[GUEST POST] Paul Levinson on Dr. Phil D’Amato and “The Silk Code”


Paul Levinson, PhD, is Professor of Communication & Media Studies at Fordham University in New York City.  His eight nonfiction books, including The Soft Edge (1997), Digital McLuhan (1999), Realspace (2003), Cellphone (2004), and New New Media (2009; 2nd edition, 2012)  have been the subject of major articles in the New York Times, Wired, the Christian Science Monitor, and have been translated into ten languages.  His science fiction novels include The Silk Code (1999, winner of the Locus Award for Best First Novel), Borrowed Tides (2001), The Consciousness Plague (2002), The Pixel Eye (2003), and The Plot To Save Socrates (2006).  His short stories have been nominated for Nebula, Hugo, Edgar, and Sturgeon Awards.  He was President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, 1998-2001. Paul Levinson has appeared on Fox News, MSNBC, Bloomberg West, NPR, and numerous national and international TV and radio programs.  His 1972 LP, Twice Upon a Rhyme, was re-issued on mini-CD by Big Pink Records in 2009, and in a vinyl remastered re-pressing by Sound of Salvation/Whiplash Records in December 2010.  He reviews the best of television in his InfiniteRegress.tv blog, writes political commentary for Mediaite, and was listed in The Chronicle of Higher Education’s “Top 10 Academic Twitterers” in 2009.

Phil D’Amato’s Story

With JoSara MeDia’s publication of my “author’s cut” ebook edition of The Silk Code, I was especially pleased with SF Signal’s invitation to provide a biography of the novel’s central character, Dr. Phil D’Amato.

The short take on his life and times is that he’s a forensic detective with the NYPD, with an interest not only in DNA, but in subjects ranging from prehistoric history to quantum mechanics.   As of his last appearance in my most recent Phil D’Amato novel – The Pixel Eye in 2003 – he’s very happily married to Jenna Katen.  But that’s getting ahead of ourselves…

The impetus for Phil D’Amato’s conception goes back to 1994, and a brief article I had published in Wired – “Telnet to the Future?” – in which I made the case against the possibility of time travel (travel to the past invokes paradox, travel to the future negates free will).  Jack Sarfatti, a physicist, wrote to me, taking exception to my conclusion. But in our correspondence he did allow that Stephen Hawking had a “chronology protection conjecture,” which held that even if time travel were possible, the universe would not allow it, and would put forth physical obstacles to time travel to protect itself from unraveling, which would keep the world “safe for historians”.

In my warped brain, this instantly suggested a more sinister scenario – what would the universe do to scientists who might discover a mechanism of time travel, and build a device to do it?   I wrote “The Chronology Protection Case” as a science fiction murder mystery, with the universe as the ultimate suspect and Phil D’Amato as the principal investigator.

But Phil might have had a short tenure, had it not been for Stan Schmidt’s response when I sent the short story to Analog.  Stan liked the story, but wondered why I would kill off such an appealing character, as I had done with Phil in the first draft.  The result was “The Chronology Protection Case” novelette, which was published, with Phil surviving, in Analog in 1995. Thank you Stan!

1995:  “The Chronology Protection Case” novelette had a great initial and growing reception.  It was a Nebula and Sturgeon Award finalist.  It has been reprinted, to date, in four places:  three anthologies (Supernatural Sleuths, Nebula Awards 32, and The Best Time Travel Stories Of All Time) and one Web magazine (Infinite Edge), and I just received a reprint request last month from another antho editor.  The story has been required reading (it’s good for you, read it!) in an English class at University of Southern California for the past four years.  “The Chronology Protection Case” has been made into a low-budget movie and a higher-budget, Edgar-nominated radio play (see 2002 below).

1996:  “The Copyright Notice Case” novelette in Analog introduced Jenna Katen (first as a suspect).  It was a Nebula finalist, and won CompuServe’s Homer Award.

1997: “The Mendelian Lamp Case” novelette in Analog has been reprinted in three anthologies: Best SF#3, Science Fiction Theater, and The Hard SF Renaissance.  The first and the third were edited by David G. Hartwell, who was so partial to the story that he asked me to turn it into a novel for publication by Tor Books.  That would be The Silk Code.  (Also, the novelette was published in Czech in Ikaria magazine in 2002.)

1999:  The Silk Code published by Tor brought Phil D’Amato to a much bigger audience.  Although the novelettes had been well-reviewed in the science fiction press, short form fiction is rarely reviewed in the general media.  But novels are, and The Silk Code was praised in The New York Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, and two dozen other places.  It won the Locus Award for Best First Novel of 1999, reached #8 on the Locus paperback Best Seller list in February 2001, and was published in Polish by Solaris in 2003. Shaun Farrell’s podiobook of The Silk Code was one of the top-20 most downloaded books in 2007 (there was no ranking within the 20, but the book was #1 for more than a month in the daily download tallies).  Each chapter also featured a specially recorded introduction by a significant science fiction writer, ranging from Daniel Keyes (author of “Flowers for Algernon”)  to Cory Doctorow (of Boing Boing fame).

2002:  The Consciousness Plague published by Tor was both a Science Fiction Book Club and a Mystery Book Club selection in 2002.  The novel won the Mary Shelley Award for best novel (given by the Media Ecology Association) in 2002.  It was published in Polish by Solaris in 2004.  Mark Shanahan narrated an audio book of The Consciousness Plague for Listen and Live in 2005, which was a finalist for the Audie Award that year.  But speaking of Mark Shanahan – a Broadway actor – he had another role to play in Phil D’Amato’s life in 2002 …

That happened this way:  In February 2002, I returned from Boskone – a science fiction convention in Boston – to find a letter from Jay Kensinger. Who was Jay? I had no idea. Turned out he was a student filmmaker in San Francisco, who had made a low-budget movie of “The Chronology Protection Case”. Jay wrote the screenplay, directed, and played Phil in the movie. We worked out all the legal details ex post facto and PDQ. The movie was shown at science fiction conventions around the country in 2002.   In the past year, at my benevolent suggestion, Jay has edited and expanded the movie, with a new epilogue.  It should be released later in 2012.

But meanwhile, back to Mark Shanahan: one day he walked into my office at Fordham University, about a month after I’d first heard from Jay. I had “The Chronology Protection Case” movie on a TV screen.  Mark liked the movie, asked what I thought about his writing a radioplay of the story…. Of course I said yes…

The radioplay of “The Chronology Protection Case” was nominated for an Edgar Award for Best Mystery Stage Drama of 2002.  It was first performed live at the Museum of Television and Radio in New York City in September 2002. That performance was what received the Edgar nomination.  Mark also went on to co-produce a studio version of the radioplay, available from Listen and Live, in 2004.

2003: The Pixel Eye published by Tor was a Prometheus Award finalist.

2008:  The Genesis Virus is the name of a television series featuring Phil D’Amato, which was pitched in 2008.  A pilot and extensive treatment was conceived and written by me, Charles Sterin, and Tina Vozick.  Chuck and I first met when he interviewed me for his textbook, Mass Media Revolution, in 2007.  Tina is my wife and critical first reader.  The series has received some expressions of interest, but has yet to be purchased for production.

Which brings us to the present, 2012, and JoSara MeDia’s publication of The Silk Code ebook.  I say it’s an “author’s cut” – actually, Tina came up with the term – because I was able to put back a lot of my original phrasing which fell prey to copyeditor suggestions back in 1998.  No one forced to me to accept those suggestions back then.  But in the interest of not doing anything to delay the publication of my first novel, I went along with a lot of the blue lining.  It feels good to bring my original wording back to all parts of the story.

The Silk Code ebook also sports a handsome new cover, created by my lifelong (since 5th grade!) friend Joel Iskowitz, who also happens to be a world-renown, award-winning artist with designs on US coins, stamps around the world, and NASA murals.

And where does Phil go from here?  I have about five chapters of a brand new Phil D’Amato novel in draft.  The new version of Jay’s movie will be coming out soon, and who knows what might happen with the television series. And I’m looking forward to working with Larry and Audrey Ketchersid and the team at JoSara to bring out all of Phil’s other stories in author’s cut editions, and potentially an omnibus edition.

There have really been more than one Phil D’Amato since 1993 – I who wrote the character, Jay and Mark who played him in their productions, and Shaun who narrated Phil’s story in the The Silk Code podiobook.

People have asked me how I came up with the name. Lieutenant Phil Romano, who retired from the NYPD a few years ago, sat next to me in an MA in Media Studies course at the New School for Social Research in the 1970s, and we’ve  been friends ever since.  He was the initial model for the character.  I changed the last name to D’Amato because I was hoping that any time Al D’Amato, then a US Senator for New York, was mentioned in the media, it would remind people of my character.  Al lost his bid for re-election shortly after, but Phil has done pretty well for the name.

In many ways, though, Phil D’Amato is more like me than like anyone else.  My daughter Molly, age 12 when she first read The Silk Code manuscript in 1998, said it best.  Actually, she said two things:  “Daddy, this the best novel I ever read!”  (She is my favorite critic.)  And “Daddy, Phil D’Amato is just like you!”   You have to write from what you know to be convincing.  And ever since that moment, I’ve tried my utmost to live up to Phil’s character.