Dan Ronco is the author of the sci-fi thrillers PeaceMaker and Unholy Domain. After a career in the I.T. field, he chose to apply his knowledge to the speculative fiction genre. His fast-paced, edgy thrillers give the reader a glimpse into a near future where artificial intelligence has wrought drastic changes in the world, but some ancient conflicts remain the same. Dan was kind enough to take time out for a brief interview.
For those unfamiliar with your work, tell us a little bit about Unholy Domain and its predecessor PeaceMaker.
In PeaceMaker, published in 2004, software revolutionaries are pushing artificial intelligence to the brink of terrorism. The prologue plunges software architect Ray Brown into a life-or-death contest with PeaceMaker, a deadly artificial intelligence that has infected most of the world’s computing devices. Ray's determination to eliminate PeaceMaker leads him into a dangerous conflict with the Domain – a clandestine organization dedicated to a new world order.
Unholy Domain, published in 2008, features David Brown, a brilliant but troubled young man raised in the dark shadow of his long-dead father, a software genius believed to have unleashed a computer virus that murdered more than a million innocents. When David receives a decade-old email that indicates his father may have been framed, he plunges into a gut-wrenching race with the real killers to discover the truth about his father… and himself. As David tracks through his father’s startling history, he stumbles into a war between the Domain, a secret society of technologists, and the Army of God, a murderous cult with a sacred mission to curtail the spread of technology and roll civilization back to a simpler era. Hunted by killers from both organizations, David unravels his father’s secrets, comes to terms with his own life, and then falls in love with a woman from his father’s past.
Tell us about the thought process that birthed this series.
I place my readers in a world set a few decades in the future, so it must be a logical projection of current technology and culture. For example, the reader should find the world of Unholy Domain believable as an outgrowth of our current environment. This requires a great deal of research. As a result, I read constantly in subjects such as artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, robotics, and other advanced technologies. I have a passion for technology, so reading isn’t a chore, it’s a gift. I am equally fascinated by human values and culture, such as economics, terrorism, politics and religion.
Searching for stress points, I attempt to project current technologies and trends two or three decades into the future, then find the crossover points of the trend lines. Unholy Domain, for example, explores the potential for conflict between religious fundamentalists and scientists on the leading edge of artificial intelligence. My stories exist at the point advanced technologies threaten our institutions, beliefs and even our survival.
I scoped out a trilogy of novels to expose three oncoming challenges: computer viruses enhanced with artificial intelligence (set in 2012), the oncoming clash between religion and technology concerning what it means to be human (2022), and the beginnings of the integration of human and artificial intelligence into a network entity (2031). Each novel is written as a thriller – packed with adventure, sex, greed, and romance – as well as realistic science, technology, culture, and government.
What are your thoughts on religion versus technology? Are you mirroring certain present-day trends with your book?
Well, here we are, well into the twenty-first century and we’re still facing the same old problem: conflict between religion and science. In western nations, the conflict is verbal, often quite heated, but at least the two sides aren’t violent. The other end is the warfare between open, democratic societies and the Islamic fundamentalists who hate us.
The conflict has been going on for centuries. An old song that just keeps playing, even though nobody likes the tune. For example, there’s the old standby of evolution versus creationism. Seems like that argument has been with us forever. Many conservative Christians believe that the Bible tells them the world was created in a six-day period less than ten thousand years ago. Scientists have determined that all the evidence points to the formation of Earth about four to five billion years ago. Seems like this should be an easy one to resolve, right? But it ain’t happening.
Even though we can’t resolve the old issues, new ones keep piling on. A good one (well, not really a good one) is the issue of homosexuality. Scientists have concluded that homosexuality is a completely natural sexual orientation occurring in a small minority, caused mainly by genetics. On the other hand, religious conservatives believe that it is an unnatural, sinful state chosen by or taught to the individual. How do you bridge that gap?
And then there are the emerging issues, the ones just beginning to come into view. In Unholy Domain, I attempt to describe the oncoming issue of artificial intelligence versus natural humanity. Should we allow humans to enhance their intelligence artificially or should we continue with only human intelligence?
Scientists and clerics share a common problem. Both take a world that can’t be fully understood and try to explain its fundamental properties.
Clerics postulate beliefs that can never be proven; they demand you accept these postulates as your Faith, which will guide your actions and thoughts. Fundamentalists believe that God has revealed the Truth in scripture; no compromise of these beliefs is possible. It’s a top down way of thinking; start with the big picture and derive rules for living. Fundamental knowledge is static. Even the derived rules rarely change.
Scientists work from the bottom up. They build a baseline of observations and formulate theories to explain these phenomena. Nothing is sacred; with new observations, theories are discarded or modified to fit the facts. A scientist may or may not have a personal belief in the existence of God, but at most a scientist believes in a passive Deity that doesn’t interfere with nature.
Tolerance seems possible, maybe, but this might be wishful thinking. A religion-dominated culture would have to accept the existence of women’s rights, homosexuality, abortion, evolution, and all that stuff. This is pretty tough for a fundamentalist to swallow. Even more difficult is accepting a large group of people who don’t believe in the True Religion.
Not that the science-based cultures are without blame. Secular cultures believe they are intellectually and morally superior to the faith-based cultures. Arrogant, but at least they’re not flying airplanes into buildings.
So here’s my conclusion and it’s not pretty. Religion and science are irreconcilable. At best, each can give the other a little space and allow peaceful co-existence. But not always. As an American, I see continuing divisiveness within my country as the secular and religious groups press for advantage. Not violence, but plenty of heat and anger. And that’s the good news. Here’s the bad: religious, primarily Moslem, fundamentalist will continue to attack us for years to come.
What do you predict is the future for artificial intelligence, both short and long-term?
Artificial intelligence has developed more slowly than expected, but now it’s all around us, although somewhat constrained. For example, when Amazon makes purchase recommendations to you, that’s a form of AI. The coming years will see startling gains in artificial intelligence.
In the shorter term (3-5 years), there is a strong possibility truly smart viruses will be released on the internet. These viruses will read the host computer and change their code to make detection difficult, and also change their mode of attack. This is the idea behind PeaceMaker, my first novel.
In the longer-term (20-30 years), I anticipate a sharing of intelligence between humans and software. As software intelligence grows, people will demand a wireless link from the brain into external software in order to share speed, memory, and application processing available across the internet. Over time, our need for telephones, personal computers, and handheld devices will be eliminated, with all communications seamless mind to code.
Some elements of your plot are, shall we say, edgy. Have you received any mail from offended readers?
Unholy Domain is both violent and sexual, and I’ve received feedback from a few offended readers. As a writer, my objective is to get the reader emotionally involved with the characters and the story. I’ve been successful, and that’s usually a plus, but some readers feel the novels are too graphic. My suggestion is to read a couple of chapters on my website before you buy the book.
BTW, I’m a nice guy. Really. All that conflict, torture, and mayhem that you read in my novels, well, that’s not really me. It’s my characters. Well, maybe I have a bit of the devil in me, because my characters often resolve problems with violence. And not just any violence — creative, gut-wrenching violence. Hand to hand conflict, rape, robots, torture, you name it. It’s when my characters face off, when their emotions really go full throttle, that’s when the reader is pulled into the story, when they can’t possibly put the book down.
Can you tell us a little about the next book in the series?
Genetic engineering and artificial intelligence continue to rapidly evolve in Tomorrow’s Children, my next novel, touching off an uprising based in Africa against the Domain. Ray Brown leads the African tribes in their war against the increasingly human androids of Dianne Morgan’s Domain. When David Brown evolves to the brink of integration with Sentinel, the most advanced AI developed by the Domain, Ray has one last chance to save his son and maintain humanity as a distinct species.
Do you remember the moment when you first knew you wanted to be a writer?
If you ask that question to most writers, they will tell you about their first short story written at age 11. Or nine. How they always knew they would become writers. Not me. Although I loved reading fiction beginning at age eight at the local library, the thought of writing novels never crossed my mind. I spent an entire career in the IT business and I loved it, but as the years went by the work turned stale. And when your career becomes boring, it’s time to do something else.
Anyway, I was sitting in my office at Microsoft one night, frustrated by a couple of emerging problems: the increasing number of virus attacks on my client’s systems and the ongoing litigation with the Department of Justice. The more I thought about these problems, the more frustrated I became. Suddenly the solution hit me – get out of this business and write a novel.
And so I did.
If you could collaborate on a novel with any author, living or dead, who would it be and why?
I would love to collaborate with Larry McMurtry. For all-around talent and professionalism, it’s difficult to surpass him. Lonesome Dove is almost perfect literature; there’s not a word I would change. Captains Gus and Call are individually great characters, but when you link them together, the result is greater than the sum of the individuals. And McMurtry maintained the excellence of the characters across their lifetimes in three related but different books. I attempted to do the same with Dianne Morgan, Ray Brown, and his son David, although I fell short of the standard set by McMurtry.
For creativity, story-telling, and realistic detail, I admire Frank Herbert. The original Dune novels stand head and shoulders above any other science fiction series. Herbert’s creative genius and attention to detail made the desert planet of Dune come alive. I have read the original Dune series five times already, with each read exposing aspects of the story I hadn’t seen before.
It’s interesting that some readers of Unholy Domain liken it to Philip K. Dick’s works. An honor, really. I was surprised to read the comparisons, but who could complain about being mentioned in the same breath as one of the old masters? My stories are set in the near future, just as his are, and we both see the darkness approaching, so that might be it, but it wasn’t my intention to adopt his style. I think we have very different styles, and the similarities are overstated. Just my opinion.
What do you hope the future holds for Dan Ronco the writer?
I love peering into the near-future and writing novels that expose developing issues. I’m putting the final touches on Tomorrow’s Children, which will be the final book in the PeaceMaker-Unholy Domain–Tomorrow’s Children series. Reviewers and readers have discovered this unique series and I’m hoping Tomorrow’s Children will continue and expand this growth.
I’m also beginning the research for my next near-future series, which will be focused on a rapidly developing threat to western civilization. After so many years in one series, I’m looking forward to writing the plot lines and characters of this new series.
Any parting words for our readers?
Thank you for taking the time to learn about my work. Read a chapter of one of my novels. These are unique stories, and once you start, they are hard to set aside.