‘Writing nonbinary characters should become less awkward for writers': S.B. Divya

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‘Machinehood’ is set in 2095. (Representational image)

It’s 2095. We’ve entered an age where we’ve achieved seamless integration of artificial intelligences (AIs) with human lives. It’s not only impossible but also foolish to do anything without them. AI-based bots are our personal agents.

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The news comes with an accuracy rating and there are pills to keep us heal quickly. The pandemic years are a reality of the past.

#Nebula award, #s.b. divya, #sci-fi

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Everything is great until Machinehood – a terrorist group that thinks they’re fighting for an equitable and dignified life for all forms of intelligences (humans, animals, and, yes, even AIs!) – strikes. They’ve given a one-week ultimatum to the human species to apply their “Machinehood Manifesto”. This unsettles the whole world. However, in particular, Machinehood has wreaked havoc in the life Welga Ramirez, whose job is to guard and protect pills manufacturers.

This, in nutshell, is the believable yet fascinating world of S.B. Divya’s Machinehood (Hachette, 2021). It’s not only Divya’s debut novel, it is also the first-ever South Asian finalist for the Nebula Award for Best Novel. In an exclusive interview to Moneycontrol, Divya shares her thoughts about writing Machinehood, and future projects. Edited excerpts:

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As a science-fiction writer, how do you balance fiction and a reality backed by scientific evidence to make an imagined world appear more real and seemingly acceptable as the future?

I try to extrapolate from current research and trends to arrive at a plausible vision of the future. I put in a few surprises, too, because history shows that there are always twists and turns. I also try to ground the story by thinking of how technology will impact everyday life, which gives the reader something they can relate to.

What sort of research did you do to write ‘Machinehood’? Were there any revealing findings that you couldn’t rope into this work of fiction but would eventually like to explore?

I did a lot of reading on future trends in science, technology, and economics. I’m subscribed to a few newsletters on those topics as well, and I try to keep up with the latest research in various fields of science. There are many interesting and cool things happening in laboratories and universities around the world. I could never incorporate all of them into a single book, nor could I hope to list them here. My next novel goes deeper into genetic engineering and space travel, though.

How did the idea of creating the ‘Machinehood Manifesto’ come to you?

I was inspired by the Communist Manifesto, as well as others, written by people who wanted radical social change. I also took ideas from the UN Declaration of Human Rights. I wasn’t initially sure if I would only write excerpts or the whole thing, but as a fun exercise, I ended up writing it all. In the novel, you find bits and pieces out of order, but on the MACHINEHOOD website, I’ve posted the entire manifesto for anyone curious.

There are several moral underpinnings in the novel, though it appears at the outset that it is other-worldly. I wanted to know whether you purposefully wanted to discuss the ethics of dealing with multiple intelligences in this book or did it happen in the process of creating this world.

The ethical themes of the book were intentional. While the level of AI today is still a few decades from making the issue pressing, I think it would be wise for humanity to determine the legal and ethical frameworks in advance, which means we need to think about it now and start crafting legislation in the next five to ten years.

You also have a universe in which people are mindful of not misgendering humans, and even bots, yet this advocacy doesn’t appear forced. Often we don’t find writers dealing with characters who are nonbinary sensitively. Is it possible for writers to conveniently deliver good fiction without being preachy, especially when it comes to representing nonbinary people and bots like you do in your story?

I hope I’ve done it without being preachy! As the practice of asking for pronouns and thinking about nonbinary genders becomes more commonplace, the writing of it should also become less awkward for authors. I consider myself as having a nonconforming gender, so it was important to me to include the representation of genderqueer and trans people in the story. When it comes to bots and AIs, gender is even more fluid and is in the eye of the beholder. I’m glad we’re moving toward a future where we can discuss that openly and find a variety of approaches to deal with it.

You write in the book, “Bigotry had yet to die in India.” It also seems that so do misogyny and caste-hetero-patriarchal constructs. The way Luis exercises agency over his wife Nithya’s body, and several other instances make one wonder what would it take for these behaviours to be wiped off of the Earth’s surface. Your thoughts?

While I would love to dream that in 2095, we’ll inhabit a world free of prejudice, I don’t think it’s realistic. Considering how many centuries (or millennia!) we’ve had to deal with various forms of bias; I suspect that we’ll continue to make progress but it will be in a “two steps forward, one step back” fashion. Given human nature, I don’t know if we can ever hope to arrive at a perfectly equitable society. I’m not even sure we can get a broad consensus on what that means! But the long arm of history points at less violence and exploitation, so I will at least hope for that trend to continue.

Were these biochemical micromachines you mention in the book modelled on micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS)? And how did the idea of a ‘tip jar’ for keeping monetary trail and ‘juvers’ for instant healing come to you, were these modelled on video games? 

Yes, MEMS, nanoscale machines, and also biochemical constructions. There’s a lot of interesting research happening in terms of microscopic devices to do non-invasive diagnostics and therapies in the body. The tip jars were inspired by sites like ko-fi and Patreon, ways for people to collect micropayments from fans, and the juvers were inspired by scientific developments in improving and accelerating healing. I looked at reality more than other types of fiction (like video games) for inspiration. There’s nothing in Machinehood that’s outside the realm of possibility based on current knowledge.

The concept of attaching an “accuracy rating” to a newsfeed is a fascinating idea. Did you develop it as a possible extrapolation of the current news crisis? In the book, who is giving these accuracy ratings in 2095, though?

#Nebula award, #s.b. divya, #sci-fi
I think we’re facing a crisis of truth right now, and it’s only going to get worse as the ability to fake everything digital gets better. The accuracy ratings in the novel are crowdsourced, with individual ratings weighted by that person’s expertise rating (determined by the work they’ve done). Consensus reality is how humanity has always operated, so going forward, that might be the only philosophy that we can practically implement. We will either need to make this democratic or come up with democratic institutions that can accredit individuals and publications as being reliable sources of information.

To imagine that India and China will stand united against the United States of America is perhaps a hyperbole. What convinced you to prophesize so in the book?

I wanted to explore the possibilities of new global superpowers. If India and China could somehow find a common ground, I think they would have a shot at dominating world commerce and politics. The mortal enemies in Europe could do it, so why not the two biggest players in Asia? Obviously, it would take a massive shift in political willpower in both nations, but I don’t think it’s impossible. It was also just fun as a writer to upend certain aspects of the current world order.

How is science fiction faring in your view? And what could help people self-identifying as women to write and publish more science fiction works?

Science fiction is doing pretty well, though I think the fantasy genre is more popular right now. In my professional circles, there are people of all genders publishing great science fiction today, including many who identify as women. In 2021, both the Nebula Award and the Hugo Award for Best Novel had all-women ballots. We’re seeing shifts in editorial staff and upper levels of publishing, which will really help in terms of gatekeeping and allowing a greater diversity of authors, both for gender and race, to share their stories with the world.

The 57th Annual Nebula Conference will be held online from May 20–22, 2022. The Award will be presented during the conference.

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