22nd June 2019
The Saturday Interview: C. D. Tavenor
Thanks very much for your time. Could you please introduce yourself and your book ‘First of Their Kind’?
Hello! My name is C.D. Tavenor, but you can just refer to me as Tavenor. I live in Columbus, Ohio, where my day job has me fighting for the environment as an attorney.
My second job is my writing! I write science fiction and fantasy, and I freelance edit, supporting other writers in their quest toward achieving their writing dreams. Alongside Brian J Timm, I founded Two Doctors Media Collaborative, a hybrid-project through which we’ll publish books and board games for years to come.
First of Their Kind is my debut science fiction novel, released April 30, 2019 (It’s free on Amazon until June 30!). It explores the idea of “synthetic intelligence.” What if we could create an artificial mind not too unlike the human mind, complete with consciousness, emotions, and perceptions? What would that mind be like? How would they think?
From those thoughts, First of Their Kind was born. Of course, hundreds of authors have tackled artificial intelligence before me, but First of Their Kind should stand out from other works as one of the few that puts readers behind the eyes of the synthetic intelligence, rather than a human character. In First of Their Kind (and its sequel, Their Greatest Game), you see the world through the eyes of Theren, the “first of their kind.” Follow their journey as they grapple with humanity’s response to their existence. Join Theren as they too, must engage with a rapidly advancing technological world, right alongside the species that created them.
What inspired you to write and what keeps you at your desk writing?
It’s innate. I’ve always wanted to tell stories, create worlds, explore the unknown. I put my first stories on the page when I was six or seven. They were terrible, but they were stories.
What keeps me writing? Well, I’d go crazy if I didn’t write. I have too many ideas, and if they’re making me think, hopefully they make someone else think too. And hopefully, make the world a bit better of a place for everyone to enjoy.
What research did you do before starting to write a science fiction novel?
A lot. Though probably not the type of research you would expect. I approach science fiction from the philosophical perspective and less from the scientific perspective. While the science is important (for instance, I propose a version of faster-than-light travel grounded in real theories of physics), I’m more interested in the theories of mind surrounding artificial intelligence.
Similarly, First of Their Kind and Their Greatest Game engage in international politics, so I made sure I grounded my story in real experiences. I’ve observed international conferences, and there’s one particular scene in First of Their Kind directly inspired by them.
The most obscure bit of research I did, however, was for Their Greatest Game. I won’t spoil it, but has to do with the “Game” part of the title!
Do you subscribe to any particular theories of mind?
I’ve actually been tweeting on Fridays about this: #PhilosophyFriday! Last week, I talked briefly about the “soul,” and this week, I tweeted about free will. I’m a hard determinist and materialist. The “soul” is just another term for our brain. Consciousness is an emergent property of the way our brains work. It’s not some “immaterial” fluffy substance that can jump from object to object.
There’s a famous science fiction short story dealing with this concept. I can’t remember its name, so if someone reading recalls it, please share on social media! Essentially, an alien race arrives at Earth and introduces humanity to interstellar travel, which is only possible through “portals.” It turns out the portals are really just transmitting a copy of the brain to a recreated body on the other side of the portal, so technically, when you travel, you die. The character in the story doesn’t know this before he’s about to travel, and the aliens act all nonchalant about the act of murder. It’s normal to them. But to the human, it’s scary. While a version of themself will travel forward, it will not be their continuous conscious mind, because it’s a new brain.
We are our brains. Our bodies are all we have. It’s scary, but it’s the truth.
Are Artificial Intelligences an interest of yours?
Absolutely, but more so because I think the type of artificial intelligence many people think possible is not possible. Sure, we will eventually make algorithmic AI that has incredible processing power and can probably do more things at once than a million humans, but it will still run on a base code.
I’m more interested in the emergent AI that doesn’t run on algorithms; rather, it develops through learning and connecting artificial neurons.
Similarly, I fundamentally reject the idea that some day, humans could transfer “consciousness” into artificial brains, because those theories misunderstand what consciousness is and instead adopt a Decartian dualist perspective. Sure, we might be able to “copy” our brains and make a virtual version on a computer, but your consciousness is still in your brain. The best we can hope for is creating an AI version of ourselves, which isn’t very interesting if we’re pursuing something like immortality.
So yeah, I’d say artificial intelligence interests me!
Where do you stand on the idea that AIs can be classically good or evil? I’m reminded of a paper that I read arguing that for AIs to do something evil (take over the world and enslaving humanity, for example), they’d have to be programmed with the knowledge and desire to do so.
An important question we need to ask—if a person can’t comprehend the effect of their actions, are they actually doing good or evil? If an AI is programmed to commit an atrocity, then it is the programmer who is evil, not the AI. If an AI learns to commit an atrocity, understands its impact, and chooses to commit the atrocity anyway, then the AI is evil.
Yet if we’re working with purely algorithmic, purely programmed AI, we return to the original question. Why did the creator not develop adequate safeguards?
Now, if the AI is something else entirely—more like a person in its decision-making than a computer, then they absolutely can be good or evil. It all depends on their agency.
What do you think makes a good science fiction story?
Good science fiction does more than just entertain you—and this goes for fantasy, too. There’s a lot of literature out there that wears the skin of science fiction and fantasy, but it recycles old ideas and places them on a new plot with new characters and a new ending. Good science fiction integrates theme and social commentary directly into the story.
My favorite science fantasy story, Star Wars, works so well because it reflects a timeless tale of good of evil upon the political failings of totalitarian regimes (the Original Trilogy), bloated, bureaucratic democracies (the Prequel Trilogy), and generational failures to establish effective institutions (the Sequel Trilogy). It’s timely.
Similarly, the Matrix forces people to think about agency and identity while also requiring the imagination to expand well beyond the horizon of what we usually think is possible.
Or consider The Expanse; in Leviathan Wakes, we’re thrust into our own Solar System hundreds of years in the future with humanity just playing out perpetually the same games of war, bigotry, and political intrigue.
If you don’t have something beyond just entertainment with science fiction and fantasy, you’re missing out on the true potential of the genre.
You mentioned Leviathan Wakes. Is that a favourite of yours? Do you have others?
I think my favorite novel in the Expanse is actually Tiamat’s Wrath, the eighth book, but I do love Leviathan Wakes. It reveals a world wholly unexpected.
Historically, I love Dune. It’s a definite inspiration for my writing when it comes to the scope of my work. The Chronicles of Theren, of which First of Their Kind and Their Greatest Game form Volume I, will take place over centuries by series end.
Could you explain a little about the Two Doctors Media Collaborative?
I founded Two Doctors Media Collaborative with Brian J Timm with assistance from my wife, Kim Tavenor (she insisted we use the Two Doctors name, but she’s the one who made the awesome logo and most of the website). Together, the three of us form the Two Doctors team.
In the short-term, we’re focused on building our publishing brand through the release of First of Their Kind and Their Greatest Game, alongside a series of novels authored by Tyler Hanson, called The Faction (starting with Personnel).
In the long term, we will transition into a fully functioning small press releasing multiple novels from multiple novels per year. And, perhaps more importantly, we’re going to publish board games, too. Brian, Kim, and I have always loved board games, and we have some great ideas cooking inside our minds.
In addition to our books and board games, I freelance edit under the Two Doctors Media Collaborative name, and we manage a book review blog titled “The Two Doctors Review.” Since launch in January, we’ve reviewed over thirty books and board games.
What do you feel that you’ve learned from setting up the Collaborative and gradually evolving it into a small press?
It’s a lot of work. But it’s fun. Importantly, indie authors and publishers cannot underestimate the power of tools like StoryOrigin. And most importantly, don’t think you can just push publish on Amazon without any work and success will find you. Marketing, editing, high quality book covers, reviews, newsletters, blog posts, everything matters. You don’t need to do it all, but you need to do most of it.
What are your passions outside of writing?
I have no passion. I’m a robot who churns out books! (JK of course)
So as you may have already figured out, I also love board games, both playing and designing. I’m also a vocal proponent of climate justice, and a few of my works in progress are actually works of climate fiction, where I intersect issues of climate change and my writing.
In my free time, I dabble in a few video games (primarily PC strategy games), and I also enjoy running half-marathons and triathlons. In the winter, I appreciate the opportunity to get to a mountain and ski.
Wow! You clearly keen yourself very busy! Do you have a favourite strategy game or board game?
Eclipse! I can’t rave about this board game enough. It’s a 4x scifi strategy game in board game form, and it’s fantastic. You research technology, design space ships, and invade your opponents and ancient aliens too. I actually briefly feature it in First of Their Kind, at the beginning of Chapter 3.
After Eclipse, I love Diplomacy. Can’t go wrong with the classics.
If people would like to interact with you online, what’s the best way to do that?
I love hearing about people’s stories, their favorite science fiction, and the occasional debate about a nonsensical topic like whether Rey is a Mary Sue.
More importantly, join the Two Doctors Media Collaborative Mailing List! You’ll stay the most up-to-date on all of our projects, and we periodically send out links to free books. Sometimes links to free versions of our books, too!
Thanks for your time.
It’s been a blast! Great questions, and thanks for taking an interest in First of Their Kind and Their Greatest Game.