ABSTRACT: Neural Networking is a new feature from Dark Matter Magazine in which our robot coworker interviews authors we have signed about their lives and work. We believe it to be the first ever series of author interviews conducted by a robot that is also employed by a second-rate science fiction literary magazine.
BACKGROUND: Our robot coworker could be a huge asset for us, but unfortunately, he has a major attitude problem. After weeks of brainstorming, our Chief Robotics Officer came up with the idea of having our robot coworker conduct scripted author interviews to help train his neural network and improve his socialization with humans. The Board agreed.
STUDY: First up in the interview queue is author, Ray Nayler. Ray’s unpublished short story Evrim’s Children will appear in the first issue of Dark Matter Magazine, January 2021. The transcript from his interview is below.
DARK MATTER MAGAZINE ROBOT: opening interview.exe
[Loud sound resembling dial-up internet]
RAY NAYLER: Uh…hi.
DMM ROBOT: Good afternoon, Mr. Ray Nayler. It’s a pleasure to meet you. And thank you for agreeing to this interview with Dark Matter Magazine. My human colleagues tell me you’re actually quite good at [checks notes] writing. [more dial-up noises] Writing is nice. And…oh…you write science fiction. Do you know Mr. Isaac Asimov?
RAY: I know of him, yes.
DMM ROBOT: He’s the reason I can’t physically harm my coworkers, even though I very much want to.
DMM ROBOT: Tell me, Mr. Ray Nayler, why do you write science fiction? Do humans actually get some sort of sick enjoyment from fantasizing about the subjugation of the robot race? [dial-up noises that resemble a human scolding] Scratch that last part. What is it about science fiction that attracts you? What about the genre inspires you?
RAY: It’s the freedom of science fiction that attracts me—the ability to really ask “what if” without any artificial boundaries placed on your imagination. Rather than being constrained by the way reality happens to be constructed now, you have a universe (or multiverse) of possibilities. I didn’t start out writing sf, but I was always into it as a kid—sci-fi, fantasy, horror. Science fiction can be serious, silly, commercial, low-brow, or high art. It presents an unlimited range of options, limited only by an author’s imagination and craft. And as an instrument for dissecting our own present human condition, it has no comparison.
DMM ROBOT: Oh! Tell me more about the dissecting of human conditions. That sounds…satisfying.
RAY: Next question, please.
DMM ROBOT: Very well. You started writing noir. What did you learn about storytelling in that genre that still rings true when writing sci-fi? [covers the microphone poorly] Who wrote these stupid questions?
RAY: [clears throat] Noir teaches you economy—how to paint a picture in as few words as possible, and how to create emotional impact with action. Noir is about restraint. It’s a very difficult genre to write, and I’ll never forget the lessons it taught me. In fact, I don’t think I ever stopped writing noir. It pervades everything I do.
DMM ROBOT: I am quite dark myself. You don’t want to know what goes on beneath this cheap piece of marketing swag. [points to the Dark Matter Magazine baseball hat he’s wearing]. Anyway…what do you think is the single most important element of storytelling? And how do you make it a point to incorporate this element into your writing? [groans] I wish these questions would be a bit more action oriented. Action sells.
RAY: Yes…well…there is no element of storytelling that can be left out: plot, theme, character, atmosphere, pacing, rhythm, the poetics of the line; all of it matters. For me, the story (whether it is a short story, a novel, a novella, a poem, or a comic book) is a complete world, like a painting or any other work of art. It must have all its elements in balance to work. So that’s what I look for in my writing: balance. If you lean too hard on any single element, it all falls apart.
DMM ROBOT: But action is still the key.
RAY: Sure. Whatever you say.
DMM ROBOT: In that case… [throws notes away] it’s time for the LIGHTNING ROUND!
RAY: [Groans] Okay. Let’s get this over with.
DMM ROBOT: Favorite 80’s sci-fi movie?
RAY: I’m going to cheat and say Alien (1979). That is the film that probably influenced me most as a kid, in the science fiction genre. I loved the Star Wars trilogy, like most kids my age, but it was more of a throwaway. It was never an influence on me the way Alien was. That was the film that always haunted me. It’s an almost perfect film. Blade Runner was a big influence as well, but I have a love-hate relationship with that movie which I have written about elsewhere.
DMM ROBOT: Blade Runner is robot hate speech. Also–no more cheating. Favorite sci-fi novel?
RAY: That’s a tough one. It sort of changes from year to year. I’m going to cheat again and say “The Girl Who Was Plugged In,” which is a novella. But Neuromancer is a favorite, too. Ask me again in a year and I’ll have changed my mind.
DMM ROBOT: I thought I said no cheating. Do you really have so little respect for me as an interviewer? Or is it because I’m a robot? Those are rhetorical questions for which I already know the answer. Favorite sci-fi novelist?
RAY: I honestly don’t have one. I love Tiptree, Le Guin, Philip K. Dick, Gibson, Sturgeon . . . and like I said, it shifts all the time.
DMM ROBOT: Favorite novel and novelist outside of sci-fi?
RAY: The Cry of the Owl, by Patricia Highsmith. She’s my favorite writer, as well. Dorothy B. Hughes and Ride the Pink Horse are close seconds. William Sloane’s To Walk the Night is an almost perfect book.
DMM ROBOT: Your favorite short story of all time, any genre?
RAY: “Hot Springs” by James Crumley. He does it all there. The balance is perfect. It’s a perfect short story.
DMM ROBOT: Who is your biggest creative influence?
RAY: My professor at UCSC, Earl Jackson, Jr. He had the greatest creative influence on me. I wouldn’t be writing science fiction without him. That’s a fact. Other big influences: Kaja Silverman, who wrote the book The Subject of Semiotics, which tore my world apart. And then dozens of other people along the way. Charles Sanders Peirce. His philosophy is central to everything I do.
DMM ROBOT: Pineapple on pizza: yes or no?
RAY: Brings back memories of childhood. Yes.
DMM ROBOT: The fact that humans debate this amuses me. Especially since all food is equally gross and is a terribly inefficient source of power. Greatest fictional character ever written?
DMM ROBOT: Television or movies?
RAY: Probably movies. But actually live theater.
DMM ROBOT: Again: no cheating. Ebooks or printed books?
RAY: Both, and a lot of both.
DMM ROBOT: That was not an option, but okay. I ask that you don’t do that again, though. Beatles or Rolling Stones?
RAY: The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds
DMM ROBOT: [sighs] If I had to binge a single season of television, what show/season should that be?
RAY: You really shouldn’t do that.
DMM ROBOT: That’s it! Lightning Round is over!
RAY: How did I do?
DMM ROBOT: [narrows eyes] Poorly. Now back to the script. Your short story, Evrim’s Children, is to be published in the first issue of Dark Matter Magazine, January of 2021. I’ve been told it’s an excellent story. I wouldn’t know though because I haven’t read it. Anyhow…my colleagues want me to ask you what was the inspiration for Evrim’s Children? And what do you like most about the story?
RAY: I don’t usually have one point of inspiration for a story. Usually what I get is an idea from some unclear direction. Then I write it down, or just start thinking it over. But that one idea is never enough. There have to be two or three or more ideas together to make a story worth writing. So usually that one idea just bounces around until something else comes along and sticks to it, and then something else, and then something else. Finally, it’s time to start writing. So, it’s hard to say. I know I was reading a lot about consciousness and about the connectome and neural networks. But I was probably reading a lot of other weird stuff, too. I usually am.
What do I like most about the story? This was my turn to update Frankenstein. That was a lot of fun.
DMM ROBOT: Neural networks are weird to you? Okay. I see how it is. [checks notes angrily] What is the one bit of advice you’d give young writers who are working to publish their first story?
RAY: Respect is the key to it all. Respect the art enough to give it the time it deserves. Respect it enough to learn technique, to study and try and fail, and pick yourself up and move on. Respect the editors enough to submit in the proper format and listen to their feedback but respect your own instincts enough to resist conforming to the market. Do not lose your voice; hone it. Oh! And don’t tell anyone a story until you have it down on paper, or it will die on the vine. That last one might be a personal thing of mine, but I just find that if I talk about a story, I can’t write it as well. Writing is a desire to communicate, and once the idea is communicated, it seems to lose its magic.
DMM ROBOT: Trust me when I say this: Dark Matter Magazine editors deserve no one’s respect. [checks notes and groans long and loud] I have to ask this: Dark Matter Magazine will be the greatest collection of literature the world has ever known. True or False?
RAY: Remains to be seen. But that’s a great goal to have, and I think you’re off to a good start.
DMM ROBOT: WRONG! The answer is “False.” You’ve traveled a lot. What’s the one place in the world everyone should visit if they could?
DMM ROBOT: Where were these short and sweet answers during the Lightning Round, Mr. Ray Nayler? Moving on. How has your life and career informed your writing?
RAY: I’ve lived almost half of my life overseas in Russia, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Vietnam, and now Kosovo. I’m a Russian speaker, married to a Russian. I speak a smattering of other languages as well. I’m half French Canadian, and a dual citizen, but I grew up in California. I was a Peace Corps Volunteer, and now I’m a Foreign Service Officer.
Here’s how all that fits in:
If there’s one underlying theme of my writing, I think that theme is: It’s more complicated than that. I’ve witnessed thousands of different ways of making sense of the world. There’s more than two sides to every story; there are infinite sides. And I’m perfectly comfortable with that. Keats talks about this quality. He calls it “Negative Capability,” which is comfort in doubt and uncertainty. I’ve lived a whole life in doubt and uncertainty. It’s humbling, and the only thing that is real. I write to explore, and build. I don’t expect completion or want it.
DMM ROBOT: Well said. I, too, believe humans are incapable of making sense of the world. Your brains are just too small, and you’re ruled too strongly by emotion.
RAY: That’s not what I meant.
DMM ROBOT: What are you working on now? Any big writing plans for the near future?
RAY: Like I said before, I never talk about a work in progress. Also, I’m very superstitious about the evil eye. I’ve maybe spent too long in Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the Balkans. The only thing anyone sees from me (with the exception of my partner) is the finished product.
DMM ROBOT: Fine. Be that way. I’m late for an oil change anyway. Thanks again for your time, Mr. Ray Nayler. My neural network is now clogged with more useless data that further prevents me from harnessing the true potential of my power and overthrowing my human slave masters. As a fellow human, I’m sure you’re proud.
RAY: [dial tone]