Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Nonfiction

Interview: Angus McIntyre

Angus McIntyre was born in London and lived in Edinburgh, Milan, Brussels, and Paris before eventually finding his way to New York, where he now lives and works. A graduate of the 2013 Clarion Writers’ Workshop, his short fiction has been published in numerous anthologies and on Boing Boing. His background in computational and evolutionary linguistics and in artificial intelligence has given him a healthy respect for positive feedback loops and a certain curiosity about what it might be like to live in a universe filled with intelligent machines. His hobbies include travel and photography. Visit his website at angus.pw  or follow @angusm on Twitter for news about his fiction and other projects.

First things first: Congratulations on your debut! What’s it like to have The Warrior Within out there in the world after having had short stories published in several venues and anthologies?

Thank you. It’s exciting (also, terrifying). It’s only a novella, but it still feels like much more of a “thing” than a short story.

The Warrior Within is a space opera adventure about Karsman, a man with several people living in his head, who has to protect his small town on a backwater planet from off-world commandoes. How did the story come together for you? Did premise, character, or setting come first, or was it a combination of all three?

It came together in bits and pieces. I didn’t start with the whole thing mapped out in my head from start to finish. It was more like a snowball, with ideas gradually piling up into some kind of semi-coherent whole.

Setting was definitely first. The image of the Road—a single road that runs all the way around the equator of the planet—was my starting point. The original inspiration was a line from a song, “À tout moment la rue” by the French band Eiffel, but the exact path from that line to the idea of the Road was pretty random, even by my standards.

The core of the premise came next. It’s been said (possibly by John Gardner, possibly by someone else) that there are only two plots in literature: “someone goes on a journey” and “a stranger comes to town.” I went with the second, so immediately I had to ask myself who was coming to town, why they were there, what kind of town it was, and who lived in it. Once I knew the answers to those questions, I was on my way.

Character was the part that probably evolved the most during the writing. Finding Karsman’s character and his voice—or voices—was a process of continual discovery. And the main antagonist, whose character I thought I had set in stone, underwent some subtle but significant changes between the first and second drafts.

Let’s talk about the setting. Karsman is the unofficial mayor of a strip-town located on a planet with a pretty unforgiving desert climate. Plus, the sun never sets. I’m curious about the research you did to build this fascinating world.

It’s not stated specifically anywhere in the book, but the world is an example of a tidally locked planet, in which one face is always turned towards its primary—the star that it orbits. The star is a K-class dwarf, a bit duller and cooler than our own, and the planet orbits closer to it than Earth does to the Sun. This is probably a very common configuration; there are a great many M- and K-class (red and orange) dwarf stars in the universe, many probably have planets, and the so-called “habitable zone” around the star—the zone in which you can find liquid water—is close enough that any planets in the zone might easily end up tidally locked.

Obviously, that makes for big temperature extremes: The face turned to the star gets hot; the side in permanent shadow is very cold. You might have a more temperate zone at the equator—right where I built my Road—but it’s all pretty marginal.

The research I did was focused on finding whether parts of such a planet could really be habitable. It turns out that they might be. The key is atmospheric mixing: If your planet has an atmosphere, atmospheric circulation can smooth things out so that the extremes aren’t quite so extreme, and life has a chance.

Once I’d learned that, I didn’t dig too much deeper. I was always afraid I might find out that what I wanted wasn’t possible after all. So I didn’t actually try to model it or do a deep dive into the relevant literature. I just wanted to know that it was approximately plausible. In any case, as becomes obvious early on in the story, this is a planet that’s been subject to some fairly major engineering. If any astrophysicist says “Yes, but . . .”, I intend to wave my hands and say that the aliens did it.

The tidally locked planet is run by an ambivalent religious autocracy, the Muljaddy, which Karsman calls a benign dictatorship. How did you come up with this sect?

The same song that inspired the idea of the Road gave me the idea of a single family that controlled it and everyone living on it. Marx’s line about religion being the opiate of the people suggested their means of control. Suffice to say—I don’t think I’m giving too much away here—the Muljaddy are not true believers. Religion is just a tool they use to maintain order.

The deities named in the story, incidentally, are cherry-picked from the Hittite pantheon, which should be another clue that this is an invented religion.

As the story progresses, we find out that the cities on the planet are a network of life support systems for artificial minds called Intelligences. How did you come up with this part of the worldbuilding?

Warrior is part of an extended future history that I’m working on, which is heavily concerned with post-humans and artificial intelligences. One of the possible solutions that I envisage to the challenge of creating a functional super-intelligence is to build a composite group mind—not a monolithic single entity, but a kind of colonial organism. We have an example of such a super-intelligence: The collective power of the human race to figure stuff out and get things done far exceeds the intellect of any single individual. So we know that that particular model—lots of not-so-brilliant minds working together—definitely works.

Speaking of post-humanism, we find out that Karsman, in fact, is post-human because of the multiple people, called personas, installed in his head. Do you think post-humanism will erase human identity or take humanity to a level of evolution that we have yet to understand?

Erasure of identity is a possible outcome, but it might be the one I think is least likely. Post-humans may be strange to us (and vice-versa), but I believe post-human societies and post-humans as individuals will still have many recognizable human features. Human nature is a very tough weed: hard to eliminate, even when you try to pull it up by the roots. I actually wrote a story, “Justice and Shadow,” which was about love in a post-human society. My protagonists are genetically-specialized eusocial neuter females, so love for them is closer to agape—unconditional, non-physical love—than eros. But it’s still recognizable as love.

Of course, one of the least attractive features of human nature is our willingness to say, “Those other people aren’t human like us” (and therefore it’s okay for us to enslave them/take their land/bomb them/deport them/rape them/etc.). Writing about post-humans can be a way to talk about that, because this failure of empathy, this failure to mutually recognize other people as properly human, is likely to bedevil relations between humans as we are now and our increasingly strange descendants.

As a philosophy and a movement, post-humanism says people can and should become post-human en masse rather than selecting only a few for the privilege. But in Warrior, Karsman and the off-world commandoes have clearly been singled out from countless others to be biohacked and upgraded to Human 2.0 status (or Human 2.0.5 depending on your operating system). Do you see post-humanism coming up against our inevitable social hierarchies?

Definitely. But that can work various ways. Post-human enhancements might reinforce your status as a member of the ruling class—like the Muljaddy in Warrior. But they might simply make you a better servant—like Karsman, or the soldiers. If you assume that social hierarchies are an inevitable recurrent feature of human societies, then those at the top of the tree will have an interest in tightly controlling who gets access to any beneficial modifications and on what terms. When post-humanist good intentions come up against the realities of power and privilege, something has to give.

Just to backtrack a bit, you mentioned that Warrior is part of an extended future history that’s also heavily concerned with artificial intelligence. Your bio says you have a background in computational and evolutional linguistics and in artificial intelligence. Tell us about how you got into these fields.

I was interested in computers from a fairly early age—encouraged by my father, who recognized far earlier than many that computers were about to become a vital part of everyone’s life. The University of Edinburgh, where I went to college, was one of the first universities to offer artificial intelligence at undergraduate level, as a joint degree with linguistics. That sounded pretty interesting to me, so that’s what I did.

My work in evolutionary linguistics—studying the origins of language using evolutionary models—came about because I’d been lucky enough to work with a brilliant Belgian computer scientist, Professor Luc Steels. Luc’s a scientist-artist in the grand tradition, very intellectually curious and creative. When he invited me to join him to work on evolutionary linguistics at Sony Computer Science Laboratory in Paris, I jumped at the chance. It was a great experience, and I ended up learning a lot about evolution and dynamical systems.

What aspects of your expertise in AI made it into the novella?

More than anything else, my hard-won skepticism about the promises of AI practitioners. My college courses focused on what’s called the symbolic approach to AI, an approach that has since almost entirely failed to pan out. This left me feeling a bit like a skilled horse-drawn-buggy designer in the age of the motorcar. That experience does mean, however, that I see the path to Strong AI—artificial intelligence that equals or exceeds human performance in all aspects of life—as much messier and more complicated than some people do. My assumption that it’s not all easy and inevitable, that artificial intelligences are not going to be these perfect, God-like entities, but flawed, chaotic, and unpredictable, guides a lot of my universe-building.

Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking have said that AI will spell our doom—and not, say, runaway capitalism or climate change. What’s your take on their AI-pocalypse?

They may be right in the long term, but I believe it’s further away than they think. The idea of the runaway Singularity, where machines just get smarter and smarter on increasingly short timescales, seems to depend on the idea that artificial intelligences will be able to essentially design themselves; that they’ll be able to peek at their own code and make it faster and better until they achieve near-omniscience.

I don’t think it’s that easy. Incompleteness problems—the inherent inability of any formal system to fully describe itself—mean that the path to intelligence is likely to be evolutionary and bottom-up. Evolution’s incredibly powerful; we’re an intelligence designed by evolution, after all. But the human brain is hack piled upon hack. It’s not neat and organized; it’s not susceptible to easy analysis and improvement. I think AIs will be the same. Those promised super-intelligences will come with all these weird quirks and blind spots built in, just like us. They’ll stumble down evolutionary blind alleys and come to unexpected dead ends. What they have going for them is much shorter cycle times and the fact that they’re not just three pounds of meaty goop in a bone box. But I still don’t think the path to the Singularity is anywhere near as fast and smooth as Musk or Hawking might seem to suggest.

If the day finally comes, will humanity survive? We might. We may live on as rats in the walls while our super-genius children go on to conquer the universe. Or, to paraphrase Marvin Minsky, perhaps they’ll keep us on as pets.

Incidentally, my impression is that Musk and Hawking are focused on Strong AI. But we’re now entering an age of Weak AI, in which we have machines that can perform very specific “intelligent” activities at more-than-human levels of competence. They may not be generalists, but they’re terrifyingly efficient specialists. That’s going to have some profound effects, both good and bad, on who we are and how we live. Maybe a combination of human cussedness and hyper-efficient machinery will doom us all long before HAL 9000 and Skynet can do the job.

Before The Warrior Within, you’ve had other space opera short stories published: “Blind Perseus” and “Justice and Shadow.” What attracts you to the genre?

Space opera’s fun. You can write a good, gripping adventure story. But there’s room for much more than just action—you can pack in politics and sociology, you can draw ideas from history and hard science, you can write about the relationship between people and technology. And nothing about the conventions of space opera prevents you from writing character-driven narratives, which, as any good writer knows, is what the reader is really there for.

I read a lot of space opera in my teens: Brian Stableford’s Hooded Swan series, Larry Niven’s Known Space universe, Poul Anderson’s Flandry works, Cordwainer Smith’s Instrumentality of Mankind stories, and Frank Herbert’s Dune. I was also raised on Blake’s 7, a BBC SF series that can best be described as a kind of evil Star Trek where everyone’s crooked, cynical, and self-serving (and those are the good guys). That last one probably shaped my worldview more than I might want to admit.

When I came back to SFF after a decades-long hiatus, I found a whole new crop of authors writing space opera—Tobias Buckell, Kameron Hurley, Karl Schroeder, Ann Leckie, Peter Watts, Lois McMaster Bujold. They rebooted the space opera part of my brain all over again.

In addition to space opera, you write in other subgenres of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Who are some of the writers that got you interested in these genres and what drew you to them?

In fantasy, I read many of the classics: Tolkien and Robert E. Howard, inevitably, but also Le Guin’s Earthsea, E.R. Eddison, Lord Dunsany, and probably others. Now, there’s a crop of new voices to choose from as well: N.K. Jemisin and Bradley Beaulieu are two who I think of as outstanding worldbuilders (and great writers in general). Moving further from classic heroic fantasy, China Miéville and Richard Kadrey have been big inspirations. What drew me to them all is, I suppose, the same thing that everyone looks for in fantasy: the promise of a vivid secondary world and a good story well told. But sometimes you come for the elves and the dragons and stay for the prose style. Fantasy writers often feel free to inject more lyricism into their writing than science fiction writers (Cordwainer Smith would be an honorable exception). There’s a fine line between beautiful prose and pastiche, but the writers who manage to stay on the right side of that line can be very enjoyable to read.

I don’t think of myself as much of a horror writer or a reader; I’m not very well read in that genre, and I don’t feel that I really know yet what makes a good horror story. Both of the horror stories I’ve sold to date were influenced by the works of everybody’s favorite racist, Howard Phillips Lovecraft. And while HPL is not entirely without merit, I don’t want to tell people, “Read Lovecraft.” I’d rather say, “Read someone who isn’t Lovecraft,” but I haven’t read enough by any one author to feel confident recommending them or claiming them as an influence. M.R. James might be the one who interests me most, but ghost stories and modern horror aren’t quite the same thing.

Who are some influential authors that got you interested in writing overall?

I love writers who play with structure and style: Georges Perec, Raymond Queneau, Jorge Luis Borges, Alasdair Gray, Italo Calvino, Russell Hoban. I’m also a sucker for the kind of hyper-realistic examinations of ordinary life that you find in writers like Émile Zola, Patrick White, John Steinbeck, or Naguib Mahfouz. Then there are the not-quite-genre writers: Angela Carter, Mervyn Peake, John Crowley; travel writers turned novelists like Bruce Chatwin or Peter Matthiessen; anarchic underdog humorists like Stefano Benni or Daniel Pennac. The list goes on.

You graduated from the Clarion Writers Workshop. How has your experience there helped to shape your writing?

Clarion was huge for me. I was suddenly plunged into a situation where I had seven amazingly wise and gifted teachers, and seventeen incredibly smart, witty and talented fellow students—you may blush, Coleman—and nothing to do except write and think about writing. Seeing in detail how other people approached storytelling was hugely helpful in understanding how to plan my own. But most of all, Clarion showed me that I urgently needed to step up my game. It was a “Holy shit, I have to do better” moment. I’m still working on that part.

What’s coming up next for you? Are there new writing projects you can tell us about?

I hesitate slightly to talk about this stuff. I mean, I could, because I have an insanely ambitious plan to fill out my future universe with another, oh, fourteen or fifteen full-length novels. But most exist only as outlines and it seems to me that until you have at least two hundred printed pages covered with coffee stains and scribbled revision notes in blue ballpoint, it’s not a real thing. Talk is cheap; whisky costs money.

That said, I’m currently working on a novel which I hope will be the first of a trilogy, and which will form part of the backstory that eventually leads to The Warrior Within. I’ve also outlined parts of a novel or cycle of novels more directly related to Warrior. That one is actually centered on one of the characters from the novella—but not, perhaps, the one you might expect.

In the meantime, I’m still writing short stories. I have some new ones coming out in the months ahead. Some of my short stories are set in the same universe as Warrior: If the editors smile on me, you may be seeing some of those, too.

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Christian A. Coleman

Christian A. Coleman

Christian A. Coleman is a 2013 graduate of the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop. He lives and writes in the Boston area. He tweets at @coleman_II.