Guest Post: Louis Greenberg on who to trap in locked-room horror

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S.L. Grey is the collaboration between SA authors Sarah Lotz and Louis Greenberg. They published their first horror novel, The Mallin 2011 and followed it up with The Ward (2012) and The New Girl (2013) – a collection that became known as the Downside. Now they’re trying out a different style of horror in Under Ground – a locked-room mystery set in a luxury survival bunker called the Sanctum.

It’s a tense thriller that relies, not on gore or otherworldly monsters, but on the ways in which different kinds of people clash in a confined, sterile space. I love stories that exploit the most interesting aspects of their characters in tough situations and strained relationships, so I asked Louis to about how he and Sarah chose the characters who populate the Sanctum and what they hoped those people would bring to the story.

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Under Ground was always going to be S.L. Grey’s stab at Agatha Christie. With maybe a bit of Cluedo thrown in. I grew up watching Christie movies: the elegant glamour of Peter Ustinov and Lauren Bacall and Elizabeth Taylor. Murder of the Orient Express and The Mirror Crack’d terrified me and Evil Under the Sun and Death on the Nile strangely titillated me. When Sarah and I settled on locked-room mystery for our fourth novel together, we knew it would involve a similar large cast interacting against the rather less exotic backdrop we came up with.

Under Ground hbClassic locked-room mysteries are all about the inevitable conflict between different types of people, and they use both the characters’ assumptions about one another and the reader’s assumptions about the characters to create dramatic surprises. Under Ground was our homage to the form. It involves a group of fairly disparate people all rushing to The Sanctum, an ostensibly luxurious survival bunker, to escape a devastating super-virus.

When we started plotting the novel, we assembled a cast of around thirty characters, but soon realised that would be unwieldy and culled several before they even got into the story. There were a few more characters we wrote into our early drafts, fully imagined and with their own plot arcs, who also had to disappear (along with Michael Bay-style helicopter flights and other cut scenes better not spoken of).

We eventually levelled off at five families making it to their apartments in The Sanctum and two individuals who help run the place. We knew that we’d tread a fine line between strong, differentiated characterisation and stereotype in this locked-room structure. Especially with a plot that demanded all-out action pacing, there wasn’t much space to develop characters with internal monologue or flashbacks or much humanising detail. How they react to the crisis at hand is all that matters to the story. As much as we could, we subtly modified some of the characters, and allowed them to act and react in surprising ways that might either subvert or confirm expectations.

Under Ground pbWithout giving too much away, some characters experience a crisis of faith or ideology, while others are forced to push themselves beyond their predestined limits, some crack under the pressure, some blossom. One of the fun things about imagining life-threatening crises is putting yourself into characters’ position and wondering how you might react – this is something that’s entertained us through all our novels: putting normal people into abnormal situations. Would you become a hero, would you try to keep your head down, would you take advantage of others’ weaknesses?

In choosing our character set, we also selected characters who would create good tension when played off against each other. Tension between rich people and poorer people; between people who consider themselves the Chosen – whether by nationality, religion or gender – and those they think don’t belong; tension between leaders and followers; between outsiders and insiders; and of course a bit of complicated sexual tension. This led to a fairly wide variety of inhabitants and it was fun to play these different combinations off against each other.

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Thanks so much for your time and insight Louis!

Under Ground was published in the UK in July, and will hit SA and the Commonwealth in August. If you’re keen to splurge on a hardcover, this one has a gorgeous debossed black-on-black spine:

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I’ve got a review of Under Ground in the works, so check back later this week!

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Guest posting at A Dribble of Ink

I was thoroughly chuffed when Aidan from the Hugo-award winning A Dribble of Ink asked me to do a guest post for his blog. My initial ideas were a tad ambitious in the context of my current time constraints, but I ended up writing what I hope is a fitting tribute to South African speculative fiction and its fundamental role in getting me to read local fiction (because, sadly, there was a time when I avoided pretty much all of it). You can read my post here.

After reading some dreck this morning about how sff should only be for fun, never political, and always exactly the same as it was in the fifties, it occurs to be that my post might come off as having similarly apolitical sentiments. I sincerely hope not, especially given the novels I recommended, which are all political or progressive to some degree. If anything I feel that pleasure and politics are not mutually exclusive, and that a book can be entertaining or beautiful and still tackle weighty themes. Rather, my gripe with (English) fiction publishing in South Africa was that for a long time there seemed to be some kind of resistance to publishing anything that wasn’t deadly serious and unwaveringly realist. I was almost afraid to read an SA novel because it would no doubt be harrowing. It’s only recently that I’ve seen more variety, and it’s the publication of spec fic that encouraged me, first to give local fiction another chance, and then to read as much of it as I could find 🙂

GUEST POST: The diplomatic responsibilities of sci-fi authors by Scott Gray Meintjes

Scott Gray Meintjes is a South African author who has written a cyberpunky dystopian series called The Cybarium Chronicles. It kicks off with Steel Wind Risingan action-packed novel featuring androids, gene-hacked heroes, animal-human hybrids, and a world-dominating robotics company. He’s currently reworking it for traditional publication, and in the meantime I asked him to share his thoughts on sf and AI.

Welcome to Violin in a Void Scott!

The diplomatic responsibilities of sci-fi authors

As a boy, I was convinced that my birth into the 20th century had been some terrible cosmic mistake. As an ardent fan of fantasy writing, I wished that I’d been born into a period in history when battles were fought with swords and battle-axes, and the primary mode of travel was on horseback. Of course, I hadn’t taken into account the implications of a world without vaccines, toothpaste and toilet paper.

My desire to live in a fantasy-like past passed, which is just as well, because it was never a possibility. However, I could conceivably live to see a number of sci-fi mainstays become reality. In many cases the research is close, but are we mentally ready for these potentially paradigm changing technologies? Until now, speculating on the moral and social implications of matters such as human gene manipulation and sentient robots has been the province of science fiction writers, but the rate of  technological advancement could soon force everyone to take an ideological stance on these issues. If you think the media makes a fuss over GM food, just wait until they get a load of GM people.

The practically exponential rate at which new technologies are now being pioneered presents a potential challenge to both the originality and the longevity of sci-fi authors’ works. As Elon Musk works to perfect the hyperloop, and NASA experiments with warp drive designs, it’s becoming more and more difficult for authors to make a plausible offering in science fiction that isn’t already being worked on in one form or another. I, personally, don’t think it’s a problem. All it means is that the future of science fiction isn’t fictional science, but works of fiction that revolve around cutting edge science. After all, the appeal of the genre isn’t in imagined technologies, but the arcs that they allow and the effects that those technologies have on the imagined worlds.

But even when authors base a story around an existing technology, it’s all too easy to for advancing technology to ruin its longevity. In 2009, Eric Garcia released The Repossession Mambo. Given the leaps that the field of artificial organs (particularly hearts) had taken in recent years, the future that he imagined was highly viable. Just two years later, scientists at the university of Minnesota succeeded in using adult stem cells to grow a heart outside of the body. Two years on from that, we had artificially grown hearts that could beat alone outside the body. The future imagined by Garcia is looking less realistic, as we skip the mass production of artificial organs and move straight to purpose-grown organs or regenerative treatments that re-grow organ tissue inside the body, while you carry on with your day. Obviously, the proliferation of regenerative therapies wouldn’t invalidate Garcia’s work of fiction. The crux of the novel is the inherent amorality in the economics of medicine, and the themes would apply equally well to lab-grown organs. What it does highlight is the ever narrowing gap between science fiction and scientific reality. What sci-fi authors write about today may soon be relevant to the real world, and this could have far-reaching implications for the attitudes we cultivate.

Steel Wind RisingLiterature has always had an unparalleled power to influence people’s social and political views by offering readers the chance to experience conflicts personally and emotionally through a connection with literary characters. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, written 13 years before the abolition of slavery in the U.S., is often credited with changing attitudes in the North, which ultimately led to the Civil War. Where science fiction is concerned, authors have the unprecedented potential to inspire attitudes about issues that have not yet become reality. While human genetic manipulation could offer a whole new aspect to socio-economic separation, it is the questions relating to artificial intelligence that I find most provocative. What is it that makes us human: our biology or our intelligence? Should human rights extend to all sentient beings?

There is a divide on AI within science fiction, with one side portraying sentient robots as a threat to mankind, while the other portrays them as  being virtually human. In my own writing, I attempt to create sympathetic robot characters, capable of drawing readers onto the ‘robots are people too’ side of the argument. Part of the reason for adopting this position is simply that I think it’s more interesting. But I also think that when sentient robots become a reality, they will be whatever we expect them to be, in the same way that participants in the Stanford Prison Experiment took on the behaviours of the roles they were assigned (prisoner or guard). I suspect that the only chance that synthetic humans will have of finding their humanity is if the world treats them like people. I like to think that science fiction can shape the attitudes that will one day make this possible.

But how does a lifeless machine become a character capable of inspiring pathos, admiration and even love? In writing Steel Wind Rising, I envisioned the robot character, Andrew, as the avatar of his world. At least part of the appeal of robot protagonists must be that they fit into futuristic landscapes more readily than humans. That said, I think their appeal extends beyond a mere confluence of character and environment. Perhaps it’s precisely because we don’t expect to be able to relate to robot characters, that it’s such a heart-warming surprise when we do. The very core of android appeal is in contradiction. Who doesn’t love a good contradiction in a literary character: the flawed hero, the honourable thief, or the repentant sinner? When it comes to mechanical men (or women) the contrasts are that much sharper. The very image of the robot is one of hard steel and intractable logic, so when a robot character displays any fragility (physical or emotional), it gets our attention.

One of the most common themes amongst sentient robots has always been their longing to be treated as equals. The desire to be human hits at the heart of the robot experience. Since we are all human we shouldn’t relate to this either (unless you are, yourself, a sentient robot, reading this in the distant future), but there is something in it that speaks to us. Long before artificial intelligence was a within the reach of man, Carlo Collodi examined this theme in The Adventures of Pinocchio. Somehow the goal of becoming a ‘real boy’ was relatable and the character was a loveable, if mischievous, one. So, why does the quest for humanity appeal to us? Perhaps we are so used to taking it for granted that, when we encounter a character whose fondest wish it is to be human, we recognise the nobility of that desire. It moves us in the same way that seeing someone without drinking water would.

The question is, can we infer emotions and desires in robots if we believe they are only a simulation? The concept of artificial emotions is initially problematic, until we probe the nature of human consciousness. Robot minds are typically depicted as emerging from (sometimes contradictory) commands and programming, rather than coming from an intelligent ‘self’. In the past, we would have identified this as a key difference between robots and humans. Today, modern interpretations from cognitive science are more pervasive. We can more readily accept the concept of our intending, autonomous ‘selves’ emerging from basic (sometimes contradictory) mental impulses and processes, and creating a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. If our own emotions are anything, they are simulations created by our brains.

So, academically we can accept that a robot’s experience of the world could be identical to our own, and our experience of fictional characters show that our attitudes towards them could indeed be positive. But what about our unconscious actions that make up so much of human interaction? Well, personally, I’m certain that this is no impediment, because our reactions to social circumstances are incredibly automatic. This was beautifully demonstrated in the documentary: ‘How to build a bionic man’. The ‘man’, named Rex, was comprised of state-of-the-art prosthetics and artificial organs, but his body was only roughly human shaped and his speech was powered by an advanced internet chat-bot. The people interacting with Rex knew this, and yet, their behaviour towards him was remarkable. When Rex’s bionic arm failed, he spilled his drink and apologised. His companions rushed to reassure him and put him at ease, just as they would a human companion. It didn’t matter that Rex’s apology was a pre-programmed response. They projected an emotional state of mind onto this facsimile of a human and responded as if it was real. It is not difficult to imagine a future in which people and robots interact in a way that is indistinguishable from normal human exchanges.

Hopefully our ability to connect with robot literary characters bodes well for robo-human relations when artificial life is finally perfected. With any luck, they will learn compassion from our benevolent treatment of them, and will, in turn, treat us with kindness when they rise up and rule the world.

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Scott MeintjesScott Meintjes was born in Durban, South Africa, where he grew up and lived until the age of 25. During this time, he attained his Master’s degree in Psychology and met his wife, Eleanor. In 2006, he moved to England to serve in the British Army.

Today he lives in the University city of Cambridge, with his wife and daughter. Scott has been an enthusiastic reader of fantasy and science fiction since childhood, and started writing to create a story that he would enjoy reading.
His aim is to write sci-fi that is as appealing to newcomers to the genre as it is to long-time fans.

GUEST POST Not My Country: 5 Things I Learned About Worldbuilding from Traveling Abroad by Kameron Hurley

If you’re at all interested in serious, progressive sff, then you will probably have heard a lot about The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley lately; it’s the kind of convention-defying, mind-opening fantasy that all fans should be reading. Kameron won double Hugos this year, and I don’t doubt that The Mirror Empire will get her nominated for several awards again next year. She’s currently on one of her incredibly prolific blog tours following the launch of her novel from Angry Robot, and has been kind enough to make another stop at Violin in a Void. Welcome back Kameron!

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The Mirror Empire

The best writing advice I ever got was to read outside the science fiction and fantasy genre and travel. There’s nothing like getting out of your everyday surroundings and plopping yourself into someplace difference to see just how much cultural baggage you’re carrying around. Here are the top five things I learned about how to build better fantastic worlds – simply by traveling around more in this one.

    • Knowing a thing and experiencing a thing are different, and you’ll have a whole new view of the world when you experience all those things you think you know. There were all sorts of things I knew, intellectually, about race and poverty and sexism and my place in the world. But getting out into the world and seeing those things in action changed the way I felt about them. It’s all very well to say one understands poverty and chronic illness, too, but until I had experience with those things in my personal life, they were still just concepts, like watching something that happened to someone else on TV. Traveling gave me a chance to see and experience different ways of living. Some good, some bad, all very different from mine. When it comes to building fictional worlds, it’s easier to build believable ones when you’ve had some inkling of wider experience beyond what’s in a book.

 

    • People are much better than we think. Our obsession with the evil of the world, with mass murder and serial killers and genocide, often gives a lopsided view of the world. If all we see presented are people being awful to each other, we’ll start to think that’s all people ever are. But the reality is that even the places that I went where not everyone was fabulous, the majority of people still were. Often in the most surprising places. Your world may be the grimmest of the grimmest darkiest dark, but without a ray of hope, without kindness, without a measure of good, none of us would survive very long. I discovered that adding hope and humor to my stories went a long way to making them more livable, and, frankly, more realistic.

 

    • Caution is fine, but saying “yes” will lead to far more opportunities. I got a lot of well-meaning folks cautioning me a lot when I did most of my traveling, alone, in my 20’s. Everyone sees a young woman traveling alone, and the only time we ever see that portrayed in the media is usually when some young woman goes missing. These things happen, yes, and it’s a real concern. But the truth is that these sorts of stories and cautions also work to hold women back from fully experiencing life in a way that men are not. I recognized early that traveling would come with risk, but so would sitting still. This experience, being a young woman traveling alone, led me to ask how dangerous the world was – or was perceived to be – for folks in my fantastic worlds, too. It turns out that building an escapist and fantastic world, for me, could be doing something as revolutionary as building a world where it was possible for a young woman to travel alone unquestioned. Madness!

 

    • Language is awesome, and you should learn to speak as many of them as you can. I spent some time traveling through Switzerland, taking a train ride across this country where one minute everyone is speaking French, and the next… German. In Durban, South Africa, I could hear three or four different languages and six different accents every single day, easily. Growing up in northwestern U.S., I led a pretty insulated life. The only other language I ever heard until my teens was French, and only because my grandmother and aunts spoke it. Once I had to start navigating the world outside my little slice of it, I wished I’d learned more of it, and two or three more languages besides. Language is rich, fun, complex – and adding this to your worldbuilding, instead of relying on a “common tongue” or monolithic language or magic translator, can add an incredible amount of depth to your work.

 

  • We’re all more alike than we are different. I talk a lot about difference in my work, and how we don’t show the full measure of diversity in the world – let alone diversity of the imagination, of what could be – in our fiction. But what interests me most is what stays the same when we change everything else, from what we eat to how we organize ourselves. When we pull everything else away, it turns out we all want to feel loved, to love, to feel that our lives matter. How we express that differs, but what makes us human across time, across cultures, is just as interesting as what makes us uniquely ourselves. And it’s that part of our humanity, our capacity for love, for kindness, for empathy, that I never want to forget in my fiction, either.

 

About the Author
Kameron Hurley is the author of The Mirror Empire, as well as the award-winning God’s War Trilogy, comprising the books God’s WarInfidel, and Rapture. She has won the Hugo Award, Kitschie Award, and Sydney J. Bounds Award for Best Newcomer. Hurley has also been a finalist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, Nebula Award, the Locus Award, BFS Award, and the BSFA Award for Best Novel. Her short fiction has appeared in Lightspeed MagazineYear’s Best SFEscape PodThe Lowest Heaven, and the upcoming Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women.

Guest Post: Anne Charnock on writing the POV of A Calculated Life

I recently read and reviewed A Calculated Life by Anne Charnock, and I liked it so much that I contacted Anne and asked her if she’d write a guest post telling us a bit more about her book. What struck me most about the novel was that it was a character study of Jayna, a human being designed to function as a machine, who tries to broaden her understanding of the world. I asked Anne to describe her experience of writing from the POV of this kind of character. 

Welcome to Violin in a Void Anne!

Charnock 2Thanks for inviting me on to your blog, Lauren! I’ll do my best to answer your question and I hope I don’t go off at a tangent.

Writing from the point of view of a hyper-intelligent human presented me with a significant challenge! From the outset I decided that my protagonist, Jayna, would be ‘an innocent abroad’. I set her out on a journey and along the way I wanted to reveal a gradual change in her worldview. Through the opening chapters of the novel, her natural curiosity shifts towards something more questioning; she becomes more critical. Ultimately I wanted Jayna to shed her innocence. I suppose it’s comparable to a coming-of-age story in which a young person becomes aware of their place in a larger, less-than-benevolent, world.

To be a bit techy first: I felt a first-person narrative would be doomed to failure. How could I possibly emulate her intelligence? A more experienced writer might attempt that challenge. But, instead, I adopted a ‘third-person limited’ POV. In other words, the reader follows only one character, Jayna, rather seeing the world from several characters’ POV. In fact, this limited third-person narration is fairly close to a first person POV compared to third-person omniscient narration. (Saul Bellow’s Seize The Day is a good example of a third-person limited POV and I used his novel as my guide when I redrafted my manuscript).

My strategy was to reveal Jayna’s worldview through her interactions with other people. Dialogue played an important role. The reader recognizes her misinterpretations and misunderstandings. A major strategy was to create situations that were tricky for her to handle. So In the first chapter she unwittingly upsets a colleague and in the fourth chapter she leaps to a wildly incorrect conclusion. She is aware that in her dealings with other people she’s ‘getting it wrong’ and she strives for improvement.

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In your review of A Calculated Life, Lauren, you noted that Jayna has a fascination with children. I created an early turning point, in terms of her developing psyche, when a colleague brings her young son to the office. Soon after this event, Jayna asks herself what would happen if she acted like a child, lived in the moment, with no care for the consequences. Her resulting action is dramatic within the overall tone of the novel.

It was important that I revealed Jayna’s changing mindset through her actions, that is, by showing rather than telling the reader! I particularly enjoyed this—allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions. Having said that, I did reveal Jayna’s thoughts from time to time, sometimes as stream-of-consciousness.

You are perfectly correct in your review that this novel is a character study and that it is toned down and introspective compared to many other dystopian novels. Looking back I can recall many years ago watching Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner starring Harrison Ford and Sean Young. This is one of my all-time favourite films. But even though I loved the all-action nature of the film with its male protagonist, Deckard, I was fascinated and haunted by Rachel, the replicant. I remember thinking at the time that Rachel’s story, rather than Deckard’s, seemed the more interesting, and certainly the most heart-breaking even though her story was less ‘dramatic’. Maybe an early seed for A Calculated Life was sown then.

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Anne’s Bio:

My writing career began in journalism and my reports appeared in New Scientist, The Guardian, Financial Times, International Herald Tribune and Geographical, among others. I was educated at the University of East Anglia, where I studied environmental sciences, and at The Manchester School of Art.

Despite the many column inches of factual reporting, I didn’t consider writing fiction until my career turned to visual art. In my fine art practice I tried to answer the questions: What is it to be human? What is it to be a machine? I wrote A Calculated Life as a new route to finding answers.

Where to find Anne:
Website
Twitter
Facebook

Check out the book trailer for A Calculated Life

History is Another Country: South African Influences on a Fictional World at War

Kameron Hurley is an award-winning writer and freelance copywriter who grew up in Washington State. She is the author of the book God’s War, Infidel, and Rapture, and her short fiction has appeared in magazines such LightspeedEscapePod, and Strange Horizons, and anthologies such as The Lowest Heaven and Year’s Best SF

I was totally sold on God’s War by the end of the first amazing page, and I read and reviewed the whole series. When Kameron was offering guest posts for the launch of the UK edition of God’s War, I asked her to write something about how her time in South Africa influenced the series.

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The new UK edition of God's War

The new UK edition of God’s War

I’ve written before about how living and working in South Africa changed the way I view my own country, in particularly how it opened my eyes to our own racism and segregation. But how do those experiences get trickled down into the nitty-gritty creation of a fictional world?

When I went to Clarion University, the best advice I got was to read outside the genre and travel. When I talk about how traveling makes folks better writers, they nod sagely and say, “Well, of course. It’s good to see how things are different elsewhere.” And yeah, sure. You pay for public restrooms in parts of Europe. The bus drivers actually have change they can give you in Durban. In South Africa, the phenomenon of “car guards” was pretty mind-bending, for me. But to be honest, after awhile, you get used to the differences. After just a few weeks or a few months, the world became boringly normal again. It was all just living.

You don’t know what you’ve taken away from a place until you leave it.

I lived in a cockroach-infested flat with a partial view of the Indian Ocean (mostly the cranes in the harbor), using cardboard boxes as desks and tables. Furniture consisted of a bed and some throw pillows. My biggest purchase was a mini-fridge, because not a single flat I looked at came with appliances. Putting fruit out overnight on the counter was a no-no – it’d be rotten or bug infested by morning. I’d grown up in a rainy, temperate climate, and though I’d already traveled a lot and lived for a couple of years in Alaska, by the time I arrived in Durban, the sub-tropical climate (no air conditioning, obviously) took some getting used to.

In truth, it was the climate that I started writing about first, with a story set in a steamy locale with a regular monsoon; a country being invaded by women from a far shore. I spent my days at the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal, pursuing a Master’s degree in history looking at the African National Congress’s recruitment of students during the war against Apartheid. As I uncovered more about revolutionary armies at the time, and found an internal ANC communication that estimated the number of women in its militant wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, at 20% or more, I started to spend more time looking at the role of women, in particular in revolutionary movements throughout southern Africa during the 80’s.  In turns out, women have always fought.  And though some part of me knew this, well… it’s amazing how, when you first begin to write stories, you find yourself just mimicking everyone else. You read it, you write it.

I had to live something else.

Gods War by Kameron HurleyThis interest, too, bled into my fiction. I found myself now writing about groups of militant women – in steamy locales, no less – working to uncover weapons of mass destruction by any means necessary. I drew heavily on all the research I was doing both in Durban and Cape Town. I spent more hours than I can count sifting through atrocities recorded by The Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

And though I can certainly pretend that it was the distance of these crimes to my own situation that appealed to me, in truth I lived in South Africa from 2002-2003, after my own country had started two unnecessary wars, using the veil of a nationwide tragedy to mangle, bomb, invade and overcome two sovereign nations in a ruthless push for oil resources.

For me, understanding war – why we fight, the things we do, how we motivate our soldiers, how we teach people to kill and, most importantly, the way the victors rewrite it – was something I found easier to untangle from a distance. I wanted to understand conflict. I just didn’t have the objectivity to untangle my own country’s just yet.

At night, I’d lie in my bed smoking, listening to cockroaches skittering around, and I’d listen to the muezzin calling out the athan at the nearby mosque. I never saw the mosque, though. Maybe it was just a recording someone played from a rooftop. I’d grown up in a rural, conservative town on the western coast of the U.S. This was the first time I heard the Muslim call to prayer. And it was the first time I ever walked down a street, or got on a bus, and found that my face was the only white one.

There are things we absorb about the world, intellectually. I can tell you that most people in the world aren’t white, and aren’t Christian. Of course not. But I came from a country that had worked very hard to segregate its citizens, and manufacture a media that told us there wasn’t anything but what they showed us on TV.  I didn’t realize how much I’d internalized those ideas about “how things were” until I actually saw the rest of the world.

Then I got pretty pissed off.

Because I started to see it everywhere, especially in the fiction I both wrote and read. The default white. The default Christianity, or Christianity-inspired atheism. It was everywhere I looked, building a narrative of a world that was a lie. Perpetuating a reality that had never existed.

I figured I could be part of that narrative. I could feed that monster, the monster narrative that made it so simple, so easy, so obvious, for a nation to respond to a tragedy with violence. To dedicate itself to a war with people it didn’t truly, emotionally, see as people. We had written them out – and it’s easy to bomb and obliterate what we don’t see every day.

Or, I could write something different. About different people. A different place. Another war, fed by outside interests and grand alien nations, and the people struggling to make lives for themselves in the wreckage. I could write outside the expected narrative, and maybe figure out my own world’s fucked up wars in the process.

For my non-SA readers, this is a bakkie, which you may know as a pickup truck. Pronounced "bucky", not "backy". On Hurley's planet of Umayma, the bakkies run on cockroaches.

For my non-SA readers, this is a bakkie, which you may know as a pickup truck. Pronounced “bucky”, not “backy”. On Hurley’s planet of Umayma, the bakkies run on cockroaches.

Years later, that book was God’s War, with its bakkies and veldt and broederbond and the haunting sound of the muezzin, all mixed up with bug magic and alien ships and prayer wheels and bounty hunting.

Yes, it was broken sometimes, and flawed, and imperfect. Like me. Like the world.

I can’t say I learned any more about my war, except that it was just one in a long history of wars fought by big nations over limited resources. I’m not sure there’s comfort in that. I’m not sure I want to feel resigned to it. It was a book only I could write, and only I could fail at. And in the end, the war was their war. The world was their world.

I had to believe they could do better with it.

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God’s War was not previously available in SA, but will now begin shipping to SA stores on 22 January 2014. ISBN: 9780091952785. Approximate retail price R180 (thanks to Dave de Burgh for this info!)

Madeline Ashby Guest Post: Human/AI relationships

iD by Madeline AshbyWhen Angry Robot contacted bloggers about a blog tour for Madeline Ashby’s latest novel, iD, I immediately replied. I thought her first novel, vN, was pretty awesome. I jumped at the chance to read iD, the second book in The Machine Dynasty series, adn that review will go up next week.

In the meantime, I asked Madeline to write a guest post about the relationship between humanity and AI, as this is the core of The Machine Dynasty. The vN are self-replicating humanoid robots who were initially created to be servants and sexbots to the poor souls who would be left on Earth after the Rapture (which obviously never happened). Now they’re trying to integrate with human society, but are hampered by their failsafes, which not only prevent them from harming humans but force them to love humans and try to make them happy. And what kind of relationship can you have with someone to whom you can never say no? Someone who could do anything they wanted to you, because you’re not a ‘real’ person? And as a human, what possibilities does a vN represent to you?

Thank you very much Madeline, for writing on this topic for Violin in a Void. She offers ideas that not only shed light on her books, but on our potential relationships with any AI we might create, and the way we often treat each other like machines. 

vN - The First Machine Dynast by Madeline AshbyOne thing I’ve always tried to maintain consistently is the fact that the humans who choose to have relationships with the vN — the self-replicating humanoid machines who populate my stories — are at the end of the line, romantically and personally dysfunctional. They’ve been betrayed, or they’ve betrayed others. They’re assholes who everybody steers clear of, or their proclivities are so specific that they can’t find anybody else in their niche. Or they’re just lazy. I mean, relationships with other human beings are a lot of work. Much of that work can feel pretty tedious. I, for one, suck at sending cards. I don’t believe in them. I think they’re an environmental disaster in the form of a cash-grab masquerading as meaningful sentiment. But people really appreciate those things. Even I do, when I receive them.

So I guess my point is that I can understand the moment when somebody throws his or her hands up and says, “You know what? Fuck it. And fuck them.” And then goes and fucks a bunch of vN because it’s easy, in the same way that finding porn is easy, and the same way that paying for sex is easy, if you know where to find it and you’re willing to go there.

The other thing I tried to do, pretty consistently, was to talk about how past depictions of humanoid robots in popular culture would impact the individual, personal relationships between humans and robots. If you’d only ever seen robots as godless killing machines, or creatures lacking the right “emotion chip,” or whatever, it’s bound to impact your relationship with a robot. Moreover, it’s bound to impact the wider treatment of robots in society. This, by the way, is the exact same problem that people have with limited, stereotypical depictions of women and minorities in pop culture. Those depictions create an expectation of behaviour. They create the culture, and that culture informs our decisions on personal and political levels. (You want to know why we don’t have a sustainable nuclear energy infrastructure across the planet? Go watch The China Syndrome.

With that said, I’m pretty sure that meaningful relationships between humans and robots are possible. A lot of science fiction has dwelt on this. The most moving example is probably a film called Robot & Frank about an elderly man whose care is overseen by a robot. Frank manipulates the robot into committing a burglary with him, and it’s the closest, deepest relationship that Frank has had in years.

What makes me believe that is the way that people already try to program their relationships. Take the recent Kickstarter debacle over a “pick-up artist” manual. Glenn Fleishman summarizes the PUA mindset beautifully:

The PUA world applies algorithms, testing and feedback, and gamification to human interaction, turning women into not just sexual objects but essentially treating that cisgendered biological configuration as a Turing-complete machine in which specifying the right sequence of inputs results in access to specific ports and protocols.

And that’s one thing that’s wrong with a lot of human interaction — the idea that if we just input the right information, we’ll get the access we want, the relationship we want. It’s related to the Nice Guy (™) phenomenon wherein some guys think that feeding enough “niceness” tickets to the female machine will make sex come out. It’s the application of a deterministic, mechanistic model to relationships. Applying that logic to human relationships is reassuring, because it means there are rules to follow and a game to win, but it’s ultimately a limited understanding of humanity’s total potential. We’re bigger than rules. We’re bigger than games. And that’s both terrifying and wonderful at the same time.