Where does “The Ambient Intelligence” fit with your novels The Robots of Gotham and The Ghosts of Navy Pier?
“The Ambient Intelligence” occurs about two months after the events of The Robots of Gotham, but isn’t really connected to it, other than the fact that it shares a setting (and two characters).
It’s a self-contained tale of what happens when Zircon Border, a robot tasked with security at a hotel in downtown Chicago, asks his friend Barry Simcoe for help tracking down and disabling a sixty-ton killer robot hiding in a sunken shipwreck in Lake Michigan. It’s sort of a Lethal Weapon buddy comedy, if the Mel Gibson character were a robot.
In fact, I wanted to title it “Sixty-Ton Killer Robot,” but John Joseph Adams wouldn’t let me, because he’s all serious and editor-y. At least if the story flops, now I have a convenient scapegoat.
As a (former) Chicagoan I appreciated the setting, though it’s worrying how much I enjoy seeing Chicago destroyed in science fiction! In any case, what influenced your choice of setting? Has the city given you any surprises as you bring it into your fictional future?
Why is it so cool to blow Chicago up? I don’t know, it just is. This city is so filled with delicious nuggets of history and really interesting places. I love to put those places in my stories. And then blow them up.
Shortly after I moved here, a disaster occurred that gave me a fascinating window into Chicago history—the Great Chicago Flood (bit.ly/2QDKRoJ) of 1992. Workers were driving pilings into the Chicago River when a mysterious whirlpool formed right in the middle of the river. People gathered around to watch and wonder. What the heck was causing it?
They found out the next day when the same folks showed up for work in the Loop, and discovered their buildings were flooded and without power. The piling had breached an abandoned coal tunnel, part of an extensive network from the 1800s that ran for miles, connecting dozens of buildings. The city had to fix the breach and pump out 250 million gallons of water.
How could a major city have a hundred-year-old tunnel network running eighty feet under the surface, connecting its most famous buildings, yet virtually forgotten? I don’t know, but Chicago does. In fact, the coal tunnels are just one of several sets of ancient passages under Chicago—including old cable car, subway, and abandoned freight tunnels that interconnect in an unmapped maze deep underground.
I couldn’t resist putting that in my novel, of course. The Robots of Gotham includes a hidden group of robots under the city, because what’s the next coolest thing you can put in an abandoned tunnel, besides 250 million gallons of running water? A secret robot colony, naturally.
Do you consider yourself more of a short story writer or a novelist, or does that distinction not matter much to you? What is different in how you approach writing those formats?
I’m still more of a short story writer, I think. I wrote the first draft of The Robots of Gotham as a group of short stories with a shared setting. Later drafts expanded certain storylines and let others wither, which is what you have to do when you’re trying to stitch together a cohesive narrative at length.
This approach has its flaws. My next book, The Ghosts of Navy Pier, I’m approaching with much more of a plan, and much less of an episodic structure. So far it’s working out well.
What are you doing to keep busy (and sane) nowadays?
Playing a lot of video games, and reading a lot of classic SF, like Clifford D. Simak and Isaac Asimov. They’re two writers who keep me grounded.
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