Why I wrote Twisted Metal…

June 5, 2011

The Edinburgh SF Book Club recently met to discuss Twisted Metal.  They asked me to provide them with a little bit of background to the book.  Here it is…

https://tonyballantyne.wordpress.com/2010/01/14/duality-materialism-and-why-people-like-robots/

The main inspiration behind Twisted Metal is here on my blog:

…but that’s not the full story.

The working title of TWISTED METAL was THE BOOK OF ROBOTS. That was never going to be a commercial title, but I liked the way it literally described not only the novel itself but also the rather biblical “Book of Robots” within the text; and that it also sounded like the sort of big SF picture book I used to read when I was a child.  One of the reasons for the manga like illustrations within the novel was to make the book look like an old illuminated manuscript.  The joke on the robots is that they don’t believe in their creator when they clearly have one.  The reader can form their own conclusions about our world.

TWISTED METAL was partly inspired by the nature and form of old ballads:  the idea of old stories that subtly change in the telling over the years.   I have since written a quartet of stories: STORIES FROM THE NORTHERN ROAD based on old English ballads but set on Penrose.  These may eventually see the light of day if Macmillan ever get round to giving me the go ahead to publish them.

The names in TWISTED METAL weren’t chosen by accident.

Karel should need no introduction to SF robot fans, his wife Susan dropped her maiden name of Calvin.  Turing City and Penrose offer differing thoughts on the nature of machine intelligence, and the countries of Segre, Bethe, Wein et al are all connected.  Even Artemis featured in my previous Recursion trilogy under another name.  Whilst reading the book, you may want to spot the connections, SF and otherwise, between the names.   The only original name, by the way, was made up by my daughter who, when she heard I was writing a book about robots said “You should have one called Banjo Macrodocious, then.”  I realised that she was right, and he was so included.  She also came up with Wa-Ka-Mo-Do from BLOOD AND IRON.

There comes a moment in the development of every story when I have the realisation that finally allows the transition from my mind to the page.  For TWISTED METAL, this eureka moment came when I figured out the mechanism by which robots reproduce:  with the women twisting the shape of a child’s mind and the men looking on and having to trust what they were doing.  This led to the book’s original opening line:  Two robots were making love in the middle of an electrical storm.  The preceding paragraphs were added later to make the opening more commercial.

TWISTED METAL and BLOOD AND IRON were originally going to be one book, but the characters developed a life of their own and the first book expanded.  Kavan, in particular, was only going to be a minor character, but such is the nature of his belief he quickly invaded more pages than he should have.  That’s why Karel and Kavan have such similar names, by the way.  If I were to write the book again Kavan would be called Arban and would play the cornet beautifully.

There is a third, as yet untitled, book that completes the trilogy.  Personal circumstances have meant that it is as yet uncompleted, but in time I hope that both Karel and Kavan will finally make it to the top of the world.

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Interview with Jonny and Lucy

November 17, 2010

Following my previous post about Jonny Kearney and Lucy Farrell, I asked them if they wouldn’t mind doing an interview.  They very kindly agreed, and here it is:

How did you meet?

Studying folk music at Newcastle university.

Which one of you would win in a fight?

Lucy says Lucy, Jonny says Jonny. The debate is causing disagreement, it may result in a fight.

You have a rather unique, haunting sound. Was this something you’ve worked to develop, or did it just appear naturally?

It happened naturally, we simply played together and a ‘sound’ emerged.

Would you describe yourself as folk performers?  Why?

Well in the sense we sing folk songs to folk audiences, yes. We also compose songs so I guess it’s really down to how you would define ‘folk’.

What next for the pair of you?

Well, we are embarking on a 3 week UK tour with Bellowhead starting today. Then we are recording an album over Christmas, which we will be touring in spring.

The majority of readers of this blog are here for the SF. What would recommend if someone wanted to start listening to folk?

There’s lots of great folk music around at the moment. The Unthanks are great. Chris Wood is great, Emily Portman, Phil & Cath Tyler, Alisdair Roberts, bellowhead, lau….

Lastly, which are better:  Robots or Accordions?

Difficult one.  Jonny says accordions, Lucy says robots.

Jonny: accordions have probably brought more joy to peoples lives.

Lucy: you can get a robot to do anything.

Jonny: I suppose, also you could get a robot to play an accordion, but you couldn’t get an accordion to play a robot.

Lucy agrees. Argument resolved.


Rise of the Machines

October 21, 2010

I’ve never spoken at an event before where they were turning people away at the door… however, I strongly suspect that this enthusiasm was more down to a wish to see Dr Kerstin Dautenhahn‘s robots than anything to do with me.

What an interesting event, too.  Organised by Sci-Fi London, and taking place in the Royal Society, the evening began with Dr Dautenhahn giving a twenty minute talk about her own research.  Afterwards, Tom Hunter led a discussion contrasting real world and science fictional robots.  Dr Dautenhahn was keen to stress that robots were neither he nor she but quite definitely it.  Whatever human traits people saw in a robots were those they brought themselves.  Contrast this with the general Science Fictional robot which is a human clad in metal.  There are exceptions, of course.  Asimov made great play of blurring the distinction, and, as Tom Hunter kindly pointed out, I did the same in my own short story “Teaching the War Robot to Dance”.

But back to the real robots…

One of the stars of the show was KASPAR, designed to study human robot interaction. (I had an interesting discussion with a roboticist before the event about the importance of studying how people approach each other.  If robots are to be accepted, they can’t simply zoom up behind people)  KASPAR has been used to work with children with autism: apparently, the children can find it easier to interact with than real people.  The plans for KASPAR are available for anyone to view, you can build a copy for around £1000.  I’ve put some pictures of the other robots on my Facebook page.

Oh, and did you know that one of the staircases in the Royal Society was designed by Albert Speer?  Honestly.  Nazis, autism, robots and Tom Hunter.  You don’t get this breadth of coverage on other blogs.

 


Duality, Materialism and Why People Like Robots

January 14, 2010

Can a robot be capable of thought, creativity and emotion?

Many people and religions would answer “no”, believing that some spirit or soul within us is responsible for our thoughts.  This concept is known as Duality: the idea that the body and thoughts are two different things.  However, in the past hundred years or so, work on computers and the study of such natural phenomena as Emergent Behaviour have led to the materialistic belief that the mind can be explained in terms of  nuts and bolts and levers arranged in different patterns (or more accurately through an arrangement of cells and electrical impulses).

Now, materialism has been a common theme in SF for the past few decades.  One manifestation of this is the “mind running on a computer” idea. After all, if a mind is not some separate spirit or soul, and is instead just the result of physical interactions, then why can’t those interactions be modelled on a computer, pretty much the same way as the World is now modelled on Google Earth?  I used this idea myself in my Recursion trilogy where minds hopped freely back and forth between processing spaces. But whilst writing Divergence, the last book in the series, I became aware of the following problem: once we accept the ideas of minds jumping back and forth between computers, we are almost back at the idea of “souls” jumping between physical containers. On an intellectual level we are thinking “Materialism”, but subconsciously we are back at Duality.

So I decided to write a book that was unmistakeably materialistic.  I came up with the idea of using robots, robots that would take a piece of wire and twist it into a new mind. These robots would seek out metal to make children, and, when resources were short, they would fight other robots for metal just as humans fight each other for land and food.  I liked the idea, and the novel that eventually became Twisted Metal began to unfold. The novel deals with robots that are capable of thought, creativity and emotion, and of anger, hatred and irrationality, but each with a mind made up of nothing more than a piece of metal twisted into shape by his or her mother.

But I digress.  I wanted to say why I think people like robots.  And I think it’s this fascination that they are the same as us, but oh so different.  You take a piece of metal, you twist it into a robot, and what you have there is exactly what you built.  It may malfunction and try and kill you, it may learn how to love you, or it may just hoover the carpet, but what you are looking at is materialism in action.  And this, for many people, is their first glimpse that the world may be stranger than they think…

(The above originally appeared as an article in SciFi Now Magazine)


Blood and Iron

September 16, 2009

Follow this link to my website to see Jon Sullivan’s amazing cover for Blood and Iron, published April 2010.


Transformers

July 21, 2009

This being the Summer of Robots, I went to see the new Transformers movie last night.

I haven’t seen the first movie, however this didn’t spoil my appreciation of the story because, so far as I could see, there wasn’t one.

But this isn’t necessarily a criticism.

Let me explain… There were many things I liked about the film. The special effects were superb, the pace was tremendous (there didn’t seem to be a spare scene or word of dialog that didn’t advance the action onto the next scene). Okay, the fight scenes went on too long, the pseudo sex scenes were tedious and the comedy grated, but there was something about the finished package that that hints at the future of the high concept science fiction movie genre. It was obvious that a lot of talented people had done their bit on this movie. It wasn’t their fault that their hard work was mangled by committee led film production.   If only the same amount of thought that went into the computer animation had been applied to making sure that the actual story made sense when the film hit the screen.

It didn’t even have to make that much sense. I’ve got nothing against watching a film where robots turn into cars and motorbikes as they fight evil robots. It doesn’t make any sense that robots should do this, but I don’t care. I’m happy to accept an Energon source from the distant past as a reason, far happier than having to listen to some pseudo scientific rationale. (Actually, I was more interested in why the bad robots were called Decepticons. Surely the good robots were also deceiving people? Is this just a case of your enemies being terrorists and your allies being freedom fighters?  But I digress.)

I’ve said it before: computer FX are incredible nowadays, and set to get even better. Some of the scenes in the film were breathtaking. This is almost a new artform, or at least it will be when they sort out how to apply it properly to the script, or vice versa.  I get the sense we’re at the same place that, say, comics were at fifty years ago.  Something new is happening in the medium, but it is being hampered by slavish attempts to copy what’s already there, not to take advantage of the new opportunities presented.