Will robots dream of us in the same way that we dream about them? They say that AI can “hallucinate”, right? Hadn’t Philip K. Dick warned us about all this many years ago? Maybe we weren’t paying enough attention then. Maybe we aren’t paying enough attention now. What a strange world we are being thrust into… and are we ready?
Sunny, the titular robot character of my novel, was conceived in a dream. Several years ago, I tossed and turned in bed, unnerving visions unfurling in my head. In this nightmare I was being chased by a robot that I myself had programmed. The domestic robot had turned on me – and I had been under the illusion that it was merely a household appliance, there to help with the laundry, dust a shelf, or vacuum the floor. I was trying to access its “dark settings” in order to switch the damn thing off, but I wasn’t having much luck: I couldn’t find the manual that would provide me with the right set of instructions, and the machine was definitely out to get me. It was one of the nastiest nightmares I’ve ever had, so vivid, so real. I woke in the proverbial sweat, and was instantly relieved to realize we hadn’t yet reached that stage where the machines were taking over. Not yet, at least, not yet.
That morning, arriving at the breakfast table, I was visibly shaking, the remnants of the nighttime ordeal still reverberating in my bones. I told my wife about the awful visions, the dreadful thing that couldn’t be switched off, that couldn’t be controlled, and I could still see the eerie red eyes of the robot glowing in my mind. My own fertile imagination had somehow turned on me, it was almost a betrayal – why could I not have had happy dreams, scoring a goal in a World Cup final, or headlining Glastonbury with a kickass band behind me? If dreams are in some way a process of filtering out our fears and anxieties, well, what was I filtering out here? What exactly was a I nervous or anxious about? I had never given much thought to AI before, but it was there, coming for me. Was it a way of sharpening my flight or fight response for when that day eventually came? “Sounds scary,” my wife said, “but it would make a good movie.”
And there was the genesis. The spark I needed. Turn this terrifying dream into something positive, or at least something useable. “The Dark Settings” would be its title. Yes, it could very well make an interesting movie, the notion had potential: the visuals were there, the lead characters were strong, it was unsettling as all hell… but how about making it into a darn good novel first.
I sprang straight into action while the idea was fresh. I knew AI was going to be a hot topic for years to come. It obviously wasn’t going away. If anything, it was going to be more of a talking point, more of a reading point, more of a debating point as we saw out our days on this overburdened planet. Open up any paper or click on any news site on any given day, and you’re sure to find some article or opinion piece extoling its virtues, premonishing its diabolism. The novel was written quite fast and seemed a winner when I pitched it to friends and acquaintances (no one ever has the patience to listen to anyone else’s dream, but the fact that I had it now as a novel, or the bones of one, well, they’d give me thirty seconds or so in the elevator).
The completed novel was first published by Dublin’s indie stalwart press, Betimes Books in 2018 (under the title “The Dark Manual”) who saw its potential and adorned it with a beautiful front cover. Soon after it was picked up for a TV drama series by Apple TV. Things didn’t go quite so smoothly from there, and the venture got stalled along the way (yep, a global pandemic will do that to projects, folks, and a writers’/actors’ strike didn’t help matters either) but finally it looks like Sunny, the robot, will finally grace our small screens, the book now having the same title as the TV show, in the not-too-distant future (which, ironically, is what the book is all about).
So, what is “Sunny” the novel now? A mystery? Crime drama? A portentous sci-fi exploration? A slice of literary fiction charting the anguish and dilemmas of a heartbroken woman trying to navigate treacherous times? Sure, why not. All of the above and more, I hope.
And what have I learned from all of this? Well, I’ve read all those New York Times op-ed pieces of impending AI catastrophe/utopia (take your pick), and I am never quite sure which way I lean. But my biggest takeaway, from a creative viewpoint at least, is this: that when those murky dreams come, as you lay there at night silent and vulnerable shrouded in darkness. When the robot or the monster or the blurry ghost, or the knife-wielding psychopath comes to track you down, don’t bother boring anyone the next morning (trust me, nobody wants to listen, save perhaps your long-suffering spouse), just write it all down – it’s therapeutic, if nothing else, and you never know what kind of alternative life might emerge.
Sunny is here. AI is here. I hope you’ll read my novel; I hope you’ll heed the warnings.