We met up with Michael R. Fletcher, author of the debut SF novel, 88, for an interview.
|Michael R. Fletcher|
Q: Would you please give us an overview of your novel, 88?
MRF: This should be fun. I seem to have injured myself doing handstand push-ups and am currently floating on a lovely cloud of (legal, if slightly beyond their best before date) narcotics.
The story takes place in the year 2034 which was about as random a year as I could decide on. I thought all of the advances I predicted would likely take much longer than I’ve allowed, but that’s the way things happen. One day you’re staring at green text on a monochromatic screen, and the next you’re Googling performance stats for Ferrari’s new electric super car.
Back to the story. I started with the assumption Artificial Intelligence wouldn’t happen (or at least not fast enough). Add to the mix the technology to scan human minds so they can be used as sentient computers, and you have a recipe for tragedy. The human mind makes an excellent computer. Well, that’s not entirely true; some human minds make excellent computers. Mine wouldn’t, but that lead me to the question: What minds would make the best computers? The answer is obvious. The minds of young children, unhindered by preconceptions and primed for learning, are perfect; particularly if you can get hold of them before their parents mess them up.
Oh, let’s try a for real overview. Hm. How do you describe a book without giving anything away?
The dream of Artificial Intelligence is dead and the human mind is now the ultimate processing machine. Demand is high, but few are willing to sacrifice their lives to become computers. Black-market crèches, struggling to meet the ever-increasing demand, deal in the harvested brains of stolen children. But there is a digital snake in that fractally modelled garden; some brains make better computers than others.
88, a brilliant autistic girl, has been genetically engineered and raised from birth to serve one purpose: become a human computer. Plagued by memories of a mother she never knew and a desire for freedom she barely understands, she sets herself against those who would be her masters. Unfortunately for 88, the Cuntrera-Caruana Mafia clan have other plans for her.
Griffin Dickinson, a Special Investigator for the North American Trade Union, has been tasked with shutting down the black market crèches. Joined by Nadia, a state-sanctioned reporter and Abdul, the depressed ghost of a dead Marine inhabiting a combat chassis, Griffin is drawn deep into the shady underbelly of the brain trade. Every lead brings him one step closer to an age-old truth: corruption runs deep.
An army of dead children, brainwashed for loyalty and housed in state of the art military chassis, stand between Griffin and the answers he seeks. But one in particular, Archaeidae, a 14-year old Mafia assassin obsessed with Miyamoto Musashi, Sun Tzu, and Machiavelli, is truly worthy of fear. Archaeidae is the period at the end of a death sentence.
|6 x 9 Trade Paperback, 414 pages
EPUB, 414 pages
Available from online booksellers worldwide May 1, 2013
And directly from Five Rivers Publishing
Q: Tell us a bit about the inspiration for 88?
MRF: Strangely, none of the original inspiration made it into the book. The story evolved beyond the germ that gave it birth. It all started when, back in university, myself and four friends rented a car (with unlimited mileage) and drove to the Gulf of Mexico and back over a long weekend. I remember sleeping in the trunk being surprisingly comfortable. While passing through Matamoros–a Mexican border town across from Brownsville, Texas–I was astounded by the number of dentistry offices. There seemed to be one on every corner. It’s a visual that stuck with me for reasons I can’t fathom.
Years later, after reading too much conspiracy literature on how cell phones cause brain cancer, I once again thought of that visual. Only this time they were neurosurgeons. How cool would that be, I thought, if an epidemic of brain cancer drove the pace of neuroscience? The idea of scanning human minds and saving them as computers came out of that background, even though none of that made it into the book.
It all started with wondering what a world would be like where brain cancer decimated the human population and neuroscience outpaced the other sciences. Neat as that idea was, in the end it didn’t really matter to the story and the needs of the story must come first. As I wrote, the background evolved and the story I wanted to tell changed.
I also take a lot of inspiration from whatever music I’m listening to at the time. While writing 88 I picked my background music based on the scene I was working on. I listened to an awful lot of Slayer and death metal while writing this book.
Q: After inspiration, what were the key elements you wanted to illustrate in the novel?
MRF: When I started writing I had a lot of ideas I wanted to incorporate. Some were philosophical questions, and some were simple what ifs. This being my first novel I began with none of the usual things that writers do. I didn’t sketch out a plot line, and I didn’t decide on who all the characters would be. I just sat down and started writing. If you’re forgiving, you could call it an organic process. I’d call it insane. People I liked ended up dying and characters I’d originally assumed were background stepped up their game and became important. Sometimes I felt like I had no control whatsoever over what was happening.
At the time I was playing a lot of online First Person Shooters and regularly getting my butt kicked by children and teenagers. It occurred to me these folks would make excellent soldiers and killing-machines given the right (or wrong, depending on your point of view) environment. That’s where the idea of children piloting combat chassis came from. I think some of that FPS addiction crept into my fight scenes as well.
People have a tendency to underestimate children, both in terms of what they’re capable of, and what they understand. A huge part of this book is seeing things from the point of view of the children involved.
Q: In reality, how close are we to creating a biological computer?
MRF: We’re kind of already there. If I may lift a little from everybody’s favourite source, Wikipedia:
In 2002, researchers from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, unveiled a programmable molecular computing machine composed of enzymes and DNA molecules instead of silicon microchips. On April 28, 2004, Ehud Shapiro, Yaakov Benenson, Binyamin Gil, Uri Ben-Dor, and Rivka Adar at the Weizmann Institute announced in the journal Nature that they had constructed a DNA computer coupled with an input and output module which would theoretically be capable of diagnosing cancerous activity within a cell, and releasing an anti-cancer drug upon diagnosis.
In January 2013, researchers were able to store a JPEG photograph, a set of Shakespearean sonnets, and an audio file of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech I Have a Dream on DNA digital data storage
It’s just the beginning, but if you look back at how fast digital computing evolved, I’d suggest we’re not more than a few years from useful biological computers. The funny thing is, I’m not sure they’ll be much more useful than other computers. At least at the beginning.
Q: Recently there’s been some exciting news regarding neural-interface prostheses. Was it this sort of scientific development that inspired you to create the character of Griffin, who ends up being one of the key characters in the novel?
MRF: Ooh. Drugs really kicking in now.
In a word, no. I employ something of a Head in the Sand technique for surviving the barrage of pointless information that is modern life. I don’t watch TV, I don’t read the news, and I don’t follow current events–scientific or otherwise. It means I am incapable of following most water-cooler conversations, but since my days are spent sitting at a desk at home, it’s no great loss.
That said, when I get hooked on an idea I do research the crap out of it.
|Examples of latest developments in neuro-interface prostheses|
Q: Are there authors who inspire you, and if so who are they and why?
Yes, definitely. The very first version of 88 was basically me pretending (really unsuccessfully) to be Neil Stephenson. I desperately wanted to write Snow Crash. Once the editors beat that out of me I began to search for my own voice.
Writers like Richard Morgen, Iain M. Banks, Vernor Vinge, George Alec Effinger, and William Gibson are hugely inspirational, each in their own unique way. Morgen and Effinger have an edge to their writing that few can touch. Vinge brings the ideas like no one else, and Banks is one of the few people who can write a Utopian future and keep it exciting. Intending no comparison, I feel a little like William Gibson; he wrote his cyber-punk books knowing next to nothing about computers and the internet. I too have no idea what I’m talking about.
Q: There is a great deal of technical information in your novel. Was this the result of research, or extrapolation from existing research?
MRF: A lot of research went into the writing of the book. It’s all part and parcel of being a complete shut-in know-nothing. I love the process of learning new things and then pushing what little understanding I have to extrapolate possible outcomes. Even though it plays an absolutely minuscule role in this book, I ended up reading about the gold standard to an exhaustive degree. The funny thing is, I still don’t understand economics. The whole thing looks like a big Monopoly game where the people who are playing the part of the bank get to change the rules whenever they want. If you aren’t one of the folks making the rules, why on earth would you play the game?
The science was more fun. Though I’m not of a particularly scientific bent, almost all of my friends are Nuclear Physicists, Bio-Physicists, and Computer Engineers. They were amazingly helpful in chasing down ideas and then picking apart my fanciful interpretations of their mostly incomprehensible ramblings. A great many conversations started with me saying, what if…
Q: Tell us about your writing ethic.
MRF: My writing ethic has changed a lot in the last two years. It used to be terrible. When it came to writing I was very Manic-Depressive. There would be days (sometimes weeks) where I’d spend eight hours a day sitting at the computer hammering out words as fast as I could two-finger type them. And then I’d hit a wall and not write a word for a month or longer. I think I gained about twenty pounds writing 88. I had no understanding of life balance, ate crap, never exercised, and drank excessively.
The birth of my daughter changed all that. I left my job as an Audio Engineer (I did live sound for crappy bands in crappier clubs) to focus on my writing and being a father. I should have done it a decade ago, but sometimes I’m a little slow. As a work-from-home Dad, I am forced to schedule my writing time. Where I used to rise from bed at the crack of noon, I am now at my computer at six in the morning, trying to sneak in a few hours before my daughter wakes. If she naps for two hours in the afternoon, every minute of that is spent writing. As she gets older (she’s two and a half now) and requires less of my immediate attention, I look forward to stealing back a little more writing time.
Q: Is there a sequel to 88 planned?
MRF: Grumble. I wrote a fairly detailed skeletal outline for the 88 sequel. It took place some thirty thousand years in the future and was very, very cool. And then I rewrote the ending of 88. Twice. As soon as I finished that last rewrite I realized that I wanted to write a very different sequel. I have a basic skeletal structure and a lot of ideas that need exploring and researching. I do know the book begins on July 8th, 2034, the day after 88 finishes. For now I’ll call it 88.1.
First, however, I have to finish editing Beyond Redemption, my dark fantasy novel. My brain shifts gears like an old Datsun and doesn’t like working on multiple projects.
Okay. I have to go and try and lift my daughter out of her crib now. I might need more muscle-relaxants. Wish me luck.