Monthly Archives: December 2013

Interview With Hunter Welles

The following interview with Hunter Welles was conducted by S. A. Noecker, editor at Cowcatcher Press, sometime in July of 2013 and was originally published in the electronic advanced review copy of Solomon the Peacemaker.

SN: First of all, congratulations on the novel. I engaged with it on so many levels. There were times when I paused and marked my spot with my finger and just thought about it and other times when I really just wanted to find out what would happen next. I loved it.

HW: Thanks.

SN: I wanted to start off today asking you about the genesis of this story.  Where did it come from?

HW: The novel started as a short story, which shared the title but not much else.  That story also had a super-computer settling disputes between nations, along with computers connected to human beings and some religious elements.  I wrote it one summer and read it to some friends around a campfire and then left it on my hard drive for seven or eight years.

SN: So this began as an actual campfire story?

HW: I think that’s why I went back to it.  I got a good reaction from my buddies who are all basically non-readers, so I thought there was something a bit visceral about it.  Anyway, I picked it back up three years ago and wrote a draft which was nothing like the finished novel.  The plot of that first draft involved several secret murders, which had nothing to do with the broader concerns of the novel.  Yet the trajectory for the narrator was still the same. In every draft the novel has been in part about awakening and becoming more aware.

SN: You’ve imagined a society in which there are robots, but these aren’t Terminator-type robots, they’re much more benign.

HW: They’re more like the robots on the Jetsons, though they don’t fly around. They also abide by Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, of course, but they’re also very culturally constrained.  I’m very interested in the way culture constrains technology. I have a Samsung phone, which I got very angry at one day because I couldn’t figure out how to shut off the fake shutter noise it made when I took a picture. I’m decently technologically savvy, so I messed with it for longer than I should have, but eventually I had to give up and look online. Of course, thousands of other people had had this same problem and so there were websites explaining that Korean law requires a camera to make a noise when a picture is taken. Since Samsung is a Korean phone maker, all Samsung phones abide by this law. The idea that a culture would hobble technology in that way was really interesting to me, and I imagined a future society that hobbled their robots.

SN: The society seems uneasy about them.

HW: In the book, there’s something called Public Sphere Separation, a philosophical principle, like the separation of church and state, which society accepts as a guideline.  Public Sphere Separation states that humanoid robots can be built, but they can’t be out in public.  They have to stay indoors.  This is their way of dealing with the problem of the Uncanny Valley and the fact that some people might not want creepy-looking humanoid robots walking everywhere, just as some modern-day Koreans have a problem with not knowing when people are taking their picture.

SN: Explain the Uncanny Valley.

HW: A friend of mine, John Teschner, published an essay about drones and the problem of agency and he did a lot of research about the Uncanny Valley, which I benefitted from. The Uncanny Valley is this theory that robots and animation get creepier the more human-seeming it is, up until the point where we can no longer tell the difference between the facsimile and the real thing. C3PO isn’t creepy, but some realistic computer animation is. I was very interested in exploring this in fiction.  We have robots everywhere that we don’t consider—traffic cop robots, bread-toasting robots—but I think humanoid robots make people uncomfortable in a really basic way and so I imagined a future where everyone becomes a little Amish and decides that we are going to build a bulwark against technology and it’s to keep humanoid robots out of the public sphere.

SN: I found the novel to be somewhat ambivalent about transhumanism. What is your opinion of this movement?

HW: I don’t know much about transhumanism as a movement, but I think a lot of science fiction today is too optimistic about transhumanism and I find that frightening.  I’m an agnostic, but I do think there’s something sacred about our evolved biological being. Sacred to us humans, I mean.  If you made a clone of me in the lab using individual atoms, I’d say that’s a violation of my human dignity and a kind of blasphemy.  I view transhumanism in the same way that I view athletes who dope.  Treating the human body as a car that can be pimped out seems to me lazy, sick, and wrong.  I’m not talking about getting tattoos or wearing a dangling camera all the time, to me that isn’t transhuman.

SN: One of the conceits of Solomon is that it’s in the form of an interview, one-on-one in a windowless room.  Why did you decide to use this form?

HW: At first, I used it to give the book a sense of suspense.  You know, who is this guy?  Where is he?  Who’s he talking to?  What crime is he accused of committing?  I wanted to logically limit what the reader knew so that there would be mystery that would drive the book forward.  And then I started to like the limitation because of how it made me work as a writer and tell the story in a different way than I would have if I’d chosen an omniscient third-person narrator.  I also really liked the way the missing questions opened up space and make the reader have to fill in some gaps.  And, of course, with a science fiction novel, it’s nice to be able to redirect the conversation in order to get philosophical or explain something.

SN: Would you ever use the form again?

HW: Never. But I loved working with it and I loved what it did for the story.

SN: There’s a real tension in the book between violence and nonviolence.  The society in the novel is one in which violence doesn’t really exist and yet some of the characters believe they have found a reason to be violent.

HW: The future in the book isn’t one in which anything goes—there are limits on technology, so it wasn’t a far reach to think that there might also be limits on violence.  I’m not a luddite, but there are a few technologies that frighten me and one of these is non-lethal weapons.  I know cerebrally that they save many lives, but I can also imagine a world in which they are perfected and then misused. Protestors or dissidents could be corralled like livestock and these actions might not even make the evening news because no one has died.

SN: John Brown is mentioned a few times in this book. Was he a model for Preacher?

HW: I wouldn’t say he was a model for any one character. However, right before I began drafting the novel, I read David Reynolds’s great biography, John Brown, Abolitionist. Reynolds convinced me that Brown was a very moral man and probably the greatest American whoever lived. I don’t think you can read a biography of John Brown without thinking about how far you would go before using violence. While I don’t advocate using violence, I do think it’s a good thought experiment to consider which cause, if any, you would use violence for. If nothing else, it’s a thought experiment that can help you decide which organization to give your charitable contributions to.

SN: Which science fiction writers do you admire?

HW: I came late to science fiction as a genre, so my knowledge isn’t deep.  I mean, I’ve always loved science fiction movies like Star Wars, The Matrix, Inception.  But I’d never read much science fiction other than the classics like Brave New World and 1984.  Only recently, when I started getting serious about finishing The Peacemaker did I check out some more recent science fiction like Neuromancer and Snow Crash, which both have such a pulpy tone.  The science fiction book I like the most, because of its realism, is Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.  That book is very very subtle.

SN: In the last scene, the narrator, Vincent, has to make a hard choice.  Did he make the right choice?

HW: I don’t know.  I can only say that, given what he knows, I would have made the same choice.

SN: Can you say anything about what you’re working on now?

HW: I’m working on the first novel in a series about a conspiracy theory come to life. I like conspiracy theories because they’re a lot like fiction. You build this massive scaffold and then start hanging stuff on it. I’ve had this particular scaffold up since college, so there are a lot of things hanging on it. As far as fake conspiracy theories go, it’s well built.

Hunter Welles is the author of Solomon the Peacemaker, the first novel from Cowcatcher Press. His address is hunterwelles.com.