AUTHOR INTERVIEW: Alastair Reynolds

This interview was conducted by Patrick Stephens.

What was your approach to a story that held the theme of “robot uprisings,” but had such concepts as seas monsters, oil rigs not used for their intended purpose, and a futuristic Earth unlike any we’ve seen before?  

While this story fits the theme of the book, in that it deals with the consequences of runaway artificial intelligence, I think it’s only fair of me to mention that it was written and published elsewhere a few years ago, so it wasn’t a question of me directly addressing the anthology’s remit. That said, I’m very happy to have the piece included and I’m glad you find the story elements unusual.

 It actually began as a novel, or rather the idea for a novel. I wrote some notes, but before I could commit to writing the thing, I got distracted with other projects. Later, I decided that the ideas I’d sketched out would be better served with a novella than a novel, and so I wrote this piece. The future is deliberately very bleak and depopulated, with a small number of survivors scrabbling out a living on these converted oil rigs, but the point of the story is that the protagonist still finds a reason to keep living, to find value in his life under these vastly altered circumstances. I put the oil rigs in as I like bleak industrial architecture, oceans, grey skies and so on – all the stuff in this story! The sea monsters came later, but I was very pleased with them as an idea. I like the fact that the story provides a rational explanation for all sea monsters, ever!

If you had the preference, would you choose to be awake in the world of  “Sleepover” or asleep, and why?

Awake, I think. As our protagonist discovers, there’s still a tolerable life to be had, with friends and work, a sense a shared responsibility, even moments of beauty.

“Sleepover” presents an intriguing idea that the future is not always dystopian or utopian, nor does it have to be delegated into either of these descriptions. How do you feel  “Sleepover” fits into both of these categories, and how  do you feel it does not?

I don’t believe in dystopias or utopias – they’re literary extremes, rather than places we can ever reach. Obviously the future of Sleepover is somewhat bleak compared to the protagonist’s expectations when he goes into cryogenic freeze. But it’s not a dystopia, either. There’s no oppressive central government, just bands of people trying to survive as best they can, and their day to day lives, while hard and full of risk, also allow for moments of enjoyment, satisfaction in work and friendship and so on.

Many of your novels  deal with robotics (the Revelation Space trilogy and House  of Suns respectively), so why do you feel the idea of  robotics and the future of the human race makes a strong  platform for your own writing?

I don’t think I set out to make robots and robotics a big part of my writing (it certainly wasn’t part of my thinking when I began my career, as robots were rather out of fashion as trope) but they’ve certainly come to play a significant part in many of my works. There are two prongs to this: on one level, I think robots will simply be part of the future, whether we like or not, so they have to be there for the future to feel plausible to me.

There’s already a humanoid robot on the International Space Station! The other prong, of course, is the literary conceit of using the robot as a mirror to better examine our own humanity, or at least to ask hard questions about the sort of things we mean when we say “human”. There’s a lot of that in the new sequence of books, beginning with Blue Remembered Earth.

And this year I’ve written two short stories which both deal with robots and humans and the border between the two.

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?

We’ll always have that dual fascination with machines and robots — the sense that they can be enormously helpful to us, expanding our potential beyond the limits of human strength and intellect. That’s tremendously exciting, of course. But the flipside is the fear that we lose control of our creations, by making them cleverer than us — the whole basis of the Singularity. I’m not really interested in presenting one side of this argument — I’d far rather look at science fiction as a means of examining the issue from as many angles as possible.

 Sleepover takes a rather cautious view of artificial intelligence, while the new books take a much more optimistic stance. It’s all about variety, really.

What are some of your favorite examples of robot uprisings (in any media), and  what makes them your favorites?

I’m a huge fan of the first two Terminator films — I can take or leave the rest of them. But I love the whole “Skynet” mythos, and of course Cameron did a great job showing us glimpses of the human war against the machines, and how brutal it was. In reality, if robots really did take over, I doubt we’d have much of a chance!

What can we expect to  see from you in the future?

I’ve been busy on short fiction recently, as well as gearing up for the third and final book in the Poseidon’s Children sequence. That won’t be out until 2015, though, so a bit of a wait.