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Interview: Daniel H. Wilson on Robots, Robopocalypse, and Transformers vs. Go-Bots

Daniel H. Wilson is a writer, television host (History Channel’s The Works) and robotics engineer. He holds a Ph.D. in robotics from Carnegie Mellon University and has authored several nonfiction works about robots. His first adult fiction novel, Robopocalypse: A Novel debuts tomorrow, and he is also the author of the children’s book A Boy and His Bot.

He lives in Portland, Oregon. Find him online at www.danielhwilson.com.


John Ottinger III: What is Robopocalypse and what qualifies you to write about robots anyhow?

Daniel H. Wilson: Robopocalypse is a novel that follows the lives of a disparate group of survivors during a prolonged war between man and technology. While it’s true that I have a Ph.D. in robotics – rest assured that anybody can write about robots, no “qualifications” needed!

JO: Why the decision to have the Robot War already over at the beginning of the novel and let Cormac Wallace become a storyteller/historian rather than just a straight-up protagonist?

DHW: The novel covers an epic, worldwide event that needed to be covered from many different perspectives. By starting at the end, I was able to create a stark contrast between our regular world at the beginning of the book and the very different world that exists at the end.

JO: Robopocalypse is bound to get compared to World War Z by Max Brooks for its similar content and style. Were you aware of that novel, and if so, did Brooks style influence yours?

DHW: I enjoyed World War Z and I imagine that the commercial success of that book played a role in my book being picked up. The two books appear to have a similar structure, but Robopocalypse actually has persistent characters and a connected storyline that comes together in the end (rather than a series of separate vignettes with new characters in each chapter). Trust me, tying together a story this big was a challenge!

JO: I don’t wish to give away the ending, but I do like how you don’t go the expected route with the human/robot relationship. Was that always your intent with this novel or is it something you discovered as you wrote?

DHW: My intent all along was absolutely to provide a twist on the standard robot uprising story. I’ve read and seen a lot of science fiction and I had no intention of being derivative. In real life, I believe that robots are the greatest tools that humankind has ever built. If robots really gained sentience they could become powerful enemies – but even more incredible allies.

JO: Since Robopocalypse is told as a series of vignettes, you had to create different voices for the characters and situations. Was it difficult to write the different characters? Was Lurker more difficult to write than Cormac, or Congresswoman Perez more so than Mr. Nomura? How did you juggle the different voices of the vignettes?

DHW: Some of the voices were harder than others. I grew up in Oklahoma, so the Native American characters were easier to write than, say, the Japanese characters. Ultimately, I had friends who were from other countries read their respective characters to make sure the cultural references and jargon were correct. Of course, the hardest character to write doesn’t even have a country – Archos R-14. For the robotic characters, I had to rely on my background in robotics.

JO: One of your heroes of Robopocalypse, Mr. Nomura, is in love with a machine. He is maybe the oddest character in the story but also the most sympathetic. Why did you choose to include a character like that?

DHW: Takeo Nomura is one of my favorite characters because he really loves robots and machines, and he believes their “minds” are being poisoned by Archos R-14. Mr. Nomura’s goal is not to save humanity, but to save robotkind. This reversed point of view was fascinating to me, and I felt that it meshed well with the animist beliefs of Shinto Buddhism, a common religion in Japan.

JO: Heroism is a running theme throughout Robopocalypse. Cormac, Lurker, the Blantons – for all their differences of culture and motivation, all do something to stop the robopocalypse. Yet it appears that you conclude that humans become heroes only when our back is against the wall, when we are forced by situation to do something heroic. Is there no other way to be a hero?

DHW: You can have a hero who saves a kitty from a tree, or a hero who saves the human race from annihilation. The bigger the threat, the bigger the hero. Backs against the wall, humankind overcomes.

JO: There are some transhumans (cyborgs) in your tale. As robotics gets more complex, are cyborgs going to become more or even an essential part of our modern world?

DHW: I believe we’re all quietly slipping into a world in which cyborgs are common. Our technology is getting closer and closer to us. How long before it jumps out of our pockets and into our heads?

JO: One key component of your novel is the rise of intelligent machines (both antagonistic and friendly). This is probably something you talk about in your nonfiction book, How To Survive a Robot Uprising, but just how real a scenario do you find the rise of intelligent machines?

DHW: I’m not worried at all about a real robot uprising. However, I do find humankind’s frenzied creation of new technology (and our increasing reliance on it) to be both exhilarating and frightening. Robopocalypse taps into the sense of unease that we feel as technology tightens its grip on our lives.

JO: How did you manage to get a film deal before the book was even published? As I understand it, things usually work the other way round.

DHW: Good luck and great timing. Also, Mr. Spielberg loves robots.

JO: What are some of your favorite robot novels?

DHW: The three best robot-related short stories of all time, in my opinion:

  • “Second Variety” by Philip K. Dick.
  • “For a Breath I Tarry” by Roger Zelazny.
  • “There Will Come Soft Rains” by Ray Bradbury.

JO: Tell us a little bit about your young adult book, A Boy and His Bot. What is it about? And what would you like boys (girls too) who read it to come away with?

DHW: It’s about a boy who stumbles into an abandoned, experimental world that is teeming with robots who know next to nothing about human beings. The book is non-stop action, filled with fantastic robotic creatures and characters, and always running from one exotic spot to the next. The novel makes the reader consider how strange and unpredictable human beings are from a robot’s point of view!

JO: So I have to ask. In a fight, who would win – Transformers or Go-Bots?

DHW: Go-Bots have nothing to lose, so I think they’d beat their flashier, more expensive counterparts. They’ve got fewer moving parts, but Go-Bots make up for it in scrappiness.

JO: Finally, tell us a little about what you are writing right now.

DHW: I’m writing another thriller, called AMP. It’s about a near-future in which people with neural implants must fight to be recognized as citizens despite rampant discrimination.

JO: Thank you so much for your time!

DHW: My pleasure!