What I stole and who from


Occupy Me didn’t have a title for a long time. I just called it ‘Pearl’ after the character name given me by my mate Kaz when she heard what I wanted to do with the angel trope. At the time I was just beginning to study maths at a very basic level to prepare for physics. Some years before, while nursing my first baby in the middle of the night, I had read Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe. By ‘read’ I mean that I had looked at all the pages and picked up the occasional, probably-misguided idea through the fog of new-parenthood. I was attracted to the idea of higher dimensions, though, and in 2011 I got a copy of Lisa Randall’s book Warped Passages.

warped passages

I have to confess that I understood only a fraction of what Randall was saying, and probably I should re-read Warped Passages now that I have a little more science under my belt. (Randall has since moved into dark matter, and her new book Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs looks incredibly exciting and interesting.) Despite my limitations, I was able to grasp enough to realise that the ideas being talked about seriously in theoretical physics make a lot of SF novels seem dull as dishwater.

Of course, to write a convincing story you need to get the reader to come with you. I was really afraid to move beyond what I’d written in the past. Most of my books are about consciousness, which is an ontological subject in its own way, but not the same kind of ontology as cosmology–or so I thought at the time. It’s not like I wanted to write space opera. I wanted to write stories that have their roots in some of the strangeness of modern physics. So I went to another physicist’s popular work:

physics of hte impossible


Here I was very encouraged, not to mention liberated. Michio Kaku takes the attitude that the impossible is a set of shifting goalposts. And it is thanks to this book that I was finally able to let go of my various science-fiction induced hang-ups about what I could or could not write. I took a few ideas straight out of Physics of the Impossible and gleefully road-tested them in Occupy Me. I already had higher-dimensional travel , and this book only encouraged me to go to town on it. I also used Kaku’s plasma shield for a small but crucial scene. But the big thing I took is the waveform generator. I hadn’t yet done any quantum mechanics when I read this book, but Kaku explains how all matter can be described by a waveform—or, rather, by the superposition of a lot of waveforms. If you had the technology, you could build an object from the ground up. Build a person from the ground up. Or something more than a person…

And so the Rockford Files briefcase was born, and that gave me the title of the book as well.

The other thing that I took from Michio Kaku was a willingness to be playful. I had struggled for years trying to play by the rules of science fiction, even when those rules  made no sense to me. Reading this book gave me a sense of freedom that I haven’t felt for a long, long time. I stole that mischievous feeling, too.

Finally, when I was working on the idea of the ghosts in the crude oil I read as much as I could about encoding information at nanoscale. This is a fast-evolving area, but when I spoke with my brother (an electrical engineer) about the practicalities, he encouraged me to be as simple as possible and use a version of a trusty, durable carbon nanotubule. I fudged this a lot—what I wanted was the crackle and pop of the idea, the resonances of the metaphors, so I went for an allusive approach rather than a descriptive one that surely would be out of date in twenty minutes no matter how carefully I might stick to known engineering. My work is inspired by science without being science. How successful this approach is probably depends a lot on one’s willingness to mix fantasy and reason.

Anything in my work that you don’t like, blame me. But if you want to read some great popular science, Lisa Randall and Michio Kaku are two physicists who are extremely skilled at framing hardcore science in terms that the rest of us can grok. I recommend them both to you.


*by the way, several years later, I’m a lot farther along but still at a very basic level, because physics is a deep and steep discipline and also I’m a little flakey even on the best of days.