Interview with Christian Cantrell

Christian CantrellI don’t know how many of your are aware of this but our very own Christian Cantrell is not only an Adobe AIR Application Developer, Project Manager, and Evangelist. He’s also a published Science Fiction author. His first full length novel is called Containment

You can read a review of Containment here.

Christian was gracious enough to agree to an email interview and take the time to respond very thoroughly.

Which SciFi authors/books are your greatest inspirations?

This is always a difficult question — especially because I’m actually relatively new to science fiction. I studied literature and creative writing in college and focused mainly on American modern novels, so it’s really only been the last few years that I’ve really fallen in love with science fiction. That said, some of my favorite books are Seeker by Jack McDevitt, Asimov’s Foundation series (especially the earlier ones), Hyperion by Dan Simmons, and A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. I could go on and on, but those are books which I occasionally pick up again and again.

Do you remember what idea was the genesis for the story/plot of Containment?

For me, stories and plots don’t really reveal themselves in the form of epiphanies; rather, they develop slowly and organically. But the overarching concept of Containment is easier to trace.

A few years ago, I really began to reflect on how our world views are influenced — or even defined — by things like media, culture, and propaganda. A simple example is the saying that diamonds are a girls best friend. Are they really, or is that just what jewelers and diamond distributors want us to believe? I think it’s fascinating that there was even an attempt by the industry to create a formula for how much a man should spend on an engagement ring. Another good example is this idea that owning a home is the American dream. Does having a mortgage somehow make you more American, or is it just propaganda to make sure that immigrants and young people keep themselves in debt (which is very profitable for the people loaning the money)? These aren’t criticisms of people who buy diamond rings or who own homes; rather, they’re reflections on how much of our world views can be constrained and shaped and influenced to fit the agendas of others.

Containment takes that concept to an extreme in a way that I think is disturbing, but not unrealistic. But it’s also the story about expanding one’s world view beyond the narrow confines that are often defined for us, and in the process, finding entirely new and inspiring worlds.

Have you noticed any similarities between the process of writing software and writing a novel?

Definitely. For me, both processes are organic. I know that that the proper way to write software is to define it, spec it out, diagram it, etc. But I have much more fun when I challenge myself to implement something difficult, and then keep iterating and building on top of it until I have something that’s useful. It means doing a lot of refactoring and sometimes even starting from scratch, but it’s that process of discovery and problem solving that I love. For me, writing is similar. I sometimes write myself into a corner just to see how I can get myself out knowing only what a character knows and using only what a character has available to him or her. A good example is when Arik has to somehow beat a computer system which is widely considered to be foolproof. I had no idea how he was going to do it when I started writing that chapter; I simply put myself in his place and solved the problem in a way I thought he would go about doing it.

Containment, by Christian Cantrell Kindle $2.99
paperback $14.17

The main character – Arik – in Containment is a super-duper programmer. That is obviously your day job. How much of yourself did you put into the character?

Arik reminds me of myself when I was younger. He’s incredibly focused and persistent, even to the detriment of other things in his life. I think Arik’s transformation in the story reflects him learning to lift up his head and take a look around him occasionally in order too see the big picture rather than just focusing on individual components. Some people are only comfortable dealing with details and some people are only comfortable dealing with the big picture. Arik learns to operate at both levels which is something I try to do day-to-day.

Arik has a brain-to-computer interface. If that were possible today would you do it yourself?

Absolutely. I put a lot of work into “creating” the technology in Containment, mostly because I would love to try it out myself. I think input is one of the biggest problems in computing today, and is only becoming a bigger problem as devices get smaller and more portable. For instance, I love tablets, but the idea that they’re replacements for laptops or desktops isn’t realistic because of input limitations. I love phones (I have several of them), but I tend to consume much more on them than I produce because input is so limited.

Fortunately, we’re staring to see some incredible advances in computer input right now. For a long time, there was just the keyboard, and then later, we had the mouse. Now we have multi-touch screens and trackpads, gestures, things like the XBox Kinect, and primitive BCI (Brain Computer Interface) technology. I’m looking forward to the days of eyeball tracking, two-way pixels (dots that both render and record like the new Microsoft surface), technology that can interpret speech impulses (see Human Legacy Project), screens built into glasses (see The Epoch Index), and very fine-grained motion tracking built into every device with a screen. Not only do I want better and more expressive ways to interact with machines, but I also want new input methods to allow me to do entirely new things.

Has anyone approached you about turning the novel into a screenplay?

Yes, I’ve had a couple of conversations with people about Containment, Brainbox, and The Epoch Index, but nothing that has been especially compelling. I’m a huge science fiction movie fan, and I write with a lot of emphasis on dialog, setting, and twists — all things that make great films — so if anyone out there knows anyone, I’m listening…

Containment has all of the essential characteristics that people expect from a SciFi story: technology, space exploration, a hero, distopia, etc. Which is your favorite part to write about?

I love all those things, but first and foremost, I love to write about heroes. More specifically, I love to challenge the notion of what a hero is, and show how heroes can take on very unexpected personas. The Epoch Index is the best manifestation of that concept that I’ve done so far.

Not too long ago getting a book published required a lot more than just writing talent. A writer had to have an agent and deal with publishers and contracts and on and on. However the landscape has changed drastically with the growth of eBook readers and tablets along with marketplaces for individuals to self publish. As a published author do you have any insights into where you think the evolution of writing and publishing is headed?

I have more thoughts on this topic than I could possibly convey in this format. In short, there is absolutely no doubt that the landscape of publishing has changed dramatically, and will continue to change. Publishers have gotten into a mode where they only want to invest in writers with an established platform. In other words, they want writers to be able to market and sell their own work. I understand their position, however I don’t think that’s sustainable since if a writer can market him- or herself, why not just publish through Amazon Direct Publishing or through Apple’s platform? You can get to market much faster, and you’ll make far better royalties.

I think traditional publishing is about solving the problem of distribution. It’s expensive to print and distribute physical books, so the agent/publishing system evolved in a way that helped to solve that problem. With eBooks, that problem is entirely solved, so I don’t think traditional publishing can hope to survive by providing a service to solve a problem that no longer exists. However, there are still a lot of other problems to solve which they should be focusing on. For instance, rather than telling writers that they have to create their own platforms, publishers should be creating those platforms on behalf of writers. They should focus on things that writers may not be able to do themselves now like art work, promotion, speaking tours, editing, etc. The more they expect writers to bring to the table themselves, the more writers are going to want to avoid them and self-publish digitally.

If you’re interested in this topic, you might want to check out my post, Everything You Need to Know About How to Digitally Self Publish.

Containment has a great deal of science in it – genetics, computer science, astronomy – that to my knowledge is quite accurate with our current understanding of those fields. But sometimes a story needs to assume some technological advancement, like warp drive, or scientific truth, such as time travel, that flies against our current understanding just to get the story where you want it to go. What is your philosophy on bending the rules every now and then if you need it to tell the story that you want?

I think the most entertaining stories combine proven and understood scientific theories with leaps that we haven’t yet made. In other words, I think there usually has to be some scientific grounding in fictional technology. I think the book Contact by Carl Sagan does a masterful job at combining the two concepts. Another wonderful example is the new Battlestar Galactica. The idea of an old decommissioned war ship being the lens through which we view the future is absolutely brilliant because we can identify with the technology while also accepting technology we can’t identify with. I love all the little details in BSG like the wired “phones” throughout the ship, the thrusters on the front of the Vipers which show how a space-based fighter jet might actually maneuver, and the fact that their most powerful weapons are actually just really big nukes. On the other hand, they have faster-than-light drives and artificial gravity that we don’t really understand, but we just accept because we feel like we understand enough.

I put a lot of work into grounding all the technology in my writing in something real. In fact, in Containment, I even tried to plot a course for exactly how and why mankind would colonize Venus. A story can be as far-flung, fantastic, and imaginative as a writer wants, but if it’s not believable, readers probably won’t identify with it.

There are lots of advanced electronics in Containment.  But I didn’t notice robotics. Was there a reason for that or were robots just not needed for the story?

I get into robotics a little with the rovers, and with Arik’s attempts to program one using SEMAL (Spatial and Environmental Manipulation Language). But without giving too much of the story away, the lack of advanced robotics can be explained by the possibility that under the right circumstances, humans might make better robots than even robots. (Brainbox explores this concept in much more detail.)

Do you ever read general science books on topics your not very familiar with just so that you can write authoritatively about it? If so what books/topics?

Sometimes. Before I wrote Brainbox, for example, I read a book called Wired for War about the use of robotics in military contexts. But primarily I read articles on anything and everything. To be honest, I find a lot of non-fiction books to be one straightforward concept repeated, rephrased, and re-demonstrated over and over again until there are enough words to fill a book and charge a higher price. I feel like I can usually get the information I’m after by reading good articles. (Note that many non-fiction books got their start as very successful articles.)

From what I can see on you have 5 books published. What are your plans for the future? Are you working on another book now?

Containment is the only novel. The rest are actually short stories with the exception of The Epoch Index which is probably more of a novella. I’ve been taking a little break from writing recently to work on a photography project called microkosmic, but I’ve already been working on a new story in my mind which I think I’ll start writing very soon. From there, I might keep writing stories until I have a collection, or I might do another novel. I haven’t decided yet.

What inspired you to begin writing your first novel?

Like I mentioned above, I studied literature and writing in college, and in fact, Containment isn’t my first novel. I wrote a novel when I was living in Japan many years ago, and I’ve been writing various kinds of stories for as long as I can remember. But I think my relatively recent interest in science fiction was what inspired me to get serious about writing again. I felt like I could combine character, plot, and technology in a new and unique way. In fact, that has really become my mission as a writer — finding the right balance between those three elements.

Is there a question that I missed that you would like to add to the interview? Feel free to add as much as you would like.

Sure, I’ll add one:

Is there anything you would like to say to your fans, or would-be fans?

I would like to thank them for taking the time to read my work. There is so much media available out there, and people have such limited time these days, that I genuinely appreciate people making an investment in something that I wrote. I read every review — good or bad — and I respond to every email I get because I think asking someone to devote several hours of their time to your work is a very big deal, and I don’t take it lightly.

I would like to thank Christian for taking the time to answer all of these questions so thoroughly. I’ve already read all his work – listed below. Now I’m very excited to re-read everything know what I know from this interview.

Besides Containment Christian has 4 short stories that you can download to the Kindle for just $0.99 each. If your interested in reading all of them Christian listed them in order from, “most technical to most character-driven which I believe reflects the progression of my writing.”

Note: I would suggest that you DO NOT read the product description of Containment at Even though it is short it is full of spoilers.

  1. Containment
  2. Human Legacy Project
  3. Brainbox
  4. Anansi Island
  5. The Epoch Index

You can read my review of Containment here.

What do you think?

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