Chicago native Scott Britz-Cunningham moved to Worcester several years ago to do nuclear medicine research at UMass Memorial Medical Center, but he doesn’t stop working when he gets home at night. Britz-Cunningham has written three science thrillers over the past 10 years, the most recent of which, “Interface,” comes out in early November. Last Call sat down with Britz-Cunningham to learn more about the inspirations behind “Interface,” the balance between medical work and writing, and his adopted hometown.
Can you tell us about “Interface”?
I got a little exasperated when I was in a restaurant and saw this couple sitting together. They had ordered a nice dinner and they looked like a lovely couple, but they were just sitting there glued to their cell phones, not even talking to each other. I got to thinking that this technology that we have is changing us. It changes the way we interact, it changes our relationships, our society, our politics and everything. I decided to write a book about it. What I did was I took it to extremes to show what could happen in the future if this trend continues with nothing to throw it off. I imagined a world where people have ditched all cell phones and now have an implant right in their brains so they are connected to each other 24/7. You can’t turn it off, you can’t really escape it. What would happen if society were like this?
The creator of these implants, for reasons that the book explains, because of the trauma he suffered, he turns against his own invention. He wants to rid the world of it, however, it is extremely popular. No one wants to get rid of them because they love them. He has to find a way to get them to get rid of the implants, and so he finds a way to scare everyone into getting rid of the implants. What he does is he discovers a digital virus and he can transmit signals through the interface and infect people with this virus, which will lead to madness and death within days.
How did current technology inspire the book?
The effectiveness of [the implants] would be extremely high, but so are the costs, because you can never do without it. Many things are ruled by popularity rather than knowledge of the law. I already see the beginnings of it now, with social networks. You post a message that offends someone or excites someone about something, and thousands of people you’ve never met will suddenly gang up on you and inundate you with all kinds of messages. I have an example in the book where someone has personally gone through this and is devastated by what happened. I think it’s already reached the point where it’s starting to do damage and change the way things are.
What is your personal experience with social media and the issues you talk about in “Interface”?
My experience is that I stayed away. I created a Facebook account 10 years ago when an editor suggested I do so, but I never really used it. I didn’t have time to do anything on it. Eventually they kicked me out for inactivity. I just prefer to close it. I don’t use social media at all. I text, I send email, and I have my own website. Other than that, I don’t use it. I’m old fashioned and I prefer books to TV. I’d rather think and write than message people about what I ate for breakfast or what my dog did today.
Can you tell us about what you do at UMass Memorial?
I do nuclear medicine. It is a branch of medicine that examines the function of different parts of the body. You have radiology, which looks at the structure of everything, and nuclear medicine really looks at function. We are going to inject something radioactive into the body and watch how the heart beats and how blood flows through the heart. We inject small amounts of radioactive compounds directly into a person’s bloodstream and take a picture of where those compounds go in the body and deduce a lot of things from that. Even in medicine, it’s not a very well understood field. We sometimes have a nickname, they call it “unclear medicine”, but nevertheless, we know what we are looking at.
How do you incorporate your medical knowledge into your books?
The books all have a scientific and medical background. There are three of them, and they are all pretty much in the same genre. In fact, for me, it’s like a trilogy. The first is about artificial intelligence, the second is about gene therapy for longevity, and those are thrillers like this. They all have this scientific background. In fact, my work contributes a lot to it. The first book, “Code White”, the hospital I describe is in Chicago, where I grew up, but it looks a lot like the Brigham and Women’s Hospital, where I worked. If you know Brigham, you will recognize certain things in the scenes.
Can you tell us about your two previous books?
[My first book is] called “Code White”, and it’s a new treatment where they implant a computer in this boy’s brain. He’s blind from a tumor he had, and they’re replacing part of his brain with this implant. Meanwhile, there’s a bomb scare at the hospital, and that’s where the title comes from. When I was at Brigham and Women’s, “code white” was the security announcement for a bomb threat. It’s all based on this bomb threat that seems to be trying to disrupt a groundbreaking operation on this kid.
The second book, “The Immortalist”, is about a man who invents a gene therapy agent capable of stopping the aging process. I go into a lot of detail in the book on how this could be done. There seems to be a limit to how long everyone can live, and in the book what I proposed was that this clock wasn’t telomeres or something. It was what they call DNA methylation. There’s a lot of details like that in there, and I’m actually explaining how you could create this gene therapy vector, what it could look like and how it could work and how it could stop the aging process.
How did you come to Worcester?
At the end of medical school, you go through an interview process for a residency, where you learn about your current specialty. It gave me the opportunity to explore many parts of the country that I had never seen before. So I had interviews in Seattle, Iowa, Missouri and here, and things clicked when I got here. I loved it, my wife loved it, they loved me and I’ve stayed ever since.
I love Worcester. It’s a quieter neighborhood and people are more down to earth and get along better with you. It’s easier to have friends to do things with, and it has a lot of culture. You have the Hanover Theater and the Mechanics Hall. You have a lot of good culture, you have great restaurants, all kinds of ethnic restaurants that are just wonderful and give you a lot of variety. (He points to old buildings visible through the window.) Worcester is a pretty town.
Britz-Cunningham’s work can be viewed on his website, scottbritzcunningham.com.