In Ted Hughes’ classic 1968 novel The Iron Giant, and the equally classic 1999 animated movie it inspired, a young boy has a giant robot for a best friend. But in her new novel The Mother Code (hardcover, Kindle, audiobook), writer Carole Stivers takes a different approach to this protector / protectee relationship by making the mecha a mommy. In the following email interview, Stivers explains what inspired and influenced this sci-fi novel, including how her advanced degrees helped shape this story.
Photo Credit: Alan Stivers
To start, what is The Mother Code about, and when and where is it set?
In the year 2054, a boy named Kai is born alone in America’s desert Southwest, his only companion is his mother, a super-soldier robot. The Mother Code is the story of how Kai and his Mother grow to better understand both themselves and the world that made them. It ends with a decision: Will Kai break his bond with his Mother, or fight to save the only parent he has ever known? The story starts in 2049 and ends in 2065. Sites include Washington, D.C., Fort Detrick, MD, Los Alamos, NM, the Utah and Arizona deserts, and San Francisco — truly coast to coast in the continental United States.
Where did you get the idea for The Mother Code, and how, if at all, did the story change as you wrote it?
While driving across the desert Southwest with my family in 2003, I spotted an old pickup truck, half buried in the dirt by the side of the road. Shocked, I found myself craning my neck to see if anyone might be inside. My daughter was big into Japanese mecha anime at the time, and with that vision in mind, I became fascinated with the idea of a child living inside one of those giant robots, surviving alone in this god-forsaken desert. I was especially intrigued with the idea of a human-machine interface developing between a child and his bot, inspired by books like The Future Of The Mind by Michio Kaku and mecha classics like Neon Genesis Evangelion.
At the heart of the story, I wanted there to be a reliance by the child on his “Mother” robot, because, so far as he knew, there was no other life left on the planet. The rest of the story all grew out of that original idea.
It took me about eight years and numerous rounds of editing to finish the manuscript. So over that period, it changed a lot. What started as a very intimate story grew very large, and the greatest challenge became maintaining a focus on what was most important. But over all that time, the beginning and ending remained the same.
So, how often has someone said, “Oh, so it’s kind of like that video game Horizon: Zero Dawn.”? Or do they think it’s more like that Netflix movie, I Am Mother?
I haven’t heard a comparison to Horizon: Zero Dawn. I have heard comparisons to I Am Mother, but while I enjoyed that movie, The Mother Code is nothing like it. I Am Mother has this very Terminator vibe that my Mothers don’t share, and my Earth is not the total wasteland portrayed in that movie.
Another comparison I’ve heard is to a book called The Search For WondLa, the first in the WondLa trilogy I haven’t read that, so I don’t know how similar it is. But based on its synopsis, WondLa is much more of a fantasy.
Speaking of which, The Mother Code is a science fiction story. But are there any other genres at work in it as well?
There are elements of a thriller and suspense, particularly in the first half where the story of the pandemic unfolds. And there are elements of a love story — most pronounced in the love of the children for their Mothers.
And is there a reason why you set in 2049 as opposed to 2149 or 2249 or 12049?
I wanted the story to be near future, so that I could leverage an eerie similarity to present-day settings and events. The Mother Code was supposed to be, at least in part, a cautionary tale about biowarfare, and early readers did tell me that they couldn’t walk past the San Francisco Presidio without imagining a barbed wired fence around it.
I also wanted to explore links between the human mind and A.I., a technology that is advancing rapidly every day. At the current fast pace of development, I think that the challenges represented in the book are very near-future, and many might indeed be passé in 100 or more years. For example, when I finished up the final line edits in October of 2019, I had no idea that we’d have a natural pandemic on our hands by the time the book launched.
Any humor in The Mother Code is mild at best, though as fellow survivors tend to do, the characters form close bonds that allow for whimsicality. The easy relationship between my character James Said and his friends Rudy, Mac, and Kendra, and the intimate relationships between Rick Blevins and Rose McBride, and between James and Sara Khoti (“I like my robots the way I like my men,” she said, a sly smile stealing over her lips. “Strong, yet gentle.”) are examples. And the relationship between Kai and Sela as they grow up, Kai always having to temper Sela’s adventuresome stubbornness, was fun to write.
So who do you think were the biggest influences on this aspect of The Mother Code?
I can’t think of any writers who influenced the humorous aspects, such as they are. I think that whenever one is writing a scene or situation with real characters, the character’s voices need to come out. And when they do, there will be humor, snideness, jibes, and the like — all a part of human nature. Sometimes, the nature of the writer can seep in, too. Believe it or not, I am known to my friends as someone with a silly streak.
The Mother Code is your second novel after The Butterfly Garden, which people can download free here. Are there any writers who had an influence on The Mother Code but not on The Butterfly Garden?
For The Mother Code, I was most influenced by the cinematic style of Michael Crichton. I also admire and would hope to emulate the creativity and easy-to-read style of Margaret Atwood, and the thoughtful, thematic style of Ursula K. Le Guin — two speculative fiction heroines of mine. From the standpoint of originality and storytelling, Paolo Bacigalupi and Ted Chiang are my heroes, too.
The Butterfly Garden is completely different. It’s a whodunnit mystery that takes place in New Orleans following Katrina. Written in a more “florid” style, that story is modeled after Agatha Christie — rife with colorful characters and red herrings. I wrote The Butterfly Garden in 2018-2019, while my agent and I were trying to sell The Mother Code to a publisher and as we waited for their edits. It was a great way to take my mind off all the stress.
What about non-literary influences; was The Mother Code influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games (video or board)?
The movie Pacific Rim and the Japanese mecha anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion had the biggest influence so far as the design of the Mothers and their relationship to the children who rode inside and were defended by them. I’m not a gamer, so no influences there although I’m sure some comparisons might be made.
Yeah, Titanfall 2 comes to mind… Anything else?
For questions about ethics and A.I., I loved the story of Data, most recently portrayed — though too late to influence my book — in Star Trek: Picard. And of course, one of my cult favorites is the movie version of I Am Robot. While my Mothers are not humanoid, all the same questions swirl about them.
And lastly for the influence questions, you have a Ph.D. in Biochemistry from the University of Illinois At Urbana-Champaign and did post-doctoral work at Stanford University before becoming a biochemist. How, if at all, did your advanced studies influence what you wrote in The Mother Code?
In engineering the demise of the human race on Earth, I drew on my knowledge of microbiology. In 1977, Carl Woese’s redrawing of the taxonomic tree to include a third domain, the Archaea, took the microbiology world by storm. I was fortunate to be at the University of Illinois when Dr. Woese was still a professor there, and the Archaea figure prominently in The Mother Code, as they continue to do at the University.
My “IC-NAN” is based on current research in DNA therapeutics at Northwestern University. And it helped to have a bioscience background when exploring areas like genetic engineering, embryology, and cell biology. Some of that literature can get pretty hairy!
Having a science background with strong math, as well as being surrounded by nerds in the Silicon Valley, also helped me to better understand the challenges of A.I. and robotics.
Were there any instances when you had to choose between being scientifically accurate or a good storyteller, and if so, what did you do?
For the technical aspects of the story, I would start by writing the whole thing out in scientific detail as a way to explain to myself how it might happen. Then, I would pare it back as much as possible, leaving behind only the bare bones — enough to convince (and not overly confuse) a potential reader.
Then, as one good friend put it, in the world of science fiction, F@@king S##t happens — and if it doesn’t, that can make for a pretty boring story. The trick is to write the story in a convincing and believable way. So the specific details of how my biowarfare agent works, and how it goes awry, are unlikely to occur in real life (thank God!). The antidote and the genetic engineering of the children are also unlikely and vastly oversimplified. But they’re both very important for the story.
The one area that I thought was the least far-fetched was the robot A.I. and the development of an intelligence through deep learning. But maybe that’s because, of all the topics I touch upon in the story, I know the least about A.I.
Sci-fi novels like The Mother Code are sometimes stand-alone stories, and sometimes they’re one part of a larger saga. What is The Mother Code?
The Mother Code is a stand-alone novel, and it always has been. I wanted to leave the reader to imagine what would happen next. I have two other well-formed non-Mother Code ideas in the hopper right now, and I’m anxious to move on to those. But if anyone wants to write a sequel — as a movie, a TV series, or a book — just let me know. I’d love to consult.
Speaking of which, the movie rights for The Mother Code have been optioned by Steven Spielberg. Is there anything you can tell us about it?
The book was optioned for a movie. But especially given what’s going on due to COVID-19 these days, it’s anyone’s guess what will happen. As the author, I’m unfortunately not privy to any conversations going on at Amblin — nor would I be allowed to say if I knew…. All I can say is, fingers crossed.
Finally, if someone enjoys The Mother Code, what similar novel of someone else’s would you suggest they read next and why that?
Tired of pandemics, A.I., and robots? Why not move on to climate change and mass extinctions? Pick up a copy of Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy. Seriously, this is an amazing book in every way — one that I could not put down.
Or, if you prefer non-fiction, I recommend The Sirens Of Mars by Sarah Stewart Johnson. In beautiful prose, this book documents the history and future of Mars exploration.