Interview: Martha Wells Discusses the Making of Murderbot, Everyone’s Favorite Soap-Opera Loving, Snark-Spewing Killing Machine

The “artificial” in artificial intelligence is easy to understand. But the meaning of “intelligence” is harder to define. How smart can an A.I. get? Can it teach itself, change its programming, become independent? Can it outfox its human inventors, be guided by self-interest, have feelings?

Martha Wells

While companies like Google and Facebook are competing to develop A.I. technology, science fiction writers are light years ahead of them, finding answers to these questions in their imaginations.

One of the most engaging A.I.s in recent years is Martha Wells’ Murderbot, a people-averse, soap-opera loving, snark-spewing and highly efficient killing machine. The first book in Wells’ Murderbot Diaries, All Systems Red, earned numerous honors this year, including Nebula and Locus awards. It also made the short list for the Philip K. Dick and Hugo awards. The second and third books—Artificial Condition, which came out in May, and Rogue Protocol, out next week on Aug. 7—are equally engaging, taking Murderbot on a journey of self discovery that one hopes will eventually allow it a chance to retire from the business of saving human lives and spend its days watching its beloved “entertainment media” in peace.

“Does it have a place in this world?” is the question at the back of its mind, Wells says in her New Books in Science Fiction inerview. “It can’t go back to its corporate owner, which would destroy or erase it for going rogue; and it’s not sure it wants to go to a human who is offering it a home because it would still essentially be property.”

Despite its name, Murderbot is only murderous when work requires it. As it says on the first page of All Systems Red, “As a heartless killing machine, I was a terrible failure.” Thus, even though it could seek revenge against its human taskmasters, try to amass power or wreak havoc (since it has “borked” the programs that restrain its behavior), it voluntarily elects to continue performing the function for which it was designed—providing security to “small soft” humans. Why it so often says “yes” to a dangerous assignment when it really wants to hide in a closet is as much a mystery to it as our motivations are to us. Perhaps all forms of “intelligence,” artificial or otherwise, could benefit from a few sessions on an analyst’s couch.

Wells has incorporated aspects of herself in Murderbot, a fact that resonates with readers. “I have some problems with anxiety and OCD and I’ve put those into the character… and one of the interesting things that’s happened is that people who also have bad anxiety and have other issues say that they saw themselves in this character and that was heartwarming to me.”

The final book in the series of novellas, Exit Strategy, will be published in October.

Subscribe to New Books in Science Fiction (on Android)
Subscribe to New Books in Science Fiction (on Apple Podcasts)

INTERVIEW: Daryl Gregory, Author of Spoonbenders, Explains Why Psychics Don’t Rule the World and How Fiction Writing is like Magic

If Tolstoy had written Spoonbenders (Knopf, 2017), he might have started it: “All happy families are alike; each family of psychics is unhappy in its own way.” Then again, who needs Tolstoy when you have Daryl Gregory, my guest on this episode of New Books in Science Fiction, whose masterful family drama is tied together with telekinesis, astral traveling, and genuine mindreading magic.

A Nebula Award finalist and an NPR Best Book for 2017, Spoonbenders tells the story of the one-time Amazing Telemachus Family, who have struggled to make ends meet ever since they were exposed as frauds on national TV. Only they really aren’t frauds. Most of them have true psychic gifts. The problem is that psychic gifts aren’t all that they’re cracked up to be.

As Gregory explains, “I was trying to figure out why if people have these powers … wouldn’t they just become rulers of the world? Why wouldn’t they become rich and famous, and I was struck by the rationale that Uri Geller always used, which is ‘there are so many things that can reach out and interfere with your powers that only a faker can make his powers work all the time.’”

Frankie Telemachus, whose get-rich-quick schemes have left him in debt to the mob, can move objects with his mind, but his ability never comes when he needs it. His sister, Irene, a grocery store cashier, is a human lie detector, which makes it impossible to have intimate relationships. And their brother, Buddy, is so worried about the looming end of the world (which he replays over and over again in his clairvoyant mind) that he devotes every waking moment to fretful, obsessive planning to prevent it.

The story is told from five alternating points of view, revealing a cascade of secrets that explain the siblings’ inability to lead fulfilling lives while laying a foundation for their future salvation.

Among the inspirations for the Spoonbenders is the U.S. Army’s Stargate Project, launched in 1978 to study the potential military uses of psychic phenomena. “I was intrigued by the idea that the government was buying into this… Up until 1995, we were throwing millions of dollars into it,” Gregory says. The book, in fact, is set in 1995, when a CIA agent hopes to save the program by recruiting Irene’s adolescent son, Matty, who has just discovered he can astral travel.

Gregory himself doesn’t believe in psychic powers. “I’m a skeptic but I do like it in science fiction.” The only magic he believes in is that which a writer produces from his imagination. “A reader with a writer is making the same kind of contract as an audience with a magician. You know that magician is trying to fool you; you want them to fool you… And that’s what I’m really interested in. You know I’m going to tell you a story… but hopefully you’re willing to go along.”

Subscribe to New Books in Science Fiction (on Android)
Subscribe to New Books in Science Fiction (on Apple Podcasts)

The 3 Ms of Fonda Lee’s Jade City: Mafia, Magic and Martial Arts

Listen to the podcast ⇒

Jade City combines what its author, Fonda Lee, calls the 3 Ms: mafia, magic and martial arts.

Lee’s talent for depicting complex characters struggling with both internal and external conflicts earned Jade City nominations for the Nebula and Locus Awards. The book is her first written for adults. (Her previous books, Exo and Zeroboxer, were written for young adults and both were shortlisted for the Andre Norton Award).

Fonda Lee

Set in the fictional post-colonial nation of Kekon, Jade City introduces readers to an economic system governed by family-run clans, where power is obtained through conventional assets, such as the loyalty of businesses and politicians, as well as through use of the gemstone jade. Jade’s special powers include strength, agility and the ability to deflect weapons. But to harness these powers, a Green Bone warrior needs both an innate affinity for jade and extensive training.

Speaking with me on the “Jade is Thicker than Water” edition of New Books in Science Fiction, Lee says jade was “the natural choice” for a magic substance. “In Eastern culture, jade is considered more valuable than any other substance. It’s been referred to as the stone of heaven.” It was also a natural choice for Lee—who has black belts in karate and kung fu—to require Green Bones to undergo years of practice before they’re allowed to use jade on the streets.

“One of the things I find frustrating/annoying about some fantasy stories is this idea that the magic is just given and you are just born with it, or you … get the magic sword and now you have the power. As any martial artist knows, achieving a level of proficiency involves a long arduous amount of discipline and schooling.”

In our New Books conversation, Lee discusses her characters’ struggles with tradition and the challenge of balancing their personal desires with familial responsibilities. She also offers insight into the writing process—specifically, how she managed to polish an epic tale told from multiple viewpoints into a fast-moving page-turner.