Today, Feathered Quill reviewer Risah Salazar is talking with Alexandru Czimbor, author of The Soul Machines. The Soul Machines
FQ: The Soul Machines is such a wonderful story with many different layers in it. Where did you get the inspiration to write this piece?
CZIMBOR: I wanted The Soul Machines to be a call for people to live in harmony, irrespective of the particular group they think they belong to (be it a village, a race, a religion group, a social circle, a nation, and so on). Throughout the book, I stressed the fact that our tribalism, although an inescapable consequence of our biological evolution, is often harmful. We are irrational beings driven by emotions, and our thought process is constantly subject to cognitive biases. We cling to our identities and values, and are quick to judge people by their tribe instead of assessing their actions and their true value.
My goal was to present this idea in a story inspired by events and places I’m familiar with, with memorable characters and an intriguing plot.
FQ: Among the three friends - Tudor, Roli, and Sami - who do you relate to the most in terms of personality? Or who is your favorite and why?
CZIMBOR: Perhaps Tudor would be the closest to a younger version of me, although I can’t say that I truly relate to him. As I was picturing the characters in my mind, I gradually found my favorite one to be Sami, because of the way he faced hardship and because of his drive to rise above his status. I also wanted Count Richter to be throughout the book a kind of ‘voice of reason’, guiding the youngsters.
FQ: The setting is in Transylvania in the late 19th century. Why write with this backdrop? Is there a particular socio-political landscape that only this setting could provide for your narrative?
CZIMBOR: Transylvania is a good example of people from different social classes, ethnicities, religions, and political preferences getting together just fine. I grew up in such a mixed environment with family and friends of different origins, and I wanted to present some of my experiences.
The end of the 19th century was a tumultuous period because the conditions for the two most devastating wars in our history were brewing. The current tendency to go yet again to extremes in politics and the new wave of intolerance on many levels, are reminiscent of those times. I hope we will manage to avoid a similar catastrophic outcome.
FQ: Have you always liked discussing history and socio-political issues? Based on the past, which lessons do you think are the most important to impart to today’s generation?
CZIMBOR: Growing up in communist Romania, anything that wouldn’t strictly toe the party line could only be discussed behind closed doors and between people who trusted each other with their lives. We were taught in school a distorted version of history, tweaked to always please the leaders and to brainwash the children with a toxic mix of nationalistic and socialist propaganda. Perhaps I was drawn to these issues because I was not allowed to think about them too much.
As for advice, I always caution people, whether young or old, not to rush with their assessment of what they learn or listen to. We should especially be wary of anything that fits what we want to hear. Society is too fragmented nowadays and we all must strive to listen to the other side too. Otherwise, we risk electing despots, going through devastating wars, and repeating our history.
FQ: Without giving away too much...while reading, I wondered why you made "the contraption" so big? Why can’t it be just like a small gem, or a wand or staff that glows? Why does it have to be pear-sized?
CZIMBOR: I wanted the ‘soul machines’ to be perceived as a symbol of all that’s evil in humanity. I intentionally left them vague and wanted the reader to use their own imagination to picture them. A small gem or a wand would have been too obvious.
As for the physical characteristics of the ‘soul machines,’ they vaguely resemble something that me and my friends found when we were young and roaming the wild woods of my hometown, Baia Mare (Nagybánya in the book). We discovered strange concrete structures deep in the forest, and, at some point, I thought I saw some kind of metal boat inside one of them. It turned out those were just mine vent shafts, and the boat was nothing but a rotten tree trunk that fell in. However, that image stuck with me.
FQ: Have you ever always wanted to be a writer? Who are your favorite authors/storytellers?
CZIMBOR: Yes, I have dreamed of writing books since I was very young. I was fascinated by the stories I would discover going through tons of books in the school library, and I always wondered if I could write one myself.
Among authors who left an impression on me, I’d mention Fyodor Dostoevsky, Charles Dickens, Jules Verne, J. R. R. Tolkien, but also Isaac Asimov, Frank Herbert, and many more. I also read quite a lot of contemporary non-fiction, especially books about mind/brain, evolution, and psychology.
FQ: Your bio says you relentlessly listen to podcasts. Can you share a few of your favorites and what they’re about?
CZIMBOR: A nice consequence of a global internet is that it gives all of us access to so many valuable podcasts where we hear raw thoughts directly from the hosts or from the personalities being interviewed. The information gets concentrated in an hour or two, and in the right podcast, it’s less biased. I often learn more from a single insightful podcast episode than from watching the news for hours or reading tens of articles.
To give you a few examples:
I like Sam Harris’ “Making Sense” podcast because it brings a balanced view of many hot topics in the US. I also enjoy the Lex Fridman Podcast, because it covers, among others, topics related to Artificial Intelligence, which fascinated me from the times I was 12 years old, throughout college, and then during my career. Other podcasts I often listen to are “Dan Carlin's Hardcore History,” “Hidden Forces,” “The Intellectual Dark Web Podcast,” “Honestly with Bari Weiss,” “The Brain Science Podcast,” and quite a few more.
FQ: Given the crushing heartache that Tudor experiences, I can’t help but think you like tragic stories. Which do you like reading more, books with happy endings or sad endings? I’ve read that occasionally a movie with a sad ending will screen poorly with preview audiences, and so the studio quickly changes the ending. Would you ever do that to one of your books or do you feel it’s more important to get the story told as you see it should be?
CZIMBOR: I actually enjoy happy endings, of course, although life seldom leads to them.
I agree that movies that don’t end well don’t appeal to the large public. But movies have the potential to reach so many more people than books, so perhaps compromising the end of a story is acceptable in order to convey a message to a larger audience.
FQ: Since you spend your summers in Europe, can you share which travel spot is your favorite and why?
CZIMBOR: Every year my family and I travel through the Carpathians mountains in Romania, all the way to the Black Sea and the Danube Delta. The beauty of wild forests, the charm of old villages and the rich wildlife are truly unique in that part of the world. Romania is in a fortunate position by being part of the modern European Union, yet benefiting from the old traditions and folklore that survived during the communist regime.
FQ: Aside from guitars, what other musical instruments would you like to learn how to play?
CZIMBOR: I would like to play the piano, and perhaps the drums, but there are only 24 hours in a day, and I already feel like I need twice as many!