Have you read my book yet? Based on what people are telling me, it’s not bad. The impression I’m getting is that it’s the best book I’ve written so far.
Marketing wisdom teaches that you should always put a good spin on sales. People are more likely to be interested in a product if other people are also buying it. Partly because following the herd can help you sort the good from the bad, but also because of the network effect. I’m more likely to see a movie if people I know have seen it, because we can talk about it later. If nobody else has seen a movie, then nobody else will care about my reaction and nobody else will have alternate viewpoints to share with me.
So you’re supposed to avoid admitting that sales are low while a work is still selling. I’m going to break this rule and admit that The Other Kind of Life is not selling as well as my previous book. Maybe I just don’t have the reach now that I did in 2012The Escapist was a bigger deal back then, and I was a major contributor rather than just a weekly columnist., or maybe the indie book market is more crowded. Maybe it’s the cover. Or the title. Or my half-assed approach to marketing. I don’t know. It’s a shame, but that’s how it goes.
Sales aren’t great, but some of you have read it. I think next week we’ll have the all-spoiler thread where everyone can discuss the book and nitpick / praise it as needed. In the meantime, let me talk about some of the thinking that went into it:
Speculative Fiction is Hard
I knew I wanted to set the book in a near-ish future world where robotics and AI had advanced far enough to make machines that could walk around and engage in conversation, but which still fall into the uncanny valley in terms of social interactions. So many stories are set on either side of this. Stories so often seem to act like all we need to do is solve the walking and talking problems and we can jump right to Blade Runner style replicants, but I predict that we’ll end up stuck in that awkward “looks pretty human, but isn’t fooling anyone” phase for a long time. Decades maybe.
And that’s assuming we get there at all. Maybe lifelike humanoid robots will be like flying cars: Really hard to make, incredibly impractical, and not really better than existing technologies. Maybe people won’t WANT bipedal robots. They seem cool in movies, but everything seems cool in movies. Maybe robots will be creepy, awkward, expensive, and high-maintenance. Sure, I get that some people need companionship, or sex, or someone to sweep up around the house. But it’s entirely possible that humanoid robots won’t be as good at companionship as dogs. Maybe people would rather stick with internet porn and small personal devices for their sex needs. Maybe a humanoid robot is ridiculous overkill for household chores and you can just save yourself a lot of money and headaches by getting a roomba.
This cuts to the heart of why writing about this sort of thing is so tricky. It’s like someone in 1910 trying to predict how cars will change the world. It’s not hard to see that a change is coming, but anticipating the full ramifications of the changes is nearly impossible. It’s easy to visualize cars replacing horses, but very hard to anticipate how the arrival the the automobile will lead to people commuting to the city on a daily basis, and how that will shape the development of complex road systems, suburban living, and the cultivation of morning drive-time radio entertainment.
I wanted to write about robots, but I didn’t feel confident enough to extrapolate an entire post-robot world. You could spend years researching something like that and still wind up whiffing. Even if – by some miracle – you nail it and correctly anticipate how this future world will work, you still need to sell it to the audience. You need to bring them into this alien world and convince them this is a plausible outcome. That’s hard, and it can eat up a lot of pages.
The point of the book was to write about robots, not predict the vast economic and cultural shifts that might accompany robots. I anticipated I’d get a lot of responses like, “Shamus, you didn’t really think things through. I have a degree in [field] and you’re vastly underestimating the impact that robots would have on [thing we all take for granted]. Your world makes no sense!” So to give myself some breathing room I decided to set my story in a small, poor country away from the technology centers of the world. Poor countries have a funny relationship with technology because they’ll implement things in an unexpected order. You’ll find places where people are walking around with smart phones in cities that still have unpaved roads. I figured I could set my story in that sort of city, and if anything seemed off to the reader they could blame it on the city rather than the author.
When In Doubt, Make Stuff Up
So I wanted my story to be in a small country, and I wanted that country to be culturally separated from the dominant nations. Since I needed my country to be small, poor, and dysfunctional, I really didn’t want to make it a real-world place or people would think I was crapping all over a poor country. People would assume I was being a crass American, looking down on smaller countries. That’s no good.
Which means I needed to set my story in a fictional place. Since I was already making up one country, it seemed easier to just keep going and make them all up so I wasn’t tied to real-world history. To make it clear that my city was culturally distinct from the technology centers of the world, I decided to make the locals one skin color and the “other” of the story would be a different color.
This made me nervous. As I have discovered over the last couple of years, people have strong opinions about the racial makeup of fictional worlds. People people will tut at you if you tell a story about a straight white dude, even if you are a straight white dudeGimmie a break! I’m writing what I know!. Others will chide you if you make your character a minority but then depict their culture incorrectly. Or they’ll accuse you of appropriating another culture to market your work. Someone else will sneer at you for tokenism. Other people will sneer at them for sneering at you, and so on. It’s outrage all the way down.
It’s a shame, but this is the way things are right now. Some people are angry and raw, and they drag that anger around with them and project it into situations where it really doesn’t make sense and it doesn’t do anyone any good. I don’t know if this is a temporary situation or if this is the new normal for human discourse. I’m not mad at anyone about it. This is just something I had to consider when devising my book. “What creative decisions give me the best chance at getting out of this without ending up nibbled to death by a thousand passive-aggressive grievances?” (It turns out I didn’t need to worry. The book isn’t popular enough to generate outrage.)
For my part, I didn’t care which way the races went. My hero could be white and the “other” could be dark, or vice versa. Eventually I decided that my city needed something going for it. If it’s not a technology center, then it needs some other reason to be a big city. I figured being a tourist destination made a lot of sense. If it’s a tourist destination then it’s probably someplace tropical. If it’s tropical then the locals probably have dark skin. That settled it. My main cast would be dark skin, and the technologically advanced foreigners would be pale.
I was careful to mix up racial descriptions as much as possible, and leave things as vague as I could get away with. I didn’t want the reader to start doing a one-to-one mapping of my world to the real world. “Ah, I see these guys are Asians, these people are Scandinavian, and these people are Mediterranean.”
At the same time, I wanted my city to feel familiar to my (mostly Western Anglophone) readers. Even though it’s a tropical city my characters all have more or less “normal” names: Max, Clare, Gordon, Faye. This is a deliberate design choice because I didn’t want this city to feel exotic to the reader. I wanted foreign words and sayings to stick out, and that wouldn’t be possible if my cast was filled with unfamiliar fantasy names. What all of this means is that my dark-skinned cast is running around with Americanized names and all the white foreigners have made-up fantasy ones.
The city itself is named “Rivergate”. I realize that’s not a “cool” name for a city, but it’s not supposed to be cool to the reader. Foreigners see it as cool because they don’t speak the local language and don’t know what it means. Sort of like how “Rio Grande” sounds interesting unless you know Spanish, in which case it’s just “Big River”.
I think I got away with it. I’ve gotten quite a bit of feedback so far, and nobody has expressed any concerns over the cultural / racial stuff. I don’t know. Maybe they’re just being polite.
I’ve mentioned before that I tend to write in specific “voices” of people. Maybe that’s because I’m an auditory learner, or maybe it’s just a personal quirk. I find that I most enjoy writing characters I can hear. Sometimes my characters wind up being an amalgamation of traits. Maybe the voice of one actor, the face of another, and a costume from someone unrelated to both of them. I shared the voices I had in mind for Witch Watch, but I was nervous of doing so because I didn’t want my version to pollute the ones that readers might have developed for themselves. I’ll eventually do a post about the voices I used in The Other Kind of Life, but before I do that I’m curious what everyone else came up with. If you’re the sort to assign people to roles in books, who did you use in TOKOL?
I know I mentioned the culture war above, but I only did that to explain my thinking. I hope everyone is polite enough to not use that as an excuse to take a swing at the other side. Let’s leave the culture war alone and talk about AI and robots instead.
Obligatory: Buy my book.
 The Escapist was a bigger deal back then, and I was a major contributor rather than just a weekly columnist.
 Gimmie a break! I’m writing what I know!
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