Readers of sci-fi and technothrillers are likely familiar with the novels of A. G. Riddle. After starting a number of internet companies, Riddle wrote his first book, The Atlantis Gene, which tackled the question of humanity’s origins. This lightning-paced thriller sold more than 3 million copies and launched a trilogy, as well as a new career.
In his subsequent novels, Riddle has put humanity through the wringer as it has faced down pandemics, time-travel, climate change, and even aliens. The Amazon Books editors chose Winter World as one of the 20 best science fiction and fantasy books of 2019.
I got the chance to talk with A. G. Riddle recently—a fascinating conversation that was unexpectedly but only temporarily interrupted by my cat stepping on my computer’s power button. Riddle answered my questions about science, his books, and their parallels—if any—to the global crisis we face today during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Adrian Liang, Amazon Book Review: I want to start first by asking about the Long Winter Trilogy, which began with Winter World and ended with The Lost Colony. Your novels often revolve around humanity as a whole in crisis, and these seem to be the first of your books to tackle in a large way the question of whether humanity might not be able to keep its home on Earth as we know it. So what was the spark that led to writing this trilogy?
A.G. Riddle: One of the things I’m trying to do with my books is to explore these big questions that we face. The Atlantis books were really about the origins of the human race and these kind of mysteries of: "Hey, we’re here. There’s no Neanderthals or Denisovans, and there must be something really remarkable about us." The Extinction Files was about a global pandemic and how it would affect the world. [With the Long Winter Trilogy] I really wanted this story that brought humanity together. As we’re seeing now with this [COVID-19] pandemic, there are challenges that that we can really only solve together. Those are the stories that as a reader or as a viewer of TV I gravitate to, and I like to think that that we all like seeing people from different walks of life working together. That’s the stuff that really gets me excited.
And then the science of it! There’s very little question the planet is warming. But to write a climate change book, I felt, was fraught with land mines. So I loved creating something that involved an ice age, which no one is talking about and which is new. It gave me the opportunity to put a new spin on that [concern that] the ultimate threat to humanity is our home becoming uninhabitable.
You mentioned the science in your books. Your books include genetics, astrophysics…. How do you go about doing the research that makes your case convincing enough that people consider the topic seriously?
Yeah, it’s a real challenge. Reading popular nonfiction books in the field is a good way [to start research] because those tell me what a scientist or a popular nonfiction author thought was appealing to the audience. And then I can go and read reviews of those books where people say, "Yeah, this this is the part I really enjoyed."
But I found that the science has become increasingly a challenge for a couple of reasons. In a book like Winter World, you have to keep the pace up, and you have to balance that with giving the [readers] enough science for it to be credible and for them to suspend disbelief. If you put in too much science and you slow down the narrative, you lose a big group of readers. And if you put too much [science] in, it can become contentious for some people who know a little bit of science but think that you’re wrong. You get bad reviews. My first drafts inevitably have a lot more science than makes it into the book.
I love the science and I love the research part of it—learning new things. But the real challenge is balancing how much is science, how much is story, and what to leave in and what to take out.
I was wondering if the research you did for your novel Pandemic has helped you cut through the fog of changing information we’re always getting around the current real pandemic.
Yeah, definitely. Once I saw the preliminary data from China, it was pretty certain what was going to happen. I thought the [U.S.] government… I just kind of assumed they were doing more behind the scenes. I was just very, very surprised…. But I’ve always felt that biological was the biggest threat to humanity in the short-term, and the fact that we don’t have a global infectious disease surveillance system that is robust and that works is mind-boggling.
It’s something that I’ve really been concerned about for a long time. And I do not think this is the big one, frankly. Anyway, I could go on and on about that, but yeah, I definitely have been surprised the last couple months at the government response. Not at the course of the outbreak.
What parallels are you seeing between Pandemic and how things are playing out today—or what are the differences?
Pandemic is about an outbreak that starts in East Africa and Kenya, and it’s a viral hemorrhagic fever [similar to Ebola]. Ebola is a disease that is not airborne generally—pretty hard to transmit. People [can be] walking around with an Ebola infection for up to three weeks, but they’re not contagious. If I have Ebola and I’m in Nairobi, I can go to the coffee shop and the grocery store, and it’s not a big deal. But when you present Ebola symptoms, they are stark. You’re bleeding from your orifices, you’re really sick, and dehydration is the principal worry.
COVID-19 is really contagious, and people are contagious up to two weeks before they even know what’s going on. And then once it presents, it sort of feels like a cold at first. The great thing is that the case fatality rate is pretty low, even relative to MERS—Middle East Respiratory virus—and SARS. Both had higher mortality rates.
Pandemic is really about the CDC. Early in the book, [the CDC and] the administration are arguing about the economic impacts versus the biological consequences, which I think as a debate has certainly taken center stage [today]. But in Pandemic, the book is about the CDC going out in the field and what it’s really like to fight an outbreak in a rural, impoverished setting, which is where a lot of the outbreaks are going to start in the next hundred years. Pandemic takes you inside the people who fight these diseases and what it’s like for them to go into those settings.
I gained a lot of respect for people that do that work. It’s really dangerous work, and a lot of times they’re not really celebrated. These folks in the CDC… you rarely hear the stuff they do, and it’s long hours and really rough working conditions, and incredibly important.
A few writers I’ve spoken with lately have found it hard to write right now because they’re focusing on issues other than their books, but other writers are finding that this moment of crisis is actually fuel for their imaginations. Where are you along that spectrum of responses?
I started to question what I should be writing. My books generally have these external forces that push humanity to the verge of extinction, and we have the small group of people fighting against it. I wondered if now is the time for more post-apocalyptic [stories] or if I should be focusing on stories that are smaller in their scale and are more uplifting. Though my books are uplifting—the good guys win, though sometimes it takes a few books.
I like the work [of writing] but also think that books are helping people get through what’s going on. It’s helping distract them. And I hope my books are giving people some perspective that here’s a group of people that are fighting for their life, and it looked bleak, and they came through it.
I heard through the grapevine that you have a new project in the works. So can you share anything about that?
One the things I’ve been trying to do is figure out what the next step is for me professionally.
I’ve always been kind of a craftsman. I’ve always loved creating things, and I love writing, but I’ve learned that there’s a lot more [to the business] than just writing the books. I started an internet company in college. I did that for 10 years, and I saved up enough money to take some time off to figure out what I really wanted to do. I was hoping that would be writing and took two years to write that first book. And so I’ve been in business before, and I feel like to some extent I’m coming full circle. I am looking to create a small independent publishing company that looks for strong voices and books and authors that I feel like are not realizing their full potential. The company is Legion Books. That’s what I’m exploring.
I imagine that your experience being an independent author—and you are also published by HarperCollins—has provided insights that are going to be really important as you look at starting your own publishing company.
Yeah, it really is. On the [legionbooks.com] website, what we say is: People first. I’m trying to create the publisher that I wanted as an author and that that isn’t out there and I think there’s definitely a need for.
Good to talk to you, and good luck with everything going forward.
Thank you so much, Adrian. Take care.
We talk with best-selling sci-fi thriller author A. G. Riddle about putting humanity in peril in fiction and the parallels he sees to the real challenges we face today.