Qntm (pronounced “quantum”) is a software developer and a writer known for pushing the limits through his mind-bending stories that incorporate science, horror, science fiction, and alternatives to the reality we live in as humans on Earth. We sat down to chat with qntm about his most recent publication.
GE: Valuable Humans in Transit and Other Stories brings together several short stories in one book. Were there other stories you considered including but did not? If so, tell us about your process for bringing these specific stories together as part of one larger piece.
qntm: A lot of my older stories didn’t make the cut.
When you’re selecting content for a collection like this, one question is how far back you go looking. I went back all the way to when I originally started writing for the web, in the early 2000s. Back then I wasn’t really writing for a large audience, or thinking of myself as a serious science fiction writer. I was writing for my own entertainment because the web was free and it was fun and easy to make a site and put stuff out there. There weren’t really stakes, as such, or standards. It was a lot simpler. I didn’t overthink my work. I didn’t spend a whole lot of time on any particular piece of work.
I feel that I’ve been steadily growing as a writer ever since then, which means that when I go back and read my work from that era, what I see is a whole lot of inexperience. Stories with very weak execution, stories with really thin, uninteresting concepts, stories intended to be funny which kind of weren’t very. This can be a positive thing, to be able to see your own progress, the journey from there to here. But in practice it did mean that, yes, a lot of that older work didn’t make it into the collection.
I do still keep those stories online, as historical artifacts, and because there are a few people who still like them, or at least who would miss them if they were gone. But they didn’t make the cut. The earliest story in the collection is the title story, “Valuable Humans in Transit”, which is from 2006.
Beyond that, a major consideration was what readers wanted to see. There are a few stories of mine, notably “Lena”, “I Don’t Know, Timmy, Being God Is a Big Responsibility”, and “The Difference”, which have gone viral multiple times over the years. In part, this collection was intended to be a way that people who enjoyed those stories could finally purchase a copy. “Lena”, especially. Those were locked in from the beginning. But I also wrote a blog entry to potential readers, asking for their opinions about what else to include, and they weighed in, and that influenced my decisions. A few stories, I was on the fence about, but my editor made a convincing case and won me over. I included some personal favourites which I felt were worth more exposure. Overall, I wanted it to be a highlight reel. No weak selections, no wasted time—even if that meant relegating a lot of selections to the archive.
GE: Where do you get the inspiration behind your stories? Does it come from external influences and inspiration, or internal?
qntm: This collection spans enough time that my answer to that question has gone through a few phases. The older selections are from a time where I was all about fun, conventional science fiction tropes: nanotechnology, asteroid impacts, aliens, artificial intelligence. There’s a surprising absence of time travel in this collection, but time travel was also something I riffed on a lot in the 2000s and 2010s.
But I feel that over time, the past ten years and probably more, the promise of science fiction, that promise of the future as an infinite upward ascent, has slowly evaporated. We’ve seen quite a few previously fantastical technologies made real, and a lot of those realities are at best underwhelming. The technology which could have made things better has been applied in ways which don’t, ways which just move us sideways, or into something strictly worse. Working in tech—I’m a software developer, have been for over a decade—has put these realities in front of me for a long time. Even the fantasies, the things which were always impossible on their face, like reaching the stars or traveling through time, I find hard to take seriously now. I look at these things with a different eye.
I think the later selections in this collection reflect this. They’re more ground level, more specific, more cruelly pragmatic.
GE: What are some of your favorite themes to write about?
qntm: What I like to do is to take a concept and run with it, stretching it to breaking point. I’ve always been a mathematically-minded person, and mathematics is all about making sure that you handle every single possible scenario, even the absolutely wild, near-unthinkable edge cases, because unless you handle every case, you don’t have a proof, you have a hole. And in my work in software, I’ve seen the same thing applied to code. Miss a special case, and the hole in your program becomes an exploit, and someone will take that exploit and use it to break your system wide open.
Those edge cases, out there at the limits of possibility, are always where something interesting is happening. It’s true in science fiction, for just the same reasons. You can write a great story about a sophisticated new AI demanding, and ultimately being granted, human rights. But I want to know what happens if someone spins up 100,000,000 copies of that AI and configures them all to vote the same way. Or, let’s say that there are certain things which humans are biologically incapable of remembering. A defect in human memory. What if every single creature on Earth could potentially have that as a form of camouflage? What do those secret ecosystems look like? What could be out there?
GE: How would you describe your writing genre and style?
qntm: In genre, I would say I write science fiction. I don’t want to go any narrower than that. Some of it is sci-fi/horror. I’ve been labeled as “hard science fiction” in the past, but I don’t think that works. Although I do like starting from a strong basic concept and applying as much solid logic as possible to explore its consequences, that basic concept is always a total fabrication on my part. I don’t know if there’s a term for that. “Firm science fiction”, maybe.
In style, what I value is really crisp, clear communication. I like to get my point across effectively, and I edit and re-edit to make sure that what I write is unambiguous and effective. This takes quite a bit of time! It also means my short stories are generally pretty brisk. My long-form fiction, too. I dislike padding, I dislike wasting the reader’s time. I like every chapter to materially move the story forward. This has been important to me historically when I have been writing serials and been acutely conscious of large numbers of people waiting anxiously for every new chapter.
I almost always write in the present tense—this is something I picked up from comic books. I like that immediacy. I like to put the reader in the moment. Action sequences are my favourite. I love figuring out how to express the geometry of the scene, the energy, the pacing, the characters’ decisions in the moment.
GE: My favorite of the stories is “The Frame-by-Frame”. As technology advances, what are some issues you perceive that could arise for humanity with increasingly “intelligent” technology?
qntm: Thank you. This is a huge question. I’ll try not to write an essay.
I’m not worried about an advanced AI spontaneously seizing control of the world or some major important system—machines don’t do that. I’m more worried about the consequences of humans voluntarily installing “intelligent” systems in positions of power where they are fundamentally not fit to be. There are so many important decisions which it is so tempting to try to automate. Grading term papers, deciding who gets approved for a mortgage or not, making sentencing decisions, making medical recommendations, evaluating art, choosing who gets extra screening at a border …
“The Frame-by-Frame” is a cynical sort of play. Very few real systems are configured in such a simple, incriminating way, with a hard-coded list of people whom it’s okay to allow to die. The bias inside an “intelligent” system is more insidious than that. But those biases do exist. And any amount of bias in any of these scenarios can result in an incredibly negligent or harmful overall outcome. And because these systems are so fast, they can make huge numbers of harmful decisions in the time it takes a human to make just one. And the systems set up to appeal or reverse those decisions are rarely automated to the same degree, which can make reining in the misbehaving system essentially impossible. And humans are generally inclined to unquestioningly trust the decisions of a machine, and disinclined to even try to push back on them …
And who do you push back on? When a machine is making these decisions, the actual responsible humans—the people who programmed it, the people who installed it, and the people who choose to enforce its decisions—are all nowhere to be found. But humans are responsible, always. Machines cannot be held accountable.
And that’s just the first level—where people are trying their hardest to make their systems more efficient using AI, but oh no, bias sneaks in, and biased decisions flood out. What happens when we subtract good faith from this picture? What if you are genuinely biased, and you’ve realised that an “intelligent” system which happens to be biased in your favour is a great way to deliver your bias at tremendous scale, deniably, with no accountability?
Some things should not be made faster. Some things should not be easy.
GE: What is a topic within your genre that you feel is underexplored and not written about enough? If it were written about more, how would that challenge the status quo of human perspective?
qntm: I would like to see more written about the possible exits from cyberpunk.
Dystopias are fun and easy to write. Power accretes upwards to the largest, most already-powerful entities; as computers get smaller and more powerful, the exploitative things we can do at immense scale multiply—these were great observations, and cyberpunk was incredibly prescient. We’re living in it now. But these books don’t give us tools for dismantling it again. “Yes,” readers thought at the time. “That scenario sure would be terrible.” Well, it is terrible! Now what? The book just ended, but we’re all still here!
GE: What takeaway do you want readers to have from your book?
qntm: This is a fairly diverse book—I don’t think there’s a single common element to all of the stories, or even a majority of them. Every story was written at a different time, by a different me, and has a different message. My hope is that for every reader, at least one story sticks with them. Sticks with them for long enough that they share it with someone.