Justina Robson 2004
Q: In your books there seems to be a theme of consciousness vs technology. Is that an intentional exploration of this subject?
Justina Robson: Definitely, although I’m not sure they’re in opposition to each other – and that’s what set me going in the first place.
In Silver Screen I basically tried to work out for myself whether or not people who were constructed would/could/should be counted the same on all fronts as people who are born - naturally constructed. Present science uses machine metaphor and analogy a great deal, and Western science and rationalism have the concept of a mechanistic universe as their foundation stone. When we analyse our own biology we can see that there are levels – I’m thinking sub-cellular! – at which it only makes sense to look at us as chemistry, or, even lower than that, physics and maths. Of course, the trouble is that you can bandy chemistry, genetics and psychology about in one breath these days without recognising the amount of reduction inherent in each of those approaches and that brings with it the danger of thinking about individuals in sweeping generalistic terms that are only applicable to their biology – I could go off on a political rant here but I’ll spare you!
Real people are simply the sum of their parts, I think, although that’s hardly a reductionist statement in my book. Who they are, in terms of their lives and the greater narrative of the social world, requires a different kind of mental toolkit to discuss it. I look forward to the day that we have all the skills and appreciation to mentally encompass human existence and are able to see it both as its constituent systems and as a whole, where I think we start to see ourselves spiritually. I don’t mean religion or even anything to do with gods, just to be clear on that, I mean holistic thinking which doesn’t deny and doesn’t reject anything, which takes account of everything. To me that’s a spiritual approach.
When I was writing Silver Screen I started down that road from reduction to holism in a basic way, setting up a character who seemed quite ordinary until it was discovered that they were a machine.
Later on, in Mappa Mundi, I extrapolated from current neurobiology to create a machine system that could run in living brains, a kind of software that changed people’s attitudes to ideas and to the world. It was built as a military weapon for mind control but was stolen by dissidents among its creators. Then it ran amok somewhat and ended up consuming and transforming several people into states of consciousness and states of being that were super-physical – mystical, I suppose. Another interesting part of Mappa Mundi for me was the exploration of how technological advances are made and how our notion of control, both of the natural world and our own selves, is such a terrifying illusion to conjure with. As we know from real life, things are always much more peculiar and prone to doing their own thing than they seem!
In Natural History I tackled the technology/life theme from another angle which followed on from what I was thinking in Mappa Mundi. I set up an alien not-life-as-we-know-it thing which could not be distinguished as either living or mechanical, machine or biology, and which inhabited dimensions outside our own four. To push the idea on a bit I decided this thing had mastered all cosmic knowledge and was now on the lookout for something less boring than reductionism. At the same time the human race was taking its first steps into diversifying the species and exploring space. They meet – and there’s trouble, of course.
The book I’m finishing now takes that another league forwards again, right into the mystical and fantastic realms. I’ve been toying with the idea that consciousness and the underlying aspects of it like dreams are emergent phenomena of complex systems which are so competitive and frequently give rise to conflicting singals that they require consciousness in order to function – I mean that without the You of you, you as a biological creature wouldn’t be able to do anything much more than breathe. You are a kind of fancy priority protocol, and the thing you think of as You, your personality, is the sum of those priority systems and some junk you accrued via your memory, which is a charming interpretation of Memetic theory.
However, this is in contrast to the Silver Screen story, because now I started to see that people are NOT like robots or software. I’m thinking, and so are many AI researchers I believe, that selves are essential for the survival of complex lifeforms who actually have to deal with real worlds in real time. So the new book is riffing on that and speculating about other related stuff, including my interest in Eastern approaches to thinking about people – yoga philosophy for example. I’ve been personally involved in meditation and the whole consciousness-raising thing for some time and my travels there are all feeding into the ideas now. I’m still resolutely Techno Girl, though, so don’t expect any furry green endings and blissouts in Nirvana! Well, not too many.
Q: Are there any other themes you want to write about?
Hundreds! How long is a lifetime? I’m hoping to write some contemporary things soon where I can do some of the more immediate things on my mind which are centred around parenthood, inheritance and history. I’m also looking forward to finishing a YA fantasy I’ve been writing as light relief in the last few months – it’s about the relationship of technology and fantasy, which since Tolkien have often been perceived as in a fundamental opposition to each other – industry eats the rural good life – but in this story that’s the last thing going on. It borrows a lot out of my present nearly-finished novel where technology liberates the fantastic and people struggle to live with what they perceive as real and unreal. I’m very much into breaking down the distinctions between those two things at the moment, between the outer world of material objects and the inner one of dream and desire.
Q: The sentient machines in Natural History, The Forged, are the most original I've seen for awhile. Can you tell us something about where you got your inspiration for them?
The Forged aren’t machines, they’re people, humans – but anyway, thanks! You’ll laugh and be disappointed when I tell you one of the things behind them. Transformers. The toy (robots in disguise). Transformers and Bionicles plus a lot of other SF stuff I absorbed over my life, plus it’s the sprung metaphor of what all SF aliens really are – they’re us, but in suits. So here we are, in different giant bodies or tiny bodies, and that makes us...a bit different, but not that different. That was what I wondered – could we become divergent enough to become not-human? Could I imagine it?
I also have to point out the impact upon me of Jacob Epstein's sculpture, The Rock Drill, in both its forms - the original one atop the drill and the truncated, emasculated one which is the later version.
Epstein said of this work "It was in the experimental pre-war days of 1913 that I was fired to do the rock-drill, and my ardour for machinery (short-lived) expended itself upon the purchase of an actual drill...and upon this I made and mounted a machine-like robot, visored, menacing, and carrying within itself its progeny, protectively ensconced. Here is the armed, sinister figure of today and tomorrow. No humanity, only the terrible Frankenstein's monster we have made ourselves into...Later I lost my interest in machinery and discarded the drill. I cast in metal only the upper part of the figure".
The difference between us is that I haven't yet lost my interest in machinery. I feel that it's finding its place in the world and that it isn't necessarily the monstrous, de-humanising threat that Epstein saw in his vision. Of course, it can be. It depends on who's using it. From Silver Screen to Natural History I've been trying to show new visions of what machinery could mean to us a hundred years on, and what it could do for us which is not destructive of our better natures. In that sense I feel I'm engaged in a dialogue with Epstein's work and the whole tradition of literature that shares the theme of Mary Shelley's seminal novel.
Q: A book such as Natural History is full of new scientific concepts such as 11 dimensional space. Do you do a lot of research when writing things like that?
I did for the cosmology I was using there, because I wanted it to seem authentic, although my big assumptions about the properties of those other 7 dimensions are pretty hefty. I find cosmology utterly fascinating and have continued to go on surfing what I can understand of it to use in my current novel too.
I got very heavily into neurobiology and psychology in doing Mappa Mundi too – but about 99 per cent of the possible science I could write about in those stories all went on the editorial floor for two reasons – one, nobody talks about common knowledge in real life, and two, I hate infodumps that don’t serve the storyline. Other writers and readers have a higher tolerance for it than I do, but I think there’s no excuse. For my money, if you want to write all about how the Forged might be built, for example, you should present it as speculative non-fiction, or do real research and papers, or write a story that is specifically about that process so it’s an essential part of the story.
Q: Natural History is very densely written and a lot of things are more hinted at than described. What were your reasons for this style when you wrote it?
Partly what I said above, about not dosing the reader with great gouts of information that require entire essays to explain themselves, and partly because that’s what I like to read. I find that kind of narrative more rewarding, because there’s the potential for me to plug myself into it more. When it’s done well it makes me think, sends my mind off in all directions on its own without being escorted around by the writer, as though they trust me to figure it out and when I do figure it out that’s a big buzz! I like my buzz moments. Also, and this is less deliberate and more a product of the universe of the story, the place is so big and so peculiar in many ways that to describe it fully is to normalise it and make it seem like something you could handle, when it really isn’t at all. It would be false advertising!
Q: The universe you created in Natural History seems to me to cry out for more books. Is this something we can look forward to, or are you writing something completely different?
My next book is set in Natural History’s future. It’s a different kind of book – very challenging for me in terms of what I’m able to dig out of my own experience to fuel the story, which is about the struggle for identity and selfhood; trying to reclaim it from biology and determinism, to find the limits of yourself inside and out. So we’re back with some of the Forged, and the Unevolved humans, and also with human characters who are the agents of the alien called Unity. Unity is undergoing a hellish evolution of its own, through them. Its other theme is Desire and how that’s the primary motivating force in all life, including people, on all levels.
It’s a very intense and introspective book because of the subject matter, very ambitious in its structure, rather experimental. I’m kind of scared it’s going to fall flat on its face because of that, but because it wraps up all my obsessions: technology, identity, fantasy and people in big metal superhero outfits being crazy – it’s the one I had to write. It’s a book that’s transformed me as I wrote it, is still transforming me (dang those robots in disguise!) and has been the most amazing trip. I hope some of that comes across on paper! You’ll have to see in 2005. After that there will be other Forged books and stories, for sure, but I can’t say exactly when.