“I always look to history when I think about the future.” Interview with Autonomous author, journalist and i09 founding editor Annalee Newitz — Ada Lovelace Conversation #7

The Arthur C Clarke Award’s ‘interviewer-in-residence’ Anne Charnock talks with author and journalist Annalee Newitz.

Annalee Newitz is founding editor of the SFF and science blog io9, and is now tech culture editor for Ars Technica. I’m over the moon to join Annalee in a conversation about deep time, the microaggressions in our stories, and our different paths to becoming fiction writers.

ANNE: When I scan across your bio, Annalee, I’m impressed by the breadth of your professional interests. Before we talk about your amazing debut novel, Autonomous, I’m desperate to delve into your dual fascination with new technology and archaeology. It seems you’re equally interested in where, as a species, we come from and where we’re going? Tell me more!

Credit: republica/Gregor Fischer, 05.05.2014

ANNALEE: I feel very strongly that we can’t imagine the future without being thoroughly grounded in history. Every generation wants to believe that it’s unique, and that we’re living through “unprecedented times,” but that’s an extremely unhelpful view, especially for anyone who hopes to build a civilization that lasts beyond a generation. Certainly there are huge changes that take place, like the rise of industrialization or the abolition of slavery. And those kinds of big historical shifts sometimes force us to reconstruct almost every aspect of our societies. But! Even when big shifts take place, we can look back to history for other examples of revolutions and radical transformations to see how they typically go.

To turn for a moment to non-human history, one of the urgent issues of our time is climate change. And we can look back in the geological record to see other periods when the planet has gone through enormous perturbations, with carbon loading in the atmosphere and anoxic patches in the oceans. Deep time gives us a window on our planetary future, when oceans will rise, forest fires will rage, and some inhabited areas will become uninhabitable. Anyone who pretends that we don’t know what’s coming, based on what we see in the fossil record, is simply engaging in false consciousness. History offers us a ton of useful data that could prevent us from making the same mistakes repeatedly.

That said, history also gives us models for imagining ordinary people in cultures that are different from ours. Studying ancient Rome gives us a window on Western civilization without Christianity, which requires a lot of mental gymnastics for modern westerners. Studying medieval Chang’an (today called Xi’an), reveals a world where Zoroastrians and (later) Muslims from central Asia mingled with eastern Han Chinese, creating a great city that merged the two cultures. Again, it’s hard to imagine based on today’s geopolitics. History is the great other.

So yeah, I always look to history when I think about the future. Partly to understand how humans and ecosystems react to change, and partly to imagine dramatically different cultures.

I have a similar question for you, because I know you have a background in journalism as well as fiction writing. You deal a lot with how people adopt new technologies in their personal lives, often with unexpected results. Do you think it’s easier to explore these personal and maybe idiosyncratic uses of tech in fiction or non-fiction? Or is it simply a different approach?

ANNE: It’s definitely easier in fiction. When my journalism career was in full flow, my job really involved pitching the right questions and keeping my fingers crossed that an interviewee would proffer interesting, preferably controversial, answers. I’d ask specialists in their field, often scientists or engineers, to make predictions. Not surprisingly, they were often reluctant to do so, because they didn’t see it as part of their job to extrapolate.

When I write fiction, I’m in control and I see it as my job to imagine the unexpected consequences when individuals and families embrace a new technology. For example, artificial wombs are likely to be with us in 40 years’ time. It’s a leap of the imagination to see not merely the benefits but the likely controversies that will ensue, at a family level, rather than at a theoretical, academic level.

I love that you mention Xi’an. I visited that city three years ago and although the main tourist attractions are the terracotta warriors, I was awestruck by the city’s massive defensive walls that are wholly intact. I used the city walls as a setting for a chapter in Dreams Before the Start of Time. That was so satisfying. The truth is, archaeology has fascinated me since my childhood, partly because my home town, Bolton, has a fine Egyptology section within its museum, and as a pre-schooler I’d pester my mother to take me there whenever we visited the town centre.

In my writing to date, I place technology pretty much in the backdrop. In Autonomous I’m incredibly impressed that new tech is embedded in each paragraph, and your knowledge of tech really shines through. It must have been exhausting to write with that depth of detail. Am I right?

ANNALEE: Ha ha it was less exhausting and more like an infodump of thoughts I’d been storing up for years while covering tech as a journalist. Like you, I was always asking, “But what happens in 50 years to this kind of device? How will people use it when it leaves the lab?”

ANNE: Exactly. In the tech field I do wonder if legislators can keep up with how people find novel ways to integrate tech in their daily lives. Which brings me around to your novel. In the future world of Autonomous, there’s a fascinating range of ‘beings’ from almost fully human to almost fully machine and they interact with one another in surprising and mind boggling ways. Could you run through this range of ‘beings’ before we chat about the ways in which they interact?

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ANNALEE: On a basic level, we have humans and human-equivalent bots. But within each group, there’s a tremendous amount of diversity. There are some humans with almost no augmentations, other than an implanted ID chip. These humans tend to be indentured, so they don’t have the money or the freedom to augment themselves very much. Then there are your non-specialist humans, who might have any number of tech augmentations, from implanted data feeds to mostly aesthetic body mods like animated tattoos or windows in their skulls. People are also enhancing themselves with a wide range of pharmaceuticals, from life-extending drugs to attention-focusing pills to keep you productive for days on end. Specialist humans, like our military man Eliasz and our pharmaceutical pirate Jack, have lots of augmentations like subdermal networks that control weapons, store data, and create energy shields.

Meanwhile, bots can have similar kinds of augmentations and specializations. There are a wide range of bot “chassis” or bodies, including tanks with treads, insectile bots that fly, and semi-humanoids like the character Paladin. All bots can communicate wirelessly, so they only vocalize when humans are around to be polite (though some humans can also communicate wirelessly using brain implants). Bots also come online with what’s basically human adult levels of knowledge. The problem is that bots still have to learn social and historical context, so they may be super smart about weapons testing but have to figure out how to say hello or make friends.

My idea was that ultimately the main difference between humans and bots — other than their bodies — is that humans have years of growing up time where they learn to be social. Bots don’t. So a lot of the social niceties and cultural norms that we take for granted seem terribly artificial and arbitrary to bots. Also, crucially, the main experience that nearly all bots share is that they are indentured to their makers for the first 10 years of their lives, to pay off the cost of their manufacture. So you might say that bots are socialized to be slaves during the same period when humans are just being children.

ANNE: That’s fascinating and, yes, I feel it’s totally plausible that bots will be indentured. What really strikes me in Autonomous is your conviction that, as a species, humans will stride into the future with the same bad attitudes and prejudices, assuming power and privilege in our relationships with human-equivalent bots, some of those relationships being sexual. It’s both believable and sad that your characters have difficulty recognising this abuse. Was this your intention at the outset, to reflect back on the issues of today? And would you describe your novel as political science fiction in that sense?

ANNALEE: A lot of my novel is about microaggressions, or the kind of systemic abuse and oppression that don’t appear immediately violent. So, for example, Eliasz never threatens Paladin. He doesn’t force the robot at gunpoint to have sex with him. Superficially, in fact, there’s something deeply romantic about their growing connection — I wanted Eliasz to be a kind of Mr. Darcy figure, distant and tormented and ultra-hot. But then you have to consider what’s actually happening in the world around Paladin.

ANNE: And Paladin’s pronoun changes halfway through the novel.

ANNALEE: Correct. Paladin hears that bots are moved from body to body without consent; she knows that her owners can read and alter her every thought; and she knows she’s been programmed to trust and bond with Eliasz. So maybe Eliasz is a nice guy. Or maybe, if Paladin didn’t have sex with him willingly, he would become an abuser. We’ll never know. What we do know is that the entire indenture system will let that abuse happen, will allow Paladin to be literally raped and murdered by his owners, with almost no repercussions. So yeah, I guess that’s political science fiction. It’s about how there’s a deadly political subtext to our “mild” microaggressions against each other. When Eliasz hits on Paladin, the robot has many good reasons to tell herself that it’s awesome and consensual. Because saying no could make her life very, very hard.

Speaking of microaggressions and sex, I was really impressed with the way you explored artificial wombs and the implications of reproductive technology in Dreams Before the Start of Time. As you know, this is also an area of science that’s often neglected in science fiction (with a few notable exceptions like Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga). Why do you think so many speculative fiction writers turn a blind eye to reproductive technology? Is it simply too hard to imagine all the social and ethical implications? Sexism? Something else?

ANNE: When artificial wombs, for example, crop up in speculative fiction it’s usually ‘a given’. The technology is already ubiquitous. For example, in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World or, more recently, Joanna Kavenna’s The Birth of Love. By contrast, I set my novel at a time when artificial wombs are on the cusp of becoming mainstream, when wealthier people are embracing the technology. This allowed me to write about artificial wombs as something that’s still open to debate: Is it a good thing? What are the unintended consequences?

I do wonder if reproductive technologies were ignored by the large cohort of male science fiction writers in the 1960s, and earlier, for one simple reason: more often than not fathers did not attend the births of their children. They didn’t step foot in the delivery room. I’m not being critical, here, because the medical staff didn’t expect men to put in an appearance. But there was inevitably a degree of disconnect between mens’ and womens’ experiences of making a family. Maybe, male writers of speculative fiction didn’t see childbirth as a problem that needed fixing. Whereas I did! For me, it was blindingly obvious.

Since we started our email conversation, Annalee, Autonomous has been shortlisted for a Nebula. Many congratulations! You must be thrilled to bits to achieve this with your debut novel. So it’s an appropriate moment in our Ada Lovelace Conversation to ask if, back in your school days, you’d always hoped to be a fiction writer? Did you naturally gravitate towards some subjects more than others, or were you an all-rounder!

ANNALEE: Thanks! I’m really honored to be nominated alongside so many incredible writers.

From the time I was a little kid, I was obsessed with science and technology — and I also wanted to be a writer. I started writing poetry when I was about 7 years old, and by the time I was in high school, I was often incorporating imagery from biology and computer networking into my poems. As I grew older, I started writing nonfiction about science, and the occasional science fiction story. For some reason — perhaps because my parents were English teachers — I decided that the “writing” side of my interests should guide me rather than the science side. So I wound up getting a Ph.D. in English and American Studies. I always figured out ways to write about science, but sometimes I wish I’d been encouraged to take a different path, focusing my studies on a scientific discipline. Regardless, I think I probably would have wound up as this weird hybrid known as a science writer.

What was your experience with science in school? I’ve had to do a lot of informal training and self-teaching to write about science. Do you do that too, or have formal training?

ANNE: I believe we can all look back and see the paths we could or should have taken. With luck, these different paths can lead to the same place, eventually! I studied science at school and Environmental Science at university, but the subjects I left behind have become central to my life in recent years — art and fiction writing — nudging science journalism out of the way. Despite having science in my background I’ve never worked as ‘a scientist’. In any case, each novel I’ve written has taken me into science subjects I haven’t studied in the past. So, like you, I self teach. I either read non-fiction or attend talks and lectures — anything that could act as a springboard for new fiction projects.

To round up our conversation, Annalee, tell me what you’re working on at the moment. More fiction? I hope so!

ANNALEE: A lot of science journalists I know are self-taught too. I wonder sometimes if it’s necessary to have an outsider perspective to tell better or at least more honest stories. I’m currently working on two books. One is a standalone science fiction novel for Tor Books about time travel, geology, punk rock, and high school. And the other is a nonfiction book for WW Norton about four ancient lost cities and what modern archaeology tells us about urban transformation. So I guess both books are really about time travel, but one is completely made up.

What are you working on right now? I need more Charnock in my brain!

ANNE: Ha! Be careful what you wish for! I love the sound of both your writing projects. And by coincidence I’m working on fiction and non-fiction at the moment. Each project is vying for my attention. I’m allowing myself to focus on research for the non-fic book for the coming month, and I think I’ll then be ready to talk some specifics.

Annalee, thank you so much for a wonderful conversation. It’s been a pleasure. And here’s wishing you all good fortune for Autonomous and your upcoming books.


Ada Lovelace Conversations Links

The Ada Lovelace Conversations are a collaborative project between the Arthur C. Clarke Award for science fiction literature and Ada Lovelace Day, an international celebration day of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), profiling women writers of Science Fiction and beyond.

Our interviewer in residence is science fiction writer and science journalist, Anne Charnock:

Twitter: @annecharnock

Web: annecharnock.com