The Big Idea: Patrick Lee

Imagine you’re a caveman (this will be easier for some of you than others). Now, you’re handed an iPod. How do you think you would think about it? Would you even be able to think about it? Yes, I know, a deep thought for a Tuesday. But it’s actually relevant to this week’s Big Idea, from author Patrick Lee. No, his new thriller The Breach is not about cavemen with iPod, but it does think on how disruptive technology can be if you’ve never seen it before — and aren’t prepared for it. Take it away, Patrick Lee.


It was almost Clan of the Cave Bear meets The Dirty Dozen.  That was the first half of the big idea: what would happen if stone-age humans somehow came upon a stash of 20th century weapons and equipment, without meeting the people who’d designed and built it?  Imagine a hundred crates of the stuff just magically showing up in the woods outside one of their camps, twenty-five thousand years ago.  What impact would our technology, all by itself, have on their lives?

Most of it they’d never make sense of: socket wrenches, volt meters, hard drives.  Hell, a toilet plunger would leave them scratching their heads.

But I bet they’d figure out the guns.  Maybe not the first day, but in time — certainly.  Someone smart enough to shape a spear-head from stone and fix it to a shaft with vines — I don’t know how to do that, do you? — would eventually work out that the little open-topped container full of shiny blunt-ended things fits neatly into this opening down here, and then when you move this big thing on the side until all the clicks are done, set the little red/green thing to red, and put pressure against the part that’s unusually well-shaped for a fingertip… yeah, I think they’d eventually get it.  The early lessons would be costly (God help them when they got into the grenades), but they would learn them.  Given time, and a few batteries among the supplies, they might even puzzle out some of the electronics — significant, considering that a two-way radio is still among the most powerful weapons a soldier carries into battle.

These ancient people would never grasp how any of this stuff worked.  Most of us don’t know how it works.  But what little they learned to use would be enough to make life interesting.  I imagine the next few decades of interaction among their tribes and clans would be rather eventful.  And if I’d felt like studying paleoanthropology for a few years to prepare myself to write a book like that, I may well have charged ahead with it.  Actually, no, I wouldn’t have.  So here’s the second half of the big idea:

What if it happened to us?

What if we came upon a supply — in the case of The Breach, an ongoing one — of technology crafted by someone thousands or even millions of years more advanced than us?  How much of it could we make sense of?  How eventful would our next few decades be, among our tribes and clans?

From the beginning, working with this idea, my goal was to root it as realistically as possible in our present world.  I wanted it to feel as if these events could actually be happening.  I wanted the story to creep the hell out of people, the way reports about Groom Lake and Roswell used to, before they got a little too familiar — a thing can only be so scary once it’s been a successful teen drama on The WB.  Think back to the days when Peter Jennings would do an ABC special on Project Bluebook, and your uncle would take a swig of his Michelob and say, “You know, some of that shit’s probably real.”  That’s the feeling I wanted, without actually using Groom Lake or any of its contemporaries.

So that’s the approach I took: a real-as-I-could-make-it tone, and a premise that effectively makes hunter-gatherers out of the modern human race — the select few who are in on the secret — as they try to understand technological relics that are, in most cases, simply beyond them.  And as they deal with the political and global consequences.  And hope like hell they can distinguish the toilet plungers from the grenades.


The Breach: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s

Read an excerpt from The Breach. See the book trailer. Visit Patrick Lee’s blog.

66 Comments on “The Big Idea: Patrick Lee”

  1. Hate to say it, but I’m actually a lot more interested in the book you didn’t write.

    Can somebody write that one? And let me know when you’re done? I want to read it.

  2. This sounds like a very intresting book. I use the book and movie “The Cave of the Bear Clan” in my World Cultures classes. I think my students would like this book as well.
    To get off the subject, I would like to ask you John and the other readers of “Whatever” a question? My class has just finished reading an article from the 12/14/2009 issue of “UPFRONT” magazine entitled “To Boldly Go-But Not Come Back. It is about a proposal to send astronauts on a one way mission to Mars. The question is If you had the chance to go on a one way trip to Mars and never be abel to come back to Earth, would you go? We had a very intresting class discussion on this subject. I would like to share yalls thoughts on this subject with my classes.

  3. Sounds like it might be related to Bank’s “outside context problem” (cf. “Excession”). Good — I like the concept! Will look for this one.

  4. Does look like I have another book to add to my list of “must reads in lifetime” which is as you can imagine an ever growing list :)

    @Charles K Bradley: that would be a big fat NO!! at this point in time maybe if it was more established as a colony and had some benifits. As of today I would not venture forward in to the unknown like that with no chance to get back.

  5. Charles: that would be a good topic for the forums.

    Another book I must read. Curse you, Big Idea! I will never catch up. But it’ll be great trying.

  6. A fascinating concept– the Big Idea is definitely a good way to get good books out to potential readers.

    The Idea reminds me somewhat of Turtledove’s World War series, wherein WWII was interrupted by aliens with military technology from about the late 1980’s or early ’90s. I really want to read The Breach to see how for once the advanced stuff is dealt with, as noted, without access to anyone from the people who made it.

  7. Thomas–

    Haha, the response I was dreading! For what it’s worth, I think the caveman version would run into a problem: it would have to continually re-use the device of having the reader know much, much more than the characters do about their predicament. That can be a lot of fun sparingly, but maybe not so much as the basis for an entire series.

    This is, of course, the point at which someone goes out and uses that very idea to write a bestselling series, making me look like one of those people who just missed out on inventing Reeses peanut butter cups. Oh well…

  8. John,
    I apologize for getting off the subject. Somehow I missed the 2/05/10 thread. To any and all readers please disreguard my post on # 3.

  9. In Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s book “Roadside Picnic” the premise is somewhat similar – an incredibly advanced alien civilization briefly visits Earth and leaves, not even noticing the humans – but the area where they landed – known as “The Zone” – is now littered with wonderful, unknown and sometimes deadly artifacts. They are not necessarily weapons; we don’t know what they are, only what they do (or what they inflict on ourselves). The story itself has a more Russian feel; it’s more interested in the journey of self-discovery taken by the main character, with his human failings and final redeeming gesture (I’ll skip the spoilers).

    This book is fairly well known; it was translated in English back in the seventies, and was adapted to film under the name “Stalker” by Andrei Tarkovsky, one of the best film dirrectors Russia has ever had. What I’d like to ask the author is – were you aware of the existence of either this book or this movie before you started writing? Has it influenced your work in any way?

  10. Laur–

    Wow, never heard of Roadside Picnic, or the film version. I guess I should probably expect there to be a few stories out there dealing with alien technology in a similar way.

    I saw a comment on Amazon that was pretty funny: someone said the ideas in the book seemed borrowed from the show Warehouse 13. :) That would make me an awfully fast writer, since the show premiered six months ago. It would also imply a publishing industry moving at speeds it hasn’t attained since the days when O.J.’s friends were all writing books about the trial.

  11. Patrick, I was not implying anything awful, I hope that’s not how my comment came across. “Roadside Picnic” is one of my all-time favourite books – and I love the movie as well, how often does that happen? So when I got to “What if it happened to us?” I was bound to make a connection.

    I’m looking forward to reading your approach on what for me still is a fascinating subject.

  12. Laur,
    Haha, sorry about how that sounded on my end. Mostly I was thinking about the Amazon thing, which I loved. :) I’ll have to check out Roadside Picnic. Anything with a clash between vastly different cultures/levels-of-technology is pretty awesome. It was what I loved so much about the Terminator movies.

  13. That reminded me of Tool’s song [i]Right in Two[/i]. Stupid humans weeding themselves out of the genepool – even by dues ex machina of materializing weapons – will always be appealing to me. –>+1 reader<–
    -Charles, I think the popularity of Mr. Scalzi's Old Man's War series shows many people are comfortable with some form of the concept of leaving, even if it meant never coming back. (Nickel to the 'off-topic' jar.)

  14. There’s another rather more light-hearted story on similar lines by Iain M Banks called “Cleaning Up” – an alien factory ship is dumping some flawed products into a handy sun, but unfortunately it misses and dumps them on a nearby blue-green planet instead. The humans develop antigravity from a floating lounge chair…

  15. Patrick Lee,

    I enjoyed the sample of “The Breach” and have put your book on my to read list. I am looking forward to finishing the story. Besides just looking forward to a good story, I am interested to find out how much detail you provide about the Breach and the technologies that come from / are taken from it. It seems like a tricky balancing problem. Reveal to much and risk losing the excitement and mystery, reveal to little and risk falling into the dullness and frustration of an unrealized expectation.

  16. Reading this blurb, it sounds fascinating and a great read, great “big idea”, total home run. Then I go to Powell’s and read it’s blurb and the review there and it sounds very much different (and just in my opinion, for the kinds of stories I like, very much “not as good.”)
    Which is the book? The one described at the Powell’s site or the one on the Whatever?

  17. Joel, I call dibs! Oh, wait, I can’t sing. Or play an instrument.

    Darrell, definitely a fine balance between those things. I’m hoping I managed it, for the most part!

  18. Bob, good point, I guess some of the descriptions sound quite a bit different. The blurbs on Powell’s, and others, focus largely on the situation the hero stumbles into from the outset, and how he’s pulled into the world of the Breach (the source of the advanced technology). They don’t seem to cover the underlying concept as much as I have in this post.

  19. I enjoy Patrick Lee’s pithy prose already. Signing me up for this book.

    A while ago I read a book called Saucer, where a teen finds a small two man flying saucer embed in the desert sedimentary rock. It musta been abandoned or crashed there millennia ago. He figures out how to get it working by surmising it needs water for fuel. The rest is an adventure story. I love the discovery of puzzling technology concept as a plot device. Inspires awe. And that’s good sci-fi.

    Thanks for the Big Idea Scalzi, getting a peek into the authors goals and insights for a book is fun as hell.

  20. And even before the Strugatskys, there were William Tenn’s “Child’s Play” and Lewis Padgett’s “The Twonky”, both of which are about the dangers of dealing with an artifact far too advanced for one’s own time.

  21. surfwax,
    Thanks! Always aiming for pithy. (I was about to click Submit, then realized that a super short reply here would look like a sarcastic example of pithiness… which I’m clearly undoing by adding all of this…)

  22. Mr. Lee, enjoyed the excerpt, will definitely be going on the wish-list for my Kindle. Great thing about these Big Idea’s? All the cool books that I look forward to reading. The bad thing? All the books I’ve now got stacked up to read.

  23. Ditto that Virgil @ 28. I think I have about 200 books on my yet to read pile. Mr. Lee’s book will be added to the list!

  24. Actually, I have this horrible fear that the future/alien technology has already been found — by me, in my garage, rummaging around (say) among the Christmas decorations. Where it just looked to me like (say) a package of those little spare wire hooks for hanging ornaments on the tree.

    Seriously, love the sound of this premise. Sold!

  25. Well in the movies , The Men In Black operated off the profits from licensing alien tech (velcro , microwave, etc.). And in Mary Gentle’s Grunts, the Orcs used modern military tech(fell through a magic gateway guarded by a dragon) to take out the “good guys”. But both of these came with some method of passing on usage info.

    as for usage of “future tech”, just think how confused a WWII military officer would be with a Global Hawk UAV much less something nano engineered.

    /thanks. will be ordered by end of month.

  26. Thank you, everyone, for all these cool comments. It’s pretty hard to describe the feeling of having lots of people check out something you wrote, and to be considering reading the whole thing. I think the word “geeked” sums up the feeling really well, though. :) (It generally fits me, anyway, on a few levels.)

    I’m hoping (and assuming) that this isn’t simply what a first book feels like, going out. If I’m lucky enough to have a tenth or twentieth, I hope I’m still this geeked.

  27. I just finished the sample and clicked the Kindle “Want it now” button. I’m looking forward to a good read and kudos to JS for showcasing it. I probably wouldn’t have come across it otherwise.

  28. This sort of thing is done in fantasy all the time; people get hold of these Artifacts of Indescribable Power, and try to make use of them for whatever ends (or even just to understand them!); often the instructions (and origins!) are lost to time, if they were ever known in the first place.

    Which is one of the things that’s got The Breach on my reading list. :) I’ve given a lot of thought to how (and why) various archetypal concepts can be transported across genres. To some degree this question explores what defines sci-fi and what defines fantasy.

    Thanks for sharing your big idea here, and for joining in the discussion!

  29. I clicked on the excerpt. Three *chapters* later, I finally pulled myself away and added this to my (lengthy) wish list.

    Good Big Idea and good writing, Mr. Lee!

  30. I am so going to get this book.

    I just read the whole excerpt and loved every bit of it. Outstanding first novel there Patrick. After just thirty minutes or so, you have another “fan for life”

  31. I am a HUGE fan of this book. Read it fast and have recommended it around quite a bit.

    The idea truly is big and the pace is up to the job. And to my great surprise (because you don’t always find it in this sort of book, particularly in a debut) the main character’s backstory was gripping and engaging and surprising, AND i truly liked the guy.

    It was fascinating to learn how you cooked this up, Patrick. It had not occurred to me that it’s similar to the other story you mention, where an ancient civilization confronts modern technology.

  32. Another good story about advanced technology corrupting backwards though time was “Mimsy Were the Borogroves”, by Kuttner. Not to be confused with the only marginally related and pretty bad movie “The Last Mimsy”.

  33. Well, there’s one big difference between the “caveman” situation and a modern one — nowadays, we are much more able to experiment with, and analyze, unknown objects! From the experimental method itself, to equipment that can peer down to atomic scales, we’re intrinsically better equipped than our forbears to deal with mysterious objects.

    Consider also, the stuff we’ve lately developed by analyzing the lifeforms around us, with the results of evolution (over megayears) standing in for “sufficiently advanced” technology. Motie toilets that shed water without holding a drop? Look at lotus leaves and nanostructure a surface. Resilient and durable materials? We took lessons from wood and bone to make an assortment of laminates and fiber composites. And so on….

  34. Thanks for the Big Idea. I Kindled (can that be a verb?) The Breach in under a minute from Amazon. I am looking forward to reading it!

  35. Hey, I’ve heard of Sophie Littlefield! :)

    Thanks again, everyone, for checking this out, and for the great comments. And thanks, John, for letting me stop by! This was awesome!

  36. @#41 Patrick Lee

    Drop by once in a while and say hello ;)

    I’m sure we would all appreciate it.

  37. I bought the book this past weekend. I took it to work with me and started reading on it Monday afternoon. I am about two thirds of the way through and can tell you this, I’m not sure how it ends, but I’m very impressed so far.

  38. Wow. I got this yesterday (Kindle edition) after reading this, and so far it is awesome – much better than I expected (and I bought it, after all, so I had some expectations). And now that I’m reading it, it’s probably better than the caveman version.

  39. …and as far as what it reminds me of, it kind of brought up for me that miniseries about the creepy hotel room with the artifacts and the cabals. Oh, yeah, The Lost Room.

    It’s really totally different from that – different kinds of objects, darker, not as funny, more action-oriented – but both of them hit similar buttons for me.

  40. Saw this book for the very first time in the store yesterday and grabbed it. I’m over half way through now, and already eager to read book #2!!
    Excellent debut, Mr. Lee!

  41. I just finished The Breach last night on my Kindle. I think this is the first book where I read about it somewhere (Whatever), immediately clicked the link provided (to Amazon), downloaded the book in seconds, and read it in two sittings. I think this says two things: this kind of marketing is valuable to authors, and two, it was a great book!

  42. I did have one funny moment. At some point, a character in the book says he is “geeked.” And I thought, Wow, that is the second time recently that I have heard that word used that way [which I never had before]. I tried to remember when the first time was and realized it was…oh. The author of the book. On this thread.

  43. Thanks to The Big Idea, I’ve now been introduced to another great author and an excellent read. Downloaded the Kindle sample the other day, read it yesterday and immediately bought the full book. I spend all afternoon reading it yesterday and couldn’t wait to see how it wound up. Now, Patrick . . . dare I ask? – when’s the sequel coming out? :-)

  44. Found it at Fictionwise. Just finished buying it.

    Note to John: It’s a good idea to include a link to electronic editions when/where they’re available. Nothing says success like having a link and reading a purchased download three minutes later. :)

    This one’s in the queue behind Sarah Hoyt’s “Darkship Thieves,” which I picked up over at

  45. Just finished reading The Breach and must admit that I was quite impressed, especially for a first novel. The pacing was excellent and kept me involved throughout. The tech was well developed and quite frightening. Lee made the main characters compelling without spending too much time on their histories and slowing down the story. But I do look forward to learning more about them in the coming books. This was one of the most enjoyable reads I’ve had in a while.

    Congratulations Patrick on a job well done. Have you completed the next in the series? Is it still due for a fall release?

  46. Okay I finally found a copy two days ago and read it based on Scalzi’s highlights and the online chapters. Great work for a first novel. thinking about buying the second when it is in published.

    I literally skimmed some of the slaughter scenes because 1. they did not add significantly to the story or develop the main characters (Paige and Travis) 2. they had technical inaccuracies with regards to firearms. 3. And editor should have tightened them up or marked them for re write.

    The D’oh (the why do something stupidly obvious) actions taken by the good guys is explained away only in the last chapter. A kind of self referential Deux Ex Machina that fits perfectly with the premise of The Breach.

    /reading thousands of novels has its downsides. I completely forgot Pohl’s Heechee stories though I had read Gateway over 25 years ago and have the series on my shelves.

  47. I stopped reading this post when I got to “What if it happened to us?” because I already wanted to buy the book and didn’t want to know anything else first. I finally got and read the book yesterday.

    It was excellent. I especially appreciate that, even though there are more novels planned, this one didn’t feel like just the first part of something else. It was a complete story in its own right.

    Thanks John for pointing this book out, and Patrick for writing it.

  48. I read pretty much all your ‘Big Idea’ books – and this one has been my favorite so far

  49. Impostor I say, impostor! The Breach is written so assuredly, so tightened and paced so well that it’s hard to believe this is a first effort.

    I’m a 43 rear old fellow Michigander and have read all my life. This is one of a handful of books in all that time that I couldn’t put down. I would tell my wife and daughter I was going to be working up in the loft, but actually sneak and read.

    Go Patrick go!

  50. What a great book! I’m glad I read all these posts, now I have more books to put on my ‘to read’ list (Pohl). I haven’t been this excited about a book since Dune or Tolkien…

  51. Good book. Does not waste time. Just the way I like em. Avoiding spoilers I would say…
    Of all the ‘too advanced to comprehend’ alien technology possible, your choice (in the main antagonist) was pretty much on the edge.
    Brought up a load of philosophical stuff I have been trying to ignore. Thanks. No respect for the three body problem, but a unique villain that had my inner weasel curious about how it was gonna work out. With that sort of challenge the ending was a pretty fair effort.
    A good meditation on how advanced alien technology could challenge our assumptions about the fundamental nature of reality.

  52. One year later, here I sit, awaiting the third volume in the Travis Chase series.

    I would be ashamed to admit how many times I have read the first two books. They’re not Shakespeare of course, but something about Lee’s style is so compelling and accessible. I even picked up a couple of details I’d missed on the previous go-rounds.

  53. I happened to buy “Ghost Town” first and I was so “taken” by Patrick’s style and uniqueness, that after I finished that one, I started looking all over the city for “The Breach”. Found it in one of those “Friends of the Library” used books store for $1.50. Read it immediately and had since read them both four times. I am now ready for “Deep Sky” as soon as it comes out. I’m finishing Ghost Town in two more days. I have 18 more days to wait for the release. This kind of writing is not accidental. It is either you have what it takes to be a prodigy playing piano or you are just a night club piano player.

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