Reese Hogan on Sentience, Humanity, and Robots
In Conversation with Brenda Noiseux & Rob Wolf on the New Books Network
My Heart is Human by Reese Hogan is about a human and robot who come to occupy the same body.
The body belongs to Joel Lodowick, a single parent and trans man whose only wish, at the story’s outset, is to raise his five-year-old daughter in peace. The robot taking up space in his head is Acubens, a bionic that had been “dead” for nearly 10 years until Joel tries to reactivate it.
At first, Joel is excited for the advantages Acubens’ conjoined consciousness confers, like the ability to get a much higher paying job with Acubens’ ability to make numeric calculations with dizzying speed. But when Acubens—professing to have only Joel’s best interests at heart—threatens to erase Joel’s memory as part of an “upgrade,” Joel gets more than he bargained for.
Complicating their relationship is the fact that in this near-future world, all technology has been outlawed. If the authorities discover Acubens has been reactivated—and worse, that Acubens is taking up more and more space in Joel’s mind—they both risk being destroyed.
From the episode:
Rob Wolf: My Heart Is Human isn’t the first great story about a human negotiating a complicated relationship with an artificial intelligence, but what makes your story unique is the context, which is that the book is set about 50 years in the future when the world has dialed back the clock on technology. Humans banned all advanced technology—computers and devices with screens and the like—due to something called the Cyberblood virus. Could you talk about how the technology ban shapes the world your human protagonist, Joel Lodowick, lives in?
Reese Hogan: I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say that the Cyberblood virus was about the government covering up the truth about sentience and giving an excuse to shut technology down. There were also things I reference in the book—that hackers were running rampant and technology was doing things that it wasn’t supposed to, like implants that people had in their bodies over the years were starting to malfunction and explode and do things like this. But basically, one of the central concepts of the book is humanity has overreached and gone past the point of no return, but not realized it yet. So the government, realizing this was about to happen, that we were right on the brink of it, decided to try to stop before it was too late and they think they succeeded.
Brenda Noiseux: I really love how you explore reactions to sentience from different angles. There’s the government conspiracy, being one of them. And you have these characters like Joel, who have a more everyday perspective of it. What was it like to imagine your characters in that moment and how they react as a human species at that turning point?
RH: That’s a tough question because I kind of feel things out as I go. I think what was really fun about writing Joel in particular is that he is quite the opposite of Acubens. Joel is not a scientist working with the technology who understands what was going on. Joel understands nothing. Not only did he not work with this stuff at all, but he has different ideas about how to live his life.
The artistic angle that I bring into the book was fun because Acubens understands nothing about art and sees it as superfluous or not necessary. But to Joel, music is his life. It creates this weird dichotomy between them, where they’re on different pages with just about everything. So, as with any character, when you’re developing how they’re going to react to stuff, you look at what’s most important to them. That’s how I felt my way through it with these two characters. What’s important to Acubens? What’s important to Joel? And how do these things start clashing more and more?
RW: Can you tell us a bit more about Joel? He’s raising a daughter on his own since the death of his partner, and he’s finding his way as a trans man. There’s a bit of a parallel process here, I think, where Acubens is finding his way in the world and gaining consciousness, and Joel is finding his way in a very different sense.
RH: Joel is a transgender man. He’s only 22. He became a father at 17. And his former partner died of a drug overdose. Joel was in one of those downward spirals that people tend to get into when they aren’t happy with their lives. He was a transgender person who wasn’t out yet, looking for answers in all the wrong places, and ended up with a daughter too young, and then the ex died. He’s come out about two years prior to the start of the book, but his parents are still not getting it. He told told them, and they said “okay,” and then they didn’t change the pronouns or names or anything.
This was kind of based on my own experiences back in 2020 when I came out when Covid hit. There was a lot going on in the world and in my life. Everything was brushed aside, and it was really, really hard. I would escape into my room to write this book and it became a place to put all these thoughts.
Joel is also a musician. He plays bass guitar, and he had to give up that dream when he became a single parent. So that’s something he also struggles with. His life’s really tough. So that’s why when Acubens comes along and offers some answers, it was very, very appealing.
They’re kind of taking these journeys together. Acubens, as you said, is also exploring identity, but in a different way. It knows it’s not human, but it’s studying humanity in such a way that it is finding parallels. And Joel tries to explain humanity and why relationships and are so important, why you can’t just erase a brain because it’s going to erase a life. It’s not just data, right? If Joel can’t find a way to make Acubens understands why his daughter’s life matters and why his life matters, he’ll lose everything.
Reese Hogan is a transmasc science fiction author of four novels. His short fiction has been published in The Decameron Project, A Coup of Owls, and on the Tales to Terrify podcast, as well as in two anthologies. In addition to writing, Reese enjoys singing in the local gay men’s chorus and running. He lives with his two children in New Mexico.