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Interview: Matthew Jarpe
Review by Ernest Lilley
Matthew Jarpe  ISBN/ITEM#: 0708MatthewJarp
Date: 1 August, 2007

Links: Author's Website / Show Official Info /

SFR: First off, nice job on Radio Freefall. I'm not surprised to see that David Hartwell is your editor, as it's just the sort of rational yet entertaining SF that he likes so well. How did Tor come to accept it, and what was the editorial process like?

Matthew Jarpe: I met David at Readercon in 2001, the year he was editor GoH. I had heard a lot about him before, of course, from Hal Clement and Paul Levinson. After hearing everyone sing his praises at various panels over the weekend I approached him and said I wanted Tor to publish my book and I wanted him to edit it. He told me to send him the manuscript, I did, and bam! 5 years later he bought it.

It is apparently not easy to sell a manuscript without an agent these days. The book has to be pretty much finished to catch an editor's eye when it's thrown over the transom. So the editorial process was rather anticlimactic. David said he bought a book that was ready for the presses, and so we didn't change much.

SFR: There were a few things in Radio Freefall that surprised me by not being there, for one thing, the title never quite comes up. I'd envisioned the space colony becoming a pirate station and beaming rebellious rock. Did you come up with the title, and is so, did you think to go there? If nothing else, it would have given new meaning to space "station."

MJ: I did include some of that, but maybe I was a bit too subtle. I'll use a sledgehammer next time. I did intend for Aqualung to broadcast his rebel rock down to Earth to change events, but when you think about it that isn't a very efficient way to change things. The only people who will listen to the message are the ones who are already in a rebellious frame of mind. You have to match the medium to the intended audience, so I had him do a talk show instead. But the idea is the same as Radio Free Europe, to send a message across political boundaries and try to capture the hearts and minds of the citizens on the other side when you can't come to an agreement with the government. Come to think of it, Radio Free Europe and it's brethren aren't very rocking, are they? They're run by the CIA. Radio Freefall is much cooler.

SFR: Even more than protest rock, since mood/mind control via sound was a central theme, did you consider the station turning Aqualung's Machine against the bad guys? And while we're on the subject, is there any research out there that suggests that you can do more than make people irritated and nauseous with sound?

MJ: As I recall Natalie does ask Aqualung to use his Machine to turn the tide, but he dismisses the possibility. He hates telling people what to do, remember. He likes helping them find their own perfect song, or their own perfect political solution.

When I wrote the book I wasn't aware of any solid research on sound affecting mood other than the obvious, that music hath charms and so forth. But there have been some recent studies showing the neurological effects of music and trying to tease out what sounds from the music have what effect. It's interesting stuff. I'm glad the book is going to hit the shelves before someone actually invents the Machine.

Speaking of having technology overcome the slow process of getting a science fiction novel published, in my original draft I had invented a means for the audience in a rock concert to communicate directly with the band. I called it a wrist pilot and the kids all learned this complex set of finger movements to type shorthand messages and send them to one another's devices. When I dusted off the draft to send it David the second time (I've seen pictures of the Tor offices and I'm not surprised it got lost) I realized that I had "invented" text messaging. I changed the manuscript before I sent it off.

SFR: At the end of Radio Freefall, the main character heads off for Luna, where things are less controlled and civilized than on the space station. What happens next? Is this a trilogy, and how far do you have the story arc worked out?

MJ: I have learned never to work on the sequel until you sell the first one. I would like to find out what Aqualung does once he gets to the moon. He's going to have a big hand in creating a new civilization out there. I imagine a society of humans and AI's that has a great capacity for emotional intelligence. Contrast that with the usual enhanced humans you get in SF, who have evolved beyond emotion and you have a heck of a story. But we'll see how Radio Freefall does first.

One part of the book I did want to explore further is the origin of the drug the band takes, the Witch. It's an engineered meningitis virus that had been originally developed to fight Parkinson's Disease. Now, there really are viruses in clinical trials for PD, but they're injected directly into the brain.

I just took it one jump further on to make it science fiction. I got to thinking about the scientist who creates the treatment, his surprise that his virus has such profound cognitive affects, and his dismay that it becomes a street drug. I went ahead and wrote that book, but it didn't come out as science fiction at all. It's a biotech thriller. I don't know if that makes much sense commercially to write a genre-jumping prequel to a book before you know if it's going to sell, but sometimes you've got to go where the story takes you.

SFR: I was surprised when I met you that you weren't more like your main character, who you described as an aging, overweight roadie with a guitar pick in his beard. What made you decided to go with him as a lead?

MJ: I seem to be headed in that direction. But really Aqualung is loosely based on a roommate I had in college, Chuck Hawley. He was the first rock musician I ever met and he made an impression on me. Chuck isn't overweight or hairy either, but he might be in 20 years. He's now a singer and plays guitar and trombone for a band in Albuquerque called Mucho Buddha.

I am a little bit like Quin Taber, the secondary protagonist. He's a bit lacking in social skills and rather obsessive. I took some of the less attractive parts of my own personality and gave them to him. I'll leave it up to those readers who meet me to decide how much was left over after that extraction.

SFR: When you got around to finishing a novel, you went off and sold it to Tor. Then you went off and wrote some short stories staring with "Vasquez Orbital Salvage and Satellite Repair" which you also sold, and which I liked quite well (btw). Do you have any idea how wrong that is, not to mention that you're doing it backwards?

MJ: Really I wrote the novel, tried to sell it, and wrote the short stories while I was waiting for Tor to buy the book. I had to keep busy and didn't feel ready to write another book before I knew if I had book writing powers. I still switch back and forth. Ideas come in all sizes and it doesn't do anyone any good to force them into the wrong size box.

SFR: Your bio says that you wrote a fantasy, (evil sorcerer saves peaceful kingdom, for a price) and a movie script, (serial killer vs. the Mafia) but that they were both "embarrassingly derivative." I just wanted to throw in that pretty much everything is derivative, but it's the reviewer's job to point it out. As far as you're concerned, it's not theft, it's inspiration, and that's a good thing.

MJ: Those books were not just derivative but bad. I had to get it out of my system.

SFR: By the way, there seems to be a strong Neuromancer (Gibson) meets The Moon is a Harsh Mistress vibe in the book. Would you count those in your influences, and who else do you feel inspired by?

MJ: I know my book has a lot in common with TMIaHM, but believe it or not the influence was subconscious. If I had been thinking while I was writing it that I was going to update Heinlein's book I would have named one of the characters Mike or had the space port in Wyoming or something. I acknowledge the superficial similarity, but I can't really cite Heinlein as a big inspiration.

On the other hand, Gibson was more of a conscious inspiration. Hence the character Molly, named after the razorgirl in "Johnny Mnemonic." The other book that I drew inspiration from is Norman Spinrad's Bug Jack Barron. I think of Radio Freefall as a hard SF-cyberpunk novel, and I don't really care if cyberpunk isn't cool anymore. I like it, so there.

SFR: One of the themes in Radio Freefall is emergent AIs. I particularly liked the uber-AI character's bemusement that it periodically had to deal with stuff coded into it, like looking out for Aqualung, though it didn't know why. Will machines become self aware? And what does that mean, anyway?(1)

MJ: I was on a panel at Boskone with Marvin Minsky on this very topic. (There were also three other panelists, Karl Schroeder, John Scalzi and Jeff Carver, but Minsky stole the show.) He convinced me that the question you ask is the wrong one. We should instead be asking what aspects of consciousness will serve a machine in its function, and how to go about putting those aspects into the programming. We don't need a machine that thinks like a person, we need a machine that does the job we build it for. If that job requires some level of self awareness, then we'll build it in.

Our brain is just a computer made of meat, so I don't see any reason we can't build a machine that will do any of the things a brain can do. We might have to build it out of meat, but that's OK. We're almost there.

SFR: From your bio we gather that you read SF, Fantasy, and Crime. What book or books got you started as a reader?

MJ: My first science fiction books were: Anthony Boucher's Treasury of Great Science Fiction , which has Poul Anderson's Brain Wave and Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination; Isaac Asimov's I Robot; and Harlan Ellison's The Beast that Shouted Love at the Heart of the World.After I read those I inhaled everything by Asimov and Ellison that I could get my hands on. Of course our local library had none of that stuff. I had access to the University of New Mexico library, or I would have been sucking wind. I never got around to more Bester or Anderson until I was older.

SFR: What's good that you're currently reading?

MJ: I really liked Interview: Peter Watts' Blindsight which absolutely blew my mind. I wandered around for weeks afterward wondering if my own consciousness was an illusion. But I don't always like to have the foundations of my being ripped out by the roots with every book, so I also enjoy anything with pirates in it.

I just finished Tobias Buckell's Crystal Rain, which was a fun adventure story with something more underneath. I like that kind of thing. Karl Schroeder's Sun of Suns: Virga, Book 1 is another one like that.

SFR: Do you run with any particular pack of writers, or do any writing groups?

MJ: I got to know David Louis Edelman when I hired him to design my website. I've also gotten to know Rajnar Vajra quite well when we worked on recording two songs from Radio Freefall as a promotional hook. I have most of my contact with other writers by e-mail or at cons.

SFR: Could you obsess over your love of rock? Have you noticed that it's still alive after more than half a century of airplay…what's up with that? Also, Do you play, and if so, what? Are you one of the members of "The Snake Vendors?"
Who are Aqualung's role models in rock?

MJ: I like a lot of different kinds of music, but certainly I keep coming back to rock. That's probably the reason rock is still around, because it grabs from a lot of different styles and it changes from year to year but the basics always come back around. It also helps that rock is such a big space. It can include electronic experimental moody stuff and organic boot stomping punk. I've got a little of everything in my music collection and am always happy to find something new.

I have no musical talent whatsoever, so none of the Snake Vendors is me. Rajnar Vajra is all the Snake Vendors rolled into one. Aqualung obviously likes Jethro Tull, but he came out of a blues tradition. He's a Muddy Waters man, a Buddy Guy guy, BB is his King.

SFR: Which came first, the rock group or the book? Interestingly, I don't remember any description of the type of rock the group in your book played. I expected more of a Pearl Jam, sound, but it turns out that it's a funky, bluesy, Tullish sort of sound. Of course, I'm not a rock critic…so am I far off?(2)

MJ: The Snake Vendors are completely made up for the book. I didn't describe their sound, a revival of the Feedback sound, because those descriptions never work out. It's dancing about architecture. I let the reader decide what Feedback sounds like, but if you want a band that might be the genesis of Feedback, check out Mucho Buddha. Rajnar came up with a sound for "Mojo Motorbike" when he recorded it and like you say, it's bluesy progressive rock, a lot like the stuff I learned to like when I had Chuck Hawley as a roommate. I love the songs Rajnar recorded. They are the interpretation of one reader who knows an awful lot about music, but I imagine other people will bring their own ideas, like you did. That's OK. It's like coming up with an idea of what a character in a book looks like, then you see the movie and say "Him?" It's a cognitive dissonance, but if SF fans can't handle a bit of that they should look for another genre.

SFR: I liked the "Ten Things I Believe" post on your blog (3), and have to say I agree with most everything you're on about, though I think English Setters require to much grooming to qualify them as the ideal family dog."

MJ: I don't groom him.

SFR: As a working scientist, I suppose you've got a right to assert in #1, that " We (scientists) will, quite willingly, pitch away every theory we build our lives upon if the facts refute those theories." Though, I've noticed that the ability to shift paradigms is often inversely proportional to age and status. But maybe I'm quibbling over the difference between the real and the ideal.

MJ: You have to be careful not to confuse the scientists with their media representatives and their rainmakers. Getting money and keeping the money on your side are different skill sets that, while essential, are not very scientific. The people who are doing the actual science don't film very well and they have different attitudes than their bosses, so you might get the wrong idea sometimes.

SFR: You closed out the list with your thoughts on the whole god/faith thing, which you do a pretty good job with as well. The Big Question you don't quite resolve seems to me to be "Determinism v Free Will?" Are we out here making up our own minds or, is everything determined by the initial condition of the universe? And how do you feel about it?

MJ: I believe in stochastic determinism. Everything we decide is a result of a vastly complex and chaotic brew of chemical reactions that from the inside feels exactly like free will. If you set up the conditions the same way and run the game again you get a different outcome every time. Hmmm, this could be the start of a blog post. Stay tuned.

SFR: We will. Let us know and we'll add a link in to the post. To get back to a lighter note though, what do you like to do for fun, and what's on your list to do you haven't gotten to yet?

MJ: I like to walk. One of my favorite activities when I visit a new city is to get out and walk the streets. I've pounded the pavement in Paris, Salzburg, Munich, and Melbourne and I've left behind shoe leather in countless cities and towns in the US. I like to walk my dog on the weekends and go on hikes when we go camping. Someday I'd like to walk the entire length of the Appalachian Trail, the Continental Divide Trail or the Pacific Coast Trail. Maybe all three.

SFR: Sounds like fun. Let us know when you're doing the Appalachian where it passes through VA. Until then, thanks for your time, and some great food for thought.

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