FictionFinder: A conversation with Mark Davis
Updated: Feb 23
FICTIONMAPPER received it's first letter of encouragement recently and it came from an entrepreneur, scientist, author and engineer who splits time between Northern California, Sedona, Arizona, and New Mexico -- Mark Williams Davis!
Raised in a bohemian flux of scientists and artists, he has undergraduate and graduate degrees in engineering, with specializations in machine learning and computational linguistics. He has spent time at Santa Fe Institute studying artificial life, was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Fiji, helped run an experimental performance art group, and worked for startups, Microsoft, and the legendary XeroX Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). In addition to novels, Mark Davis is the author of two dozen scientific papers and around ten patents.
Soon after receiving Mark Davis' motivating email, I requested him to share his research and decision-making process, and, while I was obviously just another out-of-the-blue interviewer curious about his everyday life, his way of thinking and his inspiration behind his books Teleology, Signals and Noise, ¡Reconquista! and Against Superheroes, he humbly shared his insights as well as his research paper 'Complexity Formalisms, Order and Disorder in the Structure of Art.'
Image via exunoplura.com
[FICTIONMAPPER] As an entrepreneur, scientist, engineer and the author of Teleology, Signals and Noise, ¡Reconquista! and Against Superheroes, what is your normal working day like?
[MD] At present, I work mostly from a casita/office in the forest of Sedona, Arizona. I have an office cat, Bastet, who is great with people but has had a history of bullying other cats. I would classify myself as in a drifting phase right now. I have a deep learning startup that consists of just me and, last summer, an intern. This is a normal condition for me; my last startup, which was successful, took several years to get to a “customer facing” state, most of which was spent dancing around the core ideas and technology. So, for that component of my work life, I read papers on topics like deep learning and evolutionary algorithms, their intersection, and the background math and theory that governs them. I write some code, as well, mostly in Java, and experiment with different software systems from others, like Google’s Tensorflow system.
I try to write prose daily, or at least do writing-related things, like jot down plot notes or character ideas. I will also read book reviews and read the first few pages of many books on Amazon. At present, I find myself very analytical about writing, scanning prose to try to understand the formal methods of the author, as well as the different plot devices and narrative mechanisms. I meta-read, I guess.
I listen to streaming classical music while I work most days and will take breaks to watch the javelina, deer, coyotes, quail, and occasional bobcat that drift by. I normally would go trail running every other day for an hour or two, but am down right now with “jumper’s knee,” and so instead I take icing breaks with a bag of frozen spinach.
[FICTIONMAPPER] Which is your favorite book that you've written? What inspired you?
[MD] That’s a difficult question, but with both my scientific papers and my novels, I guess I prefer the more recent ones because I’ve learned so much in the journey through each of them, as well as the careful review and critique from my editors. So ¡Reconquista! must be my current favorite.
Inspiration-wise, my wife and I had moved from the Bay Area to New Mexico, where we had both grown up, and then here to Sedona. Around that time, I landed on the fascinating history of the name of the state of California. The rise of Trump and online conspiracy thinking played a role, too. The plot of the book centers on ideas about invasion and conquest, from the Spanish tale of Queen Calafia who inspired the early explorers of this part of the world (a curious cross-over between fiction and reality), to invasions and counter-raids in the history of the border region, to the cross-border drug trade and immigrant flows. The book is a comedy and I laughed a great deal about the symmetries in the plot developments as I wrote it, though reader tastes and opinions may vary.
I just returned last night from a photographic expedition to the New Mexico boot heel, amazingly enough. I saw the Pancho Villa monument and sad little park in Columbus, New Mexico, but what really struck me was the current militarization of the border region. The border barrier is going up, providing a curious architectural regularity in the smooth chaos of the desert, but there are also forts surrounded by barbed wire and trucks and towers with remote sensing clusters atop them. Border Patrol Raptor trucks outnumber ranchers by 3 to 1 in some areas, slow-crawling along dirt roads, sometimes pulling horse trailers or ATVs. Aerostats are anchored in the sky over peaks. Many of the camera systems appear to be facing the roads, suggesting that license plate readers and an analytic search for outlier behavior is a part of the “soft” border enforcement. I found myself oddly sympathetic for the wall if only because it might—I emphasize “might”—lead to a draw-down of the heavy enforcement presence.
[FICTIONMAPPER] What trait or quirk defines the image of you?
[MD] Well, it depends on how outward-facing the image. I have been in a minimalist phase for several years. For instance, I can travel the world for weeks with just a small backpack. To get to that state, though, means that I have to research every item and test them to figure out what provides a kind of optimal balance between functionality and size.
I see this as a counterpoint to celebrity and influencer society, in a way. Sort of the better aspect of capitalism: things become goods in the strong sense of the term rather than being throw-away statements of tribal affiliation or fashion.
I have a similar quirky relationship with media and entertainment. Novelty has to be present from the formal presentation straight through to the execution. We seem to be in a post-ironic phase right now—a kind of new earnestness in storytelling—that I find doesn’t keep my attention. Don’t these people realize that they are, in fact, telling silly stories designed to distract and entertain?
[FICTIONMAPPER] Lastly, which is your favorite sci-fi movie that is no one else's favorite?
[MD] Oh, so many. Frank Boorman’s Zardoz comes to mind. The idea that it was even green lighted is what is curious to me. How about the Aussie film, Dogs in Space, with Michael Hutchence? Maybe not sci-fi, though, except in loose affiliation. There was the pre-post-ironic David Duchovny film, Evolution, which was vacuously entertaining. How about Liquid Sky, that bizarro intersection of fashion models, drugs, and aliens.
Image via Instagram @exunoplura