New Sci-Fi Novel Asks “What if There Was a Blue Cat?”

2 02 2015

What if there was a blue cat? That oddball question first popped into my head some thirty years ago, while I was the news office director at Caltech. The result, decades later, is my newly published science fiction novel, The Cerulean’s Secret (Glyphus LLC).

The eccentric notion continued to nag at me, as I witnessed first-handLight Cerulean cover 3D web the advance of the genetic engineering revolution through the decades that followed—from its beginning at Caltech with the invention of the first DNA sequencing machine.

As the technology evolved, so did the story of my imaginary blue cat; and I began crafting the novel some two decades ago, as genomic science fiction became science fact.

Set in 2050, The Cerulean’s Secret envisions the rise of a lucrative industry of genomically engineered pets. In particular, the high-flying company Animata reaps massive profits creating and selling a marvelous menagerie of animals—including exotic crosses like cogs, dats, snurtles, alliphants, hamakeets, and feather boas. Its ultra-rich clients, however, clamor for the really spectacular specimens—dragons, unicorns. . . and the newest, the Cerulean cat with its mesmerizing iridescent blue fur. The stunning cat had promised to bring billions of dollars from a private collector, corporation, or exhibitor.

But the cat, dubbed the most beautiful in history, is stolen!

Swept up in the catnapping is naïve young Timothy Boatright, a wanna-be writer who’s driving a cab in New York. He inadvertently picks up the thief and the nabbed Cerulean. The cops suspect him of complicity in the crime, and to prove his innocence and save the cat, he tracks it down and steals it back. He ends up accused not only of catnapping but murder—fleeing the police, Animata thugs, a greedy drug lord. . . and Big Nasties! Somebody has programmed these 300-pound genetically engineered assassin-animals—with their three-inch fangs, razor claws, night vision, and sonar—not only to kill Tim, but shred him.

Amidst this mayhem, Tim realizes that the Cerulean was stolen and marked for death because its genes hold some explosive mystery he must solve to survive. He must also save his friends held for ransom—the middle-aged, cat-loving former spy Callie Lawrence and her headstrong daughter Lulu, with whom Tim has fallen madly in love.

I sought to make The Cerulean’s Secret a fast-paced thriller that projects today’s amazing genomic technology into a future of incredible biological manipulation. And, although I wanted to tell an exciting story, I also wanted to explore the critical moral and ethical issues raised by our growing ability to genetically engineer life.

Being a science writer, I aim in my novels to extrapolate my stories from real science, which is sometimes even wilder than any science fiction. The Cerulean’s Secret was just such a novel, because as I wrote it over many years, many of the devices I envisioned for 2050—from robot snakes, to virtual-reality glasses, to quantum computers—kept showing up as real-life technology.” In fact, I post lists of resources for my novels; and those for The Cerulean’s Secret can be found here.

Web The Cerulean's Secret YAE coverIn a unique publishing practice, we are also publishing a Kindle young adult edition of The Cerulean’s Secret, along with the adult edition. The young adult edition has been edited to eliminate adult language and situations.

I’m also author of science fiction novels The Rainbow Virus, The Rainbow Virus Young Adult Edition, Wormholes: a Novel, Wormholes Young Adult Edition, and Solomon’s Freedom. And, I’m author of the nonfiction Explaining Research: How to Reach Key Audiences to Advance Your Work (Oxford 2010).

I’m also collaborating with my daughter, pediatrician Dr. Wendy Hunter on a non-fiction book, Why Baby, with his daughter, pediatrician Dr. Wendy Hunter. The book covers the science behind parents’ most urgent questions about their babies’ health.

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New Novel “Solomon’s Freedom” Dramatizes Chimp Rights Controversy

2 07 2014

Should the life of a chimpanzee — particularly one taught to use language — be sacrificed to save a man’s life? That’s the provocative moral question posed by the new novel Solomon’s Freedom by Dennis Meredith.

In Solomon’s Freedom, flamboyant defense attorney Bobby Colter finds himself arguing for the life of a client Solomon's Freedom coverquite different from his usual string of miscreants. Solomon is a chimpanzee, and a unique ambassador for his species. He has been taught from infancy to express himself using a touch-screen computer. His educator and champion is Dr. Abigail Philips, a dedicated scientist who took over research on chimp intelligence after her primatologist father died.

But her laboratory is in financial peril, and billionaire media tycoon Walter Drake seems the ideal rescuer. He donates $10 million to the laboratory, in return for a seemingly innocuous stipulation. He asks for legal control of Solomon, promising to house the aging chimp comfortably in a spacious facility on his property, allowing Abby to continue her research.

That is, until Solomon’s life will be sacrificed to save Drake’s. He had an ulterior motive. Research that Drake funded on tissue engineering will enable his scientists to “harvest” Solomon’s heart to use its extracellular scaffolding to grow a new heart for the ailing mogul, from his own cells.

The success of the transplant would set a stunning precedent, encouraging the sacrifice of a thousand chimpanzees in sanctuaries for transplant donors. What’s more, Drake pledges to support preservation of wild chimpanzees and the breeding and “sustainable harvesting” of countless more for their organs.

The lawyer Colter, hired by animal rights advocate Sarah Huntington — a foe of Drake, but also his estranged mother — finds himself embroiled in the most controversial and challenging case of his career.

“Of course, I wanted to write a novel with engaging characters, surprising plot twists, and a dramatic climax,” says Meredith. “But I also wanted to write a book that explored the complex and emotional moral issues we face in deciding the fate of our closest living primate relatives.”

In researching Solomon’s Freedom, Meredith drew on chimpanzee studies by Jane Goodall, Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, and other researchers, and on the legal writings and advocacy by Steven M. Wise, a leading animal rights attorney. Wise and his group The Nonhuman Rights Project are currently engaged in court battles to attain “legal personhood” for chimpanzees. (Here is  a list of sources that inspired the novel.)

But the greatest influence on the novel arose from the time Meredith spent with the chimpanzees at Ohio State University’s Animal Care Center. Led by psychologist Sally Boysen, the research center was exploring the ability of chimpanzees to learn mathematical concepts.

“The experience profoundly inspired me,” says Meredith. “I’d done all this literature research on chimps, but that didn’t prepare me for the personal experience of hanging out with them — pun intended. Chimps display extraordinary intelligence in the wild, but more revelatory for me was seeing them deftly solve arithmetical problems and show other intelligent behaviors that could only be termed human-like.

“I remember sitting beside one of their outdoor cages and seeing a chimp emerge with a magazine. He proceeded to lie on his back, prop up his feet and flip through its pages, uttering contented grunts. Sally told me the chimps like to look at the pictures. Of course, he was still a chimp, so he later shredded the magazine for his bedding — a sensible step, I thought.”

Meredith also drew on the results of behavioral studies by Boysen and her colleagues that revealed the depths, and limits, of chimp intelligence. In one telling experiment, Boysen and her colleagues tested whether chimps who witnessed a miniature soda can being hidden in a model of a room could find the real soda can hidden in the actual room. Some of the chimps did find the hidden cans, showing that they possessed conceptual abilities related to language.

Unfortunately for Boysen’s research, fiction turned out to follow a sad reality. The university subsequently shut down her laboratory for financial reasons and sent the animals to sanctuaries. In honor of Boysen’s chimps, Meredith named the main human characters in his novel after them.

While the fictional Solomon is adept at using language, a major question that the novel raises is whether real chimps could possibly master language. There have been studies indicating that chimps can understand and use language concepts. One such chimpanzee was Washoe, who was taught American Sign Language by researchers Allen and Beatrix Gardner. In other prominent experiments, primatologist Sue Savage-Rumbaugh and colleagues taught the bonobo Kanzi and others to learn some language using keyboard lexigrams.

“However, there has never been a research project like the one described in Solomon’s Freedom, in which a chimpanzee has been intensively taught from infancy over decades to communicate using the rich medium of the touch screen,” says Meredith.

“And there is some evidence that chimpanzees, like humans, have a ‘critical period’ in infancy in which they could readily absorb language,” he says.

“So, I believe it entirely possible that if language-learning were begun early enough and with the right tool and enough time, chimps could exhibit substantial language abilities. However, given the cost and time involved, I doubt there ever will be such a study — which is a shame because of the scientific insights it would yield,” says Meredith.

Dennis Meredith brings to his novels an expertise in science from his career as a science communicator at leading research universities, including MIT, Caltech, Cornell, Duke, and the University of Wisconsin. His nonfiction books include Explaining Research (Oxford 2010), and his previous novels are The Rainbow Virus (Glyphus, 2013) and Wormholes (Glyphus, 2013).





“Wormholes” Author is a Liar and Thief. . . But Says It’s O.K.

27 09 2013

As the author of the new sci-fi adventure novel Wormholes, I’m a liar and a thief. I’ll explain why, and the reasons I think it’s O.K.

Some background: The idea for the novel had its beginning years ago in a simpleWormholes cover question “What if holes were to suddenly open up into other universes?” As is perhaps the case with most novelists, from that seed of an idea, I began to build a story. And in the process, I invented all kinds of physics. That’s when I became a liar.

I had to invent a scientific-sounding explanation of why, in its travels through the galaxy, our solar system enters a region of lurking wrinkles in spacetime. These wrinkles, I fabricated, constitute weaknesses in the spacetime fabric that cause holes to seemingly arbitrarily open up from our universe into other universes. So on Earth and on other planets, holes suddenly appear that might intrude into other universes’ interstellar space, into the fiery centers of stars, or onto the surfaces of alien planets. To drive my fictional story, I also invented some exotic physical properties for these “transdimensional apertures” that enabled me to plunge my characters into all kinds of perilous adventures. (I won’t reveal details, because that would give away the plot, and I’d like readers to be surprised.)

I was a bald-faced liar because my physics was all scientific poppycock.

Then I became a thief. I misappropriated the term wormholes to name these apertures, because it was popular and would attract readers. Again, it was poppycock, because scientifically, my “wormholes” are nothing like the theoretical wormholes of real astrophysics.

So, why should I care that I was propagating poppycock? After all, other sci-fi authors devise scientifically ridiculous stuff all the time, from Star Trek to Dr. Who. And sci-fi fans are perfectly willing—like the Queen in Through the Looking Glass—to believe six impossible things before breakfast.

However, I felt guilty because in my profession  as a science communicator, for decades I tried to write accurately about real astronomy and astrophysics, working at three of the country’s top universities in the field—Caltech, MIT, and Cornell. Was I betraying my own principles, and incurring the scorn of scientists whom I greatly respect?

Fortunately, I’ve been able to bury that nagging guilt beneath some pretty substantive—and I think interesting—rationales.

Wormholes sources 2 (300x276)For one thing, I wanted to grab readers and lure them into exploring real science, just as I was captivated as a boy by the imaginative writings of legendary science fiction writers Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clarke. Their books, which launched flights of fictional fancy from real science, inspired me to want to know more about science, and ultimately to write about it. To give readers a path to that science, I even added a this list of sources of real science and engineering that inspired the book to the Wormholes web site.

My lying and thievery was also justified because I sought in the novel to reveal some greater truths about science and scientists.

For one thing, they’re an incredibly courageous and indefatigable lot. Few lay people realize that the vast majority of scientific experiments are failures. Scientists only advertise their successes, in scientific journal articles and news releases. But despite failure after failure, scientists persist, laboring away until they achieve success. And so, in Wormholes, my characters—including intrepid geologist Dacey Livingstone and iconoclastic physicist Gerald Meier—suffer failures that are sometimes deadly, resolutely learning from each failure and trying again.

The novel also portrays another greater truth—that scientists have been censured and censored for their theories, even in the face of good evidence. Among the most notorious modern examples is the censorship of climatologist James Hansen for his assertions that global warming is caused by human activities like burning fossil fuels.

I also experienced censorship in my career as a public information officer, which is a particular reason I wanted to portray it in the novel. At Caltech for example, in 1983 the administration killed a news release I’d written about economist Roger Noll. He had analyzed the organizational structure of large government R&D programs, including the then-new Space Shuttle. He declared the Shuttle program a “catastrophe,” because it rushed headlong into a massive construction program without carefully evolving the technology over multiple generations. Roger Noll’s criticisms were borne out by the Shuttle’s massive cost overruns, under-performance, and of course the subsequent, tragic Challenger and Columbia disasters. When my release was killed, I suspected it had to do with Caltech’s ties with NASA, via its Jet Propulsion Laboratory. But I thought maybe the administration knew something I didn’t about Noll or the Shuttle program.

Another egregious example: At Caltech, I’d written a news release about a paper by geochemist Clair Patterson on the health hazards of global lead pollution. The head of his Caltech division killed that release, even though Patterson’s evidence was solid and widely accepted. At the time, I believed that the censorship was due to some scientific issue I wasn’t aware of. Today I believe it might well have been fear of offending the powerful oil industry. Patterson’s advocacy ultimately led to a removal of lead from gasoline and other products.

So, perhaps I am a liar and a thief. But I can live with it, because not only have I tried to spin an entertaining sci-fi adventure tale. I’ve also tried to inspire readers to explore real science, and given them some real insight into scientists and their quests for discovery.