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Robot Detectives and A.I. Dreams: Chatting with Adam Christopher

If you like your your sci-fi with a slice of noir, we’ve got the goods you’re looking for. You don’t need to wait for Blade Runner 2049 to help you avoid the big sleep. Dive into android detective work with author Adam Christopher and his Ray Electromatic Mysteries, which take Raymond Chandler on a spin through the land of Asimov and Bradbury. We chatted with Adam about what inspired his series, his love for Doctor Who and his science fiction influences.

RECURSOR: Your Ray Electromatic Mysteries are built around the idea of “What if Raymond Chandler wrote science fiction?” What inspired this idea?

ADAM: Weirdly, it came out of a Q&A that Tor Books does for new authors, back when my space opera novel, The Burning Dark, was about to come out. One of the questions asked which imaginary novel I’d like to read from a favorite author, living or dead. I’m a big Chandler fan, and I knew that he once wrote to his agent complaining about science fiction, asking (perhaps rhetorically, perhaps not!), “They pay brisk money for this crap?”

Adam Christopher interview on Recursor.tvI wondered, what if he had written a science fiction novel? He’d written a couple of fantasy stories — The Bronze Door and Professor Bingos Snuff and in that letter to his agent he actually wrote a little SF pastiche.

So maybe he wrote a novel. Maybe it sat in his desk for years. Maybe he threw it in the fire, only for his housekeeper to rescue the manuscript. Maybe that novel was called Made to Kill.

The main character in your mysteries is Ray, the last working robot. How does being the last of his kind lends itself to his story?

This came out of that original concept of Chandler’s lost sci-fi novel. He came from the pulps, and seemed to think that was where science fiction began and ended, so his main character would be a robot. But a large part of noir and hardboiled fiction is the notion of the “other,” the outsider.

So in my futuristic world of the 1960s, my own main character, Raymond Electromatic, couldn’t just be one of many robots. He was the last one left, because the robot revolution had come back in the 1950s and it went fine until people realized they don’t actually like robots taking their jobs, so the project was canned. Ray was the last one made, and a special model at that, designed and programmed to be a detective, so he was allowed to continue to operate under the supervision of his creator, Professor Thornton.

He’s alone, apart from his computer boss Ada, but he more or less thinks and feels like a human, so he knows he’s different. He’s caught between a desire to fit into society and a need to keep on the outside of it, especially once he broke his programming and turned from a private detective into an assassin.

The future of A.I. and robotics is very much in the news today. Do you use this as inspiration?

Killing is my Business book cover, Adam Christopher, interview via Recursor.TVThis definitely forms a part of it. As I said, Ray is the last robot and he knows it, and that shapes the way he interacts with the world. The other major factor is that there were robots, very recently, so most people remember what it was like with a mechanical workforce doing all the menial jobs… and the unemployment and unrest this caused, not to mention the spread of an innate fear—robophobia.

On the other side of that are people who think giving up on the robot program was a bad idea, and they need to come back. More than that, they need to replace human beings. Ray and Ada, and the friends they meet along the way, get caught smack in the middle of this underground struggle while they’re just trying to make a buck by knocking people off.

Ada is the supercomputer who assists Ray and helps him maintain his sense of reality because his memory is essentially erased every 24 hours. What inspired you to create her?

When I wrote Brisk Money, the novelette for Tor.com that accidentally started the whole series, I knew that Ray couldn’t be on his own, because of his little problem with only having a twenty-four-hour memory tape. Ada therefore became his boss, a supercomputer the size of a room. Having been programmed to make a profit, Ada calculates that they can make more money by killing people instead of helping them. Ray’s short memory then becomes an asset rather than a liability, because he doesn’t remember anything that he’s done. That makes being a detective tricky—but it’s a perfect safety mechanism for a hitman (hitrobot?).

What led you to create a character with such a glaring, fascinating weakness?

In Brisk Money, Ray thinks he’s a detective, but he ends up investigating himself and discovers his true nature. That was the original hook, right from the beginning, the idea that there’s something going on and it’s all about you and you don’t even know it.

That also arose naturally from the concept that this is the near future of the early 1960s, and while Ray is cutting-edge technology (for that time period), there are limits. Even Ray’s AI isn’t quite true AI—his mind is based on a template, that of his creator, Professor Thornton. Of course, that’s still impossible and fantastical, but it’s a nice, pulpy way to explain how he operates.

What are your science fiction influences?

Terrance Dicks Dr. Who novels, Adam Christopher interview on Recursor.tvI grew up in New Zealand in the 1980s, but watching 1970s Doctor Who. I was obsessed with the show and with the Target novelizations of the TV stories. I owe my love of sci-fi to Terrance Dicks, who was coincidentally not only the script editor during the Third Doctor’s era — the era I grew up watching — but wrote a large chunk of the Target books. Since moving to the UK, I’ve been lucky enough to meet him. He’s my absolute hero.

Star Wars is the other huge influence. Apparently the first movie I ever saw was A New Hope at a re-release screening in 1979 — although I was only a year old at the time! But clearly it made an impression! And to think, nearly 40 years later, I’m lucky enough to have a story in the 40th anniversary anthology, From A Certain Point of View. My childhood self wouldn’t be able to believe it!

Adam’s upcoming novel, Killing is my Business, hits stands on July 25. The Stars Wars anthology, From a Certain Point of View, is available October 3.

Adam Christopher interview on Recursor.tvADAM CHRISTOPHER is a novelist and comic writer. In 2010, as an editor, Christopher won a Sir Julius Vogel award, New Zealand’s highest science fiction honor. His debut novel, Empire State, was SciFiNow’s Book of the Year and a Financial Times Book of the Year for 2012. In 2013, he was nominated for the Sir Julius Vogel award for Best New Talent, with Empire State shortlisted for Best Novel. His other novels include The Age Atomic and The Burning Dark. Learn more about him on his website: adamchristopher.co.uk.

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