AUTHOR Q AND A
What made you write about the military’s airborne laser program?
The Airborne Laser was an awesome, but flawed, attempt at producing a lethal leapfrog in ballistic missile defense. It featured a chemical laser mounted in the hollowed-out body of a brand new 747-400F freighter. Its mission, if it was ever to be successfully deployed, was to be dispatched to a hot zone where rogue missiles might be launched and intercept them with its laser from as far away as 350 miles, depending on whether it was a more vulnerable liquid-fueled booster or a more hard-to-destroy solid-fueled one.
The heart of the system is the megawatt Chemical Oxygen Iodine Laser (COIL) which uses a combination of hydrogen peroxide, potassium, sodium, and lithium hydroxide. It is a highly toxic, Draino-like concoction. In the back of the 747, the chilled laser fuel, through a complex mixing mechanism, comes in contact with chlorine and helium to produce a form of oxygen. This brew gets injected with iodine gas, the resulting excitation produces photons that are amplified to create the infrared laser beam. This invisible beam zig-zags and exits through an optics package better than the Hubble Telescope’s, and featuring a 50-inch-diameter mirror – known as the “wall of fire” – to produce a basketball-sized beam out of the nose turret and onto its target.
When operational, it would fly a figure eight in a theater of operations within range of the launch site, at 40,000 feet, and could be refueled mid-air from a standard refueling tanker. The COIL laser could be fired a dozen or so times before it would have to undergo a major service overhaul.
At least this was the plan. Ballistic missile defense, the idea of “hitting a bullet with a bullet,” began at the dawn of the missile age and received a steady stream of research dollars ever since. And using lasers for ballistic missile defense has been dreamed about since the beginning. However, making lasers powerful enough to the task has always been considered the more futuristic option of all the ways one might shoot down a missile. But dreams have a way of becoming reality, just as surely as the future must eventually become the present, and in 1996, a few of the top aerospace companies believed that enough of the technologies had come together to take a shot at finally, actually, building a working Buck Rogers death ray weapon. There are numerous technical leaps that need to be hurtled to make it happen: acquisition, tracking, optics, battle management software – and most importantly, a powerful enough laser.
Nevertheless, in 2001, the program was moved out of research status and put under the umbrella of the Missile Defense Agency, and seven working planes were ordered. Eventually, those orders were canceled and it went back to being a one plane research platform which did shoot down a couple of test missiles, but not at the range that could make the whole enterprise actually feasible. And so, after spending $5 billion on the program over 16 years, it was cancelled.
I resurrected it here, but for all I know, maybe it is being reborn right now, if someone put together the right tweaks to make it hit the firing distance that they need, for it to be viable. Or they come up with some modified version and a new mission. For example, a so called “diode pumped” laser able to ramp up the wattage and configured on a smaller platform than a 747.
How does so called “junk DNA” play into all of this?
First of all, junk DNA is a misnomer, ultraconserved strings is what they are more appropriately called. You see, the whole human genome consists of 2.9 billion letters, that ACTG stuff that they taught you in high school. Now, that’s about 750 megabytes of data taken as a whole, but only about three percent of that is involved in making up the 22,000 genes that make us who we are, the remaining 97 percent is this so-called junk DNA. It seemed like an awful lot of information to be doing nothing at all, particularly when we suspect the half-life of this material is about twelve million years for a house fly and, for the precursors to mammals, we trace it back about eight-hundred million years. That’s a long time between genetic house cleanings. So, it turns out that if the RNA portion is non-coding – that is, protein making – and it still has some critical command and control functions, then it stays put. For a very long time. Japanese researchers have already shown that they can manipulate these strings and insert a message right into the DNA that would last, well, if not forever, a very long time.
What if someone already did?
As to how it all plays into the plot, well, I could tell you but then I’d have to kill you before you unleashed that particular spoiler.
Tell us about your bad guys.
Well, this was the most important thing really. Interesting antagonists make or break a thriller. I’ve got two. Three technically, but I can’t say any more without revealing the plot. However, I think I’ve got villains who believe in what they are doing, and you learn why quite clearly, and so they are not stock bad guys, which is just boring to me. I’ve created one villain, not the ISIS guy, that I think not too many authors have tried before. You may be surprised. Maybe I’m wrong, there are a lot of books out there. The thing is, he needs to be believable and you see why as he goes through his motions.
How dangerous is ISIS?
The fact that ISIS exists at all is a black eye for civilization. And it is civilization that will eventually grind down ISIS so that it relinquishes itself to the bottom shelf of ideas and movements, like Nazism, the Spanish Inquisition, the Khmer Rouge . . . whatever. The damage and horror they are promulgating for an entire, already broken, region, will fade away. After too much pain, unfortunately. However, the fact that so many of these indoctrinates are teenagers tells the wider problem. A baby born today, in those few short years to becoming a teenager, can be twisted into a monster. There’s always babies being born, so the only inoculation are those things civilization does best: education, rule of law . . . continuity. Anarchists with dreams are still anarchists. But their dreams keep popping no matter how much military hardware you throw at them. So, better to go with civilization. Only problem is that so much of civilization is uncivilized. And countries that have things like Sharia law create the seeds of extremism that will always come back to bite them. Western bred recruits are a different matter. Maybe as many as 3,400 westerners have joined ISIS and at least 180 Americans have tried to join, not sure how many have succeeded. It needs to be countered at the root level, at the local level. Changing hearts and minds, or at least controlling the message, is never easy. Or quick. But not impossible. On a smaller scale there is the example of the IRA, or better still, how many of you even know about the Red Brigades? (In the 70s and 80s they perpetrated14,000 acts of violence in the first ten years of the group’s existence. Now, not so much.)
However, the ability to counter the lone wolf disenchanted losers out there, that is going to be a problem (as it perhaps always was) for the foreseeable future. If all it takes is the right propaganda, then the questions become who controls the propaganda and how do you counteract it? If you’ve got essentially a walking, talking smart bomb, then all sorts of people might be able to manipulate those levers. And therein hangs a tale, don’t you think?
What’s the attraction of Armageddon?
I suppose if you put a million philosophers in a room with typewriters and give them a million years . . . Anyway, people above my pay grade have been trying to get a handle of that for millennia, but the bottom line is how can you make people feel that this life is somehow better than the End of the Freaking Entire World?
But my hero, Jack Kant, when confronted with these believers, is perhaps, like me, undaunted by it all and says at one point: “I wonder when the hell this end-of-the-world business is supposed to start, I’ve got a suit at the drycleaners.”
Did you find it difficult to write about technical topics?
Well, there really isn’t that much, just enough so that it all makes sense. Once upon a time, before I got my journalism degree, I got one in electronics technology. I didn’t like the math, so I took a left turn and I’ve been making money writing and editing ever since. I’ve been the editor-in-chief of five national magazines dealing with a variety of business and technical topics. In this line of work, you need to become an industry expert real quick or you’ll soon be treading water. So, long story short, any area of interest I plan to go into doesn’t intimidate me. Well, maybe a little. That’s where being a quick study and, more importantly, perseverance comes in. But the key is showing a technology’s interesting elements in an entertaining fashion. I feel like I’ve been training my whole life for this. If readers learn a thing or two along the way, that’s not a bad thing.
What kind of thrillers or authors influenced you?
For my money, Day of the Jackal, by Frederick Forsyth, was the best thriller I’ve ever read. Impossible to put that book down. For technothrillers, I loved the way Michael Crichton was able to weave technology and science into his books with so much authority, without slowing the book down. (I’m not a total fan, characterization and political theme weren’t his strong suits in my humble opinion). Others whom I respect in a variety of styles include John Updike, John D. MacDonald, Dennis Lehane, Ken Follett, Len Deighton . . . too many to name, really.