How Emma Mieko Candon’s Frustration With “Capitalist AI Doomsday Mythology” Inspired Her New Book
In Conversation with Brenda Noiseux and Rob Wolf on the New Books Network
Emma Mieko Candon’s The Archive Undying imagines a relatable trajectory for a world with AI and artificial general intelligence, including a fresh take on the beauty it could create and havoc it could cause.
When the massive AI running the city state of Khuon Mo went mad, it destroyed everything it touched. But in its death throes, this functional god brought one thing back to life: Sunai. Sunai has been unable to die, unable to age, and unable to forget the horrors he’s experienced. For twenty years, he’s run as far as he emotionally can, but when Sunai wakes up in the bed of the one man he never should have slept with, he finds himself on a path straight back into the world of gods and machines.
Candon’s personal perspectives on recovery, residing in the cultural community of Hawaii, and being fourth generation Japanese deftly shape the story giving readers a distinctive science fiction world filled with non-human centric language, a deep sense of cultural compassion, and a protagonist’s skill with cooking spices.
From the episode:
Brenda Noiseux: One of the things that drew me to this book was that it felt like a relatable trajectory of AI, this idea of how much machines are helping us and working with us and assisting us in our lives right now. In that trajectory, I could definitely see AI running cities and taking care of humans and maybe experimenting with them a little bit or being possessive of them. Then you have this twist that it’s in the past now. Now it’s the aftermath. What were you thinking in terms of building a world like that?
Emma Mieko Candon: I have, I think, a pretty concrete answer to this. I started writing this in the aftermath of a master’s degree in clinical psychology during which Ihad become quite irritated with essentially capitalist AI doomsday mythology; that the AIs we have right now are on the verge of sophisticated human thought, which they are not. ChatGPT is absolutely is not and everything we’re calling AI is just a sophisticated algorithm. It’s nothing like a human brain.
Anything that did operate like a sophisticated human brain would not be driven by capitalist ideals, necessarily, unless you put those ramifications into its programming, but if it were to behave like a human, if it were to think in any way that is cognitive or sapient in ways that we recognize, it would be fundamentally an emotive being. I wanted to imagine what it would mean for an artificial entity that is truly thinking. It had to be driven by its own feelings and sensations and thoughts about the world and about people.
Brenda Noiseux: Our main protagonist, Sunai, how would you describe him?
Emma Mieko Candon: Feeling wise or his condition in the world? Here’s a person who we meet and one of the first notes that my editor makes is, “Ah, yes, this is what they call a disaster queer.”
He’s in a body that cannot be killed in any meaningful way. But he is very broken, very hurt, very wounded in all these ways that he either refuses to recognize or does recognize and refuses to address because doing so feels like it will only deepen the pain in some way. Welcome to your protagonist. I hope you have fun. He’s at least funny about it.
Brenda Noiseux: That comes through with a lot of your characters, the complexity of their pain and their trauma and their off-ness. The complexity, but also how deeply compassionate they are to people even they don’t necessarily know and how empathetic they can be, even when they’re in this place of pain or loss or self-sabotage.
Emma Mieko Candon: That tendency toward care. It’s actually an articulation of this as a recovery book because I was thinking through a lot of things about how my own survival came about, which is a consequence of certainly my doctors, but in huge part because of my family and my wife and all the friends who ever took time out of their lives to hang out with me. I wanted this to be a world where people had this advanced cultural understanding of and compulsion toward care for people and their basic frailties.
Brenda Noiseux: We’re making it sound so nice and lovely, but it’s actually very brutal under the authoritarianism of the Harbor. They have these mechs who are also very brutal in how they handle any interaction with any citizen regarding anything. There is no room for compromise with the Harbor because every interaction is just amped up. How did you kind of come up with this idea of brutality in the ruling?
Emma Mieko Candon: Let’s talk a little bit about Japan. I’m a fourth generation Japanese and part of that for me has involved grappling with the different elements of Japanese history, both in Japan and for Japanese Americans. My family has its own specific relationship with internment.
Simultaneously, Japan was being an empire in its own right. Japan committed incredible brutalities against China, against the Philippines, in Indonesia, all up and down the East Asian seaboard and down into Southeast Asia. This is a thing that I feel a kind of need to grapple with personally because I think it’s deeply tied into the way that Japanese culture as a literary and film tradition has grappled with violence in the aftermath.
In the midst of all this violence that they are perpetrating, they experience one of the greatest brutalities humanity has ever suffered twice in a row with atomic bombs. So you get this population that’s deeply, deeply traumatized by violence. It suffered, but is also responsible in some cultural regard for carrying the history of the brutalities it visited upon people. You’ll notice when you’re reading Archive that the Harbor and its original city state, all of the language that it uses, is very much Japanese adjacent.
And mecha itself is very much tied to this war trauma coming out of Japan in the aftermath of World War Two. That’s what the Harbor is, right? It’s this group of people, after suffering one of these corruption events where their AI dies in a terrible way, decide we can never trust these entities again. They build out of its remains machines by which they can protect themselves from the wild robots roaming about and from any AI that might want to claim its citizens for itself.
Emma Mieko Candon is a queer author and escaped academic drawn to tales of devouring ghosts, cursed linguistics, and mediocre robots. Her work includes Star Wars Visions: Ronin, a Japanese reimagining of the Star Wars mythos, and The Archive Undying (2023), an original speculative novel about sad giant robots and fraught queer romance. As an actual cyborg whose blood has been taken for science, Emma’s grateful to be stationed at home in Hawaii, where they were born and raised as a fourth-generation Japanese settler. By day, they edit anime nonsense for Seven Seas Entertainment, and by night they remain academically haunted by identity, ideology, and imperialism. At all hours of the day, they are beholden to the whims of two lopsided cats and relieved by the support of an enviably handsome wife.