Thursday, October 25, 2018

Ask an Author: Rabbit & Robot's Andrew Smith [Contributor: Megan Mann]

When it comes to dystopia, readers have a pretty concrete idea of what the genre means. The world has experienced some cataclysmic event that has lead to society become the worst version of itself. There's usually a purge of human life and if there isn't, society works completely differently than the reader is used to. (Like how America turned into Panem, or how zombies have taken over the world, or how girls are given the chance to win the prince's love on a Bachelor-type show, how radiation has poisoned the world and the outlawed children on a space station are sent back to earth, or how the country has been divided based on personality traits.)

But what about if America is just constantly at war — both civil and global — and kids are encouraged to basically be either a never-ending soldier, or a coder in this great technically advanced future? What if space is no longer the final frontier and is easily accessible to anyone with the money? What if A.I. is as commonplace as a gallon of milk, and the futuristic version of Adderrall is passed out like candy?

Enter Andrew Smith's newest YA novel, Rabbit & Robot. With the dystopian sub-genre of YA fiction so saturated these days, this novel was a refresher. It was interesting and different, but never shied away from grounding itself in reality. The character, Cager, is trapped in space, but worried that he'll never use a can opener or kiss a girl. It's easy to see and understand the reality within the unknown.

How does Andrew Smith describe his newest book? I asked him about that and much more. Here are some of the greatest answers I've ever received in an interview.

Congratulations! Rabbit & Robot is finally out! How does it feel? Does the feeling ever change with each publication? 

Andrew: To be honest, it feels a little scary and strange. I took three years off between my last book and Rabbit & Robot, so I felt more than a bit nervous and apprehensive about getting back into the THING. But I always feel nervous and apprehensive whenever a book comes out.

When I read the description, it reminded me slightly of Grasshopper Jungle. Then when I started reading it, I realized the two could not be more different. Could you explain where the idea for this story came from? 

Back in 2015, one day I found myself trapped inside this massive machine hurtling through space, surrounded by thousands of insane robots that were eating each other. Then I realized I wasn't inside a machine with cannibalistic insane robots — it was only Twitter. So I decided to write a book about it.

(Megan's note: Best answer ever?)

When did you start writing this? It almost feels as if the election in 2016 was an influence on the 30 wars. 

I actually started writing the book in early 2015, well before the election and associated campaigns lost their bearings. But geez! who knew I would create robots that pretty much acted exactly like Brett Kavanaugh during his hearings?

Do you see the story as somewhat prophetic? It doesn’t seem that unlikely that technology is heading in the way of artificial intelligence — or, as you call them, "cogs" — and that this sort of technology has the ability to completely backfire?

I'm more concerned about the likelihood of public education being conquered by corporate interests, and then programming kids into predetermined (and very narrow) pathways to the JOBS OF THE FUTURE! Kids, you don't have to be Rabbits or Robots, just in case you were wondering.

Speaking of cogs, was it fun to write the cog dialogue? Their emotions are all over the place. 

I had fun writing the cogs. There was lots of material out there for me to draw from by just looking for the archetype manifestations on social media.

What about Dr. Geneva? How much research went into his soliloquies? It almost feels like you found the most random stuff to Google and thought, "Yeah, this will work!"

Dr. Geneva was a labor of love, and he's also one of my characters whom I would most like to punch in the face. He is a tribute to every never-shutting-up mansplainer I have ever encountered.

And yeah, mansplaining is exhausting, research-wise.

Not only is technology moving in the way of artificial intelligence, but there’s a new version of the space race on our hands. Was the Tennessee a reflection of that? 

The Tennessee is a combination of several things. First, it's a tribute to "Anecdote of the Jar," a poem by Wallace Stevens. Furthermore, it serves as a big heaping plate of my disgust for imperialism, and the wastefulness of obscene wealth. Like many people, I'm pretty much over Elon Musk. And anyone who shoots a sports car into space just because he CAN... well, how does that move us forward as a species at all?

The book almost feels like it takes place in two parts: pre- and post blue people. As a reader, they show up and you realize you have so much of the story left to go! Was that your intention? 

The blue people — Queen Dot, King Carlos, and their teenage sons — are really like the creators of the universe: God, in effect. I didn't want to write an entire book about "God," since I understand it's already been done. But I did want them to pop in just to mess with the few human beings left in the universe, and to let them know how woefully wrong we've been about everything since the dawn of time.

It almost feels like you’re saying, “Look, the theory that we’re all just a simulation and they want to see how long it takes us to totally destroy each other” is true. Would you agree or disagree? 

I think we're progressing much more slowly than any "intelligent" species has a right to, but I don't believe we're observable entertainment for anyone out there. And Queen Dot does lament what human beings have done to her favorite place in the universe, which is a beach in Mexico.

I think one of the most surprising aspects of the story is by the end, Cager says “Love and hope are what make us who we are.” While that’s clear in retrospect, — as he realizes that he has a version of love with Rowan and Billy and a potential greater love with Meg — it’s not what sticks out when you’re reading the story. Why the layering? 

Cager is a kid who was basically raised in a petri dish. He has no clue at all what it really means to be a human until he gets trapped in this hopeless situation on the Tennessee, and then all the opportunities (missed and otherwise) that come with being a human are entirely overwhelming to him. But yeah, love and hope. They all have hope at the end, don't they?

Okay, now to the fun stuff! It was recently Banned Books Week. What are some of your favorite banned books? 

I was on tour for Banned Books Week, and I even went to the city in Oregon where my book Stick was banned in a school district earlier in 2018. So let me start off with these: The Chocolate War (I wrote about this book being banned in Grasshopper Jungle), The Satanic Verses, and Slaughterhouse Five.

(Megan's note: Stick is one of Andrew Smith's best works specifically because of why it's banned. It's an incredible, and difficult, read.)

What’s your writing process like? 

I sit down at my messy desk, turn on my computer, and press little keys with letters on them. I don't think I have a "process." I don't draft or outline. I think about an idea for a long time (maybe six months to a year) until that idea becomes so concrete in my head, and then I just write it. I've been thinking about a thing for a while now, and I am just about to let it come out.

Could you see any of your work ever becoming a movie? What would a Rabbit & Robot movie look like? 

There are a few things that are in various stages of development. But I have also said NO to some of my stories being made into films. I would love to see Rabbit & Robot turned into a film, but it would have to have the right people behind it, and I have no desire whatsoever to write a script. I don't think I could ever turn one of my novels into a script.

And finally, what are you reading right now? 

I just finished reading Less, by Andrew Sean Greer. I loved it so very much!

Rabbit & Robot, an A.I. infested dystopian that will have you constantly thinking, questioning and laughing out loud, is out now through Simon & Schuster. And just read all of Andrew Smith's work, okay?


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