In the following email interview, sci-fi writer Todd McAulty discusses The Robots Of Gotham (hardcover, Kindle), his unique spin on the “robot apocalypse” genre (and no, it’s not about a billionaire in a bat costume who runs around town, scaring the little ‘bots).
What is The Robots Of Gotham about?
The Robots Of Gotham is the tale of a robot apocalypse, a term I’d never heard until my editor, John Joseph Adams, used it to describe my book, and I kinda fell in love with it. It’s set in 2083, when the world is on the verge of total subjugation by machines. Seeing the danger well before other countries, the United States bans the development of artificial intelligence on US soil…but that just delays the inevitable. Machines seize power in most developed countries, and by 2081 the US is at war with an alliance of South American countries controlled by a cabal of fascist machines. By 2083, America has lost the war.
Once the shooting stops, a Canadian, Barry Simcoe, comes to Chicago to profit from the rebuilding, and he quickly discovers that most of what the world has been told about the war was a lie. America’s machine conquerors are concealing a very big secret, and they’re willing to exterminate all life in North America to keep it.
Put another way, The Robots Of Gotham is about a man who finds a suit of powered combat armor, and uses it to take down some very powerful and nasty machine opponents. And the unusual friendships — man and machine — he makes along the way.
Where did you get the idea for The Robots Of Gotham and how different is the finished novel from that initial concept?
About ten years ago I was spending a lot of time in my car commuting. I listened to Jim Dale’s brilliant readings of all seven Harry Potter books, and was struck by the scope and scale of the story. Not to take anything away from J.K. Rowling’s marvelous accomplishment, but I was idly daydreaming about how those novels would have been different if she’d laid the seeds for the final book a little more thoughtfully in the first one. Wondering if it was possible to have a reveal that would pay off in a series that long. And it occurred to me it was possible, if you constructed the books in a certain way. That led to the story structure, and eventually to the ideas that created The Robots Of Gotham.
How different is the finished novel from that concept? There’s been a few compromises along the way, but the idea that got me so excited on that drive has survived and expanded for ten years, and it remains the beating heart of The Robots Of Gotham.
And what’s the best Batman joke that’s someone made about it?
Ha! The “robots of Gotham” of the title refers to the machines that conquer Manhattan in the first twelve hours of the war, and convert old factories into the birthplace of new robots that invade the rest of country. Batman, sadly, does not make an appearance. And I have yet to hear a really good joke about the title.
I was thinking maybe all the jokes were why the robot Jacaranda wears a mask.
All good villains wear masks! Though Jacaranda isn’t technically a villain, she has an evil lair and a robot dinosaur, so she gets all the villain toys. And she deserves them.
Speaking of which, why does Jacaranda wear a mask as opposed to just buying a new faceplate? They have them on Amazon for like twenty bucks.
Come on. You know the best villains don’t shop retail.
True, true. So The Robots Of Gotham has been called a dystopian sci-fi story. Do you agree with this assessment, or do you think there’s another genre, or combination of them, that describes this novel better?
I would have been very content to have it called a “dystopian sci-fi story,” until I heard John Joseph Adam’s phrase “robot apocalypse.” That’s both vastly more descriptive, and it also puts the book in, I think, some pretty terrific company, with the likes of The Terminator franchise, The Matrix, and even such classic sci-fi as Harlan Ellison’s “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” [available in the collection I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream: Stories]. I mean, given the option, what camp would you want to be in?
Well, I’m hoping some British guy will cancel the apocalypse, but I get your point. It’s also been said that The Robots Of Gothamhas some humor. But is the book a joke-fest like Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy or is the humor more situational like in John Scalzi’s Head On?
I’m very pleased to hear that readers are enjoying the humor in the book. Nothing is quite as nerve-wracking as waiting to see if people appreciate your sense of humor.
Obviously, it’s up to the readers to decide what kind of book is truly is, but I fairly confident that no one will describe the book as “a joke-fest.” The situations are serious, the stakes are high, and in the center of all of that I dropped a protagonist who doesn’t take himself too seriously. There’s a scene in the final chapter where Barry is taunting an imposing twelve-foot robot, the machine responds predictably, and our hero laments the fact that “robots suck at street banter.” That’s the kind of humor that’s in the book: a hero who wishes the killer robots he’s facing were programmed for better verbal jousting.
You set The Robots Of Gotham in 2083. Why did you decide to set it then as opposed to 2023 or 2183 or 12083?
The book opens right in the middle of things in Chapter One, as Barry’s hotel is being evacuated just before it’s attacked by a forty-ton war machine. But as the narrative progresses, I build up a timeline that attempts to show what happened between then and now. The book portrays some very significant advances both in Artificial Intelligence and the development of robotic war machines, and that required several decades distance from today. But it’s still recognizably Chicago, the city is hopefully still familiar to folks who’s been here, and that meant not placing it too far in the future.
Now, The Robots Of Gotham has a fun blurb from Robopacalypse writer Daniel H. Wilson, while the blurb from Shadon Shinn [the Elemental Blessings series] compares it to Andy Weir’s The Martian and Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One. But do you think people who liked those books will enjoy The Robots Of Gotham as well?
I do. At least, I hope so. Those are all very different books, of course, but one thing I think they have in common is that each author has fun playing with technology, presenting some very cool advances to the reader. There’s a particular science fictional joy in that kind of gadget speculation, if you will. Many readers geek out on it, and plenty of the best writers, as well.
One of the things that early reviewers of The Robots Of Gotham have commented on is the high level of speculation around the future of A.I. and machine learning in the book, and that’s very gratifying. This isn’t a SKYNET vision, where one single A.I. seizes control of everything. Why have one all-powerful robot villain, when you can have dozens? And that’s exactly what I hope I’ve done…people my book with dozens of colorful and enigmatic robots, many of whom are extremely dangerous. I had a lot of fun with it, and I hope readers will as well.
Speaking of other people’s books, are there any writers or specific stories that had a big impact on either what you wrote about in The Robots Of Gotham or how you wrote it?
There are plenty of very significant influences I should mention, of course, from Roger Zelazny to William Gibson to Stan Lee. But the writer whom I was probably most influenced by was Isaac Asimov, particularly in the way he delighted in presenting logical puzzles — in his famous I, Robot stories, for example — and took very obvious enjoyment in working out his literary solutions. I hope I’ve accomplished something roughly similar in conception.
How about non-literary influences; are there any movies, TV shows, or video games that had a particularly big impact on The Robots Of Gotham?
Absolutely. The Robots of Gotham is about a man who finds a suit of very powerful combat armor, and goes to town with it. I think anyone who’s played modern video games — from Halo to Bioshock to Titanfall — will acknowledge just how much fun it is to climb into a rig that both protects you and amplifies your strength and speed, and to be given the opportunity to test yourself against powerful and soulless opponents. I wanted to capture some of the essential joy of that whole dynamic, and I hope I succeeded.
As you probably know, some sci-fi novels are not stand-alone stories but are instead part of a larger story. Is that also the case with The Robots Of Gotham, is it the first book in a series or a self-contained story?
This one is a little tricky. The Robots Of Gotham tells a complete, self-contained story. But I’m very anxious to tell additional stories in the world, and I’m already working on them. Also, as I mentioned above, there are at least a few plot threads that remain open for future volumes, including one of two that I hope will pay off well in the final books. We’ll see.
If this does become a series, will it be an ongoing one or is it a set number of books? And if it’s the latter, how many books will it be and when might the rest be out?
It is a “closed” series, if you will, in that I picture a maximum of four-to-five books. Longer than that, and the story arc I have in mind just won’t be sustainable.
As you may also know, some people like to wait until every book in a series is available, and then they read them all in a row. Obviously, people interested in this series should buy The Robots Of Gotham now, and maybe a couple more times just to be one of the cool kids, but is there any story-based reason why they should read it now? Or should wait and read them all in a row?
Each book in the series will tell a complete, standalone story that, hopefully, can be read in any order. That’s the plan, anyway. So there’s not much value to waiting until the series is complete, I think.
Earlier we talked about the movies, TV shows, and video games that may have influenced The Robots Of Gotham. But has there been any interesting in making The Robots Of Gotham into a movie, show, or game?
There has been some interest. I can’t say much more than that, I think. Except to say that my preference would be for a TV series, as I think that would give the story room to really breathe and grow.
If The Robots Of Gotham does get adapted into a TV show, who would you like to see them cast in the main roles and why them?
Whew — your readers probably have better ideas than I for casting choices. I’m open to suggestions.
But if it was made into a game… I have a deep and abiding love of computer RPGS, going as far back as Wizardry, Bard’s Gate, and Baldur’s Gate. But I think it would have to be a story-based action game, like the brilliant Batman: Arkham Knight from Rocksteady Studios, hands down one of the finest games I’ve ever played. And let’s face it: they’ve already proved how well they can portray Gotham.
Finally, if someone enjoys The Robots Of Gotham, what would you recommend they read while they’re waiting for The Androids Of Themyscira?
First off, my agent will be in touch to license that title. I love it.
Thanks. It’s still available.
Second, there are some really great writers whom I hope folks are playing attention to out there, folks like Aliette de Bodard [On A Red Station, Drifting], Martha Wells [All System’s Red, Artificial Condition], Kelly Robson [Gods, Monsters, And The Lucky Peach], and Howard Andrew Jones, whose upcoming fantasy epic For The Killing Of Kings is really terrific. We’re living in a golden age for adventure sci-fi and fantasy. Enjoy it!