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Author Interview with Steve Bates.

Award-winning author Steve Bates' new science fiction novel, Castle of Sand, takes a deep dive into AI, inviting readers to ponder the complex question of what it means to be human. With the rapid advancement of technology, we may soon find ourselves at a crossroads, where the line between humans and machines becomes blurred. In this gripping tale, Bates explores the potential implications of this convergence, for better or for worse.

Through the story of Maria Ramos, one of seven individuals tasked with saving humanity on a distant planet after an apocalypse, Castle of Sand reminds us of the fragility of civilization. The novel is a thrilling page-turner that explores the intersection of humanity and artificial intelligence in a thought-provoking way.

Bates, a former reporter and editor for The Washington Post, is a prolific writer who has won numerous awards for his work. In Castle of Sand he explores the human spirit and the challenges we face in preserving it. The book is a captivating new novel that will have readers questioning the very essence of humanity.


Tell us a bit about your background.

I started out working as a journalist, including 14 years as a reporter and editor at The Washington Post. I won several awards for my reporting for newspapers, magazines, and websites. In 2010, I self-published a nonfiction book entitled The Seeds of Spring; Lessons From the Garden. Now I am writing science fiction exclusively. I have published more than a dozen sci-fi short stories. My first novel, Back to You, was released in January 2021.

When I am not writing, I enjoy gardening and baseball, and I am a volunteer with community service organizations in Loudoun County, Virginia.

What was the impetus for your writing, Castle of Sand?

We need to be reminded that civilization is fragile. The Romans, the Greeks, the Egyptians—so many societies that believed themselves to be indestructible were swept away. Now, facing powerful AIs and nuclear proliferation, can our civilization and even our species last for long? I believe that it is possible and that ordinary people like Maria Ramos, a soccer mom who is the main character in my novel, can change history.

Your book is very timely, did you research AI before writing this book?

I have scoured the Internet for books, essays, and news items about AI, but it is a never-ending challenge. The physics I studied in college has been supplanted as the essence of the quantum universe becomes slightly more understandable with each passing year. If my research has taught me one thing, it’s that good science fiction is merely facts written before they happen. Some of the most outlandish plots and predictions from sci-fi pioneers have come to pass and have even been exceeded. For example, there are now many scientists who make the case that we live in but one universe out of a nearly infinite number of universes. Others claim that our universe is merely a hologram. Who knows how many more stunning theories and achievements will be unveiled in the near future?

Legislators and regulators in several countries, including the United States, are scrambling to try to slow down the development of AI so that we can build in safeguards against out-of-control AIs. And some tech leaders see value in such efforts. But we simply don’t know yet how to keep this genie in the bottle.

Speaking of AI, how do you think it’s going to influence the world of writing?

AI is already disrupting the world of writing. Generative AI helps machines recognize images, sort documents by topic, and even turn spoken words into written words. All of a sudden, computer programs are cranking out content that seems like it was authored by humans. At one point recently, Clarkesworld, a leading science fiction magazine, was so inundated with AI-generated stories that it had to stop accepting all submissions temporarily. Even if a program is not masquerading as a human, it can work for a lot less pay than flesh-and-blood writers. Many news organizations are using AI to author relatively routine content, such as articles about the financial world or sporting events, putting live writers out of work.

However, there’s one thing missing. These programs do not understand what they are writing. They are scouring websites and databases, are analyzing existing writing, and are doing an impressive job of parroting—and stealing—ways to express basic themes that occur over and over in human life and human composition. They might put together a few pages of interesting content, but so far I have not seen evidence that AI can come up with the next “War And Peace”—unless that title refers to a collision between humans and machines.

What surprised you the most about writing Castle of Sand?

I found myself drawn repeatedly to human nature and how we can be our own best friends or worst enemies. Maria Ramos, my main character, has recurring doubts about whether the human race can or should be recreated on the distant planet where she finds herself. The consciousnesses of Maria and six other Earth survivors have been downloaded into robots. Some of them don’t even want to try to establish a human colony, or they plot to thwart the task. But, somehow, Maria finds a spark within her that drives her to help keep humanity—or something like it—moving forward.

In addition, I realized that basic human attributes such as the instinctive impulse to take what one needs, even if it means a potentially violent confrontation, must be addressed if any society is to endure.

Is there an underlying message you hope readers take away?

The main question I raise is: What does it mean to be human? With the rapid advance of technology, we might soon reach a convergence between humans and machines. We need to think about how this could change us, for better or worse.

Consider the bionic enhancements people undergo today. Understand that some computers can teach themselves. The process of convergence is already under way. Will heartless machines take us over and make us slaves, as Stephen Hawking and others have argued? Might we count on machines to be loyal allies as we expand our abilities, as some experts suggest? Will the lines between humans and computers blur permanently? What might we look like at that point, and what might our destiny be?

Are you currently working on another book?

Yes. I want to pursue these questions even further. The human spirit has brought us a long way. Preserving it might become a supreme challenge sooner than we think.

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