Innovation and Singularity with Author Doug Sharp

We open this week of blogs with something a little bit different. I’ve done written interviews before, but sparingly, and this time I spoke with science fiction author Doug Sharp. He’s not a name you’re likely to have heard much about just yet, but he write such innovative, unique fiction that it’s a breath of fresh air in the sci-fi world. So I aim to change that. There’s a reason he’s my 2016 Planetary Award nominee.

As much as I could write for days about how Doug both hits concepts and characters in ways that few ever will have the talent, as much as I can compare him to Heinlein and Spider Robinson, though with a bit of a darker twist to his work, he’s done a phenomenal job of answering a lot of my questions far more in depth than I would have imagined.

Take the time to really soak in his answers, and then if you grok what he’s going for, do pick up his books. Without further ado, I present the interview:

Hey Doug! Good to chat with you. I’m quite excited about Hel’s Bet – which I did read before its release. One of the most exciting hard sci-fi works of 2016.

You are a being with exquisite literary taste!

How did this come about in your mind? Was it part of the original Channel Zilch concept or did it morph along the way?

Channel Zilch and Hel’s Bet were once an immense, >200k-word manuscript. Experienced writers in my online writing group (shout-out to my colleagues in Written in Blood) told me that a gargantuan book from a new author wouldn’t even be looked by an agent, much less a publisher.

Luckily, the mega-manuscript had a natural ending for CZ (Channel Zilch) almost exactly halfway through it–a launch.

So while it took me 21 years to write and publish CZ (explanation here), it took me about 2 ½ years to rewrite HB as a second book in the Hel’s Bet Series. During this rewrite I added many major plot points and seeds that will become events in Book III.

Both books morphed majorly. It took me 23 years to write them both, during which time, as you may have noticed–tech transformed explosively, the location of prototype shuttle Enterprise changed twice, the shuttle program ended. Rapidly-changing AI, the new field of AGI (Artificial General Intelligence,) 3D printing (in space!), and computer tech caused the most modifications—completely changing the post-shuttle-theft motivation for the characters which resulted in major changes to both books.

I became fascinated with AI, particularly the new field of Artificial General Intelligence (AGI,) which aims to build a silicon brain with a broad range of intelligence (as opposed to a laser-focused AI like IBM’s Big Blue, the chess champion.) I decided that only an open-source AGI made sense, so I became a fan of OpenCog led by Ben Goertzel, who is a fan of my 2 books, and who I was lucky enough to meet for dinner with other OpenCog researchers.

Many takes on the Singularity assume that it will come from an AGI who can improve its own source code and upgrade itself.

Hel’s Bet was a second half of CZ as you mentioned, but from talking to you, I’m aware that over the last year or so you made radical changes that were still a ton of work for this final project. How did that go for you? It’s really an inspiration to me and many others how you can have the tenacity to embark on a project like this with all you go through with Central Pain. Do you have a process for managing your symptoms? 

Thank you. I want to write good books, not to be an example of fortitude, but I’m thrilled that my life story inspires artists and others.

Finishing the books was an immensely painful challenge. Besides Central Pain Syndrome I also suffer from epilepsy and cognitive loss (luckily not in the vrbeil skilsl.) I “lovingly” call my special combo of brain glitches Brainrot. When I’m doing well I can write 3 days a week for from 20 minutes to an hour.

As I said, CZ and HB were once one humongous book. It “only” took me 23 years to write both. I started the book(s) in 1992, after a 3-year bout of out-of-control seizures, as a story-telling screensaver based on Dramaton, the radically innovative interactive narrative engine I created to drive my best-selling computer game from the 80’s: The King of Chicago.

Many of the main elements of the books popped out of my writer’s mind in the first year: the shuttle theft, the terrifying (she scares me!) Heloise Chin (Hel), Mick the fired astronaut, Lilac the giant purple cow, launching from Baikonur. The shuttle/cow 3D graphic on the cover of Hel’s Bet was actually created by a friend in 1992! I have a copy of Channel Zilch dated 1995 which I circulated to friends for crit. I haven’t read that baby version for a while, but I’ll post it on my website along with some scenes I cut from both books.

Some methods I use to manage my neural glitches are to stop writing when it becomes too painful or my seizure symptoms start to confuse me. Medical cannabis allows me to write (and to talk.) Almost every page written since 2003 was written stoned. Even with all the anti-seizure meds I take, without cannabis writing becomes too painful and confusing. In your review of Hel’s Bet you described it’s style as “…Robert Heinlein on acid…” which I amend to “…Robert Heinlein on THC…” J

One type of Brainrot “kryptonite” is placing anything in a list, especially in an ordered list. So for the past 12 years, as my condition worsened, I’ve hired literary aides to help me outline chapters and even pages. Once I have an outline I write. Sometimes I ask my aide to help me while I write, essentially holding my hand and encouraging me to keep me on task as my symptoms overwhelm me. I sometimes think of the challenge of writing through pain as running full tilt into electric barbed wire, knowing it’s going to end in agony.

One of the big changes in the books is that I made relief from pain through medical advances driven by AI into a central motivating theme. That’s a big part of why HB is darker than CZ. Pain sucks.

A major challenge was to write an optimistic, funny book while suffering from constant pain. I am by nature an optimist, so it was never an option for me to write of a dystopian future. There are a few places in Hel’s Bet that let me harness my writing to my pain, but I bet few who read the series guess that the author is in agony while writing.

We end on another cliffhanger. How many books are planned for the series? 

 

Hmmm. Didn’t think of HB’s ending as a cliffhanger, but I see what you mean: there are many looming dangers that the Enterprise crew are all too aware of. I thought of the ending as contemplative and a bit silly, not as a cliffhanger. I’ll try to write faster!

The Hel’s Bet series will be a quadrology:

  • Book I: Channel Zilch
  • Book II: Hel’s Bet
  • Book III: War on Death
  • Book IV: HeloWorld

Before my game career I was a 5th-grade teacher. After finishing these 4 I’m going to set a Middle Grade book called Castle Rising in the Hel’s Bet universe. The kids in CR were born in the 12th century, so they will be quite ancient when they meet Hel and crew

He’ls Bet goes heavily into more philosophy regarding the Singularity, which gets some mention in the first book, but is vastly expanded upon here. What’s your idea of the singularity?

I don’t pretend to know what form the Singularity will take. Ideally, super-intelligent AGI’s would exist harmoniously with humans who can augment themselves mentally or physically as they choose. My favorite example of this scenario is portrayed in The Culture Series by the lamented Iain Banks. On the other hand we have the Skynet Terminator scenario.

Much AGI work is focused on producing Friendly AGI, but if we create self-improving intellects vastly greater than our smarts, I doubt that we’ll be able to control their manners. One thing I do know is that if a Terminator-type Singularity is inevitable, we’d be chickenshits to pass that battle on to our grandkids.

I believe that some form of Singularity is inevitable. Vastly different forms of intelligence have evolved on Earth. The intelligence of a human is not the same as the intelligence of a squid. Bird intelligence and fish intelligence are very different types of intellects. My own variable intelligence makes the idea of increasing IQ visceral.

When I started writing computer games in 1982, we worked with computers that are now laughably clunky. My last game, the Amiga version of King of Chicago, displayed 32 pixilated colors at a time. Even though I was in the midst of it, I had no idea personal computers (much less smart phones) would evolve so quickly.

The concept of the Singularity existed back then (first popularized by Vernor Vinge in Omni Mag in 1983.) I have always read a lot of science fiction, so the idea has been percolating in my mind for over 3 decades.

I won’t predict a year for the emergence of a Singularity, but I often see predictions of its arrival being in the range of 2045-2060. My guess is 2039, sometime in the spring. At one point I noticed that these predictions almost always fell before the actuarial probability of the predictor’s death. Others noticed this pattern and came up with the Maes–Garreau law.

It’s hard to bet against cybernetic superintelligences now that computers have conquered the game Go (which victory was predicted to be at least a decade away) and are now beating the top pro Poker players (which many said would never happen.)

What are some good resources for checking out singularity related news and finding like-minded people to discuss it with? 

There are too many Singularity-centric websites for me to follow, so here are a few:

One of my favorites is Nikola Danaylov’s Singularity Weblog. He’s interviewed over 200 people, from Noam Chomsky to Transhumanist ex-Presidential candidate Zoltan Istvan to a raft of sci-fi writers. He broadcasts new videos frequently. He’s also a fan of Channel Zilch.

Others:

Singularity University

Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

SingularityHub

Evonomics often discusses economic implications of the Singularity, like the need for Basic Minimum Income as robots take over tedious human jobs.
And, of course if you are a coder who wants to work on the most important project of our time, take a good look at OpenCog. There is a thriving community of researchers and devs working on it. They’ve also got some fun videos showing OpenCog driving robots talking “philosophy” and showing  a wide range of facial expressions.

Some writing questions for you. Do you listen to music when you write? If so, what?  

This question makes me kind of sad. When I was well and when my symptoms were milder, I almost always wrote with music in the background. Now my mind can’t handle the extra stimulus

When I’m not doing anything that requires my brain I love rocking out to music from the late 60’s, my teenage years, which I spent in the UK—Cream, Hendrix, Beatles, Stones, Small Faces, early Pink Floyd, Monkees (whose albums are a key plot point in CZ.) Early R&B and soul: Al Green, Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye. Booker T and the M. G.’s—YES!

My main love is for music which is “experimental”—harsh, dissonant, weird—from Xenakis to Sonic Youth to The Residents to The Turbogrind Terrorizers. It amuses the heck out of me that about ¼ of my Facebook friends think of me primarily as a musician because I like to make awful music when I’m not writing.

Your main character really plays “the straight man” in a group of wacky individuals. Did you consciously follow that archetype to ground the reader so that some of the concepts (like the cow balloon atop the spaceship for example!) are easier to digest? 

I’m not manipulative enough to make a character who is primarily an archetypical narrative device. I let my characters have plenty of autonomy. After I have an outline of a scene containing dialog, I treat writing that scene as theatrical improv, with my brain being the stage my characters (also parts of my brain) perform on. To me they are real, and they often surprise me with outrageous and unexpected acts (especially Hel, that outrageous geek goddess!)

It never occurred to me to care whether readers might balk at the idea of the shuttle’s purple cow balloon habitat. I thought the idea was funny and fun to play with, so it was my duty and pleasure as a writer to make the reader sail on through another of the book’s absurdities.

After Mick Oolfson popped out of my head in ’92, I soon realized that he is about 80% me. I’m a wisecracker. Mick is me if I’d gone to the US Air Force Academy, as I’d planned to do before the Vietnam War erupted. I come from a USAF family and my nephew Colonel Stuart Rubio now flies and commands a squadron of C-130 Hercules. I soloed a sailplane in high school. In middle school I somehow survived launching homemade metal rockets propelled by a fuel made of powdered zinc and sulphur and another fuel made from melting sugar and saltpeter. You’ll find all those elements in Mick.

Mick is a “straight man” only because he is surrounded with some straight-up crazy people and some out-there geeks. Unlike the rest of the crew, he’s not a True Believer in the Singularity, but he’s all for anything short of murder (such as stealing a shuttle) that’ll get him back into space.

You have a gift for humor. Though this book is darker than the first by a significant amount, it’s still got a lot of really witty elements. Is that cultivated in later drafts or does that come right away to you?

Well over half of my yucks pop out as I write the first draft of a scene. Like said, I’m a wisecracker, and Mick/Me improvs with the other characters. I retrofit humor more with the non-Micks who almost all have their own styles of humor. Shuttle-mechanic Gritch Neubart’s dialog is a gas for me because it draws on my Southern past. Hel’s “humor” is another of her traits that sorta scares me. I get part of her humor from my geek immersion years in MSFT Research, but there’s a twisted strain to her jokes that I can’t blame on anyone but her own singular self.

If there’s one thing you can have readers take away from your work, what would it be? 

“Radical hope.”  Samantha Atkins used that phrase in her Amazon review and it thrilled me.

What’s next for you? 

After PR’ing the heck out of Hel’s Bet (thanks for the blog interview, Jon!) I’m going to take a month off and read sci-fi favorites again. Going to start with my 4th reread of CJ Cherryh’s Chanur’s Saga, which is comfort food for my brain. I own 55 books by Cherryh, so you could say I’m a fan.

Then I’ll probably reread some classic Singularity fiction by Vinge and Bear and Banks and finish William Hertling’s Singularity Series and Ben Goertzel’s The AGI Revolution.

I’ll spend more time on the beaches of my home, Vashon Island, WA, walking my dog. No better way of unwinding and enjoying the moment.

Maybe I’ll write something short, savage, and political.

Be forewarned that some part of my brain will be working on Book III: War on Death.
Thank you Doug for joining us! You can check out his books here and for other book bloggers and reviewers please heavily consider Hel’s Bet for the Planetary Award. Few books are as innovative and interesting as Doug’s and he deserves far more acolades than I can bestow upon him.

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