Debunking myths on genetics and DNA

Monday, November 21, 2011

Author Mark Lawrence talks about artificial intelligence, publishing, and his debut novel, the Prince of Thorns

Mark Lawrence's debut novel, the Prince of Thorns, the first in a dark fantasy trilogy, came out last August, and it has already garnered raving reviews: Neal Asher defined it "The best fantasy read I’ve had since Alan Campbell’s Scar Night," and Publisher's Weekly called it "morbidly gripping." What you might not know about Mark is that his day job is as a research scientist "focused on various rather intractable problems in the field of artificial intelligence" (quoting from Mark's bio).

It is my great pleasure to have Mark Lawrence here as a guest today!

EEG: I confess I don't know much about Artificial Intelligence: can you tell me a little bit about your research?

ML: Artificial Intelligence is more a media expression, an umbrella term to cover a multitude of activities that sound far less interesting and take much longer to communicate. A "basic" building block used in many of these activities is Bayesian inference used to move from raw numbers toward reasoning. I have worked on a lot of image processing problems, tracking, detecting, classifying, sometimes to guide autonomous robots to one end or another. I have also worked on a lot of data fusion problems, bringing together information from different sensors and sources to achieve various goals. My claim to rocket science is tenuous and based on collaborating with NASA scientists to employ the constraints of orbital dynamics in tracking problems in space. Any readers still awake at this point are to be congratulated!

EEG: Hehe, Chimeras readers are trained to science jargon, right folks? How much of your research (or your scientific background, if you will) influences your writing, and how much of your writing on the other hand influences your research?

ML: Heh. I'd say none of my research influences my writing, possibly my general scientific knowledge creeps in on rare occasions. And I guess none of my writing influences my research. Dull, but there it is! Certainly an active imagination is a great help to a research scientist. Many good ideas come from pursuing unusual paths ‚ but my actual writing is about character, not method.

EEG: Provocative question: what's harder, to publish research or to publish fiction?

ML: I found it rather easy to get my fiction published‚ at least to get a book published. Short stories were a harder sell for me. I don't think my experience is typical, though. To get a scientific paper published varies in difficulty depending on where you want to place it. Many conferences will accept almost anything. Even good conferences are not hugely picky -- they want your attendance fee. To get a paper into a good technical journal (an IEEE publication say) requires more effort. You need to do the good science (the bulk of the work) then shape it to fit the language and direction of the publication, and sadly it helps if you've networked at conferences and technical meetings.

In short, both are difficult. I found fiction easier to publish but I suspect I got lucky. In general fiction is harder to publish. Ironically I think I'm probably a better scientist than I am a writer, and yet it's taken me more effort to get published in technical journals, which whilst difficult is easier than getting a work of fiction published in hardback.

EEG: Some luck is required in just about everything, but I'd say a strong, compelling first-person narrative as you master in your book helps a great deal! Indeed, the Prince of Thorns, which came out last August, is already been translated in ten languages, and it's one of the ten finalists for the 2011 Goodreads Choice Awards in the category Fantasy. That's amazing, congratulations! In your website, you say the book is about the main character. Can you tell us what idea or concept inspired the story?

ML: The character was inspired by Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange. I wanted to experiment with having an amoral but charismatic young man as the protagonist. There the two works diverge both in setting and intent. Burgess is critiquing society and doesn't explore his character's origins to any great extent. In Prince of Thorns the protagonist reveals a lot about his past and whilst he never offers any of it up as an excuse, if you read between the lines there's enough to make you think about the issues of nature vs nurture, the nature of evil, and how the possibilities before us as children get taken away.

That's fascinating. We all love dark, shady characters! Thanks for sharing this with us today. To find out more about Mark's book and his upcoming sequel, visit him at

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