Risingshadow has an opportunity to feature a Q&A with Jon Richter.
About Jon Richter:
Jon Richter writes dark fiction, and is the author of two gripping crimes thrillers, Deadly Burial and Never Rest, as well as two collections of short horror fiction (Jon Richter's Disturbing Works, Volumes One and Two). Jon writes whenever he can, and hopes to be able to bring you more macabre tales in the very near future.
Jon lives in London and spends some of his time hiding in the guise of his sinister alter ego, an accountant called Dave. When he isn’t counting beans, he is a self-confessed nerd who loves books, films and video games – basically any way to tell a great story.
Jon's new novel, the cyberpunk novel Auxiliary: London 2039, will be published in May 2020.
Click here to visit his official website.
About Auxiliary: London 2039:
The silicon revolution left Dremmler behind but a good detective is never obsolete.
London is quiet in 2039 - thanks to the machines. People stay indoors, communicating through high-tech glasses and gorging on simulated reality while 3D printers and scuttling robots cater to their every whim. Mammoth corporations wage war for dominance in a world where human augmentation blurs the line between flesh and steel.
And at the center of it all lurks The Imagination Machine: the hyper-advanced, omnipresent AI that drives our cars, flies our planes, cooks our food, and plans our lives. Servile, patient, tireless... TIM has everything humanity requires. Everything except a soul.
Through this silicon jungle prowls Carl Dremmler, police detective - one of the few professions better suited to meat than machine. His latest case: a grisly murder seemingly perpetrated by the victim’s boyfriend. Dremmler’s boss wants a quick end to the case, but the tech-wary detective can’t help but believe the accused’s bizarre story: that his robotic arm committed the heinous crime, not him. An advanced prosthetic, controlled by a chip in his skull.
A chip controlled by TIM.
Dremmler smells blood: the seeds of a conspiracy that could burn London to ash unless he exposes the truth. His investigation pits him against desperate criminals, scheming businesswomen, deadly automatons - and the nightmares of his own past. And when Dremmler finds himself questioning even TIM’s inscrutable motives, he’s forced to stare into the blank soul of the machine.
Auxiliary is gripping, unpredictable, and bleakly atmospheric - ideal for fans of cyberpunk classics like the Blade Runner movies, Richard K. Morgan’s Altered Carbon, William Gibson’s Neuromancer, and the Netflix original series Black Mirror.
Q&A WITH JON RICHTER
Hi Jon. First of all… who on Earth are you?
I’m a dark fiction writer, which means I hop around genres including crime, fantasy, horror and (of course) science fiction. My most recent book was a collection of short horror fiction released last year entitled Jon Richter’s Disturbing Works (Volume Two), and my next full-length novel London 2039: Auxiliary is my first foray into the world of cyberpunk, to be released on 1st May.
I live in London where I write whenever I can, so I’m currently immersed in the unfolding coronavirus lockdown – looking on the bright side, it’s great inspiration for all the dark fiction writers out there, and we’ll all be happy to keep producing things for people to read while in isolation!
What made you want to take on the cyberpunk genre?
I’ve always been a massive cyberpunk fan, although interestingly this didn’t start with either of the two convergent genre ‘originators’ (William Gibson’s Neuromancer or seminal movie masterpiece Blade Runner) but instead with Sega Mega Drive classic Flashback. Other favourite works I’ve since gobbled up include both of the Ghost In The Shell animes (the underrated sequel is incredible, but steer clear of the recent Hollywood movie) and the fantastic Blade Runner sequel, Blade Runner 2049, as well as the brilliant Altered Carbon books by Richard K Morgan.
It’s hard to pinpoint what is so compelling about the genre, with its juxtaposition of dark shadows and bright neon lights, the intersection of humanity and technology, the men in cool coats… but I think it’s something more than just the aesthetic appeal. As a lifelong video gamer who has grown up with a keen interest in technology, and has seen it develop more rapidly than I could have thought possible, I think perhaps it’s the combination of plausible modern tech with a realistically grimy world; cyberpunk presents an unsettlingly believable view of our future.
More broadly, I love all things dark and sinister, and cyberpunk definitely shares many characteristics with the best horror stories: a dark and dystopian setting, frightening technology, and usually a grisly murder or three for the hardboiled protagonist to unravel (all of which are definitely features of my new book!)
Can you give us a sneak preview of the book?
I’d love to! The novel is set in London in 2039, and in writing it I wanted to create a realistic vision of the near future, extrapolating current technological trends. So it didn’t actually start off with a desire to write a cyberpunk book; it just ended up that way because I think that’s where the technology is taking us!
London’s streets are quiet in 2039 (an eerie echo of the current situation following the coronavirus outbreak) with most people out of work thanks to the increasingly advanced robots and AIs that have replaced them. Delivery robots and driverless cars patrol the streets while police drones keep the disgruntled populace under control, and wholesome pleasures are sacrificed in favour of rudimentary sex robots, or escapist fantasy worlds accessed via the virtual reality glasses that have replaced mobile phones. All of this is overseen and co-ordinated by a ubiquitous AI called The Imagination Machine, or TIM for short; TIM is something like Alexa on steroids, and is responsible for driving our cars, flying our planes, managing our diaries and reading our children bedtime stories…
The plot sees police detective Carl Dremmler investigating a gruesome murder after a personal trainer uses his powerful prosthetic arm to mash his girlfriend’s head into her apartment wall... but the case becomes highly controversial when the perpetrator claims that the arm acted of its own accord. Is he a liar, or was this just a tragic malfunction? Or, worse, has someone hacked the unhackable AI that has become something like a god to the people whose lives it controls?
Were you influenced by any famous AIs from literature or movies?
I think everyone, particularly those who create stuff, is an inherently sponge-like being saturated with and largely comprised of the things they’ve seen, read, heard and experienced. The book is therefore an amalgamation of all my favourite cyberpunk and science-fiction stories (with some hopefully fresh ideas and twists thrown in to the mixture), and I was undoubtedly strongly influenced by some of science fiction’s infamous AIs.
The two most famous malfunctioning mega-processors are probably HAL9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey and the Terminator movies’ main antagonist Skynet, but my personal favourite is the Allied Mastercomputer (AM) from Harlan Ellison’s short story I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream. Rather than a cold, heartless machine whose decisions are based on extreme rationality or simple malfunction, sentient computer AM has developed an utter and deep-rooted hatred for its human creators. The 45-second rant at the beginning of the video game adaptation of the story is fantastic, and definitely worth seeking out on YouTube (‘there are 387.44 million miles of printed circuits in wafer thin layers that fill my complex. If the word hate was engraved on each nanoangstrom of those hundreds of millions of miles it would not equal one one-billionth of the hate I feel for humans at this micro-instant. For you. Hate. Hate!!!’). I later found out it’s voiced by none other than Harlan himself!
However, I wanted to approach my own story a little differently, and create a sinister AI overseer that differed from these monstrosities in a couple of ways. TIM is a neural network that uses ‘big data’ and statistical analysis and probability rather than possessing ‘true’ sentience. It does not think, it merely mimics, having been taught how humans would react in a variety of situations by being fed trillions of terabytes of sample data. This enables it to hold conversations as well as managing complex operations and public services, and is not too much of a far cry from the algorithms that can already predict our spending patterns to make shopping recommendations, or the chatbots that help us out when we’re encountering problems with websites.
Is this true intelligence? Or is it something different? Either way, we are well on the road to creating it.
Following on from this, the other key difference between TIM and some of his inspirations is that TIM is most definitely not evil. It is a character in the novel – probably my favourite one – that does what it thinks is right based upon its experiences to date, including reacting when its survival is threatened, exactly like humans do.
What are some of the other technological innovations that feature in the book?
I tried to make sure everything was grounded in reality, in other words that every technology I featured was already in use or being developed in the world today. Clearly this includes robots, driverless cars, AIs and human augmentation, all of which are alarmingly well-progressed if you google them, but I’ll touch instead on two other fascinating recent developments that I stumbled across while researching the book.
The first is facial generation technology, the best example of which is www.thispersondoesnotexist.com. These photorealistic fakes (it creates a new one every time you refresh the site) are completely made up from scratch by something called an adversarial neural network. As far as I can understand, one half of the software is facial recognition tech that has been ‘trained’ how to recognise a human face, and the other is generating random images that its counterpart then accepts or rejects. If you imagine running this process a zillion times, the random generator would very quickly learn the ‘components’ of a convincing face – I’ve probably explained this horrendously, but the upshot is that 99% of the images it generates are indistinguishable from photographs. I don’t know if that’s the true horror of this technology, or if it’s the 1% of images that come out a little… wrong. I recently clicked on the site and was greeted by a picture of a man whose grey hair was ‘styled’ in the shape of a baseball cap!?
The other tech I was staggered to learn about was synthetic or ‘cultured’ meat. This is where stem cells extracted from animals are grown in vats into large harvests of flesh, resulting in lab-grown meat that is microscopically identical to the animal it came from. It isn’t merely ‘like chicken’; it is chicken, or whatever animal was used as the source. (There’s a mind-blowing video on YouTube where the presenter eats chicken nuggets while the chicken itself wanders around, happy and unharmed, in the background!)
If scientists can reduce the (currently astronomical) costs of this process, it will be a huge benefit to society in terms of eliminating the massive carbon output of the farming industry, as well as removing the need for us to kill animals in order to eat them. But it may be some time before people can truly become accustomed to the idea of eating meat grown in a laboratory...
One final thought experiment I explore in the book is, if the source animal doesn’t need to be harmed, why would we need to stick to traditionally farmed meats like chicken and beef? The future could bring us panda steaks, tiger fillets, or even (gasp) human burgers! And, of course, why settle for just any old human, when you could have meat grown from the cells of your favourite celebrities?
Beyonce brisket, anyone?
Do you think it’s inevitable that humans are made ‘obsolete’ by their own robots and AIs?
I think society will need to fundamentally change to adapt to a situation where the majority, not the minority, of tasks are performed by our machines. This means that most people will not need to work – and this doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing.
Governments will need to implement something like Universal Basic Income, where the idea is that everyone gets a basic salary, enough to live on, regardless of whether they are rich or poor, in work or out of work (governments will be able to afford this because productivity and economic output will still be high, it will just be being delivered by machines instead of people), in order to ensure that people can survive without working; but the bigger change necessary to enable this will be a cultural one. Our society values hard work, and deems those that don’t work for a living to be lazy or deserving of criticism unless they have a ‘valid excuse’; we will need to change these attitudes, so that instead of valuing hard work, we perhaps value friendliness, family relationships, or creative endeavours.
I do think though that, unless there is an abandonment of the capitalist model, it is naïve to suggest that there will always be jobs for humans. Our economic model motivates companies to cut costs, and we must recognise that, as long as the technology exists to train a machine to do something, they are always cheaper and more reliable workers. This might soon extend to authors like me, as there are already neural networks out there learning how to write thrillers!
Before this machine revolution, what’s your current writing process? Do you have any weird routines?
I write using a laptop so I can constantly cut, paste, slice, dice, hack and dissect what I’m writing as I go – the general consensus seems to be that you should ‘write everything without stopping then go back to edit later’, but I find that just doesn’t work for me! I also need to have music on in the background, although nothing with lyrics as the voices distract me, so these days it’s mainly video game soundtracks and ‘synthwave’ stuff to get me in the mood, especially when writing sci-fi!
As I write this I’m listening to recording of a live performance of the Streets Of Rage soundtrack by its composer, Yuzo Koshiro – apparently it happened in Paris in 2018! How did I miss that!?
How do you overcome writer’s block?
I am lucky enough not to experience ‘writer’s block’ as I have more ideas than I could possibly ever get around to writing – the contents of my Notes app would probably get me arrested! To give you a random sample:
‘man taken apart by spiders in attic’
‘victim sent time lapse footage of decaying loved one’
‘saints do not decompose’ (no idea where I was going with that!)
‘terrifying creature encountered by people who meditate’
The list goes on!
However, I do experience something a bit more like ‘writer’s fear’ whenever I have a break from writing creatively due to other commitments. The prospect of writing suddenly becomes very daunting, and I start to worry I’ve lost the knack! When this happens, writing a short story is usually the best way to get my confidence back... and I’ve ended up with two short dark fiction collections as a byproduct!
Do you have tips for aspiring authors?
I think the most important quality a writer can possess is the ability to generate ideas. Although a badly-written book is a huge turn-off, ultimately the only thing that will differentiate a decent book from a great one is the originality of the ideas within – does it cause you to shrug and say ‘meh, seen it all before’, or does it shock, amaze, horrify and move you? I try to base everything I create around an innovative premise (in my new book, that premise is: what if someone’s mind-controlled prosthetic limb murdered someone, but the perpetrator claims the arm acted of its own volition?), and my favourite writers seem effortlessly able to spew out ideas of startling originality with ease.
I think my point here is that if you’ve got the ideas, you can learn and finesse the writing side, although there’s no substitute for practice. In many ways the two go hand in hand; the old adage ‘writers write’ is probably the best advice I can provide. If you can’t think of anything to write, just start writing anyway, and you’ll be amazed at how quickly the ideas spring to mind… and the process will also make your writing rapidly improve!
Many thanks Jon. Where can readers get a copy of London 2039: Auxiliary, or check out more of your stuff?
It’s been an enormous pleasure! London 2039: Auxiliary is available now for preorder – you can find it on Amazon in either paperback or for your eReader device here: https://geni.us/auxiliarym
You can also find my other books on Amazon if you search for my name, or check out my website at www.jon-richter.com for more information (click the ‘R.U.I.N’ button for an interesting little side story involving another misbehaving AI…) Finally, I’m on Twitter @RichterWrites or Instagram @jonrichterwrites if you want to see and hear more of my ramblings, usually just about nerdy stuff or my futile attempts at becoming a half-decent long-distance runner!
Oh yes, almost forgot: I also co-host the Dark Natter podcast where me and my pal Liam dissect our favourite works of dark fiction every fortnight. You can find it on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcast fix.