Today I am interviewing J.B. Rockwell, author of the science fiction, space opera novel, Serengeti.
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DJ: Hey J.B.! Thanks for stopping by to do this interview!
For readers who aren’t familiar with you, could you tell us a little about yourself?
J.B. Rockwell: Let’s see…well, I started off wanting to be an archaeologist—got the degree and everything!—ended up in IT working for the Coast Guard—never saw that coming!—and started writing about five years ago after being a lifelong SFF fan. Serengeti is my fourth published novel and my first sci-fi. It’s also a personal favorite and the book I’m most proud of. What else, what else, what else…I love anything outdoorsy or underwatery—I run, hike, cycle, and I’m even a certified SCUBA diver and lived in Guam for a while, which has some of the best dive spots in the world. So, that was pretty cool. Oh, and if writing sci-fi and working in IT wasn’t clichéd enough, I also have three cats—aka, default writer accoutrement #28. To be fair, there were only two cats at first, but a third one adopted us—again, never saw that coming!—and I’ve since honed my cat wrangling skills to ninja level four.
DJ: What is Serengeti about?
J.B.: Short version: Serengeti is about a sentient AI, Valkyrie class warship (Serengeti, the main character of the book) who’s wrecked in battle and ends up being abandoned by her Fleet in the middle of nowhere. The story starts off with a bang—Spaceships! Space battles! Pew-pew-pew!—and then turns into a sort of Robinson Crusoe-esque survival story as Serengeti and her robots try to free her cryogenically frozen crew. I like to think of it as space opera with heart and emotion and characters you grow to love.
DJ: What were some of your influences for Serengeti?
J.B.: Obviously, other sci-fi books I’ve read, especially the works of C.J. Cherryh and Neal Asher—two of my favorite authors. I think movie influences are inevitable as well—shades of WALL-E, for instance, crept into the characterization of the robots and the way they interact with Serengeti throughout. This might sound odd, but there’s also a bit of Frankenstein in there, which I explain here, if you’re interested:
DJ: So, Serengeti is actually the ship…and not a person… that sounds awesome! What made you think to tell the story from that perspective?
J.B.: I really wanted to do something different, and having read a lot of sci-fi, I hadn’t come across many books where the AI was more than a side character or plot point. There were obviously challenges in writing a book with a ship as the MC, and with the entire story told from her perspective. Simple things like showing actions to express her feelings took on a whole new challenge, especially since I wanted her to show a lot of emotion throughout, in particular with her crew. Of equal challenge was approaching the idea in light of the fandom. AI is a tough area to wade into and there are strong feelings amongst the sci-fi fans out there about what is ‘realistic’ in terms of AI characteristics. I really tried to push Serengeti past the idea of an intelligent machine and make her truly feel sentient. I also wanted her to be a ‘good guy’. To care about her crew and not just be hell bent on world domination. So many AI portrayals end with the AI being ‘evil’—see Ex Machine, or I, Robot or even 2001: A Space Odyssey—but I tried to open up the AI world to large possibilities. Show ‘good’ AI and ‘bad’ AI. AI that are snarky and sarcastic, some that are self-serving. In other words, I tried to paint AI that reflected the many variations of their human makers, with Serengeti herself representing just one possible developmental path.
DJ: Could you briefly tell us a little your main characters? Do they have any cool quirks or habits, or any reason why readers with sympathize with them?
J.B.: So, we’ve talked about Serengeti, who’s the MC of the book. She’s a badass warship and sentient AI—a combination that I personally think is pretty unique and interesting for a MC. I think the best part of Serengeti—besides her badassedness, of course—is the way she bonds with her human Captain, Henricksen. In fact, I was half joking with someone about how in some ways Serengeti is a love story because the relationship that develops between Henricksen and Serengeti is so close and personal. Throughout the story, Serengeti is protective of her crew—human and robot, both—and most especially of Henricksen, whom she respects above all others. Even the Captains that came before him. And unlike other humans, Henricksen sees Serengeti as more than just a ship, and more than just an AI. He treats her as a partner and equal, who just happens to have a super-powered brain. That closeness is an important backdrop to the entire story and influences much of Serengeti’s decision making. The other two primary characters are Tig and Tilli—two of Serengeti’s robot crew. In some ways these little helpers are like children, and Serengeti their mother. Throughout the story we see them grow and change, become more independent and, in many ways, more like Serengeti herself. I liked that sense of family. I like the idea that robots could experience that, creating familial units all unto their own.
DJ: What is the universe for Serengeti like?
J.B.: By design, Serengeti’s universe is relatively small. The story focuses primarily on the ship, although the battle at the beginning and various references throughout hint at unrest in the galaxy—a revolutionary group called the Dark Star Revolution locked in a decade’s long war with the Meridian Alliance, which is the ruling government. In this far-flung future, man has expanded throughout the galaxy, developed high tech ships capable of interstellar travel, and artificial intelligences that grow and learn and develop personalities. There’s also a hierarchy to these AI—at least those within the Fleet—with newer, more powerful AI iterations inhabiting newer and more powerful warship chassis. Holding positions of higher authority within the Fleet, creating internal conflict that is clear throughout. The dynamics between humans and AI are also somewhat complicated, with the one needing the other—AI controlled ships still manned by human crew—but infinitely aware of their inherent superiority. Basically, it’s a universe on the crux of change, with humans in power, controlling the government, and AI in charge of the military, fully controlling the operations of the Fleet.
DJ: Serengeti already has the ship with the sentient A.I. brain – is there any more cool/futuristic tech you will have for the readers in the story?
J.B.: I tried not to get too tech heavy with the story—some sci-fi goes that way, but I didn’t want science and cool beans gadgets to overshadow the dynamics of the core story. That said, I did try to come up with some unique weapons and such so it wasn’t just the same plasma torpedoes and laser arrays over and over again. I think my favorite thing is Serengeti’s photovoltaic skin, mostly because I like the idea of her twinkling as she moves through the stars. I also gave Tig and Tilli a moment where they get to build a weapon using parts on hand. I’ll just leave it at that so I don’t spoil that particular part of the book for anyone who hasn’t read it yet.
DJ: What was your favorite part about writing Serengeti?
J.B.: There’s an undercurrent to Serengeti that involves what constitutes a soul. I really loved exploring the possibilities of what an AI could be, pushing the boundaries of what’s believable to give her true sentience and feelings and (hopefully) help readers to see her as more than just a ship. And I loved building the whole relationship between her and Henricksen. I love the small, intimate scenes where those two interact.
DJ: What do you think readers will be talking about most once they finish it?
J.B.: Ha! Depends on whether they liked the book or not. I know the comment I hear most from the people who did like the story is how surprised they were that they connected that much with a warship and a couple of robots. Many said they were in tears by the end, so I guess I got the emotion right. There have also been a lot of comments about the portrayal of AI—some positive some negative, it’s all good either way. Even if you don’t like my interpretation of AI, it got you thinking and debating and that’s what books are all about. AI is a hot topic and I’m happy to have my book be part of the debate.
DJ: What was your goal when you began writing Serengeti? Is there a particular message or meaning you are hoping to get across to readers when they finish it?
J.B.: Ironically, Serengeti started out as a short story, but I finished it and kept thinking about the story and all the questions that were left. So my original goal was to fill in all those blanks that were out there and build out the rest of the story. But as I got into it the character relationships grew and became more complicated, just like Serengeti herself. I hope readers go away thinking about that, and all the possibilities that are out there when it comes to AI.
DJ: When I read, I love to collect quotes – whether it be because they’re funny, foodie, or have a personal meaning to me. Do you have any favorite quotes from Serengeti that you can share with us?
J.B.: I like this one for it’s simplicity:
“Space was many things, but it was seldom quiet.”
And this because…well, I just like it.
“Ten’s feed was garbled—Serengeti slipped in and fixed it when Finlay wasn’t looking—and the feeds from most of the other probes were empty. Just twinkles and black, and line after line of data that basically said the universe was stardust and moonbeams and could Serengeti please keep it down a bit because she was ever so noisy.”
DJ: Now that Serengeti is released, what is next for you?
J.B.: Serengeti II! Okay, it’s not really going to be called that, but there is a sequel in the works, which will hopefully make some readers happy. I tend to have several projects going on at once, so there’s also an unrelated novella I’m working on and—believe it or not—a Middle Grade book I’ve been tinkering with for a while. Adult sci-fi will always be my first love but I like the challenge of trying something different, and Middle Grade is actually a lot harder to write than I initially anticipated.
DJ: Where can readers find out more about you?
Amazon Author Page: https://www.amazon.com/J.B.-Rockwell/e/B00JAR7WGY/ref=dp_byline_cont_ebooks_1
Author Website: www.jenniferbrockwell.com
DJ: Before we go, what is that one thing you’d like readers to know about Serengeti that we haven’t talked about yet?
J.B.: That she strongly identifies as female. I know, I know—she’s an artificial intelligence with the body of a ship. I actually gave all my AIs a sense of gender which comes through in their tone and interactions and the way they view themselves. Call it the machine emulating its maker or whatever you want, I just found this a likely developmental aspect of AI with increasing sentience.
DJ: Is there anything else you would like add?
J.B.: I’d actually like to throw in a (multi-part) question back to any readers who’ve stopped by and have read Serengeti: What did you come away with? Whether you liked the story or not (I’ll be honest, I’m hoping you did), what is your most memorable impression and what aspect of the story spoke to you?
DJ: Thank you so much for taking time out of your day to answer my questions!
J.B. Thank you for inviting me and giving me some space on your page. These were some great questions and really made me think, which is kind of funny considering I wrote the book…
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*** Serengeti is published by Severed Press and is available TODAY!!! ***
Buy the Book:
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It was supposed to be an easy job: find the Dark Star Revolution Starships, destroy them, and go home. But a booby-trapped vessel decimates the Meridian Alliance fleet, leaving Serengeti-a Valkyrie class warship with a sentient AI brain-on her own; wrecked and abandoned in an empty expanse of space. On the edge of total failure, Serengeti thinks only of her crew. She herds the survivors into a lifeboat, intending to sling them into space. But the escape pod sticks in her belly, locking the cryogenically frozen crew inside. Then a scavenger ship arrives to pick Serengeti’s bones clean. Her engines dead, her guns long silenced, Serengeti and her last two robots must find a way to fight the scavengers off and save the crew trapped inside her.
J.B. Rockwell is a New Englander, which is important to note because it means she’s (a) hard headed, (b) frequently stubborn, and (c) prone to fits of snarky sarcasticness. As a kid she subsisted on a steady diet of fairy tales, folklore, mythology augmented by generous helpings of science fiction and fantasy. As a quasi-adult she dreamed of being the next Indian Jones and even pursued (and earned!) a degree in anthropology. Unfortunately, those dreams of being an archaeologist didn’t quite work out. Through a series of twists and turns (involving cats, a marriage, and a SCUBA certification, amongst other things) she ended up working in IT for the U.S. Coast Guard and now writes the types of books she used to read. Not a bad ending for an Indiana Jones wannabe…