Wil has been reading SF since early grade school, notably Sprockets: a Little Robot and its sequels by Alexander Key -- starting his fascination with artificial intelligence. At the same time, he was learning to program on one of the earliest PDP-8 minicomputers. Since then, he has made a career in computer science and engineering, while continuing to read SF.
Wil has been writing off and on since he started his first novel in high school. He has had several short stories published in regional zines and Mensa publications. Citizenchip is his first published novel.
Where do you get your ideas?
It’s a question most creative people dread. Often very difficult to answer. But that doesn’t mean it’s a bad question.
In this particular case, I can be pretty specific. It was the summer of 2010, and most aspects of my life were going very badly, and I was reading lots of science fiction. In particular, I was reading and enjoying Banks’ Culture series — enough that I started dreaming in that world. I was also starting to write SF again, after many years away, and determined to do better than I had before.
On a mid summer night, too hot and sticky to sleep, I was thinking about the Culture and realized a couple of things. One: if AIs are so much less capable than humans now, and AIs will be so much more capable than humans in the far future, there must be a point at which they cross over — where the humans and the AIs are about equal in capability and power. That’s the point in time where it would be good to try writing some stories. (I know Banks has stated that the Culture is not our future, but it does have humans in it, so I ran with it.)
Two: most of the AIs we see are functional, mature adults in their prime, or so it seems. We do see a couple of dysfunctional AIs, but Banks never describes their life cycle (if they have one). How do they come into existence — is it like birth, or different? How do they end their lives — is it like death, or different? How do they reproduce? Do they have sex? (Of course, the first question of a primate.)
And I had my concept: follow an AI through its life cycle, from start to finish, and set it at the time where AIs and humans are roughly equal in capability. One natural outgrowth of this concept is that the AIs are in the process of shifting from an underprivileged underclass to full equality, and so parallels to America’s treatment of imported African slaves and First Nation peoples started to work themselves in very early.
Meanwhile, I had been enjoying some fun stories with various amounts of SF elements, particularly Shaenon Garrity’s Narbonic and Skin Horse webcomics. Realizing that I was reading this stuff more than I was reading the “serious” SF, I realized That’s what I need! My early writing is technically well crafted and plotted, but it’s all so serious. No fun. I need to learn to write fun! I have no experience writing comedy, but Garrity’s work showed me how it’s possible to tell a long, involved, intricate story, in four panels per day with a punchline at the end every time (just about). Now that’s the kind of storytelling people will enjoy!
And I had my challenge: in this setting, and for this story cycle, create a fun central character. Not something I had experience with.
So who was this character going to be? Genderless, being an AI, but I always had the feeling of a young woman with a fair amount of sass. A good girl, conscientious about her duties, but not respectful of authority. Gets herself into trouble that way. Screws up, but tries to do the right thing.
Around the same time, I was reading about the life of Jerome Horwitz aka Jerry Howard, universally known as Curly in the Three Stooges. As a child I first saw him as a comic icon, but hey he’s a guy with a family and hobbies and all. And his own set of troubles, and his own way of dealing with them.
So when I turned this new nameless AI loose, she quickly ran into a jovial heavyset guy named Jerry, and they seemed to hit it off. That was the launching pad for this series of stories.
Along the way, without my intention, she acquired a name. I really didn’t plan this. But somehow inevitably she got a human name (phonetic) not a Self name (conceptual) and that became an ongoing gag.
In the near future, an orphan AI must learn to navigate the complicated boundaries between human and AI behavior ... while those boundaries are being thrown into chaos. A different kind of coming-of-age story.