Interview w/ Erin K Wagner on A.I., Being a Medievalist, and Centering Women Creators

We’re 5 days away from the end of SciFi Month (already?!) but that doesn’t mean the storm will stop raging on.

This month I’ve hosted some of the best minds shaping the science fiction landscape into what it is today, and I still got a few more surprises up my sleeve for the rest of November, after which I will metaphorically —and likely physically— pass out in my bed and sleep for a couple weeks. Yes, it’s been tiring, but more than that, extremely satisfying to hear from all the authors and have them share their love for the genre on my blog.

In this post, I have the pleasure of hosting Erin K. Wagner, who has been kind enough to come on the blog for an interview discussing, amongst other things, A.I., Erin’s own experiences as a medievalist, and her latest novella An Unnatural Life, which deals with A.I. “civil” rights in a future colony on the Jovian moon of Europa.

My review for Erin’s novella will be up tomorrow on RockstarLit BookAsylum, but for now, I can tell you that this was such an engaging, thought-provoking story. As Erin mentions in her book, Tor has a fantastic backlog of high-quality novellas, and it came as no surprise to me they took to Erin’s story!

But without further ado, let’s move on to the interview!


Meet Erin K Wagner

erin k wagner author photo

Erin K. Wagner (also E. K. Wagner) is a professor by trade, a medievalist by discipline, and a writer of speculative fiction by design.

She lives in upstate New York, a storied and story-making place, but her roots are in Appalachia, since she grew up in rural southeast Ohio. Presently, she teaches an array of literature and composition courses in the SUNY system as an associate professor. Her interests, both academic and creative, lie in examining how the human responds to the nonhuman (whether that be AI, religion, or nature).

Her short fiction has appeared in ClarkesworldApex, and a number of other spec-fic publications. Her novella The Green and Growing is available through Aqueduct PressAn Unnatural Lifeher second novella, is out from Tor.com.

Website


  • Welcome, Erin! It’s a huge pleasure to have you aboard the SciFi Month spaceship to celebrate this great genre. First thing’s first, can you ask the main character of An Unnatural Life to describe you?

This one made me think! The main character of my novella An Unnatural Life is a displaced lawyer, who finds herself in a legal battle for the rights of a robotnik, certainly not one she was expecting. I think she would see some parts of herself in me—a practicality, a stubbornness, but also a trepidation. What should I do? What should I be fighting for? And how can I do it well?

  • One of the aspects of science fiction stories I find most fascinating is the exploration of human-machine interaction and the very line that separates one from the other. How does An Unnatural Life explore that?

Yes—An Unnatural Life is all about this interaction between human and machine, in this case, sentient robotnik, who have been granted a few legal rights in the system but far from most. We ultimately find, I think, that the robotnik seem, in many ways, human (but what do we mean by that? Is it something unique to us?), but the division between them and the humans in the community is ultimately one of power and control. They are completely controlled—by both the labor system and built-in keys—by the humans around them, even those they come to trust. So I think the novella explores how the exercise of power creates differences where there may not be so much difference.

  • The plot focuses on a cybernetic organism convicted for murdering a human and the lawyer assigned to defend his claims of innocence. Was researching the legal aspects of the story particularly challenging or did the speculative nature of the legality of the case allow you some freedom in that regard?

The legal research was a bit difficult for me—it’s not my usual area of study! But I will say the speculative timeline of the story gave me some freedom. This was not a government or world as we know it now, so I could explore a modified form of the legal system. That said, I still wanted to ground the legal battle in the language and legal concerns of our day. So I did some primary source reading, by which I mean I read court documents and the language used in them. Since language shapes our reality, reproducing this language helps shore up the book. The title itself came from a modified form of a prison sentence (for the length of your natural life).

  • How do you feel technological advancements, especially the development of A.I., will affect our society and our very identity?

This is a question that, despite my frequent fictional work in the area, always makes me a little nervous. Because, to be honest, the rapid development of A.I. makes me nervous—not least for the ways in which powerful groups and organizations (whether they be corporate or federal) could abuse their power via access to it.

I think A.I., as a technology, has the power to pigeonhole us, identify us by one or two key factors and ignore the rest. So, I think A.I., as it develops, will shape how we define ourselves. And I don’t know that if any form of A.I. self-actualizes in the future, that it will be remotely human. Which I think, as much as authors try, we can only write A.I. as human-adjacent, because we are human. And we are ultimately always thinking about what it means to be human. And humans are usually scared of that which we can’t understand.

Cover for An Unnatural Life, Erin's sci-fi novella focusing on A.I. civil rights
Cover for An Unnatural Life, Erin’s sci-fi novella focusing on A.I. civil rights
  • What are some of the ways you could imagine our recognition of completely new and (for now) inconceivable sentient forms shaping our society? And in what ways does An Unnatural Life reflect that?

My answer, I think, is a depressing one. I think a new sentient form will have an uphill battle in our society—to be recognized as valuable and valid, for one. My novella explores the abuse of a sentient form as a labor pool. This system is sustained by a steady rhetoric that the robotnik are not actually sentient. And this, I think, is always important to remember. It is language that shapes our reality, one of the oldest technologies, as much as anything else. Language is consistently used to other humans, and so, I would think, a different sentient form as well. So, I guess, what I question first is how and when we would actually recognize another form as sentient. And whether we would decide that sentience is the basis for acceptance.

  • Stepping back in time for a moment. My family and I have this ongoing tradition of attending medieval fairs and relishing in all the celebrations, food, reenactments, and tournaments, so I was excited to read that you’re a medievalist. What does it mean to be a medievalist and what are some of your favorite ways to experience being one?

For me, being a medievalist means that I’m a relatively traditional academic who was able to find a job in higher ed, where occasionally I actually get to teach medieval literature. I also do research in the area of medieval literature to produce articles and, currently, a monograph. Essentially, I’m really trying to understand how the brains of people 500-600 years ago processed their world. Particularly, my research interest is in medieval religion and othering via accusations of heresy—which is always disturbing, but also familiar. As it turns out, human brains have worked in very similar ways for hundreds of years.

  • It was really interesting to me finding out you were a medievalist who wrote this science fiction novella. Do you feel there’s any intersection between those two in your writing, and why do these apparently polar opposite timelines appeal to you?

I think, ultimately, I embrace Ursula LeGuin’s definition of science fiction (and, arguably, all of speculative fiction), wherein she says that science fiction is not really about the future or extrapolating from now to then (whenever that may be). Really, science fiction is about exploring our present. What makes humans tick? What is the world like? And I think my work in medieval studies is very similar. I study medieval heresy, but 600-year-old texts really provide a lot of insight into how our minds work now. In many cases, those texts are the seeds of the philosophy that drive our present, problems and otherwise.

  • You have a monthly column at Luna Station Quarterly titled A Woman Was Here. What are some of the themes you approach in it, what were some of your favorite articles to write for it, and how do you feel your writing changes between writing for the column and writing novellas?

I was so delighted to be writing that column for Luna Station Quarterly, which is a really valuable speculative literary magazine dedicated to women artists. I wrote the column monthly up through this last September.

I’m currently on a break—as I have a lot of other projects I’m trying to complete and I was feeling a little overwhelmed. That said, the focus of the column was on woman artists and, essentially, I just tried to feature a woman writer or artist each month who has made an impact on the world of speculative literature and art.

For a long time, the perception was that men dominated and shaped the world of science fiction and fantasy. But, in fact, women have been working in the field for a very long time. I talk about Margaret Cavendish, Janelle Monae, Marie de France, G. Willow Wilson, Charlie Jane Anders (and the Wiscon experience) and many more—representatives across hundreds of years.

For last December, I wrote about Beatrix Potter, because her Tailor of Gloucester is a favorite holiday story for me. And I think we often dismiss her work as children’s literature, but the delicacy of her prose and art was so influential, I think, to many fantasy writers.

It was hard for me to move from an academic nonfiction to a public nonfiction, where the prose is more conversational. But I grew to like that. In some ways, however, I very much compartmentalized that type of writing from my fiction.

  • Lastly, any other project in the making you can tell us about?

I am currently querying my near sci-fi novel, Ye Are the Children of Prophets. While I also try to complete an academic monograph due to my publisher next year. But that doesn’t mean I’m not mapping out my future fiction as well! I’m chipping away at a short story for fun, and I hope to begin revising an outline for my next novel soon, which, as it stands now, is a bizarre amalgamation of space opera and fantasy. I’m a bit idiosyncratic in my projects!

Thanks so much for this chance to talk with you!

  • Thanks for coming on the blog, Erin 🙂 Looking forward to reading your next work!

Get your copy of An Unnatural Life at…

Bookshop US | Bookshop UK | Blackwell’s | Amazon

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