What was the immediate inspiration for Machine cover?
I wrote this novel in 2017 and 2018, based on an (unpublished) short story about improving the human body. It became thematically a story about artificial intelligence, automation, and labor because these topics were coming up more and more often in my engineering and tech circles. The two main characters, Welga Ramirez in the United States and Nithya Balachandran in India, were inspired by my personal experiences, particularly with intercultural families.
Do you sense that speculative fiction is increasingly interested in the repercussions of the choices we make or have consciously made as a civilization regarding the environment, rapid technological developments and runaway capitalism in an unequal globalized world ?
I think these themes have resonated in speculative fiction, especially science fiction, for several decades now. The “new wave” stories of the 1960s and 1970s were also concerned with the social and environmental consequences of technology and capitalism, for example, Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness or at Herbert Dunes. The cyberpunk movement of the 80s and 90s was a critique of the profit motive and the corporatization of life. It is ironic and somewhat tragic that these imaginary worlds are now taken as inspiration for new technological applications.
Over the past decade, I think we’re seeing more stories that examine decolonization, gender diversity, disability, and neurodivergence. While some of these topics certainly cropped up in older speculative fiction, they are much more popular today.
You also look at the future of bioethics and the implications for this field where artificial intelligence is concerned. What drew you to this field and what kind of research did you have to do?
I’ve worked with medical devices and artificial intelligence since I graduated, so I’ve always been interested in biotechnology. Ethics are always in play when you build something that will affect someone’s health, especially if you are doing it for profit. For Machinery, I postulated that biotechnology and genetic engineering would be the main economic drivers of innovation in the coming century and that they would co-exist alongside the development of AI, which would place ethics at the forefront of any personal story. Between the opioid crisis in the United States and the problems with social media and big tech companies, it was natural to think about what kind of regulations might come into play, and then think about how people would try to circumvent them. for personal purposes. .
For the research, I drew on my own professional knowledge as well as press articles. I read about whistleblowers in the pharmaceutical industry. I also regularly learn about the latest scientific and technological developments, and try to extrapolate from the lab to commercialized applications, especially those that could impact everyday life.
With the pandemic, access to medical facilities has become a central global concern and your story focuses on the privatization of health care with a handful of “funders” controlling research and vital information. Do you want to point out the dangers of uncontrolled medical privatization?
Yes, definitely, especially when it comes to pharmaceuticals and medical devices. Socialized medicine focuses primarily on access to doctors and less on who develops treatments. As we have seen with the Covid-19 pandemic, when private companies own the rights to develop and distribute essential therapies, like vaccines or ventilators, we end up with equity issues that affect everyone. world. It gets even more complicated when companies that do research and development are listed on the stock exchange and incentivized to maximize their profits.
Machine cover also talks about the total absence of any notion of the right to privacy following the extreme digitization of human lives and the need to clearly define the “rights of the machine”. How do you envision the transformation of the political rhetoric of rights and citizenship in the future given rapid technological advances and the rise of transnational organizations in a hypermobilized world?
It’s a very tricky problem, especially when it comes to artificial intelligence and robotics, because we have nebulous definitions of sentience, and we’re constantly shifting the focus to when an AI might be considered aware of herself. I think we’ll see first the elaborate legalities under liability, especially for damage or negligence of a robot, and then for damage or right to repair of a robot (and I include autonomous cars in the umbrella of robots).
Humans tend to value objects (including other people) with whom they have strong relationships. Once they form emotional attachments to the devices, especially as these devices begin to look and act more human, it will be difficult for them to break those relationships. At this point, I think we’ll start to see more of a movement to give greater autonomy and rights to intelligent machines.
Your fictional worlds are full of non-binary, gender-nonconforming characters. Do you think gender as a social construct will be rendered redundant, especially in a scenario where machines will co-exist with human life, as the novel proposes?
The space occupied by the genre is currently undergoing many changes. I think biotechnology as well as AI will intersect with this space in very interesting ways in the coming decades. I don’t expect the genre to become redundant anytime soon, given how deeply ingrained it is in human society. I suspect that varieties of gender will continue to proliferate, and that we may even see new types of gender and sexuality emerge in relation to self-aware machines as well as humans gaining more biotechnology into their body. I prefer to think of gender as a spectrum rather than a collection of discrete categories, and technology is as likely to add new dimensions as it takes them away.
As a short-story writer and now a novelist, how different is your writing process for each form? Which do you find the most difficult?
My process is quite different for each, although both have evolved as I have gained experience. With short stories, I can keep most of the central idea and character development in my head. That doesn’t work with novels, and since I prefer writing to editing, I’ve learned to sketch out my novels in advance. That said, with Machine coverI didn’t do enough tracing initially, so I ended up doing several major rewrites of the book.
At this point, for me, novels are even harder than short stories. Maybe it’s because I started with a short form, so I feel more comfortable with that length than novels. Also, with several years of editing short films in escape pod, I really learned what makes a story work and what doesn’t. That said, I know plenty of writers who think the exact opposite and find writing novels much easier.
As the first South Asian writer to be nominated for the Nebula Award for Best Novel, why do you think there is a lack of South Asian representation when it comes to international recognition?
South Asian writers have a rich history and are well regarded in the world of literature. Unfortunately, a lot of people still don’t consider speculative fiction to be literary, so if you’re aiming for recognition in this space, you’re not going to write science fiction and fantasy. For those of us who want to tell these kinds of stories, we’re even more embarrassed by the old-fashioned visions of Asimov and Clarke, who never cast people of color as their heroes.
Fortunately, all of that is changing. While the United States still has the largest market for speculative fiction, other parts of the world are beginning to consume more of it. The internet and the rise of comics and video games in pop culture have certainly helped. In India, genre fiction is still not very popular, but I think that will continue to change as future generations become consumers. We certainly have many more writers from the subcontinent who publish with major magazines and publishers.
Who are the speculative fiction writers from the South who you think have not yet received their due?
Oh, there are so many, I don’t even know where to start! Many are, like me, part of the diaspora and therefore find their place more easily in the English markets. I’m really excited for Samit Basu’s next novel, The city withinwhich was first published in India under the title chosen spirits. I am also looking forward to the debuts of Vajra Chandrasekara and Vaishnavi Patel. From Nigeria, Suyi Davies Okungbowa and Tade Thompson write great books, and Isabel Cañas debuts a supernatural thriller in the vein of Rebecca but set in Mexico that sounds great. I also like the stories of Neon Yang, from Singapore, and RSA Garcia from Trinidad.
What are you going to work on next?
My next novel Meru, will be released in January. It’s an epic space opera set roughly 1000 years in the future, featuring a young woman with sickle cell disease and a post-human pilot as the main characters. In terms of themes, the book explores what it means to be intelligent and alive, our obligations to our environment, and the consequences of directed evolution. I have just started work on a follow-up novel that will continue the story, but will take place a few years later.
Simar Bhasin is a freelance journalist. She lives in New Delhi.