Interview with John Joseph Adams

john joseph adams

This review was originally published in issue #253 of science-fiction magazine Interzone. You can buy back issues and subscribe to future issues at their shop.

John Joseph Adams ( is the series editor of Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. He is also the bestselling editor of many other anthologies, such as The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination, Armored, Brave New Worlds, Wastelands, and The Living Dead. Recent books include The Apocalypse Triptych (consisting of The End is Nigh, The End is Now, and The End Has Come), Robot Uprisings, and Dead Man’s Hand. He has been nominated for eight Hugo Awards and five World Fantasy Awards, and he has been called “the reigning king of the anthology world” by Barnes & Noble. John is also the editor and publisher of the digital magazines Lightspeed and Nightmare, and is a producer for WIRED’s The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. Find him on Twitter @johnjosephadams.

Robots rebelling against their creators is a staple of SF, and has been depicted throughout the genre’s history. What was it that drew you to “Robot Uprisings” as a project? Do you have a particular fascination or inspiration when it comes to robots?

I wouldn’t say that I have a particular fascination with robots—that’s more true of my co-editor, Daniel H. Wilson, being a roboticist and all—but I certainly like them quite a lot. The idea to do the anthology basically came to me when David Barr Kirtley and I were interviewing Daniel for our Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. Daniel just had so many interesting things to say about robots that the interview really got my mind churning, and I thought: Hey, you know what, Brain? I really like robots but I haven’t done a robot anthology yet. I should totally do a robot anthology. Oh and hey what about if I asked Daniel to co-edit it so that not only would it be a totally awesome robot anthology, it would also be a totally awesome robot anthology that actually passes muster with an eminent roboticist.

Also, around that time was when it had been announced that Steven Spielberg was going to be turning Daniel’s book, Robopocalypse, into a movie, and so I figured the public’s interest in stories about robots might be increased once that came out. Unfortunately the movie adaptation is still in development. But the book turned out awesome anyway, and hopefully people will still get excited about it—heck, maybe even more so since they didn’t get any of their robot cravings satisfied by a big blockbuster movie.

When the of robot uprisings first burst into the public consciousness (arguably with the Terminator films) they were futuristic and exotic. Nowadays robots are vacuuming our floors and delivering our post. Do you think that there has been a noticeable evolution in fictional depictions of robots, and if so where do you think it is leading to?

Actually, there have been robot uprisings in fiction since the word robot was invented. The 1920 play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) by Czech playwright Karel Capek is where the term “robot” was first coined, and in that play robots rebel against their human masters. But of course the Terminator films may have done more to popularize the concept than anything else—certainly more so than R.U.R. since mostly only science fiction geeks like us have ever even heard of it.

But there certainly has been an evolution in our fictional depictions of robots, at least in the sense of how sophisticated they’ve become from their more humble and clunky beginnings. And I think that it will likely continue to do so as we continue to learn more about robotics and artificial intelligence. R.U.R., however, shows that we’ve been worried about our own creations turning on us from the very beginning, so in that at least, there hasn’t been much evolution. There’s a certain hubris in attempting to create a lifeform (artificial or otherwise) in your own image, so I think it’s just natural that we would fear, deep down, that our own creations might be what destroys us.

Are the doomsayers right? Do you think we will end up subjugated under robotic boots of our own making?

It’s fun to imagine these science fictional scenarios where such a thing might happen, but I’m pretty skeptical that anything like that ever actually would. That might be me just being naïve, but I just can’t say it seems terribly likely to me. If anything, it seems to me like we’d be more likely to cause some kind of robopocalypse via nanotechnology—like we release a nanobot swarm intended to clean up the atmosphere that has unforeseen side effects and we doom ourselves to extinction. So—subjugated? Probably not. Exterminated by? Maybe.

You have to be one of the most prolific editors working in the genre world today. How do you find the time to edit so many and so different publications?

It’s my full-time job! I wish I had a better or clever or more revelatory response, but the truth is just that I don’t have a regular day-job, so I can put all of my working hours into editing and publishing. I probably work longer than a standard 40 hour work week, but I wouldn’t say by a huge amount. I usually work from about 7:30am to 5:30pm or so during the week, and then I usually work at least a half day on weekends and rarely take a day off completely.

And of course on the magazines I have a lot of help. I couldn’t do it without the tireless assistance of my editorial team, especially Wendy Wagner, who we brought on as managing editor earlier this year and has taken a ton of work off my plate. But also the magazines would be really, really impossible without the help of my slush readers.

In “Robot Uprisings”, you’re listed as co-editor alongside Daniel H. Wilson. How does this work in practice? Do you each do half of the work, or do you each handle certain aspects?

I imagine it’s different in every editorial partnership, but in our particular case it was a true equal collaboration. I think we essentially both actually did everything on the book, so having a co-editor didn’t mean I had to do less work. In some ways it’s more work, because you can’t just make decisions yourself: you have to discuss with your co-editor, etc.

But for instance, when the stories got turned in, we both read them and let each other know our thoughts. There were a few stories on which we didn’t quite see eye to eye, but for the most part we were very much in stride with each other editorially. We both also provided edits on every story. So like I said, it was a real collaboration, and I would say that our fingerprints are mutually and equally all over the book.

And in fact on all of the books I’ve done with an editorial collaborator it’s worked like that more or less. Other editors’ mileage may vary, but that method works for me.

Some of the writers in “Robot Uprisings” I was familiar with, some I hadn’t heard of (some I had the distinct impression that I probably should have heard of). How do you go about picking authors for a project like this? Do you actively intend to introduce lesser known authors to the mainstream?

Daniel and I just tossed names back and forth (and ranking them in order of preference) until we came up with a list of folks we’d like to include. Typically when I start out with a project I have a few key contributors in mind, and I start from there. I also have a spreadsheet with a bunch of authors listed on it, along with some notes to myself about them, which I usually go through and just flag folks as a go, developing a longlist of potential invitees. In this case, I made the longlist and then let Daniel have a look and let him winnow it down, and we just went like that back and forth until we had a reasonable list we were both happy with. Though of course we had to continue to discuss authors since not everyone we asked to write something for the anthology said yes.

More generally, though, the way we actually decided on which authors made it onto our list was pretty basic. To sell an anthology, you need to have some marquee names for the publisher to deem it marketable enough, so we start there—figure out what “big names” might be into the idea, and, most importantly, which ones did we think could write a kick-ass “robot uprisings” story. Sometimes you base that on if the author has previously written stories with awesome robots in them, or if not, perhaps something similar enough that it seems like a good bet. Or sometimes you’re just taking a shot in the dark, just based on the fact that you like that author’s work, whether or not they’ve previously shown any particular affinity for the specific theme—like: You know what, Brain? I really like So-and-So’s work; she’s never written about robots before, but she sure is swell. Let’s ask her—maybe it’ll turn out she’s a secret robot aficionado.

As for introducing lesser known authors—that is something I often try to do if I can; like if I have some room in anthology, if there’s some thematic gap in it I’d like to fill, assuming I already have enough “big names” in it, I’ll ask a newer author whose work I know and like to write something for me.

In this case, I don’t know that that was actually a factor for us. The only person in the book actually that I would have said is maybe a “lesser known” author is Genevieve Valentine, but even then her first novel was very well acclaimed and was nominated for several awards. Well, another author in the book not well known as a writer is John McCarthy—but that’s a special case because he’s known as the “father of Artificial Intelligence,” as in he’s the guy who actually came up with the term artificial intelligence. And I guess Anna North maybe isn’t super well known—she only has the one novel out, though it was highly-regarded—but she’s more known as a journalist, which I suppose isn’t super relevant in this case.

That said, one of the things I hoped the book would accomplish was to not just expose a more mainstream audience to authors who are only known in their genre, but also just to expose the science fiction genre itself to that mainstream audience. Robots are one of those science fictional topics that is super, super accessible, so if you want to reach a mainstream audience—maybe trick them into reading science fiction when they might not have done so willingly otherwise—something like robots is a good choice. Daniel being on board as co-editor also helped a lot with that, since he’s writing novels that are obviously 100% science fiction, but they’re not marketed that way, and Daniel’s involvement also helped us place the book with mainstream publishers (Random House/Vintage in the US and Simon & Schuster in the UK).

But one reason you might not have recognized some of the authors in this table of contents is that we actually have folks who are more prominent in different areas of publishing. Jeff Abbott, for instance, is more known in the thriller world, where he’s a bestselling author. Julianna Baggott and Robin Wasserman are both bestsellers but both known more for their Young Adult works. Ernest Cline, Charles Yu, Scott Sigler (plus Daniel himself) are all more known in the mainstream world (even though what they write is totally science fiction).

Similarly, your genre magazines (Lightspeed and Nightmare) always seem to be introducing me to new authors. Again, is that a conscious decision, or a product of a virile slush folder?

I always aim for the magazines to be a place where new writers can break in. Discovering a new writer is one of an editor’s greatest pleasures, but it’s also a necessity since so many writers, once they’ve established themselves in short fiction, start writing novels; once they start writing novels, oftentimes they don’t have time to devote to short fiction anymore, or else the only time they can carve away for it is for anthologies (for which they likely receive invitations to contribute every day).

One of the nice things about the magazines in comparison to anthologies is that there’s much more freedom to just publish whatever you like, rather than having to worry so much about commercial considerations.

Lightspeed recently published our fourth anniversary issue, which was a special, double-sized “Women Destroy Science Fiction!” issue, with our long-time assistant editor, Christie Yant, at the helm as guest editor. It was inspired by the ridiculous notion that women don’t—or can’t—write science fiction and that in fact that they are destroying it with their girl cooties. We did a Kickstarter to help fund making the issue a double issue, which funded at more than 1000% of our original goal. I mention that all to point out one of the really cool things that came about because of the issue: Because of all the publicity the project got, and because of the inspiration behind the issue, we got a ton of new writers submitting, including many who said that the issue inspired them to write science fiction for the first time. So that was pretty exciting. I hope they’ll come back and try to write more for us in the future.

As well as being one of the editors of choice for genre fiction, you have also written some fascinating non-fiction. Have you ever tried or been tempted to try your hand at fiction?

I got into editing by virtue of my interest in writing fiction, but once I started working in editorial I put my writing on hold. At first it wasn’t on purpose; the fact was, working in editorial kind of paralyzed me as a writer, even though at the same time I knew that doing editorial work would make me a much better writer. Ultimately I decided to just put writing on the back burner, and eventually it kind of got taken off the metaphorical stove completely. At some point I realized that the editorial work I was doing satisfied the creative urge I had which previously I had channelled into writing, and, since my career in editing seemed to have promise, I decided to focus all of my efforts in that direction, rather than dividing my attention between editing and writing.

Right now I wouldn’t have the time—or mental bandwidth—to write fiction even if I were so inclined, so it’s just as well that that desire is no longer something that consumes me. I was busy enough as it is, but then I agreed to serve as the series editor for Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and so now I’m busier than ever.

That said, who knows what the future holds? I do still get ideas for stories or novels from time to time. Sometimes those start as story or novel ideas but then sometimes develop into anthology ideas, and so I use them for that; otherwise I just file them away.

I never got any traction with my short fiction or novels except for a few kind rejections, but in college I wrote a screenplay based on a novel I had written, which eventually was optioned by a Hollywood studio. Unsurprisingly, nothing ended happened with it. That it was optioned at all speaks more about the strange, bizarre world that is Hollywood than the quality of the screenplay itself; it was pretty terrible. That a studio actually bothered to spend option money on my awful screenplay kind of helps me understand how so many truly horribly written movies are made every year.

As for my non-fiction, I think saying some of what I’ve written in that sphere is “fascinating” might be stretching the limits of that word a tad, but thank you.

And finally, what do you think the role of the collection (magazine or anthology) is in the evolving world of genre fiction, and indeed in society at large? Why do you choose to focus your energies there?

I think the most important component of my job is curation. Like the curator of a museum, I search for treasures and when I find them I present them for the world to enjoy, sifting through vast amounts of material so that the general public doesn’t have to.

Accordingly, sometimes anthologies are like museums. Reprint anthologies especially feel like that to me, since assembling them involves searching for historically important artifacts on the subject matter in question and then selecting and presenting the best examples in whatever limited space you have to do so, in an attempt to give the public some greater understanding and appreciation of said material. (And hopefully some enjoyment too.)

Obviously there’s more to editing than that—especially since a good number of the stories I publish wouldn’t exist at all if not for my contributions—but, to me, that role of curator is my most important role.

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