Space opera. Gods. AI. Female scientists. Lovecraftian-overtones. Ada Hoffman’s debut novel The Outside seemingly has it all! We asked her about writing autistic characters and why the development of AI’s is causing so much fear in society today.
Why did you want to include an autistic character in your novel and how did you approach accurately and sensitively tackling this?
I’m autistic myself, so I’m no stranger to adding characters like me into my stories. For THE OUTSIDE, I was hesitant to make Yasira autistic, given how dark of some of the story’s elements are, but once I had a first draft I knew that autism was integral to the story I was telling. It was a story that came from a surprisingly personal place and it revolved around the idea of perceiving reality differently than others, of being overwhelmed by one’s perceptions, and of whose perceptions are considered real or true and why.
I’ve studied representation of autism in fiction for some time, and I could write you many thousands of words about it, but I think one of the most important principles is that autistic people have valid desires and feelings, in ways that go beyond simply listing autistic traits. You’d be surprised how many authors miss that, even though it sounds simple. For those who are interested in the topic, you might find Elizabeth Bartmess’s series on good autistic representation useful. I also have my own set of autism-related book reviews here.
By the way, Yasira isn’t the only non-neurotypical character in the book; the mentor she’s tasked with hunting down is also autistic, and there is a third, brain-damaged, non-speaking character.
Gods and angels are usually the stuff of fantasy. Why did you want your sci-fi space opera to include such tropes?
There’s a very simple answer to this, and it’s that many of the characters of THE OUTSIDE started their lives in a D&D game. THE OUTSIDE’s world is nothing like D&D, but to keep the story elements that were important to me, I needed there to be something like divine powers that could influence the world – even if they are actually just very powerful supercomputers, and their “angels” are super-powered cyborgs.
But I also don’t believe in a fundamental distinction between sci-fi and fantasy. Both genres share similar origins; their key trait is a willingness to imagine the world being other than it is, and there are countless examples of book or movie series that successfully combine them.
Increasingly sophisticated AI’s are a very real part of our lives. What did you hope to explore about the possibilities and fears around AI’s?
I’m a computer scientist in real life, but I use AI in THE OUTSIDE more as a MacGuffin than a reflection of reality. THE OUTSIDE’s Gods are based on the idea of a technological singularity, in which computers become immeasurably more powerful than humans. That kind of singularity isn’t likely to happen in our lifetime, or even at all, but it’s a cultural trope that makes it emotionally plausible to place godlike, inhuman beings into a futuristic setting. By the way, the dangers of AI in the real world are more to do with humans using AI tools, such as surveillance and automation, for their own all-too-human bad ends.
I do use my computer science expertise in the book, but more for little details, like what it’s like to search a huge amount of data for signs of one person, rather than the concept of the Gods themselves.
On the podcast, we have previously discussed how we want to see more women in sci-fi have interesting careers and skills. Your protagonist is a scientist! What roles do you want to see women take on in sci-fi? Do you have a favourite sci-fi female scientist?
Honestly, ALL OF THEM! The stories that feel most feminist to me are stories with LOTS OF WOMEN, all with different personalities and skill sets, all working together. I love dinosaurs, so I’ll confess I have a soft spot for Jurassic Park‘s Dr. Ellie Sattler. Also, on the topic of LOTS OF WOMEN, I’ve been watching “She-Ra and the Princesses of Power” lately, and I need to mention Entrapta, if only because I want her to be put in a room with certain characters from The Outside so they can gabble excitedly at each other about forbidden science for a few hours. (And her hair!)
Pitch us The Outside. Why should we be reading it?
It’s a suspenseful space opera with some totally wild surreal cosmic horror mixed in, a whole bunch of strong female/queer/disabled characters, genuinely difficult moral quandaries, and empathy winning.
Ada Hoffmann is a Canadian graduate student trying to teach computers to write poetry. Her acclaimed speculative short stories and poems have appeared in Strange Horizons, Asimov’s, Uncanny, and two year’s best anthologies. Ada was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome at 13, and is passionate about autistic self-advocacy. She is a former semi-professional soprano, a tabletop gamer and an active LARPer, she lives in southern Ontario with a very polite black cat.