John W. Maly discusses his career and his latest novel, “Juris Ex Machina”

"...I hope they will reach some new level of understanding about AI, humanity’s relationship to it, and of course, the degree of wisdom in delegating our most important decisions to those who seem most eager to make them for us..."

Some people pursue a career in writing by just getting an MFA. In contrast, John W. Maly has a career built on degrees related to psychology, law, computer science, and computer engineering. With this expertise on the intersections of law, computers, and human behavior, Maly is able to bring an authenticity to the fictional worlds he crafts into existence. The latest example of his talent is the novel Juris Ex Machina. Wanting to learn more about Maly’s background as well as this novel, I was able to interview him for ScifiPulse.

You can learn more about Maly visiting his homepage and finding him on LinkedIn.

Nicholas Yanes: Growing up, what were some stories you loved reading? Are there any you still enjoy reading?

John W. Maly: Then (as now) I liked to read a wide variety of genres. One of my childhood favorites was the “Endless Quest” series of 36 books. It was like the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books except a lot more prose between decisions, and the underlying story genres ranged from sci-fi to fantasy to stories set in the assorted worlds of various early RPG games (the Gamma World stories were particularly fun: they seemed to blur the lines between sci-fi and fantasy). I was really into interactive fiction, and this included the text-based Infocom games (which is how I learned to type, and it drastically expanded my vocabulary — an elementary school teacher once called my mom to find out why a 9-year-old knew the word “chronometer”) By high school, I was the one kid in English class who actually liked that really long assigned book everyone else thought was boring. I remember loving Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, for instance (of course, at the time I drove a car that was constantly breaking down, so perhaps I simply found the story quite relatable…)

Yanes: When did you know you wanted to professionally write? Was there a moment this goal crystalized for you?

Maly: I enjoyed writing sci-fi short stories from a young age, but I never pursued fiction seriously while I was in school; in the back of my mind, I did think it would be cool to get paid to sit around and think up new worlds and technologies and characters, it just didn’t seem practically achievable. For decades I was rather singlemindedly focused on building the career that became my day job (computer engineering). Eventually I took a short story writing class, really enjoyed it, and the resulting story (“Into the Sunset”) became a finalist in a nationwide competition. That was the first time I realized I might be good enough at fiction to give it a serious try, so I enrolled in Stanford’s novel-writing certificate program and never looked back.

Yanes: In addition to being a writer, you have a career related to computer technologies, intellectual properties, and relevant legal concerns. These are big industries. What is the single craziest case you’ve been involved in?

Maly: Alas, the most crazy cases were always covered by an ironclad Protective Order saying we can’t talk about them afterwards! (But if I do think of one that I can share, I’ll write back to you with it.)

Yanes: On this note, how does this work influence your fiction?

Maly: My engineering background and my current work (evaluating patents for new computer technologies) keeps me immersed in new tech developments, and the legal side encourages me to continually look at innovations through the lens of “How will society interact with this technology?” along with “What will be the result?”

My first novel deals with Artificial Intelligence, which is a particularly fascinating intersection of these fields. AI offers nearly limitless potential, both for good and bad, and fertile ground to explore all the psychological factors of how humanity will interact with it. It’s going to change most aspects of society in some way, and that’s going to happen regardless of whether we’re excited about the prospect or not: we’re talking wondrous things, along with equally terrible things. The most interesting question of all to me is how best to chart a course through such chaotic terrain?

Yanes: Your latest book is Juris Ex Machina. What was the inspiration for this novel?

Maly: When I was 30, all my engineer friends were getting laid off and I figured it would happen to me sooner or later. I decided to change careers and went back to school for law. The very first week, we were assigned an article from a 1950’s legal journal that discussed how laws could be written in terms of logical, almost mathematical expressions. The eventual integration between computers and law struck like a lightning bolt, and I stayed up all night outlining story ideas. The idea then sat on a shelf for many years, but eventually I returned to it with more discipline, and with the benefit of guidance from other writers I’d met.

Yanes: Juris Ex Machina centers on Rainville, who is a fantastic character. When developing the story, when did you realize that Rainville was coming alive as a character?

Maly: When I originally conceived of Rainville (then nicknamed “Screw,” but I was reading Dickens’ Bleak House at the time, and decided to change all the characters over to Victorian-era names), he was this tech-savvy, sarcastic kleptomaniac teenager, who carried around a multi-tool and had a collection of screws he’d removed from different municipal edifices, from subway cars, and the like. Eventually he evolved into being (slightly) more well-intentioned. I don’t think he really had much dimensionality until the moment he was falsely accused of murder; this apparently angered him enough that he saw fit to come alive, and promptly defended himself on paper with me just serving as the stenographer.

Yanes: Much of the story is set at Wychwood Prison, which feels less like fiction and more like a planned prison a decade or two away. What steps did you take to make Wychwood feel so grounded?

Maly: I based Wychwood on Lurigancho prison, which is on the outskirts of Lima, Peru, as it was around 2003. The guards patrolled an outer wall which surrounded the facility, while the prisoners were left to police themselves. On day 1, you’d be given a key to your cell, so you can lock your stuff (and yourself!) up for safety. If you didn’t have family on the outside to periodically deliver food, or a marketable skill you could trade for some, you weren’t going to last long. It seemed like an interesting study in spontaneous order amongst a population that is, by definition, criminally disorderly. By this point I’d visited a lot of abandoned prisons, and I did some further research into prison life. What I learned, unfortunately, is that there are US correctional facilities that aren’t much different from Lurigancho, with a whole ecosystem of quasi-governmental corporations that capitalize on it.

Yanes: The novel leaves Rainville on a somewhat optimistic note. If you do revisit his narrative, what threads would you like to follow up on?

Maly: The sequel, which is currently underway, represents an escalation of AIs in society: instead of hidden, computationally-powered terrorist cells, the world is thrust into a battlezone of outright AI gang wars, and our heroes from the first book must avoid becoming collateral damage. Another topic that I touched on but did not fully explore in the original book was the idea that a sufficiently-powerful AI will be able to digest all of your past correspondences, communications, social media presences, consumer transactions, etc. and construct a very sophisticated cognitive model of you. If you end up in the unenviable position where the AI knows you better than you know yourself, then your blind spots will be exploited and you can be controlled without even being aware of it.

Yanes: When people finish reading Juris Ex Machina, what do you hope they take away from the experience?

Maly: I hope they will reach some new level of understanding about AI, humanity’s relationship to it, and of course, the degree of wisdom in delegating our most important decisions to those who seem most eager to make them for us.

Yanes: Finally, what else are you working on that people can look forward to?

Maly: Besides Juris Ex Machina 2.0, I am working on a fantasy novel about a girl who is chasing the secret of how her parents died. No one will speak of their fate, yet she thinks her grandparents may have been involved. She leaves her home in a rural village to follow twisting roads through the crumbling remains of the ancient kingdom to search for answers. On the way, she must balance her better judgement with what her increasingly-maddening dreams are shouting at her to do. One of my goals in the novel is to avoid the usual fantasy tropes. So far there are two principles guiding my writing in this project: 1. Magic isn’t some free resource that you pluck out of the air whenever it’s needed a la Star Wars; rather, using it has consequences, often unintended ones. 2. The heroes are all flawed people, and they suffer for it every day.

Remember, you can learn more about Maly visiting his homepage and finding him on LinkedIn.

And remember to add me on LinkedIn, and to follow ScifiPulse on LinkedIn and on Facebook.

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