Hi Jon. First of all… who the heck are you?
I’m a dark fiction writer, which means I hop around genres including crime, fantasy, science fiction and (of course) horror. My most recent book was a collection of short horror fiction called Jon Richter’s Disturbing Works (Volume Two), and my next novel London 2039: Auxiliary is my first foray into the world of cyberpunk, to be released on 1st May.
I live in London where I write whenever I can, so I’m currently immersed in the unfolding coronavirus lockdown – looking on the bright side, it’s great inspiration for all the dark fiction writers out there, and we’ll all be happy to keep producing things for people to read while in isolation!
Do you consider cyberpunk to be a horror genre?
It’s primarily a science fiction subgenre of course, but cyberpunk definitely shares many characteristics with the best horror stories: a dark and dystopian setting, frightening technology, and usually a grisly murder or three for the hardboiled protagonist to unravel (all definitely features of my own book!)
There is a very real risk that our emerging technologies lead to feelings of social isolation, as well as the nebulous dread associated with watching the world changing rapidly around us, perhaps soon bringing us face-to-face with alarmingly lifelike robots and AIs… but until these creations are perfected, the creatures crawling up out of the Uncanny Valley are certain to disturb and unsettle us in the years to come.
Do you think our society is inevitably heading towards this sort of dystopian outcome?
I think some elements of the traditional cyberpunk setting are unavoidable, specifically increasing joblessness and public disillusionment as more and more jobs are able to be performed by machines. Soon, these won’t be limited to repetitive factory jobs; driverless cars are much safer than their human-piloted counterparts, as well as being cheaper to run, so I think it’s inevitable that taxi and long haul drivers will soon feel the squeeze. Even writers like myself have much to fear, with neural networks being developed that can learn how to write their own novels!
My favourite current example of terrifying AI technology is www.thispersondoesnotexist.com, where an ‘adversarial’ neural network has learned how to produce fake images of imaginary people from scratch. It’s definitely worth checking out, although I don’t know which are worse: the ones that are utterly indistinguishable from real photographs, or the ones that are ever so slightly ‘off’…
Do you think it’s inevitable that humans are made ‘obsolete’ by their own robots and AIs?
I think society will need to fundamentally change to adapt to a situation where the majority, not the minority, of tasks are performed by our machines. This means that most people will not need to work – and this doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing.
If governments can implement something like Universal Basic Income (the idea behind UBI is that everyone gets a basic salary, enough to live on, regardless of whether they are rich or poor, in work or out of work – the government will be able to afford this because productivity and economic output will still be high, it will just be being delivered by machines instead of people), that will ensure people can survive without working, but the bigger change will need to be a cultural one. Our society values hard work, and deems those that don’t work for a living to be lazy or deserving of criticism unless they have a ‘valid excuse’; we will need to change these attitudes, so that instead of valuing hard work, we perhaps value friendliness, family relationships, or creative endeavours.
I do think though that, unless there is an abandonment of the capitalist model, it is naïve to suggest that there will always be jobs for humans. Our economic model motivates companies to cut costs, and – bluntly – machines are cheaper and more reliable.
There are lots of horror stories featuring misbehaving AIs – did they help to inspire your book?
Oh, absolutely! The two most famous are probably HAL9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey and the Terminator movies’ main antagonist Skynet, although my personal favourite is the Allied Mastercomputer (AM) from Harlan Ellison’s short story I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream. Rather than a cold, heartless machine whose decisions are based on extreme rationality or simple malfunction, sentient computer AM has developed an utter and deep-rooted hatred for its human creators. The 45-second rant at the beginning of the video game adaptation of the story is fantastic (‘there are 387.44 million miles of printed circuits in wafer thin layers that fill my complex. If the word hate was engraved on each nanoangstrom of those hundreds of millions of miles it would not equal one one-billionth of the hate I feel for humans at this micro-instant. For you. Hate. Hate!!!’) and, as I later found out, voiced by none other than Harlan himself!
However, I wanted to approach my own story a little differently, and create a sinister AI overseer that differed from these insubordinate supercomputers in a couple of ways. TIM (The Imagination Machine) is a neural network that uses statistical analysis and probability rather than possessing ‘true’ sentience. Like the system I mentioned earlier that has been ‘trained’ to generate human faces by simply feeding it trillions of images until it can replicate them, parrot-fashion, TIM is able to ‘mimic’ human behaviour, making predictions, holding conversations and managing complex operations and public services. But is this true intelligence? Or is it something different? Either way, we are well on the road to creating it.
Following on from this, the second difference is that TIM is most definitely not evil. It is a character in the novel – probably my favourite one – that does what it thinks is right, exactly like humans do. This includes reacting when its survival is threatened, in exactly the way it has been taught to.
Or so it says.
What else inspired you to write the book?
I’ve always been a massive cyberpunk fan, although interestingly this didn’t start with either of the two convergent genre ‘originators’ (William Gibson’s Neuromancer or seminal movie masterpiece Blade Runner) but instead with Sega Megadrive classic Flashback. Other favourite works include both of the Ghost In The Shell animes (the underrated sequel is incredible; steer clear of the recent Hollywood movie though) and the fantastic Blade Runner sequel, Blade Runner 2049, as well as the brilliant Altered Carbon books by Richard K Morgan.
My vision for London 2039: Auxiliary was to create a more realistic, nearer-future vision of what life might be like as technologies like robots and AI become increasingly advanced… but still grounded in present day reality. Most people therefore still live in the same houses, travel the same roads, eat the same sorts of food (albeit now delivered by the courier robots that have put supermarkets out of business); having said that, one recent technological innovation I particularly enjoyed researching was that of synthetic or ‘cultured’ meat…
This is a very real new technology, where stem cells extracted from animals are grown in vats into large harvests of flesh; this lab-grown meat is microscopically identical to the animal it came from. It isn’t merely ‘like chicken’; it is chicken, or whatever animal was used as the source. (There’s a mind-blowing video on YouTube where the presenter eats chicken nuggets while the chicken itself wanders around, happy and unharmed, in the background!)
If scientists can reduce the (currently astronomical) costs of this process, it will be a huge benefit to society in terms of eliminating the massive carbon output of the farming industry, as well as removing the need for us to kill animals in order to eat them. But it may be some time before people can truly become accustomed to the idea of eating meat grown in a laboratory…
One final thought experiment I explore in the book is this: if the source animal doesn’t need to be harmed, why would we need to stick to traditionally farmed meats like chicken and beef? The future could bring us panda steaks, tiger fillets, or even (gasp) human burgers! And, of course, why settle for just any old human, when you could have meat grown from the cells of your favourite celebrities?
Beyonce brisket, anyone?
Which parts did you find the hardest to write?
I actually find it much easier to imagine new worlds, characters and technologies while writing than I do to base things in existing reality, so the hardest parts of any writing project for me are always the ones that are necessarily ‘tethered’ to the real world! Geographical stuff e.g. where things are in London is an example of something I find a real chore to adhere to, although some of the necessary research for any dark fiction project can be hugely entertaining (my Google search history about murder weapons and suchlike would probably get me arrested!)
How do you go about writing: any weird habits or routines? Do you have the entire book planned out before you start, or do you just ‘wing it’?
I always work on a laptop so I can constantly slice, dice and dissect what I’m writing as I go – conventional wisdom says you’re supposed to just ‘spew out’ your first draft and then edit it later, but I find this impossible! I always try to have a plan for the entire book, including every chapter, but this tends to quickly disintegrate once I get going… as an example, in my second crime thriller, Never Rest, about halfway through the novel the protagonist meets the shady owner of the private island where the story takes place. Until I actually started writing this chapter, I had no intention of giving the owner a monstrous, terrifying, Hound-Of-The-Baskervilles-style pet dog… but then it just sort of happened! This meant I had to mangle my existing story plan to ensure the vicious canine was in some way incorporated in the book’s ending, which on this occasion made it much more exciting… but ‘pantsing’ doesn’t always work out that well!
This is a horror site after all, so what are some of your favourite horror novels and movies?
My favourite book is Mark Danielewski’s House Of Leaves. I’m a huge fan of books that mess about with genre conventions and adopt an innovative ‘mixed media’ style, and this demented creation completely blew my mind. I won’t spoil its wildly original story here, but suffice to say I can’t recommend it highly enough; it’s also a great example of the power of slowly-building dread, as opposed to cheap scares and ‘gross-outs’, in crafting truly brilliant psychological horror.
In terms of favourite horror movies, I’m going to praise the recent output of Robert Eggers, specifically The Witch and The Lighthouse. These are both truly unsettling, unpredictable masterpieces, and again demonstrate the skilful wielding of slowly-ratcheted tension – the oppressive, dread-infused atmospheres of both movies seem to seep out of the screen into your living room.
Many thanks Jon. Where can readers get a copy of London 2039: Auxiliary, or check out more of your stuff?
It’s been an absolute pleasure! London 2039: Auxiliary is available now for preorder – you can find it on Amazon in either paperback or for your eReader device here: https://geni.us/auxiliarym
You can also find my other books on Amazon if you search for my name, or check out my website at www.jon-richter.com for more information (click the ‘R.U.I.N’ button for an interesting little side story…) Finally, I’m on Twitter @RichterWrites or Instagram @jonrichterwrites if you want to see and hear more of my ramblings, usually just about nerdy stuff or my futile attempts at becoming a good long-distance runner!
Oh yes, almost forgot: I also co-host the Dark Natter podcast where me and my pal Liam dissect our favourite works of dark fiction every fortnight. You can find it on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcast fix.