Recently I was invited to give a talk at the SynbioBeta Activate! Edinburgh synthetic biology conference. This post is based on my remarks there. I began my talk with a short account of a survivor of the Clydebank Blitz in the early days of World War Two. My intention was to get the audience members’ minds out of the laboratory for a moment to perhaps give them a little logical distance from which to hear my words.
On the nights of March 13th & 14th 1941, Luftwaffe bombers attacked the munitions factories and shipyards of Clydeside, Scotland. There were 260 bombers on the first night. Waves of high-explosive bombs, incendiary bombs and land-mines were dropped over a nine-hour period. On March 14th, while rescue work continued, 200 bombers returned; that raid lasted over seven and a half hours.
About six miles away from Clydebank, in the village of Renton, a 16 year old Scottish lass named Margaret Mary McFall sat in an Anderson bomb shelter comforting her four younger brothers and sisters.
(About the picture: I’m a volunteer firefighter in Tisbury, MA, assigned to an aerial platform truck. When George visited Martha’s Vineyard to give a talk at the local library I got permission to take him up in the bucket. He wore my lieutenant’s safety gear.)
In March of 2015, George Church (whose accomplishments in biology (and visions of the future) are too numerous and significant to for me to recap here, so just go read about ’em here or here or here) & I sat down to talk for about an hour an a half on topics ranging from the Stuxnet cyberwarfare weapon to civilization (and its foes) to surgery on Mars. I edited the discussion into four segments of 17 or 18 minutes each, conveniently gathered here for your edification, amusement, and enlightenment. As a special bonus, at the end of this blog I’ve included the new Foreword to my novels that George was generous enough to write, just in time for the SynbioBeta Conference taking place in San Francisco this week, where I’l be hawking my wares, as is my wont.
And the thrilling conclusion:
Your promised bonus! George Church’s foreword to the novels of John Sundman:
As a child, like many children, I wanted to be a fireman, construction worker or paperback-writer when I grew up. John Sundman is all that and much more. He lived for four years with subsistence farmers in Senegal and wrote world-class technical manuals for Sun Microsystems. He modestly claims to have done the latter without understanding the underlying ware (a refreshing alternative to manuals lacking knowledge of any human language). Like Clemens, Rowling, Clark Kent, and other greats, Sundman uses pseudonyms (changing his middle names) to protect his secret identity. He is a master of machines —computing, biological and political —and his books include details that will convince an expert, and yet enchant a distant outsider with a compelling page-turner plot. Not just plot and mechanisms, but unforgettable personalities that haunt us long after the pages stop.
John’s “Mind Over Matter” trilogy began with his first novel, Acts of the Apostles, in 1999, (significantly reworked as Biodigital in 2014). His second was Cheap Complex Devices and his third, The Pains. These books get the reader amazingly quickly into a jarringly jamais vu/deja vu world — especially for aficionados of Orwell’s 1984 and Christian doctrine. While refreshing style changes occur among them, you can find a consistent “meta” component that adds to the puzzles in each one. We must now suffer the pain of waiting for his next books Creation Science and Meekman Rising.
Long before synthetic biologists were quoting the bongo physicist, Sundman’s 1999 novel Acts of the Apostles was about “The Feynman Nine” a programmable nanoscopic machine described as “a device for finding a DNA sequence and converting it into another sequence.” Sounds a lot like the CRISPR craze of genome editing. As Joe Davis, a ‘hybrid’ artist at Harvard and MIT, might remind us, the best conceptual art (including novels) prods us to visualize vital issues that are lurking at, or far beneath, the surface of our science and cutting edge engineering. My lab specializes in the subset of topics pejoratively classified as sci-fi/impossible, which, sometimes, turn out to be relatively easy. For this we need a constant stream of challenges and inspirations. A very rich source of such challenges lies at the interface between “bio” and “digital” – the realm of synthetic genomics, virus-resistant recoded organisms and Obama’s BRAIN initiative. It is precisely this biodigital interface that lies at the heart John Sundman’s novels. Read them and you may find yourself challenged as well.
It’s been about 9 days since I released my half-new novel Biodigital via Unglue.it’s “buy to unglue” program under which books are put Creative Commons and made available for free download after a sales target (or default date) has been reached. My books Acts of the Apostles, Cheap Complex Devices and The Pains have been under Creative Commons for some time; last week I made them available though Unglue.it’s new “Thanks for Ungluing” program as a way to try to collect a few $$ from souls of goodwill who contribute for books that are already freely available. JohnSundman.com was launched at the same time.
I think it’s safe to say that as of now, banking on revenue from Unglue.it does not seem to be a wise retirement strategy for me. I’ve taken in about $100 from all four books combined. A few people have tweeted or blogged it, including John Biggs at Techcrunch, but in general the reaction to the Unglue.it announcements from the world at large has been pretty muted.
However, the nice thing about ebooks and ebook platforms is that once you go to the trouble to put your book “out there”, you don’t have to do anything to keep them there. Acts of the Apostles, now nearly 15 years old, has found an audience. So has Cheap Complex Devices, though its audience is smaller. The Pains has not yet developed much of a following, though I remain confident that it someday will. And as for Biodigital, who knows? I hope that it will find readers, but right now it’s available exclusively on Unglue.it, which is a pretty obscure site. After a month or two I’ll make it more widely available. But in any event I’ll be increasingly focusing my attentions on Creation Science, and looking forward, not back.
Today (thanks to the kind & abiding Gary Gray, who stepped in once again when I was foundering & dithering) we launch this-a-here website, just in time to accompany the release of my half-new novel Biodigital & the announcement of the “thanks for ungluing” facility on Unglue.it. The site is very much a work in progress, but hey, it exists, which is more than I can say of its prior ten years during which I made noises about bringing into existence but somehow never did. So Bismillah, what what, and away we go with Johnsundman.com.
The Unglue.it website exists as a way for writers to bring their books into the Creative Commons and still get (a chance for) some financial compensation; conversely it’s a way for appreciative readers to chip in a few bucks to support writers who have made their works available for free. Although I haven’t advertised it too much lately, my books Acts of the Apostles, Cheap Complex Devices and The Pains are available under Creative Commons and have been for some while. Because I generally prefer to sell my books than to give them away for free, I usually link to Amazon (or similar) when calling attention their existence. In making them available on Unglue.it and promoting their free availability to the world, I’m making the bet that the reading public will reward me with voluntary contributions equal to or greater than what I could expect from not doing so. We’ll see.
Below the fold, an overview of Biodigital and a bit of its backstory.