15 Questions With Michael Blackbourn

Welcome to the ninetieth edition of 10 Questions With. . .

Today we are joined by

Michael Blackbourn

***Michael Blackbourn is giving you the chance to get two free ebooks. More info after the interview***

Before we jump into the questions, can you tell the readers a little about yourself?

Ah hah! I see you snuck in a ‘Zeroeth’ question here. I can totally tell the readers some choice nuggets of interestingness about me. General things are that I live in Canada- near Vancouver, I can draw pretty well, and make a mean omelette. Let’s also wet the appetite by dropping that my name is in the credits for Iron-Man the feature film, and I used to jump out of airplanes and blow stuff up. Now that I’ve got you hooked, I’ll find a way to work in more about those two things, and more, below.

1.)  What is something that many people might not know about you?

Good question! I could just follow-up on my juicy answer to question zero, but instead lets go with ‘playback’. Most people don’t know that most of the time, really nearly all of the time, I have stories playing back in my head. Old stories, new stories, other people’s stories, narratives from video games, ideas, world building… It seems like at any point in time I have something playing back on the screen inside my skull in addition to my brain trying to do its duty to get me from A to B, hold down a job, you know, the usual things…. Jump out of planes and blow stuff up.

I find I get asked who I’m texting a lot when I have to whip out my phone and frantically jot down an idea for something that I really don’t want to lose.

2.)  What book or book series had a major impact on your life? Why did it have such an impact on you?

I have a lot of these. I was an early reader and read all the big stuff by the start of high school. My mom had a bookshelf covered in sci-fi that I eagerly chewed through: Lord of the Rings, Foundation Series, Dune, Ringworld, Stranger in a Strange Land, Childhood’s End, Ender’s Game, Xanth

But I’ll pick a couple weird ones for things that had a major impact. In fact I’ll pick four. Be an Interplanetary Spy is the first. It was a series of twelve books that were a combination “Choose-Your-Own-Adventure”, comic book, and puzzles (fitting shapes and mazes and various other problems). I first started that series in grade two and it has never let go of me. I recently passed those books on to my daughter as they are out of print and there is nothing like them on the market today.

The second is Battlefield Earth. As much as anyone would/should/could dump on L. Ron himself, and the film version, this book is outstanding. I absolutely love the scale of the story, taking us from cavemen to the stars (well, further than that, all sixteen universes if I remember correctly).

The third is more of a game box-set, but if the judges allow it I’ll sneak it in here as a book. The Metzner “Red Box” D&D basic set. This game propelled me on a course that in a lot of ways I’m still following. It taught me how to create characters, tell stories, and kept the magic of make believe alive in me long after that spark dimmed in some of my peers. I still remember having to fill in the indented numbers on the dice with the provided white pencil, if this sounds insane just google it.

And lastly, a book that needs little introduction here, Wool. That book shone a light, illuminating a path I’m still following. I was fortunate to get feedback on my first novel from Hugh and he’s continued to be an inspiration and an all-round decent fellow to idolize.

3.)  If you could co-author a novel with any author, who would you want to co-write with and why?

I could take the easy way out and pick a living author, then the proposition becomes something both actually possible and potentially lucrative. But since you threw the ‘any’ in there, let’s go with Charles Darwin. It would be brilliant to pick his brain about how it clicked for him, his dangerous idea, and to tell him of our world and how his discovery has been reinforced by over a hundred years of science. I’m not entirely sure what the novel we would write together would be, a lot of my stuff is about AI and how the creation of something smarter than us would effect us. Then again, that might be right up his alley, another form of evolution.

4.)  Which one of your characters do you identify with the most?

There is some of me in all my characters, and it would be easy to pick the more heroic, or most intelligent. But I think I’ll go with Nicholas Rose. He is the main character in Roko’s Labyrinth. He is a skilled hacker and in a world collapsing around him, he goes to work fighting against weakened AI, tucked safely behind his computer screen. He gets swept up into a puzzle whose outcome will shape the future, but is a reluctant hero. At every turn he looks for the easy way, the path that makes the least ripples and attracts no attention. He doesn’t want to be called on. I think there is a little of Nick in a lot of us, and I recognize him in me.

5.)  Which one of your characters do you wish you were more like?

I have a pair of characters that fit this category. They both first show up in Roko’s Labyrinth and without giving too much away there is a connection between them and the follow on story I’m writing now. One is a soldier, “Frank”. The other is “Moth” a refugee girl whose life takes a surprising twist. In their own ways they are both good strong people, who are willing to help others and when it comes down to getting things done, they are all business.

Writing “Frank” has been a joy. I’ve leveraged my time in the Airborne Infantry (It’s what I did after high school for six years: jumped out of planes, blew stuff up, was stationed in Italy) to paint a tough, takes no shit character who when the chips are down does the right thing, mostly. In the future world of Roko’s Labyrinth, a grey world where there is no real good or evil, he ends up as the only friend to “Moth” who, without giving away the story, is in great need of a friend she can trust at the moment they meet.

6.)  Can you tell us the title of your latest release and what it is about?

My latest release is a short story titled: Cursor Blink. It’s about the impossible task the first person would face as the gatekeeper to a newly minted super-intelligent AI. It’s the box problem. Once you make an AI that is smarter than you, maybe many times, millions of times smarter than you, how do you keep it contained? Is that even possible? Piya Johar, the hero of the story is faced with that question. She has to come to terms with the fact that that it very well might be possible to take control of a human brain through the use of a simple text terminal, if what was on the other side was a million times the best negotiator, or con-man. And she’s the one being manipulated.

She has the responsibility to be in judgement of this new intelligence, and has to decide if she is being tested, or if shae has to choose and impact the future of humankind. Will she assume the role of midwife, warden, or executioner?

7.)  Where did your idea for this story/series come from?

I read a lot of non-fiction about the future, about where we’re headed with computers and machines. Almost all of my writing puts a person in the path of an oncoming future that they have to face, and that one day we might stare down as well. I draw on different life experiences to lend credibility to some of the situations and people in my worlds.

As I mentioned before I spent some time in the Army. But for things like AI that are technically advanced I draw some knowledge from my day job as a visual effects artist. I’m a supervisor at a studio and work on commercials and film, I work with computers and scripting, and am surrounded by technology all the time. I’m fortunate that I get to tell stories both in my writing and also visually by creating the worlds, robots and explosions that visual effects require. I was an artist on Iron Man, District 9, the Mocking Jay’s and many more films. The good thing about having experience in a creative field as a job is that I’m very practiced on how to refine my work based on criticism. It’s a skill that comes unnaturally, exposing your creative vision for someone else to pick apart, love, or hate takes great leaps of courage. Whether it’s the first time or the hundredth. But eventually, you do get better at learning what to do with that information and how to channel it into improving your work.

8).  Can you tell us something about the story/series that people might not know?

I’m writing about the bad guy. The main series I’ve written are my Roko books. Roko’s Basilisk and Roko’s Labyrinth. Cursor Blink, which I mentioned above, also lives in the same universe as these books.

But yes, I’m writing the story of the bad guy. I didn’t realize this myself until I finished the second book in the series but the story is really a tale of our changing world as the AI arrives, and then again as we have to deal with an unexpected aftermath of such an event. We follow the story through the eyes of different protagonists in their attempts to thwart this bag guy’s ambitions. I’ll let you in on a little secret, the bad guy is the Roko from the title, and it’s his “Basilisk” and his “Labyrinth” that are the problems. You’d think I, being the author, and naming the books the way I did would’ve clued into the story pivoting around the actions of this Roko. But I didn’t. Not until I put the finishing touched on Labyrinth and realized what I’d done. But I wouldn’t change a word.

I was so satisfied with the tale I created that I’m wrapping up that last tweaks to the third installment. Roko’s Catalyst.

9.)  What was your biggest challenge writing this book/series?

Writing in general. My first book was Cindercast: A Tale of Tides. It’s an illustrated kids book about a tiny quarter-inch-tall girl who lives in the tide zone of a beach, she has to shelter from the rising ocean and explores the beach when the tide recedes. I had been inspired by Mr. Howey’s Wool and his adventure in self publishing and took the plunge to get one of the stories that had been bouncing around in my head down on paper as words and art. I’m happy with the result but writing a narrative like that took buckets of blood and sweat out of me. It was my first time. While I had always been an avid reader I was not a writer. I’ve had to force myself to sharpen the skills needed to spring to life the worlds and characters from my brain to the page. It’s still the hardest part for me, just flowing words from start to finish without getting lost in a rut of writer’s block. But then again, I’m not sure this is a problem unique to me.

10.)  Can you share with us a few paragraphs from the book (no major spoilers please)?

As I’m wrapping up Roko’s Catalyst I’ll share something from the opening from the third installment of the Roko series (Hendry, the voice of this section lives a world flooded by the rising ocean and then frozen over, he spends his time between the thaws to hunt for salvage on the ice, making sure he makes it back to his ship or risking drowning in the liquid ocean if he ranges too far afield.)

“Hike! Hike!” Hendry screamed through the icy air. Set was already towing the dogsled as fast as she could, as fast Hendry could expect for a dog team made up of a single dog. But hearing his own voice pushed back the fatigue. He was tired, tired and hungry from a race against the hail and the rain, against time. There was safety in keeping quiet out on the Crust, but he was tired enough not to care.

The sled’s runners whistled over the ice, by towing only himself and an empty basket Set could fly. Her black coat tipped with pointy white ears and white paws were a blur at the end of the main-line. Over the last year she’d grown into an incredible sled-dog, a perfect partner for Hendry’s vision of how he should be spending his time during the Freezes. The runt of a large litter meant the lean dog couldn’t pull a ton of weight, but with just a thirteen year old kid and an empty sled – she was fast. Fast enough for them to find what he’d been looking for on the ice. Even after three days of hard riding she didn’t seem nearly as tired as he was, and he had it easy, a passenger on the sled.

They were making great time back to the Cut. It should be at least another half hour before they’d arrive at that crack in the world and hopefully within sight of the right ship this time.

The bright sky burned as Hendry squinted through the slit in his snowblind glasses, watching for surprise landmarks in the brilliant white fog. Pure willpower forced his exhausted eyes to focus, he needed to stay sharp and not miss any clue on the flat landscape of ice that hinted if his navigation by dead-reckoning was going to make him dead, or bring a reckoning.

11.)  Why did you pick those paragraphs to share with us?

It’s fresh. It’s something I’m working on now and I’m excited to share. Roko’s Catalyst takes place at some undefined point in the not too distant future. The world has been wiped out by a rising flood of ocean water and the children of the survivors, of whom Hendry is one, have to risk venturing out onto the Crust of ice to scavenge. If they don’t return to their ship before the surface is melted they will drown. One of the first technologies to be reinvented in this post AI world is the trusty dogsled. Hendry is obsessed with a quest to discover solid ground and risks everything to find it.

12.)  What is the strangest thing you have ever had to research online for one of your books?

For Roko’s Catalyst each ship that houses survivors is its own little fiefdom. Justice is brutal in this world and I had to look up if killing someone by pouring water on them until they froze was a historical punishment, and if so how long it took, and how they did it. Of course it was and now I know way too much about how to freeze people to death. What you don’t want to look up is the ancient punishment of “Two-Boats”, which I also stumbled onto in my internet travels. I’ll leave it to Preston if he feels like it would add anything to this interview to turn my mention of the boats into a clickable link.

13.)  Do you hide any secrets in your books that only a few readers will find?

Nothing specific, but I obsess over continuity far beyond the point that I think my readers do. I try and tie things together and make sense of early hints in a way that I think no one even notices, but I find I’m not personally satisfied if I don’t pay enough attention to these things on edit passes of the manuscript.

14.)  What would your autobiography be called and why would you call it that?

Ready To Go – A Story Of One Man’s Life And His Reluctance To Kick His Own Ass.

I find that I really need to push myself. I don’t know what process-processes-processi? other people take to motivate themselves but I very easily fall into a trap that I find difficult to escape. I put all kinds of things ahead of creative or other big endeavors and need a shove to get going again.

15.)  A penguin walks through the door right now wearing a sombrero. What does he say and why is he here?

The Penguin tosses the hat to one side, discarding it. It had served its purpose of disguising his travel to the human lands. He is here to tell us a tale of his world, of another dimension, a place where you can’t breathe, but you can fly. A place that holds food, in the form of fish, that just float in place and are easily caught. A world where eventually he must leave this alternate reality of flight and food to trek across endless ice to raise his young. He eventually shows his chicks this other, amazing reality that they can’t even imagine, and that they’ll have to trust actually exists as they leap from an edge into the watery unknown.

But the icy edges are getting smaller, the ice less every year and the trek shorter. He needs our help to keep the Penguin traditions alive so they they might thrive into the distant future. He needs us to be responsible. He needs us to control the climate we’re changing.

Where can people go if they want to learn more about you and the books you have written?

To the internet! You can find me at my website, my Amazon author page, Facebook, and Twitter.


***GIVEAWAY: Michael Blackbourn is giving everyone the chance to get two free ebooks: Roko’s Basilisk and Cursor Blink. These books will be free through December 22, 2017. Go get your free copies.***


This week’s interview is sponsored by:

When an Earth-based terrorist group targets Hannaria’s Ambassador, two teenagers become entrapped in the conflict.

Alex Verin is the son of an Earth Independence Party representative and doesn’t want to follow his father’s path of political manipulation and corruption.

Rica Miller is the adopted daughter of an engineer and nurse who later discovers she’s not human but Hannarian.

Alex must decide between his family loyalties and saving the life of an alien he’s been taught to fear and hate while Rica searches for the truth of what happened to her birth parents.

About leighgendarium

Preston Leigh, with the help of many in the indie community, is the founder of The Leighgendarium.

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