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Robopocalypse author Daniel Wilson on his first collection of short stories, Guardian Angels & Other Monsters

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Mar 6, 2018

Superstar sci-fi author, comic writer, screenwriter, and mobile game designer Daniel H. Wilson has churned out an astonishing array of imaginative offerings in nearly every literary and electronic medium.

From the hilarious instructional manual, How To Survive A Robot Uprising, to last year's secret history android saga, The Clockwork Dynasty, Wilson's work encompasses his indefatigable knowledge of robotics and an inspired love of the far-out and fantastic.

The Portland-based visionary who shocked the planet with his riveting tale of A.I. gone mad, 2011's Robopocalypse and its 2014 sequel Robogenesis, is back in rare form with his first collection of sci-fi and fantasy short stories.

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Guardian Angels & Other Monsters is crammed with enough high-octane creative juice to fuel two dozen Hollywood movies and its provocative Bradbury-seque prose will lull you into a satisfied stupor after the final page. Wilson operates in familiar territory here with 14 absorbing stories of artificial intelligence, immortal automatons, fringe biology, teleportation, rogue robots, and micro black holes. One sweet surprise even finds us back in the world of Robopocalypse with a fan favorite character seeking salvation amid the horrors of genocidal war.

SYFY WIRE spoke with the New York Times bestselling author to talk about the diversity of this entertaining assembly of tales, the level of personal details included, how artificial intelligence and humanity intersect, Hollywood's interest in his projects, and how he'll spend his 40th birthday with his family at The Happiest Place On Earth.

Daniel H. Wilson's Guardian Angels & Other Monsters arrives on March 6 from Vintage Books.

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How does it feel to have an entire gathering of sci-fi stories being published on your birthday as you head off to Disneyland?

Daniel Wilson: This is the culmination of a childhood dream for me because I grew up reading science fiction short stories. That is pulp sci-fi from Astounding Science Fiction to Analog and Galaxy. That was my bread and butter as a kid and what I loved most about those short stories is that there's always a great twist, this burst of pleasure. You get to the end and you're like, "mind is blown!" As a kid I always aspired to write short fiction. I did that all during high school. I'd write my short stories and give them to my English teacher and in his spare time he would edit them for me and I'd send them away to the magazines and then they'd get rejected. (laughs) To have finally put together all of these stories and have them in one place, it's an honor to be able to publish a collection because publishers don't want to sell them that often. I'm super excited. I would be proud to be telling my teenager self that I have a short story collection coming out on my birthday when I'm turning forty.

What can readers expect to discover in this enticing new collection?

A couple of the stories are from other worlds of mine. I have a Robopocalypse story and a story from The Clockwork Dynasty. But the rest are just random corners of my mind that I've explored in various ways. There are robot stories, scary stories, stories that are funny or touching or exciting or sad. The way I think of short stories is I think of them almost as computer code. A human sits in front of these words and they filter up inside the machinery of a person and they create emotion and feelings. This ability to arrange symbols on a page and then cause a person to cry feels like magic to me. That's really my goal with these, to engage people emotionally. Obviously there are lots of robots and all the stuff I like to think about, but really what these stories come down to is human drama.

How did some of your favorite authors help inspire aspects of Guardian Angels & Other Monsters?

When I was a kid I read everything and remembered reading Arthur C. Clarke and thinking, "This guy can't write." Then I thought that his ideas are so good that I don't care if he scrawls this in crayon, I want to read what this guy has to say. And that gave me hope when I was young. If I had a good enough idea, that as long as I was able to get it conveyed, that people would respond to it. Then I would read stuff like Bradbury and think "total package!" Luckily I think I was able to get a little bit of both worlds in these stories. Where you have a really cool high concept that is also described well enough that the reader can get a feel for that world and feel like they're transported. Everything you do is a combination of all the teachers you've had and all the studying you've done so hopefully I was able to borrow a little bit from all my favorite sci-fi authors.

How is the process different between writing a novel or screenplay versus a short story?

Well first of all, you finish a short story a lot quicker. It's almost like it's born all at once and you're the same person the whole time. When you write a novel it takes a year or two and you change, the world changes. As a result a novel isn't usually born all at once and it's a bit of a patchwork of who you were at that moment.

In "The Blue Afternoon That Lasts Forever," that has the actual bedtime routine I used with my daughter when she was three. To have that crystalline moment captured in a short story is really amazing for me because I see facets of my life that are sort of trapped in amber and they were born all at once, really quickly. One facet of my life is encapsulated in each of these stories. And I think you can feel that in a short story more than you can in a novel. The other difference is that you don't get paid. I'll spend a month writing a short story and it's a labor of love on some level because it's not likely to ever pay off in a big way in terms of money.

When you're working as a writer and feeding your family and earning a paycheck it becomes a leap. You're really taking a swing and I think there's more honesty in short stories for that reason because the author can be more experimental and have more fun and not have to play it so safe. This is the most fun I've had writing.

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How do you choose which stories go into the final collection and did you have to leave any favorites out?

I put in all the quality stuff. (laughs) It was kind of an interesting exercise to read all of these together and realize how many themes they have in common. And then trying to put them in order, and you end up judging yourself and saying some work better than others. It's a pretty good exercise in reflection. I always go for the one-two punch up front, then you have to have something really good in the middle to keep the tent from sagging, and then of course you have to go out on a great story too. It's a lot like arranging the tracks on a mixtape or Spotify playlist. I snuck in one story in the middle called "Jack, The Determined," that was the first short story I wrote as a writer while I was in grad school.

With anthology shows like Black Mirror and Electric Dreams so popular, has Hollywood shown interest in adapting any of these tales?

Certainly I've had people approach me about adapting this collection as an anthology TV series, but I kind of like the individual stories enough that I feel they could be adapted to features. "Special Automatic" was recently bought by Fox and so I'm adapting that. "Garden of Life" is an interesting underlying idea but that's one of the shorter stories. That was whenever I was thinking about how machines could someday integrate into our ecosystems as a form of life. And that's something I deal with a lot in Robogenesis and the Robopocalypse series but that would be fun.

How was it dipping back into the Robopocalypse world in the story, "Parasite"?

That's a story about Lark Ironcloud, which is a character I killed in Robopocalypse. After I wrote that novel I started getting lots of emails saying that Lark Ironcloud was their favorite character and how dare I kill him. But the thing is, I didn't kill him. He was shot, then he was mounted by a parasite, a mobile exoskeleton that reanimates battlefield dead and forces their bodies to fire weapons at their living comrades. He was never necessarily killed. So I started thinking about Lark and whether he could come back. What if those parasites survived after the war and what if those people inside, those brains that were being kept alive, could now live life as this weird hybrid? I decided to essentially resurrect Lark and that really sparked a lot of thought that went into the sequel, Robogenesis, and even included a version of this story as an early chapter.

Which of these 14 stories are the most special to you?

They're all special to me for different reasons. "The Blue Afternoon That Lasted Forever," I consider that probably one of the best pieces of fiction I've ever written because there's so much truth in it relating to my daughter. While I was still drafting that I went to a con and I was doing a reading and asked the crowd if they wanted to hear something I'm not done with yet. So I read it and realized about halfway through that it was going to make me cry. It was like knowing like you're gonna throw up or something. This bodily function you can't stop! So I burst into tears in front of everybody while I was reading this story and that was the last time I've read it because I realize I can't do it. All of these include such interesting moments of my life. "Helmet" is special to me because that's about my relationship with my little brother. All of them revolve around real relationships in my life and me trying to capture that emotionality and trap it in a story.

What's on your creative plate for 2018?

I'm adapting "Special Automatic" for Fox and I'm super excited about that. I'm as always watching DreamWorks and Robopocalypse. That movie is still very much in the works and I have very high hopes for it. And I'm in the process of selling my next novel that I'm writing this year. I can't quite divulge which world it will be taking place in but I'm very excited about this next novel. Luckily I've managed to convince people to let me continue to write for another year. (laughs) We'll figure out next year when it comes!

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