20 Questions with Jamie Metzl
Jamie Metzl is a man of many titles: author of the techno-thrillers Genesis Code and The Depths of the Sea, Chief Strategy Officer at a biotechnology company, Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council. He’s also a man of many “former” titles: former Executive Vice President of the Asia Society, former Deputy Staff Director of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, former Senior Coordinator for International Public Information at the U.S. State Department, former Director for Multilateral Affairs on the National Security Council, and a former Human Rights Officer for the United Nations in Cambodia. Clearly a man of many talents, obviously a man with a lot of energy.
But it’s Jamie’s writing that captures the attention more than any other aspect of his voluminous — and impressive — resume. After cutting his teeth with a history and then a novel of the Cambodian genocide, Jamie turned his attention to a more upbeat subject: a bio-engineering race with China and the possible end of humanity as we know it. And let’s face it… Jamie’s just getting warmed up.
- A sequel to Genesis Code is already in the works. What can you tell me about it?
Eternal Sonata will be out next year, published by Arcade. The futuristic thriller explores the implications of stem cell treatments that reverse the aging process but make recipients lose all of their memories. As the novel begins, elderly scientists are disappearing from hospices around the world. Not many people notice until a reporter looking into one of the disappearances begins to uncover an ever-widening plot involving intelligence agencies, global corporations, and rogue scientists. I’m just completing the final edits and am really excited about the book.
2. Were you surprised by the success of Genesis Code?
I’ve been delighted by all the attention I’ve received but novelists can sometimes be a little greedy. I’d love for even more people to read the book and to think about and discuss the ethical, geopolitical, and other issues I raise. That’s really why I write — to bring more and different types of people into the conversation about our future as individuals and as a species.
3. How do you balance writing with your other priorities? Where do you find the time?
I have a job so writing is something I do in odd hours. I’m also a terrible sleeper. I’m sure my ancestors were the guys they put at the mouth of the cave to wake up when the sabre-toothed tigers approached. Being such a light sleeper was a great attribute then, but now it’s a bit of a pain. As long as I’m up, I like to be productive and writing is a great way to do it. I also fly a lot and work on planes (I’m actually writing this on a plane).
4. From think tank boy genius to bestselling fiction writer. What made you make the jump?
I’m not sure I’m a boy genius and thank you for the generous use of the term “best,” but I write novels for many of the same reason I work on policy and business issues — to bring more people into the important conversations about our future. I’ve also written for a long time and see it as an adjunct to the other things I do. I probably also like the idea of sharing ideas with people I don’t know and making a little contribution to the world that, I hope, will outlive me.
5. What has been your proudest moment as a writer?
There are so many proud moments it’s hard to pick one, but it’s always a pretty incredible feeling when I first touch a physical book of mine. All of the late nights, errant thoughts, big and little ideas, insights, etc. suddenly take corporeal form. It’s amazing.
6. Shifting gears. What is the greatest security threat of the next generation?
The greatest threat is that some of us will misuse the incredible powers we are generating to alter species-wide genetics in negative ways. The greatest opportunity that we have is that we will use those tools to help us live healthier, longer, more robust lives. That’s why I’m so obsessed with promoting global dialogues on the implications of the genetic revolution. There are also tremendous new opportunities to engage personalized and regenerative medicine to usher in new levels of improved health and well-being. But while a lot of this science and technology is new, the values we must use to assess all of this and make smart decisions is very old and embedded in our greatest traditions.
7. There are a lot of security experts saying that our future is in the Far East, not the Middle East. What will be the tipping point?
Our future is definitely in the Asia-Pacific but it’s hard for us to pull back from the Middle East as much as we probably should. Over time, China’s reliance on Middle East resources will inspire them to play a more active role in that region and we will step back a little. There may not be one exact moment when that happens, but the process will play out gradually over years.
8. Our “Pacific Pivot” seems to be stuck in a rut. What should our game plan be?
The TPP process has the potential to reinvigorate America’s rebalancing to Asia. We must pass TPP, continue to foster close, respectful partnerships with others in the region, and do our best to either integrate China into a global order that benefits all if possible or balance China if not.
9. What is China’s Achilles heel?
Every country has strengths and weaknesses. China’s centralized, top-down governmental system has been used by its leaders over the past thirty-five years to bring nearly six hundred million people up from abject poverty and foster the greatest economic growth spurt in history. They deserve a lot of credit for that. China’s government recognizes that it needs economic reform to continue growing and avoid the so-called “middle income trap,” and has very sensible economic transition goals. Realizing these goals, however, will require a level of deep reform, including political reform, that will be extremely difficult for China.
10. What’s the best path to the future with our relationship with Asia?
We must develop with our allies and friends and articulate a positive vision for the future as clearly as possible. If other countries seek to join and support this process, we should welcome and support them as much as possible. If not, we’ll need to work harder to make sure the global system is not undermined.
11. Is there an intersection between India and China? How does that impact our decision-making in the region?
The India-China relationship will, over time, become one of the most important bilateral relationships in the world. I have every confidence India will eventually get its economic act together and emerge as a regional powerhouse. India-China tension will very likely grow but the both sides will have a strong interest in keeping them from getting out of hand.
12. Are the rumors true that your colleagues in the Atlantic Council refer to you as ‘Mr. Miyagi’?
This is the first I’ve heard of it so I’ll have to do additional research. My car has not been waxed in years.
13. You’ve had the opportunity to offer advice to an eclectic group of thinkers. Who stands out to you as the best ‘thinker’ of our generation?
So many incredible thinks out there on so many topics, but some people I really respect include Tony Blinken, Ray Kurzweil, Richard Powers, Jennifer Doudna, Timothy Garton Ash, etc. I add the etc. because this is really an impossible question. People are smart in so many different ways.
14. What was the last great movie you saw?
Why is it that whenever anyone asks that question I can never remember?
15. What motivates you?
I’m the descendant of Holocaust survivors (and non-survivors) and always try to remind myself how lucky I am to be here. Even on our worst days we are all so fortunate just to be alive. I try my best to not waste this precious time, have as much of a positive impact as I can, be happy, and make the world a better place in whatever tiny increments I can muster.
16. Tell me about the last book you read.
I just finished Evolving Ourselves by my friend Juan Enriquez and Steve Gullens. It’s a fascinating book about all the ways we are beginning a new phase of post-Darwinian evolution.
17. Hollywood decides to create a sitcom based on daily escapades at the Atlantic Council. Tell me about the cast.
I love the Atlantic Council but I’m a volunteer, non-resident fellow and spend very little time there physically. So all I can say that if there’s a role kind of like Charlie from Charlie’s Angels, sign me up for that.
18. iPad, Kindle, or old-fashioned book?
Physical book is nearest and dearest to my heart, but I increasingly read on my Kindle. The e-books of the future won’t be old fashioned books on screens but works that take advantage of the interactivity and possibility of the digital world. The new wave of virtual reality is coming sooner than most people think. It will change the culture of interactive and immersive storytelling. Books will always exist, but there will be more and more alternative formats for story-telling.
19. You’ve on a mission to Mars to search for signs of life on the Red Planet, and you leave one of your cronies at the Atlantic Council behind. Who do you leave and why?
Again, I’m only a non-resident fellow so I imagine that I’d be the one they left behind — especially now that I know about the Mr. Miyagi thing.
20. What’s next for you?
Drink service. The cart is just coming down the aisle.