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Prophet of Bones: An Interview with Ted Kosmatka
conducted by Dave Truesdale

© Ted Kosmatka
Ted Kosmatka
Ted Kosmatka
Ted Kosmatka work has been reprinted in nine Year's Best anthologies, translated into a dozen languages, and performed on stage in Indiana and New York. He's been nominated for both the Nebula Award and Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, and is co-winner of the 2010 Asimov's Readers' Choice Award. His novel The Games was nominated for a Locus Award for Best First Novel. He grew up in Chesterton, Indiana and now works as a video game writer in the Pacific Northwest.

Ted Kosmatka Website
ISFDB Bibliography

Prophet of Bones
The Games
Ted Kosmatka's second novel, Prophet of Bones, deals with the controversial religious subject of creationism vs. evolution. He imagines a scenario that grants creationists their scientific worldview that the Earth is quite young -- in this case 5,800 years old -- but then illustrates that there might be yet another problem for them to account for should such a scenario as he presents in the book occur, and how powerful people might stop at nothing to maintain the status quo. I found the concept fascinating and the book piqued my interest enough to want to ask the author a few questions.

Prophet of Bones is an expansion of your well-received novelette "The Prophet of Flores" from the September 2007 issue of Asimov's SF. In both stories you've posited an alternate Earth exactly like our own but with one big difference: young-earth creationism is now scientifically proven to be true, while the belief in evolution is regarded as heresy. Through carbon-14 dating in your parallel Earth, it is shown to be an indisputable fact that the Earth is only 5,800 years old. But then the discovery during an archaeological dig of a set of uncategorizable bones is made on the Indonesian island of Flores which throws all of this into question, and there are powerful factions -- a wealthy, idealistic and totally obsessed scientist doing experimental, illegal genetic research involving Island of Dr. Moreau-type breeding, and elements of the government -- willing to stop at nothing to insure the discovery is never brought to light, with each protecting their own interests. You've created a fascinating scientific techno-thriller, a real page-turner that also raises some serious philosophical questions.

In the promotional material the publisher provided with the book there is a Q&A with you wherein you state:

  "I think I imagined the novel as a way of granting the young-earth creationists their argument. Here is a universe where the Earth truly is young -- provably, verifiably, by carbon-14 dating. But nothing else is different. The fossil record of the novel is identical to our fossil record, only now these bones must be faced within the context of a creationist world. It's another window into the argument, and presents a case, I think, that a young Earth would present a far more disturbing picture than the world we actually inhabit."  

This set me to scratching my head a bit. If the fossil record in this creationist world is identical to our own, does this mean all of the fossils we have in our world also show up in the creationist Earth, but the carbon-14 dating shows nothing older than 5,800 years? Same fossils, just different dates (nothing older than 5,800 years old) from ours? And if so, then why are the uncategorizable skeletal remains at the Flores dig so upsetting to those wanting to suppress them if they aren't showing up as older than 5,800 years? Do they show something else that would overturn the young-creationist applecart and worldview?

I wrote the novel as a kind of thought experiment, so by the rules of that experiment, all the fossils in the creationist world are exactly the same as in our own. Only the age of the Earth is different. Everything else is the same. The reason why the strange skeletal remains on the island of Flores are so upsetting in the context of this creationist world is because they are so far outside the accepted orthodoxy. These weren't Neanderthals or homo erectus, strange long-dead peoples who were still recognizable as part of the human family.

Also, these weren't the bones of some primitive ape-creature, no ardipithecus ramidus, upright but still very much animal.

The bones on Flores crossed that line between Man and Not-Man, and yet they were found in context with stone tools. The bones belonged to beings who were hunters, just as we were hunters. They had fire. They fashioned spears. They were obviously very much not mere animals, and yet they also weren't us. If God created Man in His image, then who, exactly, created these creatures? In a creationist world, scientific discoveries take on deep religious significance, and a new find that throws accepted dogma on its ear has the potential to go off like a bomb. Powerful people with an investment in the status quo might have great motivation to control the release of scientific information.

I see. You've granted -- for the sake of argument -- the creationist view that the Earth is much younger than current science has dated it, but then take it one step further and ask what then would happen if Mankind was not the only creature made in God's image -- again, as creationists believe -- and how might the consequences play out. In order to present this argument fictionally, you offer the bones found on the isle of Flores as evidence of a divergent genetic strain different from homo sapiens, but of an intelligent species able to reason, make tools, and the like. The knowledge of which of course cannot be allowed to be made public.

Your story is now about one man's attempt to prove, by undeniable DNA testing, that such a divergent and totally separate genetic species existed, and the efforts by several important factions to suppress the truth (and the foundations of creationist philisophy) at all costs. At this point, Prophet of Bones becomes a scientific techno-thriller, a high-stakes life and death struggle for the protagonist, Paul Carlsson, and his evidence to survive, while all the forces a certain segment of the government tries to bring to bear against him are unleashed -- including a behind-the-scenes player perhaps even more dangerous than the governmental forces. This poor archaeologist whistle blower is being hit from all directions, and from whom and why he has no idea. Paul learns the hard way he can't even trust those he knew as friends, ratcheting up the paranoia factor and heightening the dramatic tension several times. You give us one man, on the run and not knowing whom to trust, several friends murdered, others betraying him, while he holds the evidence that will shake his world to its very core. It's a great page-turner of a story, with a deep theosophical question anchoring the action tale.

You make genetic science and evolutionary biology core elements of the story, taking great pains to explain -- in terms lay readers will understand even if they possess only the most rudimentary knowledge of the concepts involved -- the hows and whys of these sciences as they work through the story, for even in this creationist world the people believe in the science their instruments reveal to them. Along the way, of course, the reader gets quite an easy to swallow education in these matters, which I very much appreciated. It made the story that much more believable and grounded, yet in no way slowed the pace of the ongoing high-tech spy vs. spy-type manhunt.

Could you talk a bit about the genetic and evolutionary science aspects of the story? Why it was so crucial to the plot to provide the detail you did; why it would put an irrefutable nail in the creationist coffin (in the book's fictional world as well as our own); your background fascination with it in general, and some of the research you did for the book? I enjoyed the book on both the plot-driven and intellectual levels, the latter providing an additional and much-welcomed layer of involvement.

I've always been fascinated by the big questions in life. Where do we come from? How did we get to be the way that we are? Religion and science both seek to answer these questions, and they arrive at their answers from very different directions, so this novel was a way for me to put them both on the same playing field, forcing them to face each other. (I gave religion the home court advantage; it was here first after all). You can't really write the scientific side of the origin of our species in a meaningful way without understanding anthropology and genetics, so I knew that was going to be something I'd have to tackle in this novel. I have a deep love for those subjects, and have been very involved and interested in them from a very early age, so the prospect of being able to justify a lifetime's worth of research was pretty attractive.

Some people read newspapers; I read scientific journals. This makes for fairly lame water cooler talk, but it does give me the kind of background that could be useful in writing a book like this. Also, writing Prophet gave me the perfect excuse to do even more research, which is something I'm always happy to do. It was a textbook case of writing my obsessions. The trick is to not go overboard with it and bore your readers with an avalanche of scientific information at the cost of a fast moving plot. It certainly is a balancing act, and one that I'm never really certain that I get right. Part of it is that there have been so many amazing advancements in recent years, and I feel like a great many of the age-old questions in anthropology and genetics are now being definitively answered. There is this urge to hold up the latest passel of genetic findings and shout, have you all seen what's going on? It is an amazing time to be alive. We no longer have to wonder if humans and Neanderthals interbred. We no longer have to wonder about the migration patterns of ancient peoples. I can spend $100 on a DNA test that will tell me if I'm a carrier for any of the two dozen most common genetic diseases while at the same time it divides my genome into percentiles of ancestry from various parts of the world. How does that change things from when I was an altar boy at St. Pat's as a kid?

Writing a novel takes a long time, and a lot of energy, so it's not something I'd push forward on unless there was something I was trying to figure out as I was writing. I wrote the book because I really did want to explore the thought experiment to its logical conclusion, and I was curious where that would be.

Paul Carlsson is using science as a benign tool to reveal Truth. On the other hand, there is the wealthy but brilliant scientist Martial Johansson who figures darkly in the story in several ways I don't want to reveal here -- in too much detail, at least. But through Martial you pose another ages-old question, that being: How do ethics and morality define how far science should go? Martial's experiments deal with attempts to interbreed humans with apes via genetic manipulation. Some of these attempts turn out horrifically, creating sentient monsters. In the creationist worldview of the novel, Martial would pose just as big a threat as Paul, wouldn't he, if he showed that God had created something so close to a human that, with a bit of tinkering, they could interbreed? Do Martial Johansson's "Dr. Moreau-ish" experiments justify his claim that science has a right to go where it will for the ultimate advancement of mankind, and why is Johansson one of those trying to thwart Paul's revelation about the bones of Flores, when one might think, at least superficially and if for no other reason, they would take the heat off of himself and his clandestine scientific laboratory complex? Why did you decide, when plotting the book, to add a character like Johansson; what role did you envision him playing and why?
Martial does pose his own substantial threat to the status quo, and his experiments have made things very complicated and dangerous for the political interests that fund him. But to some extent, he's the devil you know. Part of the reason he still has so much power is because it would be so difficult to get rid of him. What do you do with a mad dog on a leash? You can't let him off the leash, but you sure don't want him close to you. Martial is deeply ensconced in the socio-political intrigues, so there is no easy solution to the problem he presents. Paul, however, is much more easily dealt with.

The whole situation is balanced on a knife edge, and these new fossils could be just the push that will take things past the tipping point. Martial's motivation for going after Paul lies in his own desire to maintain his safe little bubble of autonomy. By silencing Paul, Martial keeps his political benefactors happy, and by keeping them happy he's able to ensure they turn a blind eye on the questionable experiments he's been running. In a lot of ways, Martial is meant to be a counterpoint to Paul. They are opposites, and yet they are searching for an answer to the same question: how do you decide what it is to be human?

While you've shown -- quite effectively I think -- that the creationist argument would have much more to consider in order to be a totally rational, consistent philosophy, than mere proof that the Earth was much younger than science now unequivocally demonstrates, do you think it might sway those creationists of an academic or philosophical bent to come up with a counter argument to your What If scenario as presented in Prophet of Bones? Are there any creationists open-minded enough to come up with a logical counter argument to the specifics you lay out here? I wonder if they would even consider reading your book and then make an attempt to respond to your speculation. In any case, I found it to be a well-reasoned, thought-provoking speculation and an immensely satisfying read, and hope others will as well.
Well, I think any discussions that resulted from it would certainly be interesting. I came from a religious background growing up, so my intent with the book was to find another way to look at an old issue that I'd been thinking about since childhood, and if my strange perspective on the issue sparks others to discuss their own ideas, then that's all for the better.

Putting together a rational, consistent worldview that contains both a young Earth and the fossil record as we know it was a challenge, and I'm not sure to what extent I pulled it off, though I certainly did try. At times though, it felt like I was thinking myself into a Mœbius strip, so putting yourself in that headspace for months at a time does have its pitfalls. In the end, for me, it was about that search for the root of our humanity, and that's a search that both science and religion are very familiar with.

Thanks for taking the time, Ted.
You're welcome, Dave.

Copyright © 2013 Dave Truesdale

Dave Truesdale has edited Tangent and now Tangent Online since 1993. It has been nominated for the Hugo Award four times, and the World Fantasy Award once. A former editor of the Bulletin of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, he also served as a World Fantasy Award judge in 1998, and for several years wrote an original online column for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.

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