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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Sam J. Miller’s Blackfish City Offers a Tale of Family and Revenge on Arctic Waters

Sam J. Miller loves cities. He lives in one, has a day job dedicated to making urban life more humane and fair, and has set his new novel, Blackfish City, in a teeming metropolis full of people who are grateful to be there.

Sam J. Miller (Photo: Sam J. Miller)

The fictional metropolis is Qaanaak, which floats in arctic waters like a massive 8-armed asterisk and serves as a refuge for those fleeing climate change, resource scarcity and war.

Like Miller’s hometown of New York City, the book is packed with diverse characters, including Fill, a privileged gay man suffering from a new horrifying disease; Kaev, a fighter who’s paid to lose fights; Ankit, chief of staff to a hack politician; and Soq, a gender-fluid messenger with ambitions of becoming a crime boss like the one he works for. They are strangers to each other until a mysterious woman, on a mission of rescue and revenge, rides into town on the back of a killer whale. This woman–an “orcamancer”–brings them close, revealing secret ties that had bound them together all along.

Miller uses his fiction to imagine solutions to problems he grapples with in his job as a community organizer and advocate for the homeless. “I wanted to imagine a city where many of the sort of problematic things that have been the prime directives of urban policy over the last 30 years in cities like New York were no longer true. Maybe you don’t need a racist police force in order to have a functional city; maybe you don’t need to make homeless people’s lives miserable as your prime mandate for how architecture and public space happen.”

Miller calls Blackfish City “a hopeful dystopia.”

“Yes, many of the things we love will be destroyed; yes, maybe there will be unspeakable horror in our future as a result of climate change or social injustice, but that doesn’t mean humanity is going to cease…. I wanted to imagine a dramatically transformed world that is still recognizably human and where things like love, and family and community and noodles can save us.”

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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.”

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It’s Raining Men in Maggie Shen King’s An Excess Male, a Near-Future Vision of China’s One-Child Policy

Maggie Shen King
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Maggie Shen King’s An Excess Male (Harper Voyager, 2017) is a work of science fiction inspired by a real-world dystopia: a country with tens of millions of “extra” men will never find spouses.

The country is China, which in 1979 adopted its one-child policy in the hope of reducing its population of 940 million to around 700 million. The plan was intended to last only one generation, but it endured until 2015. The degree to which the policy has contributed to a drop in China’s fertility rate is an open question, since other factors (like rapid economic development) are also at play. But one consequence of the policy is clear: China now has millions more men than women.

An Excess Male made the James Tiptree Jr. Literary Award Honor List and was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award. It also earned spots on a number of “best of” lists, including Barnes and Noble’s and the Washington Post’s lists of the Best Science Fiction and Fantasy novels of 2017.

King told me that the idea for An Excess Male came to her five years ago after she read a newspaper article about the gender imbalance. “The statistics say that by 2030, a quarter of the men over the age of 35 will not be able to find a wife,” King says. But the problem impacts more than marriage; it also affects social order. “When you have 30 million men at the prime of their lives, testosterone-fueled, you have a society that’s more prone to aggression and violence and crime, or, if you go to the other end, dissatisfaction or possibly depression. It’s a very, very volatile mix.”

In An Excess Male, the government solves the problem by allowing (and incentivizing) polyandry. “What if a woman could marry more than one husband? I thought that would be a really provocative way to talk about how China, in favoring their sons, actually achieved the opposite and a very devastating effect,” King says.

The story is told through the eyes of the members of the family of Wu May-Ling, a woman with two husbands, and their suitor, Lee Wei-Guo, who aspires to be her third. One might expect such a complicated courtship to collapse of its own weight, but Wei-Guo’s determination to find love allows him to develop genuine affection for all three potential mates. Whether these bonds are mutual, however, becomes the crucial question when two characters, for different reasons, become enemies of the state and Wei-Guo’s would-be spouses must risk their lives to help each other as only a family can.

In our conversation on New Books in Science Fiction, King discusses, among other things, the historical precedents for polyandry, China’s repressive policies toward homosexuality, and the role a writing group played in the shaping of her novel.


In his New Book, Douglas Lain Asks if the ‘Singularity’ will Bring Man’s Salvation–or Endless Rounds of Mario Kart

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The technological “singularity” is a popular topic among futurists, transhumanists, philosophers, and, of course, science fiction writers. The term refers to that hypothetical moment when an artificial superintelligence surpasses human intelligence, leading to runaway—and unpredictable—advances in technology.

Among the biggest unknowns is whether or not the superintelligence will turn out to be benign of malevolent.

Douglas Lain

“All sorts of visions arise, one of which might be the total annihilation of humanity by [artificial intelligences] and robots. Another might be that we all get to live forever as the robots and A.I.s overcome aging and help us launch into space,” Douglas Lain tells me in the new episode of New Books in Science Fiction.

To some, Lain’s vision of the singularity in Bash Bash Revolution might sound benign. It involves an idealistic government scientist, who designs an artificial intelligence named Bucky to prevent the apocalypse; in short order, Bucky decides the best way to do so is by enticing people to play augmented-reality video games.

But things turn dark when people abandon their ordinary lives—including jobs and families—to don virtual-reality headsets and become their favorite characters in retro video and arcade games.

Told through the social media posts of the son of Bucky’s inventor, Bash Bash Revolution is set in today’s America, with Donald Trump serving as Bucky’s most urgent problem. “It’s a race between Trump’s stupidity and the A.I.’s ability to transform society to make Trump irrelevant. That was certainly how [Bucky’s inventor] conceived of it. His task was to help the A.I save us from ourselves and save us from Trump,” Lain says.

Lain was a guest on New Books in Science Fiction in 2016 to talk about After the Saucers Landed, which was nominated for the Philip K. Dick Award. He is also the publisher of Zero Books, which specializes in books about philosophy and political theory.

A student of philosophy, Lain was partially inspired to write Bash Bash Revolution by philosopher and Marxist Guy Debord who argued in The Society of the Spectacle that images had become the ultimate commodity. “I thought ‘What if you really took that to heart?’” Lain says. “This concept of the singularity and being absorbed into virtual reality and video games and augmented video games is what I came up with—what the society of the spectacle would really be.”

Another inspiration for the book was his frustration with always losing to his son at video games. “I wanted to tell a story about a middle-aged father who could beat his son at Super Smash Bros. Melee,” he says.

Anti-Patent Pirates are the Cure to Capitalism’s Ills in Annalee Newitz’s Autonomous

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Jack Chen is a drug pirate, illegally fabricating patented pharmaceuticals in an underground lab. But when she discovers a deadly flaw in Big Pharma’s new productivity pill, corporate bosses hire a team of assassins to silence her.

Annalee Newitz’s novel Autonomous isn’t only a fast-paced cat-and-mouse story. It’s also an exploration of the rapaciousness of capitalism and its ability to turn everything, even freedom, into a commodity.

Annalee Newitz

Her first novel, Autonomous has been widely acclaimed, receiving Nebula and Lambda Literary award nominations.

“I’ve written a lot about patents and how they affect innovation and how companies use patents to screw customers over,” Newitz, a journalist and founder of io9, told me on New Books in Science Fiction. In Autonomous, she highlights how “something dry and wonky like patent law has a life or death hold over us.”

Newitz also turns the idea of robot rebellion on its head. “I wanted to tweak this idea that is such a big cliché in science fiction about a society that builds a bunch of robots to be their slaves, and these slave robots rise up and enslave humanity.”

In Autonomous, which is set 150 years in the future, robots and human are in the same boat—both subject to servitude. “As soon as we can quantify something that we’re saying is equivalent to human life—we’re saying these robots are human equivalents—it’s super easy legally and ethically … to put a dollar value on human life.” And when that happens, “everyone will end up being enslaved,” she says.

Tilting at Green Windmills: E.J. Swift Changes the Landscape of Paris in her Chrono-Adventure Paris Adrift

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Paris has a way of resisting history, absorbing change gradually instead of being transformed by it. The same can be said of Hallie, the protagonist of E.J. Swift’s Paris Adrift (Solaris, 2018), who is compelled by the threat of a future apocalypse to travel through time to key moments in history—and manages to do so without losing herself.

In her conversation with Aubrey Fox and me on the latest episode of New Books in Science Fiction, Swift discusses, among other things, her personal connection to Paris and the city’s allure, the challenge of making the plot of a time-travel story hold together, the power of small gestures to change history, and some of the authors she admires.

Swift’s novel is both a suspenseful chrono-adventure and a portrait of Hallie, a young British woman running from an unhappy life. When she gets a job in current-day Paris as a waitress at a bar, she makes intense friendships among the staff of hard-drinking ex-pats. She also finds a time portal in the keg room.

E.J. Swift

Hallie’s brilliance is in her economy of effort. For instance, with a simple suggestion whispered in the ear of architect Paul Abadie, she prevents the construction of Paris’ famous Sacré-Cœur Basilica (and thereby carries out an important leg of her mission). In a delightful twist, the church becomes a massive green windmill, turning into a symbol for an “Occupy Wall Street”-like movement that will give  Marine Le Pen’s right-wing nationalist party a run for its money (and require another corrective intervention from Hallie).

It’s easy to imagine that traveling through time would become addictive, and Swift explores that possibility, turning the portal into an organic consciousness that literally seduces Hallie, as similar portals have done with other travelers, literally turning them into disembodied spirits. Paris Adrift becomes not just a race to save humanity but a struggle to save Hallie from the portal’s seductions.

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.