Inside the World of Systemic, an Interview with Chris Lodwig

I met Chris Lodwig during a panel on sci-fi world-building during LitCon’s 2020 kick-off event. You can check out the video of the discussion, but for the real scoop on Systemic, keep on reading.

Chris lives in Seattle with his wife, daughter, dog, lizard, and an unlikely number of shrimp.

He spent his younger years playing music, throwing illegal parades, adult science fairs, underground Mexican wrestling matches, and bring-your-own art parties. His fifteen minutes of fame came in 2001 when he and a group of friends clandestinely installed a monolith in a local park.

He writes science fiction, volunteers at his daughter’s school, fly fishes, and runs the neighborhood haunted alley. In his free time, he works for a major technology company in the Seattle area.

Welcome Chris!

Before we dive in to the nitty gritty, what is Systemic about?

The book is somewhere between a utopia and dystopia depending on which character you ask and how you feel about machine learning. It takes place several generations in the future. We’ve created a global scale AI and for years, it’s been solving all of society’s problems. Which is great, but then the question becomes, what do we do when we don’t have any problems left to solve?

The story itself focuses on three strangers who are each making a pilgrimage to a small town in the middle of the Sagelands called Prower. Maik is trying to reunite with the woman he loves, Eryn hopes to make it home, and Lem is seeking revenge against the AI that’s hosted in the town’s data center.

Without giving too much away, no one knows the real reasons they’re headed to Prower, but it has something to do with solving the problem of us not having any more problems.

When and where does your story take place? Present? Future? Earth? Somewhere else?

Systemic takes place on Earth “several generations” into the future. I know “several generations” is not a normal timeline, but AI is moving so fast that I was a little worried it would beat me to my own story line. I mean, AI dreams these days, and makes weird art, and bad screenplays. You never know when it’s going to shoot right past the “future” and make my story completely irrelevant. Sort of like smart phones make Star Trek communicators look quaint.

What are the main differences between the “regular world” and the world of your story?

The environment is stable, and everything is produced for us by purpose-built AI’s, and camping gear is awesome. 

Did you invent any interesting technology?

The System for one. In some ways The System is your run-of-the-mill omniscient global AI, but it’s got some “must always improve the quality of life” assertions thrown in there which results in a deep unwavering love of humanity. 

There is a whole collection of Human-Systemic Cognitive Interface (HSCI) technologies in the story. The wearable Octopus rig, the influence at-a-distance Harding Apparatus, and the virt strips for portable devices. So, for example, you can have a portable machine—something the size of a cell phone—with a virt strip on the back. If you press your fingers onto the virt strips, they will send a signal through your body that interacts directly with your optic and ocular nerves. If your eyes are open you have augmented reality (directional arrows drawn on the ground to guide you, etc). If you close your eyes you can experience immersive virtual reality. No implants needed!

What is the primary way people travel? Do they move around a lot or mostly stay close to home?

There are no spaceships or teleporters or anything fantastic like that. The Systemic Era has all the same modes of transport we have today. Buses, trains, cars, those dorky one-wheeled gyroscopic gizmos. Flying is prohibitively expensive (since planes are very polluting) and everything is driven by AIs, but other than that, everything would be very recognizable to your 2020 eyes. Fun fact, a large portion of the movement in the book involves hiking boots. 

Does language play any role in your world? Does everyone speak the same language, or is there a variety? Did you invent any new slang or terminology during your world-building process?

Everyone speaks the same language as far as that goes. There are a couple little neologisms I threw in there for fun, for example the title of the book, “Systemic”, has come to mean “correct” or “true” since the System has been the sole arbiter of truth for a couple generations. But mostly it’s just straight English. I’m no linguist so I wasn’t ever going to dazzle anyone with my creative use of invented words, so I just stuck with words that everyone would understand.  

What kinds of climates do your characters experience? Do they see a lot of change or is it always the same? Has your world always had this kind of climate, or has it changed over time? 

There are different climates and microclimates in the book. The majority of the book happens in the Sagelands, which is sort of a mash up of Western Montana and Eastern Washington around the Colombia River. It’s swelteringly hot and dry and—as it turns out—very dangerous for Eryn to hike through alone. The environment as a whole is recovering from our present-day issues. Environmental recovery is one of the main problems the System is out to solve.

Is there any kind of faith system in your world? 

No, very specifically not. At least people don’t think there is. There is faith in technology and the System. That said, a huge part of what I’m doing is developing a faith system with the series arc. I shouldn’t really tell you much more because it shows my hand a bit too much, but suffice to say that faith is very much in the front of my mind while I’m constructing the story. 

What do people in your invented world do for fun? Are there sports, games, music, or other activities they do in their free time?

You sure ask a lot of questions that are extremely pertinent to the themes of my book. People don’t do anything at all for fun. That’s one of the central problems of the story. I mean they watch shows, and read books, and listen to music, but they don’t create any of it themselves.  It’s all created and overly-curated by custom built AIs. Nothing makes people feel anything because their personalized art only ever references their existing experiences. There’s no empathetic transfer going on.

So mostly people take an extremely potent drug called Kumfort which was invented to treat hyper-lethargy and instills people with an overwhelming sense of purpose, even though they don’t do anything at all when they’re on it. 

Chris’s Process

When you build a world, what is your process like? Do you do a lot of research upfront, wing it completely, or something in between?

It’s a bit of a mixture depending on what I need the world to be. Sometimes I just imagine a scene and describe what I see. I need to get this guy from here to there, he needs to be feeling paranoid and nervous and nothing makes you feel looked at as much as being on a bus, so let’s put him on a bus. Will there be busses in the future? Of course there will! Now I just need to make it believable. So, what will mass transit be like in the future? Then I’ll start to describe it to myself.

Once I get to the point where I’m just describing things for my own dorky enjoyment, I trim it up so it just has the bits I think help the story out. I did a lot of this sort of thing in Systemic, will there be pizza parlors an beer in, say 300 years? There’d better be. What would that look like?

Other times I need something like a technology to make the story work. Those I explain to myself in great detail, even going so far as drawing stick figure pictures of them, drawing process diagrams, and basic specifications. That stuff doesn’t directly make it into the writing, but it does help with consistency. I might use them to say something like, “the Harding Apparatus is a big donut-shaped structure that is so large that the Department of Interfaces and Systemic Controls (DISC) tend to build them directly into the structure of buildings, so you wouldn’t even know you’re near one unless you happened notice that the walls in a particular room or hallway are curved.” 

In my current book, I’ve spent a ton of time researching things like alternate economies (such as potlatch) and looking at pictures of gypsy caravans, and horses.

How central is the setting of your story to the story itself? Is it more of an interesting backdrop, or is it integral to the events of the story?

The sageland desert is pretty important to the story line and even more important to the feel of the book. The rural environment is also something I wanted highlight with the story. It’s a different environment than most sci-fi. I really wanted to break away from the crowded megalopolises of New Tokyo (or whatever) and bring the future to some of those small nearly abandoned old mining and farm towns in the desert west. You know the ones where there’s just an outfitters, a drug store, and three bars? What if the most important moments of the future happened in a town of six hundred people?

When helping the reader get to know the world you built, what techniques do you use? Do you tend to front load context, or keep the reader in the dark and feed them only bits at a time? 

I like to do long shots. You know those scenes in movies were the character is walking through a market or whatever and you can see all the color and chaos around him or her? I enjoy doing that. And I don’t go into too much exposition about what a thing is. Maybe a sentence here or there.

If something is going to be both confusing and necessary, I like to introduce it a few chapters earlier so that the reader doesn’t know that’s what I’m doing, and they aren’t confused when it becomes important all the sudden. I like to show things being used, or experienced. This task is made a bit easier in that I don’t really let myself geek out too much. I like things to be recognizable if a bit more advanced.  

How much of a role does realism play in your world-building? 

A lot. I strive to be almost photo realistic in my descriptions. I like to explain how smells make you feel, or how the light works in a space. I’ve had many people tell me that reading Systemic is like watching a movie. That’s what I’m going for. I also don’t like to make my readers believe too many outlandish things. Whether or not the technologies I describe in Systemic will ever be possible, I don’t claim to know, but I want them to be plausible. I’m not writing a super-hero book. I don’t like to break the laws of physics.  

Do you have any specialized training or background from your “real life” that has informed your world-building? 

Very vaguely. I work in technology. I know people who work with AI and I understand a bit more than your average Joe about training machine learning models and using neural networks. But mostly no. I’m just a run-of-the-mill nerd who likes to describe fun ideas and pretty pictures.

How do you keep all of the details of your world and characters straight? Do you have a system for deciding on different factors and keeping it all organized, or does it live more in your head?

I keep massive amounts of notes. I have glossaries and specifications, and maps, and drawings of rooms. I have character names and background information and photos of what I think the main characters look like. When I describe plants, I look up “plants around place X” so that I’m consistent. I even looked to make sure there was sedimentary rocks near a scene in Systemic so that I could talk about a fossil Lem finds near the foot of a cliff without someone out-dorking me and pointing out that there is only igneous rocks around there. Which frankly is another reason I never tell anyone exactly where the Prower Valley is located.  

Did you experience any difficulties while building your world? Any facts that refused to cooperate or inconsistencies you needed to address while editing? 

Luckily, no. There were a couple bits about how fast a train needs to travel to get from Maik’s home town to Hamer Falls and how much water and food he would need to make it, but that was just simple math and a spreadsheet with timelines.  My current book is much more difficult in these regards. I have to be able to convince my wife that whatever I’m writing is plausible, and sometimes she just won’t have it.  But that usually forces me to open up my mind in a different direction. In fact, one of her main “problems” with my current book has turned into a major plot point, so it’s all good and helpful.

Do you bounce your ideas off anyone as you’re building your world or is it more of a solitary process?

My wife when I need a good BS detector, and my thirteen-year-old daughter when I want to know if something sounds interesting. I’ll also tell my friends when we’re out on walks just to see if I can explain what’s going on in the world in a way that makes sense. I figure if I can’t explain it it’s either overly complicated, or it’s just silly.   

Thanks for stopping by and sharing about your world. Where can people find you on the web?

Thank you so much for having me, it was a ton of fun. And thank you for asking different questions than I’m used to answering. Uncommon questions definitely make the interview more fun. 

Readers can find me all over the place. 

And you can pick up Systemic at these fine internet establishments: 

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