Interview with Carien Smith, PhD Philosophy student and author of 'Bot.'
What inspired you to write Bot? How did you begin writing the collection?
Bot has been with me for a very long time. Some of the stories in this collection go back perhaps ten years … but not in the form they are in the final book. Sometimes it is just images, a meaning, or a scenario that goes back that far, and they find their place in a story in its current form. Out of the sixteen stories that are finally contained in the collection, I would say 14 were newly written since around the beginning of 2020. For me, a story begins with imagining a world with specific characteristics, and I consider how people would function in them, what type of people would inhabit that world, and how their lives would be in that world. In a way, it is very much like philosophical thought experiments.
For example, what would a world be like where a judge in a court of law is a robot, programmed with an understanding of all laws, and the robot is the judge over everything? And what happens when a human must prove that they are, in fact, human to this robot judge?
Or: what about a world where the religion is around a “god the Robot”? Where all unique identities are erased, and the world becomes grey? And who is god the Robot? (Is god the Robot already our god?)
Or: what about a girl who wakes up one day and realises she has turned into a robot? And the question I am interested in here: when do we wake up and realise that we are no longer human? Our lives are so integrated with technology that I ask myself this question quite often: am I still human?
Or: a world where a reality show has clones of the spectators, and the spectators decide the fate of the clones - even to the point of execution. Where does our humanity end? If you see a clone of yourself, what does that mean for you? What is your relationship to your clone? And then it is a question of whether clones have the same moral status as humans? Can they just be executed for entertainment? And how guilty is a spectator in evils that happen online, for example?
There is a recent example of a boy who eventually murdered his neighbour. There was a significant lead-up to this event, and it was actually, to a large extent, propelled to that point by the social media following he had. His followers were, in a way, encouraging him to execute many of the cruel things he did to his neighbour. How responsible are his social media followers for this violence and eventual murder? In this case, where does responsibility begin and end?
What if we face a Climate Change Truth and Reconciliation Commission twenty years from now – similar to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission when Apartheid ended in South Africa – and we have to account for the deeds we did in our fight for survival in this world that had been affected so much by climate change, and also when the companies that contribute the most to the climate change catastrophe have to be held accountable for their contributions to the crisis?
The book starts with a train ride into a world where an AI has decided how to eliminate suffering in the world, and the book ends with a train ride into the world of god the Robot. Along the way, the reader explores other possible worlds with flying elephants and golden poodles. It is a journey.
How did you decide on the title, 'Bot?'
The title has multiple meanings, especially in Afrikaans. The more universal and undeniable reference is to a robot. This book has many robots. Robot chickens, a robot animal circus, robot dogs that hunt down street children, sex robots, a robot who cares for a sick, elderly man (is he sick? ...), robot bird messengers, etc. Some specific meanings in Afrikaans are, firstly, being closed-off to the world. Sort of a coldness, being shut-in, no effective communication, bluntness, and harshness. I struggle to find an exact translation of the word! The closest is probably “bluntness”, although I feel it does not fully capture it. I think this is a reflection of the worlds inside the book, the robots, the clones … I also believe that my writing is bot, or blunt, in a way. It is my style. Bot also refers to a budding flower. So, it represents growth, and new life. And then, finally, a baby worm. (Yes, there are worms.)
The dedication is: “To all fellow travellers in the sixth mass extinction” and on the back of the cover, it says “Everything is a lie … nothing is a lie”. Tell us about this.
The book is almost a type of love letter to humanity. But not the kind with extravagant proclamations of undying, eternal love. Instead, a love letter that warns the loved one of impending danger. Of an incoming atomic bomb. I am very concerned about truth and untruth and how these influence our beliefs and actions. This is also clear in my thesis, where I am concerned with how conspiracy theories eventually cause us to act in certain ways, leading to harmful behaviours in some cases (climate change, Covid-19, vaccines and autism, etc.). In this collection, I play with the truth, question it, and turn it on its head. The one motto at the beginning of the book is a sort of quote from Nick Bostrom: "… there is a significant probability that you are living in a computer simulation.” Whether this is a technological simulation, an untruth simulation, a social media simulation, or god the Robot's simulation, we can think about those things. However, although the collection can be perceived as very dark, there is a budding flower. There is hope.
Do you enjoy reading and writing short stories? What is it about short fiction that you enjoy?
Yes, I enjoy reading short fiction, although, of course, I also enjoy reading novels. Do I enjoy writing? I am not so sure, but there is a type of love. To start writing, there has to be a love for the art. But as you advance and write more and more and learn what it takes to write, you realise that it is a complex love. You are sometimes at war with yourself to get where you want to be. In some sense, I think it is similar to writing a thesis. But it is different because you truly start with a blank page and purely your imagination. There are no philosophers to lean on to help you build what you want to say. And by that I do not say that philosophy is not creative. At all. It actually requires a great deal of imagination, but differently. The plan is to next turn to a novel (please do not tell my supervisors… the PhD is the priority!)
Who are your favourite authors, and why? Any recommendations?
Some of my favourite authors are Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, Margaret Atwood, Zamyatin, Jan Rabie, Willem Anker, Marge Piercy, and Ursula K Le Guin. These authors write about the type of worlds I am interested in, or their worlds are close to mine. Jan Rabie was an Afrikaans author, revolutionary at his time and remains a key figure in the Afrikaans canon. (His works are also available in English.)
Then there are many other writers, such as Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu, NoViolet Bulawayo, Tertius Kapp, Charl-Pierre Naudé, Susan Smith, Antjie Krog, oh, and too many others to list here. Many of these have directly influenced my writing, and most of them are also directly a part of my life and friends.
Have your studies in Philosophy influenced your writing?
Definitely. In another interview, I sort of used the image of two lungs - philosophy and writing are like two lungs, and I need both to survive, and I think they strengthen each other. The ideas I explore in philosophy usually make their way into my writing, and vice versa. I think the creative way I express these ideas is a way in which my subconscious tries to figure it out. Tries to consider scenarios, how people would act and react in those scenarios, and what that means. Some of the philosophical ideas in my writing - such as AI, simulations, technology, religion, feminism, genetic manipulation, and clones - are not in my research directly, but through dealing with them in my writing, I also explore them just in a different format. I also do a lot of academic reading on these topics, which helps to build the ideas.
Does your personal background influence your writing?
I am South African. Which is a historically laden, complexly layered identity. The book is set in South Africa, although it is not always explicit. I am particularly interested in how technology will influence South African society. Most speculative types of fiction are set in other countries, although there is a growing body of speculative fiction in SA. Technological progress is different with such significant inequalities in a country such as South Africa. It is not as linear as in many first world countries … (although I do not generalise at all …). However, technological progress affects us differently. Not everyone has access to it, and corruption will influence it, the lack of infrastructure, etc.
Tell us about your writing background?
I started writing as a child. When I was around 10, I wrote an English (why?! I do not know) soppy romance novel entitled “The Ledgend of the Lost Kiss” (sic). The novel ended up with about ten chapters before I stopped. Thank goodness. I started writing far earlier, though, after teaching myself to write around four. I wrote little books that I bound together and illustrated. Serious writing began in high school and then after school. Shortly after school, I wrote some plays, of which one was nominated for an SA literary award. After that, short stories, I won some runner-up type of positions in national contests, then I made the longlist of six for the PEN International New Voices Award (2015), won two AdHoc Flash Fiction competitions (Bath Flash Fiction Award project), and then I was awarded the Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award. In 2020 I had a writing fellowship at the Johannesburg Institute for Advanced Study, where I wrote most of the first draft of this collection. In between, I published a handful of stories in various formats.
As mentioned before, writing is a war. There was a time before I focused on this book when I submitted stories to many literary magazines. I think in the time frame of about three or four months, I got around 25 or 30 rejections. And the most important thing is to keep going. Submitting to literary journals are very similar to academic articles – there is a review process, and different journals have different types of stories they are interested in. Some of these journals have a 0.5% acceptance rate … so you just have to keep pushing.
About the author
Carien Smith is a writer and playwright who has won numerous prizes for her work and who has attended various international writing programs. At present she is a doctoral student in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Sheffield where her field of study is ethical behaviour pertaining to climate change. Bot is her debut collection of short stories.
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