All images are part of No Ordinary Protest project, with permission from Mikhail Karikis.
Please briefly introduce yourself.
I am a Greek-born artist based in London and Lisbon. I work mostly in moving image, sound and performance. I develop projects through collaborations with individuals, collectivities and communities that are often located beyond the circles of contemporary art. In recent years, I have been working extensively with children, teenagers, young adults and people with disabilities.
Since the early stages of my practice, the politics and materiality of the voice have been key concerns, while at the same time engaging with themes that give voice to different ways humans relate to the environment. There has been an instinctive journey that I began with films exploring voicing conditions of labour in the context of extractivist practices. This moved forward by looking at models of sustainability and eco-feminism, and more recently eco-activism and emerging forms of labour that service nature.
I would say that my works prompt an activist imaginary and rouse the potential to imagine possible audiotopias (i.e. speculative places invoked through sound) and desired futures. I employ listening as an artistic strategy to help determine the content of my projects with the aim to highlight alternative modes of human action and solidarity, and to nurture critical attention and tenderness.
To what extent do you consider your work and practice to be ‘science fictional,’ if at all? Do you actively think about genre in your work, or do the labels come after the fact? (Surrealism, social realism, performance etc.)
I find science fiction and fantasy literature inspiring, but I do not think of my own artistic work through the lens of a specific genre. Perhaps where some science fiction literature and my art practice align is the way I employ my work to imagine and propose different worlds. I often start projects by embedding myself in different community contexts, and as such, social realism is always my starting point. Reflection, imagination and fantasy play an important role as I develop the themes and the projects mature and take shape. A decade ago and after I’d spent several years producing work that was furious and acutely critical, I took the decision to go further and invest my energy and imagination to proposing ‘better’ alternatives. My use of the word ‘better’ here implies a world with social and environmental justice, egalitarianism and practices of care.
Sounds plays a central role in much of your work. Can you say a little bit more about how you see the relationship between the sonic and visual aspects of a new project?
I am currently developing a project which explores our relationship to weather phenomena. I am approaching it from three sonic perspectives: folk songs that call out to the elements, capture and transmit traditional knowledge about seasonal change and meteorology; a second angle is that of music instruments that imitate the sounds of weather and bring the environment into the concert hall through sound, like, for example, wind machines and thunder sheets; and a third perspective is the acoustics of resistance generated through eco-activism and protest. I am working with folk singers, professional experimental musicians and young school children on this project to bring together these three different forms of auditory culture that are testimony to our profound connection and entanglement with the weather. As is common in my work, the performance of these different forms of sound will determine the visual dimension of the project. Be it on a macroscopic or microscopic dimension, all my films capture acts of communal sound-making, resonance and vibration, and document the power sound has to set into motion the material universe, activate our sentiments and mobilise political thinking and action.
Are there any works of science or speculative fiction (in any medium!) that have particularly inspired you?
Every child and teenager should read The Iron Woman by Ted Hughes for its environmental focus, for empowering children heroes with activist ecological thinking and rebelling against adults, and for the central role listening and noise play in the story as superpowers that activate empathy toward more than human beings. The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin is a book everyone ought to read for its acute reflections on capitalism, gender politics and anarcho-communism.
Kim Newman is the author of Anno Dracula (1992), a novel set in an alternate Victorian London where Dracula has become the Prince Consort and vampires have emerged as the new ruling class. Since then he has written many more books in the series. Anno Dracula is being reissued by Titan Books in October 2022 as a deluxe signed hardcover edition with an introduction by Neil Gaiman and a new short story by the author. Under the name Jack Yeovil, Newman has also published books which helped to build Games Workshop’s Warhammer Fantasy and Dark Futures universes. In addition to writing fiction, Newman is a major critic of horror cinema whose work can be found in Nightmare Movies (1985) and his Sight & Sound columns. He also served as the executive producer of Prano Bailey-Bond’s Censor (2021).
Updates about Newman’s work can be found at his website and on Twitter @annodracula. We are delighted to have Kim back to chat to Vector, as Jordan S. Carroll asks him about Anno Dracula, shared world writing, film criticism, as well as Kim’s latest novel, Something More Than Night (2021), a horror-detective mystery set in Hollywood during the 1930s and starring Boris Karloff and Raymond Chandler …
How did you get started writing?
I hate defaulting to other people’s quotes, but somebody asked George Bernard Shaw that question, and he said he couldn’t remember — because writing was like the taste of the water in his mouth. It was something he’d always done.
I mean, I wrote from childhood. I’m not quite sure at what point that went from writing stories for my own purposes to writing for an audience. I think I always wanted to communicate. It took me a while to consider that this might also be a way of making a living. But as a teenager, I wrote plays and comedy sketches with my friends at school. I wrote novels, or rather novel length manuscripts, in my teens.
The useful thing about starting early is you get a lot of the embarrassing stuff out of the way early on when nobody can see it. Now, you just put your stuff online free for people to read, but it is there forever. It comes back to haunt people. I’m not even sure if I have copies of the stuff I wrote as a kid. I think if I do, it’s in a trunk somewhere very deep.
What drew you to horror in particular?
I started out being interested in monsters, I suppose. I was one of those kids who liked monster movies. I liked the effect of horror, I read a lot of it. But I read a lot of general stuff as well. I’m interested in genre, but I’m not necessarily somebody who wants to be confined by it. I don’t self-identify as a horror writer, or a science fiction writer, a crime writer, a mystery writer. I’ve done all of those things. But I do recognize that I operate best in that kind of arena.
When you tag yourself as a horror writer, that comes with an obligation to be frightening, in the same way that picking comedy comes with an obligation to be amusing. And I think some of my stuff is scary. Certainly other readers have reported that. But I think for a lot of my writing, being frightening is not its primary purpose. I’m interested in exploring other things. I tend to write more about what makes me angry than what makes me frightened. Although obviously there’s an overlap.
So what is it that makes you angry?
The world! And what’s more, I have not calmed down with age. Having written a series of books about what happens when really truly terrible evil people come to power … well, the last ten years have just made me think I overestimated people.
With Natalia Theodoridou, Eugenia Triantafyllou, Eleanna Castroianni and George Cotronis
By Phoenix Alexander
Hi everyone. Let’s start by introducing ourselves to readers / each other!
ET: Hello! I am Eugenia Triantafyllou, a writer and artist currently based in Athens. My fiction has appeared in places like Uncanny, Strange Horizons, Apex and has been nominated for Ignyte and Nebula awards.I am also a Clarion West 2019 alumna. My preferred genres are dark fantasy and horror, although I do like to mix genres and switch it up a lot.
NT: Hi! I am a speculative fiction writer and game designer. Originally from Thessaloniki, Greece, with roots in Russia, Georgia, and Turkey. I now split my time between Greece and the UK. I’ve published over 100 short stories in places like Clarkesworld, F&SF, Kenyon Review, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Nightmare, among others, and have three games/interactive novels out by Choice of Games. If you want a taste of my work, I’d recommend starting with “Ribbons” in Uncanny Magazine, “The Birding: a Fairy Tale” in Strange Horizons (which won the World Fantasy Award for Short Fiction), or my Nebula-nominated game, Rent-a-Vice. My work is queer and dark, and I tend to overstep genre boundaries.
EC: Hi, I’m Eleanna, a writer and poet with work in Clarkesworld Magazine, Strange Horizons, Fireside, Beneath Ceaseless Skies and elsewhere. My usual setting is literary science fiction or fantasy where the repercussions of war and oppression feature prominently. I draw a lot from my background as a human geographer and, in particular, from Anthropocene humanities and landscapes of de-industrialization and decay. I am also heavily inspired by contemporary Greek history with its share of complex politics and violence, by the pagan darkness of folk traditions, and by the fragility and cruelty of childhood.
GC: Hello! I’m George Cotronis and I’m a writer and illustrator from Greece by way of Sweden, where I was born. I’ve created book covers for authors like Stephen Graham Jones, Livia Llewellyn and Harry Connolly. When I’m not illustrating, I write short stories. I’ve sold a handful of stories mostly to anthologies like Lost Signals, Robots & Artificial Intelligence and places like Pantheon Magazine and Tales to Terrify.
Interviewed by Phoenix Alexander and Jo Lindsay Walton
This interview first appeared in Vector 295.
Hi Alexis. Could you introduce yourself and say a little bit about your background?
Hello, my name is Alexis Panayiotou. I’m a fine artist and a drawing tutor on the BA: Fashion course at Central St. Martins.
As you know, this is a special issue of Vector focused on Greek SFF. So our first question is: do you consider yourself a Greek artist?
I think of my identity as mixed or somewhere between cultures. I was born and raised in London. My parents are both Greek, from Cyprus, both came to London very young, my mum nine and dad fourteen. They have lived here ever since. I have never been to Cyprus so I only have a vicarious idea of the place, through my parents and other relatives, and a bit from TV and radio.
I grew up in a Greek household, eating Greek food, hearing Greek music every day. Greek was my first language until I started school, although now I only have a rudimentary grasp. At home I was steeped in Greek culture and as a young man I would have described myself as solely Greek, and I remember feeling very lucky and proud to be so.
As for ‘artist,’ I’ve only recently started being comfortable using the term — it comes with lots of lofty aspirations! When I was young I drew a lot, like most kids, so there were always parents or teachers telling me I was an artist, or that I would be one.
Instead of introducing you to one or two artists, interviewing them thoroughly, I chose to present here a number of them, as I think they are all noteworthy and you should definitely get to know them. Besides, their work speaks for itself. So I gave ten authors plus one visual artist a limited space to answer the same set of questions:
Name one of your works that is special to you and briefly explain why.
It’s often said that artists have a central theme their work revolves around. Can you spot such a theme in your work?
What do you consider your greatest success in your creative career and what was your greatest frustration, if any?
What have been the challenges in getting your work known? What are the pros and cons of your local market vs getting your work abroad? Do social media really help?
Finally, please tell us what your next plans are.
I sincerely hope their answers will intrigue you enough to check them out.
I was at a massive mixer for members of the Science Fiction Writers of America, a group I had just joined, wondering how I could even talk with these big, important people. The question everyone asked when you walked up to them was, “What type of science fiction do you write?” After mumbling some self-deprecating responses like “bad” or “oh you know like … the kind with robots and spaceships?” I tried to express what made my work different. “I write working-class science fiction,” I told the next gentleman. “Stories with waitresses and janitors in space, you know? I feel like there’s too many stories about rich guys without real problems.”
I picked the wrong man to try this tactic on. He laughed condescendingly and said, “The opposite is true. Everything is about some worker everyman. There aren’t enough stories about rich characters!”
My first thought was, Ooookay time to start never talking to this dude ever again, but my second thought was a worried, Is he right? I had this gut feeling that a lot of the science fiction I had read didn’t represent my social class, but was I just biased?1
The only answer was, of course, to collect some statistics! This paper is the culmination of my efforts to answer the question for myself, “Is there a class bias in main characters in science fiction, and if so, are poor or wealthy characters more predominant?”
Choosing the Books
The first question I had to answer was, “How do I take a sample set of science fiction?” I limited myself to novels, because novels or their detailed discussions were easy to find, and that way I’d be comparing apples to apples.
Reading every science fiction novel ever would not be feasible, especially with a staff of just me. I searched for recommended reading lists, but which to choose? Many were simply “The Best of 2019” or such. While it would be interesting to look at a specific period of SF, I wanted a cross-section of what an average reader might have in mind, and that meant including recent books as well as old classics. I googled “Top Science Fiction Novels” in an incognito browser tab (so as not to bias the results with my search history) and took the first 50 novels the search returned. I liked that list better: it felt eclectic, and included recent novels as well as Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. Of course, the Google search results, while incognito, still would be skewed toward my location in the Midwest United States.
The British Science Fiction Association’s magazine, Vector, announced a call for papers on class and science fiction. I could hardly contain my excitement (and imposter syndrome) as I typed and re-typed my email asking if this statistical analysis was the sort of thing that maybe they’d want to see? And so, my next data set was BSFA award winners. These would skew British to balance my American bias. How better to kiss up to the editors? I started my spreadsheet!
BSFA award winners include fantasy novels with no science fictional elements, however, maintaining genre purity would open up a can of worms (how to draw the lines? Who gets to say what is or isn’t SF?). I would keep the results of each list separate, to see if there was any bias.
On accepting the paper proposal, editor Polina Levontin suggested adding the titles from the Orion SF Masterworks book series, a somewhat curated list, limited only by what titles Orion had the rights to. So now I had three piles of representative works: award winners, a hodgepodge recommended by Google, and a curated list for a total of 194 separate titles. It seemed as close as I was going to get to a reasonable sampling of notable science fiction novels.
Gautam Bhatia is a science fiction writer, reviewer, and an editor of the award-winning STRANGE HORIZONS magazine. His duology THE WALL and THE HORIZON tell the story of Mithila and her quest to discover what lies beyond the impassable Wall that surrounds the city of Sumer.
In the afterword of The Wall you thank your parents for setting you down a lifetime’s science fiction journey. And you mentioned Golden Age stories, and you mentioned The Hobbit and Foundation. Which early influences had the biggest impact on you as you were growing up?
So, quite a bit, actually. I think the really interesting thing about growing up in India in the mid-nineties, in a big city—I grew up in Delhi—in an upper-middle class family where both parents were academically oriented, was that you ended up getting exposed to a whole range of influences. So as I spoke about in the acknowledgements of The Wall, my dad and mum got me The Hobbit and Foundation when I was 10 or 11 years old, which set me down the path of science fiction and fantasy. They also got me a set of books on Greek mythology, Roger Lancelyn Green’s retelling of the Greek myths. So I grew up reading stories about Icarus, which you may have seen some influence of that in The Wall. Although that particular story is more in the domain of Indian myths—there is a very similar story in the Indian mythology, it’s in The Rāmāyana. And the story in The Wall involving flying up to the sun is based more on that than on Icarus. But it’s an interesting how different cultures end up with very similar myths. It’s just impossible to grow up in an Indian house without being immersed in The Rāmāyana and The Mahābhārata. You just know those stories so well because they are part of everything you know growing up.
And at around the time I was born, the Soviet Union hadn’t yet collapsed, its collapse was still a couple of years away. And the Soviet Union had this kind of cultural exchange program with India where Soviet books, story books and fairy tales, were available at extremely cheap prices in Indian book shops and in book fairs. So when I was born, my mom basically bought a huge stack of Soviet books and I grew up reading that. And there were lots of fairy tales. And the one thing that I remember is that along with Baba Yaga there was always this royal family with three sons, the elder two being fine and strapping young men, and the third being a fool, and the fool always thrives at the end. And of course in any post-colonial Commonwealth country, you know, Enid Blyton, English books. So there was always a melange of influences that I was exposed to when I was growing up and all of it basically pointed towards really loving fairy tales, and escapist literature, like borderline fantasy, magical realism, of different traditions, and just always being steeped in that. And that translated into a desire to write that kind of stuff.
Thanks for chatting! How are you? Are you working on anything at the moment?
Well, I haven’t gotten COVID and my son didn’t get COVID and my parents didn’t get COVID and my sister didn’t get COVID. I am purposefully not working on anything at the moment. I’m watching deadlines crumble like empires.
Back in the past, you wrote on Livejournal: “A subculture is not a counterculture. A consumer culture is not a subculture. We are not all in this together.” Recently there were ripples in SFF writer communities over the term “squeecore.” Raquel S. Benedict and JR talk about it on an episode of Rite Gud. They weren’t expecting their words to get fine-toothed, so their description of squeecore is a grab-bag of gripes and jibes, not some kind of elaborate legal case. But the core of squeecore, as I understand it, is something like a “subculture that thinks it’s a counterculture.” What do you think of the term?
Squeecore seems to be a name for the commercially published writing created by authors who got interested in writing by participating in post-fanfiction.net fan fiction cultures. So, it reads differently from previous writing, including previous fanfic-inflected writing from, say, the K/S photocopy generation. I think the podcasters were essentially right, but made the error of creating a taxonomy in order to dismiss a particular taxon as bad and their own stuff as good.
Yes, there was a lot about the episode I liked — and I fully get why they would want to move from critique to pointing out alternatives — but I did find the recommendations list a wee bit less convincing. To their credit, they are upfront about the personal connections.
This is every new writer’s impulse. I was teaching at an MFA program a decade ago, and had to sit through a meeting of students pitching their academic theses. They had to write one academic thesis, and one creative thesis. Every thesis was “Why do all these books suck, except for the ones that inspired me?” I once asked Rudy Rucker why he created “transrealism” and he said that it was because he was just starting out and hadn’t been published much, so he wanted to get some extra attention. It works every time!
I used to invent a new genre every Wednesday, and none of mine caught on. So not every time. Can squeecore claim to any countercultural credentials?
Following the interest generated by the Tolkien and Diversity panel at Oxonmoot 2020, (hosted by Sultana Raza), another panel on Global Tolkien was proposed and accepted by the Tolkien Society for Oxonmoot 2021. The idea for this panel was formed because of a troubling trend among some SFF and Tolkien enthusiasts against diversity in fandoms and interpretations of SFF writers. Luckily, the Tolkien Society doesn’t seem to ascribe to this view, and has been encouraging further dialogue on this topic.
The panelists included Sultana Raza (also the Moderator), Ali Ghaderi (Iran), María FernandaChávez Guiñez (Chile), and Gözde Ersoy (Turkey). Gözde Ersoy (assistant-professor of English Literature at Muğla Sıtkı Koçman University, Turkey) also briefly presented a video of an online event she had organized with school children in Turkey, on the Tolkien Reading Day, where they’d read an excerpt from The Hobbit in Turkish.
The following roundtable was written after Oxonmoot was over, and is an approximation of some of the points discussed during the Global Tolkien panel, which was accompanied by comments in the chat from the lively audience. A hybrid event, the Global Tolkien panel took place via Zoom (with 300+ viewers), while the organizers and a few participants logged in from Oxford where they were attending Oxonmoot in person. While there was quite a bit of interaction amongst the panellists, it’s not possible to re-create it in this written format, as the texts were sent in by email. The following roundtable contains spoilers for all of Tolkien’s stories mentioned below. Disclaimer: The opinions presented in this roundtable are those of the speakers, and not necessarily of the Tolkien Society.
The abstract of Global Tolkien was sent to the panellists beforehand, in form of broad but poignant questions:
Why does Tolkien’s fiction have a global appeal? Why are people from all continents drawn to Tolkien’s stories? What does that tell us about common human values? Only works of depth and substance can garner such a massive following all over the world. Conversely, have the 6 Peter Jackson films, and various games drawn in fans who’re more interested in the action/adventure or violence, and war aspects of the films and games than in the core values embedded in the stories? Should we encourage diverse readings of Tolkien from different geographical locations? Can this coming together of readers from different countries foster an international fellowship, as outlined in his books? Or conversely, should his fans be confined to people of just one race or ethnicity? If the interpretations, readings, or ideas of POC readers are not acceptable by some fans, then should these POC readers be allowed to consume these books/films/games? Should POC fans be limited to being consumers, but not commentators or scholars of Tolkien? Is it even possible to limit POC fans from engaging with, and commenting upon Tolkien’s works? Due to the recent wave of cancel culture, to what extent can we re-read or re-contextualize Tolkien’s works to fit in with our fluctuating world view?
I wanted to ask about Janetta and her research into AI and emotion. There’s been a lot of research done into emotion detection, and a lot of critique. For example, what would it mean for a machine to ‘objectively’ know your emotions, when you may not even know yourself?
Yes. In the novel, Janetta is aspiring to teach AI about emotions, but she’s learning about emotions herself. She’s had a break-up and a rebound with someone who inspires her, but destabilises her as well. This experience is difficult but it helps her come into her own. She was a very unemotional person before that – she tried not to have emotions; but it turned out that she did.
So in that sense, the novel is more about Janetta being at peace with having emotions. Rather than the idea that emotional intelligence in auts is ever going to happen. I knew that it would be a novel about gaining emotional intelligence – but it was always meant to be in Janetta, someone who needed to do this.
You definitely see that growth throughout the novel. It’s such a hard thing to learn, but so important. Emotional intelligence, being able to be vulnerable, all of those things.
Thank you, that’s exactly it. Janetta has never been vulnerable. She’s used her work as a shield. I wanted this to be a story about being vulnerable, about screwing up, and about bringing yourself back from that.
Right, exactly. But it seemed like Janetta believed it could be done. So I was curious about your views.
I just don’t think it can be done at all, full stop. The research that’s been done, some based on facial recognition. One person could be smiling, but they could be desperately sad inside. Could an AI detect that? Humans don’t just detect emotions by observing from a distance. We interact, we probe, we learn. We use our own emotions to invite others how to feel theirs.
So yes, maybe AI can be trained in intersubjective standards of emotion recognition, enough to make reasonable ascriptions. Let’s say, to take a pretty clear emotion, in King Lear when Lear comes back on stage at the end, carrying the body of Cordelia, his beloved child. What does he say? “Howl, howl, howl, howl!” The majority of people can piece the evidence together and understand that he’s upset.
An AI could learn to do that. But in terms of the intricacies of people’s emotions, the depth and the context of them? No, I don’t think so. But what about you? Do you think that AI can be taught to read emotions?
I think researchers will continue to try, but I don’t think it’s really possible. Like you say, someone can be smiling yet struggling inside. And I think the attempts to develop that technology may do more harm than good – in relation to surveillance, for example.
I was thinking about care homes where they have companion AIs, seals and cats and things. That certainly has therapeutic potential. Otherwise, I don’t know how it could possibly read the nuances of human emotion. We don’t even understand our own behaviour sometimes!
I think with a lot of AI, the technology and the science behind it is very interesting. But at the end of the day, the real questions are around how it’s used. Who holds the power? Who has the data that it’s being trained on? That has a major, major impact.
Is that what you’re looking at in your PhD research?
I’m looking at Machine Learning classification settings. So an example of a binary classification setting might be, “Oh, we think this person will repay the bank if given a loan,” versus, “We think this person will default on the loan.” I’m exploring the potential delayed impact of a classification. For example, if you are a false positive, if an AI predicts you’ll repay but instead you default, then your credit score will probably drop. So there will be a negative impact on you too, even though you were given a loan.
How do you investigate this?
There isn’t much data, and it isn’t easy to track. It involves a lot of presumptions, and running simulations, and giving more weight to the false positives and the false negatives. I’m trying to understand, “Okay, maybe in these problems, we need to really focus on the false negatives, versus in these ones, the false positives.” Essentially, I’m exploring how we might mitigate the harm an AI decision has on a person. Also, I’m interested in investigating the impact on underrepresented or underprivileged groups, because we have a lot of issues with AI classification systems learning bias and perpetuating sexism and racism, for instance, from our society.
Is it a generally done thing? Say it was about applying for a loan – can the bank automatically exclude the people the AI doesn’t like, because they haven’t got enough income, or their credit’s bad, or because of some other factor?
Sure. Algorithmic fairness has been a field that has really boomed recently, but it’s been around for a while. It came into the light in the ’60s and ’70s, when a lot of Civil Rights work was being done. At the time, the focus was on education and employment settings. Nowadays, it’s still focused on those settings, but also in areas like finance and economics, and many others.
That’s really great, you’re actually doing something that’s potentially making a difference in people’s lives. People who do AI (rather than just write about it in novels!) blow my mind. It’s impressive to have a brain that can do data, logic and mathematics – I’m very jealous.
No, I mean, I think anyone can code and learn about it. I know it seems as if it’s unattainable, but…
That’s a good point. I could learn to code, potentially!
Well, we do need more women in this area, so … ?
I suspect I’ll never get around to it…
What’s your background? Did you do English?
Yeah, I did English at uni, and since then, I’ve worked in editing, comms and publishing. I wrote three novels before this one, but I never sent them to an agent because I thought they weren’t very good. All I ever wanted to do was become a writer, so I’ve ended up with a narrow range of competencies. Writing and editing, essentially. But if that gets automated … what’s it called, GPT-3?
One of the big language models?
Yeah. Janetta’s job, for example, is safe from automation. Right up until AI is able to start consciously self-replicating – like in the movie Her, that sort of singularity moment – Janetta’s job is safe. But in my day job, where I edit publications, how safe is that? My skills are going to become obsolete soon. I might give it fifteen, twenty years. But that’s all I’ve ever trained myself for. It’s not an everyday worry, but it is a distant worry.
I think creativity, especially with regards to novel writing, is not something I can see an AI doing. They most likely would only be re-making other people’s ideas that they were trained on. I think being a creative thinker is a great spot to be.
That’s definitely the pragmatic view! I think the kind of deeply pessimistic, slightly addled-with-dystopia view is that they’re going to be able to recreate Madame Bovary within thirty years, and then all writers will be out of a job.
But yes, I think the greater question is around how AI might transform creative expression, rather than take it over. There will undoubtedly still be ways for us to bring our humanity to books and music and art.
Realistically, AI is everywhere.
Right, right. And going back to the novel, you really showcase auts in hospitality settings. Is that the main place that you see them potentially going? Or do you see them in other settings?
Realistically, AI is everywhere. It’s in our Netflix algorithms, and it’s in our traffic lights. So in that sense, I didn’t portray reality – I didn’t convey all the hidden AI that shapes everyday life. In terms of hospitality, I guess there’s already automation in the supply chains and the logistics, and places like the Ocado warehouses. I don’t know if you know about Ocado, the delivery company that went really heavily automated?
Ocado has one of the most automated picking and packing systems in the world; these robot arms just picking up ketchup and putting it in bags! So I touched on that a bit, but yes, mostly cafés. Have you ever read Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell?
David Mitchell, the comedian?
Yet another uncanny double. There’s two David Mitchells. There’s the Peep Show comedian, and then there’s a novelist who doesn’t really write sci-fi, but he wrote a novel called Cloud Atlas, and there’s a chapter in a very futuristic setting. And I read it when I was quite young, and the imagery from it, where the utopia that masks a scary dystopia beneath, has stuck with me ever since.
Also, I love coffee shops. Coffee shops are so warm, cozy and human. I just knew that robot servers in a café were a way to have a real interface with humans coming in to get their coffees and being hit with, once again, uncanniness and unnerving futurity, and a slightly utopian, slightly dystopian vibe. In the novel, one of the characters, Van, sings while he works, and I imagined the coldness of that being replaced by auts.
I’m also someone who loves coffee shops. Their ambiance and conversations with the barista are two of my favourite things about them. They’re always in a very warm setting.
Coffee shops are a classic institution. You’re from Seattle, right?
Yes, I am.
The home of coffee shops!
You have the best coffee – all of Seattle is like one big coffee shop. And then you know exactly; a good coffee shop is the most wonderful place.
Can we expect a sequel?
Potentially! I’m curious, would you see it as a free-ranging AI utopia, where they’ve managed to create this benevolent AI that’s also autonomously functioning?
I guess I wondered about Lal’s decision in the last chapter, and seeing what that actually does to Tekna and their world.
That makes sense. To be honest, I found writing this novel so difficult. I’d written a sci-fi novel before, and I think the reason it was difficult was because, well … do you read a lot of sci-fi?
Honestly, this was my first sci-fi book! I’m usually a non-fiction person. Currently, I’m reading non-fiction, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson, which is really good. Very different from this though.
I read quite a bit of literary fiction – writers like Elena Ferrante, Alice Munro. But I feel almost compulsively drawn to sci-fi, like it’s where my imagination wants to go. I realised during the writing of this that it had to be driven by plot, and then the characters react to that. So the automation and conscious AI plots were the engines of the novel.
And I wonder if I’m better suited to something where the engine is people living their lives in a more scaled-down way. I haven’t worked it out yet; I only know that when the Guardian called A Strange and Brilliant Light ‘character-driven’, they weren’t wrong!
Having written the novel, though, what are the major takeaways that you want readers to come away with?
I know it sounds potentially counterintuitive, because the novel is about AI. But I think to me, it is more about some of that more mundane, slow-burn stuff. It’s about figuring out who you are and allowing yourself to make messes and wrong choices, and then being able to do something about this. So all three of the girls do make pretty terrible choices, and then they manage to figure out who they need to be in order to make things better. So it’s that hokey stuff about being true to yourself, and having faith in yourself. Because even Lal shows she has faith in herself, in the end.
The other message is about vulnerability and emotional intelligence. Lal shows that at the end, because the person she needs to be vulnerable to is her sister. And Rose needs to stop being vulnerable to powerful men and put some boundaries down. Vulnerability and self-assurance are connected.
It’s a feminist novel. When you’re in your twenties, you go through a lot of self-doubt. Most people I know, unless they’re bizarrely confident, struggled quite a lot internally with who they should be and whether they’re doing the right thing, especially in their twenties. And I wanted to show some women who also struggle, but manage to figure things out.
I loved that. Yeah, the emotional intelligence definitely was shining throughout. And yeah, it did seem like quite a progressive future, which was really cool to see, and very feminist as well.
I’m aware that there are other contemporary feminist issues it could have taken up. It could have contained more trans representation, for example – it could maybe have been more explicitly intersectional. I chose to not mention the main characters’ racial identities, too, beyond them being Iolran.
Yeah, I noticed that.
I think I knew that I wanted it to be about AI and automation, and I wanted to focus on class – you know: “let’s talk about class.” That doesn’t mean I wanted to ignore the other stuff, but not every book can be everything and this novel already packs so much in! And class and economics are deeply worthy of sustained focus, too.
Janetta is a queer character, but her sexuality is in no way definitive of her entire character.
I wanted it to not be an issue at all. There was a flashback scene that I ended up cutting, where she came out to her parents and they were totally unphased. Partly I felt like, as a straight person … it’s not that I can’t tell that story, but I asked myself: how qualified am I to tell this story?
And related to that, I was cautious of making it Janetta’s main thing. I really built her character around her genius. I wanted her to be a visionary and not be hampered by anything other than her own emotions, and her fear of her own emotions. So that’s why being lesbian was just part of her, and not a big deal.
I liked that she was still in love and dealing with those relationships throughout the novel as well.
Thank you. I worried I made her too involved in relationships. But then I thought, but that’s the point. Because she needs to learn how to love and how to grieve. That’s how she becomes the person she needs to be.
Well, speaking of vulnerability, it’s very brave of you to keep going and actually get it published.
Thank you. I think I reached a point where it was like, “Oh, this is the fourth novel, and it’s now or never.”
And you’re still interested in writing fiction?
Yes, definitely still speculative fiction. But I’m aware that when you write speculative fiction, you have to be open to your imagination going to unexpected places. At first the novel was only about automation. As I went along, though, I realised that when you write fiction about AI, you’re naturally drawn towards the idea of conscious AI – at least, I was.
I could have written a smaller and more focused novel, but to me, the singularity is an irresistible part of the collective imaginary about AI! And this made things very complex, plot-wise. There was an arc about automation and the loss of jobs, and a second one about conscious AI, and interweaving them was hard!
Before we go – with conscious AI, do you think we should be striving for that, or should we not?
No. It’s fun for movies and books, but that would be a crazy world, no?
Agreed. Yup. We’ve got a lot of problems we need to solve already in the world today. Climate change, poverty, hunger. I don’t think we need a conscious AI to stir the pot even more.
Exactly. Do you think it’s ever likely to happen, though?
I think it could happen. I mean, people are working in that space for sure, but I don’t know if we’ll exactly know when it does. It would probably happen by accident, and surprise people. I think it’s a possibility, but I’m not keen for a world where that does happen.
I couldn’t agree with you more.
Well, Eli, this has been wonderful speaking to you.
Thank you, it’s been really enjoyable. And your questions were excellent – it’s nice to have what you’ve written about reflected back at you by someone who asks such intelligent, thoughtful questions! So yes, thank you, that was great.