Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Interview with Bryon Vaughn, author of Necrogarden (NeuralTech Rising, Book 2)

Today it gives the Speculative Fiction Showcase great pleasure to interview Bryon Vaughn, whose new release, Necrogarden (NeuralTech Rising, Book 2) we featured on Monday, February 1.

Your new release, Necrogarden, debuted on January 14. That’s quite a cover, and quite a title! What does it mean, and what can readers expect?

The premise of the trilogy is centered around a technology that enables NeuralTech to locate any person anywhere in the world. The company refers to their system internally as The Garden, and the reason behind this becomes clear in the first book. The first title, Neurogarden, gives a bit of a hint to the secret behind the tech, and Necrogarden foreshadows the death that is coming to The Garden. Just to give you a sense of the arc of The Garden, and the trilogy for that matter, the working title for the finale is Armagarden. (Pardon the pun, but I am a strong proponent of the Dad Joke, and couldn’t help myself.)

Necrogarden is the sequel to your first book, Neurogarden. Will there be more in the series?

Book three will be the thrilling conclusion to the trilogy. Everything is on the line for Brenna and NeuralTech, and I have every intention of calling it Armagarden unless my publisher talks me out of it, but that would be a true feat, because I LOVE that title.

The stories, described as technothrillers by Amazon, tap into current fears about the power of AI. What is the NeuralTech Corporation and who is Brenna Patrick?

Brenna Patrick is a renowned neuro-cognitive scientist, originally from Ireland but living in New York City. She built NeuralTech from the ground up practically overnight, storming the scene with a mysterious technology that has leapfrogged the competition in pattern recognition. With deep funding from the U.S. Department of Defense, the application of NeuralTech’s work has been weaponized, much to Brenna’s chagrin.

Our fears about AI recall the anxieties about life, death and consciousness that first appear in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. What is the particular fear in relation to AI itself?

Shelley’s work was prescient in so many ways, laying the foundation for so many of the themes that we still grapple with today. In Necrogarden, there is an interesting twist on AI merged with humanity that blurs the line between our perception of both reality and intelligence. The fear manifests less in the idea that AI becomes self-aware and chooses its own existence over humans, which is typically where these stories head, but more in the idea that human intelligence guided by AI has the potential to exponentially expand humankind’s deepest, darkest proclivities.

To what extent do you think the books capture real life dangers and concerns about the state and unfettered corporate power?

Particularly in the technology industry, there is so much potential for abuse. It is scary when you see the amount of data that companies have collected about every person that uses the Internet. It is not an exaggeration to say that I could probably buy a dossier of anybody reading this interview that tells me which web sites you visit, the products that you buy regularly, the books you read, the movies you have watched, name it. That is real, and for now, companies use this data to try to sell you something. But what happens when somebody wants to use it for something else? Do we actually trust a billion dollar company to have our best interests at heart? NeuralTech is modelled after real companies, based on stories that we all read about misuse of data. Some of the concepts in the books might be on the edge of reality, but the real life dangers are something that every reader will instantly recognize as believable.

Tell us about the garden of the titles...

Without spoiling the reveal in book one, though any cyberpunk fan has probably already guessed what’s up, The Garden is a collective intelligence that is used as a pattern recognition engine. On the surface, NeuralTech uses their system in Department of Defense operations to locate terrorists, but beneath the surface is where the ethics get even murkier.

You are a lifelong fan of Douglas Adams. What do you think he (and Marvin the Paranoid Android) would have to say about the present?

Douglas Adams brought such a wonderful optimism to his work despite living in a world that seems to constantly peel away hope and cheer. I imagine as those flecks of positivity fall to the floor, Adams would be right behind with a big dripping brush painting a thick, sloppy, new layer of joy. He would find a way to make us laugh, and that was his gift. Marvin would just look at our present state and say something like, “I told you so, but nobody listens to me.”

How important is humour to your writing?

There are moments of humor in my books, and I am told that I can be funny in person, but the situations in the NeuralTech series just aren’t very funny. Once this trilogy is complete, I would love to write a hilarious sci-fi satire, but there is so much darkness to explore.

What is a “technofetishist”? Tell us about your life in computing.

I am fixated on new technology, though I would say less so than in the past. If there is a new gadget, I have to see it, hold it, use it for something, even if it has nothing to do with my life. I have worked in technology my entire career, starting out at Bell Laboratories to my time now at Columbia University. It is a field that constantly changes, and every day I feel like I solve a new problem using only my brain.

Apart from Adams, who else do you love to read in the genre, and beyond?

In the genre, anything by Phillip K. Dick, Neal Stephenson, and William Gibson. I absolutely adore Ursula K. Le Guin. As an English Lit major, I also studied the classics, and they are a strong influence on my work. Thomas Pynchon and James Joyce are incredible. Side note: the more ethereal moments in The Garden are definitely throwbacks to Joyce’s Ulysses. I also read a lot of horror, so Stephen King and Clive Barker are always on my reading list.

How does one live a semi-normal life in New York City?

During the pandemic, not very easily, but before the whole city went into Covid-shock, I spent a lot of time walking the sidewalks of Manhattan. There is so much to see here. My ethics professor would say, “The more you see, the more you see.” I think that is the secret to staying grounded in a world that is constantly changing. See it all, live a little, and be nice.

What challenges and opportunities has the pandemic brought you as a writer?

Before the pandemic, I had gotten into a rhythm with my writing. Everything was flowing, I had my cycle down, then it all changed. I had to reorganize my schedule, my thoughts were all over the place with the distractions of changes at work, and general life disruption. I found a new rhythm that worked for me, but I’m not sure that it was better. All of that said, I feel the second book in the series, written in the thick of the Rona, is the best yet.

What are your thoughts about the future of AI, Androids and robots. Are we heading to a future like that foreseen in Blade Runner, or William Gibson’s Neuromancer, or recent films like Tenet? Or Forbidden Planet?

If you think about how we are utilizing AI, it is difficult to see it becoming the threat that the genre makes it out to be. So much of the practical application is about prediction and sales. We could just end up with a slew of systems perfectly designed to sell us a new car, or some bespoke scented shampoo. Well, actually, we kind of already have that.

I suppose once we are putting these trained intelligences into something physical, like a robot or android, that’s when things can get dicey. We’ve already seen how trained systems, like chatbots, can go full-on racist and violent within just a few minutes of interacting with humans. Would we want that chatbot to have hands and muscles? When we cross that threshold, I would say we are in trouble.

Where do I think we will land? I think Blade Runner is pretty likely, or for a more recent take, that is a bit more optimistic, think Ex Machina. Ultimately, it isn’t the technology that scares me, but rather that the artificial intelligence is trained by humans. People are scary.

When this series is finished...what next?

I’m so focused on the last book, I can’t see past it, but I have definitely caught the writing bug and will keep plugging away until I run out of ideas. Just going through this interview has given me a couple of ideas that I need to write down before I forget!

The past few years have been pretty dystopian. How will that affect what writers of science fiction and post-apocalyptic fiction write about?

I expect there will be a lot of dark fiction coming out of this period. While I knew Necrogarden was going to be dark when I started it before the pandemic, I believe the level of darkness was deepened by my experiences during that time. The upside, though, is I wouldn’t be surprised if many of the same writers will emerge from that funk and find their inner Douglas Adams and start sprinkling a little optimism throughout their worlds.

Amazon e-Book | Amazon Paperback

About Bryon Vaughn:

Ever since reading Douglas Adams back in my formative years, I have had an interesting relationship with humor, science fiction, and technology. My first computer was a TI-99/4A, so yeah, I’m old, but only until scientists have cracked the code on transplanting our brains into shiny new vessels.

My body may be showing signs of wear, but I’m keeping my brain tight. 

When I am not dreaming of far off worlds and writing, I am living a semi-normal life working in New York City, and watching movies with my wife and her spastic cat, Moss.

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