Here’s a surprise treat for my final Sci-Fi Month post after yesterday’s vN/Caves of Steel comparison post, in place of my planned Almost Human pilot review. Earlier this month, I was fortunate to be able to conduct an email interview with Madeline Ashby, foresight consultant and science fiction author of vN and iD. Many thanks to Madeline for her time and for Leah Woods of Angry Robot Books for arranging the interview.
SPOILER WARNING: This interview contains mild spoilers for vN and the Machine Dynasty series.
Dan Mansfield: In addition to being a science fiction writer, you’re also a strategic foresight consultant. Can you briefly explain what is involved with foresight consulting? How does this work inform your science fiction writing (and vice versa)?
Madeline Ashby: Basically, as a consultant I’m occasionally asked to write a “science fiction prototype” about a technology in development, or a “what if” scenario. Somebody shows me a brief or a presentation, and I extrapolate about what life would be like if that thing were a reality. It’s essentially a way to show the people who have been working on the problem for a really long time how their fellow humans might actually behave in a given situation.
DM: You’re originally from the United States (the West Coast) and are a recent immigrant to Canada. How has the process of changing countries given you additional perspective in your writing?
MA: Well, immigration is an inherently dehumanizing process. Suddenly every decision you’ve ever made is called into question, from your addresses to your jobs to your associations to how many gifts you gave your spouse. It’s a total examination, down to your health. They ask female applicants if they’re pregnant when they apply. That’s how far it goes. So I guess I’d say that I have the experience of being put to the question, and it informs my writing.
DM: vN is set on the West Coast of the United States. Is this because it’s familiar territory, or was there another reason you set the book here?
MA: Basically it was familiar territory, and I wanted to talk about the possibility of a Cascadia earthquake and what that would look like for the city of Seattle. I’ve always been curious about it, having experienced minor quakes when I still lived there.
DM: You have an impressive list of short fiction credentials, quite a few of which are in publications which have a significant, if not entirely online presence. In your experience, how do you think the predominance of online science fiction has shaped and is shaping the future of science fiction writing?
MA: Oh, I don’t know if they’re all that impressive. I’ve never been published in a major genre magazine. Somehow, I still scored multiple book deals. But as for fiction going online, I think that’s where fiction has been for a while, and I think it’s going to stay there. The thing about reading is that each book is a community. That’s why there are so many genre shibboleths out there — that magic moment when you realize someone else has read the same book, that the two of you share the same world. That creates a relationship. And the online world is all about those types of relationships.
DM: Science fiction can approach technology with optimism and pessimism. Do you feel that your work explores technology optimistically, pessimistically, or neutrally?
MA: I think other people would say I approach it pessimistically, but I would say I approach it realistically. Or rather, that I write about how people who are not very nice tend to use technology. It’s not that the technology in itself is ever “bad.” It’s that people make bad decisions with it. Or they’re just not very kind to start with.
DM: What science fiction author(s) / films are currently informing your writing and foresight work?
MA: Well, the thing that influences me most when I’m writing SF is usually not other SF. I try to avoid that, if at all possible — not because I’m afraid of sounding just like somebody else, but because I know that if I see something really similar I’ll just think, “Oh, shit, somebody else has done that way better. I should quit.” So I have to trick my own self-defeating nature. That’s why I’m reading From Hell and The Energy of Slaves: Oil and the New Servitude right now. They’re about sex work and murder and oil, respectively, and so they’re related to what I’m working on, but they’re not other versions of the same story.
DM: Your works have been compared in many places to the works of Isaac Asimov. Do you feel the comparison is accurate?
MA: Not really. I try not to design my short stories and novels as thought problems. Nor do I try to write one-dimensional women. I’m not writing just to communicate a scientific idea in a different, more imaginative way. I am trying to do that, but that goal is lower on the list than “tell a good story in a compelling manner with characters readers can engage with.” I think a lot of SF writers put the ideas at the top of the list, when in fact if you’re writing something dry and turgid without any characters in it, something with just pages and pages of exposition, you should really just really just confine those ideas to a point-form list in a blog post. Because you sure as hell aren’t writing a story, much less a good one.
DM: What was the originating idea, or image that inspired vN?
MA: It was an image of machines eating machines to make more machines. At the time when I first had the idea, devices like the RepRap and the MakerBot were hitting the zeitgeist, and there was a lot of talk about machines that could build themselves — von Neumann machines. So I started to wonder what it would be like if humanoid machines could do the same thing — build other versions of themselves, and iterate towards a better version.
DM: One question I notice you get frequently is “why do you write about robots?” Is there a science fiction-related question you wish people would ask?
MA: I suppose the better question would be “why science fiction?” Though I suspect the “why robots?” question is really just a way of asking why I don’t write urban fantasy or paranormal romance like seemingly every other woman my age in the genre game. Which is really a question about why women can’t be put in a nice neat box like people want.
DM: Describe in single words only the good things that come into your mind when about… Portia.
MA: Godless. Killing. Machine.
DM: What do you hope that people take away from reading vN and the rest of the Machine Dynasty series?
MA: I really hope they start thinking about objectification, in general. I very purposefully wrote about a woman who gets treated as an object because she is an object: she’s a thing that can be bought and sold, a device that people have projected their desires onto. And that’s the subject position that a lot of people are in. I expanded on it and deepened that theme in the second novel (I think), from the perspective of a robot man of colour. So I want people to start imagining what life would be like if you were just a product, to be used up and tossed away. And then I want them to realize that life is actually like that for the vast majority of humanity.
DM: What writing project(s) do you have planned for the future?
MA: Well, at the moment I’m working on a book called Company Town for Angry Robot Books. It’s about an escorts’ escort who gets hired to bodyguard the heir of a major energy company that has just taken over the city — which happens to be a network of windmills and oil rigs off the coast of Newfoundland. Just as she gets hired on, death threats start coming in — from another timeline — and a wave of murders crashes across the city. So, you know, fun times. After that I’ll be at work on the third and final installment in the Machine Dynasty series, Rev.