ALTA ASKS

Talking with Katie M. Flynn

Novelist Katie M. Flynn says she’s become “deeply skeptical of the tremendous influence tech companies have on our lives.”
SCOUT PRESS
Novelist Katie M. Flynn says she’s become “deeply skeptical of the tremendous influence tech companies have on our lives.”
Sci-fi novel The Companions is set in a post-pandemic California where survivors are in quarantine and the consciousnesses of the deceased are the intellectual property of a tech company.

The world of Katie M. Flynn’s The Companions doesn’t seem too different from our own. In fact, Flynn’s debut novel begins with a pandemic and quarantine. But the book primarily examines the years that follow the pandemic, when a tech corporation, Metis, has developed a way for the consciousnesses of the dead to survive inside machines. These machines, called companions, can be kept by families or sold as a kind of servant class. Metis owns them all as intellectual property. The novel tells the story of several characters in a post-pandemic California, each of their lives centering in some way on Lilac, an early-model companion who escapes her assigned family in search of her killer.

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The Companions is told from eight points of view—those of the alive as well as the reanimated dead. Flynn writes of parentless children, teenagers suspended in time, and energetic rebels. Each character in her tale is grieving something; as we follow along on individual quests, Flynn raises important questions about life, stories, and peace.

EXCERPT:

In moments like these, when Dahlia is feeling particularly affectionate toward me, she has told me things I cannot access on my feed, about where I come from, what I am, a low-functioning companion, the least advanced. It is all Mother would pay for. She has told me about the many models with varying processing speeds, some with the ability to extrapolate, to change like a person. The top model, the most expensive, even grows skin. It is alive, on some level anyway, though Dahlia could not explain the science to me in an intelligible way and my own searches have been fruitless. I may be a low-functioning companion, but I can tell my feed is filtered.

I ask a question I have been holding on to for some time: “How did this happen to me?” Then I realize something, a truth lodged inside me, not the telling. “My parents would never have agreed to this.” 

Alta caught up with Katie M. Flynn via email to discuss The Companions.

What central question does your work ask?
In the novel, humans have the opportunity to upload themselves to machines when they die, but immortality comes at a cost. Companions are considered intellectual property, and they don’t have the rights of people, yet they feel like people—they fall in love; they seek revenge. At its core, the novel asks, What makes us human—is it our bodies? If we give those up, do we lose our humanity?

Do you listen to anything as you write?
I prefer silence typically, but when I write in public spaces (or should I say when I wrote in public spaces), I listen to a lot of ambient/electronic stuff, because I find vocals distracting. When writing The Companions, I was drawn to Pierre Bastien’s machine-performed music. It was wonderful ambient and perfect for my project.

What has the pandemic revealed about humanity? How do you think that will influence your future work?
For me, anyway, the pandemic has revealed how much I need other people in real time and in flesh form. My novel opens during a pandemic, but it focuses less on the race to find the cure and more on the people who wait in a prolonged quarantine. Homeschooled kids are bored and confused, their parents are angry, and their grandparents are isolated in eldercare facilities that allow no visitors. Living through a pandemic after writing about one has reinforced in me just how important it is to be in communion with others.

Sheltering at home in San Francisco, my interest in technology has been reinvigorated. Living in the Bay Area for the past 16 years, I’ve become deeply skeptical of the tremendous influence tech companies have on our lives, our choices—particularly the role algorithms play in curating our content and reinforcing existing biases, and I’ve recently completed a new Silicon Valley story on this topic that will be in my forthcoming collection.

I’m also working on a new novel project set in the Snake River Plain, which stretches 400 miles from northern Wyoming into southern Oregon, and I’m loving every moment of it—all those wide-open spaces. 

What, in other disciplines, inspires you to create?
Lately, I’m influenced a lot by screen culture. I’m interested in the power of Hollywood to shape ideas and culture. In The Companions, actors are some of the first to become companions in order to preserve their youth and sustain their careers, encouraging others to do the same. 

My new novel project, set in southern Idaho, features commercials and other interruptions. Attention is difficult to sustain with the easy entertainment and distraction of Internet offerings, the ads that manifest new needs in users, so I’m interested in re-creating this experience.

I find reality TV wretched and so very watchable, and I’ve written a story that’ll be in my forthcoming collection about a reality TV show set in a near future in which viewers must decide upon one wrecked and disenfranchised community among many to “bring back” from ecological and cultural devastation.

What’s on your to-be-read list?
Megan Giddings’s Lakewood and Amitav Ghosh’s Gun Island.

Give us the elevator pitch for your book.
During a prolonged quarantine, a new technology emerges that’s designed to quell loneliness—the dead uploaded to machines and kept in service of the living.

Heather Scott Partington is a writer, teacher, and book critic based in Elk Grove, California. She most recently interviewed Tod Goldberg for Alta Asks.

THE COMPANIONS: A NOVEL
  • By Katie M. Flynn
  • Gallery/Scout Press, 272 pages, $27

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