, I want readers to be entertained and have fun. This is an action book with international espionage and prison breaks and a love story and Navy SEALs and gun battles.

But there is also a cautionary tale about technology and how it is changing our world in ways we don’t fully understand and cannot control.

The books that I loved as a kid were science-inspired adventures like Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and The War of the Worlds. I wanted to create something in that vein, that was exciting to read, but also sparked the reader’s imagination.

Q: This is the first in a series--what's next?

A: The second book in the trilogy will be published on March 21, 2021 and it’s called Five Tribes (working title). While The Last Sword Maker is about the birth of this new technology, Five Tribes is about how that technology evolves out of control as different groups (tribes) set out to use it for their own agendas.

It’s all building toward an apocalypse in Book III, but I have a very different type of end-of-the-world scenario in mind that I think will be very original.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I have just updated my website, which has some excellent concept art made by two artists who work for Disney. There’s also a very cool video trailer that people can watch. Please check it out: 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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