MM: You have a PhD in molecular biology. You’re a scientist, you publish in your field as well as in philosophy. What prompted you to become a fiction writer?
RC: In addition to my interest in science I have always had a creative streak expressed in painting and music, but had never considered fiction writing. I had started writing a philosophy column for Australian Mensa when they put out a short story competition. I had just read an essay on “The Toxicity of Environmentalism” by George Reisman, and it gave me an idea whose result was “Requiem,” my first published short story. A few other short stories followed at long intervals. Short stories basically encapsulate a single idea, but eventually I came up with an idea that had more complexity and its result was my first novella, Frankensteel. Having made that jump into more complex worlds with multiple character threads and subplots, I became interested in the wider creative options provided by full-length novels.
MM: Do science and philosophy play a role in your fiction writing?
RC: Definitely. Most of my novels are science fiction, not the far future kind where anything goes but near future, based on current science and reasonable speculations built on it. For example, Frankensteel deals with conscious artificial intelligence, The Geneh War with human genetic engineering, and Time Enough for Killing with cyborg (machine-organic fusion) technology. And whether they are scientific or historical fiction, my main interest is the philosophical questions and implications involved, both in the major theme and in relevant side issues that arise during the story. Sometimes this is explicit but often it is encapsulated in the characters’ own development as they wrestle with the issues they face. In general I try to make my novels philosophically interesting and with any science as plausible as it can be.
MM: How did you get interested in Ayn Rand and Objectivism?
RC: I originally had a low opinion of philosophy, because what I had read was always either trying to prove the ridiculous or disprove the obvious. I had always recognised that reality exists and we can understand it, but that’s where I stopped. Then some friends I met at Mensa recognised a kindred spirit in me and lent me Philosophy: Who Needs It, whose title perfectly expressed my opinion. It was the first philosophy I’d read which I could not immediately dismiss as nonsense. Furthermore it was the first philosophy I’d read which actually addressed Hume’s “is-ought” problem, and provided an objective link between reality and ethics, the key point to move philosophy beyond metaphysics and epistemology. And while at the time I did not fully accept all she said, it got me interested and I went looking for more. So I followed what is probably an unusual trajectory, beginning with her non-fiction and ending with her fiction.
MM: Did Ayn Rand’s ideas influence your science career?
RC: By the time I “discovered” Ayn Rand I was already a scientist with my own company, so it was too late! My “philosophy of science” (though I’d never have called it that) was already compatible with Objectivism, so I don’t think much would have been different. I think most scientists have a reasonable grasp of reality and reason or they wouldn’t be scientists.
MM: Does Rand’s theory of aesthetics in The Romantic Manifesto influence your fiction writing?
RC: That is an interesting question. Certainly I try to represent heroes who are actually heroic, including female characters who are both strong and feminine, and convey a sense of life that is benevolent and hopeful. And though much of what I write is science fiction or historical fiction, it is still “romantic” in the sense that people are not pawns of fate but make their own lives, and “realism” in that the contexts are relatable. That is, my near future science fiction deals with contemporary issues in a society much like we now live in, and even the more speculative fiction has a foot in the present or at least in universals of human experience.
While I don’t deliberately try to tick boxes off Rand’s theory of aesthetics, I think it provides a more explicit understanding and focus than I would otherwise have (if I even wrote at all!), and gives my work a tighter philosophical punch. Every artist expresses their sense of life in their work, but if you also understand the philosophy it represents then you can do it better.
The other way in which it influences me is more basic, in the recognition of the importance of art, and how little modern art there is which actually meets that need (especially for Objectivists, I think!). So I want to write stories that fill that need, which show people as they can and ought to be and not only leave you thinking but leave you feeling better than when you started!
MM: There is ample evidence for human flourishing at this point in history, but there is also potential for more. I’m convinced life could still be a lot better. We have the technology, and we have a good understanding of the physical world and of human nature. Frequently, however, bad ideas in the form of reactionary political and social policies hold people back.
In your novel, Hannibal’s Witch, the protagonist Angela Milton time travels to undo some of those bad ideas. Granted, it is a novel – a fiction – but the benefits of the undo are persuasive. Without giving the plot away, elaborate on what you consider some of the better ideas that Angela brings to the forefront of history.
RC: The fundamental idea she carries with her is that a civilisation whose basic essence is wealth by trade is better for people than one whose basic essence is conquest and control. But no culture past or present is perfect, and even the classic militaristic culture of Rome also produced a lot of good. So a lot of the tension in the novel and in her own mind comes not only from whether she can actually change things but also from whether she should. Indirectly she also is the catalyst for the idea of science as a new way of thinking that can transform our understanding and technology.
MM: In Hannibal’s Witch, Bitcoin is a major plot device. That said, in addition to time travel, you also shift narrators to tell the story from a variety of perspectives. Is the decentralized structure a comment on Bitcoin?
RC: Great question! Now I wish I’d been that clever! But no, the shifting first person present tense narration is to add what I think is an interesting immediacy to the readers’ insight into the characters and their different perspectives, to show rather than describe.
MM: Thank you for your time. I enjoyed reading Hannibal’s Witch.
RC: Thank you. I enjoyed writing it :-)