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Envy

By Robin Wasserman

Behind the Book

 

 

When I entered the history of science PhD program at UCLA a few years ago, I figured I'd study the history of physics, since that's what I'd been doing as a Harvard undergrad. But in my first semester, my soon-to-be-advisor offered a seminar cryptically titled "Automata" and — the sci-fi addict in me wondering if we'd just be sitting around reading Asimov and watching Bladerunner — I signed up. We skipped Asimov in favor of Aristotle and spent more time in Charles Babbage's dystopic past than in Bladerunner's dystopic future, but by the end of the semester, I was hooked.  

It turns out that automata (mechanical replicas of life) have been around for more than two thousand years. And despite radically different shapes, purposes, and circumstances, they always end up playing the same fundamental role: mirroring our own humanity. They open up questions of what it means to function like a machine (Are our bodies machines? Are our brains?) and give us a way of defining what we are — and what we are not.

Eventually, I planned to write a dissertation on the way we define ourselves through — and against — machines. I say "planned" to write, because I ended up writing the Seven Deadly Sins series instead. It wasn't quite what my advisor and I had had in mind, so I left UCLA, left Los Angeles, left the history of science, and returned to the east coast with a master’s degree that seemed totally irrelevant to my new career.  

Now here I am three years later, finally the sci-fi writer I always wanted to be growing up, but it wasn't until I got a few chapters into Skinned that I realized I was asking the exact same questions I'd planned to explore in my dissertation. What's the difference between thought and emotion, and which is unique to humanity? Where does free will exist in a mechanical universe? What makes us individuals? What makes us human?

It's only when I finally figured out what I was doing that the book really came alive for me. This is why it's dedicated to my grad school advisor, who, despite the fact that he's getting a novel rather than a dissertation, is nice enough not to hold a grudge.

 

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