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.

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I Want to be a Clone: Murder Victims Investigate Their Own Deaths in Mur Lafferty’s Six Wakes

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Mur Lafferty follows through on a great premise with Six Wakes (Orbit, 2017), a novel about six people murdered on a generation starship. What makes the story unusual is that the six victims have to investigate their own murders, a twist possible thanks to the fact that the investigators are the clones of the deceased. To make the story work, Lafferty creates a history of cloning complete with a set of laws that are informed (like any good legislation) by past abuses. It’s a believable world with interesting characters, diverse back stories, and enough mystery and surprises to keep the pages turning.

The only thing that’s not a surprise is that the book has received nods for this year’s Philip K. Dick, Nebula and Hugo awards. Lafferty is no stranger to awards, having won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 2013. She has been podcasting since 2004, using the medium to serialize her fiction and host the shows I Should Be Writing and Ditch Diggers, the latter of which was also nominated this year for a Hugo in the Fancast category.

On the pod, she talks about cloning laws, the risks of reading an unfinished novel in public, the lessons she learned from Agatha Christie, and the thrill of having her work nominated for science fiction’s most prestigious prizes.


This is the third in my series of interviews on New Books in Science Fiction with this year’s nominees for the Philip K. Dick Award. I also interviewed Meg Elison and Tim Pratt. The winner, Carrie Vaughn for Bannerless, was announced at Norwescon on March 30, 2017 during a ceremony in which all the nominees read from their novels.

Alien Artifacts and Talking Squid: A Conversation with Prolific Sci-Fi Author Tim Pratt

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This is the second in my series of interviews with this year’s nominees for the Philip K. Dick Award.

Tim Pratt is the author of over 20 novels, picking up a Hugo Award and nominations for the Nebula and many other awards over a productive and varied career. Until now, however, he’s written mostly contemporary fantasies, avoiding science fiction–even though he’s always been a fan of the genre. “I always thought I just wasn’t qualified to write science fiction,” he says in my conversation with him on the latest episode of New Books in Science Fiction. “I felt my grasp of the physics and orbital mechanics and the hard SF elements weren’t good enough.”

But after finishing his Marla Mason urban fantasy series, he was ready for something new–and no longer felt intimidated by the idea of writing science fiction. “I thought, ‘It’s not as if writing science fiction means I have to write utterly plausible, completely grounded, hard science fiction.’ There’s a continuum that at one end has hard SF and at the other end has Star Wars.”

The Wrong Stars, one of six books short listed for this year’s Philip K. Dick Award, is the first in a planned three-part space opera and reveals Pratt to be a master storyteller. The novel has fascinating characters (including two colleagues who are sewed together into one entity by well-meaning aliens ignorant of human physiology). It’s got a plot of surprising twists that unfolds at a rapid clip. It’s got sufficient threats to the human race to keep the stakes high. It even has romance and humor.

And, of course, The Wrong Stars is full of the kind of mind-bending inventions and concepts that only an advanced alien species–or wildly inventive author–can devise.

“I actually literally made a list when I sat down and started thinking about making a space opera system—what are things I really love in science fiction? I like really interesting weird artificial intelligences. I like bizarre incomprehensible alien artifacts. I like talking squid from outer space. I like wormhole bridges and all the problems that come when you can travel places so quickly that you can violate causality. … I just wrote down all this stuff and I’m going to get most of it in the three books.”


This is the second in a series of interviews on New Books in Science Fiction with this year’s nominees for the Philip K. Dick Award. I also interviewed Meg Elison and Mur Lafferty. The winner, Carrie Vaughn for Bannerless, was announced at Norwescon on March 30, 2017 during a ceremony in which all the nominees read from their novels.

Meg Elison’s The Book of Etta Explores Gender, Writing, and Memory

For my next few New Books podcasts, I’m going to be talking with some of this year’s Philip K. Dick Award nominees.

My first interview is with Meg Elison, who I last had the privilege of speaking with in 2015 when she earned the PKD Award for The Book of the Unnamed Midwife.

Meg Elison

This year, Elison was nominated for the sequel, The Book of Etta.

In Midwife, Elison explored the dangers of being female in the aftermath of an apocalyptic illness that killed more women than men and rendered childbirth nearly always fatal.

Etta is set a century later. The midwife is now revered as the founder of Etta’s hometown, Nowhere, and the midwife’s diary is a bible of sorts, the subject of study and interpretation.

Thanks to the midwife’s influence, women wield power in Nowhere. They are the leaders and decision-makers, and family life is organized into Hives, with one woman free to choose multiple partners.

And yet even in a town where women are safe and respected, Etta feels out of place. She is most at ease on the road, where she assumes a male guise, calling herself Eddy. In her lone travels, of course, it is safer to pretend to be a man. But Eddy is more than mere disguise. Over time, Etta realizes that Eddy is a true expression of her identity.

“People like Etta often grow up feeling that the strictures imposed on them because of their assumed gender don’t suit them at all,” Elison explains in her New Books interview. “In Etta, I get to react to a lot of the gender roles that are imposed on women. … and explore what it looks like to pursue your own individual destiny.”

The Book of Etta has many layers. It is an adventure story, as its hero looks for useful relics among the ruins. It is a rescue story, as Etta/Eddy seek to free women trapped in bondage. And it’s a story about memory and the power of writing, as reflected in the biblical resonance of Elison’s titles.

“I was really drawn to the idea of people without books, people without the ability to print books… People who don’t have books will come to rely on diaries,” Elison says.


This is the first of three interviews on New Books in Science Fiction with this year’s nominees for the Philip K. Dick Award. I also interviewed Mur Lafferty and Tim Pratt. The winner, Carrie Vaughn for Bannerless, was announced at Norwescon on March 30, 2017 during a ceremony in which all the nominees read from their novels.

In David Walton’s The Genius Plague, a Mind-Bending Fungus Takes the Next Great Step in Evolution

Everyone knows that wild mushrooms can be dangerous, but David Walton in his new novel The Genius Plague raises the dangers to a new plane.

While victims of an unusual fungal infection enjoy skyrocketing I.Q.s, they also find themselves suddenly willing to sacrifice their own (and others’) lives to protect the Amazon rain forest, raising the possibility that the fungus—a species native to the Amazon—has hijacked their minds to advance its own ends.

David Walton

In the new episode of New Books in Science Fiction, Walton talks with me about the wonders of fungi, how he finds time to write while juggling his responsibilities as both an engineer and father of seven, how he came to believe in evolution after growing up in a family that considered Darwin’s ideas “silly,” and the importance of shunning dogma.

The Wall Street Journal named The Genius Plague one of the best science fiction books of 2017. Walton’s first book, Terminal Mind, received the Philip K. Dick Award in 2008.

Walton makes no secret of the importance of religion in his life, which makes it all the more arresting when he incorporates evolution into the fabric of his stories. In The Genius Plague, for example, he depicts the fungus’s behavior as consistent with the Darwin-identified drive to survive and, when opportunity arises, dominate.

It was reading Origin of a Species and eventually coming “face to face with the tremendous amount of evidence there was in support of evolution” that led Walton to accept evolution as fact.

“It’s scary to consider alternate views,” he told me, “but I think it’s necessary and important both for our own growth and the realism of our beliefs and also for the ability to understand and care for others and say, ‘I understand why you think the way you do even though it’s different than the way I do.'”

The Martians Return in the Official Sequel to The War of the Worlds (and They’re as Scary as Ever)

In the latest episode of New Books in Science Fiction I speak with Stephen Baxter, author of The Massacre of Mankind (Crown, 2017), the alliteratively titled sequel to H. G. Wells‘ alliteratively titled classic, The War of the Worlds.

Stephen Baxter on the Galapagos Islands.

Baxter is the author of over 20 novels and dozens of short stories. He’s won the John W. Campbell Award, the Philip K. Dick Award twice, and numerous British Science Fiction Association awards.

Few books (science fiction or otherwise) have had as large an impact on the modern imagination as The War of the Worlds. Since it appeared as a serial in a British magazine in 1897, it has been adapted for movies (at least seven times), comics, television, video games and, most famously, in 1938 for a radio drama by Orson Welles that reportedly caused some listeners, who confused fictional news for real, to panic.

In The Massacre of Mankind, Baxter envisions new technologies adapted from salvaged Martian equipment, the takeover of much of Europe by Kaiser Wilhelm, and, of course, the eventual return of the Martians, now vaccinated against the Earth-bound bacteria that vanquished them the first time.

Baxter’s narrator, Julie Elphinstone, offers a sharp contrast to the bookish and battered narrator of The War of the Worlds (who also happens to be her former brother-in-law). Elphinstone not only faces down the Martians but offers a new (and one suspects more balanced) perspective on the events recounted by her former in-law, whom she dubs the Unreliable Narrator.

To prepare for the writing of The Massacre of Mankind, Baxter combed through earlier drafts of The War of the Worlds to better understand Wells’ themes and intentions.

“By really studying a book like The War of the Worlds … and taking it apart and putting it back together again, you get a great understanding of how the writer actually worked on the book that you can’t get any other way,” Baxter says.

P.J. Manney Explores Humanity 2.0 in (ID)entity

Artificial intelligence has long been a favorite feature of science fiction. Every robot or talking computer or starship operating system has contributed to our idealized image of the bits-and-bytes brain.

In (ID)entity (47North, 2017), PJ Manney further expands our vision of A.I. by uploading her human protagonist to a server; from there, he is replicated and downloaded, re-emerging in everything from a sex-bot to a vegetative man.

Manney joins me to discuss her new novel and the science behind it in the latest episode of New Books in Science Fiction. She joined me last year to discuss the first book in her Phoenix Horizon series, the Philip K. Dick Award-nominated (R)evolution.

Published this month by 47North, (ID)entity is the second book in Manney’s fast-paced, plot-twisting Phoenix Horizon series. As the follow-up to (R)evolution, the new novel is both an exploration of transformative technology and a thriller, set in a world where nations (including the U.S.) have collapsed, swathes of humanity face enslavement, and the future of civilization hangs in the balance.

One of Manney’s ambitions as a writer (in addition to entertaining readers) is to prepare the public for the possible impacts of new technology. “If we know that these things are coming, we can start forming opinions about what to do,” she says. “Because here’s the thing: nothing gets banned. [If] it gets banned in one country, it doesn’t get banned in another country. There’s no way that technology stops from happening.”

Manney likens the idea of transforming a human incrementally–gradually swapping cells for bits–to the thought experiment known as Theseus’s paradox, which asks: if you restore every piece of Theseus’s ship with an entirely new piece, is the final result still Theseus’s ship?

“I’m positing, yes it is,” she says, with regard to her protagonist’s transformation from man to super-sophisticated CPU.

While (ID)entity is set in the near future, Manney doesn’t expect that people will be able to save themselves to their hard drives soon. “Uploading is farther off than we think.”

The third and final book in the series, (CON)science, is scheduled for release in November 2018.

Claudia Casper Flips Cain and Abel in ‘The Mercy Journals,’ This Year’s Winner of the Philip K. Dick Award

My new interview on New Books in Science Fiction is with Claudia Casper, author of The Mercy Journals (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2016), which won this year’s Philip K. Dick Award.

Set in 2047, it tells the story of Allen Quincy through his journals. Quincy–nicknamed Mercy–is a former soldier struggling with memories of his long-lost family and the traumas he suffered during a third world war.

The story touches on complex issues such as genocide, climate change, and post-traumatic stress disorder. But it’s largely a book about one man’s struggle for survival and his attempt to find meaning in a world turned upside down.

I had a lot of fun talking with Claudia, and we covered a lot of ground in our conversation, everything from Cain and Abel (“I wanted to flip it, so the Abel and Cain story would be reversed”) to food shortages (“We’re three meals away from chaos”) to the problem with building walls between countries (“No, Donald Trump had not come on the scene when I wrote that, so that has felt somewhat prescient”). We also talked about her delightful essay, “Attending a Literary Award Ceremony in an Alternate Universe,” about receiving the Philip K. Dick Award at Norwescon.

 

The Eternal Optimist: An Interview with Philip K. Dick Award Winner Ramez Naam

My new podcast for New Books in Science Fiction is an interview with Ramez Naam. Here’s my write-up that goes with the interview:

In the fictional battles between humans and machines, the divide between good and bad is usually clear. Humans, despite their foibles (greed, impulsiveness, and lust for revenge, to name just a few), tend to find redemption, proving mankind’s basic goodness through love, friendship and loyalty.

Machines, on the other hand, despite their superior physical and mental capacities, usually prove themselves to be (largely through the absence of the aforesaid capacity for love) to be dangerous and unworthy of the empires they seek to rule. But what if the humans and machines were combined – not merely cyborg-like in a jigsaw mix of man and robot but more elegantly, through a perfect blending of mind and matter? Ramez Naam does just that in his Nexus trilogy by wedding a human being’s soul – her memories, feelings and intellect – to the most powerful computer ever built.

In Apex (Angry Robot, 2015), the trilogy’s third installment and winner of this year’s Philip K. Dick Award, things go awry. Su-Yong Shu, the brilliant Chinese scientist whose consciousness has been folded into a massive quantum computer deep under Shanghai, isn’t feeling so hot. In fact, she’s gone insane. It may seem, at first, as if Naam’s message is the same – that any artificial intelligence, when it gets smart enough (and even when it’s the result of a machine-human blend) craves power and will lead to mankind’s destruction. But Naam’s message is more complex: while the original computerized version of Su-Yong Shu goes on a destructive rampage, a copy of her consciousness in India finds its way back to sanity.

And through the journeys of these identical twins, we realize that Su-Yong Shu is neither human nor machine. She is something new, a powerful and mysterious being who has all the best and worst qualities of both man and machine – seemingly infinite capacities of intellect, strength, fear, paranoia and love. In his New Books in Science Fiction interview, Naam discusses the pluses and minuses of human enhancement, why he’s remained steadfastly optimistic about transformative technology since the 2005 publication of his non-fiction book More Than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement, and the extensive outlines he develops before sitting down to write. This is the second time Naam has appeared on the podcast. Dan Nexon interviewed him in 2013 about the first book in the trilogy, Nexus.

From the Interview:
“I have contact lenses in. I have a smart phone. I have a Fitbit. My fiance is on birth control. We have already upgraded ourselves quite a lot. My view in reality is that generally when you give someone the option of technology that improves their life in some way, and it’s safe enough and it’s cheap enough and enough people have done it already … people are just going to do it because people want these things. But everything is a little bit of a double-edged sword. No technology ever comes with zero downsides. So my phone means – the digital world means – that hackers can steal my identity or steal from my accounts, or it lets child porn go wild, or the NSA can spy on all of us far more easily.” –Ramez Naam

PJ Manney on her book (R)evolution: ‘It Doesn’t Fit Neatly into Any Boxes’

PJ Manney’s fast-action novel (R)evolution (47North, 2015) has all the ingredients of a Hollywood thriller: a terrorist attack using nanotechnology, a military-industrial conspiracy, a scientist who augments his brain—plus, of course, romance, betrayal, and rapid-fire plot twists.

The movie-style storytelling comes naturally for Manney, who spent most of her career in Hollywood, developing films and writing for television. “I don’t see myself as a literary stylist or as a great wordsmith. I see myself as a … Hollywood-influenced storyteller,” she told me when we spoke on New Books in Science Fiction.

A first-time novelist, Manney says she was “flabbergasted” when she was nominated for this year’s Philip K. Dick Award. “I ended up melding genres and ignoring people’s advice,” she explains. “It doesn’t really fit neatly into any boxes and people who like boxes have a hard time with it… I thought it was just me and my editor who liked it.”

(R)evolution explores transformative technology—a brain-computer interface that relies on nano-materials to create a prosthetic hippocampus and cortex. Manney’s protagonist, Peter Bernhardt, seeks to use the technology for good—to aid brains destroyed by Alzheimer’s disease—but business and political forces try to grab the science for their own nefarious ends. Eventually, Bernhardt experiments on himself, pursuing super-human capacities to literally outsmart his enemies.

Manney had envisioned (R)evolution as a next-generation e-book: one with active Web links to provide context and background information and a soundtrack that allowed readers to hear the music that helps Bernhardt make connections and solve problems. “I wanted you to be able to play the music so you could actually experience his mental process… I wanted people to really have that sense of having a hacked and jacked brain. If you did have a quirkily wired brain to begin with and this ability to pull from endless amounts of data, what would that feel like?”

Yet while Manney’s imagination rushes headlong into the future, e-book technology moves at a slower pace. The e-book version of (R)evolution has no links or music. But Manney hasn’t given up. She is working furiously on the next installment, (ID)entity. That gives e-book designers a chance to up their game and, I hope, design an e-book format worthy of Peter Bernhardt.

(It’s not too late to sign up for a giveaway of the six books nominated for the 2016 Philip K. Dick Award. Entries will be accepted until midnight Pacific Daylight Time on March 22, 2016.)