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EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Daniel H. Wilson on ‘Robopocalypse’

Daniel H. Wilson is a roboticist, author of several trade books, and contributing editor to Popular Mechanics magazine. SF Signal had the chance to talk to Daniel about writing, technology and his latest book, Robopocalypse.


Charles Tan: Hi! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, how did your interest and passion for robots develop?

Daniel H. Wilson: Happy to be here, Charles! Robots sit in the pantheon of pop culture icons, alongside astronauts, cowboys, dinosaurs, and so on. As a kid, I was definitely into Transformers and Go-bots and Voltron. I started to program computers in high school, and as those skills developed I discovered artificial intelligence and machine learning. Once I discovered that a person can go to college and study robotics – well, it was all over for me.


CT: How did you get into writing, both nonfiction and fiction?

DHW: I wrote a bit in high school and that went nowhere. While in graduate school, I found that I was writing technical papers and grant applications all the time. When I had the idea for How to Survive a Robot Uprising, I put those skills to use in another context. It was a natural jump from writing up my research to writing non-fiction. Sprinkle in a couple jokes and bang, you’re done! Later, I started writing short stories, and sold “The Nostalgist” to Tor online. As I got more comfortable with fiction, I decided to go for it.

CT: What made you decide to try your hand at writing a full-length novel?

DHW: Writing non-fiction books and articles for Popular Mechanics (and the occasional film option) had me making a good living. But it was frustrating to learn so much about these amazing, burgeoning technologies – things that set your mind racing – and then have to just report the real-world version of them. I grew this fantastic landscape in my mind, and I wanted to tell stories that took place there.

CT: What were the challenges in writing Robopocalypse?

DHW: Tying together the epic plot was a chore. Working out how my characters were going to come together required a lot of index cards and Excel spreadsheets and Happy Hour conversations with my wife. She has a great mind for this stuff, but she gets tired of robots pretty damn quick. I had to really work to convince her that every chapter needed to stay in the book. And if she don’t like it – it goes, sooner or later.

CT: How has your background as a robot expert and author of several nonfiction books influenced the way you wrote the novel?

DHW: Obviously, you don’t need a robotics background to write great robots. The machines in my novel do tend to be realistic, but mostly I focus on making them consistent. My hope is that the reader will never stop and think, why don’t they just use X to solve this? The robots form a coherent ecosystem that is evolving over time. Other than that, I love to keep it real in terms of the machines are muddy, mold is growing on them, dew forms on their casings as they walk through the night; they get broken, fixed, scavenged.

CT: Is there a significant difference in your writing process when writing fiction vs. nonfiction?

DHW: You’d think a lot less research goes into writing fiction, but it’s not really true. The process is somewhat similar in that I interview experts, transcribe the notes, pick out cool details, write it, and then follow up to fix all the things I screwed up. The main difference is that I can write fiction much faster, because those convincing details usually form the background and not the meat of the story.

CT: In your opinion, what quality about robots makes us admire and fear them?

DHW: Like most anything, robots are only interesting to humans to the extent that they remind us of ourselves. A robot is a warped reflection of a human being. As a species, we admire how far we have come. We fear where we may go next. The robots are us.

CT: What is it about science fiction that appeals to you?

DHW: I suppose it’s the awesomeness that appeals to me about sci-fi. Ten-ton spider tanks with cowboy sharpshooters riding on top, tromping through sighing fields of dead saw grass. A little girl with electronic eyes whispering evasion instructions over the radio to a humanoid robot as it sprints across an arctic plain at fifty mph. A glowing toy box in a dark bedroom, filled with writhing, whispering toys. What’s not to love?

CT: What are your future projects?

DHW: I’m writing a novel right now for Doubleday called AMP. It’s about a near-future human rights movement spurred when people start integrating technology into their bodies.

CT: Any advice for writers?

DHW: Write about things that you think are totally fucking awesome. Put the other stuff in a drawer.

CT: Anything else you want to plug?

DHW: Robopocalypse is the second book I released this year. A Boy and His Bot was released in January, but has been understandably overshadowed. It’s a terrific novel for kids 9 to 12 and I’m really proud of it. If you’re out buying Robopocalypse, grab your kid a copy of A Boy and His Bot – there are more similarities between the two than you might think.

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