The Qwillery: Welcome to The Qwillery. Are you a plotter, a pantser or a hybrid?
Jon Richter: I’ve actually never heard of a ‘hybrid’ before, but I love the idea of such a disturbing experiment, stitching the two approaches together to create some sort of horrifying Frankenstein’s Writer! I am probably closer to a ‘pantser’ these days –my first couple of books were meticulously planned before I started writing, only to find the stories veering wildly off track as soon as I got going! So now I’m happier to go with the flow, scribble down an outline and just dive in to see what emerges…
TQ: What is the most challenging thing for you about writing?
JR: Sadly I don’t make enough money from writing to rely it on it for my full-time income, so I have to juggle it alongside a busy day job. I was foolish enough to become a qualified accountant in my younger days, so although I’m very lucky to be able to earn good money, it does mean that my working hours can be very long and challenging… and it can sometimes be difficult to switch my brain out of numbers mode and into words!
TQ: What has influenced / influences your writing?
JR: I love dark fiction of all kinds, and in many forms of media: books, movies, TV shows and video games are all fantastic sources of inspiration. I love stories that are original, unpredictable and leave a lingering chill… recent favourites include the book House Of Leaves by Mark Danielewski (never have I felt so keenly that a book was reading me as much as I was reading it…) and the video game Pathologic 2, which told a haunting tale of a plague outbreak in a fantasy setting. When I spent the first two days saving up fictional currency to buy a gun from a dodgy bloke at the docks, only to find two days later that the town’s economy had collapsed and I was having to trade the gun for a loaf of bread just to avoid starving to death, I knew I was experiencing a masterpiece!
TQ: Describe Auxiliary: London 2039 using only 5 words.
JR: Where our technology might lead…
TQ: Tell us something about Auxiliary: London 2039 that is not found in the book description.
JR: This is a great question! Hmmm… okay, the first thing that’s popped into my head is a bit about the game’s omnipresent AI ‘overseer’, TIM (The Imagination Machine). A little like an extremely beefed-up version of Alexa, TIM runs everything: he flies the planes, he reads your children bedtime stories, he makes your coffee, and he’s your constant companion, available to speak to you whenever you like. I wanted to make this character very different from the more typical ‘evil AI’ trope that proliferates science fiction, but also not necessarily motivated by good either. TIM is a tool, nothing more: a neural network that learns from vast quantities of data to simulate consciousness to better serve its human creators.
When researching other fictional AIs, I stumbled across ‘AM’, the Allied Mastercomputer, who appears in Harlan Ellison’s short story I Have No Mouth But I Must Scream (what a title). The short story is certainly worth a read, but is most notable for being the alleged inspiration for Skynet in the Terminator movies – indeed, Ellison settled out of court following the first film’s release, and was given a sum of money as well as an acknowledgement in the credits.
AM is not the sort of AI I wanted to create, but is a fascinating character nonetheless: it despises humanity with a passion, so much so that it wipes out all humans except for five hand-picked victims who it intends to torture for all eternity. The video game version of the story features an incredible, hate-fuelled rant, which I recently learned was actually voiced by none other than Harlan himself!
TQ: What inspired you to write Auxiliary: London 2039?
JR: I am fascinated by modern technological trends and developments, and the book was really an attempt to project forward into the near future, when things like driverless cars, smarter AIs, cybernetics, augmented reality and rudimentary robots will become much more commonplace.
I have always loved classic murder mysteries and noir detective stories, and when an image popped into my head one day – of a crime scene with a dead body mashed into a wall, a severed cybernetic arm protruding out from its crushed face into the room, while detectives took photographs and pondered what had happened – I couldn’t resist making my first foray into the world of cyberpunk!
TQ: What sort of research did you do for Auxiliary: London 2039?
JR: As mentioned above, I’m really interested in modern technology, and so researching the book was a labour of love! It gave me a great excuse to read about all manner of emerging innovations, such as the Brain Computer Interfaces being developed by the likes of Neuralink which really could transform our society (imagine being able to talk just by ‘thinking’ to each other?)
One of the most interesting subjects I stumbled upon was the field of synthetic meat. I don’t just mean meat substitutes made from mushroom or soya or whatever – I mean actual, vat-grown protein grown from stem cells that is indistinguishable from the real thing. It looks and tastes like chicken because it is chicken – just chicken that’s been cultivated in a laboratory. This technology already exists, and if its developers can reduce the cost then there’s a very real chance this could completely replace traditionally farmed meat in the coming years… and could also mean that we find ourselves able to grow and eat the meat of more exotic animals, because there would no longer be any need to kill them.
And why stop at panda steaks and polar bear fillets? Soon we might find exclusive restaurants selling meat from our favourite celebrities… Beyonce Burgers, anyone?
TQ: Please tell us about the cover for Auxiliary: London 2039.
JR: To my shame I actually don’t know the name of the artist, but I certainly think TCK Publishing did a fantastic job with the book’s cover. It depicts the afore-mentioned mechanical arm, and the central mystery that drives the book’s plot – and also leaves the reader with no doubt about the type of book they are about to enjoy! Metal prosthetics like this are such an iconic cyberpunk image that it felt like an absolutely perfect piece of cover art.
TQ: In Auxiliary: London 2039 who was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why?
JR: The main character, Carl Dremmler, is a bitter and selfish man, but also honourable and good-natured at his heart. In some ways, he is similar to me – struggling at times to exist in modern society, always feeling a little behind the curve, riddled with irrational neuroses and prejudices he is unaware of, trying but not always succeeding to do the right thing – so to write him I really just had to crank up the dial on some of my own flaws.
Conversely, writing TIM was a challenge, as I had to make a huge effort to think in a very different way. TIM is ruthlessly logical, but his actions and the way he communicates are born from a very different type of intellect: an intellect forged not from nurture, but from billions of terabytes of uploaded data. I am particularly proud of the poem that TIM writes during the story, which I hope captures the AI’s motivations and mindset.
TQ: Does Auxiliary: London 2039 touch on any social issues?
JR: I wanted to consider the impact of emerging technology on society in a realistic way. For example, just because new building methods exist doesn’t mean that all existing housing stock will be demolished and replaced with some sort of dystopian metropolis: people are likely to be living in the same existing housing for many decades to come.
However, I do think there will be some fundamental changes, particularly a trend towards greater social isolation (especially following the COVID outbreak). We are already seeing this manifesting in the form of services like UberEats (why go out for food when you can have it brought to your door?), Amazon (why go to the shop when you can order everything you need online?) and the staggering rate of improvement in the levels of immersion offered by video gaming (why interact with friends in person when it’s more interesting to do so via Minecraft, or Fortnite?)
If you couple this with the inevitable decimation of the workforce (automation will, without doubt, reduce the number of jobs available, and the government will need to find new economic systems to cope with a population where the majority, not the minority, are unemployed, rendered obsolete by technology such as driverless cars and sophisticated AIs) then our society will face a very real challenge in providing stimulation and motivation for a population that spends most of its time sitting around indoors.
TQ: Give us one or two of your favorite non-spoilery quotes from Auxiliary: London 2039.
JR: Well I’ve already shared the book’s central mystery, so here’s the scene where Dremmler first learns about the crime he’s about to be dispatched to investigate:
‘He nearly decapitates his girlfriend, then calls to hand himself in? And then, what, cuts his own arm off? He sounds like a piece of work.
Maggie drew a long pull on the eCig, the swirling vapour almost hiding her face from view. ‘That’s the fun part. He’s saying he didn’t do it. He’s saying it was the arm.’
And then a little snippet of conversation between Dremmler and TIM, where the former is trying to understand the AI’s approach to morality:
‘But how do you decide what’s right and what’s wrong?’
‘I don’t. My decisions are based solely on probabilities, statistics, and frequencies. The world has already decided what’s right and wrong; I merely observe, and imitate.’
TQ: What's next?
JR: Before sitting down to this interview I was working on the first round of edits for a ‘sidequel’ to Auxiliary, exploring how TIM might react to a pandemic similar to the one that’s turned our lives upside down in 2020. It’s a very different sort of novel to its predecessor, and in typical ‘pantser’ style has gone completely off the rails, but I’m hoping to bring it to you all very soon!
TQ: Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery.
JR: It has been my absolute pleasure. Thank you for listening to my sinister ramblings!