Nick Harkaway on Algorithmic Futures, Literary Fractals, and Mimetic Immortality

I interviewed Nick Harkaway for the Los Angeles Review of Books about how to make sense of the future, the power of speculative literature, and how he wrote his mind-bending novel, Gnomon:

Gnomon muscled its way into my head and it gets to people in a way that seems to be equivalent—that sense of something organic happening independently in one’s own mind, slightly creepy, weirdly exciting… I hope.”

“Science fiction is how we get to know ourselves, either who we are or who we might be. In terms of what is authentically human, science fiction has a claim to be vastly more honest and important than a literary fiction that refuses to admit the existence of the modern and goes in search of a kind of essential humanness which exists by itself, rather than in the intersection of people, economics, culture, and science which is where we all inevitably live. It’s like saying you can only really understand a flame if you get rid of the candle. Good luck with that.”

“Why are we trying to build AI? It’s not because we want to have something that makes coffee properly and walks the dog. It’s because we want a perfect, wise friend to stop us from doing stupid shit. We’re trying to build the angels we were promised who never show up.”

“There are aspects of the book—truthful allusions, deliberate mistranslations, misstatements, references and implications, signs and phrases, secrets I slaved over, faithfully wove in and reiterated in different sections—that I no longer remember or understand. I pushed my limits more than I ever have before.”

“Our societies are defined by the technologies that enable them. Humans without tools are not magically pure; they’re just unvaccinated, cold, and wet.”

“Borges is simultaneously enlightening and infuriating. He claimed to be too lazy to write a novel, and said it was just easier to write critical appreciations of fictional novels he might have written. I didn’t believe him when I read it, but now I almost do; to write the kind of novel he’d have written, you have to run your brain on so many levels, see things that can’t be envisaged. Each of his short stories is like an explosively compressed sculpture. You let it go off in your head and bang! It’s there and then you turn around and it’s… melted away.”

Thanks to William Gibson, Max Gladstone, Hannu Rajaniemi, and Michael Dirda for their generous suggestions on this interview.

Complement with Cory Doctorow on Bandwidth, Kim Stanley Robinson on lunar revolution, and Meg Howrey on the inner lives of astronauts.

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