Jacob Clifton Interview: Exploring a New Kind of Singularity


Maybe a shoddy Skype connection was the best medium for an interview about our inability as humans to fully know one another. We talk and our speech sounds perfect to our own ears, but on the receiving end who knows how much has been conveyed, how many words have broken up. I didn't realize it as I was speaking alone in my room to my computer. It was only afterwards that I found my mp3 device had recorded my interview in split second increments and sent them through a meat processor. Reassembling it was like piecing together a verbal jigsaw puzzle. In our endless journey to make communication among individuals possible, we often end up staring at a hackneyed monster of data that's in no way aesthetically pleasing, and only perhaps preferable to whatever our more primitive alternative was.

A similar struggle encounters Kirby and Jonah in Jacob Clifton's novella While You Are Over There. Unlike my interview with Clifton, however, the marriage of these two characters, cutting-edge scientists and in love, is broadcast reality-TV style to a worldwide audience looking for an exploration fantasy and, in many ways, a proof of concept over gay marriage itself. They constantly ask themselves, "what are we presenting? What are we proving?" And to complicate matters, the two men have adopted a robotic daughter who hasn't yet accepted the degree of her humanity.

I talked with Clifton on what led him to write this story, his thoughts on A.I., LGBT representation, and even some points on the world of e-publishing.

Clio: I'm here with Jacob Clifton, writer for Gawker's Morning After and author of While You are Over There. I first wanted to share a little bit of your synopsis for you novella which I found on your Happy Nice Time People interview:

Kirby Brendan and Jonah Hope, a futurist and an engineer, have spent the last fifteen years spinning a few defense contracts and media contacts into a whirlwind media flurry: Scientists of a new age, the spacefaring dreams of an entire globe hanging on their every adventure and discovery. Their snappy combination of Bravo-style reality TV and the scientific excitement of Neil Tyson or Bill Nye has brought a small Nat Geo channel down from the nosebleeds to become a water-cooler classic for families and intellectuals alike.

But years into their partnership, the cold has set in. An artificial intelligence, known to billions of viewers as their digital daughter, summons them to the orbital station they've paid for with fast talk, arms trading and photo opportunities. As the world looks on, Kirby and Jonah — the faces of a new scientific optimism, the embodiment of a dream fulfilled — are forced to reevaluate not only their personal values, but the reality of their marriage as a polemical act.

That's quite an introduction. What were some of your inspirations for this story?

Jacob Clifton: When it actually started, it wasn't genre at all. I had this idea for an A.M. Homes-type literary story or Joyce Carol Oates about a couple that was going to get a divorce and ended up having to break back into their own home, so more about the concerns about what if the HOA catches us and calls the police, and just this irritated pairing, anything that these people were going through.

Clio: What ended up leading you to choose the sci-fi genre and specifically the found footage style prose?

JC: That…as I was working on the story I realized, if I was going to be publishing it myself, it should be in a genre that I like, which is really, really soft science fiction. You know, I'm not one for upper world building and I'm not one for…you know all that stuff is great. I like military sci fi. But what I enjoy about writing... I wanted to be as close to the social realities and relationships as possible.

Clio: So you really just wanted a genre that allowed for some of the uniqueness of the story that you've input and that kept the interplay between the two characters at the forefront.

JC: Right.

Clio: Artificial intelligence plays the role of a catalyst in the story. It sort of instigates the main conflict if you want to say that this story has some sort of kind of plot—

JC: Ha! That's terrific!

Clio: No, I'm not trying to joke, but you know, that's what gets them into outer space. [Ed. This story does in fact have a plot despite my clumsy attempt to say the character and relationship study trumps.] One of the things that I thought was interesting was how the daughter was like a comical eight-year-old girl, and she has a lot of these characteristics that I don't generally see in A.I., but matched with the ability to destroy an entire planet. All things considered—and this gets into some of your themes—your view on A.I. was pretty optimistic.

JC: You know, it is. It gets into some pretty heavy stuff, and by heavy I mean I sound crazy. But in short (I don't know if I talk about it in the story actually) when we talk about singularity we talk about computers' A.I. evolving until the point where it doesn't make sense to us anymore, a break in history and we can't protect our place. But I think that there's a sort of a human-centered—I don't want to say—a kind of puritan almost assumption underlying that. To say there's a difference between men and animals and there's a difference between natural intelligence and artificial intelligence.

I think the real singularity comes when we understand that we've all been on different spots on the hierarchy of intelligence to begin with. That a person is a more complicated machine than a dog and that in some ways a computer is in some ways a more complicated machine than a person.

So it was in line with Jonah and Kirby's ethos, specifically Kirby's ethos, that an artificial intelligence would develop in a naturalistic way. [Kirby and Jonah's daughter Halley] doesn't show up as Scarlett Johanson; she shows up as a child, and she learns as a child learns. There's this particular part where—their idea being to get around Asimov's laws by making her a person—engage her in the project of becoming a person, which is something that we're all engaged in and we all find incredibly difficult because the fact is that any one of us does have the power to destroy the world. If you've ever dealt with a four-year-old girl, it's not too hard to believe about her either.

Clio: They also had difficulty deciding to give her a face, I thought that was interesting. Some people were saying she's just a robot while the world and everyone else truly thought that she was a daughter. And so it does get to that idea that we're all on this spectrum of "humanity" and that we're all sort of sentient beings. I thought that was interesting, too, the decision to make her more human or less human.

JC: Yeah.

Clio: Another idea that came up throughout the story was, in addition to the artificial intelligence, the idea of artificial identity. It seemed as if every one of your characters had a double life to a certain extent. Whether it was Wintermute or Emily Sommers, they all had a secret or two faces. Was that something that you did consciously? Talk about your views on how we portray ourselves.

JC: Well I think that it's made explicit in the title, the way that no one ever fully knows anyone else is a key factor, particularly the formalistic way that you pointed out. All these characters are trying to relate to all of the other characters. And because it's a novella, and it's an incredibly long story inside a incredibly short story, they look through the filters of the material that is available. No one in the story has a vested interest in keeping any secrets.

Clio: How do you think reality TV has contributed to that role of dual identities in our culture?

JC: OK, I see what you're saying. The degree to which they're willing to go to hide this breakdown in their relationship, even from a being that's in some ways omniscient, it was part of the development process, really: now that I've put this divorcing couple into this situation, how can we leverage it back the other way? What are the external pressures beyond having a child and having this career together that would make it like it is a better move to stay together if we are trying to save the world. They can't see us fail. I don't think they have any illusions of each other [and of their difficult marriage]. It's something kind of icky that they've both realized they're going to do.

Clio: What led you to make the couple a gay couple?

JC: Um, it's relevant to my interests?! [laughs] But also because this story is about the complications of marriage, what we trade intimacy for. So the idea was taking marriage, which I think of as a universal concept, and in some ways putting it in a safer place. At this time in our culture it's looked on as something with a question mark beside it, with an asterisk beside it. Which I find infuriating on a personal level because to me it's like being a human being that's being denied.

But in terms of authority, and conveying their struggle, I don't think I would be able to get at what I was trying to get at any other way. The burden of Halley not being treated as their daughter and the burden of not being able to have fights like any other couple. And so a lot of the aspects of their relationship were dictated by the characters themselves, their backgrounds. Race needed to be a part of it. Class and matters of faith needed to be a part of it in order to get at what I was trying to say. So the fact that it was a gay couple was the first obvious thing to me. Once it became science fiction, then it was the Fantastic Four, and then it was, "what about this gay couple?" Then I already kind of knew who they were at that point.

Clio: Do you think there's enough LGBT representation in science fiction?

JC: I think there's an interest in queer issues. I think that sometimes it becomes problematic when it's viewed as strictly romantic, not as part of a lived experience of another person. Then you're getting into slash fanfiction, and you're getting into Laurell Hamilton harem boys having sex with each other. That's definitely not the LGBT visibility that I'm looking for as a reader. As a person, it's great, but it doesn't let me see myself mirrored on the page.

Let me put it like this, back in the 80s, globalization was an issue. And if you were trying to sell science fiction (not that I was, I was a tween, but it's persisted to this day), they would always talk about multicultural, you know, if you're writing about this or you're writing about that. Back in the 80s it made sense—if I was wanting to write a serious story, I might write what it was like to grow up in the jungle or grow up as a poor kid in a cyber punk story let's say— but I don't know now in 2014 if that's appropriate. I think there's a cantilevering between the need for visibility and the need to not appropriate and tell someone else's story. There's also a lot of white people talking to other white people about what it's like to be black. And I mean there are stand-ups. Geoff Ryman's book Air is freaking great! And a lot of Kim Stanley Robinson's stuff is great. There's a way to do it right, but there are also a million ways to do it wrong.

So I come to it, the reason why there are gay people all over my stories is that I'm a white guy from a pretty upper-class background. I don't have a lot of diversity to bring to the table. But I have what I'm working with.

Clio: Well write what you know. I think it works. Obviously this story was not about their rampant sexual life, or these fantasies, like you're saying, harem boys having endless sex. It was a very intimate look into the problems that they had, that sort of led to the conflict in their relationship. It definitely gave a human factor to this LGBT couple, even when they're dealing with cosmic deities and whatnot. One thing—

JC: Well, as a further comment on that, some of my more progressive friends and readers on the West Coast particularly, have called them out on the other thing, for being sexless and being prudes, and that's not progressive enough. And I guess I agree with that, it's not for me to say, but I definitely chose their particular form of sexuality as separate from their intimacy for that reason. Part of what made them a pilot couple for this program that they had decided to take, and the most accessible way of being a gay couple possible, is that they happened to work together in a way that maybe wasn't the sexiest—

Clio: It was the most approachable form for a mainstream audience.

JC: Exactly. I don't feel they're entirely constructed. I think it's a right time, right place, type of thing. I think they understand that and they're grateful for it. But that was one of the things, they miss out as fictional characters on wild vibrant sex lives because to me that's not the way Kirby and Jonah would have it.

Clio: And I think you said elsewhere, being scientists, that could make male watchers very interested in watching: taking care of a space station, taking care of robots. Those were all sort of "manly" characteristics.

JC: I think that was actually in the story!

Clio: Oh, great! I can't remember which parts were from the story and which parts were from other of your interviews of yours I've read. As for an industry question, how has it been using Gumroad?

JC: Phenomenal?! In terms of the effort that I've put in since publication, it's been good beyond what I could have imagined. If I devoted full time to fiction, I think it could bankable. But I got a job moments after publishing it, as you know, so I haven't really been able to work myself up to the frenzy where you email strangers who emailed you five years ago and ask them to buy something. I don't have that kind of energy right now.

Clio: For any writers out there that might be wondering, were there any factors that made you go to Gumroad specifically over other e-publishing options, self-publishing options?

JC: Yeah. I did a lot of research. First of all I wanted people to pick their price, and I wanted that price to be able to be zero. That immediately shuts down a lot of platforms, I think most providers of content wouldn't be interested, you don't like to think of yourself as a loss leader, especially when it's something that you've spent years on. Number two, I liked the website. Even just walking into the website, it's very attractive to me. Number three, I don't know if this is too much input, they have open API, so if I were to reconfigure my website, my dot com, into a place to make more of these purchases and publish more things that I'm working on, that would be accomplished seamlessly. Those were the three things that I liked immediately. They're very lean and mean. And I'm not paid to say any of these things.

Clio: No that's cool. You've mentioned other works. Can we expect more stories with Jonah and Kirby?

JC: Specifically those two?

Clio: Well we can get to others, but let's start with those two.

JC: There are some version of Jonah and Kirby with stuff going on… I don't know how else to say that.

Clio: It's alright, you don't have to reveal your secrets.

JC: No, I'm not trying to be cagey, I'm just trying to think of a way to say this. While You are Over There takes place, as you said, in a universe with an undepletable optimism. There's something very lucky about the world they live in. It's easier to come across with painful truths about yourself. It's easier to come back to the person that you love after you've hurt them. It's easier to unburden yourself of certain truths. Perhaps in a parallel universe not far from that one, the world is not so easy. For example if Emily and Kirby stayed married, we'd end up eight or ten years later in a very different world. And so those are the kinds of things that are going on with Jonah and Kirby. With the various Jonahs and Kirbys.

Clio: Any other works that you're thinking about?

JC: By the end of the year, there should be another novella of comparable or slightly shorter length, of similar themes.

Clio: Anything else you'd like to share?

JC: I'm genuinely grateful for any interest in this story. I think it seems difficult for a couple of pages, but your feet touch ground a lot quicker than you think they're going to. That might help if the story is off-putting to begin with. Specifically my fellow editors and dramaturgists have said, "I really thought I was going to hate you for this," but it cleared itself immediately!

Clio: When you open up the document, it is a little bit of a surprise. But once you get into it, you forget the found footage prose format that you chose. But it really works well to remind you that this is all taking place on a TV screen, or in some form of media. Well, thank you so much for letting me pick your brain.

JC: Thank you. It's gratifying and moving to talk about anything about something that's so important to me.

This piece has been edited lightly for clarity and redundant mutterings on my part. You can check out While You Are Over There over at Gumroad.

Cover art by William Sellari