AUTHOR INTERVIEW: Robin Wasserman

This interview was conducted by Patrick Stephens.

What was the inception of “Of Dying Heroes and Deathless Deeds”? Were there any works that might have inspired your distinct twist on this theme?

I studied history in college and grad school, and studying history inevitably means studying war. But it was never the battlefield that interested me—it was the effects of battle, the way it reshaped the minds and souls of the people who endured it. I was particularly struck by the stories of the shell-shocked soldiers of World War I—probably because their torment was so beautifully expressed by writers like Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, both of whom spent time convalescing from shell shock at the Craiglockhart War Hospital. Owen was in authentic neurasthenic distress, but Sassoon was there because he’d become a vocal conscientious objector to the war, and his superiors felt the diagnosis would be kinder (or perhaps more undermining of his cause) than a court-martial. I’m fascinated by the way the body rebels against things the mind convinces itself to tolerate, and it occurred to me that if robots gained sentience, they might not be immune to that kind of inner conflict—or poetic torment.

Introducing Pony, the degrading of humans into references of meat, the metaphor and irony of it having taken place at a Whole Foods—could you lead us through how you evolved this scene, from concept to final product?

I spend a lot of time thinking through character and plot before I begin to write, but for me the story doesn’t really come to life—and I won’t put pen to page—until I can hear the voice in my head and find a perfect first line. So that first scene came together a bit piecemeal: I knew I wanted to start with something violent and bloody, something that would make viscerally clear why a soldier, no matter how dedicated to the cause, might rebel against himself and his duty. I knew that the machine would call the humans meat—and think of himself as an “it” and that it would “think” feelings, etc—because I wanted a language of depersonalization and mechanization that wouldn’t allow Pony to express his storm of emotion. Some doctors believed the cure for shell shock—as is now the case with its heir, PTSD—was talking about whatever traumatic experience had happened. The thought was that the hysterical symptoms—paralysis, stuttering, phobias, etc—were a result of being unable to channel the pain into language. It had to go somewhere, so it went to the body. I wanted to make clear that Pony literally has no words for the things he’s feeling, and that acknowledging he was feeling them would destabilize his entire world.

So those were the things I knew when I sat down at the blank screen. The voice, the visuals, the Whole Food setting (that mirrors the way a domestic war will turn the most comforting of settings into a horror movie), all of that just came to me, through whatever terrifyingly mysterious process turns a series of vague ideas and names and bullet points into a story.

Did you model Pony after any historical figures that might have held themselves responsible for something equally world changing? If not, who would you say Pony is most like: the man who dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, or a soldier committing to an endless battle?

As I mentioned above, I read a lot about Siegfried Sassoon while gearing up to write this story—I especially liked the way he struggled with whether objecting to battle was a symptom of sickness or health. And I say battle there, specifically, as opposed to war, because for me—and for Pony, I think—the question isn’t whether the war is just, but whether the violence that war requires is endurable. So I suppose between the two choices of analogy, I lean much more to the rank and file soldier than to the man who dropped the bomb. Pony’s not doing anything world changing, at least not on his own. Were he to abstain, or be erased, the war would continue without him—his contribution is, big picture, a drop in the bucket. Which makes his position all the more confusing. How can you justify believing in a cause you’re not willing to fight for—but how can justify committing mass slaughter if it’s not going to change the world, if it’s just another small, forgettable moment in an endless campaign? This, I imagine, is the terrifying reality of fighting a war, for those who have to do the actual fighting: Killing is killing, no matter what you’re killing for. Even if you believe with all your heart that you’re doing the right thing by putting a bullet into another person’s brain, you’ve still put the bullet there, and you still have to live with the feel of the gun and the smell of the blood. It terrifies me, and saddens me, and shames me (because I’ll never have to be the one faced with that decision), and that was the story I wanted to tell.

How human did you intend to make the bots, both the “damaged” and normal ones? Was there always a distinction regarding their humanistic traits?

I wanted to make it clear that they did think and process differently than humans—that being sentient, being independent living creatures as entitled to autonomy as humans didn’t mean that they were like humans. And so the story hinges on the ways they are dissimilar, the discovery that humanity can express itself, and be suppressed, in surprising ways.

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?

If you look back at the history of robots—or rather, machines designed to emulate living creatures—a history that stretches all the way back to ancient Greece, you’ll see that it’s not until relatively recently that robots became any kind of imagined threat. For most of their history, they were a curiosity, an entertaining diversion, or a scientific/philosophical model for understanding the boundaries of life. (In the 18th century, inventor Jacques de Vaucanson was the toast of Europe with his mechanical “defecating duck.”)  It’s not until the 19th century that robots start to be seen as a bit of a danger (the chess-playing automaton known as the Turk features in a number of creepy stories, including one by Edgar Allen Poe, and E.T.A. Hoffmann became famous for stories like “The Sandman” and “The Nutcracker” where mechanical creatures came to terrifying life). I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this came at a point when industrialization meant machines were replacing a lot of human labor and the newly mechanized factory assembly were in turn, transformation human workers into living machines. It made sense for people to start seeing machines as a threat to their way of life, as potentially encroaching on their mastery of the world—and, in a socioeconomically polarized society with an increasingly mechanized and oppressed underclass, it makes sense to me that there would be a lot of literature about what happens when the oppressed masses revolt.

That’s the semi-Marxist answer, I guess—I also think that machines serve as a distorted mirror of humanity, a way to help us define ourselves. When we draw a line between what machines can and can’t do, when we come up with definitions of “true” artificial intelligence, we’re really staking a claim about what it means to be human. (Is it the ability to do math? To speak? To reason? To feel?) I think that’s at the heart of the appeal of robot fiction and, now that our lives are so wholly in the hands of nearly-sentient machines, what could be more terrifying or more fascinating than daring ourselves to ask the question: What if they woke up?

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

As a kid, I gave my heart to Isaac Asimov’s robots, which often malfunction but would never actually rise up en masse against their masters, so it took me a long time to find a robot uprising that I didn’t see as a betrayal of the form.

Then I saw Battlestar Galactica (the 2003 remake) and I never looked back. That show, and its exploration of humanity and machines and ethics and destiny and autonomy and revolution and anything and everything you could imagine, remains the best thing I’ve ever seen on television. (And I’ve seen a lot of television.) I thought it was bold and challenging and the best fictional imagining of a robot uprising and its consequences that there ever is or could be. (In other words: I’m a big fan.)