Photo: Composite images of Martha Wells and F. Brett Cox

The Dana Professor’s interview with the Nebula and Hugo Award-winning author was a highlight of the Norwich University Military Writers’ Symposium

NORWICH RECORD | Winter 2023

If you haven’t already discovered the Murderbot Diaries by best-selling science fiction author Martha Wells, stop reading now and go track down All Systems Red, the first novella in the series. There, you’ll meet Murderbot, a moody, lethal, and ultimately winsome robot-human construct programmed as a security unit. A rogue artificially intelligent bodyguard that has hacked its governor module, Murderbot prefers to stream media rather than face its neurodivergent difficulty in dealing with human emotions. For sci-fi fans already familiar with her series, Wells’ appearance at the Norwich University Military Writers’ Symposium in October was an inspired choice for the symposium focused on the theme, “Robots Rising: Arming Artificial Intelligence.” Attendees were treated to an hour-long conversation between the award-winning author and one of the Hill’s own science fiction writers, Dana Professor of English F. Brett Cox. Excerpts of their conversation, edited for length and clarity, follow.

COX: What drew you to speculating about the future of constructed beings of artificial intelligence as opposed to any other science fiction topic?

WELLS: Before this series, I wrote mostly fantasy. But when I got this idea, it was so obviously a science fiction idea and it was so obviously the idea of basically an enslaved person who is treated as a tool. Someone who ends up with the moral choice between saving people that it’s actually started to feel some emotion for or doing nothing. That really had to be a science fiction story. And an AI was the best way to tell that story. I also had recently read Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice trilogy and Autonomous by Annalee Newitz, which really get into the idea of not only what AI might be like, but the human perception of AI and the difference between what a real AI might be, might want, what its agenda might be, and what it might think of itself versus what a human ascertains it would want.

There were also a lot of novels coming out around that time that I felt were really putting human assumptions into AI, the assumption that every AI would immediately want vengeance for being held captive. There’s also the idea that an AI being would want to be human. Leckie deals with that in Ancillary Justice, where the AI in question starts out as a starship and ends up with these multiple perspectives and multiple different bodies, which it considers peripherals. I wanted to really think about what an AI might want for itself, that an AI would not want to be a human. Being human would be basically a comedown for a being that had that much control over itself and many multiple perspectives.

COX: What do you see as the role of the fiction writer as opposed to that of the journalist, science writer, or historian in considering these issues?

WELLS: I think it's always been to think about these possibilities that are in the future and think about them now, because what do you do with the first sentient robot? You've created a person, basically. As a writer, do you treat it like a person? Or do you treat it like a thing to get people thinking about these things as early as possible? It’s going be the people that thought about those things when they were reading these stories as college students or young professionals before going into these decision-making positions who are going to have the mechanism already built in their minds to be able to deal with this. It’s like any kind of storytelling. A few years ago, I was speaking with someone at an event about science fiction and fantasy in general. He would buy books for his cousins and nieces and nephews, and they wanted what he thought were really dark, dystopian sort of post-apocalyptic books. It was worrying him a little bit. And I said that’s how kids learn to deal with these ideas, especially people my age. When we were growing up, we were kind of bombarded with the idea that we were going to die in nuclear war, the Bermuda triangle, quicksand—whatever. You’re going to die all these ways. Stories help you deal with that. They’re cathartic in some ways. But they’re also building these mechanisms so that you can think about these things in different ways and think past them. I think that’s why we've always had fiction in our cultures, and they’ve always been very powerful.

COX: There’s the stereotype that writers come out of English programs and science fiction writers come out of, well, science programs. But you have a degree in anthropology, and you have workplace experience as a programmer. Talk a little bit about how your specific academic and workplace experience informed your approach to dealing with these issues and the stories.

WELLS: I started out as a system operator for two Lane mainframes, big mainframes designed for business uses, which I don't think they're used anywhere anymore. Later I worked on a PC network that was attached to them. I started as a backup operator and became the system operator. I did programming in COBOL, which tells you how long ago that was, and built databases. You’ll notice that in a lot the ability of Murderbot to figure things out. A lot of the stories deal with mysteries. Rogue Telemetry, in particular, is a whodunit mystery story. The solution Murderbot proposes at one point is to use a database to figure out who the murderer is. That was kind of was my model for figuring out how it might it think, because that was basically my introduction to computers. Trying to work on the logic of things, and also trying to get to people to stop putting stupid things in the database and breaking it. In my experience, you can't create a [database] form that someone else can’t mess up—no matter what you do.

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