Exclusive Interview: “Service Model” Author Adrian Tchaikovsky


We’ve all accidentally murdered our bosses and then run off. That’s like a Tuesday for me.

But in Adrian Tchaikovsky humorous science fiction novel Service Model (hardcover, Kindle, audiobook), the murderer on the run is not a middle-aged man, but a robot. And a robot butler at that.

In the following email interview, Tchaikovsky discusses what inspired and influenced this sci-fi story, which he says is “Mad Max starring C-3PO.”

Adrian Tchaikovsky Service Model

To begin, what is Service Model about, and what kind of a world is it set in?

Charles, a high-class, human-facing valet robot, has an unfortunate incident where he accidentally tragically murders his master. Cut loose from his carefully curated existence, he discovers that the human world outside his manor is collapsing, peopled almost entirely by other robots desperately trying to carry out their tasks and programming in a world that no longer needs them.

It’s Mad Max starring C-3PO. Or, for a deeper cut, it’s putting the butler into [Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson’s novel] Dune: Butlerian Jihad.

Where did you get the idea for this story?

I have written stories from the point of view of a variety of nonhuman protagonists, but I hadn’t ever focused on a robot, one of the most essential sci-fi staples. Charles’ exploration of the world he discovers allows us to explore the inner world of Charles, a creature of instructions, task queues and relatively inflexible logic. It was a fascinating thought experiment.

And is there a reason why you had the robot murder their owner before running away, as opposed to just running off? Or, for that matter, having the owner die on their own, and that prompting the robot to go out into the world?

It’s funnier that way. It’s also relevant to the plot for reasons I won’t go into.

But also, it gives us stakes. It makes Charles more than just a passive observer, because it makes him part of the problem. Because, by preference, Charles would far rather be just a passive observer.

Service Model seems like it’s a humorous sci-fi story…

Service Model is as close as I’ll ever get to writing like Douglas Adams. I’m not saying that’s particularly close, because Adams at his best had an inimitable comic genius, but this is certainly the most openly comedic thing I’ve ever written.

It’s also because the world Uncharles [a.k.a Charles for part of the book] blunders through is terribly bleak a lot of the time. For humans and for the robots they’ve left behind without fulfillable purpose. I tend to go funny when I know I’m going bleak, because it makes the narrative more palatable.

What writers or funny things do you feel had the biggest influence on the humor in Service Model? You mentioned Douglas Adams….

There is a particular passage in, I think, [Adams’] The Restaurant At The End Of The Universe where Zaphod, on a devastated world of ruins, finds an intact space liner filled with people who are being kept in suspension until the ship receives a shipment of lemon-scented paper napkins. Zaphod points out that civilization outside has ended, and the ship placidly suggests that eventually a new culture will arise that will invent lemon-scented paper napkins, and then they can take off. It’s that kind of utterly logical and utterly insane machine viewpoint that gave rise to Service Model.

Aside from Adams, what other writers or stories do you feel had an influence on Service Model?

Well, the Laws Of Robotics get a few mentions, for sure. [Karel Čapek’s 1920 sci-fi play] “R.U.R.” — one of the great ur-robot stories — is certainly in there too.

However, each section of the book also draws on a specific writer and literary genre, making a chain of little pastiches within the book. See the section headings for a semi-cryptic clue to each! On top of that, there’s a particular tradition in Gene Wolfe’s (one of my favorite writers) fiction — unusual because he’s generally such a human-destiny-focused writer — where the robot characters are almost always positively depicted and often come across as morally superior to the human ones, in their odd and limited way, and I think that’s a big part of it.

What about non-literary influences? Are there any movies, TV shows, or games that had a big influence on Service Model?

I mean, probably. It all goes in. There’s definitely some of the film’s HAL 9000 in one of the characters, and one character has a written “voice” that’s absolutely intended to be heard as [Star Wars: Episode 1: The Phantom Menace‘s] Brian Blessed. I think films and games provide a lot of very fun examples of artificial characters both positive and negative — so Moon, say, or GLADOS from Portal — that are simultaneously characterful and yet don’t quite intersect with how humans work. There’s a rich tradition.

Service Model sounds like it could be a stand-alone story, or the first adventure for this ‘bot. What are you thinking?

At the moment it’s definitely a stand-alone story, and I’m not sure where it would go for a sequel.

However, that doesn’t mean an idea won’t come to me. I don’t often set out with a series in mind, but if a book does well enough, and the idea occurs, then a series will often be the result eventually.

Adrian Tchaikovsky Alien Clay

Now, along with Service Model, you have another science fiction novel coming out September 17th called Alien Clay. What is that book about, and when and where is it set?

Alien Clay is rather different. The key idea is that I wanted to write about a planet where evolution had progressed on plausible lines that didn’t follow the Darwinian competition narrative we tend to tell (however inaccurately) on Earth. On Kiln, life is a network of interlaced symbioses, and each “creature” is a Lego creation of multiple specialists all clubbing together to make a whole animal between them. Colliding with this biological chaos is an authoritarian human state shipping out its political dissidents to explore and catalogue this new world with the intent to make it fit their scientific and political ideology. It’s a book about resistance to oppression, division and togetherness, and the infectious quality of ideas (and horrible aliens).

Alien Clay sounds like it’s more of a sci-fi space opera story. Or a hard sci-fi space opera story.

In my mind it’s more of a hard sci-fi book. There isn’t that level of swashbuckling action I’d expect of a space opera (like I provide, I hope, in the Final Architecture trilogy). It’s about the people and the science, the political and the biological struggle.

It also sounds like Alien Clay is more serious than Service Model.

God yes. Although Service Model has serious points to make, and Arton, the narrator of Alien Clay, has a tendency to joke under pressure. Again, a book devoid of humor is very hard reading.

So, did you write Alien Clay and Service Model either concurrently or consecutively? I ask because I’m curious how they may have influenced each other, given that they’re both science fiction, but have very different tones and approaches.

I only ever work on one book at a time. I don’t think there’s much crossover between these two, honestly. Some people have noted Alien Clay has a sci-fi take on the starting setup of Cage Of Souls [Tchaikovsky’s 2019 novel], but the books go in very different directions, while both showcasing my love of fictional natural worlds, especially as expressed in weird monsters.

Going to back Service Model, earlier I asked if it had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. But to flip things around, do you think Model could be adapted into a movie, a show, or a game?

So some of my books are better suited to adaptation than others. Children Of Time — the one that’s had the most attention — would definitely be a challenge, for example.

I think Service Model would be a good candidate, though. It’s episodic, has a relatively limited cast, and has a starting set of concepts (robot butler! Murder! Post-apocalyptic wasteland!) that people wouldn’t need to be talked through. And I think there’s a lot of scope for someone to have fun playing Charles (I recorded the audiobook myself earlier this year and certainly enjoyed it!).

So if someone wanted to adapt Service Model into a movie or a TV show, who would you want them to cast as the voice of Charles, and the other main characters?

I need to do a casting wishlist for Service Model, really; It’s something I occasionally for some of my books.

For Charles, though… Martin Freeman [The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy] has that sort of desperately earnest politeness to him. Or maybe a comedian like Mark Heap or Julian Barrett.

And what if someone wanted to adapt Service Model into a game? What kind of game should it be?

I think a first person computer role-playing game would work well. The book is about a journey through a collapsing world, and that’s the sort of thing that such games are particularly good at presenting.

So, is there anything else you think people need to know about Service Model?

Did I mention I read the audiobook? I just hope people enjoy it. It was a lot of fun to write.

Adrian Tchaikovsky Service Model

Finally, if someone enjoys Service Model, and it’s the first book of yours they’ve read, which of your other novels would you suggest they read next?

If they like the comedy tone, then there’s a novella, One Day All This Will Be Yours, which has a similar feel to it. It’s about the last veteran of the History Wars, and his doomed but determined crusade to ensure that nobody ever invents time travel again.

If they like my takes on the end of the world, I can recommend another novella, Firewalkers, which presents a different travelogue through the ruins of what was once.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *