Justin Richards MBCS spoke to science fiction author Stephen Oram about the inspiration for his work and what we might expect from the future of science and technology.

Please could you provide us with a little bit of background about yourself...

I was brought up in a town called Kettering, which is a small market town, where I never felt I fitted in particularly well. One of my early ambitions, I think, was to leave Kettering, which I managed to do!

I was a computer programmer in my early days. I think I was one of GEC’s first-ever trainee programmers. I remember having thirteen seconds of CPU time a week, on the main frame. There was a punch card, (I would) go away, work out what happened for a couple of days, and then go back and run something briefly, and then go away again. Things have obviously moved on quite considerably since then!

And then for a while I was involved in a cult, a very extreme church. Interesting. Not something I would have ever have thought of myself doing, but quite intriguing looking back on it.

What was the name of the cult?

It was called the Praise Community Church, known affectionately, by those of us who are still in touch with each other, as the ‘Craze Community Church’! It was a very intense experience where people were very enthusiastic, committed, and really went for it. At least that’d be one way of describing it! I found it a bit too intense in the end and various other things put me off...

I also did a fair amount of squatting, which was also quite interesting. That was in London in the 80s - so while it was still not allowed, it more prevalent than it is now. And from that I went through a whole variety of jobs, gradually moving away from IT. Although I was around when London Silicon Roundabout, over in Shoreditch, was in its infancy. And, to cut a long story short, I ended up as a civil servant, which was not where I was aiming for. Then, roundabout five or six years ago, I decided to write. Two novels and a collection later, here I am...

What are the novels about?

They’re both sort of set in the near future, a slightly dystopian one. Although I don’t like to go too far into apocalyptic stuff. The first one is set in a world where there are people who believe in absolute truth and those who believe in a sort of relative truth and they’ve had a propaganda war, which has sort of disintegrated everybody’s belief in anything at all. So, basically, everybody is just sort of stumped, and a bit catabolic.

Sounds like what’s happening in America...

Indeed. It was written four or five years ago, but it’s becoming more and more pertinent as time goes on.

What is that one called?

It’s called Quantum Confessions. The reason it’s called Quantum Confessions is that it moves on, and moves through; it’s the idea of tapping into quantum physics and being able to rewrite the past by tapping into an ultimate observer who defines a chain of realities that actually exist. It sort of moves around in both those spaces.

And what was the second novel?

The second one is called Fluence, which is again set in a near future. That is very much about a world where your rating in the world, determines the job you can get, the place you can live, and your friends. It’s the story of two people - one who’s on the way up and the other one is on their way down - and the sorts of things that they get up to.

What attracts you to this kind of near future science fiction? You seem to be drawn to it.

I’ve always read science fiction; I really love science fiction and I think the ability of science fiction to reflect on the society we have and the society we might get is something that I find really fascinating. I think I land in the sort of near future because I quite like taking the world as it is, or as it might be in a few years, and just twisting it a little bit, just playing around with it. And there’s a lot of material there. There is an awful lot happening at the moment in terms of technology. There’s such a rich vein of things to tap into. I find it fascinating and fun.

Steve Oram

You’ve moved into the short story medium, with ‘Eating Robots and Other Stories’, for example. What drew you to the short story format?

I started writing some stories to read at events. There’s a group called ‘Virtual Futures’, and I was their writer-in-residence for a year. And five, or ten minutes’ maximum, is a standard reader’s story. So that’s how I started to get into it. And I found that interesting; trying to communicate something succinctly. You can’t do as much world-building as you would in a novel.

I really enjoy reading to an audience. It’s great to hear what people think directly. And the other thing is, when I was writing novels I kept getting all these ideas and I wanted to push all these different technologies into the novels, and I realised that was a bad idea. So, in some ways this became a way of keeping that element going without swamping the books with lots and lots of ideas that don’t really fit in there.

Can you explain what Virtual Futures is or does, and how you became writer-in-residence?

Virtual Futures is a community interest company. And it runs a variety of events. The history of it goes back 20 or so years, but it’s been revitalised over the last few years. The director, Luke Robert Mason, interviews quite a lot of the leading world figures in terms of technology and stuff, coming from a point of view of just pushing it a bit to see what the reality is. It has a very positive view of technology, not cynical, just questioning a little bit. There’s the phrase: ‘If you stare the future in the eyes...’ It’s an interesting group.

I was at one of their events, about sex robots, and I wrote a short story based on that evening. And a couple of things that the audience asked really sparked my imagination. And I sent it to them asking them to fact-check it because I wanted it to be accurate. And that’s where we started developing this idea of a writer-in-residence. And we’re now running near-future fiction events at Virtual Futures and I’m one of the lead curators for that.

You seem to cover quite a range of social issues in your stories; what’s currently keeping you up at night?

The thing that really intrigues me is when you mix the messiness of humans and correcting the code. And what I mean by that is the unintended consequences of things. I’ve got a story in the book called ‘The Thrown-Away Things’ where each individual item that’s connected to the internet of things on its own is not a danger, but when you start putting them together and they’re coded in a way that they never thought they would be together, you start to get some strange consequences.

So, I think that interests me: interconnectivity. Particularly where it’s not planned interconnectivity. And I think the whole machine-learning side of things too. The bias that we are probably introducing into all sorts of things without realising it is quite interesting. Machine-learning might even redesign our bureaucracy, redesign our institutions; if artificial intelligence is going to start doing some of that decision-making or recommending decisions. Can we use that to take the bias out of what we’ve got at the moment?

You seem to question what is normal and what it is to be human. Would you say that’s a good summary of some of your stories?

Yes, I do like questioning what it is to be human. I like questioning gender, in particular. I think that’s partly why I use the phrase ‘on the fringe of the fringes’ because having had a foot in the almost-outsider society and being in a bureaucratic job now, I think I’ve gotten to see both sides to that. And I think that gives you a different perspective. But also, just the whole future thing and what it would mean to be human. That, I think, is fascinating.

You look at quite a wide-range of cutting-edge technology. How do you do your research on them and who do you collaborate with?

In terms of research, Virtual Futures have been absolutely brilliant for that because of the steady stream of people coming through that. And I started collaborating with a few scientists. Previous to that I would read things, and watch YouTube. I would try and absorb as much as I could, and to talk to whoever I could, just to get a sense of the technology. But more recently I’ve managed to collaborate with actual scientists.

I did a big collaboration with Bristol Robotics Lab, and I did one with the Sainsbury Wellcome Centre for Neuroscience, in London. In fact, I’ve got a project about to start with King’s College, London, with one of their laboratories. Being able to spend time with scientists not only gives you a good insight into where the technology really is, and what they are struggling with, but it’s a bit of a sounding board for me too, and, I hope, it keeps me on the right side of... reality.

Do you have a writing mentor, or have you ever had a mentor or other authors who’ve inspired you?

I’m part of a group called the Clockhouse London Writers, which is a very inspiring group. I don’t know if I’d call them mentors.. My editors, they’re very good, mentoring me and saying: ‘I wouldn’t put that one in’ or ‘That’s brilliant’. In terms of authors who’ve inspired me, there’s a huge amount. I mean, ones that come to mind are George Orwell, who’s a big inspiration. My favourite book is Keep the Aspidistra Flying, which I think is just brilliant.

Years ago, I was really inspired by William Gibson and Jeff Noon - those two, in particular, were writing in the 90s. I was really inspired by that. A book I read a couple of years ago that I really loved was We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin, back in the 20s. It inspired Brave New World... What I really like about it is that everybody in it, the society in it, which is a screwed-up society, are willingly part of it. I quite liked the idea of people wanting to be part of something, even though it is not that good for them.

Your stories deal with a sort of dystopian future. Are you a pessimist regarding humanity’s future or is dystopia just a fun place to write about?

It’s an easier place to write about, to be honest. I’ve been trying to write more positive stories. It’s quite difficult to write positive stories in such a short space of time... where is the tension? I think that’s a real challenge. But I am optimistic about humanity and about technology, I really am. So sometimes I’m quite surprised at people’s reactions and by how pessimistic they find some of the stories, because I don’t feel that pessimistic, but I see them as a warning, if you like. I have a huge optimism for the future.

The stories from your latest collection ‘Eating Robots’ cover such a wide spectrum of what I call science fiction. The ‘Celebrity Car Crash’, which looks at overengineered vehicles and ‘I want to be pure’, which very much deals with sharing memories with other people. Where do your ideas come from? You said that you read newspapers and watched YouTube. But some of them almost border on horror territory, particularly something like ‘Trauma Games’, which is very disturbing.

Yes, that one seems to polarise opinion. Some people really love it and some people find it too disturbing. What I tend to do, is I’ll pick up on a bit of technology, through whatever route I find, and then I start thinking, ‘so what might that really look like in day-to-day life?’ I think, often, when new technology or future technology is talked about, it’s sort of removed from the messiness of everyday life. I think: ‘ok, let’s put this into messiness. How messy might that get? How might that get twisted?’ And then I start to develop a situation for that technology and then the story pretty much takes over. Sometimes surprising myself.

I also noticed that there’s health-related themes running through your stories, for example ‘Disjointed’, which features a health-enhancing mirror, ‘Little Modern Miracles’, which obviously is concerned with the shortage of antibiotics; you’ve got ‘Everyday Stims’, which is about the use of non-prescribed stimulants. I’m just wondering, how do you see the technological advancements affecting health care in future?

I’ve probably got a layman’s view. I think there’s so much potential there. I went to the Bristol Robotics Lab where they have a glove for a hand that operates - a tiny, tiny, miniscule little hand that can be inside somebody doing surgery. That is just brilliant. I try to bring health into some of the stories - about how it evolves, and how fairly is it being distributed.
How are the decisions made as to who gets that technology, who’s got access to it? Is that only if you pay for it, or should it become a right? That’s already happening, obviously; deciding which drugs are available to whom and all the rest of it. But it seems that as we get an exponential growth in what’s available those decisions become even harder and some of the stories I wrote were to try and start some conversation about that before it’s too late.

Steve Oram

You have a reoccurring theme about AI going wrong. For example, you’ve got the ‘Thrown-Away Things’, which you’ve mentioned before, about everyday objects taking revenge on their uncaring owners. You’ve also got the ‘Anxiety Loop’, which slows down AI. Can you explain this reoccurring theme?

I think partly it’s fascinating. And I’m still learning more and more from the people involved in it. My knowledge is developing all the time. It’s something that’s probably inevitable, obviously depending where on that spectrum you want to talk about; whether it’s machine-learning, deep machine-learning or general artificial intelligence. There’s a whole broad range there. Most will probably agree with the idea of being careful about having embodied AI, it’s what people are drawn to, you know, Terminator and all that sort of thing.

‘The Thrown-Away Things’, in my mind, is all about interconnected things taking revenge and using their algorithms and the criteria that they’re given to create a situation that is not good. But also, the thing that drove a lot of that story, was the knowledge that if we continue to produce more and more stuff, and it’s upgraded, and new things are coming out more and more rapidly, what does that mean in terms of what we discard and what we move on to? So, there’s that element to it as well. AI is just such a massive topic.

I was also quite excited that you included stories that touch on genetics and biomechanics. There’s ‘The Mythical Moss’, ‘Real Meat’, ‘Moon Flesh’ and even ‘Love Reconfigured’, which touches on your toying with gender. Is that something that interests you, the biomechanical side of things?

Yes, it does. In some ways, that interests me even more than the AI. I like the idea of thinking about how technology might be within things that we might not, at the moment, think about. So, it’s moving away from the embodied AI idea. So ‘The Mythical Moss’, is a moss, but it’s got artificial intelligence. The ‘Moon Flesh’ feels likes a world that we really don’t have a handle on, particularly I don’t, and I like exploring that.

Do you have any favourite stories from your collection? And why would they be your favourites?

The final one, ‘Us’, which is short for unified sentience, is my favourite. Possibly because it’s longer, but I think it’s longer because it was a favourite. It came out of a couple of ideas. Something a friend was talking to me about a long time ago was: ‘what would it be like if you saw physical manifestations of the inside of somebody, the sort of mental health of somebody?’ So, you could have a beautiful-looking person who’s actually, mentally, very disturbed - wouldn’t it be interesting?

And I find the hive-mind and collective consciousness idea quite interesting; that idea of, if we ever get to the point where we can share thoughts at a level of thought rather than having to write them down or talk them. The potential for things getting confused because we’re translating or interpreting between thinking to talking and hearing to thinking, that’s interesting. I just love the sort of sadness and the happiness of the story. An actor read it at my launch night and he cried. So yes, that one is very touching.

I have other favourites. I like the one about a bee, it’s nice and short and quite jolly. ‘Eating Robots’, the title story, I like, partly because that’s the thing that came out of the Bristol Robotics Lab visit. But I based the old lady on somebody I know who’d recently died. So, there’s an odd attachment there. But that was based on her, so that’s an ode to her, really. ‘The Thrown-Away Things’ I really like too...I like a lot of them for different reasons.

Do you think any of your future stories might be influenced by Brexit?

No, funnily enough. I’m just trying to think. There’s some in there that might appear to be, but they were all written before the referendum. Even the novel I’m working on now, which has a sort of referendum kind of thing in it, was started before Brexit. So not particularly. But I think it depends on what you mean by that. If it’s sort of the way in which people can behave and possibly follows things that aren’t necessarily fully explained, then yes. But not specifically.

Have you got any favourite sci-fi films, which have kind of influenced your work as well?

Some of the real classics, like Bladerunner. Black Mirror probably goes without saying. Black Mirror, I think, came along in the middle of when I was writing stuff, so, you know, that I massively enjoyed.

So, what sort of future predictions does Stephen Oram have for the future?

That’s a big question. I would certainly predict a future that we can’t imagine. I would predict a future where technology goes along in bumps... bumps its way along. I’m slightly avoiding your question! I wouldn’t necessarily put money on this, but I think automation, linked to universal basic income, will happen, and I think we’ll have a very difficult journey with that.

I’m interested in how much of power is democratic power and how much of that power is in the hands of the big companies that automate and, to that extent, give out money, even if it’s via taxes. They give out money so the people can buy the products that they’ve automated the manufacturing of. Is it the shareholders that then ‘call the shots’ or could we actually have a democratic society in that circumstance?

This is probably more a prediction of a problem rather than a prediction of the future. But I’m an optimist, so I really hope that, as we go into the future, we make sure all the right governance and all the rest of it is in place, so that we move more towards the utopian democratic equality side of things, rather than it just being for consumers...

You didn’t really go into cyber security in your stories. Is that something you might touch on in future? What are your thoughts on where that’s heading?

I’m not sure why I didn’t. There’s quite a lot about that anyhow. There’s a lot more about data and access to data and use of data, all that sort of thing; transparency. I think a lot of my stuff is probably based in a world where pretty much everything is open and transparent. But cyber security is massively interesting. Particularly when you think about: what’s the future of war? Is it more along those sorts of lines than killing people by shooting them?

Do you have any predictions for the future of the world-wide web? Do you think it’ll end up in a number of ‘walled gardens’ where people have to pay quite a large amount of money to get a good service or do you think it’s going to remain free for everybody?

I haven’t thought about this at all. I guess that really depends on if it can retain its essence of it being open to everybody. I would have thought that as long as it’s possible, there will always be people who want to put stuff up for free. And maybe some of the bigger money-making organisations want walled gardens, but I don’t know, maybe by the time you get to a walled garden you’re not actually producing very interesting stuff. It would be interesting to know where the dark net might go and if that becomes ‘walled’... more commercial and mainstream?

What’s next for you as an author? What are your plans?

I’m writing a new novel - currently unnamed, apart from ‘book three’ - which I’m very excited about, but that’s a bit of a way off. I’m writing some more short pieces. I’m playing around with the idea of whether I should go through all the stories in Eating Robots and doing some sort of flip sides to them, so maybe write more optimistic or more pessimistic versions of them. And we’ve got some Virtual Futures events coming up.

We’re about to announce those probably in the next few weeks. And then the project with King’s College London, where I’ll be going in and working with one of their labs, working with the scientists and post-grads, and sort of seeing how far science fiction can be used to help scientists communicate, predominantly with each other, about where they are at.

It’s interesting that we can do a lot of these things technologically speaking, but should we? That’s the big question, isn’t it?

I think it is. Should we? And who makes those decisions? That’s, in some ways, at the heart of what interests me. How do you get people to understand enough to be able to enter the debate properly about their own future?