There’s been plenty of stories in which artificial life helps humanity, and plenty in which it hurts us. But in his offbeat sci-fi novel Bug (paperback, Kindle), writer Giacomo Sartori presents an A.I. that’s not very helpful, but not out to get us, either. In the following email interview, which was translated from the Italian by Ghjulia Romiti, Sartori discusses what inspired and influenced this rather interesting story.
I always like to start with an overview of a novel’s plot. So, what is Bug about, and when and where is it set?
Bug is the story of a ten-year-old boy growing up in a disorderly family caught between artificial intelligence — his father and his brilliant thirteen-year-old brother — and nature — his mother who is a beekeeper and his grandfather who is an ematologist, both very critical of the pesticides used by industrial agriculture. The mother is in a coma after an accident, and the protagonist, who is deaf and has difficulties expressing himself, suffers greatly from her absence. Then his brother manages to create an artificial being that doesn’t have a body, who becomes a character of the novel, and a reckless and not very reliable friend of the little boy.
Where did you get the idea for Bug?
Writing a novel around a virtual being was an old idea of mine which I started working on about fifteen years ago after abandoning it. In the meantime, artificial intelligence has exploded and penetrated into our lives in the way we now know, this is what prompted me to resume that old project. At that point, however, my digital creature was much more topical and not too far from reality.
Is there a reason you made the narrator deaf as opposed to blind?
The narrator is deaf and only had a late access to sign language, which as we know, is a language in itself, not just a simple translation of the spoken one. And now, he is trying to learn the language of words with the help of a speech therapist, who is one of the characters in the novel. The fact that he doesn’t handle it well gives him a perspective that we do not possess, a way of seeing the spoken language that is different from ours. In particular, he makes a lot of comparisons and many puns, or he takes metaphors literally, revealing what we do not grasp anymore by habit, all that is unspoken and contradictory. And indeed, the theme of language is central in this novel, as it was in I Am God, my previous novel, and in both, characters make many explicit reflections on it. But in reality, all my novels and short stories have to do with the difficulty that every human being has not only in communicating with others, but also in understanding the world and themselves, using precisely the only tool they have at their disposal, their own language. So, the fact that the protagonist is deaf is not anecdotal but a central idea of the story. The blind, even if they cannot see, have no difficulty with language.
The narrator’s dad works for Nutella as a data analyst looking for terrorists. Is there a reason you had him work at Nutella as opposed to Gucci or Ferrari or Prada? Did it just seem funnier to you that Nutella would have a terrorist hunting division more than Dolce & Gabbana or Bulgari?
The father of the protagonist, a great specialist in computer science and artificial intelligence, officially works for Nutella, but at the same time works in the field of anti-terrorism there, and therefore probably works also for some governmental client.In the novel, however, there are only vague clues on this subject, which readers can interpret in many ways, because they see the story through the eyes of the young protagonist who doesn’t know exactly how things are. This is a fundamental aspect for me, which represents the complete opacity of the digital world we live in. We don’t know the algorithms that are employed by the tools we use every day, for example Google or Facebook, we don’t know what is hiding behind them, with what specific purposes they were built, where the data collected about us ends up, how they are used by governmental bodies etc. etc. Often, behind brands that feel familiar and good-natured, such as Facebook, hide unscrupulous and problematic policies, especially in terms of safety. Throughout the novel there is a comic streak, and I liked the idea of associating Nutella, which all of us associate with childhood and innocence, with these dynamics, which unfortunately are central to our society, and leave no one out.
Now, your U.S. publisher, Restless Books, says Bug is a Wes Anderson-esque family saga, but it has robots and hackers, which makes me think it’s also a cyberpunk sci-fi story. How do you describe it, genre-wise?
I have a scientific background, and in my scientific and taxonomic work where I deal with classification of soil, I try to be as precise as possible. In literature, on the other hand, I let myself be guided by instinct and I leave it to readers and critics to systematize what I do. But I agree there is a small science-fiction element in Bug, but at the same time we are not that far from today’s world. Or rather, the experts tell us that we are still far from being able to create artificial beings as intelligent as men, unlike what happens in the novel, but we all see that in many fields, artificial intelligence already goes far beyond human capabilities.
Bug also sounds like it’s weird in a humorous way. Is it?
Sure, in the protagonist’s family and throughout the novel there are many strange elements, as it is true in all stories I tell. I am convinced that it is often in the strangeness, in what falls outside the norm, that the essence of our societies is captured. And perhaps especially in a country like Italy, which tends to be very conformist. But comedy also has this function, it is a way to go in depth, to say many things at the same time, even complex or contradictory, and in a way that is not boring or heavy.
So is Bug influenced by any specific humorists?
I have been influenced by many classic writers with a comic streak whom I love, among which I could mention the great Mark Twain or Dorothy Parker, to stay in your country.
Aside from Twain and Parker, are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on Bug but not on anything else you’ve written?
For someone Italian, it is impossible not to think of Pinocchio when talking about an artificial character. And like Pinocchio, Bug, the artificial character who gives the novel its title, is curious and irresponsible, he creates disasters and gets into trouble, and at the same time he is irresistibly likable. So, one of the main references is undoubtedly the work of Carlo Collodi. My first idea I was talking about earlier was precisely that of creating a modern-day Pinocchio.
What about non-literary influences; was Bug influenced by any movies or TV shows?
For a number of reasons, television has been almost absent in my life, while books have always been present. So, my background is much more literary than visual, even if I love paintings. Even now, I really appreciate a certain quality cinema, but I haven’t seen many important films, and I have a difficult relationship with most of the current production, including a lot of TV shows, which teach me nothing, and bore me.
Along with fiction, you also write plays and poetry. Do you think the way you wrote Bug was at all influenced by how you write poetry or drama?
My texts are always very elaborate, even in terms of rhythm and musicality, down to the smallest detail, and this element brings them closer to poetry. It is no coincidence that in my country my stories are appreciated by many poets who are not usually indulgent towards fiction. And when I write poems, I seem to do the same job, only with a greater economy, a greater synthesis. This is also true for the theater, which requires more conciseness than literary prose, even though it played a very secondary role in my career.
Now, this version of Bug was translated by Frederika Randall, who also translated your novel I Am God for Restless, and who passed away this past May. When you were working with her on this translation, did she suggest altering anything of major consequence that caught your attention, something you didn’t realize wouldn’t translate for English reading audiences?
From the beginning I had complete faith in Frederika’s intelligence and incredible skills, and therefore I have always trusted her choices. On the other hand, her language is very rich, and therefore not easy for me, even if I read less complex English / American fluently. For me, it was a real rest, knowing that my texts were in good hands. I believe that every translation is the creation of something new, which is obviously linked to the original text, but at the same time, it is something profoundly different, and it must be approached and respected as such. Each language is a world, a different way of seeing reality. She often asked me for explanations on specific points in the text, because she was very respectful, and I gave her the elements she needed, but I told her to do as she thought best. I would say that I was rather amazed at the opposite, how much she managed to pass into the American language. For this text, she was very worried about the countless comparisons, the many “like”s, in the somewhat clumsy language of the protagonist, she was very afraid that they would be taken as an awkwardness of the translator, or of the writer. In any case, I consider myself greatly lucky to have been able to meet her in the last five years of her life.
So is the plan that Restless will be translating your other novels into English? And maybe your poetry collections as well?
For now I am very happy that they have published these two novels, and that they have been able to make the most of them. As for the future, we will see, I would certainly like to be able to continue with them, they seem to be doing a great job.
You mentioned earlier that you don’t watch TV or many movies. But do you think Bug could work as a movie or TV show? And if so, who would you want them to cast as Bug and the other main characters?
I like this question that allows me to go deeper into what I said earlier. Because if it is true that my influences are mostly literary, it is also true that very often I have been told that my texts are very “cinematic.” Unfortunately, for now, none of the transposition projects that have begun have come to fruition, but I hope that it can happen. In my opinion, Bug would lend itself well to cinema, I guess we’ll see if anyone is interested. But even so, I find it difficult to think of my text in a cinematic way, it is not my creative world. Perhaps precisely because for me writing means controlling every little detail, which I know how to do, while I don’t master the elements of directing, I don’t know a sufficiently vast palette of actors. Also, cinema is more open, it is a more collective work which uses, among other things, the bodies of living people. So, I can’t answer, sorry.
No worries. Though I do have to ask, if someone did want to make a movie of Bug, would you want Wes Anderson to direct it or do you think someone else could do a better job of it?
From my experience as a spectator I know that any cinematographic transposition is a very personal, or very particular, interpretation of the literary text it is based on. Of course, I would be delighted if Wes Anderson read my novel, loved it, and decided to make a movie out of it, and I would throw a big party with my friends to celebrate. But I know if he did, the result would be another great Wes Anderson film, not something that belongs to me, although certainly something of mine would remain.
Finally, if someone enjoys Bug, what relatively similar kind of novel by someone else would you suggest they read next?
To American readers who don’t know her already, I would like to recommend the great post-war Italian writer that is Natalia Ginzburg. Starting with Family Lexicon, but also all her other novels and short stories. The world she describes is not our own but it is incredibly fresh, topical and irresistibly comical. She is perhaps the writer that influenced me the most.