Madeline Ashby on “vN,” Women in SF, and Futurism

I’ll keep this intro short so you can dive right into the interview. Madeline Ashby is on the cutting edge of written SF. (That’s “science fiction” or “speculative fiction” for those of you who are more familiar with “sci-fi,” a phrase that’s flamed by some in the SF community.)

So far she’s played mostly in the short story realm, but her first novel’s due at the end of the month, and it’s already proven worthy of highly positive reviews from sites like i09. Here’s what she has to say about her book, vN, and a number of interesting topics.

The Interview

Thanks so much for the interview, Madeline.

Thanks for having me!

So first off, let’s hear a little about your SF novel, vN, which will hit stores at the end of the month.

My publisher, Angry Robot Books, summarizes it best:

Amy Peterson is a von Neumann machine, a self-replicating humanoid robot. For the past five years, she has been grown slowly as part of a mixed organic/synthetic family. She knows very little about her android mother’s past, so when her grandmother arrives and attacks her mother, little Amy wastes no time: she eats her alive. Now she carries her malfunctioning granny as a partition on her memory drive, and she’s learning impossible things about her clade’s history – like the fact that the failsafe that stops all robots from harming humans has failed… Which means that everyone wants a piece of her, some to use her as a weapon, others to destroy her.

…I like that description. It’s far more concise than I am when I try to tell people about it in person.

Yes, it’s definitely an interesting premise. While AI is certainly a subject that’s been done before, it sounds like you’ve taken an interesting new angle on it.

I tried.

What do you think vN brings to the table that makes it unique?

I have trouble with these kinds of questions, so I asked my partner, David Nickle, for his opinion. He said:

It’s a story about machine family. It tries to get past the notion of a simple Turing test for robots, and the notion that robots who show emotion and feel emotion come to do so genuinely for humans, and delves into the idea of a robotic community. It’s Love in the Uncanny Valley.

…And he’s right. Most robot stories are about how humans will relate to robots, or the reverse. This is a story about how robots relate to each other. The humans are of little concern. This isn’t one of those novels where humans have some sort of special smell or glow or whatever that makes them irresistible. It’s not a novel that argues for the redemption or salvation of humanity. In fact, it’s the opposite.

You’re right. The only story I can think of that focused on relationships between robots was Stross’s Saturn’s Children, and for the most part in that story they were just stand-ins for human characters to make the space opera elements more plausible. I can’t think of a single other story off the top of my head that focused on what robot relationships and communities would look like and why.

I think the stories that come closest are stories about toys, actually, like the Island of Misfit Toys in Pinocchio, or even all the toys in the Toy Story films. That dynamic is something I also really enjoy about Spirited Away: a whole other world outside the human one that is entirely unconcerned with humans and what they do or think.

One thing I’m curious about. When you’re writing about a protagonist who can make copies of herself, that presents all kinds of challenges a typical novelist doesn’t have to worry about. First off, at least at first glance, it sounds like Amy ought to be essentially immortal as a result, which could potentially take away from some of the suspense.

You also run into issues with identity, which is probably why almost all SF stories that deal with copies of a main character end with all but one of the copies being killed off.

What was your thought process on how to deal with those challenges?

Well, first, Amy is not immortal. The vN can transfer memories, but only during iteration. Iteration can happen rapidly or slowly depending on how many raw materials are ingested at once. Overeat, and you’ll get knocked up. Starve, and you won’t. Diet = birth control. It’s a bug in the self-repair system, which was originally intended to receive signals from a clouded firmware setup. But there were worries about the cloud being used to hack the vN. So most of them aren’t networked. No cloud, no signal, constant replication.

But the issues of identity that you mention are all there. I think that on some level, everyone worries about becoming their parents. Then later, they worry that their own children will repeat their mistakes. This is actually more pressing, I think, than wondering if someone is just like you or not. The fact is that none of us are earth-shatteringly unique. The niche interests that we think define us are just market demographics. And that’s fine, because what makes people special to me is how they make me feel and how they make me think. Everything else is just being angry that some other girl wore the same dress to prom that you did.

As for how I dealt with the challenges of identity among iterations, I was highly conscious of how other stories had dealt with them, and where they fit within the spectrum of the uncanny. Freud spends a lot of time in Das Unheimliche talking about the power of doubles and clones to creep us out. He argues that that sickening sense of the familiar rendered unfamiliar is what would make us hate our own doubles.

So that’s why Gally’s clones want to kill her in Battle Angel Alita, and why the clones in The City of Lost Children want to cut each other down. But I think that drive comes from a very partriarchal understanding of identity. It presumes a notion of originality that we’ve basically been unravelling since Barthes. Donna Haraway says that “the cyborg has no origin story in the Western sense,” (1985) and wrote from that perspective. None of the vN, except the most villainous of them, is particularly concerned with how special they are.

For some reason you just got me thinking about evolutionary biology and bacterial colonies. When you look at the behavior of bacteria, which reproduce by cloning, they aren’t concerned and creeped out by the fact that they are no longer unique. Instead, bacterial colonies treat their clones almost as if they are part of the same organism, and will even do “altruistic” things to protect each other. (Of course, it’s not exactly altruistic, evolutionarily speaking, when you’re protecting your own genetic code.)

Hmm. You’ll have to tell me what you think about the end of vN.

I’d like to hear a little about your views on women and SF. Is that situation moving in the right direction? Is the lack of women in SF sexist in nature, or the result of a general disinterest in the genre by women?

Kudos to you for being the first to ask me this question.

However, I don’t think it’s as simple as sexism vs. disinterest. I think the sexism (well, misogyny) causes the disinterest. And that misogyny is a systemic issue as well as a personal one. We could have a similar conversation about the “women in STEM” issue. Why aren’t more women drawn to careers in science, tech, engineering, and math? Is it because they can’t do it? No. Is it because the career track has traditionally been andro-centric and hasn’t evolved with the times despite being concerned about the future, leaving plenty of female scientists without real opportunities for promotion, much less options for childcare? Probably.

I’ve had men talk over my head — literally, because I’m short — on panels at conventions. I’ve met male writers who didn’t recognize me — despite meeting me multiple times beforehand — until I was wearing a low-cut summer dress. I had an editor tell me that women just weren’t into SF. And that’s the tip of the iceberg. My female friends in the business have endured far worse: inappropriate touching, catcalls, outright harassment. Collectively, that behaviour creates an inhospitable, unfriendly environment. If you’re going to SF conventions expecting to make connections with editors and do some business, and instead you’re greeted with harassment, you’re going to end up at another kind of convention. It’s that simple.

I’ve been very privileged, because since starting in SF I’ve been associated, primarily through my workshop, with some very well-respected male SF writers like Peter Watts, Karl Schroeder, and Dave, who tended to flank me at conventions and other events. These are feminist men who not only write strong female characters, but love strong women. Even so, early on, they were very protective. They’d spot a creeper and hover menacingly until he left. But the fact that they expected that kind of behaviour is the real problem. Conventions should be safe spaces for everybody.

Yes, I think part of the reason for the misogyny is an outright unfamiliarity with women. At the risk of alienating some men in the SF community, it’s possible some of them have been exposed to more fictional accounts of women than actual encounters. The fictitious woman is often fetishized, not just in SF, and even “strong women” have been fetishized. This can put some men out of touch with what women are really like, and what’s acceptable behavior. That of course alienates them from women further and can create a self-perpetuating cycle. It’s very ironic, because arguably some of the most pro-feminist men are in SF.

I don’t know if it’s unfamiliarity, per se. That’s a really personal circumstance that I can’t speak to. I will agree that in the dominant culture (which includes nerd culture, if Comic-Con’s numbers are any indication) there’s a fetishization of women as types, including “strong” or “damaged” or what have you. And pigeonholing human beings into types is just another way of Othering them.

Part of it, also, is a generation gap. Younger straight guys have their own issues with women I suppose, but the complaints I hear from women in the SF community have mostly to do with older men, who became fans when it was more of a boys’ club. They grew up on Heinlein and Asimov and other writers who didn’t handle female characters with a whole lot of nuance. (Yeah, yeah, I know, Mama Maureen. The woman who felt arousal when her daddy gave her a gynecological exam. Or Friday, who married her rapist.)

Then again, neither did a lot of their mainstream contemporaries, or popular culture of that time period. But the difference is pretty telling when you attend an anime convention. The guys there are almost always younger, and they’re active participants in things like cosplay and sketches, and even when they’re clearly attracted to the young women attending, they’re pretty well-behaved. The one weird thing I had happen to me at an anime convention was this guy dressed as a vampire asking if he could bite me, please. That’s how he put it: “May I bite you, please? So we can take a picture?” Manners are the best tools in your kit, gentlemen.

So let’s talk a little about your “day job.” Has it played a part in your SF career?

Well, I was an SF writer before I became a futurist, or strategic foresight consultant, or what have you. I started writing seriously after I immigrated to Canada, before I had a work or education visa, so I could do nothing but hone my skills. After my first Master’s (on Japanese animation, cyborg theory, and fan culture) was finished, Karl Schroeder straight-up told me that traditional academia wasn’t for me and that I should get a foresighting degree so I could go into consulting.

I was at loose ends, so I applied to the Strategic Foresight and Innovation programme at OCAD U. I got in, and that’s how I learned the trade. So if anything, it’s the reverse — my SF writing informs my futurism. It’s also one of the reasons I get hired as a futurist, especially for writing foresight scenarios. It’s a surprisingly marketable set of skills: an editorial sensibility, the ability to meet a deadline, a drive to research, and a consuming curiosity about human behaviour.

I suppose if there’s any evidence SF really can have an influence on the way the future pans out, that’s a good example right there. I’m also happy to hear that those skills are marketable, for entirely selfish reasons.

My “day job” is as a freelance writer, largely for internet marketing companies. Something that interests me about that culture, parts of it at least, is how incredibly different it is from traditional marketing. You hear marketers like Seth Godin talking more and more about the importance of creativity, transparency, and relationship building.

They also seem increasingly convinced that modern consumers are too savvy to be fooled. They talk a lot about how “selling” is going out of style, and the overall impression is that the business world is heading in a more compassionate, maybe even more democratic direction.

With your interest in futurism, I’m curious what your thoughts are on this. I’d certainly like to believe that we’re moving toward a world where the most exploitative among us will have trouble staying in business. Movements like Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street give me hope. Do you think there’s any truth to this, or is it largely hype?

My dad is in sales. Always has been. He’s the regional sales rep for Sony and Panasonic’s security technology. So I know sales. I feel sales. And I think you’re right, there are plenty of members of my generation who have an allergic, Cayce Pollard-like reaction to sales and marketing. But on the other hand, everybody wants a marketing degree because it’s one of America’s last growth industries.

No, seriously. We don’t make things, any more. We make ads for things. That’s our contribution. That, and security, and patents, and media. And in Canada, raw materials for other things — which we retail at an absurdly low rate. Big business has for the most part failed us. So it’s no surprise that people are turning to Kickstarter and Etsy and the iOS/Android APIs and other current versions of cottage industry. I’m not sure if compassion is driving that trend. If anything, it appears that a lack of compassion is what’s driving people to work at home, because there are no other sources of income.

What gives me hope about the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street is that it brings the festival spirit to activism. It’s like watching a barn-raising. Not everybody has to be the heroine of the revolution. If everybody just does a little bit, change can happen, or alternatives can be imagined. Sure, some of it might be hype. Time will tell. But I’d rather have an active population than a passive one.

Yes, exactly, that I think is one of the greatest things about technology in this generation. Even something as seemingly insignificant as replacing the TV with the video game puts people more in a mindset where they’re doing, not just consuming, and the same goes for social media. I think that may play a part in the kind of empowerment that allows things like Occupy Wall Street to happen.

As for some of the shifts in the way business is being conducted, I don’t think it’s driven by compassion either. But a big part of me believes that being outright greedy and lacking compassion is a “skill set” that’s going out of style. In a world where the consumers and employees are also the media, businesses will either need to get more honest or get way better at lying.

Time to geek out for a second. Do you have a favorite anime? Mine is, unquestionably, everything Ghost in the Shell, mainly the series. Thoughts?

I really love Ghost in the Shell, in all its iterations, and thought a lot about it while I was writing vN. But the cream of the crop, for me, is Cowboy Bebop. Almost everything about it is perfect, from writing to music to animation quality. It’s just stunning.

That’s a tough one to argue against. It’s definitely a close second for me. I’ve been a bit spoiled. My introduction to anime was Akira, then Cowboy Bebop, then Ghost in the Shell, and it takes a lot of searching to find things that stack up to those expectations.

Well, lately I’ve really been into Kids on the Slope, Another, and Madoka. I’m also finally catching up on Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood. I loved the first anime adaptation, so it’s good to experience certain moments from another angle.

Oh, it’s good, and it gets quite a bit different from the first take later on in the series.

Now I know you’ve written a little on this before, but why SF? And do you think SF plays a part in the way that the future actually ends up looking?

To paraphrase Dana Scully, I saw it as an area in which I could distinguish myself. Also, I have a real lack of fantasy ideas. That’s just not the genre from which I derive my life’s metaphors. I have no deep pull to re-write that canon toward my own ends. (Horror’s a little different for me, because I literally cut my teeth on my mom’s dog-eared copy of Stephen King’s Night Shift.)

But even so, afternoons with my dad were spent watching Star Trek and Blade Runner, not Conan or Excalibur. Those texts got to me before The Mists of Avalon did. (Though I totally went through an Avalon phase. It coincided with my onset of menses, so it was inevitable.)

But really, it crystallized for me the night I met Ursula K. LeGuin. She was reading from The Wave in the Mind and talking about the power of SF as the literature of change, and I was hooked. I was just graduating from a Jesuit university at the time, and I’d spent the past four years reading Aeschylus and Blake and Fitzgerald, but watching Cowboy Bebop and Stand Alone Complex and Fullmetal Alchemist. And here was this SF writer talking about Virginia Woolf and the vital power of imagination. Suddenly it all made sense, and I stopped worrying about what kind of writer to be, or what tradition to be loyal to. I’m so lucky to have met her. She was so kind to me. I’ll never forget it.

And yes, I do think that SF has an impact on how the future turns out. I don’t think it dictates or predicts the future by any means. But it does get people thinking about what could be. And when I’m not writing novels I’m writing stories about technologies in development for corporate and governmental clients, and those stories inform design and policy. So can SF change the world? Hell yeah it can.

I really envy you for the company you keep. You’ve met a lot of icons, it would be hard not to get hooked. I honestly think you have what it takes to become one of those icons, and I can’t wait to get my hands on vN. Thanks for talking to me.

I’ve been extraordinarily lucky.  I met these people when I knew next to nothing about who they were. I was just starting out and I was really unfamiliar with contemporary SF, much less contemporary Canadian SF. Later I learned, and I felt really embarrassed, but also very lucky. I still feel that way. I suspect I’ll continue feeling that way no matter how this all turns out. I’ve had opportunities most other people in my position would give their teeth for, and I never forget that.

Check out Madeline’s Novel – vN: The First Machine Dynasty

Friday Roundup: Habitable Planets and Mind Control

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