Wednesday 10 March 2010

Interview with a Sci-fi Author

Welcome to Science Fiction Day here at the blog, as I present my interview with Jerry Travis, author of the time-traveling sci-fi series, The Safety Factor:

1. Tell us about your science fiction series, The Safety Factor.
This trilogy, all three books being released more or less simultaneously, is the story of three early 18th century women, who are thrust into the modern world. Two of the women are basically aristocrats, having come directly from Queen Anne’s court. The third is really not much more than a very intelligent peasant girl, who is trying to escape a sordid background.

2. Several people are listed as editors or contributors for those books. Is this series a collaborative effort?

Yes, this is a collaborative work. Since the story revolves around three women, I needed a lot of feminine input to make it work. Indeed, a lot of what my collaborators came up with, shocked even me! Though I’m writing fiction, I try to make things as realistic as possible. I seldom invent anything in the way of human relationships. Most of the personal interactions going on between the characters are based on actual, real-life experiences. Names have been changed, of course, as well as a little Hollywood style “compression” (combining two or more characters into one so that the audience doesn’t get lost in a multitude of identities to keep track of).

3. Why did you decide to write in the science fiction genre?

First of all, I like science fiction! Secondly, the story deals with poignant social issues, which most people would prefer to ignore, despite how prevalent they are in human society. Probably about the best way to address such issues, without losing your audience, is to present them in a science fiction setting. This helps distance the reader from sensitive topics, allowing them to keep an open mind. For instance, the original 1960’s Star Trek is credited with the first inter-racial kiss shown on TV. And remember the half-black, half-white episode? This was the only way to get these things past the network sensors at the time.

4. What is the hardest part of writing in the science fiction genre?

This genre isn’t particularly difficult for me to write in. I’ve got quite a background in science and technology, and science fiction has always been my favorite recreational genre. Good science fiction takes the frontiers of what we now understand of the world around us and speculates about the various places we humans may end up as that knowledge continues to develop. This is my opinion, anyway.

Consequently, some scientific information needs to be introduced into the story. Since your reader may be anyone from a teenager (or even pre-teen in some cases) to a scientist, you can’t assume your reader is familiar with the scientific concepts you’re using. Even if there are a scientist, they may not be familiar with all the branches of science, and in particular the ideas you’re using. So, it’s quite a challenge to present the concepts in such a way that your young readers can understand, and yet not offend the scientist intimately familiar with your topic.

5. Why did you decide to use time travel as a plot device for The Safety Factor?

This may make The Safety Factor story line sound boring, but believe me, it isn’t. My main reason for time travel was to bring human beings together from three different time periods (past, present and future), with their perspectives of the world intact. It’s one thing to talk about how things were in the past. It’s quite another thing to actually be a person from the past and have to struggle with concepts you simply don’t understand.

Believe it or not, almost all of our “modern” view of the world is squarely based on 17th century thinking. I felt the only way to truly understand why we view the physical world around us as we do, is to “become” a person from the 18th century, when scientific thinking had become generally accepted, at least within the intellectual circles of the time. We take so much for granted about how we view the universe around us, that we’ve forgotten where these ideas came from, and what they were based on.

For example, almost all of these 17th century thinkers believed in an “omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent” God. This includes Sir Isaac Newton, Gottfried Liebnitz, and even René Descartes. These beliefs were considered indisputable at the time, and are still - down to this day - incorporated into our “scientific” view of the world.

For instance, take the concept of infinity in mathematics. In my opinion, this is a “holdover” from 17th century (and earlier) thinking that’s never been reevaluated. It is an expression of their omni-x God, whose existence could not be questioned. But in the light of what we know of the universe now, are such concepts even reasonable? The current thinking says there was a definite beginning to the universe (the Big Bang) and there is a speed limit to how fast anything can move (Einstein’s speed of light limitation), so the universe can only be so big. On the other end of the spectrum, Quantum Mechanics seems to indicate there is a “granularity” to space and time, a minimum scale by which anything may be measured. Even Stephen Hawking leans towards the idea of there being a minimum length (the Plank length). Even if God does exist, there is no need for him/her/it to be “omni” anything. It does not require an infinite God to create a finite universe, any more than it requires an infinite person to create an artificial reality. A finite god would suffice to create our finite universe.

All of our science is based wholly on mathematics, the science of measurement. So if our universe is neither infinitely vast, nor resides within space that is infinitely divisible, why do we still think in these terms? Why is infinity still an integral part of mathematics, such as calculus, or even basic number theory for that matter? (In all fairness, there is a branch of mathematics called “discrete mathematics”, which has abandoned the concept of infinity, but this is not normally used in the mainstream and indeed is taught far less than calculus. Incidentally, Newton and Liebnitz “independently” developed calculus in the 17th century.)

We can’t really objectively examine our current “scientific” view of the world without going back and examining where these ideas came from. I thought a good way to do that would be in a fictional setting where people from different eras could interact with each other. That is what I’ve tried to create throughout the Safety Factor series.

6. How did you research your books?

Though I write fiction, I do spend a good deal of time researching what I write. This is important, not only for the suspension of disbelief, but for the ideas you’re trying to present as well. I’m not the sort of writer who writes just to turn a buck. I write to convey ideas, and I know there are a lot of readers out there who want to be exposed to new and different ideas. There are so many well-written, entertaining and informative books out there, why waste your time with books that merely provide entertainment?

When I’m writing, I use my own library, dictionaries and even the internet to do most of the impersonal (fact based) research. I like to seek out real-life events for human relationships, getting most of them from personal one-on-one interviews. I’ve used at least a dozen of my own books to research The Safety Factor series, half of which I acquired just for this project. If I’m in a hurry, the internet can be a good source, especially the Wikipedia, which I’ve used many times (

7. Do you write in any other genres than science fiction?

Yes. I write non-fiction technical books. My latest work along those lines was published in 2006. It’s a 400 page technical training guide for the information technology field. I have some published papers as well.

8. What other books have you written?

For fiction, I’ve only written The Safety Factor series so far. I’m very comfortable with it and will probably continue it for some time. Here’s the current list of available books:

The Safety Factor: The Use of Power
The Safety Factor: The Cost of War
The Safety Factor: Beyond Perfection

9. Is there another book upcoming in The Safety Factor series? Do you have any other projects forthcoming?

Yes, there is another Safety Factor book in the works, though it will probably be some time before it’s published. It will be titled: “The Safety Factor: The Great Lady”. There’s another book I have in mind, more of a YA type science fiction book. The latter is about an encounter between a time traveler and a Pacific Northwest Indian tribe near the turn of the 19th century. The wayward traveler meets and influences a young Indian, who becomes Chief Seattle in later life. The working title is: “Princess Featherhead” and may be changed (not that she is a “featherhead”, but likes to wear feathers in her hair – she is a bit of a featherhead, though).

Curious about Jerry?  Here's a short bio in his own words:

My name is Jerry Travis. I’m a third generation storyteller. Both my grandfathers were excellent storytellers. As it child I used to listen to them for hours. My father also told many stories, and as he got older tended to tell the same ones over and over again (to our exasperation at times, especially his stories of WWII). I had never until the past few years thought of myself as a storyteller or a writer, until I started "The Safety Factor" project. In my line of work as an Information Technology (IT) professional, I have written a tremendous amount of technical documentation and training materials. My last major work along these lines was an inch thick, 400 page technical training manual. Don't let that scare you off though, as my fictional writing is very human and down to earth. The attention to detail I've learned throughout my career makes for very realistic and pleasurable reading.

My father was an Army lieutenant in WWII and directly helped bring some of the V-2 rocket technology from Germany over to the United States. He continued on in the military after the war, transferring to the National Guard where he rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel. Simultaneously, he worked at The Boeing Aircraft Company for 30 years until his retirement in 1983. While at Boeing, he worked almost exclusively on government “black” projects as a mechanical and electrical engineer.

After I graduated from college with a Bachelor of Science degree (mathematics and computer science), I embarked on a rather unremarkable career working for the State of Washington in the IT field for 18 years. Then I got a chance to join a small IT consulting company in California and moved there with my wife and two sons. From the San Francisco bay area I entered into an ever enlarging world of technology and politics that took me all the way to Washington DC.

Some of the more interesting places I've consulted for are: The Aerospace Corporation, Bechtel Nevada, Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), Department of Energy (DOE), Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Department of Justice - Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), Department of Justice - Office of Justice Programs (OJP), Fluor Hanford, HRL Laboratories, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL), Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), Social Security Administration (SSA), Transportation Security Administration (TSA), Uranium Disposition Services (UDS), and the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP).

This experience has given me many stark insights into science, government and politics, which I like to pass on to my readers. I'm sure you will find what I have to say about the real world we live in - presented under the guise of science fiction - as it must be - quite illuminating.

You can check out Jerry and his books at Goodreads and MySpace.

1 comment:

Sheila Deeth said...

Fun interview. I love playing with infinity.

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