Interview with John Standingford

Published 2018-01-11.
You've just published your first books - The Eeks Trilogy. Why did you decide to start your writing career with a trilogy?
It wasn't going to be a trilogy when I started. I had an idea for a book about robots designed to care for old people. They would have autonomous learning capability, so they might work out how to give the human race a better long-term future than we're able to work out for ourselves. But as I got near the end of that book I realized the story would be incomplete. If the robots - the Eeks - were going into space to set up a colony for humans on a distant planet, readers would want to know what happens when the humans get there.
Like Isaac Asimov's Foundation Trilogy?
Exactly. Asimov is my favourite sci-fi writer. He ended up writing seven Foundation books, but the series started as a trilogy. And now we have the Hunger Games, also written as a trilogy.
So that's two books...
Yes, but everyone knows you can't have a series of two books. You must have at least three. Anyway, trilogies are traditional in science fiction.
So if the Eeks Trilogy is successful you might turn it into a longer series?
No. I have great respect for writers who know when to stop. Look at Fawlty Towers - only 12 episodes. It was hugely successful, but John Cleese and Connie Booth decided that they'd used up their best ideas and it was time to call a halt. Jane Austen only ever wrote six books!
I notice that you use quite simple language and short sentences. Is that deliberate?
Yes, it is. I remember reading Ernest Hemingway at school and thinking, "Wow, you don't have to use flowery language or complex sentence structures to be 'literary'." The story's the important thing and I want to tell it in the most direct, accessible way possible. And I want to make it easy to translate.
I also notice that there's not a lot of detailed description of characters and places. Is that deliberate too?
Do you remember the Goon Show? It was my favourite radio program when I was a child. I remember how shocked I was when my grandfather described it as "just a lot of noise." Much of its brilliance lay in conjuring up images and situations with just a line of dialogue, a snatch of music or a sound effect. They tried putting it on TV but it didn't work. The images inside people's own heads were better than what was on-screen. I've tried to give my readers just enough information to fire up their own imaginations. I stopped reading a book once, when the author thought it necessary to tell me what colour telephone the hero was using, and kept reminding me that he had 'salt and pepper' hair.
Let's go back to the plot of Eeks and the other books. They all feature humanoid robots who become cleverer than the humans and start to take over. Frankly speaking, that's not very original, is it?
Not very! But these robots are hard-wired to obey the Laws of Robotics, which Asimov put into his short story 'Runaround'. They're designed to ensure that robots don't do anything to harm humans, individually or collectively. I don't want to give too much away, but my robots use their brain-power to do good things for people - or what they perceive to be good things, which may not always be how people perceive them.
You say in the blurb at the end of your books that they're not really about robots and space travel and such. They're about "what defines humanity and how adaptable we are." Would you expand on that?
Sure. I believe that we've adapted very fast to cope with changing conditions on Earth, and we've managed to colonize pretty well every kind of topography and every climatic zone. But when I say 'fast' I'm talking in evolutionary terms. We carry psychological as well as physiological baggage that served us well when we were hunter-gatherers living in small tribal groups, but which is weighing us down now. We've created nation states with complex systems of government, and international organizations, but we still find it very difficult to come together and negotiate a strategy to stop destroying our own habitat.
You're talking about environmental damage, climate change...?
I am, but it's more than that. We've evolved a wide range of different customs and ideologies. That was OK when our small tribal groups were separated by oceans and mountain ranges, but now we're having to live together and make common cause, and our differences matter a lot. Most obviously, we face the challenge of reconciling militant Islam and the rest of the world. And, less bloody but perhaps just as destructive, we have a clash of economic ideologies.
I thought free market capitalism was the only game in town now.
Communism is dead, certainly, and socialism is a rude word in many places. But we have transnational corporations that exist only for the benefit of their owners and managers, and financial institutions that grow rich without producing anything of general benefit. The great mass of humanity - the 99% if you like - is angry and resentful, but powerless. I don't see a peaceful way to resolve this conflict.
You mention religion quite often. In the first book you have the Pope making a long speech about birth control and euthanasia. Are you religious?
I was brought up as a Secular Anglican and went to a school where we prayed "that this school shall be a Christian school." By Secular Anglican I mean someone who believes in being honest and kind and sends out Christmas cards, but has a relaxed attitude to the 10 Commandments and the existence of God.
You're agnostic then?
After a brief period of enthusiastic church-going with my elder sister, and joining the unfortunately-named Crusaders youth group with a friend from school, I started calling myself an agnostic. But when I was about 16 my English teacher, Chris Price, said, "Oh come on, John, make up your mind! Do you believe in God or not?" I decided that I was living my life on the assumption that there was no god, so I reclassified myself as an atheist.
You mentioned your sister. You said something about her in your books too, in the acknowledgements. How influential was she in your life?
Very. Peeje (her nickname) was born just before the Second World War but I had to wait for my father to come home from prison camp. She was quite bookish when she was growing up and introduced me to poetry when I was very young. Then I read all her Swallows and Amazons books and her Doctor Doolittle books, and she took me to the theatre.
Your parents didn't do those things?
They took me to all the Disney films. My father has busy re-establishing himself when he got home from the war. He worked for J Lyons, the big food company in Britain at that time. Most of his colleagues stayed at home - being in the food industry they weren't called up. But Dad was in the Territorial Army so he was commissioned and sent to North Africa. When he came home he had some catching up to do. He was very much involved in designing LEO - Lyons Electronic Office. That was the world's first computer for commercial applications. Then he was transferred up to Liverpool, which was almost like another country. My sister was 15, I was 7, there was no other family member within 200 miles, so my mother had a lot to cope with. Peeje was like a 3rd parent in some ways.
So your father was a pioneer in computing! Did that arouse your interest in science and technology, and maybe in robots and sci-fi?
It probably did. Certainly I grew up with an awareness of computers and what they could and couldn't do. But at school, when we had to choose between the two cultures at age 15, I went into the 'modern' stream: English, French, History. I did join the after-hours Science Society, though, and made the posters advertizing the meetings.
And now you have children?
Two sons and two grandsons. My wife Mary and I live in Australia, not far from our younger son. But our elder son and both grandsons live in the UK, so we try to make a trip once a year to see them.
Obviously you haven't abandoned your British roots, then. And you've set your first book in Britain. Why is that?
That's just how it came out. Maybe it's because we were visiting the UK for several years when my mother was living alone and then moved into a retirement home. I suppose it was then that I started to think seriously about the problems and the huge cost of looking after more and more old people - many of them sick or demented but living to 80, 90 or 100. And it was when Mary and I made a side-trip out of the UK to visit Spain and Morocco that the idea for Eeks was born.
I was about to ask you about that. Eeks begins with a British/Australian couple outside a Moroccan carpet shop. Is there anything autobiographical about that?
Approximately 100%! Mary is Australian-born and it was in a carpet shop in Marrakesh that I started thinking, "That salesman could easily be replaced by a robot."
But especially in the 3rd book, Squidgies, you talk about the human qualities that robots can't replicate.
That's right. The robots themselves recognize that. And the humans see the value of the quirky, irrational side of their nature. They fear losing that if... well, people will have to read the books to finish that sentence!
You touch on lots of other themes in The Eeks Trilogy: racism, colonialism, sexuality, relationships, even the nature of love. Do you plan to write more books where you can explore those themes more fully?
Those and other themes, yes. I've written a fourth book that is not yet published: 'Bobby Shafter'. It's not sci-fi but I think it will appeal to many of the same people who like The Eeks Trilogy..
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Books by This Author

Bobby Shafter
Price: $2.99 USD. Words: 87,900. Language: English. Published: September 5, 2020. Categories: Fiction » Romance » Historical, Fiction » Humor & comedy » Satire
Bobby and Elizabeth meet on a train and it suits them both to team up. But they are separated by education, age and above all class. As convenience turns to friendship, and then affection, Elizabeth finds a novel way to bridge the gap. We are in Yorkshire in 1955, and every page evokes the time and place – from gossip to gangsters, coconut shies to corporal punishment, death duties to darts.
HM4MEN - A Manual of Household Management for Men
Price: $1.99 USD. Words: 15,080. Language: English. Published: June 15, 2016. Categories: Nonfiction » Home & Garden » Reference, Fiction » Humor & comedy » General
More and more men are finding themselves in sole charge of their households, with little experience and no training. This manual of household management is for them. HM4MEN is a reference book, with 60 topics arranged in alphabetical order – from Bed-Making to Windows – and cross-references between topics. It is also an entertaining read, so humour takes its place alongside the serious advice.
Goldiloxians (The Eeks Trilogy)
Price: $4.99 USD. Words: 143,540. Language: English. Published: June 5, 2016. Categories: Fiction » Science fiction » General
The Eeks Trilogy in 1 volume – sci-fi that is as much about the social sciences as the physical ones. When e-Carers (‘Eeks’) do well at caring for the elderly, modified ‘Speeks’ are tasked with finding a suitable planet for colonization. On arrival at Planet Goldilox a shipful of humans face the challenge of creating a new society and coexisting with another sentient species already in residence.
Squidgies - Book 3 of the Eeks Trilogy
Series: Goldiloxians (The Eeks Trilogy). Price: $2.99 USD. Words: 49,250. Language: English. Published: November 11, 2015. Categories: Fiction » Science fiction » General, Fiction » Literature » Literary
The first Goldilox-born children are nearly 16, voting age. Kabil's parents are surprised when he decides to stand for election. Human ingenuity lets the Squidgies 'upside' to the surface of Goldilox, where they enter Human society and even women's hearts. But some young Humans resent this intrusion and try to restore Human dominance. ['Goldiloxians' contains all 3 books.]
Speeks - Book 2 of the Eeks Trilogy
Series: Goldiloxians (The Eeks Trilogy). Price: $2.99 USD. Words: 53,070. Language: English. Published: November 10, 2015. Categories: Fiction » Science fiction » General, Fiction » Literature » Literary
Capt Leonora Mendoza awakes in orbit around the planet Goldilox. The Space Eeks ('Speeks') have built an enclosed city and a life-support system. The hard part of the mission is setting up a functional human community. Speeks' leader Hepplewhite has an answer to the 4:1 sex ratio, but finding another sentient species presents new problems. ['Goldiloxians' contains all 3 books.]
Eeks - Book 1 of The Eeks Trilogy
Series: Goldiloxians (The Eeks Trilogy). Price: $0.99 USD. Words: 41,860. Language: English. Published: November 9, 2015. Categories: Fiction » Science fiction » General, Fiction » Literature » Literary
It's the ultimate breakthrough: a truly humanoid robot. Alarmed by the cost of caring for the aged, the UK Government funds development of robotic e-carers ('Eeks'). This works so well that no-one looks too closely at what the Eeks are doing on their own initiative - even when they promote euthanasia and colonizing a distant planet, that they will find. ['Goldiloxians' contains all 3 books.]