[Interview] Author Carole Stivers for THE MOTHER CODE
THE MOTHER CODE l Courtesy of Penguin Random House
“He looked out the window, at the moonlit mesas now receding into the distance…As Rosie once more gained altitude, he remembered their first trip to the Presidio- how at last, exhausted, he’d fallen into a deep sleep as they sped over the Sierra. Tonight, encircled by a sea of stars, he was wide awake.”  –  THE MOTHER CODE

THE MOTHER CODE is a novel about parenthood deconstructed. It’s not about what it means to be a mom, or what it means to be a child, although those stories are certainly told. It’s a story about the most humble, and possibly perplexing of human urges: love, legacy, and survival past one’s own lifetime. The most captivating element of this story is how it sets a deeply familiar dynamic in such an unfamiliar setting. There is something comforting about a story like this, in times like these, it’s a reminder no matter what may happen, our core truths, our core programming will always remain.

“I had the first spark of an idea for THE MOTHER CODE while traveling in the desert Southwest with my family in 2003. I find that area of the country to be so evocative—the sheer beauty of it in contrast with the challenges it poses to the survival of life. I had been watching Japanese Mecha anime with my daughter, and I became fascinated with the idea of a child living inside one of those giant robots, surviving in this desert.” Stivers spoke from her cramped study in her California home.

In 2049, humanity is faced with a race for survival against a global pandemic started as a form of biowarfare gone wrong. We follow two plot lines so divergent in circumstance and perspective they seem impossibly linked. A group of scientists search for a last desperate solution as the world crumbles into chaos around them. Meanwhile, we continually are given glimpses of a nearly empty desert populated by dust-streaked and isolated children searching for others like themselves in an otherwise seemingly abandoned world. The only socialization they’ve ever known is their AI mothers. “How did we get here?”, and “Where are we going?” are the questions that drive this novel past an apocalyptic trope and into an unfamiliar journey of hope in a future unlike anything humanity has ever seen.

Last month, Carole Stivers, retired Biochemist turned published author, sat down with me to talk about her writing process, the future of AI, and the evolution of her first novel, THE MOTHER CODE.

Carole Stivers

You seem very interested in Artificial Intelligence. Considering all your research, what do you see as the future of AI? How did all that research help serve your plot?

Carole Stivers: I was especially intrigued with the idea of a human-machine interface between a child and his bot, inspired by books like The Future of the Mind by Michio Kaku and Mecha anime classics like “Neon Genesis Evangelion.”

There is plenty of work out there to look at, as people develop robots that must interact with humans. We’re still in early days when it comes to developing strong AI of the type that can perform intelligent action, much less exhibit true consciousness. But I believe that it will be possible at some point to develop robot brains with neuroplasticity, systems that can learn behaviors just as human babies do. When we do, we’ll need to make sure that the training sets offered to these AI’s will allow them to develop truly human responses. If we don’t—if we allow cold logic to supersede empathy, for example—then a strong AI might conceivably develop into a dangerous thing. This is why I think that training in ethics should be an element in the training of every robotics engineer and programmer.

The key to these particular robots [in THE MOTHER CODE] was that they were imbued with the “personalities” of real women, thus raising the idea of prolonging life after death. And, they were programmed to have a sort of neural plasticity, allowing them to learn as they went along. They offered a vehicle by which I could examine what was truly valuable in a parent-child relationship.

Can you expand on that? What is the significance of the parent-child bond to this story?

Carole Stivers: Parents, biological or not, pass along information to their children that informs the child’s sense of self and determines how he or she will act in the world. I wanted to look closely at an attempt to codify that process—and to examine how it could succeed or fail. I grew up in a so-called “broken home,” back before divorce was as common as it is today. Dealing with stepparents and estrangement made me think a lot about the importance of parent-child relationships—how such a relationship can ground a child, and how the lack of one can damage him. And of course, my current life as a wife and mother colors everything I write. In THE MOTHER CODE, the bond between each of my children and his or her respective Mother naturally becomes an integral part of that child. At least one of my adult characters is shocked and appalled by the idea of a robot bringing up a child—a sentiment that results in core tension. And by the end of the story, we are left with something larger to ponder than mere human survival, the inadvertent creation of a new type of consciousness. One in which human minds are paired with machine minds, and what that might mean for the future of humanity. I wanted to examine the “self versus other” paradox, which parallels the evolving relationship between a child and its mother as the child grows up, at a whole new level.

As someone whose background is in biochemistry, was it a benefit or challenge bringing that experience into your writing. How hard was it to find the balance between science and fiction?

Carole Stivers: You’ve hit upon something that is one of the trickiest issues with creating near-future science fiction—how much real science to stick to, and how much to describe it. I personally think that the reader should only be required to suspend so much belief, and that the plausibility of a scenario and of its tech can make your world much more compelling. I did a lot of research into robotics and AI to create my Mothers, first off to develop a picture of what the Mother bots would have to look like, and what capabilities they would require. But I had to keep reminding myself (and the reader) that they were only robots, limited by the time of their manufacture, as well as their input programming and occasional flaws in design. Not all of the science needs to be explained, and there is a fine line between readers caring and not caring if it is. Of course, as a scientist by training, this was one of the most difficult challenges for me.

Can you talk about your professional background before becoming an author and how that informs your stories?

Carole Stivers: I didn’t start writing fiction until I was in my early 50’s. By then, I had been working in the medical diagnostics field for almost 20 years, having gotten my Ph.D. in Biochemistry at the University of Illinois and doing postdoctoral work in medical microbiology at Stanford. Then, I kept up a consulting business for another 13 years, while toying with writing on the side. Science had been my whole life, and I well understood the minor dramas that played out in lab settings. So I felt comfortable writing about scientists and the settings they work in.

Biochemistry is my foundation, built from my early training in chemistry. Since slowing down my career in 2003, and then retiring altogether in late 2017, I’ve learned more science outside my area of expertise than I had for so many years. And that has been fun. I also love astrophysics and artificial intelligence. But as amazing as I find those fields to be, I believe that we still have so much to learn about ourselves. The book I’m working on now delves deeper into the chemistry of our brains—an area where current research is booming, and where I think we are only just now starting to ask the right questions.

Stories that grapple with the nature of humanity seem to start with a base perspective, a bias on part of the author. A good example is Lord of the Flies where the author William Golding believed human nature was savage, while culture and society were its saving grace. Your book deals with human nature, it deals with societal collapse. Considering how heavily you deal with these themes, where do you lie on the inherent nature of humanity, and how does that influence THE MOTHER CODE in terms of story development?

Carole Stivers: I’m one of those people who believes that every living being—including every human—is at the mercy of its individual chemistries. In the end, one goal I had was that there not be an “evil scientist,” a “mindless dictator,” or [another] such archetypal villain at the heart of my plot. Rather, a series of decisions, each made by seemingly well-intentioned people, would lead to an uncontrollable situation—much as often happens in real life. I believe that people do things mainly out of a sense of self-preservation, whether that involves harming others or helping them, and that people align themselves along a spectrum in this regard as they do in all other regards.

That said, when it comes to humanity as a whole, I tend to look more on the bright side. I couldn’t agree less with William Golding, I suppose—believing as I do that most humans are good in their hearts, but that their good intentions are often derailed by the rules that culture, society, and politics place upon them. I think that the government people in my story followed a story that is all too common: Each had the best of intentions, but added together their actions resulted in something truly horrific. A parallel might be the development of the atomic bomb, the first project carried out at Los Alamos, and one which I channeled often while writing my book.

THE MOTHER CODE was released by Penguin Random House on August 25th and its international film rights were bought up by Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Partners last Spring.

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