Algernon
Interview with Freddy Milton
by Ingo Milton

return

Have you ever written a whole book about robots before?

No, and it's a regrettable neglect, which I now have corrected.

Why would that topic be interesting today?

Because there is an increased awareness about robots and Artificial Intelligence.

So, are you bringing the situation a step further?

I most certainly do! I have a dystopian vein, and it was an obvious angle to use in my new book.

Something to do with the climate problem?

That problem works only as a background. It doesn't take much imagination to foresee that the nations cannot agree on a joint effort against global warming. The threat is too far away, people would think.

There are already consequences now due to extreme weather problems that are said to have something to do with the climate issue.

Yes, but people are using resources to remedy the consequences of these incidents, and then fewer funds are available to be allocated to finance the long-term initiatives. In addition, politicians must be re-elected, and short-term goals are more convenient for this purpose.

This sounds pessimistic.

Rather realistic. Even if you agree on doing something, that's not enough. When the polar ice melts, some cities will be flooded or at least threatened with being flooded, and that can hardly be prevented.

Then you add another layer of downfall.

Exactly. The breakdown in nature will make groups of people desperate, and they can no longer just move to a new place. The Earth is already overpopulated. People trying to search for better living conditions is a situation which always existed, and we are seeing that now with the refugees of convenience leaving Africa. But now there is no longer room for them to move elsewhere.

Maybe wars will break out because of the deterioration of living conditions?

That may very well happen, and it would take the lives of many people. And now we have come to the place where the book begins, with the remaining people mostly living in a few fortified cities where they survive only because there are so many robots that can help them.

But that's not without difficulty, either, is it?

No, because the dwindling number of people becomes nervous that the robots will take power. It will be up to the agent Magnus and his personal robot, Algernon, to make out heads and tails of that complicated situation.

Why that name, Algernon?

One of my oldest and finest experiences with science fiction was a pocketbook with winners of US science fiction awards. Daniel Keyes had won a Hugo one year with his short story 'Flowers for Algernon' and later the Nebula award for the novel edition. It was a story of a person with low intelligence who, during a test, lost a race to a mouse who was better able to find his way through the maze. The mouse was called Algernon. The man then gets a newly developed treatment that makes him more intelligent, so he can beat the mouse to the cheese. But the treatment has a serious price to it.

Why did that make such a strong impression on you?

Because I have always had compassion for people affected by a hard time in life. For instance, I wrote a book on Autism having a similar tone. And in addition, the novel had a linguistic superstructure. The person, himself, in 'Flowers for Algernon' writes his diary, and at the beginning he spells badly. But as the treatment develops, he gets control of his language. Later, when the effect dwindles, he returns to his old way of spelling. A fine way to show the difference in intelligence.

So, intelligence is also an important part of your story?

It is. In my case, it is artificial intelligence, which robots can even build and further develop themselves if they are allowed. As I have done before, I have a cross-cutting of the story to a parallel line of action.  We meet a surviving high intelligence robot, who thinks he's the last of his kind, since people forbade robots to be more intelligent than humans. He feels he has a responsibility to protect this advanced bios core, so he must escape from the city. And later he gets escorted by a boy whose mother has been shot by the guards on the city wall.

Were you also inspired by other stories about robots?

In a way. Everyone knows the Asimov angle to this theme. But the movie 'I Robot' has nothing to do with the novel. However, I refer to his Three Robot Laws in the beginning of my book. In addition, Philip K. Dick has written several books on robots, some of which have been successfully made into films. For example, everyone knows 'Bladerunner' based on 'Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?'

Was the book difficult to write?

No, rather the opposite. I think that's the novel which took me the shortest time of all to write. I felt completely absorbed by this threatening of future society. In that society, life has been amputated to a basic existence directed by survival conditions, but in a technological universe such action alienates people.

So, it might also be a 'Big Brother' story?

No, it's not. That would be too much. My best approach to that theme is best illustrated in my first two 'Family Gnuff' albums, whicH.C.an be read on my home page.

There is also the issue of emotions. Do robots have them?

A good question. A female archivist experiences a kind of father figure connection in relation to the clever robot, who for a period works with her. In turn, he experiences something that can be interpreted as a platonic crush. But the latter is portrayed in a subtle way in my presentation.

One might think that the robots have a matter-of-fact attitude, even when it comes to emotions.

They do. Nor is it a coincidence that I wrote the novel 'Autisten' where emotional expression is handled with difficulty. Autistic persons relate to emotions in a practical way. They cannot cope with anything hinted or implied. That led to the humorous ending of the story, where Algernon downloads a book of proverbs and phrases because there is something in the language he doesn't understand. He then uses them in a way that shows that he still has not perceived their underlying meanings.

You have another humorous feature. The Marx Brothers.

I have. When we meet the three other Ultra robots, we learn that they named themselves Groucho, Chico and Harpo. They are happy when their lost 'brother' eventually emerges. They intended to call him Zeppo. I got a lot out of explaining their thoughts about people behaving foolishly. They show great indulgence towards humanity. I don't speculate, whether or not this is only related to them, given that he is the only remaining of the elite model of extra intelligent robots. Sometimes you must abstain from too much analyzing.

Life doesn't seem to be so bad outside the city walls as you believe at first

No, the disadvantages have been exaggerated to prevent city residents from leaving the city. On the other hand, the fragile remnants of nature cannot feed many people. But the few who live there experience the meaning life brings, when fighting to survive from day to day.

You also introduce a group called  'Book People' out in the Backyard.

It is a tribute to Ray Bradbury's 'Fahrenheit 451'. Yes, I thought people who lived in the old-fashioned way should also have the pleasure of reading a 'real' book. However, they don't have to remember them by heart, because books are not illegal. But they are getting fewer and fewer in number.

The book also seems to be a description of old and new ways of life set against each other.

It is. And I was happy to include that in the story. In 'Fort Europe' I also contrast the modern society with the Stone Age community. But there is a long time separating them. In 'Algernon' there is an old and an extremely modern society existing at the same time, and they are close enough to each other to interact.

Why doesn't everything end up in an apocalyptic downfall?

Because I have written off showing the major disasters in my context. That's not central to the theme of this book. It is enough simply to refer to all the terrible things that have happened before. In addition, I include a report from another city where the robots were removed. That society completely dissolved, and the citizens set out into the remnants of the surrounding world acting as pirates.

We can thus imagine a situation where city life continues and the robots control things, with humans knowing about it, and tacitly accepting it?

We can, at least for a while yet. And it's all about getting to know that it's the robots who hold things together. If knowledge of the robots being in control were to become too widespread, small groups of rebel humans would be able to bring the whole community down if they're not defeated.

So, you gave your story an open ending.

Yes, and so it should be. The intrigue demanded it, and I listened.

return