Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Author Spotlight: Heather Clitheroe

When did you first become interested in cyborgs and the use of such technology in fighting terrorism?

The story actually started out as a stock market idea—a friend posted a link to an article on super-density and the idea of developing a “shipping forecast” for trying to describe trends and changing power structures. Something about the article tweaked an idea—that if we could try to develop a shipping forecast for our times, it would end up being something co-opted by financial forecasts. The story began as an idea for a firm that develops technology to make this kind of forecast for commercial purposes—getting just a little ahead of the stock market by trying to figure out what people are thinking and feeling.

And then it occurred to me that if you were the CEO of a company that could do something like that—that kind of cool-hunting—you’d probably start looking around to see if you couldn’t contract out for security and counter-intelligence. I liked the idea of it being rather shadowy—it’s never really clear who Spencer was doing the casts for in Berlin or Damascus. I don’t know that he was necessarily doing it for the UN or a legitimate government.

As for using cyborgs for this kind of counter-intelligence . . . well, why wouldn’t you? If you can’t teach a machine how to read emotions and relay those, you’d use the next best thing. People are cheaper than machines. And if it happened to have disastrous effects on a person’s health, well, you paid them for it, right? It’s the ultimate in neoliberal economics.

How much, and what kind of research did this story require?

It took a fair bit of research. The super-density article led me down the rabbit hole—first that, then shipping forecasts, then bits and pieces about the stock market and the kinds of technology being used now to make trading faster and faster. I came to the rather horrifying conclusion that if we ever really do figure out how to go faster than light, it’ll be to trade stocks faster instead of making warp drives for spaceships. That’s where the cyborg tech idea really started to come together—that we’d develop this kind of technology to fuel financial speculation instead of some great, liberating project for humanity—and I started looking around for things to read.

From there? I work for an engineering school, and I was putting away archive copies of an exam for a biomedical engineering course. A student had been showing me his lab assignment the week before when he came in to borrow a stapler—something about advanced signal processing for better tumor detection—and I happened to leaf through the exam and looked at the course number. Then I pulled the course outline, and then I started looking at the prof’s webpage for his research and his lab, and I found a list of journal articles. Then I started reading. The best thing about working for engineers is that nobody seems to mind if you ask a question about circuits and biomedical implants while you’re waiting for the Keurig to finish brewing coffee. They just take it for granted.

I skimmed through a bunch of textbooks on circuitry and neuromorphic VLSI systems that are being developed to mimic the nervous system. I was fascinated. I stumbled onto memristors when I was looking at a grad student thesis, and started trying to put it all together and understanding what I was reading. Thank goodness for the Google.

Do you see this story as a warning in the world’s pursuit of technology? If so, what specific message do you want readers to leave with?

I think it’s a bit late for warnings. We’re plunging ahead with new technology all the time, and I don’t know that you can always predict the outcome. Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily. I work with people who are developing and researching new tech to support the tech that hasn’t even been worked out yet. Talk about anticipatory . . . it takes an enormous amount of chutzpah for a scientist or an engineer to say “oh, hey, this process hasn’t been invented yet, but when it is, they’re going to need these materials in huge quantities, so I’ll just work on that now.” And I think that’s okay . . . we try to anticipate what’s coming, we plan for what we think might happen, but we’re remarkable adaptable, we humans, and when things go sideways, we deal with it.

I think this story is more a reflection of the way we allow economics to use people, though: that we pay whether we realize it or not, and that sometimes means that we hurt each other and ourselves as we do it. Spencer isn’t really a warning. He just is. He’s already been chewed up and spit out by the “augmentation” that makes him a cyborg, and he’s paying a terrible price for the choices he made and the ones that were made for him. I guess the story is supposed to leave you with the message that we should do better. We can do better than this. We should do better. Technology doesn’t scare me. Economics does.

You took a brief break from writing last year; did you find it easy to return to work, and was this a story from before your break or after? How did your Banff residency rejuvenate your writing?

Getting back to work was a huge, scary effort, and this was the first major piece of fiction after a very long pause.

I finished my master’s degree at the end of 2012—writing about the neoliberal projection of blame and victimhood in post 9/11 zombie narratives (hi, Dr. McCutcheon!) and needed a break. The break turned out to run longer than I thought, because I ended up having surgery in April and then a second major surgery in September that took me out of commission for several months. It felt like I spent most of last year having surgery or recovering from it. In the middle of that year, Calgary flooded—great swathes of the city were quite literally underwater, and we spent a nervous week with go bags packed because we live so close to the river, waiting for an evacuation notice and planning the route up to my friends’ house, where they had cots ready for us in the basement (hi, Kirk, Robyn, Matt, and Tamara!). My parents had been in a serious car accident the year before and ended up being called as witnesses for the prosecution late in the summer. We were all pretty worn out by everything. It was truly was an annus horribilis. There was no writing to be done.

The first bits of writing I did were very tentative, and there are some incredibly shitty first drafts tucked away in a folder, never to see the light of day again. I’d seen a mention of the WDSF call, and thought I would give it a try. I was finally back at work, and I had started coming into the office early to sit and write—first half an hour, then an hour, then an hour and a half. I went back to the Banff Centre for the Arts in early February. I took the cyborg story with me and I worked on it day and night until it was ready to send in, just under the wire. And I got that sucker done and danced around my studio and did one of those embarrassing “YEAH!” fist pumps, only to realize that I’d been seen. Whoops.

This story represents a triumphant return to writing after a truly awful year . . . and what a start!

Being published in WDSF means so much to me. When I was a kid, I strayed into the science fiction and fantasy section and came out with A Fall of Moondust, and the librarian asked me if I didn’t want to read a Sweet Valley High book instead. I’m so glad I refused and went back to pick up the Ben Bova book I’d been eyeing, and then for the Anne McCaffrey. I feel like this is the start of my annus mirabilis.

Do you plan to stay in this world and continue exploring the possibilities of machine enhancements to humans?

Yes, absolutely. The Banff Centre has kindly agreed to put me up for two more residencies this year, and I so enjoyed writing “Cuts Both Ways” that I’ve had trouble moving on to a new project. I started outlining on the bus ride back to Calgary, and had pages of notes and ideas by the time we hit the city limits.

I love the idea of a company having a stranglehold on fascinating new tech and the kinds of shady things they might do with it . . . and the things people might do to themselves to be a part of it. I’m fascinated by the idea of Distributed Arbitrage and the forecasting, and I know I’m not done with Spencer or Megan. I’m not sure what it’s going to look like, but I think I’ve got the beginnings of a novel in me. And at the end of the day, I want to hear that William Gibson read my book and liked it.

Lee Hallison

Lee Hallison

Lee Hallison writes fiction in an old Seattle house where she lives with her patient spouse, an impatient teen, two lovable dogs, and the memories of several wonderful cats. She’s held many jobs—among them a bartender, a pastry chef, a tropical plant-waterer, a CPA, and a university lecturer. An East Coast transplant, she simply cannot fathom cherry blossoms in March.