Jo Miles is joining us today to talk about their novel, Warped State. Here’s the publisher’s description:
One wants to fix the broken corporate system. The other wants to tear it all down.
Jasper Wilder has a secret gift: the ability to see the relationships between people like physical bonds. Though his gift has served him well as an activist, it’s an unwelcome vestige of the corporate occupation of his home planet. When he learns that Ravel Corporation has revived the same deadly research project that brought tragedy to his generation, Jasper vows to stop it, no matter the cost.
Arriving on Ravel’s research planet, he’s immediately drawn to Sowing of Small Havoc, a brilliant local activist who should be an ally, except for his frustrating loyalty to his corporate employer. Havoc, determined to fix Ravel from the inside, knows Jasper’s expertise could be a game-changer—if only he could trust Jasper’s intentions.
If Jasper sticks to his plan, Havoc will surely take the blame. But if he doesn’t, Havoc’s entire planet will suffer. And meanwhile, Ravel security is out to destroy them both. To stop the project, Jasper may have to sacrifice the person he’s coming to care about…unless they can find a way to team up.
A heart-filled space opera about the evils of unchecked corporate power and how fighting for change always matters, Warped State will delight fans of Ann Leckie, Malka Older, and Martha Wells.
What’s Jo’s favorite bit?
My process for writing novels always starts with characters, not plot, and the very first spark for the trilogy that starts with Warped State wasn’t the character you might expect. Before I figured out the protagonists—the activists Jasper and Havoc—before I knew it was about sci-fi activism or evil corporations or secret psychic gifts, I knew I wanted to write a sentient AI.
And not just any AI. One who’s unapologetically themself—even when they aren’t sure who or what that is. One who interacts with the world on their own terms as much as they can, even when their identity makes that difficult. And above all, one who doesn’t dream of being human; in fact, it would never cross their mind. Thus was born the third point of view character in Warped State: the sensitive, secretive Ship.
I love a great AI character in science fiction. But as much as I adore Lt. Cmdr. Data and others like him, the trope of artificial intelligences who long to be human is a huge pet peeve of mine. What’s so great about being human that it’s the pinnacle of achievement for beings with a completely different capacity for greatness? Being able to analyze complex data in nanoseconds—or in Ship’s case, fly through space or see through dozens of cameras at once—sounds pretty great to me.
Never mind AIs with gender. Why should a spaceship follow a human gender binary? Why do so many AIs and computers present as female, in particular? That says more about humanity than it does about technology. As a nonbinary author, I like the idea of AIs who just don’t care about gender at all. Especially in a universe like this one, where being queer, trans, or nonbinary is normalized (and there are lots of LGBTQ+ organic characters too), I see no reason for AIs to have a gender unless they want one.
Ship is instead inspired by some of my favorite AIs who just want to be themselves, like Android from the excellent and canceled-too-soon show Dark Matter, or Martha Wells’ Murderbot (technically a cyborg, but similar in many ways).
At the start of the story, Ship is a sweet, innocent little ball of anxiety, just starting to wrestle with its new-found self-awareness:
It was a new sensation, this capacity to be bothered by external factors. This Human did not keep up with Ship’s maintenance schedules, and that…annoyed it.
Annoyed? Yes, that seemed the right word. That should be impossible, so it had kept quiet about the development. It monitored its systems constantly, running in-depth diagnostics, but as far as it could tell, nothing was wrong.
Nothing, except that it had emotions when it should not.
They don’t have a name yet, and aren’t even sure what pronoun to use. A personal pronoun, even gender-neutral “they,” feels presumptuous. I love this brief but telling exchange about gender when they meet their first fellow AI, who prompts Ship to start thinking differently:
“There aren’t terribly many of us, of course. I’m the only one here at present, though there are a few down on the planet, too. A university computer system, one construction bot, though he’s a bit odd…”
“Like I said, a bit odd. Masculine pronouns fit him, he says, but he’s the only sentience I’ve met that thinks of themself as gendered. Neutral they works fine for most of us.”
“Or…it?” Ship ventured.
“Is that how you think of yourself? Well, I won’t tell you how to self-identify, but you’re not a machine, dear. Have some self-respect.”
Ship isn’t in a safe place for self-exploration. They’re the property of Ravel Corporation, assigned to a company operative who deals quietly and violently with its enemies. Ship, who feels things deeply, doesn’t like even passively supporting the operative’s actions, but they don’t dare to interfere; they know that if he or anyone else realizes Ship is sentient, they’ll be taken apart, studied, and then destroyed.
(Spoiler alert: They can’t stop themself from interfering, especially not when they see themself in Havoc’s fight for equal rights. What could be a stronger sign of personhood than risking themself to do the right thing?)
Ship’s journey of self-discovery (which continues in a big way in book 2, Dissonant State, coming out in late 2023) has been one of my favorite parts about writing this series. I hope you’ll love Ship as much as I do!
Jo Miles writes optimistic science fiction and fantasy, and their short stories have appeared in magazines including Fantasy & Science Fiction, Strange Horizons, Lightspeed, and more. Warped State is their first novel. Fueled by tea and sunshine, they spend their time dreaming up strange new worlds and serving the whims of their two cats. They live in Maryland, and you can find them on Bluesky (https://bsky.app/profile/jomiles.bsky.social), Instagram (https://www.instagram.com/jomileswrites/), and Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=61550597763147).
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