When an army of giant robot AIs threatens to devastate Earth, a virtuoso pianist becomes humanity’s last hope in this bold, lightning-paced, technicolor space opera series from the author of A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe.
Jazz pianist Gus Kitko expected to spend his final moments on Earth playing piano at the greatest goodbye party of all time, and maybe kissing rockstar Ardent Violet, before the last of humanity is wiped out forever by the Vanguards–ultra-powerful robots from the dark heart of space, hell-bent on destroying humanity for reasons none can divine.
But when the Vanguards arrive, the unthinkable happens–the mecha that should be killing Gus instead saves him. Suddenly, Gus’s swan song becomes humanity’s encore, as he is chosen to join a small group of traitorous Vanguards and their pilots dedicated to saving humanity.
1. Our view of computers is largely foolish anthropomorphism.
One of humanity’s most unfortunate biases is our willingness to project our own experiences onto the world around us, regardless of relevance. Perhaps there is no better evidence of this than anthropomorphism, the ascription of human traits to non-human objects and creatures. We put words into the mouths of cats, elevators, natural phenomena and more, and we don’t stop when it comes to technology.
We talk about what a camera is “looking at,” or what an algorithm “thinks,” but that’s a skewed mental model of a different reality when it comes to computing. How did a self-driving car decide to hit a pack of schoolchildren instead of a storefront full of mannequins? It didn’t. It was analyzing an imaging compression matrix coming from a LIDAR system or whatever–flipping switches in exact accordance with its programming.
We hold up computers as impartial arbiters of truth, totally objective in their considerations. We give them the same weight as human experts and enable them to judge whether we should give each other loans, or jobs, or medical care… the list goes on. However, we can’t treat them like they’re people–substitutes for humans in the decision loops of our society—because they will always fail us.
2. The robot rights debate is boring.
Computers don’t have human priorities—they attack designated objectives to make a value go up or down. In the extreme cases of language learning systems like Google’s LaMDA, they’re designed to raise your empathy and create the impression that a human is on the other end of the line. If you were fooled into believing that it’s sentient, congratulations! That’s what it was designed to do.
An AI not a person with hopes and dreams. It’s a whirring, ticking automaton with a human face stretched over it at best. There are no beliefs, just the training data that engineers fed into it for science kicks. DALL-E creates images by scouring the internet and combining the works of human artists and photographers through bland association. When we use it to replace the services of illustrators, we’re actually building new works from stolen bones.
A human artist takes input and interprets it through a lifetime of context, changing with the seasons and memory. A human writer is doing the same thing. An AI is just harvesting the inputs of these humans and spitting out an average product.
Robots don’t need rights. We need to recognize that we’ve built our biases into abstract systems that we use to oppress people today, and limit the role of AI and robotics in our society.
3. Existentialist and action-packed aren’t mutually exclusive.
Too often, action stories focus on characters who can finally cut loose and slice everyone up with their laser swords. Action characters are prime movers, determining the fate of the galaxy without regard for the strictures of society like don’t lie, don’t steal, don’t murder people. They always have a good reason for their task, kind of like how Batman always has a good reason to assault a mentally ill person.
My characters in August Kitko & the Mechas from Space aren’t powerful in any way. They get little say in the major direction of their lives, even though it feels like they’re in control. At the end of the day, without the assistance of the godlike titans known as the Vanguards, these two could barely change a tire, much less the universe.
And this is a lot like our day to day. Every smart human I know voted against Trump, but it wasn’t enough to stop four years of the erosion of democracy. No single person could prevent the pandemic, or Vladimir Putin, or climate change, and plenty of heroes continue to try.
Yet somehow our menial lives contain meaningful decisions.
My characters have their own little plot and story, but it takes place on a ten thousand mile an hour, rip-roaring thrill ride. The choices they make matter—to them alone.
4. Relationships give life meaning.
Everyone dies eventually. Even if the futurists get their way and we somehow achieve immortality, you’ll be one accident away from non-existence. When someone is slated for death, whether from illness or impending events, the tendency of popular culture is to focus on the end. We often read about the slow, downward spiral, but is it possible to find happiness in a tragic framework? What do we have if our time left is abridged?
Perhaps the measurement of our lives isn’t the years we commit to the void of time or even the rippling impacts of our grand aspirations—but the tender moments we have with others, being seen as our true selves.
5. It’s okay to write yourself into the story.
While I didn’t explicitly write myself into this book, there is a ton of me in the two main characters. With Gus Kitko, I tried to write someone who was deeply sensitive and parsing an existence he’d rather end. In Ardent Violet, I strove to create a character who was free in all the ways I’m not. Their relationship follows a core dichotomy I experience all the time: hopeless nihilism with a joie de vivre.
There’s often a backlash against writers putting themselves in the story–the birthplace of the misogynist term “Mary Sue.” As a result, most of us try to hide our identities in our work, placing little packets of ourselves into characters instead of treating the novel like a dim mirror of our own lives.
Don’t listen to the backlash. Writing this book is the single most empowering thing I have ever done.
Bonus Thing: The Grimaldis originally got Monaco through some pretty fucked up means.
On January 8th, 1297, François Grimaldi dressed up as a Franciscan monk and took an armed cohort to Monaco’s castle. He knocked on the door, and when they let him in, he held the way for his men, who seized the fortress. Grimaldi’s nickname in Italian was “il Malizia,” a.k.a. “the Malicious.” He got kicked out four years later by the Genoese, but his cousins took up the fight, becoming the modern-day royal family.
They still celebrate this treachery in their coat of arms. Don’t @ me, royals. I think it’s hilarious.
Alex White was born in Mississippi and has lived most of their life in the American South. Alex is the author of the Starmetal Symphony Trilogy and The Salvagers Trilogy; as well as official novels for Alien (THE COLD FORGE, INTO CHARYBDIS) and Star Trek (DS9 REVENANT). They enjoy music composition, calligraphy and challenging, subversive fiction.