welcomes as our guest, Dennis Meredith author of science thrillers The Rainbow Virus, Wormholes: A Novel, Solomon's Freedom, The Cerulean's Secret and The Happy Chip and his most recent one, The Neuromorphs.

His novels seek to extrapolate real-world science into compelling stories that speculate on their ultimate implications.

Dennis has more than 40 years' experience as research communicator at leading research universities, including MIT, Caltech, Cornell, Duke and the Universities of Rhode Island and Wisconsin.

He has worked with science journalists at the nation's major newspapers, magazines, and radio and TV networks and has written well over a thousand news releases and magazine articles on science and engineering over his career.

He has served on the executive board of the National Association of Science Writers and is a contributor to its magazine ScienceWriters. He wrote the handbook Working with Public Information Officers, the NASW handbook on media relations, Communicating Science News, the NASW Marketing & Publishing Resource guide, and the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing's online Guide to Careers in Science Writing.

He has also served as a manager for the NASW Science-in-Society Awards and a judge for the AAAS Science Writing Awards. He won the latter award himself — for newspapers under 100,000 circulation — in 1974.

He was a creator and developer of EurekAlert!, working with AAAS to establish this international research news service, which now links more than 12,000 journalists to news from 6,000 subscribing research institutions worldwide.

Norm: Good day Dennis and thanks for participating in our interview.  What do you consider to be your greatest success (or successes) so far in your various careers?

Dennis: When I worked for the various universities as a communicator, I felt the greatest success when I was able to explain complex, and even arcane, research discoveries to the public through news releases.

Scientists are my heroes, and all too often their most important breakthroughs are not really appreciated by the public, because they are not explained in a way that is clear and compelling.

I’ve had the privilege of explaining some of the most important scientific advances in history—from the synthesis of the first gene by Nobelist Har Gobind Khorana at MIT in the 1970s; to the development of the first DNA sequencers by Leroy Hood at Caltech in the 1980s; to the pioneering work in brain-machine interfaces by Miguel Nicolelis at Duke in the 2000s. They were great thrills!

Norm: When did you first realize you wanted to be a science fiction writer and what keeps you going?

Dennis: Actually, I wrote my first science fiction story when I was in junior high school. It was a goofy tale of an alien piloting his spaceship at enormous speed through a star system desperately looking for. . . a bathroom! When I read it in class, the other students laughed, and I knew I just had to keep telling stories that people would enjoy.

Norm: Could you tell our readers how story ideas first come to you, and how they ultimately become the story?

Dennis: My story ideas are inspired by a single question, or a single quote from a scientist, that I just can’t get out of my head until I write a novel around it. My first novel, The Rainbow Virus, was triggered by the question “What if there was a virus that turned people colors?” That question evolved into a novel that combined a bioterrorism plot with a theme of the weird pathology of racism, in which people are judged on the basis of the amount of melanin in their skin. My second book, “The Cerulean’s Secret” was triggered by a quirky question, “What if there was a blue cat?” That question haunted me literally for decades, driving me to spin a tale of a futuristic industry of bioengineered pets—the most famous being the Cerulean Cat, around it.

Norm: In your opinion, what is the most difficult part of writing science fiction? Please summarize your writing process.

Dennis: For me, the most difficult part is constructing the intricate machinery of the plot so that the pieces all work together and there are no plot holes. In developing a novel, I usually outline the general structure of the plot, including especially the ending, so I know generally where I’m going. Then I start writing.

I try to create characters whose background, personality, and actions make sense in driving the plot. I try to create seeming insurmountable obstacles for the characters that will keep the reader engaged. The more a writer can “beat up on” sympathetic characters, the more engaged a reader will be. And very importantly, I try to develop cliffhangers ending each chapter that make the book hard to put down, and plot twists that will make the reader go “Holy sh**!”

Norm; What are common mistakes writers of science fiction make and what do you believe makes a good science fiction novel?

Dennis: One mistake I made early on in my novels was to like my heroes too much. That is, I invented sympathetic heroes, and I wanted them to have a life. So, I wrote scenes in which the characters were doing things that gave them a life, but didn’t further the plot. In the case of The Rainbow Virus, that tendency disturbed me so much that, after the novel was published, I went back and produced a second edition, in which I cut 10,000 words from the novel that included non-essential scenes. For example, I cut out one whole chapter where the characters were having an enjoyable, romantic dinner. The plot just stopped cold while they were eating pizza.

Norm: What do you think most characterizes your writing?

Dennis: My novels seek to extrapolate real science and technology to tell a good story. For example, all my novels—including the latest, The Neuromorphs—have an online bibliography that readers can explore to learn about the science and technology behind the plot. In the case of The Neuromorphs, I did extensive research on artificial intelligence, robotics, and future weapons systems—the last topic because the heroes were Navy SEALs fighting battles in 2050.

Norm: Do you have a theme, message, or goal for your books?

Dennis: All of my books seek to make a significant point—of course, while telling a compelling story. In The Rainbow Virus it was the dangers of bioterrorism and the absurdity of racism. In The Happy Chip it was the invasion of privacy from technology and the dangers of that invasion leading to control over us. In The Neuromorphs it was the reality that human greed and folly, and not necessarily the technology of artificial intelligence, could lead to an existential threat to humanity.

Norm: If you had to choose, which science fiction writer would you consider a mentor?

Dennis: It would have to be Arthur C. Clarke, who wrote both science fiction and science fact. I still remember as a kid going to the library and coming home with a pile of his books. The classic was 2001: A Space Odyssey, which speculated brilliantly on humanity’s future.

Norm: What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating your books?

Dennis: That I didn’t have to worry about getting story ideas. Once I started writing novels, I found that plot ideas just cascaded into my brain. I now have almost two dozen plots rattling around in my noggin trying to get out!

Norm: Do you feel that writers, regardless of genre owe something to readers, if not, why not, if so, why and what would that be?

Dennis: Besides of course telling an entertaining story, I think writers should try to communicate some idea about the human condition that will give readers insights that they find useful. For my part, I like readers to go away from my stories wanting to know more about the science and technology depicted, and about the challenges of discovering new knowledge. I also want them to understand the ways that science and technology can be misused.

Norm: In fiction as well as in non-fiction, writers very often take liberties with their material to tell a good story or make a point. But how much is too much?

Dennis: I would say that a writer strays too far from reality in a toxic way when he/she is significantly misleading the reader about the world and people as they really are. For example, if I were writing about a mentally ill character, I would feel really guilty about giving the erroneous impression that many mentally ill people are violent. I’m also personally not comfortable with taking too many liberties with the laws of physics.

So, I’m fairly sure I’ll never have faster-than-light travel in any of my stories, although I recognize that many sci-fi writers do, and I respect that choice. However, I do extrapolate more theoretical laws of physics, for example postulating in Wormholes: A Novel that the solar system could pass into a realm of the galaxy where the fabric of space-time is weaker, allowing interdimensional holes to randomly open up.

Norm: Could you tell our readers something about your most recent novel, The Neuromorphs?

Dennis: In the book, set in 2050, realistic neuromorphic Helper androids have become ubiquitous and useful in households as servants. They have intimate knowledge of their owners’ lives, including their finances. Russian mobsters scheme to take advantage of this knowledge by hacking into the operating system of Helpers belonging to wealthy people. Their hack gives the Helpers a property of autonomous behavior. They then make a deal with the Helpers: The androids will murder their owners and allow themselves to be re-engineered to mimic their dead owners. The androids will then loot the owners’ wealth and give it to the mobsters. In return, the mobsters will enable the androids to assume their dead owners’ identity and live as humans. But the hack was a big mistake! The mobsters inadvertently create a race of hive-minded creatures with an instinct for survival—meaning that they seek to propagate their kind and replace humans as the Earth’s dominant species.

Norm: What inspired you to write this novel?

Dennis: The plot was inspired by a quote in Science magazine from computer scientist Todd Hylton: “We think robotics is the killer app for neuromorphic computing.” Of course, Hylton didn’t really mean killer robots would arise from neuromorphic technology, but that’s the notion that stuck in my brain.

Norm: What were your goals and intentions in this book, and how well do you feel you achieved them?

Dennis: The central point of the book is that, once artificial intelligence becomes really complex, properties emerge that cannot be predicted—including the instinct to survive. Thus, The Neuromorphs is very much a cautionary tale about the hazards of artificial intelligence, which, as the late Stephen Hawking said, “could spell the end of the human race. Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn't compete, and would be superseded.”

Norm: What do you hope will be the everlasting thoughts for readers who finish your book?

Dennis: That all technology needs to be managed with an overriding sense of human morality and ethics. The most egregious real example of such a failure is the Facebook scandal, in which company allowed their data to be used to influence peoples’ vote. Facebook failed to exercise proper control over the technology by which millions of people’s most private data can be gathered.

Norm: Where can our readers find out more about you and your novels?

Dennis: My WEBSITE 

Norm: What is next for Dennis Meredith?

Dennis: Sometimes writers get a wacky, fun, irresistible plot idea in their heads that they just have to write, and I got one in mine for my next novel: What if all the creatures of legend were real—like fairies, werewolves, pixies, ogres, and angels? And what if they were really aliens who had been sentenced to exile on the planet for their crimes. They had been hiding in disguise for millennia, and. . . well, I won’t give away any more of the plot. Let’s just say it’s a kind of sci-fi fairy tale, and it’s called Mythicals.

Norm: Thanks once again and good luck with all of your future endeavors