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A Conversation With Justina Robson
An interview with Lisa DuMond
November 2001

© Richard J. Fennell
Justina Robson
Justina Robson
Justina Robson lives in Leeds in Yorkshire, UK. She began writing as a child in the 70s. Her short fiction has appeared in various magazines in the UK and the USA. Her first novel, Silver Screen, published in 1999, was nominated for the Arthur C Clarke Award and the British Science Fiction Association Best Novel Award. Her second novel, Mappa Mundi, won the Writer's Bursary.

Justina Robson Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Mappa Mundi

Mappa Mundi
Mappa Mundi

Your debut novel Silver Screen and the new Mappa Mundi deal with human intelligence and the possibility of duplicating that by machine. What is it about this branch of computer science that attracts you?
Since school I was fascinated by philosophical questions about the who, what and why of human existence. The further I followed those questions the more I got drawn into the various attempts we've made so far to create models of consciousness, natural language processing and other brain-specific phenomena. Also I got sucked backwards in historical time through the theories of our evolution and then, in general, to concepts of how all complex systems arise, function and fail. Computer science is trying very hard in various ways to attempt a kind of evolution of complex, life-mimicking systems at the moment, whereas the rest of the enterprise has to be satisfied with thought experiments and theoretical analysis. The practical possibilities are very strong within AI, although ultimately it may be a project that fails to produce anything we could recognise as consciousness -- it's a tricky topic, since consciousness itself remains to be satisfactorily defined.

As for why I like thinking about this rather than hot fashion tips or making shedloads of money, I've no idea. Nothing else is interesting, by comparison. I must have been made that way.

In your worlds, memories can be quantified and stored electronically in code. This kind of technology would allow the 'essence' of a human being to be stored and accessed indefinitely. Do you see this innovation in the near future? Is it something you would like to see done with your own memories?
Ah, that's a hell of a question. It depends on whether you equate narrative memories with identity, or 'essence' as you put it. For me, the narrative memories are the ongoing development of the identity, but they're also its product. By storing them you wouldn't get the identity itself, only an approximation, and a dead one at that. However, even if this is a 'weaker' version of electronic immortality and essentially a play-only record, devoid of consciousness, it would be an amazing development. Fully interactive 'hosted' people come a lot later in the party, I think and I'm not sure, after an acquaintance with Crowley's Rush-That-Speaks, that I'd welcome that. As for whether I want to be made into Justina Preserve -- hmm, I don't think so. The ego says 'why not?' but the rest of me says 'who the hell would want to listen to you in a hundred years' time?'

With the possibility of 'storing' people for the future, there are going to be the usual heated debates that any life issue attracts, but the accepted roles might be reversed. Which side do you think the pro-lifers and the pro-choicers would find themselves on in this case? What would such a development mean to the right-to-die issue?
If dying were only about losing the physical body I think most of us would be a lot less worried about it. Since, for the scientific positivist (me), it means total annihilation then being stored has its attractions, although I wonder what it would be like to be divorced from our senses. We often think we're all mind anyway, but try a deprivation tank and you may change your mind. Maybe we should ask Christopher Reeve what it's like -- and he still has some contact. In terms of the lifers and choicers issues, I'm guessing you mean that choice people would say they would or wouldn't want it whereas life people would say it must be mandatory. But what would we be preserving? Not life as we know it. It'd be like some big library of ex-people, and you can imagine how bitter and twisted they'd all be at having been stuck on a reference shelf... Some might see it as a sentence in hell. Like all our other technologies, it has its own set of problems, not analogous directly to other situations...

The advancements in your books come extremely close to producing working artificial intelligence, a goal scientists have been striving for decades. Despite the technology-gone-amuck literature and movies that crop up constantly, how do you view the potential for AI? Any dangers you take seriously?
Stephen Hawking and I disagree over this point (not like we have conversations, mind you). He thinks that AI is a potential threat. I think it could be, but it's more likely that it will be a threat because of the way it's manipulated by people, not in its own right. True AI, hosted by machine, would be extremely unlike human intelligence, I think, because so much of human awareness is based on the experience of the body and its electro-chemical soup. Sure, you could mimic the soup, but what would be the point unless you were trying to replicate humanity? I expect most AI will start off as human replicant efforts, but will have to diverge as that's not a feasible option (and it's kind of stupid -- there are billions of humans already, why make a fake one?). Machine AI would have its own goals and desires, I think. But I have no idea what those would be. I suppose if those interests clashed with human ones we'd have a situation on our hands, but would it be worse than our current unintelligent situations rife with conflict and violence? I doubt it. People assume the machines would nuke us for our incompetence/evil/annoying tendency to overrun the place and shoot things, but it isn't much of a strategy, in my opinion. And it's so madly egotistical too, expecting them to behave like us. As if machines would give a toss about us. Leaving Earth for better pastures would be my bet, if I were a machine with the wherewithal.

In the flesh or in the ether, your characters are always plausible, identifiable human creatures. In novels filled with as much technology as Mappa Mundi, is it a challenge to maintain the humanity and the development of the people in your stories while building the technical aspects?
Actually I find it the other way around. The technical aspects are harder to wedge in because my interest lies more in the reactions of the people and what's going on in their lives.

So many writers fall prey to stinting one aspect in favour of the other, but that doesn't seem to be a problem for you. Is that instinct or a conscious decision?
It's kind of you to say so. Personally my effort on this level is conscious. I like stories to score on more than one level when I read them or see them on TV/film and I try to make them do that when I write them. Stinting is a kind of meanness, a sort of laziness. I'm dead lazy in my life, you might say almost comatose with idleness if you saw me about the house, but when it comes to stories I hate that kind of thing. It's like being invited to a bring-your-own-bottle party only to find there's no snacks or peanuts either.

After reading Mappa Mundi, I was greatly surprised to learn that you do not come from a technology-concentrated background. Far from bio- and nano- and all the other -technologies, you studied linguistics and philosophy. Was it the philosophical aspects of these scenarios that attracted you? Or are you a closet science junkie?
There's no closet. I am science girl. Philosophy and linguistics are perceived as adjuncts or arts, compared with raw sciences like physics, but I can't see the difference. They're all driven by the need to know, to discover and to verify what's real. The drive to understand and explain is insatiable, the method -- whatever suits at the time.

Few authors have met with such critical success on their early projects. It's impossible not to be curious about your next novel. Without giving too much away, could you share a bit of what's coming?
After the heavy, heavy seriousness of Mappa Mundi the next book is more of a romp, although possibly not on a Peter F. Hamiltonian scale (I'm not going up against that kind of operatic talent on its own doorstep!). It's a muck-about with the latest ideas about M-Theory (Mystery theory, the search for Theory of Everything/super-gravity) and brane-worlds and a speculation about human evolution in a future where genetic and materials engineering have been incredibly successful. Nobody's going to live in space in a can, like Star Trek. But they're going to space all right... And for the first time I have aliens, which is a big leap for me, toying with the extra-terrestrial in that devil-may-care not-proven, making-it-up-entirely kind of way. I still worry about whether I could get thrown out of Rational Geekdom for that sort of thing.

Copyright © 2001 Lisa DuMond

In between reviews, articles, and interviews, Lisa DuMond writes science fiction and humour. DARKERS, her latest novel, was published in August 2000 by Hard Shell Word Factory. She has also written for BOOKPAGE and PUBLISHERS WEEKLY. Her articles and short stories are all over the map. You can check out Lisa and her work at her website hikeeba!.

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