Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Interview with Tony Taylor, author of The Darkest Side of Saturn

THE Darkest Side of SaturnTitle: The Darkest Side of Saturn
Author: Tony Taylor
Publisher: iUniverse
Pages: 492
Genre: Science Fiction
Format: Ebook
Purchase at AMAZON
It’s 1997 at a mountaintop observatory in Southern California where spacecraft navigator Harris Mitchel and astronomer Diana Muse-Jones discover a dangerous asteroid which may hit the earth within two decades. As the asteroid tumbles through space towards an uncertain impact, Harris and Diana fight bitterly over how to announce their discovery. When Harris goes public to a skeptical world—at the cost of his and Diana’s careers—he sends their already turbulent relationship into a blaze of conflicting passions. As his notoriety builds, a fanatical preacher and his unhinged followers stalk him while an obnoxious radio personality provides disruptive help. Harris becomes an unwilling Pied Piper for his own overzealous followers hungry for belief and eager for guidance into an uncertain and tumultuous future. In this science fiction drama the characters battle each other in contests of Damn your world view! against a background of hard science, religion, romance, metaphysical speculation, and the forces of nature versus human passions and dreams. Meanwhile an asteroid hurtles through the solar system and global salvation or disaster hangs in the balance. “A courageous and visionary work … an instant classic.” —BlueInk Reviews
Question1- Can you tell us what your latest book is all about?
Among other things, it's an asteroid story set in 1997. An astronomer and an engineer co-discover a two mile wide asteroid that might or might not hit the Earth in 16 years. They quarrel over how to announce it to the world, but the subtext of their fighting is the attraction they feel for each other and the possibility of an illicit romance; illicit because they’re married to other people. Finally he goes behind her back and announces the discovery publicly—and all hell breaks loose between them.

He goes on to become a reluctant prophet of doom and an unwilling guru for Believers who crave spiritual guidance, like an unwitting Pied Piper leading them off a cliff. Along his odyssey of changing from geek to guru, he tangles with a fundamentalist preacher and a controversial radio talk-show host. The conflict between all the characters eventually causes hell to break loose again. Meanwhile the asteroid, Babylym, tumbles through space toward an uncertain rendezvous with Earth.

Since the story is set in an alternate world slightly different from ours, I felt free to speculate on metaphysical things like the fate of the Earth and the universe, the meaning of life, and the answers to other religious, philosophical, and metaphysical questions, all asked and definitively answered in the story. I even threw in a little ballet for entertainment value. You know, all those things that naturally go together like asteroids, religion, science, sex, and dancing.

Question2- How did you come up with the idea?
I was at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in the early 80s watching the first pictures come down from the Voyager spacecraft after it flew by Saturn. The planet had grabbed Voyager with its gravity and flung it upward out of the plane of the solar system, and now we were looking back and down at the night side nested inside the crescent of the day side, and from that higher perspective came a view that had never been seen before. Saturn had always, in all of history, never been more than a two dimensional disk painted onto the celestial sphere from where we saw it on earth. But now for the first time, from a new perspective higher than the one we had before, the shadow cutting across the rings and that darkness nested into light made the planet real. It had finally become a three dimensional sphere floating in space, and the title popped into my head. “The Dark Side of Saturn” (Darkest came later). The dark side contrasted against the light made it real.

I didn’t start writing the story until a decade later and by then I’d figured out what that meant: the yin and yang aspect of the world. How opposites taken together from a larger perspective make a whole. Good and evil, science and religion, faith versus understanding, male versus female, each provides context for the other, and out of that you get something more complete than either one by itself. That’s one of the deeper reaches I intended for the story.

Question3- What kind of research did you do before and during the writing of your book?
I did a lot of reading on the web about asteroids. I’m a spacecraft navigator by trade, not an astronomer, so most of what I knew, sucked up by osmosis from working at JPL, wasn’t sufficient. Wikipedia has great articles, and of course it’s always easy to search by Google on phrases like “Asteroid impact” and “Asteroid defense”.

I read my Bible a lot. Not because I’m religious but because I wanted to write a few prophetic, biblical style chapters. I’m especially happy with one of them which emulates Ecclesiastes (“To every thing there is a season . . .”), maybe the most beautiful and lyrical book of the Bible. I think I got the right flavor.

I also researched structures for poetry and songs in order to write a few Greek chorus style chapters. Most of that came off the web, but I also learned how to use my rhyming dictionary for the first time since buying it years ago.

Question4- Can you give us a short excerpt?



In the beginning, in our cradle of creation, the world was without form. Nothing existed except the potential to exist. There was no matter. There was no space for matter to occupy. This state existed for an immeasurable time because there was not even a place for time in the nursery of future universes.
            Suddenly there was a quantum vacuum fluctuation—never mind that a vacuum implies there’s nothing to fluctuate. In the first infinitesimal interval was born time, space, and matter. We embarked on the first task of our new baby universe, which was to begin a long cruise of expansion to push back the frontier of nothingness.
            Commensurate with the Many-worlds interpretation of the quantum mechanical theory that was to become fashionable many eons hence, our baby universe immediately began dividing into infinitely many sister universes, invisible to each other but nevertheless real and weaving almost parallel but slightly diverging courses through meta-time. One of these—minutely altered from ours—was to become the home of the Author. In that universe, as in ours, there was vast light, whiter than white. Matter followed space followed matter, inextricably linked. A chaotic soup of naked particles and the coordinate manifold in which it boiled expanded pell-mell into the future.
            Never mind the Author’s universe! In ours—nearly four hundred thousand years later—the fireball of expansion cooled and faded as electrons, protons, and neutrons ended long courtship rituals and settled into blissful married life as nuclear families of simple atoms of hydrogen, helium, and a tiny smattering of heavier elements. The fireball ended, the universe became lucid, and the leftover background radiation—radio, infrared, visible, ultraviolet, x- and gamma-ray—began a long unimpeded stretch into the wavelengths we would eventually hear as interstellar fuzz in our microwave receivers. A hundred million years later the first stars condensed from collapsing clouds of hydrogen, and after that, galaxies were born, seeded with black holes and condensing themselves into swirls of stars.
            In one of these galaxies—nine billion years after the beginning—an unremarkable cloud of gas and dust enriched with heavier elements recycled from the supernova ghosts of ancestor stars began the slow contraction that ended in the formation of a new yellow star. The leftover dust and gas formed a great disk about this star, then condensed into numerous large and small bodies. Collisions ensued, large against large, small against small, and all gradations between, and in the interval of only a few tens of millions of years most of the matter in this stellar system had consolidated itself into a few large behemoths called planets.
            Most of the remaining dust and gas of the system vanished, disbursed into interstellar space, blown away by the radiative push of the new star. Most of the smallest bodies in the interstices of the system also vanished, eaten by their planetary cousins.
            But remnants of these small bodies—these leftover crumbs of creation and collision—continued to wander throughout the system. One of these, B, of modest size and carbonaceous composition, circulated initially in a simple orbit in the outer part of a great grinding field of small bodies between the fourth and fifth planets. After a few hundred million years, bobbing like a cork in gravitational tides and surfs, dinged and dented by encounters with its neighbors, B passed close to the fifth planet, and its orbit altered to include approaches to the fourth. In the course of the next few billion years it suffered more tiny gravitational encounters with both the fifth and fourth planets until eventually a somewhat larger nudge brought B into the range of the third, our cradle endlessly orbiting.
             Meanwhile, our organization had begun on this planet. Meanwhile, we had become conscious, which is to say we had discovered ourselves and the universe about us. But we had not yet seen this modest particle.
            Curiously this mote, B, did not exist in our Author’s universe—which in many other aspects remained identical to ours. In our universe, however, B was real. In our universe, finally, at this third planet—after one thousand nine hundred and ninety-seven revolutions about the central star since the arbitrarily defined birth of a significant religious figure—B arrived within the perceptive purview of the planet’s inhabitants.

Question5- In your own experience, is it hard to get a nonfiction book published today? How did you do it?
(My book is a novel, so I’ll interpret the question in that context.)

My experience is that it’s a lot easier to publish a novel than to get it widely recognized. I went the self-publishing route with iUniverse, since I figured that that would take a lot less time than shopping it out to agents and traditional publishers with very very small probability of success, almost as small as the probability of a large asteroid impact. And time is not one of my more plentiful resources.

Unlike my first novel, Counters, I decided to pursue reviews and endorsements before publishing rather than afterwards. I paid for three professional reviews, BlueInk, Foreword, and Kirkus, and got an endorsement from a well-established but older science fiction author. The Kirkus and Foreword reviews were good but not extraordinary. The BlueInk and sci-fi author’s reviews were so extraordinarily good that it nearly blew me away. The book was put into the same class as Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz and Blish’s  A Case of Conscience. These gave me the realization that I had a potential success on my hands if I could properly promote it. I put one pull-quote at the top of the cover, and all four on the first inside page, then gave the go-ahead for iUniverse to publish.

Now I’m in the middle of a promotion campaign. I contracted for ads on Kirkus and Google, contracted with Smith Publicity, and also had a virtual blog tour set up for me. Smith has come through with several interviews on radio and TV, and I’m hoping for ignition and liftoff in the future.

It’s expensive. Is it worth it? That answer’s not in yet, but I hope to know in another month or so.

Tony Taylor spent a long career navigating NASA spacecraft—including Voyager, Cassini, Mars Polar Lander, Galileo, and MESSENGER—to every planet in the solar system. He graduated from the United States Air Force Academy and earned an MS in physics from the University of Arizona. Tony and his wife, Jan, live in Sedona, Arizona.

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