Nathanial White grew up in Maine and has lived in Mexico, Brazil, and Ecuador. He currently resides in Carbondale, Colorado, and teaches English at Glenwood Springs High School. His speculative fiction explores the human psyche, physical disability, culture, technology, and consumerism. His debut book, “Conscious Designs,” won the Miami University novella prize and the Colorado Book Award for Science Fiction/Fantasy. His essays and interviews have been published on Tor.com, LitHub, and Bridge Eight.
SunLit: Tell us this book’s backstory. What inspired you to write it? Where did the story/theme originate?
Nathanial White: “Conscious Designs,” though it’s a piece of speculative science fiction about being able to replicate your consciousness in a digital mindspace, is actually loosely autobiographical. I suffered a spinal cord injury seven years ago in a whitewater kayaking accident. I was paralyzed and spent a year in a wheelchair.
I learned to walk again using a robotic exoskeleton, a technology that is featured prominently in the book. I still deal with a lot of neuropathic pain from my disability. Eugene, the main character of my book, has also suffered a spinal cord injury. He is a kind of proxy for my own disability. I used him as a way of coping with my suffering, and his option to escape his pain by escaping into the digital realm is, in a sense, my own fantasy of living without pain.
SunLit: Place this excerpt in context. How does it fit into the book as a whole? Why did you select it?
White: The excerpt comes at the beginning of the book when Eugene begins to fantasize about purchasing a second self. He goes to the eponymous corporation, Conscious Designs, where he has a consultation with a sinister figure, Ashcroft, who tries to convince Eugene to replicate his consciousness.
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I really enjoy this part of the book because it begins to explore some philosophical questions that I think about a lot: What is selfhood? What would it mean to be human if we could copy our minds? Would a simulated universe be any less real than a physical one? Are we already living in a simulation?
SunLit: Tell us about creating this book. What influences and/or experiences informed the project before you sat down to write? And once you did begin to write, did the work take you in any unexpected directions?
White: The book, as I mentioned before, was a way of coping with the pain and trauma of my own spinal cord injury. There was some catharsis in heaping my pain onto the main character Eugene.
When I set down to write the book, I didn’t have much of a plot outlined. I just created the world and dropped my main character in it to see what he would do, how he would react, what decisions he would make.
SunLit: Are there lessons you take away from each experience of writing a book? And if so, what did the process of writing this book add to your knowledge and understanding of your craft and/or the subject matter?
White: In some ways, this book became a cautionary tale to myself, warning me of the dangers of becoming consumed by disability and my feelings of self-doubt. I realized that I don’t want to be like Eugene, with all his feelings of inadequacy, unable to move beyond a negative self-model.
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In terms of craft, I was lucky to have a great editing team at Miami University Press who helped mold the book to what it is now. One of the main pieces of feedback I received was to trust my reader a bit more. I felt as if I needed to explain every little detail and all the technical workings of the near future I had created, instead of letting the readers fill in gaps for themselves.
SunLit: What were the biggest challenges you faced in writing this book?
White: One of the hardest things to do was to put this book out into the world. I feel so fortunate that Miami University Press chose “Conscious Designs” as the winner of their 2022 novella prize, but I was a bit terrified about how the book would be received as it is not only my first book, but a work that is personal and meaningful for me.
SunLit: If you could pick just one thing – a theme, lesson, emotion or realization — that readers would take from this book, what would that be?
White: I hope that the book encourages its readers to stay human, to resist technologies of escape in favor of finding fulfillment in each other rather than machines.
SunLit: In a highly politicized atmosphere where books, and people’s access to them, has become increasingly contentious, what would you add to the conversation about books, libraries and generally the availability of literature in the public sphere?
White: Those that support censoring books often claim that the works they want to censor are offensive and corrupt the minds of our youth. This is often a bit of a red herring. What truly upsets the censors is how dangerous books challenge the status quo. As a high school English teacher, I always tell my students that one of the most subversive things they can do is read.
SunLit: Walk us through your writing process: Where and how do you write?
White: I usually write early in the morning, before my mind is filled with traffic of the day’s thoughts and responsibilities. I like to write alone, in a dark room, with no stimuli (except coffee).
SunLit: How has your relationship with technology influenced the science in “Conscious Designs”?
White: I have a conflicted relationship with technology. I am certainly concerned about the rise of AI, not in the sense that it will become some evil villain that tries to destroy us, but rather because it is causing an erasure of our humanity.
The more we rely on AI to record our memories, compose our narratives, and think for us, the more that we lose what makes us human. Many of my high school students no longer see the value of writing or reading or thinking for themselves when this can be done for them by ChatGPT.
It seems that the greatest advances in technologies have come in technologies of escape, i.e. cell phones and streaming technologies. Technology has in some ways become an impediment to human intellectual and cultural development. This has reached an extreme in “Conscious Designs,” where these technologies of escape have led to a cultural sterility not unlike what we are experiencing in our own historical moment. That being said, there are incredible technologies that can enrich our lives, such as the bionic technologies that taught me how to walk again.
SunLit: Tell us about your next project.
White: My next book is about a distant future after a human extinction event, when humans have been resurrected by AI specifically to experience the lives of their ancestors, whose consciousnesses have been archived in quantum computers. It’s kind of science fiction allegory of Milton’s “Paradise Lost.”
Quick hits: A quirky collection of questions
SunLit: Do you look forward to the actual work of writing or is it a chore that you dread but must do to achieve good things?
White: I love it, but it takes a lot of motivation to get me in the chair and write.
SunLit: What’s the first piece of writing – at any age – that you remember being proud of?
White: I remember writing a story about when my family flipped our canoe in northern Maine when I was seven. The title was “Killer Canoe Trip.”
SunLit: When you look back at your early professional writing, how do you feel about it? Impressed? Embarrassed? Satisfied? Wish you could have a do-over?
White: “Conscious Designs” was actually the first piece of fiction I published. I’m quite proud of it.
SunLit: What three writers, from any era, can you imagine having over for a great discussion about literature and writing? And why?
White: Ursula K. LeGuin for how science fiction and fantasy teach us about our world; JG Ballard for exploring the relationship between humans and technology; Chekov for investigating the human condition.
SunLit: Do you have a favorite quote about writing?
White: I try to resist adages about writing as everyone’s process and relationship with writing will be different. To me, this is the only piece of advice that makes sense for everyone: Write!
SunLit: What does the current collection of books on your home shelves tell visitors about you?
White: This guy really likes poetry.
SunLit: Soundtrack or silence? What’s the audio background that helps you write?
SunLit: What event, and at what age, convinced you that you wanted to be a writer?
White: Reading “Brave New World” when I was in 10th grade.
SunLit: As an author, what do you most fear?
SunLit: Also as an author, what brings you the greatest satisfaction?
White: Having deep, meaningful conversations (in person) about my writing, especially with people who are close to me.