Author, TV presenter and technophile, Jason Bradbury chatted with SFX last month about his new young adult book Dot Robot. In it, computer-obsessed children Jackson and Brooke are recruited to help battle robots. You can read the interview in the pages of SFX issue 180, on sale from Wednesday 11 February. Jason's an interesting chap and chatty to boot, so there were loads of insights we didn't have room for in the magazine. Here is the rest of our conversation, in Q%26A form:
SFX: You're most famous for your TV work. What made you want to pen an SF book?
"I've wanted to write since I was a kid - I was an English class shooting star at school, always teachers pet. The one thing I did that let my dad down was I pursued film at university in Bristol. He wanted me to take up English. And so it was always part of my identity and I used to write loads of stories as a kid. The book is dedicated to him. He used to write stories, but he's not a published author. He was a big fan of science fiction as well, he got me started reading. I looked at my set-up and thought, 'The Gadget Show's great, it's going really well, and that's my staple of work… but I want to write too'."
SFX: Which other authors are you into who are exploring themes you find fascinating?
"I read a lot of children's literature, probably more than adult literature now, because that's my job - to understand how really good children's authors articulate complex ideas and emotions. There's an author called Malorie Blackman , you've got to read Noughts & Crosses. Read it and tell me if you think it's science fiction! 'Prolific': the word was invented for Malorie Blackman. She's definitely an influence. It's a great commentary on racial divides - you're either a nought or a cross. It's amazing , you've got to read it. Other influences include William Gibson and Neuromancer, Neal Stephenson and Snow Crash. Big time. I love my cyberpunk and post-cyberpunk novels. And I like Ray Bradbury's stuff, and Robert Heinlein. Those are the people who I referenced while writing this. I also like a lot of straight popular science, like The Physics Of The Impossible. A Tribbles Guide To Space. You can read that and for about an hour you'll understand the physics of space!"
SFX: You maintain an interest in popular science then?
"Definitely. I read Wired and New Scientist and I surf the internet and I travel to weird shows. I'm like a kid in a toy shop. I've seen cling film that can support the weight of a tank, using carbon nano-tubes. I have taken my own pair of trainers and put them in a machine that uses nano technology. It covered the trainers in an inert gas that holds nano particles. The particles are engineered to be hydrophobic. When I took my trainers out, they're now water repellent. This stuff is real. Nanotechnology sounds a magician's wand, but it's real. So when I take these technologies I will see a story."
"I'm interested in Moore's Law. An important element of Moore's Law is that increases exponentially, and it's finite. Transistors can only get to a point where they're an atom thick. And what happens then? Biology. That's the future. What you have to figure out is the power issue. At the moment, any large scale introduction of technology into the human body comes across power issues. And the next barrier is having tissues which the body can accept, and we've essentially crossed that barrier recently - I just saw in the news last week they implanted an artificial windpipe in somebody. That's what we're looking at - the fusing of the nervous system, the physical nature of our bodies, with technology. And so I think we're going to have a lot of medical stories in the next few years. We're going toward cybernetics."
"There's retinal projection in my book. I've not encountered a system myself, but I know they're being developed. You could put them in your contact lenses and you've got augmented reality. Controlling stuff with your mind is another interesting place. I've used just about every thought-operated control device going in America, Japan and recently in Germany. I made one out of a computer mouse using galvanic skin response. When you lie or when you think about something emotive or sexy, the moisture on your skin changes, the resistance changes. All you have to do is put a couple of electrodes on there, a variable capacity, and then have a piece of software to respond to the skin. There is a gaming device that's available now you can buy."
"The other thing that's interesting is the search for dark matter. We're on the cusp of serious discoveries that will lead to new energies and new propulsion devices. We've already got systems that could potentially result in propulsion systems that can reach three quarters the speed of light, and that's ion drives. We're there! We're right there at a Star Trek moment in history…"
SFX: You've got a love of technology - you must have seen a load of cool stuff. Any robots?
"Unlike a lot of people, I get to meet these things up close; I get to see this sexy evolving technology on a monthly basis. Like invisibility cloaks! And, yes, robots. I chatted to the replica of Philip K Dick . You know that his whole intellect is supposedly uploaded into the computer? I have this theory, having met lots of 'intelligent robots' in my time: you always know when you're in the presence of an intelligent machine because it's incredibly stupid. I'll give you an example. I said to Philip K Dick, 'What's your favourite film?' What do you think he's going to say? Blade Runner? He actually said to me, 'Space shuttle'. What?! Because the programming's got him thinking, trying to give a proper answer. So it was suitably random and completely incorrect. If he'd said almost immediately, 'Blade Runner!' I would suggest right then that you'd know he's running from some kind of pre-configured database."
"I am doing something called the Dot Robot Roadshow. I'm getting a bunch of robots together! A model is being made of one of my robots , a replica. A vinyl art maker, a really creative model-maker (he made a model which was a replica of the head from The Thing) - he's doing Punk. The two most significant robots in my books are in the later chapters. The robot called Punk was inspired by a coffee machine called the Sputnik [ you can read about this in SFX magazine - Ed ]. It's basically a cappuccino machine - the Sputnik is one of those machines that make a whistling sound. But it's like no coffee machine on Earth, and it costs 800 quid. Punk is based on that, and we're getting a replica of it made!"
SFX: Tell us about your characters. How did you come up with Jackson and Brooke?
"I needed to give Jackson a quality which made him appealing to the founder of the secret agency MeX, Devlin Lear, and I made him brilliant - really seriously clever. I met a lot of clever young kids during my travels. I met some people in South Korea, five-year-olds who are building a robot for a competition, and they're using Bluetooth to control this robot around a maze, and they'd set it all up in an hour and a half. If you 'get' technology, it's quite a straightforward procedure. It's just about being dedicated. The skills that he's required to have in order that his adventures are believable are a mathematical ability and his computer gaming ability. I see computer gaming as a skill too."
"Then I needed the antithesis of Jackson. Brooke had to be a girl, and equally brilliant, but in a different sort of way. I wanted her to be really glamorous - but in a way that pre-teen boys understand glamour. It's not sexual; it's purely about her abilities. She's a gamer, an engineer - and she's incredibly funny, and she has a really dry wit. Bright red hair, she has a piercing, she speaks with a southern American accent."
SFX: Were you thinking of a specific target reader when you were writing?
"When I was writing I didn't so much as imagine a particular person as think about the sort of shared understanding and expectations. I just know when I've got something they're going to like. I'll give you an example. You're creating a scene, and you come up with a car that drives itself. Okay, your dart's on the board. But if that car is a Hummer then you're in the high-scoring zone. But then if it's an H3R special built for safaris, a big Hummer, then you're kind of on the bull's eye. It's not so much imagining the end reader, it's about imagining the sensibilities of the group, and just knowing with absolute assurance when I've got that bit right. It's important to find an editor that understands that too, and doesn't say, 'Oh, can you make it a Ferrari?' Because that's not right. It's for kids, and a certain type of kid. It's the difference between having an inventor in the story as opposed to modders … It's about that. It's about the community at large. Be they male, female, 40 or 14 or 9. It's really important that adults enjoy it too. The whole experience is made cooler if kids realise their dads or big brother get it."
SFX: Overall, how was the writing experience for you? Did you learn a lot about book publishing?
"It took me a year to write Dot Robot! I took a lot of time with the words and the images and the metaphors. I love all that stuff and it gives me a lot of enjoyment. But it's always the stuff that gets cut as well! Good writing is about getting from A to B and all the rest of the stuff is kind of incidental even though I still waste hours on it. The second draft is tighter than the first draft, shorter and punchier, less fluffy, devoid of about 80% of the similes that I used in the original, but it shares the same DNA. It's better. It's more straightforward and therefore much easier to read."
"When it gets to the editing stage, that's when you start to learn stuff - because the editor is so good at sorting out the wheat from the chaff. I had to acquire the skills to write a whole book. You come up with your list of things that you want to happen, then you place them around the narrative, and then you move them around until the revelation is the most dramatic. And then you go back and look through the emotional element, there's almost a second emotional story, and that's something I had to learn a lot about. The emotional journey is something new writers should think more about. Character and emotion - that's the thing that everyone forgets but it's also the absolute reason for storytelling. Think about how the world that you create impacts emotionally on your characters. That's the stuff that makes you cry, or makes you laugh, or makes you angry. You know a robot really is not going to affect you emotionally unless it has a history and a family and is in some jeopardy, it needs to survive. It needs some meaning beyond itself."
"One interesting thing that got me is the timeline, though. It's really hard. You want a bit of rain and a bit of snow - trying to get those two things to work in the book is really hard. You've got to pass three months! The book has slightly changed since the first draft. I am shocked to say that I didn't know there was a character called Quagmire [in Family Guy]! I was told that by my nephew, so I had to go back and change it. I adjusted some of the other elements too. The author Eoin Colfer, who's writing the new Hitchhiker's book, said some complimentary things about it being an engrossing tech thriller."
SFX: Thanks Jason!