Ramez Naam (author of "Nexus") and Madeline Ashby (author of "vN") engage in a Q&A session revealing some insight on life and their writing.
Ramez: Madeline, you’ve written incredibly mind-bending novels like vN about a world full of both humans and self-replicating robots. Your protagonist, Amy, is a little robot girl who eats her own robot grandmother and absorbs her mind! Are there things happening today that inspired these ideas?
Madeline: Thanks! I think Amy's arc was inspired by fairy tale, especially the older version of Little Red Riding Hood wherein the Wolf entices Red to consume the morsels of her granny's corpse he simply couldn't finish. But I drew on contemporary technology for the construction of the self-replicating humanoids themselves: they have hollow titanium bones with graphene memory coral inside, plus carbon nanotube muscle under polymer-doped memristors embedded in a silicone "skin." All of those elements I drew from materials science research. They're all possible. Technically.
My question to you: Your novels focus on what it's like to share minds with other people, which is a really stressful idea for me, because I can't imagine how I would focus on anything or get anything done. Do you think sharing minds would be measurably different from endlessly refreshing Facebook?
Ramez: Heh. That’s right. In Nexus and Crux, a technology you can swallow can link people’s minds. Most of my readers are pretty excited about this idea. But some legitimately have concerns. If it was like Facebook always on, with no way to turn it off, I think it would drive me mad!
In the books, though, it’s not quite like that. There’s more ability – though not a perfect ability – to choose what you send and receive. The idea of the Nexus technology itself is based on real science going on now. We have brain implants that restore sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, and have let paralyzed men and women control robot limbs by thought. We’ve even had one scientist use his thoughts to control the limbs of another scientist a mile away. The conflict in the books is that the technology is an illegal drug, used in the past for terror attacks. So there’s a War on Drugs/War on Terror angle that somewhat eerily presaged the NSA / Snowden scandal that’s come to light over the past year.
Back to you: A lot of people are worried today that robots are going to take all the jobs. Does that keep you up at night?
Madeline: No. It doesn't worry me. At all. If I were worried about artificial intelligences taking all the jobs, I'd be worried about stuff like algorithmic day trading and traffic sculpting, or the way so much of basic surveillance and security protocol has been outsourced to unconscious, non-sentient intelligences. Really, I'm more concerned about the economy in general, and the systematic eradication of the middle class. The inability of most people my age to buy a home or have a family has less to do with robots and more to do with social and tax policies that benefit the wealthy at the expense of everyone else.
I'll throw in a random one, too: one component of vN is the Cascadia earthquake, a devastating quake that essentially liquefies downtown Seattle. I wrote it because I used to live in Seattle, but you still live there. Do you ever worry about the big one?
Ramez: You know, I’d like to say that in my garage I have a disaster kit with water purifiers and a flashlight and extra food, just ready for an earthquake, but I don’t. I’m not a very good prepper. I think I take civilization for granted at this point. If I worry about anything, it’s our civil liberties. We become so afraid of even minor disruptions, that we’re willing to give up quite a lot of freedom. And often for the wrong risk. Falling appliances kill more people in the United States than terrorists, but we still take off our shoes when we go through airport security and let the NSA keep tabs on every call, email, and text every American makes. That worries me more than an earthquake. That’s the sort of thing that was in the back of my mind when I wrote Nexus and Crux – that our fear of the wrong things and our supply of well-intentioned public servants who want to keep us safe would make us less free over time, instead of more. Then again, I live in a state where we legalized gay marriage and marijuana. So there are trends in both directions.
One last question for you: Your next book is Company Town. A city-sized oil-rig, the United Sex Workers of Canada, and the Singularity. Wow. Tell us more! And what inspired that?
Madeline: When I was a kid living in unincorporated King County, WA, the Green River Killer (Gary Ridgway) was taking one or two women a year in Western Washington. This was a big deal, because Ted Bundy had murdered his way through the same area about ten years earlier. As a kid, I was hyper-aware of the fact that he was out there, waiting. This book is, in a lot of ways, about that feeling. It involves an escort's escort hunting a post-human serial killer in a city floating around an oil rig, and being increasingly aware of her own vulnerablility as an un-augmented human in a city full of people assisted by things like neural and other implants.
I think also I wanted to flip the script on vN and iD, a little bit, and write about humans. Not because humans are so special, or anything, but because I wanted to write about people who felt pain, and who were ugly, and had finite lifespans. I also wanted to write about working people. One of my favourite parts of vN was when Amy got her first job, so I wanted to return to th at part of a person's life, and explore how work can shape our identity on a daily basis, how what we do becomes who we are. In this story, our protagonist Go Jung-hwa leaves her bodyguarding job with the USWC (which is, unfortunately, a fiction, albeit an optimistic one) to work for the energy company that just bought her city. Her new gig is to watch over the heir to the empire, because he's getting death threats from the future. So there's this sense of graduating to something very special and different even otherworldly, while at the same time feeling the pull of your old job and your old friends.
My question: tell me about your first job.
Ramez: Well, Company Town sounds awesome. I can’t wait to read it.
My first job, alas, didn’t involve protecting heirs to the empire against death threats from the future, or anything like your next book. Not even inventing illegal nano-technological drugs that can link brains via wifi and then being hunted by Homeland Security and the NSA, as happened in mine.
My first job was as a lifeguard at a community pool. As a 16-year-old boy with a funny name and a funny skin color living in small town America it was a pretty sweet job, actually. And while you wouldn’t think it would have much of a sci-fi element, there was one surprising connection. The final exam I had to pass for my lifeguard license, at least there, reminds me a little bit of the Kobayashi Maru, the fictional no-win simulation in Star Trek that is the final test all officers have to pass before becoming a starship Captain.
In the lifeguard version, at least where I took the test, they have you out of sight of the pool – and we had a huge pool, Olympic size. Then you hear a scream. You run to the pool, entering the area by the shallow end. At the deep end, as far from you as possible, someone is screaming for help, thrashing in the water, nowhere near the sides. So I saw this. Naturally I sprinted along the side, dove in, rescued the person, who fought me. I used all my lifeguard skills to save them while making sure I didn’t drown.
What I failed to notice was that, in the shallow end was someone floating face down in the water, silently, making not a peep. The person thrashing was still above water. They might have made it. The person face down, making no noise, definitely needed help. Or maybe they were already dead. Either way, protocol was that I should help the face down person first, but I didn’t even notice them.
It was all a simulation, of course. Those were fellow lifeguards. No one drowned that day. But the lesson stuck with me. You’ve got to look at what’s actually important, and not just what’s making the most noise. Or not just what the people setting up the situation you’re in want you to look at. I try to remember that now.
Madeline: That sounds like a really cool first job! And now I know I can swim safely around you, if Angry Robot ever decides to throw a pool party. (Hey, it could happen.) You learn a lot about people when your job is to sell back issues of Playboy and old Nintendo PowerPads. Mostly things you wish you didn't know. If you ever want to get some perspective on the rate of change in technology, go visit a Value Village. It's like getting a Master's in Kipple.