Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Author Spotlight: K.C. Ball

In this Author Spotlight, we asked author K.C. Ball to tell us a bit about the background of her story for Lightspeed, “Snapshots I Brought Back From the Black Hole.”

K.C. BallWhy did you choose to tell this story from the point of an A.I., rather than one of the crew?

The creation of “Snapshots I Brought Back From the Black Hole” began with that last image, the close-up of Chloe’s face. I built the rest of the structure from that, with the first scene as far away from that close-up as I could get—the panoramic view of the black hole.

From the start, I intended to tell the story from an omniscient point-of-view that would allow me to present everything that was going on in the story with as much detachment as possible. First draft felt too cold and awkward, though. I decided to warm the story up with a more personal presentation, but couldn’t decide which character would be the best choice. None of them felt right. Then the notion of Mikhail, the A.I., as narrator hit me.

Until then, Mikhail had been a peripheral character with no other role than having the speed to juggle communications up and down the black hole’s gravity well. But when I did the rewrite, and began using his voice to tell the story, he grew as a character and the whole thing came alive.

I’m interested in the notion of sentient A.I., and got more and more into the character as the story developed. I tried to make him real and unreal, to give him attitude, particularly in his view of humans. I think, in the end, he’s the most sympathetic character in the story.

That was one of the elements I found most fascinating, how Mikhail shows several characteristically human qualities, including a level of curiosity similar to the very curiosity of which it blames the humans of having, and a strong opinion of certain crew members. Do you think its responsibilities as Communications Officer, and the proximity to the humans that involves, have influenced it to exhibit such behavior?

During story development, I began to think of Mikhail as male. Him, not it. As I said, the question of how an artificial entity would develop, upon gaining sentience, fascinates me.

I can’t help but feel that a thinking artificial being, created by mankind and exposed to human behavior from infancy, would take on human characteristics. The nature, nurture thing. But as an alien, it’s very likely such a being would also develop a disdain for human foibles, even while exhibiting such weaknesses himself.

As to curiosity, I believe that’s it’s a mark of higher intelligence. Perhaps, more than any other quality, the need to understand our environment is an essential sign of sentience. Miror ergo sum. I wonder, therefore I am.

Why do you think Mikhail is so loyal to Sergei, speaking in his ear alone, and concentrating most on what Sergei feels and does?

We all want to think that we have the boss’s ear, don’t we?

In this case, as Mikhail’s “creator,” I wanted him to exhibit more or less equal parts training (programming), command loyalty (personal respect) and emotional attachment. As to the latter, I wanted to suggest, without making an overt statement, that Mikhail’s sensory links to Sergei contributed greatly to the attachment.

This is a love story, of course, but it’s not just about Sergei’s unrequited love for Chloe. I intended to leave the reader with the sense of fraternal and paternal love Mikhail feels for Sergei. Mikhail assumes the role of mentor and “grandfather.”

By the time Sergei and Chloe discuss pulling in Andy’s pod, Mikhail realizes Sergei wants the tractor field to fail. Has Sergei been pushed too far at this point to do his job as Captain? To do the right thing?

Very much so. The rest of the crew may not realize it, but Sergei knows he’s crossed the line, just as surely as Mikhail knows, but at first thinks he’s gotten away with it. Then the whole thing slips from his control.

For me, that core will fuel his sense of guilt for the remainder of his life. That he has failed to do the right thing, in a grand enough fashion that he couldn’t correct the situation (something he had never faced before in his life), and in doing so, he’s lost the very person he wished to hold close.

Do you think Chloe knew all along that Sergei cared about her, and simply never brought it up because she wasn’t interested?

For the most part. I believe Chloe feels great affection for Sergei, but as a friend and a “brother,” not as a lover. The very reason she admires him, and needs him—his detachment and his willingness to play second fiddle for her—made him unsuitable for the thunder and lightning she requires for emotional involvement. I don’t believe that disinterest is intentional, though. We all take those close to us for granted, from time to time, without meaning harm.

In the tragic turn of events, Mikhail manages to work the situation in order to stay with Sergei. Is it just that the A.I. is too smart to be disassembled (like it claims), or do you think there’s more under the surface, maybe something akin to feelings for its former Captain?

As I said before, at its core, this is a love story. Of course, self-preservation is at work, too, but my intention was to suggest that there is no logic to who we, as thinking beings, are attracted to, as friends, as lovers or extended family. Mikhail has taken on the role of wingman for Sergei, just as surely as Sergei fulfilled that role for Chloe.

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Erin Stocks

Erin Stocks Lightspeed Assistant Editor Erin Stocks’ fiction can be found in the Coeur de Lion anthology Anywhere but EarthFlash Fiction Online, the Hadley Rille anthology Destination: Future, The Colored Lens, and most recently in Polluto Magazine. Follow her on Twitter @ErinStocks or at www.erinstocks.com.