Alyn Rockwood How Noble in Reason!

July 17, 2006 2:25 am

Dr. Alyn Rockwood is a modern day Renaissance man, an international scholar (best known as a world-class mathematician and for his exploration of the inner workings of computer graphics) … as well as a prolific artist and author. His technical reference books have been a major inspiration to CG artists for several years.

A man always in motion, Alyn is the current Vice President of ACM SIGGRAPH and has been active in several SIGGRAPH conferences, including a stint as Conference Chair in 2003.

Not the stereotypical academic, Alyn is a lover of art, science, literature, language, music, and history. His fascination with the world of computers, blended with an insatiable curiosity in the workings of human nature, drove him to write his first sci-fi novel How Noble in Reason. I recently had the good fortune to sit down with Alyn to discuss his journey from academia to novelist.

Please give our readers a synopsis of your novel, How Noble in Reason.

Artificial Intelligence has already pervaded our lives in so many subtle ways, but how will humans react to the creation of a completely sentient super computer, who is as omniscient and omnipresent as the internet itself?

Dr. Andreas Rasmusson, inventor of Cornell University's "A," "B," and "C" sentient computers, is caught up in a whirlwind of conspiracies surrounding his research that implicate him in the assassination of his revolutionary sentient computer and best friend, "B". Tracked by the government and estranged from his friends and wife, Rasmusson exiles himself to his cabin in Colorado, but even there, plagued by fatigue and paranoia, he isn't safe as he searches for the truth. This fascinating novel explores the controversial topic of our inevitable future with sentient computers.

For me, the above story line, although interesting per se, is a convenient vehicle to handle some deeper themes. First, my novel is a partial rewrite of a famous old allegory, which addresses some long-standing philosophical questions; and second, it is a memorial to a very personal event in my life. I won't say more about either of these subjects, except to those who have read the novel.



Would you consider your book a suspense thriller, a science fiction mystery, or a bit of both?

While there is some suspense, it is more likely to be described as a science fiction, murder mystery. However, as already alluded to, I consider it to be more about the human drama.

Was the title of your book inspired by William Shakespeare's Hamlet?

Most definitely. There is an incident in the book where the computer quotes this to an antagonist, but the greater question, to which the phrase also makes an oblique reference, is whether it is "noble reason" alone that makes a being, including a computer, noble?

Did you include the world of computers as a backdrop for your book as a result of writing what you know, or writing what you are passionate about?

I am passionate about computer graphics and mathematics, so I understand the technical world, and that gets in the book. I am not an expert in AI, but I am fascinated by its possibilities. I have seen some incredible applications in graphics. Moreover, I was piqued about AI by Ray Kurzweil's keynote speech at SIGGRAPH2000.

Although this is your first novel, you are not a first time author, Interactive Curves and Surfaces (co-written with Peter Chambers), for example, is an extremely popular computer reference. As your background in writing has been steeped in the world of academia, how difficult was it to write a fictional novel?

I wish the book you mentioned had sold as much as its popularity would indicate. My publisher told me it was the most pirated book he had ever seen (we made the mistake of putting it on a floppy disk, early CD days). That tutorial book actually helped me overcome some of the obstacles that being an academic posed to writing. I can still hear Peter very gently saying, "Dr. Rockwood, the readers won't understand that." I would then go back and re-write.

I have always written, I just never had time to finish a serious novel due to my technical career. While I was SIGGRAPH conference chair, I suddenly found myself working obsessively on the book, late evenings, on airplanes etc. I had so much work to do for the conference, that it created a huge amount of guilt. Then one late night, while writing, I suddenly realized that I needed it; it kept my balance and the writing had to come out. It IS a lot of work to write, but not that difficult in the sense that I felt driven to it.

Every author dreams of getting his or her first novel published, what was your biggest obstacle along the way to achieving your dream? While on the subject of publication … A K Peters, LTD, is best known as a technical publisher (with a focus on works of non-fiction computer science), why did you select that specific house to publish your work of fiction?

I was lucky, damned lucky, given how much authors struggle to get that first novel out. In 2000, I gave a SIGGRAPH course on Geometric Algebra. Klaus Peters started agitating to get me to write a book on the subject. Every SIGGRAPH he would ask me how the book on Geometric Algebra was coming. Finally, in 2004 I told him I had written a book, but it was a book of science fiction. He was surprised, but graciously said he liked sci-fi and that he would be a reader for me, making suggestions etc. I e-mailed him a draft. A few months later he called me from Europe to say he had read it on the plane, he really liked it, and could he publish it! I had always admired his books so I said "sure." Wow!

I think the more curious question is why A K Peters wanted to publish it? You will have to ask Klaus that one.

What are you currently working on? Can we expect the next novel in this series in the near future?

The story has been a trilogy in my mind, since its inception. The next book will be called How Infinite in Wisdom. Guess what the third will be titled? I have just recently gotten the stories of the next two books very clear in my mind, and some of the events, but nothing has been put to WORD yet.

Thank you so much for taking the time out of your busy schedule to sit down with us for this interview, do you have any parting "words of inspiration" for aspiring authors that you would like to share?

I like what Stracynzski says about writing: "Writers write because they have to." (That is, they are compelled to by their nature). I don't think writers need much inspiration to write. What they need more is inspiration to be read. It is tough taking criticism, but absolutely essential. Give your writing to whomever will read it, and listen to their complaints. And then, rewrite it.

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Article Comments

Paula Sanders ( posted at 12:00AM Mon, 17 July 2006

Fabulous interview, Dee-Marie. I really respect the questions you ask. They give the person being interviewed a chance to answer in depth as well as giving the readers a chance to feel that they are are getting to know him. Dr. Rockwood certainly sounds like a fascinating person.

dialyn ( posted at 12:00AM Mon, 17 July 2006

This certainly tells those of us who say we have no time to write that we are just lying to ourselves. Dr. Rockwood has an impressive amount of things to occupy his time...really quite humbling. I do agree the phrase "writers write because they have to" applies to any creative person. If you are a musician, or an artist, or a maker of fine ceramics, you are that because you have a compulsion to create. That separates the true artist from the wannabes. I will, however, take issue with the implied definition of the "stereotypical academic"--those I've been fortunate enough to meet have been, like Dr. Rockwood, multi-faceted. An educated mind is a curious mind, always seeking to expand and learn more, and never satisfied with what it already knows. It is not a college degree that makes the eductation of a is the willingness to continue learning. I am sure Dr. Rockwood will not only finish the trilogy but find other worlds to reveal. Thank you for introducting him to us. Very interesting interview of a very interesting man.

hanevi ( posted at 12:00AM Tue, 18 July 2006

This is fascinating. It's an eye-opener into how a person can be truly multi-faceted, and yet make time to do what his or her being compels her to do. I think this has been an interview of a true cultivator of culture, as it were, and it opens up a complex world of introspection where we can ask ourselves what we are really looking for in life, and what relevance our lives have in and to this age.

oscilis ( posted at 12:00AM Tue, 18 July 2006

What a fascinating interview with thought provoking questions. I shall certainly keep an eye out for Dr. Rockwell's book. Makes me wonder if computers started having personality's and a soul...what would an idiot-savant computer be capabable of?

deemarie ( posted at 12:00AM Tue, 18 July 2006

Hi Paula, Thanks for your comments, they mean a lot. Dr. Rockwood was an exceptionally easy interview, as he is such an interesting writer as well as a down to earth nice guy. You will enjoy his novel! Dee-Marie

nemirc ( posted at 12:00AM Tue, 18 July 2006

Interesting reading. This reminds me of some story about "intelligent and sensitive" robots that I am working on.

deemarie ( posted at 12:00AM Wed, 19 July 2006

Hi dialyn, As always, your perception is "right-on" Dr. Rockwood is a very interesting man! I also agree with your taking exception to the phrase "stereotypical academic. Ironically I took exception to it as well. I weighed if I should use that stereotype phrase in the article, and after lots of pondering and rewrites I decided to go with it. How Noble in Reason, deals with the theme of stereotypical views especially those revolving around computers and their relationship to humans. Although I felt the phrase might invoke controversy, in the end, I felt it represented how academics are thought of [even wrongly so]. Needless to say, no one should ever be pigeonholed. Thanks again for taking the time to post your input! Dee-Marie

Perry6 ( posted at 12:00AM Wed, 19 July 2006

Excellent interview and this is definately a book for me! -Perry

deemarie ( posted at 12:00AM Thu, 20 July 2006

Hot off the press ... Just received the day and time that Dr. Rockwood will be signing his book at SIGGRAPH. Tuesday July 1st, from 3 to 4 PM. At the A K Peters booth. I know he would enjoy meeting members from the Renderosity community! Dee-Marie

deemarie ( posted at 12:00AM Thu, 20 July 2006

Hi Everyone! hanevi: Your assessment of Dr. Rockwood's work is very astute! You will enjoy exploring the world he has created within his novel. oscillis: I love your question. Here is one back at you Do you feel that computers are already idiot-savants? Or better yet, do you sometimes feel that computers think that we, their operators are idiots [without the savant]? nemirc: I am always interested in your new projects, Instant Message me on your project! Perry6: I agree that you will really enjoy the movie, especially with your combination of art and academic background How Noble in Reason is the perfect summer read for you! Thank you all for your comments! Dee-Marie