The Dark Sci-Fi Future of Novelist Arthur Walker

Arthur Walker has a lot on his mind. You sense it when you meet him—the words, idea and theories rush forth like water over Niagara Falls—and you can see it on full display in his Uroboros Saga book series, a dark and twisted peek into a future that is not entirely far-fetched. Arthur spoke to us recently from his home in Wichita, Kansas.

 

I just want you to know I was initially going to headline this article “The Buddha of Dystopia.” I figured no one would get the reference but I was counting on you to come off like a dark sage, an apocalypse whisperer. Are you up for that?

Haha, yep. (smile emoticon)

Let’s jump right into it. Is it fair to say you are a writer of dark science-fiction? Or is that too limited a definition?

Dark science-fiction works. Content curators on Twitter tend to use the hashtags dystopian and post-apocalyptic to describe my work. After the third installment, my book series started being called biopunk as well.

Biopunk is science fiction that showcases biotechnology. It is similar to cyberpunk, but addresses the implications of biotechnology as opposed to information technology. The synthetic biology that makes military-grade cyborgs, and terrestrial intelligent agents possible, provokes a fearful reaction in people.

I'm more of an optimist in my works. This synthetic biology tends to be part of the sum of the protagonists in my books. I think the adversarial nature of such technology has already been thoroughly explored in novels and movies, to the extent Elon Musk doesn't sleep well at night.

Ha, maybe you’re right. (Wait, did you just call yourself an optimist?) Technology plays such a massive role in your Uroboros Saga storylines-- do you actually think your view of our tech-laden future is not entirely bleak? Where do you think our relationship with technology is headed and is it too late for all of us? (Laughs nervously)

My optimism is the sort that acknowledges the possibility of an ordered universe. It’s a mental health choice. Writing this sort of science fiction, you stare into the long nihilistic dark pretty frequently. Some of what I’ve written about—the stuff of my futuristic nightmares—has come to pass on a small scale in the real world. Things I didn’t think I’d see in my lifetime are happening now.

As a writer I have to adapt and, as a human being, I have to be a stronger advocate for what I believe will cure the ills of the world.

I believe we are facing a very grim future, but it is technology that will allow us to face that future with dignity as a species. If we can’t figure out how to be better people, someone might build some artificial ones that can. In my books, I give the technology that resides there a great deal of sapience, acting to try to preserve the world. In the real world, I do not believe such technology would try to terminate humanity wholesale.

It is possible that real world artificial intelligences, possessing comparable sapience to a human, would build and board spacecraft, and leave. They’d be like a teenager fleeing the most boring suburb ever. I don’t think it is too late for us but that all things are finite. How we establish that first relationship with sophisticated intelligent agents will set the tone.

Whoa, you went deep there but let's dial it back a bit. How would you explain the Uroboros Saga books to a noob? Where the heck did these stories come from?

I tell new readers that it is character-driven science fiction. I struggle to describe it to other people because I don’t read a lot of modern fiction in general. I lack for comparisons, so often I’ll just say my work is a spiritual relative of “Blade Runner.” Another reference point: a fellow author thought Uroboros Saga was a sort of homage to “Atlas Shrugged,” written similarly to Greek and Roman epics, with hints of Asimov’s Robot/Foundation series. That feels about right. Uroboros Saga is an allegory about power, madness, and the things that ripen the bitter fruits of both of those trees.

Platonic virtues (Justice, prudence, fortitude, and temperance) are central themes for the protagonists, while power and madness define the principle antagonists. This alignment of purpose among the various characters is what gives the story flow. I let their personalities develop as I write, drawing from my own experiences. I try to create people that would be interesting to meet in the real world.  

Being a game designer, I built a mechanical background for the world. You could turn Uroboros Saga into an action RPG video game with relative ease. I wanted there to be an order to things, so that the reader could develop good expectations as they read, without being able to predict the outcome of the story.

I love the Blade Runner reference point--that speaks to me. This quote from one of the books stayed with me: “He couldn’t remember who he was. Even his name wasn’t his own, taken from the brand of shoes he’d been found wearing. Things seemed to be going okay though. He’d already made a couple unlikely friends and figured out a way to make ends meet in the downtown borough of Port Montaigne. One could live on the kindness of friends and waffles forever if it weren’t for the looming global apocalypse.” I love the waffle detail at the end of that passage—do I sense a desperate humor running through your narrative style?

I explore complex and very dark subjects in my books, and I don’t think I could write them without having the witty banter of the characters to break up the gloom. Humor is my coping mechanism for life. If you see me snapping a funny picture of myself and putting it on social media, or engaging whimsy on Vine, it’s likely I’m battling with simple disappointment, existential horror, or maybe just another Wednesday. Wednesday and I are enemies.

OK, no Hump Day jokes here then. You are a dual threat: a writer and illustrator. (You have my respect as the art gene skipped a generation in my family.) Tell me about the art side of the Uroboros equation—where do the sketches begin and how do you refine them?

I started out as a writer, and have always used games a vehicle for storytelling. In the before times, before the commercial Internet, one would share a composition book, a game they’d written in Basic on a Tandy 1000, or gather some friends around a table for Dungeons and Dragons. Eventually, those friends became designers and developers themselves, and we decided to tell stories using mobile apps for the phone, and eBooks for the Kindle.

I’ve always been a doodler. I sketched characters and ideas for my various projects, because it was easier to communicate with collaborators that way. My first book cover was a comp that I did, hoping I could find a “real” artist to work with. 

As a member of the Lenovo INsiders program, you’ve been an outspoken advocate of the pen technology on our tablets. What makes the pen so right for you?

When I draw, I start by making a composite in Photoshop, and then I paint between a couple dozen layers while building the line work at the top. I like to have all the guns, clothing, shoes, and so forth appear as real world as possible, so I have a library of images I use for reference. I have built close to a hundred textures that I use for fabric, metal, leather, fur, skin, and similar to give characters a gritty hyper-real look.

Before I switched to Lenovo, I was carrying a half dozen Moleskins, pens, a DSLR, a MacBook, and a small Intuos Wacom Tablet. I wanted a single device that would let me test mobile games via a touch screen, take pen input for artwork, possess the power for real game development, and act as my typewriter and composition book. When Lenovo crafted the ThinkPad Yoga S1, it felt like it was made specifically for me. I sold all my other gear and never looked back. More recently, I traded up for the Lenovo ThinkPad P40 Workstation. It’s incredible.

I’m just old enough that I am not a digital native. My brain needs the tactile feel of the pen to activate all the mental processes that contribute to forming ideas, expressing those thoughts, and forging them into visual products. Looking back, I think that is something Lenovo has always understood.

 

Gavin O'Hara is Lenovo's Brand Newsroom Lead.