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Books Daniel H. Wilson: ‘I’m sure some day they’ll invent an artificial intelligence that will write great novels’

Daniel H. Wilson.

Sara Vanderpas

After earning his PhD in robotics from Carnegie Mellon University in 2005, Daniel H. Wilson published his first book, How To Survive a Robot Uprising, the following year. Since then, he's published novels (including Robopocalypse, a New York Times bestseller, and Amped) as well as several non-fiction books, including Where's My Jetpack? Wilson's latest novel, The Clockwork Dynasty, which weaves together historical- and science-fiction, will be published by Doubleday next week. Born in Tulsa, Okla., he currently lives with his family in Portland, Ore.

Why did you write your new book?

We tend to think of distant history as not having much to do with cutting-edge technology, but I love both and wanted to bring them together. Having grown up in Oklahoma (formerly known as "Indian Territory") and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, I've always been fascinated by clashes between high-tech and low-tech civilizations. It amazes me how often entire nations have upgraded their technology almost overnight to survive. Japan did this in the late 1800s (so long, samurai), the Comanche did it post-Spanish contact as they adopted horse culture and so did Russia, thanks to Peter the Great bringing home thousands of scientists from a trip to Europe during the early 1700s. Russia is an old, mysterious place – an ancient culture caught between Europe and China, fitting in with neither, fighting centuries of wars against powerful Swedish kings and hordes of Mongolian steppe raiders. The Clockwork Dynasty considers a past in which all those mechanicians, shipbuilders and architects that Peter the Great brought home found something older and more advanced than we could ever imagine in the depths of the Kremlin. And it considers a present in which those ancient machines are still walking among us, disguised as human beings and fighting a secret war that has raged for millennia.

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Which fictional character do you wish you'd created?

One character I've never been able to shake from my mind is Pinkie Brown, the teenage sociopath from Brighton Rock by Graham Greene. I think he makes a great character (and a great villain) because of the paradox he embodies – a helpless, aimless kid, raised on the streets and made vicious by it: incredibly strong and weak at the same time. Pinkie is an anti-hero who perfectly captures the cocky invincibility of youth and the true fragility that lurks just beneath all the bravado. Bonus points: His 1930s English horse-track slang is the epitome of cool.

What scares you as a writer?

The whole thing scares me. I never intended to become a writer. My time in school was spent studying robotics and artificial intelligence and computer programming. There is comfort in the obvious logic of math and science. The knowledge is there when you need it, and if you work hard enough you make progress. Writing isn't like that for me. There is faith involved. Somehow, words and ideas topple out into sentences that evolve into entire novels. I'm sure some day they'll invent an artificial intelligence that will write great novels, but I'll still never understand how it happens. I wake up every morning and hope the magic trick will happen again.

What's a book every 10-year-old should read?

I read Harriet the Spy in fourth grade and things were never the same after. Harriet's thing was that she would write down everything she saw – basically, she was a pint-size journalist. Emulating her, I began to fill a spiral notebook with descriptions of everything I saw. It was a revelation for me to transform all the sensory input of the world into strings of words. Capturing life in my college-ruled notebook felt like using a superpower. Now, you may recall that Harriet's friends find her notebook and they aren't very pleased with what she has written down. The same thing happened to me (a traumatic afternoon of fourth grade that is seared into my memory). That early experience reminds me that materializing your thoughts into words is a powerful act, but one that also leaves you vulnerable.

What's more important: The beginning of a book or the end?

Because I started out in research and technology, I think I've got almost a mercenary mindset toward writing. I'm not very sentimental about the process, and I'm fully aware and enthusiastic about the fact that I exchange stories for money. With that in mind, my take is that you better get the beginning right. No publisher will buy a book if they can't get through the first 20 pages, much less a reader. So if you want to get paid to write, hook them now and worry about the ending tomorrow.

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