Interview Sunday 11 November, 2018.
The year is 2060, and the planet’s manual labour is performed by Brobots.
I spoke with author Trevor Barton for a behind-the-scenes look at his Brobots trilogy — an epic queer science-fiction saga.
Who — or what — are the Brobots?
It’s a substantial science fiction trilogy with gay characters. The Brobots are (mostly) human- and male-looking robots built as heavies for the construction industry. Some are gay (under a different term). Some not. (It’s quite a world: there’s an AI on the loose. She’s Maria. She’s had it with gender entirely.)
It starts when Jared finds a hot man (a big bear of a fellow) in a dumpster. As you do. How did he get there? Who would do such a thing as put a bear in a roll-off?
You’re on record saying that we’re humbled lesser gods when it comes to science and tech — that our old futures are very different from our current ones. What did you mean by that?
Space travel, counter-gravity and human-like artificial intelligence turned out to be really hard to do. Even robotics proved hard. We thought we’d all have humanoids in the house in the ‘80s. Leaving aside predictions about those, all I need to finish the point, I think, is to say that wrecking the planet, on the other hand, didn’t prove difficult at all. Oops.
Does Brobots represent a fairly pessimistic vision of the future?
There’s who we are and then there’s where we’re going. SF can be many things: cautionary, prophetic, optimistic. But it’s job, when it has one, surely isn’t to show us what we already know. There’s a lot to feel pessimistic about in the world if we want to – sure. I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in what we’re going to do with what we have.
If Brobotic construction workers existed they would be the most amazing human creation ever made. Plus their world has a hotel on Mars (because there would be, wouldn’t there?), functioning hyperloops, augmented-reality contact lenses, and so on. In that sense, no! It’s upbeat. Ultimately, in fact, the story itself is at the rainbow-power-animal-space-unicorn end of optimistic: get that boy, kill those baddies and save the entire freaking planet.
The rub is that you have to get to that ending. It goes to dark places.
Gritty futures are best anyway. Squeaky clean isn’t real.
It’s funny. The first book came out in 2016. Here we are – almost 2019 – and I still feel like I wouldn’t change anything about the story.
You said in a past interview that the Brobots story was inspired from watching your father recover from a biking accident. Has completing the Brobots trilogy helped you work through some of the emotions of that period?
Yes. I was nine when he had the accident in question. It put him in a coma, he had pins, plates – metal parts added to his body. When I first saw him in hospital he was still incoherent. He thought I was a customer in his shop. We all watched him slowly recover from that accident back home. He had to learn to write again, to speak coherently, to walk. He was my most important adult male – and here he was broken and augmented and vulnerable. It had a profound impact around the same time it was normal for me, as only a boy, to be getting into action figures and fighting robots. It’s no wonder I ended up writing a sci-fi trilogy about vulnerable robots fighting to exist.
But this isn’t a therapy piece. I set out to have fun writing it – and I did. Geek? Check. Robots? Check. Big guys? Check. Love scenes? Check. Fight scenes? Check. Fur? Yaas. Check…
Austin Powers has fembots. Ex Machina has Ava. This is those sorts of subjects from a queer perspective – just in a deeper voice without campy mandroids. (I’ve nothing against campy mandroids – it’s just to say that’s not what this particular book is.)
I don’t wimp out on the issues this sort of material is going to bring up either. Ex Machina explores some pretty heavy things, doesn’t it? I mean, there’s (arguably) something about rape culture, bro’ culture, misogyny, what it is to be a certain gender… I have to go to those places too. Brobots is not fluff (and neither is it overly serious).
How do you navigate the sexuality of the Brobots?
The bro’s are anatomically correct in order to fit into human society. They have sexuality in the broadest sense for the same reason. Sexual preferences follow.
But preferences can also lead. In the real world you probably won’t ever be able to change a line of code to make a robot “turn gay” or “not gay” if previous self-defining differed in that regard (at least, not without inflicting damage). Consciousness simply doesn’t work that way. I take that approach in Brobots because it fits with what we’ve learnt so far about real-world consciousness and AGI. Strangely that’s an argument for real world human-like AI turning out gay (or whatever, but something).
The matter of the differentness happens in metaphor, too. At the heart of the story is the question of who is usurping them as a minority group on the fringe of society – and why. Jared finds Byron in a dumpster. The Brobotics are getting treated like trash. So – why? By who?
Using technology, controlling the narrative and sewing divide: these things unhinge democracy until it morphs into dictatorship (in the book). So – yeah. You’ve kind of got a crazy story about robot bears getting in to space on the one hand, and lots of commentary on the other: commentary on today’s politicians and how they’re using power, fake news, post-truth, echo chambers, video news reporting changed by AI as it uploads to broadcast (because, I’m telling you, that’s going to happen one day), and all sorts of things like that. The scary and the beautiful.
Brobots tells the story of victims trying to work out their own solutions. Was that a difficult narrative to navigate?
They’re not all heroes. Some of them are idiots. Plus some key players in the tale are human allies.
In commercial fiction you generally have a singular hero. Whatever that person has faced, a hero is what they become. They get their challengers, of course. But often that puts the victim elsewhere; makes them another character. In this case you have a new species – and you have to see how they’re being treated first before their path to self-determination becomes clear. It’s difficult to fit that into the standards of genre fiction, so I had to either go fully down the literary route or persist with what I had.
You can’t write about robotic tradies and use flowery language. That just doesn’t fit. They wear their jeans low, walk with a swagger and cuss like crazy. They demanded something down-to-earth.
I just kept the language as simple as possible and (in a way) treated all of them as the hero in combined form.
You released all three volumes of the trilogy yourself, but now Beaten Track Publishing will release an omnibus of the complete work?
Yes. They’re an established UK publisher focusing on diversity. It’s being professionally edited right now. It’s exciting!
Three publishers read the work with a view: two in the US (where the story is set), and one in the UK. Mind blowing! I had no idea I’d get that sort of attention! Publishers (even smaller ones) don’t read or accept everything submitted. Far from it. It’s been astonishing!
Beaten Track felt right for this project. They’re amazing.
It was always intended to also be an omnibus. It’s written that way. Each book flows straight into the next and there are even bits you won’t fully appreciate unless you read them back-to-back.
Are there more stories to tell in the Brobots universe?
Yeah, one day. There has to be: I love them too much. They’ll tell me when.
I’ve spent six months writing and researching. I hesitate to call it ‘commercial’ or ‘literary’ or ‘crossover’ or whatever. Other people can decide that.
I’ve been doing real science with a retired professor. We’ve even made what we think may be a fresh real discovery. It’s been great. Far future. A whole new world and new characters. One hero. One book.
If someone was thinking about writing a novel, what advice would you give?
The world needs you. Rewrite the voices in your head. You can do it.