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Interview: Joel Shepherd by Ernest Lilley
SFRevu Interview  ISBN/ITEM#: 0611JSheph
Date: November 01, 2006 / Show Official Info /

SFRevu: Joel, just so you know, Crossover is a terrific book. Now, 'fess up...are you a major Ghost in the Shell fan? Because the technology, terminology and characters all work really well in that universe. In fact, as I mentioned in the review, I kept hearing their characters voices in my head reading it. Which worked for me, actually.

Joel: I am a big fan, though I don't think Crossover is all that much like GITS, in the sense of who the characters are, and where it's set, etc. GITS tends to be darker, more dystopian, and more metaphysical in the sense that there's a lot of pseudo-religious pondering that goes on about the nature of the soul, of reality, etc (a pretty common theme in a lot of manga/anime). To the extent that I get into the heavy stuff, I tend to go more for straight questions about society, morality, and the nature of humanity. More practical, less existential.

But yeah, some of the technology and concepts are moderately similar, I just like to take them in directions I've never seen them go before.

SFRevu: Sandy's much vaunted edge over the other artificial soldiers is her ability to think "laterally," and come up with creative solutions to problems. Do you really think combat is that complex a puzzle to solve? I mean, if AIs can currently beat chess masters, shouldn't we expect grunt AI bots to be able to beat humans?

Joel: Ah, big question, big answer.

Modern warfare makes chess look like a child's game, and the more technology advances, the more complex it will become. The most serious advances regard situational awareness. I've never been in combat, but I've read accounts, and most of the time, they've got no clue what's happening. So combat is reduced to luck, and what separates veterans from rookies is risk-assessment. The veteran can make educated guesses about risk and tend to fare much better.

But in the future, you're going to have all units supported by a computer intel that knows enemy and friendly positions and movements and creates real-time situational awareness for everyone on the battlefield. In the Cassandra Kresnov series, I call this system tac-net. As a side effect of this, infantry tactics will become infinitely more complex, because soldiers will have a much better idea of exactly what's going on, and their options will change from fuzzy options to precise options.

SFRevu: You're talking about clearing the infamous "fog of war" that Clausewitz speaks of in On War. E.E. "Doc" Smith talked about something like your approach in his Lensman series long ago. The Galactic Patrol's "edge" in space warfare came from a massive simulation manned by telepathic operators that could create the entire conflict as it unfolded. It was still up to a brilliant commander to figure out what to do about it.

Joel: Risk-assessment will still be vital, because data is never complete and appearances can deceive. If your opponent responds with precision tactics, then if you trick him well enough, you can make him do precisely what you want him to do. If any combatant, AI or human, became overly reliant upon tac-net, they wouldn't last long, because they'd lose the ability to make judgments for themselves, and become predictable.

Negotiating all that, between evenly matched, high-tech opponents, will require an awful lot of intelligence, and a lot of imagination. Unit leaders would have to be able to recognize a trap, to guess what an opponent is thinking, to switch from general risk assessment to specific tactics and back again in the blink of an eye, and to maintain a healthy degree of self-preservation. Computer logic, in this environment, will get wiped out fast. Computer logic doesn't get a 'hunch'. Chess is a linear problem, which can be solved by linear solutions backed by simple processing power. Calculating across multiple-indicies, accounting for various unknowable variables, to arrive at reasonably effective solutions, is what human intelligence does exceptionally well, and linear intelligence stinks at. For future AIs to get good at combat, they'll have to imitate it that kind of multiple-indices intelligence, and possibly surpass it, in order to beat humans in a fight.

SFRevu: Clausewitz would have probably agreed with you. In fact, one of his better known quotes is: "Two qualities are indispensable: first, an intellect that, even in the darkest hour, retains some glimmerings of the inner light which leads to truth; and second, the courage to follow this faint light wherever it may lead."

Joel: But can they do that without sentience? And if you create sentience, and free will, how can you control it? And is it moral to create free thinking sentience for the sole purpose of combat? What if they'd rather compose concertos instead?

SFRevu: Why women? Both the lead soldiers in the book are female, though one is a fleshy fembot. Of course it's not just you, as it seems every other novel has a fem-cyborg-ninja on the cover. Why?

Joel: I think one reason I like female characters is that it's a good way of dodging various SF or general action-character cliches. Sure, tough-girl-with-guns has been done before, but no where near as often as tough-guy-with-guns. And I think we still associate femininity far more with the softer, more tactile aspects of society... so in this context, to make Cassandra female created far more dramatic options for me as a writer. Cassandra's a soldier who falls in love with the undisciplined confusion of civilian life, thus creating the contrast between the killing machine she was built to be, and the well-rounded individual she's striving to become. Furthering this contrast by making her female, in a society where femininity is regarded far less martial than masculinity, seemed only natural.

And Vanessa Rice is female because Cassandra has a prolific sexual appetite, and if her new best friend was a guy, the relationship would become too much about sex, and not enough about personal connection. I wanted her to have a friend, not a lover, so Vanessa had to be female too. Though I couldn't resist spicing it up a little by making Vanessa bi-sexual...

SFRevu: You started writing the Caasandra Kresnov series before America discovered the "War on Terror," and its fear of Islam. Did that cause any changes in the story as the next two books unfolded?

Joel: No, much of the series was pretty well worked out by the time that happened. But it wouldn't have changed much if it hadn't been, I think my views on society, fanaticism, etc have been pretty well confirmed by post 9-11 events, though somewhat more focused now.

I was pretty clued up on most of that stuff before it happened anyhow. For instance, when 9-11 happened, I was already pissed that three days earlier, Afghan Northern Alliance commander Ahmed Shah Massoud had been killed by Al-Qaeda operatives posing as reporters. When I switched channels and saw the towers burning, I made the connection in about ten seconds, and figured the invasion of Afghanistan would follow. Massoud, BTW, was partial inspiration for Director Ibrahim of the CSA in Crossover. I've no idea if he was actually like Ibrahim at all, but his mystique suggested it.

SFRevu: What's the publishing history of the series? Have all three books (Crossover, Breakaway, and Killswitch) already been published in Austrailia? How did you find Pyr to do the US/UK editions, and how was working with Lou Anders?

Joel: All three books have been out in Australia for a while. I was put onto Lou by my agent at the time, Joshua Bilmes. Working with Lou's been great, he has the most tremendous enthusiasm for books and ideas as creative entities, not merely as products for cash return.

SFRevu: Tell us a bit about the new series you're working on. Why did you switch to fantasy? When will they come out?

Joel: I like fantasy for what it can sometimes be, but get pretty tired of the recycled Tolkien tropes that were wonderful in Tolkien, but become repetitive after the thousandth reinvention. I thought fantasy had the potential to do something very different, and decided I'd like to write a fantasy that did that.

My series involves a race of people, the serrin, who are quite different from humans as individuals and in collective society. This has massive implications for the various human civilisations surrounding them. The main character is Sasha, a princess in one of those human civilisations, who has been raised away from her royal family by a man from a movement inspired by serrin teachings. She finds herself caught in the middle, between the forces conspiring to destroy the serrin, and those who regard them as a beacon of hope for the world. It's about the capacity of human society to accept change, and about the reasons why large groups of people will fight to the death to prevent something good from occurring.

SFRevu: When did you start reading, and what was it that got your attention? What's your balance of interest between media and written works?

Joel: I started reading very early, before pre-school even. In my house it was just entertainment, I was never told it was 'good for me', or anything offputting like that. My parents used to read to me and my brother, and I was first hooked by The Hobbit. I've always preferred SF and Fantasy ever since. Between media and written stuff, I'd say 50-50. I like a good story, I'm not really fussy about medium.

SFRevu: What have you read recently?

Joel: I'm on an India bent recently, I read Inhaling the Mahatma by Christopher Kremmer, which is non-fiction, and I'm now reading Ian McDonald's River of Gods. Damn he's a good writer.

SFRevu: Seen any good films?

Joel:Not lately, no. I've been buying TV series DVDs, TV writing is in many instances way ahead of films these days. My last two series were Season Two of Battlestar Galactica, and Rome... both excellent.

SFRevu: Where abouts in Australia do you live? Is there a writing scene that you're a part of? Do you have any writers that you especially look up to?

Joel: I live in Adelaide, I'm not really a part of a 'scene' as such, but there are people here I know and see from time to time. We don't often talk shop though, it's too exhausting.

'Look up to'? I'm not sure I 'look up to' anyone. But there are people I admire and respect, too numerous to name.

SFRevu: Partly by accident, partly by a sort of feedback/synergy, this review and interview will be coming out in an issue that's India heavy, including Alan Dean Foster's Sagramunda and an essay on Indian SF. I noticed on your blog that you're "bullish about India." Why? Have you seen change over your lifetime and interactions with them?

Joel:India again. This country will change the world, even more than China. Firstly, there's a lot of them -- Indians, that is. Secondly, in economic terms, they have capabilities thanks to the upper end of the education system there that far outweigh the cost of production -- at that top end, they are in effect a first world nation trapped in the body of a third world nation. So while the Chinese are getting rich by selling shoes, T-shirts and basic electronics very cheaply, the Indians are doing it by selling increasingly high-end software, back office services, biotech and pharma. Soon that will move to computer chips, cars, aeroplanes, weapon systems etc -- first-world technology at third-world prices. The economic impact, when it really starts to build up in about ten to fifteen years, and acquires some critical mass, will scare the crap out of a lot of people.

Thirdly, I think the future will be increasingly chaotic and complicated as IT erases social and political barriers, and forces all the world's peoples to interact whether they want to or not. India is already chaotic, complicated and diverse, I can't see the future bothering them as it bothers some more insular nations.

SFRevu: What do you do for fun, anyway?

Joel: Cycling, watching sport live or on TV, reading, listening to music, hanging with friends... the usual.

SFRevu: Thanks for chatting with us.

Joel: My pleasure.


Our Readers Respond

From: Laer Carroll:
    This is a late comment, late May, nearly half a year since your interview appeared. Perhaps no one will read it. But I wouldn't be surprised if otherwise is the case. JS is just becoming recognised in the US, and I suspect that he is going to accrue many fans here, who will want to know more about his works and him.

    Joel Shepherd will be a major figure in the SF scene. I wouldn't be surprised to hear comparisons with (for instance) Heinlein. One reason is that he has the same easy facility to make an strange future seem homey and familiar, yet not lose the reader's realization that the time and place IS strange.

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