Interview: Karl Bunker on “Overtaken”
- Tell us a bit about the story.
A “sleeper ship” carrying a human crew in suspended animation on a centuries-long journey between stars, is overtaken by a much faster and newer ship from Earth. The newer ship’s occupant is a post-human — a non-biological intelligence descended from human beings. The “old school” artificial intelligence that controls the sleeper ship and the post-human intelligence on the newer ship proceed to have a little discussion, with interesting consequences.
- What was the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write it?
The basic idea for this story came to me years ago, and I don’t remember the circumstances under which that original germ popped into my head. I know I made a note of it in my “ideas notebook” (actually a notepad app on my phone) that read something like “A post-human NAFAL ship overtakes a sleeper ship carrying old-style humans, and communicates with the sleeper ship’s AI. A lot has changed on Earth since the sleeper ship left…” I carried that note around with me for a long time; it was when I had the idea of the old AI telling a story about a heroic act by one of its human crew that the piece finally came together in my mind. But the hook of the story for me was the idea of these two not-quite-human entities discussing the nature of humanity.
Usually I find writing a story a slow and painful process, with me “giving up” on an idea or putting it on a back burner several times over before I finally drag it kicking and screaming out of my printer. This story was remarkably easy; a few days of writing and some minimal revision and it was done.
- Most authors say their stories are personal. If that’s true for you, in what way was “Overtaken” personal?
I suppose the question of what it means to be human is a recurring theme with me. Of course, depending on how you use your terms, most serious fiction can be said to be about “what it means to be human.” But SF writers have the good fortune to be able to approach that question from some unique angles. The theme of the singularity — a coming time when advances in technology will give us the option to fundamentally change what human beings are — is one such angle.
- What kind of research, if any, did you do for this story?
It’s not a science-heavy story, so not much research was required for any specifics. More generally, like any SF writer working today, I had to be familiar with current speculations about what sorts of changes the singularity might bring about. The singularity is the ten-ton elephant in the living room of current science fiction. If you’re writing a story that takes place more than a few decades in the future, you have to address the singularity in one way or another; if you don’t, you may as well have your starship captain writing his log entries on a manual typewriter. But at the same time, it’s wickedly difficult to write a post-singularity story; it’s inherent to the definition of the term that the post-singularity world will be different in ways we may not even be able to imagine.
- The introduction to “Overtaken” states that this story and “Bodyguard,” also published in F&SF, are written in the literary tradition of the Golden Age of SF. What is it about that era that inspires you to write in a similar fashion?
Some old science fiction paperbacks from the 1950s were among the first “grown up” reading material I was exposed to as a kid; I pretty much went from Dr. Seuss to Clifford Simak. Ever since then, that sub-genre of SF has resonated with me. I read a lot of contemporary SF and a lot of contemporary non-SF, but when I really want reading to relax with, I still go back to SF of the 50s and 40s. So I suppose it’s inevitable that some of that style would rub off on me.
It’s interesting to note that a couple of years ago a story of mine won the Robert A. Heinlein Centennial Short Story Contest, “for stories reflecting the spirit, ideas, and philosophies of Robert Heinlein.” So taken with Gordon’s F&SF introduction, there seems to be a consensus that my writing harkens back to that old stuff.
- What would you want a reader to take away from this story?
Ideally of course, I’d like readers to come away from the piece with a few questions, rather than a feeling that everything is settled and pat. The Aotea (the old ship) was making a point about human nature with the story it told; exactly what was that point, and how valid is it? What reaction was the Aotea looking for from the post-human? Was the Aotea correct and justified in the judgment it made or the action it took?
- What are you working on now?
More short stories. I haven’t written any novels or even started any, and I’m not sure when or if I will. For the time being at least, my writing mind seems to be fixed on the short story form.
“Overtaken” appears in the September/October 2011 issue.
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