I really enjoyed Dan Ronco’s latest book, Unholy Domain, it is set in the near future, and paints a bleak picture of what might happen in the aftermath of a computer virus that spreads through the Internet. More and more the net is becoming part of the worlds infrastructure. Email is no longer a luxury, it is a necessity. If you look at 20 bill boards, you will find that 19 of them will have a www address rather than a phone number. Our reliance and acceptance of the Internet is all consuming. But is our reliance on the net too much?

I had the opportunity to ask Dan Ronco.

Being an Internet kind of a guy, I Googled you. You seem to have a pretty interesting history. Maybe you can tell us a little about yourself?

I was born into a tough neighborhood in Newark, New Jersey, I learned powerful lessons about family, friendship and violence. I survived, so I consider my childhood a success.  My escape was fiction, and I spent many hours reading in the local library. Nurturing a passion for technology, I went on to gain a BS in Chemical Engineering from NJIT. Not enough challenge. Always fascinated by new technologies, I was awarded a full fellowship at Columbia University and gained a MS in Nuclear Engineering. Although I designed submarine nuclear reactors for three years, I discovered I enjoyed software development more than reactor design, so I changed career direction and achieved a second MS; this one in Computer Science from RPI.

Fascinated by virtually all areas of software development, my expertise grew to include coding, design, project management, quality improvement and finally, general management. My niche was software consulting and my team assisted many large corporations and governmental organizations. Always looking for a bigger challenge, I built and managed several consulting practices. I’m especially proud of two accomplishments – assisting AT&T greatly improve the quality of the first commercial UNIX release and helping Microsoft to create a world class consulting organization. Positions held during my consulting years included Senior Principal with an international accounting/consulting firm, President, Software Technology Management Inc. and General Manager with Microsoft.

That’s a pretty good bird’s eye view of my career before the writing fever hit.

What was the defining moment that caused you to abandon an obviously lucrative career to become a writer?

If you ask that question to most writers, they will tell you about their first short story written at age eleven.  Or nine.  How they always knew they would become writers.  Not me.  Although I loved reading fiction 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 obvious solution hit me – get out of this business and write a novel.

What if a great (fictional) software company lost an anti-trust lawsuit and was ripped apart by the DOJ? What if the leaders of this once-great company decided to have their revenge by building an intelligent, deadly software predator into their flagship software product? That’s the premise of PeaceMaker, my first novel.

I liked the concept behind Unholy Domain, it was very cleverly put together. Also in many ways it is timely. Much has been made of hackers attacking government sites, and there has been much grumbling about ‘what if’ they went after a power generating station, particularly a nuclear one. Are we in danger?

Yes, but not with current technologies.  Something like PeaceMaker is inevitable – but not for at least another five to ten years. Remember, PeaceMaker is speculative fiction. No existing artificial intelligence (excluding niche applications such as playing chess) can plan and execute at a level approaching human capabilities. In my novel, PeaceMaker has the ability to shut down the host computer, change or destroy data, send warning messages to its master, destroy hardware and attack anyone interfering with its objectives. A software predator could be developed today to perform many of these acts, but not with such sophisticated, adaptive decision-making abilities; one with PeaceMaker-level intelligence is still quite a few years away. I set the novel in 2012 because that’s probably the earliest point such a predator could emerge (based upon my thinking in 2003). The critical breakthroughs are speech recognition and very complex modeling; once that happens, we’re on the fast track to the software predator described in PeaceMaker.

In Unholy Domain you portray the Government of the day as ineffectual. Brow beaten into regulating technology. It is an interesting idea. We only have to look at the fall out from 9/11 to see steps backward being taken. International relations are at an all time low. Suddenly everyone is suspect, even traditionally friendly border crossings by Canadians or Brits have become a battle of paper, fingerprints, and distrust. A battle that friendly countries feel that they have no option but to play tit for tat. The Brits won’t let Martha Stewart in, so the US responds by not giving a visa to Boy George! I view it as childish. Is making the border harder to cross (as CNN’s resident idiot Lou Dobbs advocates) the answer?

Although we should exercise reasonable control over our borders, that’s not the major risk factor.  It’s fracken (love Battlestar Galactica) technology regulation that may do us in.  Government, especially Congress, is way out of its league trying to regulate technology.  Or just about anything else. That’s not a brilliant conclusion of mine; very few Americans believe Congress — Republican or Democrat — can provide pragmatic, competent regulation.

For example, think about what Congress has done to nuclear power.  Thirty years ago nuclear power was an up and coming technology destined to provide the US with the lion’s share of its energy.  The Three Mile Island power station near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania changed all that. In 1979 a cooling malfunction caused part of the core to melt in the # 2 reactor at Three Mile Island.  Some radioactive gas was released, but not enough to cause any dose above background levels to local residents.

Although there were no injuries or adverse health effects from the accident, poor communications in Congress and the media contributed to a sense of panic among the public, leading to a virtual ban on construction of nuclear plants lasting to this day.  This despite an excellent safety record for power plants in the USA for thirty years.  I am not minimizing the serious problems at Three Mile Island, but the construction of nuclear power plants should never have been halted.  If we generated eighty percent of our energy through nuclear power, as France does, we would not have to depend upon unreliable kingdoms in the Middle East.  And we wouldn’t be filling our gas tanks with four-bucks-a-gallon (soon to go higher) gasoline.

I’ll let you in on a few other brilliant moves fostered by our government.  We are the only nation with huge reserves of oil that doesn’t allow drilling.  And to complete the hat trick, we have not built a new oil refining plant in thirty years.  As a result, we have to buy oil from countries that are hostile, such as Venezuela, or with uncertain friendship, such as Saudi Arabia.  With a government like this, who needs enemies?  The overregulation described in Unholy Domain isn’t really much of a stretch, is it?

As I understand it, Unholy Domain is the second book in a trilogy. I have not yet had a chance to read Peacemaker (hint hint) but do plan on tracking it down. When can we expect to see the final book? And can you tell us a little about it?

It is clear that technological change will turn our society upside down within the next few decades. Humans will have to adapt rapidly to gain the advantages of evolving social and technological innovations. Indeed, we will have to adapt rapidly just to survive.

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 (2032). Each novel is written as a thriller – packed with adventure, sex, greed and romance – as well as realistic science, technology, and government intervention. The three leading characters – Dianne Morgan, a female mega-billionaire obsessed with power; Ray Brown, her onetime lover and a brilliant software architect; and David Brown, Ray’s genetically gifted son – are fascinating and all too human.

PeaceMaker, my first novel, was released in August, 2004 and Unholy Domain, was released April 2, 2008 by Kunati Books. The final novel of the trilogy, tentatively entitled Tomorrow’s Children, should be released in 2009.  Although the novels are consistent in world building, character and plot development, each is a stand-alone story, so they may be read in any sequence.

Genetic engineering and artificial intelligence continue to rapidly evolve in Tomorrow’s Children, touching off a human 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.

Unholy Domain has ‘best seller’ written all over it. I review a lot of books, and you get a nose for what works in the book world. You are getting a lot of positive press, are you seeing it translate into sales yet?

Unholy Domain is a unique book, part thriller, part science fiction that is rapidly finding its audience.  Since both the publisher and the author are relatively new, Unholy Domain has to sell itself based on its entertainment and intellectual values.  I have relied upon independent reviewers to introduce the novel to their readers, and the strategy seems to be working.  There is no better publicity than a string of favorable reviews, and Unholy Domain is on a tear.  Readers check out the reviews, buy the book, and enjoy the story. It’s a good trend.

I have yet to meet an author that does not have little bits of himself and people he knows embedded in the characters, is their a little bit of David in you? (and who else?)

There’s a little bit of me in all my characters.  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.

I don’t know where this stuff comes from. I lead a normal life: married to a wonderful woman, three great kids, long-term friendships, satisfying careers. I try and balance the darkness with a quirky sense of humor.  So far, so good.

Have we become a society too reliant on technology? I ponder this question often. I wander around downtown and everywhere I look I see security cams, George Orwell had it right in 1984, he just got the date wrong. What are your thoughts?

Our modern technological society provides us with an incredibly high standard of living, but there is a price to pay.  As a society, we have decided the trade-offs —reduced privacy, government intervention, complexity, etc — are acceptable.  In general, I’m okay with that. Not thrilled, but realistic.

The breaking point is the combination of technology and single-minded fanaticism.  Fanatics have always been dangerous, because they are ready to die to impose their beliefs on society.  A century earlier, a small group of fanatics might be able to kill a few dozen people with dynamite or guns.  Now, a terrorist with a weapon of mass destruction might kill hundreds of thousands.  Technology empowers fanatics. To defend itself, society must employ technology.  Maybe those security cams will help track down terrorists.

There’s no going back.  People are not willing to give up the benefits of technology, nor should they.  Regulation won’t stop the spread of advanced, potentially dangerous sciences such as AI, nanotechnology and genetic engineering.  Fanatics have access to technology, and they are planning to use it. First question: will we be able to stop the fanatics from using WMD?  Second question: how far are we willing to go to defend ourselves?

Tough issues.  Since 911, there has not been another devastating attack, but maybe we’ve been lucky.  Or maybe Homeland Security is finally doing something right (choke).  The balance between safety and oppression is difficult – go too far in either direction and we’re screwed.  Bin Laden or Big Brother?

I have read several articles about you that liken your books to the works of Philip K. Dick, the only book I recall by him was ‘Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep’. Who are the writers that inspire you?

For all-around talent and professionalism, it’s difficult to surpass Larry McMurtry.  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.  In your review of Unholy Domain, you mention that each chapter begins with quotes, some old and real, others from books yet to be written.  That idea came from Dune, and it’s an excellent device to expand the story with appealing background details.

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.

Thanks For chatting with us Dan. Oh and you can bet I will be keeping my eyes peeled for the last book in this trilogy.

Simon Barrett


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