Interview with Todd McAulty, author of The Robots of Gotham
Please welcome Todd McAulty to The Qwillery, as part of the 2018 Debut Author Challenge Interviews. The Robots of Gotham was published on June 19th by John Joseph Adams / Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
TQ: Welcome to The Qwillery. What is the first fiction piece you remember writing?
Todd: Thanks, and it's great to be here!
I was into comics and science fiction at a pretty early age, and the first fiction piece I remember writing was a pretty funky mad scientist story. I borrowed my Dad's typewriter and pecked it out, one key at a time. I submitted it to a science fiction magazine at the age of 12, and I was bursting with pride and excitement just to be able to say I did that, let me tell you.
Surprisingly. I got back what seemed to me to be a thoughtful rejection. It meant so much to me to be treated seriously by a science fiction editor that I immediately set to work on another story.
TQ: Are you a plotter, a pantser or a hybrid?
Todd: I admit, red faced and embarrassed, that I am a total pantser. I have no idea where my stories are going. I sit down in front of my computer and start typing, mostly to find out what happens.
TQ: What is the most challenging thing for you about writing?
Todd: Getting started. I'm a procrastinator, Woowee, am I a procrastinator. The day I was supposed to start writing my next novel, I did six loads of laundry, cleaned the kitchen, and vacuumed the whole house. I never wrote a word but, hey, my writing space sure was ordered and tidy.
Still, I do enjoy writing. I just have a hard time getting started. Once I get over that hump though, once I fall into the regular rhythm of 2-5 pages a day, it's the best feeling in the world.
You just need to exercise those writing muscles. Once you get them in shape, you can routinely accomplish things that seemed impossible when you were just getting started.
TQ: What has influenced / influences your writing?
Todd: Reading. Novels of course, but also short fiction. Read the magazines -- Clarkesworld, Asimov's, Lightspeed. There are writers doing things today that will blow your mind open. Clarkesworld has a marvelous podcast, read by the amazing Kate Baker, and I listen to it while riding the train home from Chicago in the evening. Yesterday I listened to Bogi Takács' “Some Remarks on the Reproductive Strategy of the Common Octopus,” about uplifted octopi on an alien planet. Great stuff!
If you're a writer looking to get inspired, novels are a fine choice. But I find that nothing really churns the mind like great short fiction. There's so much out there today, and so many ways to consume it. If you haven't tried, you're really missing out.
The other thing I read is newspapers. Real journalism, not just bloggers and Facebook. I think I'm the only person in my train compartment every morning that still carries a physical copy of The New York Times with me downtown. Pretty old school, I admit.
When I wrote the first draft of THE ROBOTS OF GOTHAM, it seemed flat and unrealistic until I realized I was missing a global perspective. I needed to tell the story of how the rise of independent machines had changed the entire world, not just the United States. That was a hugely positive change to the book, and I think it comes directly from exposure to so many in-depth resources on global affairs.
TQ: Describe The Robots of Gotham in 140 characters or less.
Todd: A Canadian businessman in an occupied Chicago uncovers a machine conspiracy to destroy all life and teams with humans and robots to stop it.
TQ: Tell us something about The Robots of Gotham that is not found in the book description.
Todd: I worked with the great folks at John Joseph Adams Books to craft what I thought was pretty serviceable jacket copy for the novel. But it wasn't until all those terrific blurbs from other writers starting coming in that I realized that there were much better ways to describe the book than just a straight-ahead plot synopsis.
C.S.E. Cooney, who'd just won a World Fantasy Award for her magical collection BONE SWANS, said something that really struck me. She said:
"For all its breakneck world-building, constant questing, and relentless wheeling and dealing, The Robots of Gotham is deceptively deep-hearted: a novel about, of all things, friendship.”
It's interesting how the themes in your fiction aren't always clear to you until someone points them out. But she's absolutely right. THE ROBOTS OF GOTHAM is about a Canadian who gets dropped into a very ugly situation, an occupied Chicago hollowed out by a prolonged war against machines, and sets about indiscriminately making friendships. With Americans in his hotel, with foreigners who are part of the peacekeeping force, and with machines of all kinds, including some who are part of the occupying army. Those friendships become crucial when he stumbles on a machine conspiracy to destroy all life on the continent with a horrific plague.
Barry Simcoe and his new friends set out to stop it, and when they do they make two more startling discoveries: that the fabled American resistance is not nearly as extinct as everyone believes, and that there's a very big secret hidden behind the machine machinations in Chicago. A secret that America's machine conquerors are desperate to keep hidden.
If I had to describe the book today, I'd do it a little differently than I did when I wrote that jacket copy. I'd want to find a way to boil down what the book is all about. To say that the antidote to all this skullduggery and mistrust is friendship. The outsider Barry Simcoe is able to make friendships in a very dangerous place, with parties who are intensely hostile to each other, and those friendships spread.
Can something as simple as friendship successfully undermine a global conspiracy? Can man truly be friends with something as alien as a sentient machine? Those are the questions I had so much fun exploring in my novel.
TQ: What inspired you to write The Robots of Gotham? What appeals to you about writing Science Fiction?
Todd: The Robots of Gotham is a standalone book, and it tells a complete tale, but it's also part of a series of stories that use the same setting. I was inspired to write it because of my love for the science fiction and fantasy series that have captivated me over the years, from The Lord of the Rings to Star Trek to Harry Potter.
Neil Gaiman once said he didn't truly understand serial fiction until he realized that the key is giving readers time to live with the characters between installments. That the magic of his Sandman comic wasn't always magnified by collecting the monthly issues into graphic novels so readers could digest them all at once. That good serial fiction has more impact when it has room to live, for readers to daydream and imagine their own stories between chapters. I think that's a powerful insight, and it's part of what fascinates me about writing a series.
TQ: What sort of research did you do for The Robots of Gotham? How much of the science in the novel is more fact than fiction?
Todd: I work for a machine learning company in Chicago, and one of the great surprises of my life was how much the real world caught up with the world of 2083 Chicago I imagined, just in the three years between when I began writing the book and when it was published. The advances in machine learning, robotics and artificial intelligence over the last three years alone have been staggering.
If I had it to do all over again, I might have moved my time line up by 30 years, to 2053. And even that might not be enough! We are plunging into a future world of robots and Thought Machines far faster than I had imagined. Much of what I conjectured in the book is fact already. That's both exciting and a little terrifying.
TQ: Please tell us about the cover for The Robots of Gotham.
Todd: I'd be delighted to! The cover was designed by Mark R. Robinson at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and it depicts a scene from the novel. It shows a massive fireball over Lake Michigan, a scant 15 miles offshore, created when an unknown group of machines create a controlled magma vent -- basically a volcano -- in the middle of the lake.
Why? That's just one of the mysteries Barry Simcoe is faced with when he arrives in the city, and sees this happening from his hotel room.
I'm absolutely thrilled with the cover. Covers are enormously important, and I think doubly so for debut authors. There's not a lot of reason for a casual browser to pick us up in the bookstore. If the cover doesn't catch your eye, we're sunk. And Mark's cover is certainly eye-catching!
TQ: In The Robots of Gotham who was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why?
Todd: That's easy. The easiest character to writer was the first robot introduced, Nineteen Black Winter, a diplomat from the robotic kingdom of Manhattan. He and Barry are both injured in the attack on their hotel in the first chapter. While Barry quickly recovers, Black Winter is dying, and no one can help him. Barry has to make a crucial decision about how much he's willing to risk to try and save a machine he just met a few hours ago.
Black Winter was easy to write because, like Barry, he's an outsider. He's just trying to make his way in a city that hates and mistrusts machines. He doesn't understand the politics any better than anyone else. But his connections and knowledge prove to be invaluable to the fledgling team when the crisis hits.
I think the hardest character to write was the villain, who's also a machine. I'll leave the rest of that question alone for now.
TQ: Why have you chosen to include or not chosen to include social issues in The Robots of Gotham?
Todd: I think social issues were unavoidable. Any time in history when a race has conquered and oppressed another, the consequences have been brutal and long-lasting. In this case the conquering race is machine, but I think the dynamics involved will be painfully familiar.
But I don't think that's the most interesting social theme in the book, at least not to me. The machines in The Robots of Gotham are gendered. There are male and female robots, and they are born with a powerful drive to reproduce. What does it mean to be part of a wholly new race that is discovering gender politics for the first time? If the ability to be transgender is part of your programming, does gender even exist?
These are very valid questions, some of which are already being asked today about people, of course. I find it fascinating to mirror that conversation in a different space, among machines, to see if we're comfortable with the same answers.
TQ: Which question about The Robots of Gotham do you wish someone would ask? Ask it and answer it!
Todd: When is it on sale?
June 19th! Here, let me write that down for you. Thanks for asking!
TQ: Give us one or two of your favorite non-spoilery quotes from The Robots of Gotham.
Thanks for the opportunity! Given the chance, I'd like to quote from one of my other favorite robot characters, Paul the Pirate, a Jamaican Thought Machine who blogs about politics. In Chapter Two he shares his thoughts on the origin of the war with America, and he's much more clear-eyed than others. Here's Paul. (Warning for language -- Paul is something of a potty-mouth.)
In April 2080, with American alliances in tatters, the fascist machine regimes of Venezuela, Argentina, Bolivia, and Panama banded together to form the SCC—the San Cristobal Coalition. The SCC stoked the flames of suspicion against America, and powerful interests backed their accusations. Diplomatic solutions failed, and on October 20, 2080, the SCC invaded Manhattan.
I was on vacation in Mexico when it happened, and like the rest of the world, I watched the invasion of America in real time. No one had ever seen anything like the war machines that emerged out of the Atlantic to terrorize the financial capital of the world. Manhattan fell in less than twelve hours. The SCC spread rapidly across the Eastern seaboard, quickly retooling device factories in New York City to manufacture huge war machines. From there, the Robots of Gotham spilled across the eastern half of the United States, and it looked like nothing could stop them.
But damn, man. Somehow America _did_ stop them. They did it the old-fashioned way, with bloody sacrifice and sheer guts and willpower. And they did it with massive war machines of their own, operated by recklessly brave pilots. They did it in the fields of Iowa, and the streets of Atlanta, and the swamps of Louisiana, wherever the fuck those are. At horrific cost and with peerless determination, America fought the invaders to a standstill, until the Memphis Ceasefire in December 2082 finally brought the bloody war to an end.
TQ: What's next?
Todd: I am hard at work on the second book with the same setting, THE GHOSTS OF NAVY PIER. And who knows, maybe some short stories.
TQ: Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery.
Todd: Thank you for having me!
The Robots of Gotham
John Joseph Adams/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, June 19, 2018
Hardcover and eBook, 688 pages
A thrilling adventure in a world one step away from total subjugation by machines.
After long years of war, the United States has sued for peace, yielding to a brutal coalition of nations ruled by fascist machines. One quarter of the country is under foreign occupation. Manhattan has been annexed by a weird robot monarchy, and in Tennessee, a permanent peace is being delicately negotiated between the battered remnants of the U.S. government and an envoy of implacable machines.
Canadian businessman Barry Simcoe arrives in occupied Chicago days before his hotel is attacked by a rogue war machine. In the aftermath, he meets a dedicated Russian medic with the occupying army, and 19 Black Winter, a badly damaged robot. Together they stumble on a machine conspiracy to unleash a horrific plague—and learn that the fabled American resistance is not as extinct as everyone believes. Simcoe races against time to prevent the extermination of all life on the continent . . . and uncover a secret that America’s machine conquerors are desperate to keep hidden.