Exclusive Interview: Machine Learning Author Hugh Howey

While sci-fi writer Hugh Howey is best known for his novels Wool, Shift, and Sand, those three books actually began life as short fiction that he then collected into those larger tomes. Which bodes well for his new short story collection, Machine Learning: New And Collected Stories (hardcover, paperback, digital). While it has three stories that are part of the same Silo series as Wool and Shift, it also has two new stories, as well fifteen others that have never been collected in a book before, any number of which, he says, could be the beginning of a new novel.

Hugh Howey Sand Silo Wool Machine Learning

Let’s start with one of the two new stories in Machine Learning: “Machine Learning.” What is it about and where did you get the idea for it?

“Machine Learning” is a story that I owe to my Roomba. Not long after setting up my first home robot, I started thinking of it as more than a machine; it had a personality. Then I wondered how long before we start overworking our machines without really caring about what we ask of them. This led to thoughts of human analogies: slavery, indentured servitude, the brutal work conditions of migrants on railroads and in factories.

Humans have a habit of repeating our mistakes. I think the advent of robotics, sadly, is going to give us a chance to do so again. Not just in how we treat workers, but in how we judge our circles of empathy. Animal rights activists will give way to robot rights activists. And as we begin replacing more and more of ourselves with machines ­ pacemakers, artificial limbs, and machines get more human-like, we may cross boundaries that take marriage equality to science fiction realms.

Machine Learning also has three stories from the Silo world. What are they about, and where do they fit, both narratively and chronologically, into that saga?

These three works take place before, during, and after the events of the Silo trilogy. Even though they span centuries, the three stories tell a single narrative that has serious consequences for the main character from the Silo books. It was a crazy risk to take with these stories, and very difficult to write as a fan of the characters, but very rewarding in the end.

Along with Machine Learning, you also recently reprinted your novel Sand. [To read my interview with Hugh howey about Sand, click here.] Are there any Sand-related short stories, or did you include them in the new Sand paperback instead?

I haven’t written any Sand short stories yet. I’m busy working on the sequel right now. But there are quite a few stories written in the world of Sand by other authors. I opened the world up to fan-fiction — something I also did with Wool — so now anyone who wants to explore these worlds can feel free to do so. Some amazing authors have contributed to these worlds, and it’s been a great way for fans of the series to discover another writer whose works they enjoy.

Okay, so while none of the stories in Machine Learning are Sand-related, are there any that you’d say were Sand-y?

Despite the obvious differences between deserts and snow-capped mountains, “The Walk Up Nameless Ridge has a lot in common with Sand. The struggle against one’s external environment and internal ghosts is a theme throughout my works. Wool shares this as well. There’s also a deep current of familial tension in the story, something that Sand and Wool also share. The more I look at the similarities between my works, the more I feel like a part of me is prone on a couch, the other part of me sitting in a leather chair, talking about my mother. So much of our souls go into our written works.

Hugh Howey Sand Silo Wool Machine Learning

Do you think any of the stories in Machine Learning will really surprise your fans?

I think it depends on what books of mine the reader has enjoyed. If all they’ve read is Wool, the humor of “Second Suicide” might surprise them, or the distinctive voices found in “Peace In Amber” or “Deep Blood Kettle.” I enjoy so many genres of works that it has pushed my writing into all these different nooks and crannies. If a reader thinks I write the same thing over and over, I think this collection will defy their expectations. And in a good way, I hope.

Are there any writers, or specific novels, that you feel were a big influence on any of the stories in Machine Learning that have not had as big of an impact on your writing style as a whole?

Neal Stephenson [Snow Crash, Seveneves] and Neil Gaiman [American Gods, Norse Mythology] have both been major influences. Stephenson is so good at taking grand ideas and finding the human stories within them. He doesn’t just build worlds; he builds this mesh of relationships within them that you really care about. And Gaiman has a way with language that makes me want to up my game. It’s a mastery that doesn’t require him showing off. He’s past that. The art equivalent might be how Picasso no longer needed to strive for realism. He knew he could paint what was there, and show off his technique, but he decided instead to show the world something they’ve never seen before. I often get that feeling reading Neil’s work.

How about non-literary influences; are there any movies, TV shows, or video games that were a big influence on a story in Machine Learning?

Oh, for sure. I’m a popular culture geek. I grew up collecting comics and playing video games for hours. The original Fallout RPGs kept me busy for ages. As did such space sims as Privateer; it really made me feel like I owned my own spaceship. I found myself completely absorbed in these worlds, and it’s something I try to recapture when I write. I want to live in my fiction and believe it as readily as I believe whatever is happing in my actual life. I don’t think you can expect readers to believe these worlds unless you fully buy into them yourselves.

Speaking of movies and whatnot, have any of the stories in Machine Learning been optioned for TV or the movies?

I’ve had inquiries. There are a few here that I think would make great films, “The Plagiarist” and “Glitch” especially. I also love the idea of adapting for TV. I’d be keen to write a series of new works in the same vein as Black Mirror. But I’d aim to be just as thought-provoking without making the audience quite so uncomfortable.

This never happens, but if the people producing the movie or TV show asked you to cast it, what actors would you pick for the main roles, and why them?

I’d always choose unknowns over knowns. I’ve been incredibly lucky to have the breaks I’ve been given. I like seeing the same for other artists. So if it were up to me, we’d have open casting, and I’d pick the people who bring something new to the character while nailing the animating spirit that drives them through the story. This isn’t evasion, by the way. I feel the same thing as a film goer. I don’t want to be pulled from my suspension of disbelief by recognizing actors from other works. Hollywood relies on the big names to sell tickets, but I’m the opposite. I look for the unfamiliar.

Hugh Howey Sand Silo Wool Machine Learning

Finally, if someone enjoys Machine Learning, what other writer’s collection of sci-fi short stories would you recommend they read next and why that?

I would definitely check out the Apocalypse Triptych that John Joseph Adams and I put together [The End Is Nigh, The End Is Now, and The End Has Come]. Really trying not to be biased here, but I was blown away by the submissions we received for these collections. Some of the best writers working in the field today, many of them at the top of their game. And if you love the first one, there are two more.


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