An Interview with Pierre R. Schwob, Founder of Classical Archives and Author of the Thrilling New Novel AWE

An Interview with Pierre R. Schwob, Founder of Classical Archives and Author of the Thrilling New Novel AWE

By Barry Lenson

You are the founder of Classical Archives, known for its meticulous curation. What is its origin?

My techno background is in computer science, which I taught at two universities in New York before I moved to Hong Kong for twelve years to license a radio receiver technology I had developed. But I have always loved classical music (to my loss, I do not listen much to other genres). The combination of classical music and computers was a natural extension of these interests, facilitated by the Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI).

In 1994, when the World Wide Web began to explode, I created a small web page featuring forty or so classical music MIDI files I had sequenced. At the bottom, I invited visitors to send me their own MIDI files, with the only promise that I would meticulously respect the musicology. Within six months I was running one of the largest classical music sites on the web. In 2001, we expanded to offer live recordings, and the rest is history.

Is AWE your first book? How do you explain your focus on AI and climate change? Many reviewers call your novel prescient.

AWE is my fourth book, but my first novel. I wrote books about chess openings, calculators, and edited one on historical documents. The storyline for AWE was developed in 2019, when climate change was (and still is in many quarters) underacknowledged or denied. The concept of “AWE” — for “Artificial Wisdom Engine”) emerged before the advent of ChatGPT, making the book somewhat prescient. Other ideas, such as using “AWE” to accelerate the development of policies and technologies to combat climate change, are plausible.

Given your background in non-fiction, why a novel now?

To reach a wider audience, fiction can be more effective. I believe that Carl Sagan’s novel Contact sold more copies (close to one million) than all of his non-fiction titles. Given my background, a technothriller was the right form for me.

In AWE, your educate readers on complex scientific concepts and integrate history into the narrative.

I’ve always been fascinated by science and history. I keep up with the latest research in physics, mathematics, and in international relations. I attend as many colloquia as possible at Stanford University. Many academics and scientists are close personal friends, and I was fortunate to be able to support some of their work. One of my hobbies is to visit as many of their labs as I can, to cheer them on. This brought me to the highest observatories, including high up in the Atacama desert, the South Pole, and to the deepest mines where exquisitely sensitive instruments have been deployed to search for dark matter, neutrinos, and other elusive phenomena. Just as I found teaching to be immensely rewarding, sharing the joy of learning about our universe has always been part of me.

In the book, characters explain that it is crucial to apply rigor to our intellectual pursuits and they discuss the dangers of disinformation and fake news (particularly now, in the age of social media). When dealing with complex scientific issues in the story, they are addressed in an easily digestible conversational tone. I included historical figures such as Putin (who motivates the monstruous antagonist and the arc of his background) and Xi Jinping to offer a glimpse into China’s recent history and to highlight that international collaboration is essential to tackle global challenges.

You named one of your memorable heroes Pic de Lucrète. How did you come up with that name?

<Laugh> Well, one of my high school teachers nicknamed me Pic de la Mirandole after the Renaissance polymath. Although an entirely hyperbolic compliment, the memory stuck. And I selected “de Lucrète” in an homage to Lucretius, who wrote De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things) in the first century BCE, an amazingly prescient exploration of physics. About that, check out Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. I couldn’t put it down.

At the beginning of each chapter, you suggest a piece of music to listen to while reading. How did you compile that playlist?

This idea came from a personal experience in my youth. I was reading a novel while Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No.1 played in the background, and the music synchronized perfectly with the story’s dramatic moments. Inspired by this, I decided to create a similar experience for my readers.

After completing the manuscript, I used an Excel sheet to calculate each chapter’s reading time and asked our CTO to enhance our search engine to find recordings in the Archives that would satisfy a combination of period, genre, and duration. My ex-wife, Sonja, an opera singer and excellent editor, helped me select the most appropriate piece for each chapter over several weeks via Skype. I hope readers enjoy this curated musical background.

And that playlist is available on Classical Archives?

Indeed! Anyone can enjoy our 14-free trial, which should be enough time to read AWE with the full experience.

Editor’s note: You are invited to access the AWE playlist here.

Can you tell me about the creative process in writing AWE?

I start with the very disciplined development of the plot and main characters, followed by meticulous research. <Grin> And then it all goes to hell! As I write, characters take a life of their own and make their own decisions, revealing their personalities and flaws. It’s fun exploring and orchestrating their competing motivations. I then write and refine, allowing them to grow. And then… as per my editor’s sage advice, I must be able to “kill my children” and mercilessly remove entire characters and chapters. Servicing the story always takes precedence.

What writing projects is next for you? Will there be a sequel to AWE?

I am considering another novel exploring fears of an out-of-control AI, possibly with some of the same characters. They become part of your family and don’t easily let go. The plot is being firmed up, but as mentioned, characters and current events often reshape an author’s initial ideas.

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