Today I am interviewing Alex Lamb, author of the new science fiction, space opera novel, Roboteer, first book of the Roboteer trilogy.
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DJ: Hey Alex! Thanks for stopping by to do this interview!
For readers who aren’t familiar with you, could you tell us a little about yourself?
Alex Lamb: Sure. I was born in Britain and now live in Santa Cruz, CA. I’m a dad. I like hiking. And I’ve had a rather confused career. I’ve been an improv comedy instructor, a research scientist, a software developer, and a communication skills trainer for Olympic athletes, executives and engineers. My resume looks like a bomb hit it. Right now, though, I’m loving being a writer.
DJ: What is Roboteer about?
Alex: It’s about a young man, Will Monet, who’s been bred to interface with machines. He grows up on a human colony world, Galatea, that’s struggling with a failed terraforming project. Genetic engineering has become the norm.
His planet finds itself suddenly caught up in a war with Earth: the homeworld that abandoned them a long time ago. The government has passed into the hands of a group of religious extremists and they want their colonies back. However, they’re not that keen on keeping the actual colonists.
Will finds himself working on a starship on a secret mission that might decide the war. However, these aren’t your nice, ordinary, clean starships. In this future, starships need to be miles on a side to fit in all the horribly radioactive accelerator machinery they run on. And the only room for people on those ships is a space about the size of a minivan tucked right down in the center. All the work on the ship is done by thousands of robots out in the hull, and it’s Will’s job to manage all of them. The other five people on the ship are genius scientists and military officers who make all the decisions.
They find themselves fighting for their lives. And the mission gets bigger than any of them expected.
DJ: What were some of your influences for Roboteer?
Alex: I have so many! I guess if I had to pick a few relevant ones, I’d go for Neal Stevenson, Dan Simmons, Kim Stanley Robinson, Joe Haldeman, Vernor Vinge, Orson Scott Card, Iain M. Banks,… I could go on. I grew up on science fiction, absorbing it all like a sponge. It’d be hard to name an author who I wasn’t influenced by.
DJ: Could you briefly tell us a little about your main characters? Do they have any cool quirks or habits, or any reason why readers with sympathize with them?
Alex: Well, there’s Will. He’s angsty, headstrong, nerdy, and not super-great at taking orders. He’s still trying to figure out how to deal with the hand life has dealt him. But he’s also whip-smart and can control giant machines with his mind.
Then there’s the captain who has to deal with him: Ira Baron. He’s a tactical genius who’s been bred for space-flight. He’s fiercely protective of his crew, a brilliant psychologist, and can also comfortably withstand fifteen gees of acceleration. He’s also struggling with grief.
Pitted against them, though not exactly a villain, is Gustav Ulanu, a high-flying scientist who’s been forced to become both a politician and a soldier in order to survive. He’s found himself in a position of power in a society he doesn’t like all that much. But he likes the Galateans with their filthy genetic tinkering even less.
DJ: What is the universe for Roboteer like?
Alex: Well, I wanted to write about a future where the path of scientific development hasn’t run smoothly. I feel that so many SF stories still expect flying cars and super-intelligent AIs. We’re always so sure we know what’s possible and what’s not, and yet hardly anyone anticipated the rise of the smartphone. I wanted to subvert some of our comfortable expectations, to create a picture of the future that was a little grittier and maybe therefore more true to life.
So in this future, it turns out that nanotechnology doesn’t work that well. Neither does AI. On the other hand, it turns out that warp drive isn’t that hard to build if you have big enough accelerators. There are interstellar colonies, but they’re fragile and desperate. Meanwhile there’s still human conflict, a failing environment to deal with, and bitter ideologies struggling for dominance, much like today. On the other hand, there’s also hope.
DJ: One of the reasons I am fan of sci-fi colonization stories, is I get to see how imaginative and – what appears to be most of the time – how intelligent some authors are. I say “intelligence” because there seems to be a decent amount of time dedicated to researching science and technology for the new colonization.
How much research did you have to do for Roboteer?
Alex: Specifically for Roboteer? Not that much, but that’s perhaps because I’ve had the surreal good fortune to have worked in a lot of different scientific disciplines without having a PhD in any of them.
I have this habit of hiring myself out for free to scientists who need computer simulations. Amongst other fields, I’ve worked in quantum gravity research, AI, evolutionary biology, and economics. How did I manage this? For many years, my wife was an astronomer, so I met a lot of scientists. And it turns out that when you offer scientists free computer simulations, they’re often happy to talk—enthusiastic, even. And if you’re a science fiction writer, that means a lot of very fun opportunities to learn. I like to fill my books up with science that’s beyond what we’re sure of, but which might actually work. In fact, I’d go so far as to say I’m passionate about doing that.
DJ: Anything cool pieces of tech you came up with or any “physically impossible” problems you ran into?
Alex: A lot of the notions we have in society of what’s possible and impossible are a little shaky, IMO. Take faster than light travel, for instance. We’ve never seen anything go faster than light (FTL). There’s no explicit reason to believe that anything ever will. But that’s very different from saying that it’s impossible.
Saying that FTL has never been witnessed is accurate. Saying that it’s not permitted by current theoretical models (because Einstein, Lorentz invariance, etc) is slightly dubious. Saying that it’s impossible isn’t scientific, even though many scientists fall into that trap. As it is, I’m rather proud of the space drive I use in Roboteer. It’s a twist on the Alcubierre warp-drive, a technology that NASA has a small, underfunded research team looking into.
In the Roboteer universe, it turns out that dark matter includes a bunch of particles carrying spatial potential being radiated by black holes. If you know what you’re doing, you can tap those particles in bursts, releasing their potential and distorting local space one blast at a time. This makes for something like a Harley Davidson warp-drive. The engines are big and dirty, and they growl.
DJ: What was your favorite part about writing Roboteer?
Alex: World building. I’m a fanatic world-builder. If I don’t make universes where I understand how the machines work, how the creatures evolved, and how society has developed, I don’t feel satisfied. Having said that, just simply striving to write roller-coaster adventures stories that will keep readers on the edge of theirs seats is fun too.
DJ: To my initial confusion, Roboteer was already released in the UK, but it only being released now in the US. Normally, I’d ask what you’d think readers will be talking about, but you already know! 😄
What has been the general opinion from readers so far? What have reviews, readers, and bloggers been saying about it?
Alex: I’ve been delighted by the response in the UK. The Guardian told me I ‘hit the ground running’ which made my day. Starburst Magazine called it ‘a terrific debut novel’, which boosted my ego no-end. Even Nature Physics seems to have liked it. They apparently ‘recommend Roboteer to anyone who appreciates solid action and visions of future technologies’.
I also seem to be hovering at about four-and-a-half stars on Amazon.co.uk, which couldn’t make me happier. For someone who’s always dreamed of having their work hit print, it’s been a very satisfying ride.
In fact, that one thing I’m yearning for is a US release. I’m so glad that Roboteer will now be coming out in my home town. It’s very odd to be an author on one side of the pond and not the other. People keep asking me where they can find my book and I struggle to answer. Now, at last, it’ll be easier.
DJ: What was your goal when you began writing the Roboteer trilogy? Roboteer is only the first book of three, but is there a particular message or meaning you are hoping to get across to readers when they finish it?
Alex: Most definitely, though I don’t want to give away too much. What I did want to do with these books was ask the question: what’s the difference between an intelligent species that wipes itself out, and one that lasts? And is that something we get to choose?
To my mind, the best SF can be thought of as ‘thinking person’s adventure fiction’. A great SF novel should give you huge chewy questions to ponder while you’re lying awake in bed racing for the ending. I aspire to writing that kind of book.
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 Roboteer that you can share with us?
Alex: Gosh. I struggle to pick out quotes from my own book. I think the best I can do is offer quotes that others have liked.
Here’s one that a reviewer picked out:
‘Above them was a sky full of floating stuff, like clouds from some heavy-metal hell – gunmetal clouds with thorns.’
And here’s one that my editor at Gollancz Books seemed to enjoy:
‘For an eye-blink, he saw things like giant icebergs in darkness, with surfaces that crawled and rotted. It was something that shouldn’t have happened. Something he should not have seen.’
DJ: Now that Roboteer is released in the US, what is next for you?
Alex: More books! I have a new trilogy cooking in the background that I’m enjoying planning. If it comes off, it should be a blend of high action, politics, evolutionary biology, and inflationary cosmology research. With maybe a few sword-fights thrown in.
We’ll have to see how that goes. As for other projects, I have a new partnership with a movie special effects company here in Santa Cruz. We’re looking to take some of my more surreal simulation results and turn them into something huge and interactive that might be seen in public space, like an airport lobby, for instance. So far, it’s been a lot of fun.
DJ: Where can readers find out more about you?
Amazon Author Page: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Alex-Lamb/e/B011S3MKD2/
Also, for more serious pondering… https://thetinkerpoint.com/
DJ: Before we go, what is that one thing you’d like readers to know about Roboteer that we haven’t talked about yet?
Alex: It starts with a space battle. People who like space battles seem to love that. But for readers who engage more specifically with character development, chapter two is where it starts cooking. Just FYI.
DJ: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Alex: I love feedback from readers. So if people have thoughts about the book’s big ideas, I really want to hear about it. My Facebook author page is a great place to start.
And if they like the book, I encourage them to spread the word. Authors live or die by personal recommendations. If readers enjoy an author’s work, the best thing they can ever do is tell their friends.
DJ: Thank you so much for taking time out of your day to answer my questions!
Alex: My absolute pleasure. It’s been a blast!
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Buy the Book:
Amazon | Barnes & Nobel | Goodreads | Kobo
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The starship Ariel is on a mission of the utmost secrecy, upon which the fate of thousands of lives depend. Though the ship is a mile long, its six crew are crammed into a space barely large enough for them to stand. Five are officers, geniuses in their field. The other is Will Kuno-Monet, the man responsible for single-handedly running a ship comprised of the most dangerous and delicate technology that mankind has ever devised. He is the Roboteer.
Roboteer is a hard-SF novel set in a future in which the colonization of the stars has turned out to be anything but easy, and civilization on Earth has collapsed under the pressure of relentless mutual terrorism. Small human settlements cling to barely habitable planets. Without support from a home-world they have had to develop ways of life heavily dependent on robotics and genetic engineering. Then out of the ruins of Earth’s once great empire, a new force arises – a world-spanning religion bent on the conversion of all mankind to its creed. It sends fleets of starships to reclaim the colonies. But the colonies don’t want to be reclaimed. Mankind’s first interstellar war begins. It is dirty, dangerous and hideously costly.
Will is a man bred to interface with the robots that his home-world Galatea desperately needs to survive. He finds himself sent behind enemy lines to discover the secret of their newest weapon. What he discovers will transform their understanding of both science and civilization forever… but at a cost.
Alexander Lamb splits his time between writing science fiction, software engineering, teaching improvised theater, running business communication skills workshops, and conducting complex systems research.
In his day jobs, Alex has worked on a myriad of unrelated software projects, including mobile applications for biologists and publishers, risk analysis software for banks, large-scale simulation of battlefields for the US Army, hyper-optimized software interfaces for major US corporations, and novel machine-learning applications for Silicon Valley start-ups.
He has also held the position of Research Scholar in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Dept. at Princeton University, where he worked on computer simulations of complex systems. His research has spanned the simulation of gossip, the formation of human cultural norms, the arise of wealth inequality in society, new algorithms for general machine intelligence, and the modeling of the Planck-length structure of spacetime. He has several blogs, one focussed on behavior science and improv, the other on algorithmic approaches to physics.
As an improviser, Alex has founded three theater companies and is the inventor of the archetypal improv style, a technique used to bring Joseph Campbell’s theories of narrative structure to unscripted theater. As Britain’s foremost expert on spontaneous plotting, he has created play formats now used and enjoyed across the world from London to San Francisco.
As a trainer, he has worked with CEOs, high school students, international sales professionals, astrophysicists, doctors, world-class athletes, and graduate students. He has twice been a speaker at ASTD International—the largest business training conference in the world.
Along with his novels, he has two pieces of short fiction in print, Ithrulene, a short story in the Polyphony 5 anthology by Wheatland Press. He is a graduate of the Clarion West writers program and a Milford group attendee.
He currently lives in Santa Cruz, California with his wife, Genevieve Graves, (an award-winning astrophysicist turned data scientist), and his three-year-old son, Thorfinn.