Daniel H. Wilson is the New York Times best-selling author of Robopocalypse, as well as titles such as How to Survive a Robot Uprising, A Boy and His Bot, and Amped. Wilson earned a PhD in Robotics from Carnegie Mellon University, along with Masters degrees in Robotics and Artificial Intelligence. You can follow him on Twitter at @DanielWilsonPDX or find his website at http://www.danielhwilson.com.
Was there some specific event or scientific discovery that prompted you to write Robopocalypse?
I’ve been thinking about the themes and events in Robopocalypse for a long time – since I was a graduate student studying robotics. Over the nerdy years, I’ve had the opportunity to ride in autonomous vehicles, wear a functioning exoskeleton, and interact with the ASIMO humanoid robot. Hundreds of experiences with real world robotics eventually accumulated into the mental landscape behind Robopocalypse.
When you started researching around the topic beyond your own particular field (which I assume you had to do, since the book is so wide-ranging), what was the most surprising development in the field of robotics that you discovered?
The real surprise was how many advances in robotics technology that I had to leave out as being too unbelievable. Recent advances in the areas of nano-robotics, self-assembling robots, micro-air vehicles, and non-invasive surgical technologies have been so fantastic that I realized they would be too much of a distraction from the plot. Some of the best stuff out there had to be ignored.
The book is a great blend of action and character – which do you prefer writing?
My hope is that my characters are developed and expressed predominantly through their actions. How does this character behave in this circumstance, and what does that implicitly say? I’m a visual writer at the end of the day. I describe scenes that are playing out in my head, and I don’t worry too much about descending into the inner psyche of my characters and explicitly writing out their thoughts and dreams. Some situations call for that, but for the most part it isn’t my style.
How do you put yourself in the mind of a robot – I’m thinking particularly of chapters like “The Veil, Lifted” which shows a development in grammar and vocabulary across the pages?
I put myself into the mind of a robot by thinking of the world (and the human beings in it) as an engineering problem. How do you determine what’s happening when a person runs air over the meat in their throat to make vibrations? What is the internal state of a human being that bares its teeth at you? It is surprisingly fun to step outside your embodiment as a human and try to look at the world the way an alien anthropologist might. You start to realize how complicated and inconsistent and, well, odd we humans really are.
There are echoes of some of the great horror disaster novels – like King’s The Stand – in the early parts of the book. Are there writers you feel particularly influenced by – either as ones to emulate or ones to consciously avoid their style?
There were plenty of direct literary influences on Robopocalypse. Not so much The Stand, which is so great that it’s probably plain old internalized by now (although I do prefer the gut-wrenching psychological descent of The Long Walk). Explicitly, I drew on Graham Greene’s novel Brighton Rock while writing the English teenaged hacker named Lurker. His character is modeled closely after the teenaged sociopath “Pinky.” Later on, I modeled the chapter “Odyssey” after Tim O’Brien’s fantastic and affecting book of short stories, The Things They Carried. O’Brien’s books also factored heavily into my conceptualization of the soldier experience inside Gray Horse Army.
Archos becomes personified as the “bad guy” effectively – but do you think it sees itself that way? Or is it ascribing to a totally different form of morality, so it’s amoral in the strictest sense of the word?
As a machine with superhuman intelligence, I don’t believe Archos operates on the same moral plane as humanity. The machine could probably tell you whether its actions were considered good or evil from a human perspective, but that would more of a mathematical exercise than an admission of guilt.
That isn’t to say that Archos isn’t good or evil. All I’m saying is that our human concept of morality is based on our embodiment as human beings: force is gauged on a human scale, lasting damage is estimated in terms of a human lifespan, and final consequences by the number of chess moves ahead that we can visualize. Archos is stronger than we are, sees the world through many eyes, and can see much, much farther than we can. As a result, we humans are not necessarily qualified to judge the morality of the machine’s actions. However, another superhuman machine might…
You mention in the brief interview at the end of the book that the meeting with Spielberg and Drew Goddard etc. regarding the movie version happened before you completed the novel. Did that meeting influence the way the book turned out?
Absolutely. The novel was well underway when DreamWorks purchased the rights, but those conversations certainly had an effect on which plotlines I pursued and which characters I developed. Can you imagine? What an incredible opportunity to draw on legendary minds to sharpen the book!
How involved are you with the movie version?
I am an incredibly excited spectator, and that’s about all I can say.
Are you intending to return to the Robopocalypse universe?
Mysterious smile. I certainly hope to, and soon.
My next novel is released in the United States this June 5 [and in the UK on June 7]. Amped is the near future story of a civil rights movement sparked when people with disabilities begin using neural implants that make them smarter than “regular” humans. Robots don’t play a part in this one, but the story does revolve around our complicated relationship with technology. For a sneak peek, I encourage readers to visit the blog of Samantha Blex – a character in the story who is writing about her experience as an amp in the weeks before the book is released (www.facebook.com/SamanthaBlex).