At its core, “Complex God” is a story about hubris. When you first envisioned it, did you know this theme was essential to the piece? Or did it reveal itself to you as you learned more about your protagonist?
I think that many of our great creators are fueled by hubris. For the people who come up with something truly revolutionary (those who are first with an idea that no one has had before), having the innate idea that you are special, unique, smarter than the average bear allows them to look beyond the accepted boundaries and limitations of what is possible. In “Complex God,” Petra has no doubt that she’s on another level. That confidence translates into dismissiveness: “they” couldn’t achieve this goal, because “they” aren’t as smart as me. So yes, hubris was essential to the piece.
Speaking of the protagonist, Petra Prawatt is, in some ways, both your hero and your villain. What inspired her concept?
I am friends with several female scientists who tell me of their struggles in their respective fields, struggles caused by their gender alone. I can empathize, but since I haven’t lived through that, I can never truly understand what that feels like. Petra is a composite character of those women. As far as the conservative establishment is concerned, Petra has several strikes against her right out of the gate: very young, female, and flamboyant in appearance. I rolled that into the classic “budding young genius” trope to try and make a young woman whose personality is formed by the unfair judgments and objections she overcomes. Petra doesn’t get discouraged, she gets pissed, and part of her success comes from a vindictive “I’ll show you” attitude.
The setting and science in “Complex God” are very realistic, with landmarks any Detroit native can recognize and tech that seems just out of our current reach. Can you share a bit about your research for the story? Where did the realism come from?
I’m a Northern Michigan native and have been to Detroit many times. As a small-town kid, Detroit was the closest big city. I’ve been to the Thanksgiving Day Parade, been to Detroit Lions games (both in the old stadium in Pontiac and the new Ford Field), been to Tiger Stadiums both old and new, played rock gigs in Hamtramck and around the city, etc. I never lived in Detroit proper, but the realism comes, I think, from having spent time there.
The robots in “Complex God” are not necessarily robots, as you describe them as both biological and mechanical life forms. What attracted you to this kind of technology as a basis for a potential Robot Uprising?
The concept of self-replicating machines fascinates me. I’ve played with Von Neumann devices a lot in my work: The Infected trilogy is based on a biological application of that principle. Plants build copies of themselves based on nothing but what nutrients are in the ground: That is a successful survival/reproductive strategy. Someday we might be able to make artificial life forms that do the same thing, but since existing biology works so well here, it’s more likely we’ll have something that is a combination of synthetic and biological (if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, but you can improve on it, so to speak). But if we achieve that, I think that a form of sexual reproduction with random variation and crossover will produce the most successful forms over the long run—so, breeding, evolving artificial life forms can eventually take their place alongside us, or (more likely) replace us altogether. A symbiotic relationship between self-replicating bacteria and self-replicating machines could be a major force in bioremediation.
The ending of “Complex God” leaves open possibilities for other stories featuring the minids. Is this the last we’ve seen of Petra and her creations?
Oh, there is an entire series that involves the minids. The Prawatt race is a major force in my YA Galactic Football League stories. That series is set 700 years in the future, and the minids have evolved into something altogether different: a sentient race of biological machines with no limitations on form or function. In “Complex God,” Petra unintentionally gives birth to this race, so this is an origin story.
What is the appeal of “robot uprising” fiction? Why do writers—or you yourself—write about it? What do you think readers like about it?
The concept of creating artificial life has been with us perhaps as long as humans have shared stories. Inanimate objects being gifted life and interacting with us is at the core of many myths and legends. So, I think there’s something innate in us that wants to see things come to life. With robotics, we’re seeing that now: movements that are fluid and real, that do real work, voices that sound like us and are programmed to react like us, now even faces that are capable of communicating emotion. All of this ties into our desires to see the magic of creating sentient life actually happen, and our fears that same life will be a danger to us. It brings up that constant question: What does it really mean to be “human,” and can we/should we find a way to create that same humanity in a different form?
What are some of your favorite examples of robot uprisings (in any media), and what makes them your favorites?
To me, Terminator stands up as a classic: anthropomorphic cyborgs as an unstoppable force, ruled by a faceless artificial intelligence that means to wipe us out. Colossus: The Forbin Project is another one of my favorites: When we do create that self-aware computer that has instant access to all of our knowledge, will it turn out to be just as vindictive, manipulative, and self-preserving as the humans who created it? That movie fit better in the Cold War era, but it’s still scary. The remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still hints at the possibility of self-replicating machines (i.e., the “Gray Goo” concern), and illustrates how powerless we would be against a fast-replicating microscopic threat.
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