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Life on the Outside: J. Craig Wheeler

Life on the Outside: J. Craig Wheeler
craig wheelerJ. Craig Wheeler
Professor of Astronomy
Novelist and Movie Star

Astrophysics professor J. Craig Wheeler was daydreaming when the idea for his novel, The Krone Experiment, came upon him.

“I was an assistant professor at Harvard, and I was at one of the colloquia they held at the old library,” says Wheeler. “The idea just hit me. I don’t even remember if the colloquium had anything to do with black holes.”

The plot, which is driven by a man-made black hole set loose inside the crust of the earth, germinated for another six years. In 1978, Wheeler drafted the book, which had a science fictional premise but a style that drew more on the espionage genre.

“I’ve read some science fiction,” says Wheeler, “but it’s really the Robert Ludlum kind of page-turner that I was trying to emulate. The science, however, given the novelistic license, is pretty realistic. The idea of a man-made black hole is nonsense—or at least it was at the time— but still, I tried to think it through. What will the pattern of the black hole be, going up and down, as the Earth’s rotating? Where will it come up? What will it look like?”

In 1986, The Krone Experiment was released by the Dallas-based company Pressworks Publishing. It sold about 5,000 copies. Many of the sales, believes Wheeler, were related to the blurb on the back from bestselling novelist Tom Clancy.

“A thriller, a detective story and a brilliant piece of scientific speculation,” wrote Clancy. “This is a uniquely intelligent novel.”

On the strength of its initial sales, and Clancy’s blurb, the paperback rights to The Krone Experiment were bought by a bigger publisher, and in 1988 the paperback version came out. It sold about 25,000 copies and, says Wheeler, “helped send my kids to college.” British and Japanese editions were also published.

The story would have ended there, but then Wheeler’s son Rob, who’s a screenwriter and filmmaker, got into the act. He adapted the novel for film, shot it in Austin on a very low budget, and in 2005 released the film version of The Krone Experiment. His father played the evil genius scientist Paul Krone.

“I ended up playing the bad guy,” says Wheeler. “But since Krone tries to commit suicide early in the story, he’s brain dead through most of the film. I was told I played brain dead very well.”

Although he has an unpublished sequel to his novel on the shelf, and half of another novel, Wheeler hasn’t found time recently to focus on fiction. “The urge is still there, though,” he says.

Illustration: Christopher Silas Neal
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Friday, 27 January 2023

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