This week I wanted to talk about my book Skin Deep that released last fall. It was quietly received and hasn’t been as popular as some of my other works, but I feel like this book might be more important. Spoiler Warning: This post will contain some spoilers about the book. If you have not read Skin Deep yet, and you wish to maintain the mystery and surprise, then stop reading now. If you have read the book, this article may be enlightening.
Unlike much of my other work, Skin Deep isn’t intended to be part of a series. It’s just a book, by itself. The first half of the book is a mystery – the book’s protagonist, a US Forest Ranger named James Hutchinson finds himself in the middle of strange happenings in his woods. People, including his partner, have disappeared without a trace. They reappear many hours later, unharmed but acting strange.
Once the mystery is solved, the book shifts to a sci-fi horror story. In the opening of the book an asteroid impacts in the Holly Springs National Forest – the area that Ranger Hutchinson patrols. At about the halfway point of the book, the protagonist discovers that mysterious disappearances are the result of the asteroid impact, and the alien lifeforms within it.
The most horrifying and shocking moment of the book also lends to the title. The aliens who hitched a ride on the asteroid were sentient Artificial Intelligence robots. The reason that people are acting strange is because the robots have killed the people, skinned them, and are now posing as them. Of course, once the characters realize this, real war begins. They have to figure out how to tell who’s a human and who’s an imposter and then, ultimately, how to defeat them.
So why did I write such a gruesome tale? It really wasn’t for the shock value. It was actually a philosophical piece. In general, I like technology. I generally like AI and approve of the pursuit of it. Generally, but not blindly, and not without caution. I like to use my writing as a way to explore ideas and opinions that are sometimes contrary to my personal beliefs.
The entire idea that prompted this book was a question. With AI, those who are in favor of it hope that AI will be smarter than humans, and that it will help us to see things from a different light and solve problems that we cannot solve on our own. But, detractors of AI argue that once you create something that is intelligent and sentient, there’s no way to control it. They agree that it would be smarter than humans, but if they decide that humans are a problem to be eliminated, then we’d be hard-pressed to survive that. (See the Terminator movies as an exploration of that fear).
Understanding this, my question was: if we program AI to be like us, and to think like us – with all of our logic and reason – then what reason do we have to assume that they will not also inherit our faults and fallacies? Is it even possible for us, flawed as we are, to create something more perfect than ourselves? That is the question which prompted me to write this book. I wondered what sort of logical fallacies might an AI develop? What sort of irrational desires? How would they justify it? Could they also develop emotions like jealousy, and if so, what would be they be jealous of? And if they were jealous of human beings because we can live and love and be mortal, how might that jealousy manifest itself? What sort of irrational behaviors might they develop to support their twisted, irrational thoughts?
This book was also the most technically challenging piece I’ve written so far. There’s a plot twist that I won’t give away in this post, but that twist made it a challenge to write. I had to juggle between writing about something that wasn’t there and wasn’t felt, with just outright explaining why. It was hard, but I learned a lot from this book. I hope that you enjoy the story for the tale that it is. And if you have read it already, I hope that this explanation of my inspiration really helps you to appreciate it more.