Roland Hughes is the president of Logikal Solutions, a business applications consulting firm specializing in VMS platforms. Hughes serves as a lead consultant with over two decades of experience using computers and operating systems originally created by Digital Equipment Corporation (now owned by Hewlett-Packard).
With a degree in Computer Information Systems, the author’s experience is focused on OpenVMS systems across a variety of diverse industries including heavy equipment manufacturing, pharmaceuticals, stock exchanges, tax accounting, and hardware value-added resellers, to name a few. Working throughout these industries has strengthened the author’s unique skill set and given him a broad perspective on the role and value of OpenVMS in industry.
Mr. Hughes’s technical skill sets include the following tools that enable him to master and improve OpenVMS applications: DEC/VAX C, DEC/VAX C++, DEC BASIC, DCL, ACMS, MQ Series, DEC COBOL, RDB, POWERHOUSE, SQL, CMS/MMS, Oracle 8i, FORTRAN, FMS, and Java, among others. Being fluent in so many technical languages enables Hughes to share his knowledge more easily with other programmers. His book series “The Minimum You Need to Know” is an effort to pass along some of his insights and skills to the next generation, and now he has also written a dystopian novel, John Smith: Last Known Survivor of the Microsoft Wars.
Welcome, Roland. It’s been several years since we talked about your “The Minimum You Need to Know” series about VMS Systems. So I’m imagining your new novel John Smith is a departure from your usual books. What made you decide to write a dystopian novel?
When you spend a significant amount of time in Information Technology playing “what if” games becomes second nature to you. This is how you both identify potential failures and find solutions to problems. At the time I started writing, the Mayan prophecy hoopla was in full swing and there had been some mud slides in some part of the country. The mud slide stories reminded me of the news reports I used to watch as a child. Some reporter would come on the screen and say “the mud slide started around X a.m. this morning . . .” We all know this to be incorrect now. The mud slide started months before when a fire burned off the vegetation; people were incorrectly associating the mud slide with rain. Both events had to happen for the slide to happen.
That sequence of events got me thinking “what if” people were making the same mistake with the Mayan calendar they had made with the rain? “What if” the calendar was really identifying the starting point instead of the visible event?
I have always had an interest in history. I did well in that subject during school and I used to watch a lot of things on the History Channel. One who pays attention to such things notices that human civilization occurs in cycles. Even the casual observer notices there have been many great empires which fell either through war or natural disaster. There had also been many reports stating the Mayans claimed to be survivors of some ancient catastrophe which nearly wiped out humanity. “What if” those reports weren’t wrong?
While pondering this John Smith came along and introduced himself. Actually he just started telling his story, he didn’t have a name until much of his story had been told. He needed someone to tell his story to and Susan popped up. “What if” she had no frame of reference to understand him? It’s not so far-fetched. Scholars have claimed for a very long time Plato lacked the vernacular to describe helicopters and airplanes so he called them flying chariots.
“What if” a person from a culture that lived in mud huts with no written language managed to communicate with some great mind from some prior great civilization, say Rome? How would they begin to comprehend the knowledge? If they were told how to build an aqueduct to bring water into a city and heat water for baths could they even begin to understand it when they had no concept of a city or how to build with stone?
He was a child when they sealed the bank vault door used to protect their bunker from the outside world. In that bunker he had all of the knowledge his family could manage to procure and time to kill. Now he is a very old man who realizes he must impart his knowledge to the current group of people who found him, not because he thinks they are worthy, but because he no longer has the luxury of waiting for someone else to find him.
Waiting for someone worthy has turned out to be a cruel joke. Humanity has devolved. Think about it. What good is all the knowledge of the universe to you if it is written in a language you cannot read, stored on a media form you cannot access, or requires basic understandings which no longer exist? That is the struggle for him. One he must overcome before time runs out.
Without giving away too much, what is the novel’s setting?
The entire interview takes place in a shelter he managed to build for himself around the entrance to the bunker. He had to wait for someone worthy (or close enough) to find him because his story would be just that without all of the evidence his family had preserved. Much of that evidence is things we take for granted today.
How do he and Susan come together then? Does she find him in the bunker by accident?
Susan’s mother and father sent trackers/riders/hunters/explorers out in all directions trying to gather knowledge about the wars. Those people found John and brought Susan back.
What is the world like that Susan lives in? What year is it and what sorts of difficulties do Susan and John have in communicating because of their different experiences?
You have to read the book to get that answer. That picture is painted a little at a time throughout.
In your marketing descriptions, you ask some really interesting questions: “What if the Mayans got the start of the end correct because they had survived it once before? What if our written history was just as accurate as the old tale about three blind men describing an elephant? What if classic science fiction writing and television shows each got a piece of it correct, would you know which ones? If your eyes can only see a tiny portion of a collage do you know it is a collage?” Will you share with us a little of the answers to these questions? I assume the novel’s premise lies in our not knowing all we think and that’s going to be disastrous for us. What should we have known that we didn’t?
In part that assumption is false. I cannot really explain it without giving away too much of the novel. The answer lies in a line from Peter Pan which was re-purposed for the latest version of Battlestar Galactica: “All of this has happened before and will happen again.”
That makes sense to me, Roland, and answers my question succinctly. I understand the novel has a unique interview structure — will you tell us why you felt this interview format was effective for telling the story?
I didn’t choose the interview structure, John and Susan did. People who don’t write for a living probably won’t understand that statement, but some writers don’t work from an outline. A large number of us simply write down what the characters tell us. We are little more than stenographers for our characters. Quite honestly, I thought the interview would be over in a chapter or two, but John was intent on making his story understood.
All that we think we know is based on some assumption of prior knowledge. There are very few things in this world that exist in complete isolation from all else. Remove one or more seemingly unrelated things and the knowledge which was based on it becomes worthless.
There is a great line at the end of one of “The Time Machine” movies which used to run on “Family Classics” when I was a child. I do not remember it exactly, but it was something like this: “If you were trying to restore humanity from nothing, what three books would you take?” John Smith’s family could not answer that question, so they took everything they could. Sadly, not enough knowledge survived with humanity to make use of what John possessed.
Tell us about the Microsoft Wars aspect of the book — did you have any qualms about referring to an actual company in the book rather than a purely fictional one, and what role does Microsoft play in the story?
For that answer you will have to read the book.
Your website also describes the novel as a “veritable Easter egg hunt.” Does that mean there’s a mystery to be solved?
There are a great many mysteries to be solved, but not in the way you mean. The Georgia Guide Post, Easter Island, Atlantis and so many others play prominent roles in the book. The Easter Egg hunt is for true fans of science fiction. Not those who just watch “Star Trek” for the action scenes, but for those who take with them the story. This work was influenced by a good number of science fiction television shows and some great written works. I was floored when one reviewer noted 1984 is discussed in the novel and followed it up by stating she considered this book just as important as 1984.
That’s definitely a great compliment, and I know other reviewers have also compared John Smith to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Do you feel those are fair or relevant comparisons and where is John Smith similar or not similar to those classic works?
I do not think I walk in such circles and am humbled by the comparison. I cannot make such comparisons for you without giving away far too much of the book. It is my hope that readers of this book who have not read the other two will find the reviews mentioning them and decide to read those works.
What did you find to be the hardest part of writing a dystopian novel?
Waiting for the story to be told.
Why did you choose the name John Smith — is there any link to the historical John Smith who helped found the Virginia colony?
You would have to read the book to understand the irony there. In truth the name was chosen because it is one of the names typically used when generating test data for applications. The rest fell into place as he told his story.
Dystopian novels tend to be negative in terms of their vision of the future — as well as offering commentary on what will happen if we don’t change how our world operates in the present. Would you say that describes John Smith and is that your own view of the world, or should we not confuse our author and narrator’s viewpoints?
I understand where that statement comes from. Many works, such as The Handmaid’s Tale tend to point out how the darkest parts of society tend to be the ones which survive then warp popular view into supporting what they do. In some ways it is fair to blur the line between narrator and character with respect to John Smith and in other ways it is not. In large part I just typed what the characters said to each other.
There were some things which surfaced that I had to look up so I could write about them correctly. One could argue that I must have heard about such things a long time ago and they simply needed John to bring them to the surface. Personally I try not to delve into how much of a work is me vs. the character.
If you read interviews with writers some claim they “get an idea,” then make an outline, and do mountains of research noting it down on shoe boxes full of index cards. When they are finally ready to write, they simply organize the index cards and work their way through the pile. That is not how I write novels. When I choose to write a novel, it is because one or more characters keep trying to tell their story. The only way to silence them is to honor their request.
A very good example would be the novel I wrote during the 2013 NaNoWriMo contest. It is not ready for print, but the main character, Lesedi, chose to tell his story during that time. I typed as fast as he revealed it. Sometimes he would go for days without speaking, then there would be a rush of words. He easily produced the 50K words for the contest. Sometime next year I will look at his story again and complete it, but for now he is satisfied.
Do you plan to continue writing fiction now, Roland, or will it be back to nonfiction for you?
I have some nonfiction stuff I’m working on as well as Lesedi. Once Lesedi is out, it will complete the “Earth That Was” portion of that series. If sales go well, I would like to do a joint book John Smith – The Last Gift of Atlantis with a young and gifted author who would like to use their vision to continue the story arc once the base universe is established. For someone with vision, the possibilities are really limitless when it comes to building a multi-generational arc out of an established base. The author has to be part of the series transition book so it doesn’t eliminate something which will be necessary for their arc to run its course.
What do you hope the reader will come away with after having read John Smith and the other books that are in the planning?
All disaster recovery plans are flawed. I have yet to see a single disaster recovery plan which reboots from nothing. I’m not just talking about computer systems here. Just look at the hurricane which flooded New Jersey. Hospitals and many businesses had backup generators, but nobody prepared for a flood. Many of the generators were in basements which flooded. Those who put generators on the roof found them of little use either because the fuel storage was below ground or the pumping station supplying city gas didn’t have power to pump. The token few which had both generator and fuel high enough to avoid damage could not get re-supplied because it had to be trucked in from far away via streets or roads which were impassible. We as humans tend to believe or at least base our plans on some level of infrastructure surviving. When that infrastructure is no more, so is the plan.
Bringing it back to a technology line of thinking, I would not be surprised to learn those data storage facilities companies send backup media to for long term storage are holding media which can no longer be used. Even if the data is still in a usable state, the devices necessary to read it either no longer exist or are extremely scarce. You have all seen movies where they show a “computer room” which usually shows a room full of reel-to-reel tape drives with spinning tapes because that is an activity people can see. How many of those tape drives still exist? Even if they do exist how many computers exist which still have both a connection and support for them?
Many who read this interview will remember those 5 ¼ inch floppy disks PC users used to store stuff on. The majority of today’s computers don’t even support such drives anymore. Even if you still had one and your computer still has a connection for a floppy cable the BIOS (Basic Input Output System), or the firmware as it can also be called, no longer supports it.
This is the plight of John Smith. He has a huge trove of information which could get society back on track but few if any still have any frame of reference which would allow them to interpret the data. This is not some new idea. Throughout history civilizations have fallen and with them went the bulk of their knowledge. Even if the knowledge somehow survived the language used to record it is no longer understood.
In our recorded history we have never had a continent wide or global disaster. Consider for a moment that we have had such disasters, and repeatedly. It is not so far-fetched. Scientists have been telling us for a very long time about the ice age which happened on this planet. Various religious texts also talk about a great flood which wiped out much of humanity. What if there were more? What if we don’t know about them because their knowledge was stored in a manner which was unusable?
John Smith is a tale about such a disaster. Had the Mayans or the hoopla about the prophecy been correct we were completely unprepared for it.
I think that’s a good place to end, with much for us to think about. Thank you again, Roland, for the interview. Before we go, will you tell us about your website and what additional information we can find there about John Smith: Last Known Survivor of the Microsoft Wars.
http://www.johnsmith-book.com You can find sample chapters on scribd.com and free-ebooks.net
Thank you again, Roland, for the interview. I wish you much luck with John Smith and your future books.Powered by Sidelines