Exclusive Interview: “Activation Degradation” Author Marina Lostetter
There’s no shortage of funky robots in sci-fi: Bender, Marvin, Murderbot, Claptrap, R2-D2… But that doesn’t mean we don’t want more, especially when they put a unique spin on the idea. Which brings us to Unit Four, the “biological soft” maintenance robot from Marina Lostetter’s new sci-fi space opera thriller Activation Degradation (paperback, Kindle, audiobook). In the following email interview, Lostetter discusses what inspired this robotic story, as well as whether this is the end for our favorite new ‘bot.
Photo Credit: Jeff Nelson
To start, what is Activation Degradation about, and when and where does it take place?
Okay, so this one? This one is fun. It’s action-adventure with twists and turns and a lot of heart.
Activation Degradation takes place in the future, a handful of millennia from now, in orbit around Jupiter. It’s a single point-of-view book, which is new for me, and focuses on Unit Four — a biological soft robot — from its moment of activation during a crisis onward.
Unit Four is a maintenance robot, and the mining platform it helps maintain is under attack by aliens. Its goal is to stop them and preserve the mine, but it ends up falling into a rabbit hole of misinformation and twisted history. From a character perspective, it’s about coming into this world and instinctually looking for personal connection in the chaos.
Where did you get the original idea for Activation Degradation?
Reading an early draft of Megan E. O’Keefe’s Velocity Weapon, actually. I won’t spoil either book, but those who’ve read Velocity Weapon know there’s a key aspect of unreliable narration in one of the story’s POVs. I thought the way she handled it was expert-level, and it made me want to try my hand at similar twists.
That’s probably a good thing for the audience to keep in mind reading forward (even in this interview!) unreliable narration is a big part of this novel.
You just called Unit Four a “biological soft robot.” What is that?
More or less exactly what it sounds like: a robot that’s primarily constructed of bio-based components, and is flexible and soft, giving it an array of capabilities that a hard-bodied robot would lack.
It sounds like Activation Degradation is a sci-fi space opera story. Is that how you’d describe it?
It’s definitely space opera, though it takes place on a more intimate scale than most space opera stories. I also like to describe it as a space thriller. It’s fast-paced, and the audience won’t always know who to trust.
It also sounds like Unit Four might’ve been built by the same people who made Murderbot in Martha Wells’ The Murderbot Diaries books. Though as a robot who doesn’t feel well, it also kind of sounds like Marvin from The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. Who is it more like, if either?
Unit Four is definitely closer to the Murderbot end of the spectrum, though very different in personality and purpose. Unit Four cares deeply about nearly everyone and everything around it, and is very earnest in all of its actions.
The Murderbot Diaries and The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy are both humorous. Is Activation Degradation as well?
Though I love the tone of both of those series, I wasn’t looking to either as inspiration for Activation Degradation when I was writing. I was focused on executing a story that was heart-pounding in its action, and wanted to match the earnestness of my main character with an earnestness in over-all story tone.
So then what writers or stories did have a big influence on Activation Degradation? And I mean just on this novel, not on anything else you’ve written?
It’s difficult for me to disentangle my influences. Everything I take in informs the things I put out, in some way or another. But I don’t think I can over-emphasize Velocity Weapon‘s influence on Activation Degradation specifically. Without the former, the latter never would have sparked in my imagination.
How about non-literary influences; was Activation Degradation influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
This book definitely has a more cinematic feel to me than some of my other work. Some of the exterior, near-planet shots from movies like Silent Running and Interstellar probably had a lot of influence on the way I visualized the mining platform orbiting Jupiter.
Now while Activation Degradation is a sci-fi space opera story, it sounds like it’s very different from your Noumenon novels, which were also science fiction and space opera. How are they different and how are they similar?
The most obvious difference between the two is scale. Each chapter in Noumenon is really its own short story in order to support a storyline that stretches over hundreds of thousands of years and millions of lightyears of travel. The series often gets called “very cerebral.” Activation Degradation takes place over five days, all in orbit around Jupiter, and is made to get your blood pumping rather than initiate much chin-scratching — which is not to say it doesn’t have its thoughtful moments or heartfelt moments. It definitely has both.
Actually, I’d stay heart is how Noumenon and A.D. are similar. Both are about compassion, empathy, and discovery at their core.
Did you ever consider setting Activation Degradation in the same fictional universe as your Noumenon novels?
Honestly, the Noumenon series covers so much time and space and tech that I don’t think it would be too difficult to place Activation Degradation into the series, but I conceptualized it as a different universe. I like to play in different settings, and wanted to try something new.
Speaking of the Noumenon trilogy, you also recently started a fantasy trilogy called The Five Penalties. Is Activation Degradation part of a series as well?
Activation Degradation is a stand-alone, but it’s got a lot of potential to be a series if there’s interest. I wanted to tell the story of Unit Four discovering itself and unraveling the truth of its surroundings while becoming part of a found-family, and the intimacy of that narrative really lent itself well to a stand-alone.
As for The Five Penalties trilogy, we did a deep dive on the first book, The Helm Of Midnight, when it came out a few months ago. But for people adverse to clicking, what is that novel and that trilogy about?
Murder, mayhem, and hidden history! Helm follows investigator Krona Hirvath on the path of a long-dead serial killer whose personality was imbued in an enchanted mask. Now he’s killing again from beyond the grave, and Krona aims to stop him before he can claim more lives. What she finds at the end of that trail leads to bigger questions about the true nature of her small, pocket-like world, Arkensyre Valley. Book two, The Cage Of Dark Hours, becomes more epic, widening to encompass more of the Valley and its politics, as well as its underlying magical horrors. Book three will broaden the perspective even further, but I’ll save more about that for future interviews.
And do you know yet when The Cage Of Dark Hours might be out? Or even the third?
Cage is currently slated for August 2nd, 2022. Book three is contracted, but the potential title and release date is still hush-hush.
Obviously, Activation Degradation and The Helm Of Midnight are very different stories, genre-wise. How do you think alternating between sci-fi and fantasy influenced these stories?
For one, alternating back and forth lets me kind of take a mental break from the thought patterns and expectations of one genre to play in the other. I know SFF is all related closely enough that we can smash them together as SFF and everyone knows what we’re talking about, but each genre has its own conventions and expectations, and I find being able to move from one to the other keeps everything feeling fresher and helps fight off burnout.
Did you ever find yourself coming up with an idea for one, and then realized it would also work in the other, or maybe even work better?
My big-ideas tend to couch themselves pretty distinctly in sci-fi or fantasy, but I think working in both has made me more flexible when it comes to swapping little bits of genre here and there. For instance, a MacGuffin we often accept in sci-fi is the ansible (for those who might not know, an ansible is a communications device that allows for instant contact, regardless of the sender and receiver’s positions to one another). We don’t need the physics described / hand-waved-away every time it’s used, it’s enough of a staple that most sci-fi readers accept it and think of it as commonplace. When writing The Helm Of Midnight, I let myself use the ansible concept there as well. Why should sci-fi get all the FTL fun?
Earlier I asked if Activation Degradation had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. But to flip things around, do you think Activation Degradation could work as a movie, a show, or a game?
I actually wrote it with a movie adaptation in mind. I thought about the settings as sets, I thought about the action sequences in terms of both a CGI and stunts. I really wanted to make readers feel the same kind of excitement they do when watching an action movie, so I wanted to be in the right frame of mind myself.
And if someone did want to make an Activation Degradation movie, who would you want them to cast as Unit Four and the other main characters and why them?
I feel like I’ll give to much away if I fan-cast Unit Four. I’ll just tackle a couple of the other main characters instead. [Fashion model] Winnie Harlow inspired several of Maya’s characteristics, not just the way she physically looks but also her passion and empathy for people who are different. I don’t know if she’s ever pursued acting, but there you go. My character Jonas is an interesting mix of hot-headedness and rational. Sometimes he seems to take the absolutely worst, most trigger-happy path towards a solution, at other times he seems to be the only one thinking logically about their situation. I see him as a mix of something like Adam Baldwin’s Jane on Firefly and the intensity of Tom Hardy in some of his, er, more intense roles.
Finally, if someone enjoys Activation Degradation, what sci-fi space opera novel with a funky robot would you suggest they read next and why that one?
Velocity Weapon, which I mentioned before, has a delightfully untrustworthy sentient ship. There are great robots outside of space opera as well: Nicky Drayden’s The Prey Of Gods has both magic and funky robots (have I recced this book before in our interviews? I feel like I can’t rec it enough!). And S.B. Divya’s exploration of robots in Machinehood is fantastic at inverting trope-specific what-if questions around AI.