Near Future: Daniel H. Wilson talks about AMPED, Technology and Cherry 2000

Trevor Hogg chats with author Daniel H. Wilson about his latest novel AMPED, the relationship between people and technology, and the remake of Cherry 2000…

“One thing that was lucky was the film rights sold so quickly that they were busy working on the film from the beginning before I even finished with the book,” states Daniel H. Wilson who garnered the international spotlight when his debut novel Robopocalypse became a film project for Oscar-winner Steven Spielberg (Minority Report); the cinematic adaptation is scheduled to be released in 2014. “I knew I had a short window before that madness hits next year. I wanted to follow-up Robopocalypse with a novel that has a more traditional story structure and didn’t revolve completely around robots. My editor had a lot of confidence in me because I sold AMPED [to Doubleday] before Robopocalypse had published; that definitely required a leap of faith because they didn’t know how well it would do or whether a movie would ever materialize or not.”

“Most people think that publishing houses take that stuff in account but in reality so many books are optioned and never made into movies that I don’t think the publishing houses pay much attention to it at all,” observes Daniel H. Wilson when discussing whether publishers assess the movie potential of a prospective manuscript when making their publishing decisions. “In some ways books are like minnows that are out there to catch the bigger fish of movies. It gets narrowed down to which books that get picked up and published, and that’s still a lot of books. From there it gets whittled even more because studios can watch and see which books do well. You look at Harry Potter and these are popular books that drive movies but the problem with that is the studios have to spend a lot of money on those books. Studios are invested in finding the next great book before it breaks out.”

“At the very least you have a great sales tool,” believes Daniel H. Wilson who is also a screenwriter. “If you’re at a studio and read a book and say, ‘I love this. I can see this as a movie.’ That’s a lot different than if someone hands you a one page pitch and says, ‘Hey, here’s my idea for a movie.’ If you start with a book then people at a studio have more creative interaction because they can choose what they like as suppose to I show up with a finished script, the studio doesn’t have a lot of creative wiggle room there. The script is done.” Contemplating the differences between books and movies, the native of Tulsa, Oklahoma remarks, “You get a much deeper feel for a world if you spend eight hours reading a novel than if you cruise through a screenplay in an hour.” The transition to scriptwriting was not hard. “I write visually in the first place. I don’t go into people’s minds as much because I don’t like reading that. I like action. I like it when things are happening. It’s harder to do it that way but it sharpens your plot. If you look at a screenplay it’s so amazingly economical. Every single scene typically is doing two or three things at once. Everything you’re seeing is conveying the theme, the message. There are so many subtle aspects that go into a screenplay its amazing to get all that in there. In a lot of ways a novel can take advantage of the same economy.”

“I had a continuous plot,” states Daniel H. Wilson in regards to his sophomore effort AMPED which revolves around school teacher Owen Gray who discovers he has a military grade neural brain implant and becomes embroiled in a volatile civil rights uprising. “I knew generally what I wanted to happen. I was following one character instead of following lots. With Robopocalypse I had this ability to jump from one place to another and get all of the important stuff; everything that came between I left out. If it was interesting it would be in the book. With AMPED I had to find a way to achieve that while staying with my character.” Wilson continues, “I wanted to tell a focused story from the perspective of one person. I wanted it to be like an odyssey. When you think about Homer’s Odyssey and you have this one character being thrown around in all of these different adventures. The chapter where Owen hitchhikes is all about the whole rights movement. I knew I wanted to explore that so the question becomes what next mini-adventure does Owen go on to get from Point A to Point B which is going to allow me to explore that aspect. Just like with Robopocalypse, my process was to collect as many downright awesome interesting scenes in my head as I could and then find a way to get them all, and not leave any bullshit in-between. No fat. All lean meat. It was much of a challenge to do that.”

Fictional documentation is interspersed between the chapters such as court rulings and newspaper articles. “I felt like it added authenticity,” explains Daniel H. Wilson. “It offers a glimpse of a larger world and makes the book feel more epic. It also provides a touchstone back to Robopocalpyse. For people who had read Robo and come into AMPED, they’re going to know it’s going to feel somewhat familiar because that is a devise that I like to use.” Wilson adds, “You can read the book, skip all that stuff and you’d still be fine but it makes it a more rich experience.” The civil unrest featured in the story was inspired by historical events such as the interment of the Japanese Americans during World War II and the relationship between pre-war Germany and Poland. “The feeling of disbelief that the government couldn’t be aligning itself to do something this evil and those storm clouds can’t be real; that feeling of dread is something I tried to feed on more than the actual genocide or holocaust. This is a book about what do we consider human and it’s a moving target. Technology changes our feelings about that. We have had different ideas of what constitutes a human being over the years. You look back and get the feeling that the people before us were backwards in their thinking in terms what is a person. A large reason we have the views that we have now is because of science. Technology has shown that we’re all people. I feel we’re hitting another milestone, another bump in the road that could allow us fall back into our old ways. The instance somebody shows up with the neural implant there’s going to be a natural tendency where we have to fight to classify that person as not human.”

“I used the technology of the neural implants, prosthetics, and exoskeletons to the extent I needed them to cover my themes,” reveals Daniel H. Wilson. “Where there is a lot of work is in all biology; there are literally thousands ethical implications stemming from that. I chose to ignore all that because I needed to focus. I needed the reader to say, ‘Okay, this is something concrete that I can envision and I can relate to because I can image this world that I live in. One thing is different. People have neural implants. So what happens?’ If you introduce too much technology and too many details it obscures what you’re trying to do.” The New York Times bestselling author notes, “Nothing in AMPED is science fiction. I don’t consider any of those neural implants to be outside the reach of what’s possible now. Clearly I have exaggerated some of the abilities but the basic science is science, it’s not science fiction. This is something we’re really going to deal with so to examine the potential future has merit because it gets people thinking. It allows us to get it together before it happens.” Wilson acknowledges, “You have to take dramatic license that’s why it’s fun to read.”

“It’s absolutely the next step for technology,” remarks Daniel H. Wilson when addressing the topic of neural brain implants. “We already have all of the robotics; that’s going to get more impressive but it’s all external. People are going to realize more in the future that all the amazing abilities we give robots through technology are abilities we can have ourselves. We can incorporate this stuff into our own bodies. Our brains are plastic enough to interpret new sensory data and to control new limbs. Human beings and technology have been co-evolving since the beginning. There’s no human being who ever lived without tools. There are no human beings that will ever live without tools. We have to have tools to live. We’ve co-evolve with them for hundreds and thousands of years and it is this grand trajectory that we’re on together. The next step of that trajectory is the tools are going to come inside our bodies.”

When asked if he can image a future where people can access each other like computer terminals Daniel H. Wilson answers, “Think of whatever computing capabilities in the smart phone that’s in your back pocket next to your Bud. Take it and put into your forehead; that is not a huge leap. In fact that’s just a couple of feet. I can absolutely see that kind of scenario. Another area that people talk a lot about when it comes to technology is how it affects our social interactions with each other. There’s a lot of questioning about whether it’s good for us to distill our relationships down to bits and bytes, and to have relationships over the Internet where we have thousands of ‘friends’. The only way we can do that is by distilling down that relationship to the bare minimum; that’s how you maintain a thousand friends, more friends than any human being has ever had in the history of people. We do it by throwing out something. If you think about taking that and putting it in your head then you’re talking about fundamentally changing how human beings socially interact.” Wilson adds, “One thing I always try to do when I’m thinking about technology is reserve value judgements. Just because something has always been one way it doesn’t mean that it won’t be better or worse or the same if it changes. We’re removing some of a traditional type of relationship, face to face time, and replacing it with a different type relationship which has a different mode and corresponds to different numbers of people; that’s progress. I don’t know if it’s good or bad. I don’t think you can judge that right now.”

Despite having sold the film rights of AMPED, the cinematic adaptation is currently on hold. “Alex Proyas (Dark City) was attached,” states Daniel H. Wilson. “I don’t think that’s on his slate right now so I don’t know where that’s at. Summit got the rights and as far as I know there’s no screenwriter attached yet. Summit was purchased by Lionsgate which threw a monkey wrench into that because a lot of projects got tossed when the two combined. I know that AMPED has not been tossed. I’m hoping to hear more about it soon. Of course, I’m pretty busy so I’m not stressing. That’s how it goes in the movie biz. You can’t assume your movie is going to get made. You have to look at it like a lottery ticket and hope that your numbers come up sometimes.” As for what he would like to see in the big screen version, Wilson remarks, “There are a lot of moments. I love to see the Wire Man, the freak fights, and Nick and Owen trying to figure out what’s in his head. I love Nick as a character; he’s genuine in a way that little kids are but is also smart and capable in a way that adults typically are. I love to see Jim doing tai chi in an exoskeleton.”

“I’m finishing a remake of Cherry 2000 [1987] for MGM,” says Daniel H. Wilson. “I’m submitting my draft for that this month [May]. Cherry 2000 was a movie that came out in the 1980s with Melanie Griffith [Working Girl]; it was about a guy who lives with a robot girl, she breaks and he goes on this journey to fix her. He has to hire Melanie Griffith as his bounty hunter to help him and ends up falling in love with her.” Wilson is familiar with the original movie. “I had absolutely seen it. Cherry 2000 starts off with this beautiful android sex scene. A dishwasher overflows and everything is covered in soapsuds, and she malfunctions. I was about 14 when it came out and it was like a cinematic moment for me. I was a fan of it but the original definitely has a lot of room for improvement and I think most people will agree with me on that. It’s a fascinating underlining idea this notion of a relationship with a synthetic human and what it ultimately means for other human relationships.” The subject of android companions was addressed in Robopocalypse. “It’s a theme I’m interested in which is why I jumped on the project. They were looking for someone to do that who could hopefully build a convincing world in which these robots exist. It was my manager who found that job for me.”

“I sold the sequel to Robopocalypse; I’m going to be busy on that for a good year,” states Daniel H. Wilson. “I’m looking at it as a trilogy but I haven’t filled a third book so we’ll take it one step at a time. I definitely have a long view on it.” Other projects are in the works. “I also have a spec script based on a short story of mine that is going to be published soon. I’m not sure exactly when but it’s a cyberpunk anthology. That’s all the screenwriting I’ve been doing right now.” Turning his attention back to the personal interaction between people and technology, Wilson observes, “We’re always going to have a love/hate relationship with technology. What’s so fascinating to me about writing about technology is that in so many ways it mirrors us. Technology can be good or evil. You can use it for good things or to do bad things and the real question is whether we’re good or evil. Is humanity going to flourish or is it going to destroy itself? Everyday the stakes get higher because the technology becomes more powerful and we’ve become more capable. This is a fundamental distrust of ourselves this love/hate relationship that we have with technology is really about on whether we trust ourselves. Are we good or evil? I think we turn towards good. It’s 51:49 good and the best evidence is that we’re still here.”

Many thanks to Daniel H. Wilson for this interview and be sure to visit his website.

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.

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