Humanity battles hostile aliens with the aid of advanced machine intelligence, in Barry’s SF thriller, Providence (Putnam, Mar.).
Where did the idea for the novel come from?
I was thinking about how different war is today, with soldiers infinitely better protected and more remote from actual fighting. We like to imagine that war—especially one involving aliens—will be a personal kind of fight, but in reality our technology will fight it for us. We’ll use drones and computer-guided ordnance and all this stuff that doesn’t require risking human life. So I was curious about what happens to people in that situation, who expect to be safe and are suddenly called upon to risk their lives. I’m always interested in system dynamics—how an environment forces people to adapt. The more I write, the more I find myself dealing with ordinary people in extraordinary environments, rather than the other way around.
How far removed are we from the kind of machine intelligence depicted in the book?
We’re not sure what kind of intelligence the characters’ ship has—it can’t talk. The crew have to infer what it’s thinking from how it behaves. But it thinks completely differently to them, so they’re often projecting onto it. The true nature of the ship’s AI is one of the book’s central mysteries—it might be essentially what we have today, just on a bigger scale, or it might be something new. By the end, I think readers will have their own conclusions on that.
What research into AI did you do?
I’ve written my own AI—a few of them, actually, because I program as a hobby. Writing code is so simple and organized compared to fiction: When you make something better, it’s very nice and clear that, yes, it’s better. Very unlike fiction. But yes, I have a little army of bots. Tinkering with them has taught me about the machine mind-set—which alternates between being incredibly boneheaded and scarily efficient. It’s like, I will solve this problem a million times faster and better than you can, but if something goes wrong, I will eat your whole computer.
What does having aliens as the adversary allow you to do?
At first, the aliens act as a mindless, destructive swarm. So it’s simple: aliens want to kill us, ergo we must kill them. And the book’s final truth is it really is that simple, because that primal struggle for survival is at the core of all living things in the universe. But at the same time, that has nothing to do with us. It says nothing about who we are and what we value. We’re more than that, because we care about more than survival.