Curiosity Quills Press recently had the pleasure in interviewing children and young adult author, software engineer and pasta aficionado, Aimee Lucido.
1) I hear you’re writing a cool new MG about a code-learning girl? Can you tell me more about it? Do you feel that’s something you want kids (girls, especially) to learn in middle school? How soon is too soon to pick a career path?
I’m currently working on a middle grade novel in verse whose working title is THE MUSIC MY KEYBOARD MAKES. It’s about a lonely twelve-year-old girl named Emmy who winds up in a computer science elective because she doesn’t have any better options. She builds a friendship with the only other girl in the class, Abigail, who is learning to “come out of the closet” to her friends and parents about her love of computers. The two girls, along with the other kids in the class, slowly discover their voices through the programming language of Java, and the poetry progresses, it begins to incorporate Java’s syntax and concepts as the students, and ultimately the readers, learn to think in code.
Computer science should be taught in schools as early as possible in the same way that math and reading should be taught in schools as early as possible. We don’t read “Goodnight Moon” to our infants because we expect them to be writers one day, or teach them to count because we expect them to be mathematicians, we do this because math and English are important skills for whatever career path they choose. Similarly, computer skills are becoming more and more necessary in any field as we leap towards the future. If a child plans on pursuing computers professionally in some capacity, then that’s fantastic! But that’s not the primary purpose of mastering computer literacy.
2) Speaking of careers, how do you see your own path playing out in the next 10 years? Writing fulltime? Or was writing something you dreamed of doing as a kid, or is this something you have come into just now? Is this MG your first book? Any other cool ideas?
Writing has always been a huge part of my life, and no matter where my software engineering career goes, writing is never going to leave me. I think I would go crazy if I ever dropped writing, simply because I would lose my primary creative outlet. Similarly, no matter what happens in my writing life, technology is never going to leave me, even if I do quit one day to write full time.
THE MUSIC MY KEYBOARD MAKES is the first book I’ve ever tried to write explicitly about tech, but technology is such a deep part of me that even if I’m not writing about it literally, it sneaks into my writing in other ways: in a picture book I’m working on, a girl builds a jungle gym inside her kindergarten classroom, engineering her way out of her problems; In a middle grade ghost story I wrote during my first semester at Hamline, the main character’s mother is a cryptography professor at Stanford; I have a dream of a nonfiction project about shrinking down to see how a computer works from the inside; and, since I’m an analytical person, my characters tend to be too, thinking like coders even if they aren’t.
I have a *ton* of cool ideas and not nearly enough time to work on them all! That’s a point in the column for one day quitting to write full time, I guess. But would I go just as crazy without code as I would without writing?
3) One part of writing is, well, writing, but the other is self-marketing. What are you doing to get yourself brand recognition? And what would you recommend to other authors just getting started on that path? Do you think tech would help you with that, or are face-to-face signings still the best way to a reader’s heart?
Answering interview questions here is a start, no? I don’t do enough brand recognition stuff, and that’s a weakness of mine that I want to work on. I could tweet more, I could blog more, I could go to more SCBWI events. But it is tough to work on my writing on top of a full-time job, so that’s my excuse for not being proactive on that front.
I would hope that the tech work helps me with brand recognition. Especially for projects like MUSIC, which are specifically about technology. I have a lot more experience than other writers who choose to write about the same subject.
In addition, I write crossword puzzles, and there’s a bit of branding in there as well. Hopefully all these feed off each other and one day I’ll just burst in a single glowing ball of fame-flame!
4) Speaking of books. Or, especially, sci-fi… Where do you think tech will go next? In which direction? Quantum computers? Fully conscious AI ala the movie Her and I am Robot? Have we cleared the top of the fast development hill, or will we still be rushing ahead?
The cool thing is that we’ll probably go in all these directions at once. Just… slowly. “Fully conscious” AI (or at least AI that passes the Turing test) comes in tiny baby steps. Uber, Tesla, Google, and others are all putting self-driving cars on the road *today*, and SpaceX is working on interplanetary tourism as we speak. I have an Amazon Echo and a Nest in my house and even without any more development, those machines are pretty darn cool. I don’t see us slowing down any time soon!
5) To follow that up, I have to ask… is it sci-fi or fantasy for you, and have your preferences changed based on what you have witnessed firsthand in the tech trenches? Which book is on your to-read list this spring? How about, which movie? Which video game? Oooh, and do you ever dream-cast your favorite books?
Fantasy over sci-fi, but my true love is magical realism. I like when mundane things are talked about as though they’re magic, versus magic things being talked about as though they’re mundane. It’s entirely possible that my life surrounded by technology makes the sci-fi mundane (or at least not an escape the way fantasy or magical realism is) but I have always loved stories like The Golden Compass or Matilda, or anything by Nova Ren Suma that show a magical flip side to our current reality.
My to-read list is about a million miles long. I’m currently halfway through three books: Flora & Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo (magical flip side! See???), Freak The Mighty (just started, love the voice so far), and the third book of Gene Yang’s Secret Coders (It’s so dreamy. A beautiful, fun window into the magic of technology).
I am very much looking forward to watching Get Out and Moonlight, but I’m not very good at watching movies, so it may be a while before I get to them.
Zelda just came out for the Nintendo Switch (!!!!) and I am making my boyfriend wait for me to have free time to play it with him before he’s allowed to start.
And I do dream cast my favorite books, but I do it with people that I know personally, not famous actors. Every YA/MG book I read automatically gets transplanted into the setting of my life when I was the age of the protagonist, and the supporting characters all get the faces of my friends of that time.
6) Happy ending or you would rather be surprised? Is it different between game / books / movies for you? Why? Can you elaborate? (The eternal romance vs. love story debate).
I like bittersweet endings in both my movies and books. I like endings that don’t go the way you’d expect, but still feel complete. Holes is my idol in this capacity in that it ties up all loose ends, but is still surprising and intriguing. I want to be left thinking about it months after I’ve put the book away. And I don’t play as many games as I would like, but my favorite ones tend to end bittersweet as well. Link’s Awakening? I cry every time I wake the windfish.
7) If you could tell something to our ancestors, anything, without fear of messing up the timelines - what would you say, and to whom?
Oh gosh… If I don’t tell my ancestors to watch out for Hitler than I’m kind of a monster, right?
That and I’d tell my parents to invest all our money in Microsoft back when they first went public.
8) And the reverse question - if you could ask any of our ancestors / famous figures anything - whom would you ask, and what would you ask them?
This isn’t exactly a question, but I would love to get a sense of what it was like to be the wife of one of the famous, powerful men of the history of America. I consider myself pretty loud and strong, but I wonder what I would have been like if I had lived back when women weren’t encouraged to be loud and strong. I hope I’d be an Angelica over an Eliza, but who really knows?
9) So, I know you’re both an author and engineer at one of the mover-and-shaker companies in Silicon Valley (you have asked not to be identified beyond that, and we certainly understand your reasons). But being there on the forefront of a computer age, do you feel we’re heading toward a dystopian or utopian future? Is this a big concern of yours, or do you think scaredy cat sci-fi authors have it wrong?
I don’t believe that any world, either in real-life or in sci-fi, is ever fully utopian or fully dystopian because any world is ultimately made up of real, nuanced, and complex people, none of whom are either perfectly perfect or perfectly imperfect. And so, the best fictional worlds, the ones that ring the most true to me, are the ones that explore the reality, nuance, and complexity of technology and the people who use it.
If you take a beautifully crafted “dystopian” book like Feed by M.T. Anderson, or The Giver by Lois Lowry, what makes these futuristic worlds so compelling is that they have their pros and cons. I remember reading The Giver as a kid and just wanting to be swallowed up into the closeness and safety of that world. But that comfort in the beginning is intentional on Lowry’s part so that it hits harder when she reveals that the world is colorless, and that the society will even resort to killing babies in certain circumstances.
Similarly, in Feed, some of the technology is pretty incredible. I would love to have a pill that takes pictures of my colon as it goes down instead of undergoing a colonoscopy. I would love to have quick and affordable transportation to the outer reaches of the universe. I would even love to be a teenager in a world so safe that parents will let their high school kids go off to the moon for a weekend. While the style of the writing emphasizes the cynicism of the world, there are also moments of intimacy and potency that demonstrate that the world isn’t as simplistic as it might be in the hands of a less skilled writer.
In fact, M.T. Anderson writes that he himself feels the love/hate relationship with his world: ”I don’t think this would have been an interesting book to write (or to read) if I had only hated the hyper-marketed world I describe. For me, the key to the discomfort is how much I love some of it, how much I still do want to be slick like the people on the tube, beautiful, laughing, surrounded by friends. And how much I legitimately do think that the technology-based information resources at our command now are incredible (things like Project Gutenberg, the Internet Archive, instant music and movie downloads, even the much-maligned Wikipedia). These are tools for an amazing new intellectual understanding of the world, though they come with strings attached. Think about the way technological progress over the last twenty years has revolutionized the artistic possibilities in film, or the scientific processes of medical experimentation - or almost any field. We have at our fingertips knowledge and power like no other generation before us, and that’s intoxicating. I am no Luddite. And this would not have been an effective satire, in my opinion, if I hadn’t also been seduced by what I was mocking. It is the anguish of indecision that animates it. This is indeed a brave new world, but there is a cost.”
When it comes to real-life technology, we must remember that these breakthroughs don’t erupt from nothing. They evolve over time from the brains of humans, who spend their hours working and thinking critically about their work. This is something that bothered me about, say, The Circle by Dave Eggers. The book treated The Circle as a company full of toadies, who smiled and applauded at whatever the visionaries said. But what makes real-world technology so intriguing, and what makes it something that I want to spend my days working on, is that we are very aware of the negative implications of any forward movement in technology. For every idea that someone comes up with, there are a hundred people poking holes in it, and arguing passionately about why it should never exist.
As an illustration of this, there is one scene in The Circle where they meet as a whole company once a week for something called “Dream Friday.” Eamon Bailey, one of the “Three Wise Men” gets on stage and presents on something that he’s working on. From the get-go, Eamon is painted as a beloved leader. Shouts of “We love you, Eamon!” rise from the audience, and no matter what terrible joke Eamon comes up with, the audience bursts into laughter. Even Mae marvels at his “off-the-cuff eloquence.”
The scene progresses as Eamon walks the audience through his plan to put hidden cameras up at beaches so that surfers can see what waves are like before they head to the water. He adds that there is a feature to share your secret cameras with someone else, and even shows a camera in Cairo with two unsuspecting citizens having a conversation in Arabic. He boasts that the crime rate in the world would be cut down 70-80 percent if people were watching all the time, he drops the phrase “All that happens must be known” and accidentally livestreams a video of his mother in a bathrobe, all to roaring applause from his employees.
This is supposed to make us feel icky, and it does.
And it would never. Ever. In a million years. Happen at a tech company.
Tech companies are full of some of the most cynical, critical, pessimistic people in the world. If my CEO ever got on stage to accidentally show a picture of his mother in a bathrobe and suggest that everyone should be able to put cameras anywhere at any point and give access to those cameras to whomever they want, the employees would walk out. We’d rage about the voyeurism, the security implications, the risk of abuse for things like child pornography, rape culture, terrorist attacks. If we put out that product there would be Tech Crunch headlines, brand deterioration, and our company’s value would crash, not to mention the fact that that the vast majority of us would be unable to sleep at night.
Not to say that our existing technology doesn’t have its downsides. The Circle is written as a parody of Facebook and Google, and there are certainly privacy implications surrounding every feature that those two companies put out. But that’s where the intelligence and and caution of the employees come in. That’s where government regulation comes in. That’s where employee and customer outrage comes in. That’s where people sue, refuse to pay for services, eventually putting the company out of business.
Let’s not forget that Apple CEO Tim Cook recently said no to the NSA accessing user data, and that Facebook spends thousands of engineering hours per year thinking about how to give users more control over who sees their data. Uber doesn’t show the rider’s picture to the driver to protect their identity, and almost every highly-trafficked messaging service allows users to encrypt their messages in order to keep them off-the-record.
When we as authors paint our dystopian worlds with strokes that are overly broad, we not only do a disservice to the actual future, but we make bad literature. We write two-dimensional, mustache-twirling villains that at least this reader would never pick off a shelf.
So in summary, no we are not moving towards a *-topian future, because technology is just a tool. A very powerful tool, perhaps, but it is still just a tool. And like any tool, it is no more benevolent or malicious than the people who use it.
Thank you, Aimee. It was fantastic speaking with you, and you had some very insightful answers to our questions.
Aimee Lucido is a software engineer by day, writer by night. She is finishing up her MFA in writing for children and young adults at Hamline University and in her free time she writes crossword puzzles and performs musical improv with her team Flash Mob Musical. She lives in San Francisco where she has made it her personal goal to eat at every pasta restaurant within a ten mile radius.