An Interview with Paul Jessup, Julie Day, Patrice Sarath, and E.N. Auslender

Way of the Laser CoverFour authors from the anthology Way of the Laser edited by Eric M. Bosarge and Joe M. McDermott were kind enough to drop by today to talk about their stories and the future of crime. Welcome Paul, Julie, Patrice, and E.N.!

Let’s start off with brief introductions. Would you all mind telling us about yourselves, and without giving too much away, a bit about your story in the anthology?

PJ: Hi all, I’m Paul Jessup, I’ve been slinging words for dosh for about two decades now in the genre scene, give or take a handful of years. I’ve got books! Books you should read. Weird, strange surreal world breaking brain bursting books. My story is a story that was inspired by some recent news about biobags, and their use in incubating premature infants. I won’t go into more than that, let’s just say it’s a bit of a twist on the heist genre and leave it at that.

JCD: Julie, here! I am a human currently very attached to my home. I’m also a writer—mainly of short fiction. Among other things I have a collection that came out a couple years back—Uncommon Miracles, a novella—The Rampant—that is a current Lambda Award finalist, and a charity anthology I’m editing—Weird Dream Society—that we’ll be releasing soon. All proceeds will go to the migrant and refugee advocacy organization RAICES.

Okay, so this is the thing. I am terrible at describing my own stories. So I’m going to cheat and quote a couple of lines from “Speculative Execution.”

In the decades since Limm and his Revenant Energy Corporation, Driesch had become a special city, the home and birthplace of fully realized AI. Dead & coded entertainers worked alongside theater projectionists and group effects specialists, Limm-Glass was pressed against a client’s exposed, living flesh. Modern entertainments included vibrations of emotion and physically transferred information, alongside those perennials, sight and sound

PS: Hi, I’m Patrice Sarath and I’m a writer from Austin, Texas. I’m the author of the Gordath Wood series and the Tales of Port Saint Frey, as well as a Pride And Prejudice sequel called The Unexpected Miss Bennet. I write SFF short stories as well, and my stories have appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Weird Tales, Apex Digest and others. My story, “Spider,” is a heist story about a group of asteroid miners who plot to steal an asteroid, and the cop who tries to stop them.

E.N.: I’ve always had a bit of an obsession about the future of mankind and technology, probably from spending too much (or not enough) time watching every Star Trek show growing up. Oddly enough, my story Kalopsia is unlike other stories I’ve written given its focus on a future too close to our present and a reality that many don’t realise already exists.

What drew you to the anthology’s theme, and to the particular aspect of future crime you explored in your story? How did you go about envisioning the ways crime might change in the future in terms of how it’s committed and how it might be solved?

PJ: Mostly it was just kismet! I had the idea for the heist story, and around the same time this anthology started doing it’s Kickstarter. I knew the editors were great editors, and I wanted to work with them, so I set out writing that story.

JCD: “Speculative Execution” is the most science fictional story I’ve published to date, though I have a novella I’m working on that is also tech influenced. TBH, I like to write whatever I haven’t written before. So writing a crime SF story seemed exciting—at least until the deadline loomed. Over the last few years, a number of my stories have dealt with the disintegration or loss of self. It’s terrifying and in an A.I. world its also far more complicated than our current experience. Something about the tech world I envisioned and the way that could affect the divide between living/ non-living really appealed to me. It also made for some interesting ideas around crime! (No spoilers.)

PS: I have always wanted to write a good old-fashioned heist story, and so when Joe (J.M. McDermott) invited me to contribute a story for this anthology, I was really excited. “Spider” is a prequel to my murder mystery on a space ship, called “Murder on the Hohmann.” There’s nothing new about greed or revenge, but I wanted to play with these eternal human conditions in a far-future environment.

E.N.:Initially I wasn’t certain that my story would fit in since it doesn’t follow a typical ‘future crime’ story a la the Julie Mao/Joe Miller story in The Expanse or a Blade Runner-esque crime, but then again, law is a line that doesn’t necessarily tiptoe the edges of morality. Is robbing a bank morally wrong if the bank laundered money for cartels? Crime will only ever be defined as the law allows it, unless some sort of Minority Report system is put in place, in which case there’s no outrunning Tom Cruise.

Now, an individual question for each of you…

Paul, your story “Halo 13” plays with the trope of the creepy AI who just has your best interest at heart. Why do you think the caring AI who takes things to the extreme makes such a compelling character, and particularly, such a compelling villain? What made you want to explore the trope in your story?

I think it’s a timely character as well, which is what makes it so compelling. Right now, we have AI doing so much for us, it doesn’t feel like a huge stretch to go from AI telling us what ads to show us to AI trying to take care of everything. It’s creepy, and it feels like that’s the way we’re going, and nobody is stopping to ask, “hey, is this right? Do AI’s even really predict as well as we think they do?”
I mean, since most AI’s are just blackboxes that even the coders don’t understand, we’re giving them a lot of power over our lives and choices and freedoms. For what? There is no exact proof that what they suggest is exactly what we want, and a lot of times the end results are laughable. So, on one hand it seemed to me this was the way things were going, and it terrified me.

But that was only one piece of the puzzle. I think the best villains are ones that have personality, that seem to be tragic in their own ways. So I felt like I had to really get into her head, and that’s what came out was this story. Her need to be a mother, to care for the babies she sees as being her property, it just felt so tragic and heartbreaking and yet a little insane as well. Like she was unravelling, because they obviously weren’t her kids after all, but she felt like it, and that made her act irrationally.
And add in the idea of drones, an AI without any center who lives on the internet, that can see everything you do and turn any computer into a weapon against you? It’s unsettling and terrifying to me, and perfect for a story like this.

Julie, I love the way the world you created for “Speculative Execution” feels simultaneously old and new. There are echoes of 19th century London with its Rag and Bone Men, Mud Larks, and roving gangs of pickpockets, but at the same time the world feels very slick and futuristic with its Glassed ghosts and constructed Tin Men. How did you go about building the world for your characters, and making it feel real and lived-in?

Usually I spend a lot of time world building while I’m writing a story. In this case, that wasn’t the case at all. I spent many weeks—far too many weeks—working on a fantasy world for a role playing game that didn’t get off the ground. I loved the world and the various conflicts embedded within it, but I didn’t feel any real spark to write a piece a fiction. It was all too known to me. Then came this anthology and the joy of layering tech over the existing world just felt *right.* Having a draft world that I’d documented and mapped also made the writing go so much faster. I’ve never written a story of this type in so little time. Less than a month to the final form of a story is unprecedented for me. I’m actually thrilled at how this happy accident of old project-new project led to something I feel could be a series of stories.

Patrice, I love the way you expanded the heist/one-last-big-score trope in “Spider”. I was particularly intrigued by the way space station technology is used – the AI algorithm finding connections between people, and the use of increased gravity to pin down everyone but the cops. Were there any particular influences or inspiration that sparked this story? What sort of research did you do in terms of extrapolating and adapting technology as it might exist on a space station into something that could be repurposed for law enforcement?

PS: I wanted to play with a couple of ideas for my setting. One is that of the company town. How would an asteroid mining station out near Jupiter be managed and governed? Well, the corporation would control everything. I created a legal structure of a Corporate Citizen Entity and gave the Bifrost Corporation the right to control everything and everyone on the station. Well, the next step was to create the way that was actually managed, and that was the station AI. But AIs are notoriously slippery as they are learning environments, and humans are very slippery as well, as we just don’t do what we’re told to do.

Creating the mining technology and protocols was loads of fun as well – how exactly do you mine an asteroid and get the resources out of the asteroid and back to Earth? I read about investment companies that are seeking to build and monetize that technology in order to make a killing. We have companies right now that are the predecessors to my Bifrost Corporation.

And finally, creating a solar system where humans now occupy two planets – Earth and Mars – and what that means for politics, economies, and all that good stuff.

E.N., your story, “Kalopsia”, feels terrifyingly of-the-moment, with a very light, speculative/futuristic touch. I appreciate the way you offer a different take on crime theme. Rather than a story about someone overtly committing or solving crimes, you examine the way government systems essentially criminalize the very existence of immigrants, rather than helping and protecting a vulnerable population. It’s an important story to tell, and I wonder if you could talk a bit about what it means to you to tell this story, and where the inspiration to examine that aspect of law enforcement came from?

E.N.: My non-literary life involves work and research with refugees, about their lives and struggles both after their escapes from the horrifying situations back home and their efforts to re-establish a sense of normalcy wherever they arrive. There’s an obvious governmental pushback against refugees in many countries because of a fear of ‘blowback’, i.e. riling up those who might be more xenophobic or nationalistic who fear that they (the nationals) might somehow lose their livelihoods or their cultural identities because of refugees. Not to elicit any world leaders by name, but this is shown by a stated preference for ‘Christian’ refugees rather than Muslim ones in some countries, and the general rhetorical bloviating that comes from other governments that go so far as to violate their own laws in order to keep refugees, no matter how small a number, outside their borders. So my story’s protagonist is someone who contains the qualities I’ve found in many with whom I’ve spoken, and is someone who has to contend with a far more authoritarian/Orwellian bordering regime. Many of the more subtle technological tactics used by law enforcement in the story are already being utilised today in various countries, and we for whom the fear of it does not apply consider it mundane even when we can view the repercussions of it in plain sight.

Back to the group questions. Going on a bit of a tangent, but still sticking with the topic of crime, what are some of your favorite crime shows, books, or movies? Alternately (or additionally) who are your favorite fictional detectives, or fictional criminals? Who would you most like to sit down with and hear about their favorite cases/capers?

JCD: One of my kids loves The Gilmore Girls as in she can recite entire scenes. I have a similar relationship with Hercule Poirot and the TV series Poirot. Cozy mystery shows are my pre-bed comfort food. I’ll never be allowed to care too much for those that happen to be murdered and the detective(s) are the best of reliable old friends. I also loved the series Sherlock. I believe both shows were produced by the BBC? Perhaps there’s something in my interest in period crime stories and how my own crime story turned out…I hadn’t noticed the connection until now. In terms of sitting down and listening, a criminal caper will win every time…as long as the storyteller isn’t *too* terrifying in person.

PS: My two absolute favorite crime series are The Closer and Breaking Bad. Favorite detective? Columbo. Absolutely.

E.N.: I’m a sucker for a detective protagonist with very obvious issues. Along with some of the movies/TV I’ve mentioned (BR, Minority Report, The Expanse), Sherlock Holmes is always a reliable read. James Ellroy probably crafted some of the most memorable crime fiction of the 20th century and is a dizzying writer to boot. Batman, despite his predilection for punching his problems away, is a detective at heart (The Long Halloween may be the best Batman story, in my opinion). Psych, while not as serious as my previous examples, is a nice play on the Holmes/Watson dynamic and is utterly hilarious. As a more unconventional crime movie, Das Leben Der Anderen (The Lives of Others) is a fantastic film concerning the Stasi their spying operations on state dissidents. Timecrimes is another fantastic film that if I say anything about it I might give the whole story away. Gattaca, one of my favourite films ever, is another unconventional crime movie that should be required viewing in schools. Oddly enough the one detective I’d like to sit down with is DC hero

The Question, an esoteric and somewhat obfuscatory character who’s changed over the course of his (and subsequently her) existence. He began as a Randian figure and evolved in Denny O’Neil’s Zen and Violence, and was portrayed by the ever fantastic Jeffrey Combs in Justice League Unlimited as a Fox Mulder-type conspiracy buff who was also a brilliant detective.

PJ: Oh, now that’s a tough one! Of course, you’ve got the Coen brothers crime films like Blood Simple and No Country for Old Men that are fantastic, and comedies borrow heavily from the crime genre, like Fargo, The Big Lebowski, and Raising Arizona. And David Lynch also takes a lot from crime fiction in everything he does, and then twists it around and adds a dose of surrealism. It’s really hard to pick my favorites, the list can go and on and on and on.

My favorite fictional detective has to be, of course, Agent Dale Cooper. You can’t deny the man has style.

If you were casting yourself in a crime story, would you see yourself as the clever criminal mastermind pulling off the perfect scheme, or the brilliant detective who catches the criminal?

JCD: I’m closer to the Miss Marple tangential-talker who throws a wide enough net to pull seemingly disparate clues together.

PS: Hah, Shane Harris, my cop in “Spider,” has so much of me in her. So I guess I am the dogged cop.

E.N.: I’d be both, because the Evil League of Criminals (trademark pending) decided to clone the most brilliant detective in the world in order to have the most brilliant criminal in the world. It’s a constant game of cat-and-mouse, or more accurately, cat-and-cat. I’d also be every member of the Evil League of Criminals (trademark pending). Everyone is me. It’s a confusing story.

PJ: The clever criminal, for certain. I don’t enjoy much detective fiction, but I do love me some crime stories. There is just something so interesting about seeing down on their luck criminals try and make it for one last gig, and seeing everything fall apart right in front of them (or pulling it off with style and panache).

Finally, in addition to your story in this anthology, what else do you have coming up, or what else are you working on that you’d like people to know about?

JCD: Well, I mentioned the anthology the Weird Dream Society, which has taken up a lot of my time for awhile now. I’m really proud of that book, the authors are fantastic, and what we’re trying to accomplish with its publication. I’m also working on a couple of short stories and a shortish novella called Every Thought a Sin, which involves murals whose paint is infused with genetically engineered microbes, photosynthesis, climate change, and eye scooping (which is even worse than it sounds).

PS: I’ve got a few exciting opportunities but nothing that can be revealed yet. I’m looking forward to readers’ reactions to “Spider” and the rest of the anthology – the stories in here are definitely loads of fun and very thought-provoking!

E.N.: Beyond spending this pandemic quarantine time enjoying the comforts of my bathrobe and exploring the depths of my limited culinary abilities, I’m currently revising a giant novel about AI, human cybernetics, and human life in the age of ‘human evolution’, writing another about space stuff, and churning out short stories when I’m procrastinating with the novels. Somehow I get work done too.

PJ: So much stuff! I am constantly working on short stories, and nonfiction. Really, I need to update my website with so much that I’ve got coming out recently. I’m also working on a weird generation ship novel with organic technology and AI’s based on chaos magic. I’ve also been working on a few video games you can see at: https://cupofstars.itch.io/

Thank you all so much for dropping by!

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