Blake Crouch on writing Summer Frost

Blake Crouch's Summer Frost is a technothriller in miniature. Only 74 pages long, it conjures a complete, compelling narrative arc through a near-future where a non-player character in a computer game evolves into an autonomous AI. As thought-provoking as it is propulsive, this is a story that will suck you in and stick with you long after you reach the end.

In the following conversation, we discuss Blake's creative process and the big ideas that Summer Frost brings to life.

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What is Summer Frost’s origin story? How did it grow from a road-trip debate into the story I just read on my Kindle?

Summer Frost was originally going to be a novel called The Lost Coast, which was to be the follow-up to Dark Matter. I got about 150 pages in and realized I didn’t have my arms sufficiently around the AI technology aspect of the story. I didn’t really know how to dramatize a program becoming aware. And for me, that was the whole reason to write it. So I set that book aside and started in on the idea that would become Recursion.

After Recursion, I wanted to do something other than a novel. I had agreed to curate this Amazon Original Stories collection, and as I started thinking about the story that might be my contribution, I started thinking about The Lost Coast idea again. I’d had some distance from the initial idea, and I suddenly saw my way in. I think there was something freeing about approaching it as a story or novella, instead of all the pressure that comes with MY NEXT BOOK. Also, I wanted to do a super-dark ending, which I didn’t think would work as well after readers had invested hours and hours in a novel.

What are the key questions that define this technological moment? What does it mean to live in an era of accelerating change?

Well, it’s not just artificial intelligence and machine learning. It’s biotech. It’s the insidious way social media is impacting social discourse and how the algorithms of Facebook and Twitter are being used to manipulate us. I don’t know what it means to live in an era of accelerating change. It’s hard to have perspective on something when you’re inside of it.

In researching and writing Summer Frost, what surprised you most about the advances in and the implications of AI? What do the headlines miss? What under-appreciated emerging trends really matter?

I chose to take the more dramatic perspective on AI for Summer Frost. The sudden, exponential growth side of AI. For obvious reasons. I write thrillers and there’s a lot of thrilling possibilities with the idea that AI could rapidly evolve. But some people don’t think the threat is necessarily going to be from AI to human right away. There’s an angle on the problem that takes the position that AI will very slowly gain sentience. Imagine an AI with the awareness of a dog, or a two-year-old child. Or an orangutan. Then the question becomes how we treat that AI. And if history is any guide, if you look at how we treat animals in product testing, migrant children at our own borders, and generally every other living thing from forests to coral, we’re going to abuse these fledgling AIs. We’ll treat them like monsters. And that will become a problem for us, because where will they gain their sense of morality by the time superintelligence + full sentience arrives?

Even though it’s the length of a short story, Summer Frost reads like a novel—it follows a complete narrative arc rather than zeroing in on a single idea, twist, or feeling. How did the form shape the story, or vice versa?

A lot of that came from its origin as a novel. I also made the choice (once I picked it up again) to let the story unfold over years and years. I do think this iteration of the story could have been expanded to become a novel, but hopefully there’s power in the restraint.

Summer Frost was published as part of the Forward collection, for which you recruited a dream team of fellow contributors: N.K. Jemisin, Amor Towles, Veronica Roth, Paul Tremblay, and Andy Weir. What did you learn from working with them?

They’re all masters at what they do. I’m very fortunate to know a lot of extraordinary artists, and the one thing I keep being amazed by is how differently they all come at story. We could have been given the same general prompt, and I’m sure I could have published an anthology of one story, six different ways, and it would have truly felt like a completely different reading experience for each story.

In fact, this was the prompt I gave them: “The common DNA I'd like all of these stories to share is a sense of discovery. This could cover everything from a new scientific invention, uncovering of alien artifacts, first contact, discovery of a new disease, cures, AI and VR breakthroughs, new modes of interstellar travel, literally anything that places characters in the midst of groundbreaking, world-altering discoveries, and then explores the consequences. And it could take place at any point in time, from the far past to the distant future. The only other requirement is that it integrate some type of science and/or technology in the story.” 

Some people were concerned we might get four “AI stories,” or four “first contact” stories, but I thought we all had such diverse voices and approaches, that if it happened, it would be fine.

What can stories that imagine possible futures teach us about the present? What does science fiction mean to you, and what role does it play in the culture?

I think science fiction is really just the story of humanity. The story of us. It shows us possible futures and asks, sometimes as a warning, sometimes as a beautiful promise: “Are we sure this is the direction we want to be heading?”

What books have changed your life? What should fans of Summer Frost and the Forward collection read next?

My most impactful books (and this is a revolving list): The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy, Blood Meridian and The Road by Cormac McCarthy, Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton, Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, any of Hemingway’s great short fiction, all of Yuval Noah Harari (Sapiens, Homo Deus, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century), Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, the extraordinary short fiction of Ted Chiang, Silence by Shusaku Endo, Red Dragon by Thomas Harris, the great Ursula K. Le Guin. And what should people read next? Andy Weir’s new novel, Project Hail Mary, is a total triumph. I would have to go back years to think of something I enjoyed reading more.

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Complement with Cory Doctorow on writing Attack Surface, Barry Eisler on writing Livia Lone, and five things I learned writing Veil.

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Eliot Peper is the author of nine novels, including Cumulus, Bandwidth, and, most recently, Veil. He sends a monthly newsletter, tweets more than he probably should, and lives in Oakland, CA.