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Author Spotlight: Mark Pantoja

In this Author Spotlight, we asked author Mark Pantoja to tell us a bit about the background of his story for Lightspeed, “Houses.”

Mark PantojaThis is your first story to be published. Tell us a little about yourself, and how you came to this point. What inspired you to become a writer?

Other writers, both good and bad. I’ve been an avid reader since I was a kid, with a voracious appetite for science fiction and fantasy, and for me great writers such as Vonnegut, Ballard, Bradbury, and Le Guin, kind of intimidated me. I wanted so much to be able to write like they did, but everything I put out I felt was crap. The truth is: Writing’s hard work and great writers make it look like they did it with ease. I felt like they were built different, and maybe they are. I thought they had heaps of talent that I didn’t, and I think that kept me from writing for a while. So, I pursued music. I’ve been in bands since I was sixteen and I poured most of my creative energies into music for years, but I still had stories I wanted to get out there. And it was bad writers that actually inspired me to write. Bad writers are proof that anything is possible and a sign that the industry is alive and well. I felt I had something to contribute that I enjoyed writing and that others might enjoy reading. I thought, what the hell, let the readers decide. So I started to pursue writing seriously last fall.

Two stories that come right to mind while reading this story are Ray Bradbury’s “There Will Come Soft Rains” and “But Who Can Replace A Man?” by Brian Aldiss, both of which look at human creations moving on from after their builds have vanished from their lives. Do you see our legacy (should we vanish) as being a positive one?

We certainly have the tools and opportunity to provide for a positive legacy, but it’s all a question of priorities and perspective. If we were to disappear tomorrow, no, I don’t think it would be a positive legacy; I’m not sure we’d leave much of any legacy. The Earth would swallow up most signs of us pretty quickly in geologic time, and if some other intelligence were to come and study the history of Earth, I think most of what they’d find was some pollution, the foot prints of a few mega-structures, and a fossil record that shows a pretty significant extinction event while on our watch. Not the worst, mind you, but our epoch, the Holocene/Anthropocene, isn’t over, and we don’t appear to want to change much.

That being said, the one thing we as humans consistently show is that we’re survivors. We have yet to wipe ourselves off this planet once and for all, and I don’t think that’s an accident. I think we’re reaching a point where we can start to see that we’re part of a greater ecology, on and off this planet, and if we can align our priorities to such long-term vision, I hope we can indeed build a lasting and positive legacy, whatever that may be.

Did either story mentioned above have any particular influence on “Houses?” Are there any other robot stories that have had an impact on you?

I devoured Bradbury as a kid, the Martian Chronicles in particular, but I haven’t read that in years. More than anything I think that Bradbury showed that emotion can exist in science fiction. Many of old school writers, Asimov, Silverberg, Heinlein, Clarke, Herbert, they wrote such cold emotionless work, even when they tried not to. But Bradbury, for me, always got emotions in his stories, even if it was just shock-horror like with “The Veldt,” or utter sadness like with “All Summer in a Day.” I remember seeing that as a short on PBS as a kid, and it made me cry for days. Emotion, and emotional clarity, it’s something that I think is really important in fiction that I enjoy, and something that sometimes struggle with expressing in my own work, so I really appreciate an author who and do it well.

The only thing I ever read from Aldiss was Hothouse, which floored me. I remember James Blish’s review of it, where he called it “utter nonsense” as it was so implausible. I read and it and thought, “Damn, Aldiss, you just walked in and did whatever you wanted!” Blish was right and totally wrong: This is fiction, man! It’s all made up!

As for other robot stories, I was just in a discussion about this in a science fiction book club I attend, because someone in the group requested a robot book. I discovered that while robots certainly show up in tons of stories, like Simmons’ Moravecs in Illium/Olympos, Banks’ Culture drones, and Adams’ Marvin the Paranoid Android, there are not a lot of books about robots, besides the robot stories that everyone knows: Isaac Asimov’s Robot Series. I think this is in part because Asimov did such a hell of a job, and because I think we recognize that robot stories are really explorations of Artificial Intelligence. I think we jump quickly from robots to HAL 9000. That’s even one of the plot lines Asimov and Silverberg explored in The Positronic Man, the idea of large computers controlling slaved robots remotely, which is not unlike what I envisioned with “Houses.” The idea of a robot agent, in the age of the internet and collocating and wi-fi just seems so transitive. We controlled the Mars Rovers remotely. There’s so much more capability we have with remote control, partly because we’ve discovered that consciousness is a complex phenomenon not easily reproduced.

We see this robot society in a sort of transition between serving their lost masters and themselves: Are these sorts of changes inevitable?

I don’t know of any social system that remains static. We create technology we can interact with, thereby imparting some of our psychology and sociability (have you seen that video of chatbots talking “AI vs. AI?”), take us out of the equation and how would they organize themselves? It’s sort of an unknowable, a cultural singularity where one could suppose anything, but which might be hard to relate to as a reader and human being. The stage I explored was where they clearly have been designed to act and interact on a human level but are becoming aware that they don’t have the choice of self-determination, and in fact, soon, will have to act and make a choice of self-determination. It’s going to happen.

Robots are starting to make their way into the public: Roombas, pool cleaners, battlefield robots, and so forth. How far away do you see this sort of future, with automated houses and the like?

I question whether or not our War on Terror will ever end, but if it does I’d be surprised if what happened with large defense contractors after World War II, like Raytheon, didn’t also happen for current technocentric defense contractors: After the war market dries up they’ll look for a new market, namely civilian. During WWII, Raytheon developed magnetrons for a superior radar system, which after the war they sold as the modern microwave oven, as well as selling radio and TV transmitters developed during the War. Today, Raytheon is still in the microwave and refrigerator industry, but is still a defense contractor and the largest manufacturer of guided missiles, today. I’d expect something very similar to happen with robots and drone-technology.

You mentioned Roombas, which is made by iRobot, who also makes Scoomba a floor cleaning ‘bot, as well as PackBot, a military scout robot designed for ‘situational awareness’, Ariel, a mine/explosive-removal robot, and SWARM a DARPA sponsored Artificial Intelligence project designed to run hundreds of robots simultaneously. Drone technology is the largest growing sector of defense contracts, with more than 6,000 drones in active use by the US military, up from just fifty-four before September 11, 2001. And I’d say that robots, AI, technology, they are integrating into our lives, and are evolving with us. The Internet, another DARPA related technology, and its integration into civilian life is pretty well depicted with personal computers, but also with current rise of the smartphone.

As I said before, much of our lives are becoming integrated into technology. I mean, how many of us in the US carry around cellphones, MP3 players, eReaders, and laptops? I don’t think there’s any limit to how integrated we’ll go. Smartclothes, smartcars, smarthouses. It’s happening right now. Do I ever think we’ll actually get to the point where we are nixed right out of the equation? I don’t know. As long as people desire power over other people, perhaps we’ll always find a role for ourselves to play.

You’re a recent graduate of Clarion West (2011) workshop. How did this experience help shape your writing, and this story in particular?

I’d say the biggest effect, the most important thing, that Clarion West taught me is possibility. The program isn’t just an intensive workshop on how to write, but on how to be a writer, which means the lifestyle, the demands, the process, the pay, the contracts, the relationships. It was both a sobering look at what it means to be a professional writer, as well as primer on how to manage your career. And one of the greatest things I got out of it was that it’s all possible.

This story actually came directly out of Clarion West. One morning I woke up on my horrible little plastic mattress bunk bed (we got our own rooms) and the first line just popped in my head (which I later deleted, as per Terry Bisson’s rules [he’s right, by the way]): “After the humans left, the houses got bored.” After that I didn’t know what to do with it simply because it could’ve turned into such a sprawling work.

Another thing I discovered while in the workshop was that I had no idea what a short story was. I’m still not sure, and don’t even know if it can be defined. At the time I thought it was just a story that was short. It’s not. It’s its own medium that has its own rules and own structure, and is totally different from any other format: Novel, novelette, serial, flash (which are all unique and have their own rules). So, I was afraid this story would get away from me, but I was able to workshop it with others in my group as well as with my instructor at the time, Margo Lanagan, to get a real sense of where this story’s emotional center was. It was a great opportunity to use the workshop as it was intended: To get feedback from professionals and peers who are passionate and eager to learn and share ideas about writing and science fiction.

There’s really no way to distill how the workshop will affect my writing on a long-term level, partly because it was so recent, but also because there’s still so much to unpack from the experience. I still find myself thinking, “Oh, that’s what Paul Park meant!” or “So, this is what Nancy Kress was talking about!” It was a great program run by some of the most knowledgeable and supportive directors (Howle and Graham!) anyone could hope for, and I highly encourage anyone interested in writing as a career and art form to apply.

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Andrew Liptak

Andrew Liptak

Andrew Liptak is the Weekend Editor for The Verge. He is the co-editor of War Stories: New Military Science Fiction, (Apex Publications, 2014). His writing has also appeared in io9, Gizmodo, Kirkus Reviews, Tor.com, BN Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog, Clarkesworld and others. He lives in Vermont.