I am thrilled that Sam has written this guest post (thank you Sam! Know how busy you must be!) and to celebrate the release of From Darkest Skies, I am allowed to host a small giveaway (thank you Stevie from Gollancz). You can find all the info for contest on the Googleform below!
Oh, if you want to check Sam out online (or want more details over the book), you can go to the website - liss.ai - or check out his Twitter at @sampeters679! Ok, now with that out of the way, over to Sam!
Keon Rause is an investigator for the equivalent of something like the FBI on a small backwater colony called Magenta. His wife Alysha, another investigator for the same agency, was killed in what seems like a random terrorist attack five years ago. Keon left Magenta but now he's back and still not convinced that Alysha's death was chance bad luck: Alysha was running from something and Keon wants to know what. That's the kick-off for the plot and I guess I don't get any prizes for originality so far. But it's more complicated than that. The most powerful weapon Keon brings back with him is Liss, an artificial copy of his dead wife.
Suppose you loved someone deeply. Suppose you lost them. Suppose you couldn't get over that. Suppose there was a way to bring them back. There, in a nutshell, is the premise of From Darkest Skies. Liss is a reconstruction built from every fragment the real Alysha left behind: every electronic message, every mail, every image caught on surveillance, every iota of data put into the infosphere, every word caught on every microphone crushed together onto a blank waiting canvas. In one respect Liss is the ultimate collection of memorabilia, a walking, talking monument to Alysha. But she's far more: an artificial intelligence capable of thought and curiosity, filled with memories and feelings that aren't her own. Who is she? What is she? How much of the original Alysha is still there? How much is something else?
From Darkest Skies was originally conceived as an SF conspiracy thriller. There was no Alysha in the first sketches of the plot and certainly no Liss. In that version Keon felt flat. He was a guy doing his job and that was about all there was to it. Maybe it was an interesting enough plot to sustain an entire novel, maybe not, but it seemed to me to lack something. I wanted a sense of urgency. Of need. An imperative to solve the plot that came from more than banking the next cheque and maybe nudging towards a promotion. I have fond memories of Edge of Darkness (1980s BBC conspiracy thriller with an SF edge and still well worth the watch). I wanted that. Enter Alysha, Keon's very personal reason for... whatever the plot was going to be. And then of course I had to make her interesting and then fridge her immediately, which sucked. And she was interesting and Keon had no way to talk about her. So Liss was born to let us see Alysha, albeit through a distorted lens, and to give Keon someone to talk to; but at that point it was still going to be an SF conspiracy thriller just as long as I could find a way to make Alysha's death fit into the plot that was supposed to kick off on Page One.
As often seems to be the case, the characters then took over and decided to do something different. Keon returns to Magenta and finds himself working a case that on the surface has nothing to do with his dead wife. His search for the truth becomes, initially, a side quest (only it isn't because in the end that's the truth that matters to him most of all). What really caught my attention, though, was the relationship between Keon and Liss.
Liss isn't Alysha. Keon tried his best to make as faithful a replica as he possibly could but there are a slew of reasons why that only goes so far and that's where FDS really got interesting to write. By the very nature of her life and work, Alysha had secrets that Liss couldn't know. Some of them Keon can fill in but other things are secret even from him. They might be an undercover operation that Keon never knew existed; they might be as small as a petty theft carried out in childhood from which a lingering guilt remains. Liss became a puzzle, aware of her own incompleteness and trying to understand her missing pieces. That begged more questions: what happened if Liss unravelled one of Alysha's secrets and decided Keon would be happier not knowing? Could she do that? Would she? What would love dictate? Was that in the scope of her programming? Presumably it was since a real human might make such a choice? Or what if Keon discovered something he didn't like? What if he tried to hide something from Liss? Could he? How would she react?
What caught my imagination most of all was that distorted lens; and not the lens part so much as the distortion of it. Liss loves Keon with all her synthetic heart because that's how she's programmed. She loves him the way Keon believes the real Alysha loved him but Keon might not have it exactly right. In fairness, Alysha probably did love him; but is that love the same love? Does it mean what Keon thinks it means? As has been noted elsewhere, Liss is more long-suffering, more understanding and more supportive than Alysha. Why? Because to an extent she reflects what Keon wants rather than what he actually had. I didn't consciously set out to go there but the relationship between creator and progeny runs (for obvious-in-hindsight reasons) through a lot of AI fiction and is a regular visitor to Science Fiction in general. SF will dress it up with spaceships and lasers if needs be but underneath are stories that explore the relationship between man and God, between parent and child. I think SF, in a unique way, can explore those relationships from the point of view of the creator and how each creation inevitably reflects its creator. Frankenstein started it. It's rampant in Westworld and Ex Machina and I'm quite glad that I watched both AFTER From Darkest Skies was all but finished.
At the heart of From Darkest Skies is the idea that even in the mundane day-to-day we create versions of other people all the time. We think we know them but all we ever see is the mask they choose to show us. We constantly fill in the blanks and whenever we do that, we put a part of ourselves into our idea of someone else (there's good science behind the notion that we neither fully know ourselves nor anyone else: for those interested https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johari_window).
From Darkest Skies is still an SF conspiracy thriller, it still has a world with elements that are alien and yet essential to the plot; but it was the flawed relationship between Liss and Keon, progeny and creator, and where those flaws might lead them both, that made it an exciting book to write.