Madeline Ashby is a Toronto based academic, science fiction writer and futurist who’s debut novel, vN is set in a future where lines are being drawn between human beings and their robotic creations. We caught up and asked her some awkward questions.
Starburst: vN is your debut novel. Is it the book you always wanted to write, and if so, why? If not, what is the story you really want to tell?
Madeline Ashby: I don't have a story I'm that obsessed with. I've been telling stories since I could talk. Seriously. I used to wander around my room talking in funny voices, rehearsing the same scenes over and over between people I'd made up. Eventually I'd nail my own private performance, or write it down, and then I'd be finished. So when you've been doing that your whole life, you tend to look at a single magnum opus as something of a quagmire.
I learned this aphorism from the design community: Perfect is the enemy of Good. It's all too easy to spend all your time on something you never allow to be good enough. It means you never have to work up the gumption to show it to anybody or let it fail. But it's a trap.
You wrote a Master’s thesis on Anime and Cyborg culture at York; how has that influenced vN, and what anime do you watch again and again?
A lot of my thesis focused on how anime figures the body, and how that can be read through the lens of cyborg theory. So I spent a lot of my time thinking about replication, reproduction, ownership, autonomy, and personal freedom. For me, those are all themes within vN. But I've had other people tell me that how I depict bodies in motion is drawn from anime, and how I depict violence, too. For my own part, I know I was thinking a lot about how Bleach depicts a darker self slowly taking over, and how Fullmetal Alchemist talks about wanting to undo a childish mistake and setting off on the road to do just that.
As for the series I return to again and again: I really love how Cowboy Bebop depicts the future. It's a fine-grain vision that's internally consistent down to the tiniest detail. It's also some of the best-written television out there, period. The characterization is deep, but subtle. When I think about how to telegraph meaning within dialogue, or how to illustrate meaning with a single powerful image, I think of Cowboy Bebop. I also go back and watch Evangelion pretty regularly. Not because it makes any sense, but because I can't get enough of the savagery of those robot battles. I tried to incorporate a bit of that into vN, but on a much smaller scale. There are days when I love Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex a lot more than the material that inspired it. I think it just tells more interesting stories about more interesting people. It's also pretty brilliant in how it depicts the ramifications and implications of changing technology. I just finished watching Another and Madoka, and I'll probably watch them again. Right now I'm watching Shangri-la and Kids on the Slope. I have high hopes for both.
Do you imagine that the technological singularity will happen in your lifetime, and will it bring Mankind the peace that we claim to crave?
I have a second degree in strategic foresight and am employed as a futurist, so I actually answer this question a lot. I don't believe in the Singularity any more than I believe in the Rapture. And even if the former were to occur, I doubt that we'd have a single event that was recognizable as "The Singularity". Annalee Newitz once wrote that we've had several Singularity events, in the form of penicillin and the birth control pill and the Internet, and I agree with her. The people who think the future happens too quickly are the people who don't pay attention to science or technology journalism, who don't know how long it takes to get projects funded, who don't understand that both design and scientific endeavour are iterative processes defined by repeated failure. I think the yearning for a Singularity is the same as yearning for a Rapture, and ultimately that's the same as yearning for a weight loss pill that actually works. We all want one definitive event that will change everything forever. We don't want to do the slow, hard, constant work that actually improves things.
So what I hope for is a plurality of singularities. I think it's absurd that we still need things like braces to straighten human teeth. I think it's absurd that conditions like depression are treated with drugs whose side effects include suicidal ideation. I think it's absurd that we haven't figured out a global standard and practise for carbon capture. If we treated carbon the way we do nuclear material, we wouldn't be kissing the Northwest Passage goodbye. But solving those problems is slow, hard, constant work, and it doesn't fit into the messianic narrative we use as historical scaffolding.
If you were stranded on a desert island and could only have one book for company, what would that book be?
Kafka on the Shore, by Haruki Murakami. Or maybe one of his short story collections. My favourite is After the Quake. But the sentiment and message of the former is so affirming, moreover so affirming in the face of such anxiety and pain, that I think I'd need it. Otherwise, I'd pick The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje. I fell in love with that book when I was fourteen years old. I re-read it every once in a while to remind myself how plain and workmanlike my own prose is by comparison.
What fictional worlds inspire you? Which Authors are your influences?
The first fictional environment I fell in love with was Brian Jacques' Redwall. I wanted to live in Redwall. I wanted to eat the food served in Redwall. Then later, I very much wanted to live in Gotham City - the Bruce Timm animated version. The last world-sized environment I fell for were the four nations of Avatar: The Last Airbender. (The animated television series, not the execrable live-action film adaptation.) I also really like what Tite Kubo has done with the cosmology of Bleach. Each environment, no matter how surreal, feels as though it has its own rules. But in general, fiction-wise, I'm drawn to worlds that are like ours, but just a little bit different. Or rather, worlds where it's possible to peel back layers of reality and discover something unexpected pulsing beneath. I think David Lynch has built a career on that. His films have such a sense of place, and they're almost always about how the places and people we think are "normal" or even boring simply aren't. I'm a big fan of environments like that, like Twin Peaks, or ’Salem's Lot, or Hinamizawa. I think sometimes you can tell a richer story about a smaller place, because you're not busy expositing a whole world.
In terms of who influences me, it's a long list. I had the great fortune to meet Ursula K. LeGuin in person when I was graduating university and needing some inspiration. I was also lucky enough to make it to Toronto, where I auditioned for a spot in a genre writers' workshop started years ago by Judith Merril. It's the same workshop Cory Doctorow was once a part of, and that's how I met him and his works. It's also home to a bunch of other very successful writers, and they've had a huge impact on who I am as a writer and how I approach the game. I met my partner David Nickle there, and he's the one I speak to daily about fiction. He writes horror, and I write SF. Our place is like a constant panel discussion at a genre convention.
If you could erase a single thing from existence, in such a way that it never existed at all (and never would again) what would it be?
A thing, and not an event? Because there are plenty of events I would erase. And people, for that matter. But since you asked about things, like New Coke or Windows Vista, I would have to say... tarantulas. Tarantulas, or asbestos. But probably the former.
What can we expect from future novels in the Machine Dynasty series?
Well, the sequel to vN is tentatively titled iD. It takes place shortly after vN ends, and it's from the perspective of Javier, a supporting character in vN. Javier is a self-replicating humanoid, and he's had a rough go of it for most of his life. Because he's programmed to never hurt human beings, he's slept through most of his problems with them. But he's also incredibly resourceful, intelligent, and charming - a sort of non-violent Hispanic James Bond or Dean Winchester, who also happens to be a machine. iD puts him on a quest for redemption and revenge, and he has to call on all his old skills for a new purpose, and figure out who he's become along the way. That means digging more deeply into the world that made the vN possible. Javier will have to deal with the people at New Eden Ministries, with DARPA researchers, with a Stepford-style community of humans and vN. Oh, and pirates.
Simpsons or Futurama?
Ebooks or Paperbacks?
Ebooks. Anyone who's immigrated will tell you the same. If they don't, they're masochists.
Battle Angel Alita or Cameron from the Terminator TV series?
Alita. She's survived more.
Truth or Beauty?
Tom Baker or Matt Smith?
Robert Downey Junior or Benedict Cumberbatch?
Oh, that's tough. Downey. He looks more like David. He'd be my first Republican, too. You might as well find some strange when you're finding some strange.
vN is out now from Angry Robot Books and is reviewed HERE.