The lovely Martha Wells was recently nominated for a Hugo for the first of her novella trilogy, The Murderbot Diaries. We asked her why science fiction fans still find rogue AI stories so fascinating, what it’s like to write tie-ins for existing franchises, and what she would like to see more of in the genre publishing landscape.
What is it about badly behaving and dangerous AI’s that we love so much in science fiction storytelling?
Stories about sentient AI are basically stories about people. They may not be human people, but they’re people with interesting skills and abilities, in interesting situations.
Stories where the human characters treat AI as expendable, disposable resources often try to justify that by showing AI as violent, inherently evil monsters that have to be kept under control to save humanity. Ann Leckie has talked about the idea that the “Evil AI kills humans” story is basically a slave revolt narrative that casts the AI (that are just trying to survive or want to be treated as intelligent beings) as super-villains, to justify the humans’ bad treatment of them.
I think we do see a lot of stories with hero/protagonist AIs that aren’t the descendants of HAL9000, but hearken back to the supercomputer in War Games, which when given the opportunity to make the choice, decided it would rather play games than start a nuclear war.
You were known primarily for fantasy writing before turning to science fiction with The Murderbot Diaries. Have you found that your approach to storytelling differs in any way with the different genres?
I don’t think it does. Worldbuilding is important to both science fiction and fantasy, and so is making the world and the cultures of the characters a vital part of the story. I did use first person in writing The Murderbot Diaries, which I don’t usually do in fantasy, just because it was better for the kind of story I wanted to tell.
How do you approach writing tie-ins for existing franchises and universes? What do you need to consider when writing in other people’s universes?
To me, the most important thing is to get the world right, to capture the voices of the characters, and to make it feel like the existing universe, while still bringing something new to the story. It also takes a lot of research. Even if it’s a tie-in for a movie or show, if you’re just watching it for pleasure as a fan, there’s a lot of detail you can miss. As someone writing in that universe, you have to take in all the detail of how everything works.
Since your first novel was published in 1993, what positive representational trends in genre fiction publishing have you noticed? What would you like to see more of?
I think we’re seeing more genre authors of different backgrounds, different cultures and different ethnicities, and they’re writing some of the best books in the field. The different voices and viewpoints are energizing genre fiction and bringing in new readers, and I hope that trend continues and grows. I would like to see more translated work by authors from non-English speaking countries. I think we’re missing out on some great works of SF/F.
Congratulations on having All Systems Red recognised by both Nebula and Hugo nominations! For readers who haven’t yet encountered the novella, why should they read it? What makes The Murderbot Diaries unique?
Thank you! Murderbot is a construct SecUnit, an AI that has some human neural tissue. It’s supposed to be kept under strict control with a governor module, under the expectation that if it had free will it would immediately become violent and dangerous to humans. But when Murderbot hacks its governor module, it continues to do its job, but spends all its free time accessing the entertainment media. When the human research team gets in danger, it’s forced to reveal that it’s only pretending to be under their control. I think the story is different because Murderbot isn’t an AI that wants to kill humans and it doesn’t want to be human. It mostly wants to be left alone to figure out what it does want.
Martha Wells has written many fantasy novels, including the Books of the Raksura series (beginning with The Cloud Roads), the Ile-Rien series (including the Nebula-nominated The Death of the Necromancer) as well as YA fantasies, short stories, media tie-ins, and non-fiction. Her work has been nominated for the Hugo, the Nebula, and the Philip K. Dick Award.