Lexi: Bonus Content
The idea for Lexi came directly from Connie Willis’ short Christmas story, “Miracle.” It’s one of my very favorite, and I read it at least once a year—you can find it in her Christmas story collection A Lot Like Christmas, which I love. In “Miracle,” the ‘Spirit of Christmas’ unexpectedly shows up and cheerfully up-ends the heroine’s plans to attract Mr. Perfect, leading her to realize the real Mr. Right has been there by her side all along. And I had the idea for a young man who has his sights set on the “perfect” life—financial success, status recognition, a gorgeous, rich fiancée—and this cheerful, disruptive force shows up in his life and completely turns it all upside down.
So it was always going to be a road trip—or rather, a road trip on the run—book. John Michael Kirkpatrick experiences a meteoric rise in which almost, almost everything he’s been striving for is within his grasp until he’s tempted on the top floor of the restaurant called “The Pinnacle” (my version of Matthew 4:8-9), and then chapter by chapter he loses everything. You can literally watch him shedding possessions until he has nothing but his glasses, and their broken. But it’s not a tragedy, because he’s figuring out what really matters to him—and who he really loves—along the way. So it’s a romantic comedy, really, just like Connie Willis’ original story.
I’d played with the idea of robots and A.I. before in “The Curious Case of the Clockwork Doll,” where I envisioned ‘Martha’ possessing the mind of a malevolent child. ‘Lexi’ is the flip-side of that: she’s innocent, generous, helpful, kind. She’s selfless, because she has no fear.
Not surprisingly, I found myself thinking about Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein as I wrote, and I was lucky enough to discover Nick Dear’s play, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller in the National Theatre Live’s 2011 production, which was filmed and is shown periodically by Fathom Events. It’s is the complete opposite of the old Boris Karloff film, because the Creature has his own identity. He’s obsessed with trying to figure out who he is and how he fits with human society, and then what he does when he realizes he can’t. A lot of these themes wove themselves into Lexi, because I didn’t want a ‘Pinocchio’ story about a robot whose only wish is to become just like a human being.
I think we’ve been struggling with how to relate to machines for a while: something like the original Star Wars can be appealing at a deep level because it’s a clear man vs. machine story, but that doesn’t seem practical, or even desirable, to me anymore. Even The Matrix is still premised on man vs. machines, but I’m much more interested in thinking out how we might work together. I think there can be a healthy relation between humans and machines, and it’s symbiotic, a partnership, filling in each other’s deficiencies—like using robots in undersea or space exploration—but where we get in trouble is when we try to make machines like people, or people like machines. I have genuine concerns going into the future about replacing people with machines, and it’s one reason I’m open to ideas like a Universal Basic Income.
But for me Lexi was not just about how we relate to machines. It’s about how we relate to Nature and other human beings when we approach the world with the mindset of productivity-driven consumers in which everything can be replaced: use it up, toss it aside. And it’s about rising inequality, where an increasingly isolated, select group becomes capable of further isolates itself, possibly into obsolescence because they are incapable of dealing with the problems they leave behind.
Sometimes inspiration means trying to copy success, like the wonderful, comic spirit of “Miracle.” Sometimes it means ‘fixing’ something almost right that bugs me! My very favorite Star Trek Next Generation episode, “The Host,” is in Season 4, in which the Enterprise takes on board a Trill ambassador. Ambassador Odan and Dr. Crusher hit it off and start to develop a romantic relationship, until Odan is mortally injured, and Dr. Crusher discovers the Trill are actually symbiotic creatures: there’s a humanoid host and the ‘real’ Odan is a sort of a slug-like creature. Dying, he’s able to direct her to save him until a new humanoid host from his planet can arrive. Plot ensues, but in the end, the new host they send isn’t what Dr. Crusher expected, and she says basically, “I’m sorry. I still love you, but I can’t love you like this. We humans don’t work that way.” And I hate this! So the ending of Lexi was inspired by that, in a backwards way, because, dammit, you love the slug!
Some of the characters:
Dr. William Kirkpatrick – My very favorite character on a TV show, ever, is Walter Bishop in Fringe. I borrowed the ruthless scientist half to build on. John Michael and his father are the only characters who refer to Lexi as ‘she’ in the book. For John Michael, this means she is a person, but Dr. Kirkpatrick can simultaneously speak of her as a person while seeing her as a machine.
Dr. Isabel Menedez – Nick Dear’s play poses many of the same moral questions that I find so interesting about A.I., like what does the creator owe the created? In my research, I saw a lot of men doing a lot of violent things to robots to test them. The Boston Dynamics video hitting the robot with the hockey stick is particularly memorable. And then I stumbled across a Wikipedia reference to Kismet, and a Dr. Cynthia Breazeal, who speaks of her relationship with the robot as “something like an infant-caretaker interaction, where I'm the caretaker essentially, and the robot is like an infant.” I had to read that twice, because it represented an approach to robotics that was so completely different than everything else I had been reading. The character of Isabel is based on her, although the picture I used comes from Shutterstock.
Weird fact: Often when I start writing, it’s after the character have started having little snippets of dialogue in my head, usually quibbles between the love interests, and one of the earliest was a line in which Lexi said, “You’re a complicated man, John Michael,” and I loved that he had two names, like this was part of having a conflicted identity. If you notice, he and his twin Julie have the same initials. They also call each other by nicknames (“Curly” and “Moe”). Guess who their older brother is?
My interview about LEXI with author Barbara Russell on her website: https://sites.google.com/…/…/interviews/interview-with-heidi
More character & setting pictures:
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Click to read Chapter 1