Jun 21

2018

Author Interview: Tracy Canfield, “I, Cyborg”

Posted by: Mary Duffy | Comments (3)

Being a cyborg copy of the famous outlaw Ypsilanti Rowe comes with plenty of advantages. But when your cybernetic brain begins to fail only a rare and obsolete part can make your systems function again. Journey across the galaxy as you hunt down the missing piece. I, Cyborg is a 300,000-word interactive science-fiction novel by Tracy Canfield, releasing next Thursday, June 28th. You can play the first three chapters now for free! 

I, Cyborg is one of the few “purely” science-fiction games I think we’ve put out. Can you say a little about what the genre means to you? Favorite novels, comics, or films?

When I was in second grade my dad picked out a book for me at the library and said “I think you’ll like this.” The book was I, Robot, by Isaac Asimov, and he was right! I’ve been reading science fiction ever since. (And watching it, too—I saved up my allowance in a candy box so I could buy a Millennium Falcon model kit, which I suppose answers the “favorite films” part of the question!) For me, science fiction is about asking “What if things were different?” and SF writers will never, ever run out of interesting answers.

I still read a lot of science fiction, but there are several books I’ve reread over and over: Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, with its unbeatable mix of high-tech engineering and high-stakes politics as the inhabitants of a lunar colony fight for their rights; Iain Banks’s Player of Games and John Varley’s The Ophiuchi Hotline, both of which deal in very different ways with the problems people still have once they’ve achieved utopia; Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy, about the Oankali—some of the most believably alien aliens in science fiction—making contact with humans, contact that will change both species forever; and Philip K. Dick’s Ubik, in which a team of psychic security experts realize reality is crumbling around them. And in comics, Andrew Hussie’s Homestuck has an enormous cast of endlessly quotable characters in a time-travel story where the fate of universes—plural—is at stake.

What inspired this story in particular?

I’d actually written a novelette in this same setting before I pitched I, Cyborg to Choice of Games! It’s called “Salvage”, and eventually appeared in the online magazine Giganotosaurus.

“Salvage” had an almost abstract inspiration—I started with the structure I wanted to use for the story, the points at which the subplots would interweave and combine, and then asked “What’s a plot that would fit this structure?” And because that structure kept coming back to key similarities and differences between two characters, the next question was “Who are these characters, and what’s their relationship to each other?”

For me, any story where you see two versions of the same character—whether they’re clones, or come from alternate timelines, or are just good old-fashioned twins—is a very pure version of that central SF question: what if things were different? I settled on the idea of making one character a human being and the other a cyborg with a copy of their mind. The two of them have been living their own lives for years, but now they’re going to end up confronting each other again.

So then, of course, I had to decide what all the rest of the plot was, and I thought of Brian Daley’s space opera novels. I didn’t want to imitate Daley—imitating another writer is playing to tie, when you ought to be playing to win. Instead, I wanted do my own version of everything I loved about Daley: the adventure, the light-heartedness, the wit.

I went with making one character a classic space opera character—an overconfident outlaw pilot—and the other a cyborg with a copy of the first character’s mind. Which is the same place the game starts from! The big difference is that the novella tells one specific story, and the game lets the player decide just who these two people are and what their relationship to each other ultimately is.

What do you think about the looming robotic takeover? I, for one, welcome our new AI overlords.

Since the prehistoric era, every human society has offered its members the same deal: either do something other people value enough that you can make a living, or find someone who’ll provide for you.

But as more and more of the jobs that used to be done by humans are performed by robots and computers – and not just manufacturing jobs; IBM’s Watson has been used for legal research—we’ll reach a point where most humans’ labor will have no value.  And when that happens, what kind of society do we want to live in? Will we make sure everyone has a basic standard of living? Will we require people without skills to do pointless makework in return for food and shelter?  Will the robots’ owners control all the wealth, even as the cost of necessities goes down?

It’s easy to say “there’ll always be enough fulfilling jobs to go around” without explaining how we’ll come up with seven, eight, or nine billion of them. And what happens if we can’t?

What brought you to the world of interactive fiction?

In middle school my dad gave me a book on the BASIC programming language, and my first thought was to write little games with it. Years later I bought a set of the classic Infocom text adventures on eBay—their Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was actually written by Douglas Adams himself. (The eBayer who sold me the games turned out to be a former Infocom employee, too.)

What did you find most challenging about the design and coding of I, Cyborg?

The ChoiceScript language I, Cyborg is written in was developed to allow writers with no programming experience to create text-based games: it’s deliberately simple and straightforward. But since I’d done plenty of programming in other languages (my PhD is in computational linguistics), I sometimes found myself pushing ChoiceScript’s limits.

For example, in Chapter 8 of I, Cyborg, each of the five starships competing in the Galdra Airshow has its own Aerobatics and Gunnery score. We have to rank them from first to fifth based on their total scores—and a ship that doesn’t finish because it’s been disqualified or eliminated has to be at the bottom of the ranking regardless of how many points it’s earned. In many programming languages that would take a line or two of code; in ChoiceScript it’s over a hundred and fifty. (And there’s no step-through debugger!)

Actually writing the story is very different, too. In a book, an author always knows what’s happened so far and what will happen next—so while you’re surprising the reader, you can also make every event build on or develop from what came before. In I, Cyborg, the challenge was to make the story feel like it had a beginning, a middle and an end, with increasing tension as you reach the climax, even as control of what the main character actually does is turned over to the reader.

What are you working on next?

I have a novel that’s on submission to several editors—it’s called Good Girls Want Villains, and it’s about a woman who’s been flirting with a supervillain and decides to get a costume and pull off a heist of her own, and soon finds herself in even more trouble than she expected (and she expected a lot). In the meantime I’m finishing another novel, Maneki Neko, that expands on a novelette (“i know my own & my own know me”) that originally ran in Analog.

3 Comments

  1. Vendetta says:

    “(And there’s no step-through debugger!)”

    Great interview – it’s just a pity that the author was apparently not aware of the existence of CSIDE (the ChoiceScript Integrated Development Environment). It really, really needs a mention on the Intro to ChoiceScript page, perhaps under the ‘Trying it out’ section? It may not be an official package but it’s free, has Windows, Mac and Web versions, a good number of benefits and useful features for newcomers and experienced coders alike, and above all it does have a very powerful console and step-through debugger.

  2. Chris says:

    Can’t wait to play this! How did you come up with the different personalities for the original Rowe and the character? Did you plan out a single back story and then start to give them divergent histories? (I suppose that the player also takes a role in determining the personality here, but I’m still curious how you thought about it.)

  3. Chris – thanks!

    Your hunch is right – Ypsilanti’s personality changes based on the way you play, so he or she will always be similar to you and yet a little different. And his or her backstory changes too – sometimes directly based on the player’s choices (you decide why the two of you went your separate ways, for example) and sometimes based on how you’ve typically acted.

    When I was rereading the classic science fiction stories about outlaw pilots, I noticed a lot of them were opposites of each other in certain respects – one might be cool under pressure, while another was hot-tempered. Those were the traits I used to design the personality statistics in the game – Hotheaded vs. Cool and Collected, Word is Bond vs. Double Dealer, Heart of Gold vs. What’s In It For Me?, et cetera. (Those were the original names – a few of the wordier ones ended up shortened to keep the Stats Page more readable.)

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