Creating a female James Bond: Talking to Patricia Cornwell about "Quantum"

Chris Schluep on October 18, 2019


Patricia Cornwell has sold more than 100 million books. Most of her career has been dedicated to writing the story of medical examiner Kay Scarpetta, a series that stands at 24 titles, but she recently turned her attention—which often results in an impressive amount of research—toward the future of crime.

Quantum is the first book in the Captain Chase series, and Callie Chase is a cybercrime investigator who works on the edge of technology. As you will see in our talk below, Cornwell has researched this world deeply. And you'll also see that it is the world we inhabit, or that we will inhabit shortly.

Here is the book description for Quantum:

On the eve of a top secret space mission, Captain Calli Chase detects a tripped alarm in the tunnels deep below a NASA research center. A NASA pilot, quantum physicist, and cybercrime investigator, Calli knows that a looming blizzard and government shutdown could provide the perfect cover for sabotage, with deadly consequences.

As it turns out, the danger is worse than she thought. A spatter of dried blood, a missing security badge, a suspicious suicide—a series of disturbing clues point to Calli’s twin sister, Carme, who’s been MIA for days.

Desperate to halt the countdown to disaster and to clear her sister’s name, Captain Chase digs deep into her vast cyber security knowledge and her painful past, probing for answers to her twin’s erratic conduct. As time is running out, she realizes that failure means catastrophe—not just for the space program but for the safety of the whole nation.

And here is our conversation:

So did you start with the world or did you start with Captain Chase? Which came first?

I started with Chase. It was a very simple question, and it’s so crazy how these things happen. I didn't want to do any more Scarpetta, certainly not any time soon after the 24th one came out—so I thought that maybe I would do film or TV for a while. I was making the rounds, and I was in London, and an agent said to me, you know, there's talk of creating a female James Bond. Would you be interested in something like that? And I said, well frankly if anybody's going to do that, I'd love it to be me—so I thought, maybe I'll come up with that for film. I started and I thought, where would I go if I’m going to the highest realms of technology today? Where would I go if I was just getting started today? And I thought: I'd go to NASA. Because that's where some really smart people are doing all this cool stuff.

So I went to NASA with the thought of creating some sort of super spy who is into space technologies. But I got there and met NASA police, and I met astronauts. Then later I met some Air Force generals in Colorado Springs who started talking about cyber ninjas and how this is the great need—so this is how Chase started evolving. It was character first, and then this whole world is swirling around it, and it's a big one.

How big is that world?

It's vast. The forensic world was easier, in that you might have five or six different types of forensic labs. But guess what? You go to NASA Langley... there are 200 facilities on that campus, and every one of them does something different. And that's just one of ten campuses in this country. And that doesn't include the commercial stuff like SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’s own Blue Origin. But that's what's fun for me. It's an endless candy store.

What has your research been like?

Well, I'm now on two and a half years, and I'm still barely scratching the surface. It's been constant. It's the most intensive research I've ever done.

Can you talk a little about that research?

When I began doing the research, I was very surprised by the questions I started asking. For example, when you start seeing that there are scientists like Francis Crick, who won the Nobel Prize for discovering the DNA double helix—back in the early 70s, he's writing scientific journal articles on the whole notion that life on this planet may have been started by a higher level of life from another planet. That might have sounded kooky in the 1970s, but it doesn't sound kooky today when we are thinking similarly about other planets. Humans going to Mars. Can we grow things on the moon? We have probes around every planet in our solar system. DNA can travel around, believe me. Long story short: this book and Captain Chase is not just about taking us on adventures. It's also about asking us to think about things maybe differently.

I'm supposed to be the great expert on death [editor’s note: after 24 Scarpetta novels, we can agree with her about that]. Well, I can tell you that when you study enough about the science that’s taking us into space, and you look at the things that we're doing today, it makes me think differently about death. It makes me think differently about everything. And I hope other people will, too.

Do you consider this a science fiction novel?

No. I'm really telling you what's going on out there. You know, we tried forever to figure out what to call the Scarpetta novels—because they're certainly not mysteries. You could call them forensic thrillers. This new series is not really about space. It will take you into space, but the people live here on earth. I call it a space thriller or a techno-thriller.

So all of this already exists?

The things in Quantum... Everything that I have in there, from the rocket, to the space station at the end, to the cyber stuff, to sensors in fingers--it all exists today. You can Google this stuff. I mean people are doing this and they're going to be doing it more—and this is all part of where you take biology and machines and you start hybridizing them, you start putting them together. This is a playback of so many things, including Frankenstein, where you're creating the monster. The monster back in the day was the Industrial Era. It was machines. And now it's artificial intelligence.

And really that's the big thing that's going to make us or break us. That's where I'm headed with all this: as we create these technologies, they're also creating us. And we better be very careful what we do.

Do you still have more research to do?

I've got so much research to do, but I know where I'm going certainly in the next book Spin. And I'm getting a very good sense of how this is all shaking down and what the battle is about. And then we'll see after that. Some of its going to also depend on, you know, if people really enjoy this a lot. I wouldn't want to keep doing it if they're not interested in Captain Chase and space; but I think people will be, especially since we're just a few years out from going to the moon, and we don't know if NASA will get there first. I know some other people that might get there quicker if they're smart.

What can readers expect in the next book?

Well, I know that Quantum's being called a cliffhanger. Let me just say this: what readers can expect is that, when they pick up where they left off, they are not going to believe what happens next. On her way home—that's all I'm going to say—something very unusual happens. And it's not science fiction, but it might feel like it.

I consider Quantum as the prelude for this new series and Spin is going to be the origin story where you really see the creation of this astro-spy, of someone who is going to be rooted down here trying to protect our country and our space program and inventing things and doing all the rest of it. But who is also going up there to take care of things. And we're going to put Captain Chase in space in Spin.

So she's moving outward, basically. She's moving off the planet.

Well, she'll be going off the planet, but she'll be living down here. Off the planet is going to be kind of like you get in your private jet and you go fly to Monte Carlo for a day. Then you come back. She's going to have a mission in Spin that takes her up into space, because she has got to take care of something. And I'm working with real people about what that spacecraft is, and other details, and I'm not going to get into it yet because it's a little bit secretive. But my method is, if I want something that's not quite out there yet, then I get the people who are building the real thing and sit down with them, including NASA people—and I said, let's design what this could be, something that could really work. And that's what I'm doing right now for her. Shall we say her Batmobile or her Batplane is in the process of being constructed.

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