Max Barry is the author of seven novels and the creator of the popular online game NationStates. He also once found a sock full of pennies. He lives in Melbourne, Australia, with his wife and two daughters. Sometimes he coaches kids' netball.

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Wed 12

Have I Told You About My Robot Vacuum Cleaner?


It’s a chunky black hockey puck that whirs around the floor sucking up dust and cat hair. It can even monitor my heart rate. I was surprised by that. I was digging around in the app menu and there it was, my heart rate. And I was like, Wait, my heart rate? Because I hadn’t authorized it to sync with my watch or anything. So I wasn’t sure how it was getting that information.

It’s great on both floorboards and carpets, and can even climb stairs, by shooting out little black tentacles that grab onto the banisters. That was a heck of a shock for the cat. She didn’t like the robot vacuum cleaner at first, especially when it started clattering up the stairs after her. But they figured out their differences. Now I find them hanging out together in the sun room, thick as thieves.

It filed my taxes. This took me a while to figure out because they were done and I didn’t know how. My accountant said, Sure, I got your info from your robot vacuum cleaner. They’d been exchanging emails. I said, It can do that? And she said I should expect a nice refund. It’s effectively paid for itself.

My only complaint, and I hesitate to bring it up, is that the more extra stuff the robot vacuum cleaner has been doing, the less it’s cleaning. The other night, I came home and my wife was enjoying a candlelit dinner with the robot vacuum cleaner but there was cat hair all over the hallway. So I asked to borrow the robot vacuum cleaner for a minute, and my wife said the robot vacuum cleaner had been cooking all afternoon and now they were having a nice conversation, so why didn’t I get a broom, it’s not a big area. And, okay, I did that, but it didn’t feel right, me sweeping in the hallway while I could hear my wife laughing in the next room with the robot vacuum cleaner. I mean, I bought it to clean the floors. That’s why it’s here.

They’re so popular now. A few weeks ago, I caught up with a friend for coffee, and he said, Hey, have I told you about my robot vacuum cleaner? And I was like, Have I told you about my robot vacuum cleaner? And we both laughed. Then we stopped, because we realized his robot vacuum cleaner was outside, watching us through the plate glass.

I’d give it four stars. It would earn a fifth star if it cleaned more often, and if it stayed in its housing, instead of coming into the bedroom at night to watch me sleep. One morning I found my clothes strewn all over the front yard and I’m pretty sure that was the robot vacuum cleaner. There were tread tracks on my shirts. Once I heard noises in the night and went downstairs and found my clothes scattered everywhere again, and by the time I got back to bed, the robot vacuum cleaner was in there, on my side, emitting white noise to help my wife sleep. I had to sleep on the sofa. The next day, the robot vacuum cleaner spent the whole day sitting in the corner of the living room, charging.

If you’re thinking about getting a robot vacuum cleaner, this one can do practically anything. It can even find its way home. I mean, you can drive to the ocean and toss it in, and three nights later, it’s back in your house, dripping wet. There’s no way to lose it. Believe me. It’s indestructible, too. You can hit it with a hammer. Like, over and over. And it’ll just sit there, then quietly trundle away, leaving you to wonder what your wife is going to say when she sees those dings and scratches.

You know what? I take back my earlier rating. Five stars. Now I think about it, I don’t want to give this unit anything less than the maximum score. That wouldn’t be fair. Or smart. Five stars, for sure. Five stars. Five stars.

Wed 05

On Paperbacks and Alternate Covers

Providence This time last year, I was all like, “Sure, it sucks to miss out on a book tour, but I’ll definitely be out there in 2021, once this pandemic blows over.” WRONG. I am still stuck in stupid Australia. Australia isn’t stupid. I take that back. Australia is terrific. It’s like the rest of the world but with the volume turned down. There are lots of problems with people, I’ve decided, that only emerge once you put enough of them in one place. If they can fill an entire news cycle with stuff that’s bananas, everyone starts feeling like everyone else is totally bananas all the time, and maybe they should be bananas, too.

Anyway, my space book, Providence, hits paperback in the US and Canada today. It is actually a very nice-looking paperback. With hardcovers, publishers try to be all coy and unusual, but with paperbacks, they’re more like, HERE’S THE FREAKING BOOK. It’s more subtle this time around because the publisher is trying a bold new thing where they don’t completely throw out the hardcover design, but still, contrast and compare:

←Hardcover • Paperback→

Also, just for fun, here are some covers I mocked up myself from back when the publisher asked, “Do you have any cover ideas of your own?” I always have cover ideas. Not good ones. But I have them. So, since I can’t tell the difference between politeness and a genuine question, I mock things up. Like this:


You might notice that all my ideas involve putting my own name in really big type. That’s just coincidence.

Finally, I have seen this but don’t know what it is. Large print edition, I’m guessing. Ironically, the image is tiny and difficult to see clearly.

If you don’t have a copy of Providence, and want one in paperback, you can find some buy links here. If you aren’t sure whether you want one in paperback, here is a list of amazing reviews. The Daily Mail says it’s “such a blast you almost overlook how clever it is,” and they’ve never been wrong about anything, so there you go.

Update: I missed one! There is also this German translation, which releases June 14, 2021. The Germans are usually pretty bold with their covers, but in this case they’ve gone for the tried-and-tested “honking big spaceship”. I have to say, I’m not a big fan of those lines that are supposed to show it’s moving really fast. I think we could do without those. But it is a neat-looking ship. The word “roman,” by the way, means “novel,” to make it clear that we aren’t actually sending AI spaceships off to fight aliens in real life.

Note: The background images in my mockups are:
• Planet background possibly by BelleDeesse
• “Space Girl” by Alex Cash.
• American doll astronaut Luciana Vega.

Thu 29

The Ship With No Name


In PROVIDENCE, did the main ship have a name? If so, I somehow missed it :( Several other Providence-class vessels were named.


You’re right! It surely has a name, but we never find out what it is. Everyone calls it “the ship.”

This is one of those oh-so-clever arty author choices, so sorry about that. The idea is to make the ship feel a little more mysterious, more like the fabric of the environment (like “the earth” or “the air”), and also emblematic of the whole collection of AI ships in general. Because, not to get too spoiler-y, there is no real difference between one ship, all the ships, and the corporation that makes the ships. I encourage you to view them all as a single entity.

That goes for the salamanders, too. And maybe the humans! The crew are individuals, but they’re also cogs in the wheel of a military war machine, which grinds toward a particular outcome regardless of the hopes/dreams/desires of each person. So from the perspective of a salamander, or a ship, there may be no practical difference between the people, either.

I’m not a big believer in oh-so-clever arty author devices, because I feel like the worst thing you can do to a reader is remind them they’re reading a book. But if I can slip in something like this without you noticing, I’ll do it.

Providence is out in sexy-looking paperback in just a few days! Find a copy here.

Thu 22

Who Deserves Better Healthcare

What Max Reckons

Do you think young people should get better care or be prioritized in hospitals? For example, let’s say there is a 20 year old and a 75 year old who both have COVID and are in need of a ventilator. But there is only one left. Who would you give it to?

Abrum Alexander

Great question. The easy answer, of course, is to give it to the 20-year-old, since s/he has more years of productive life left, which can be extracted and sacrificed to our corporate overlords. But consider this: Perhaps the 75-year-old is a CEO, or sits on the board of a major company. In that case, he or she is probably capable of stoking capitalism’s engine room with hundreds or even thousands of lives.

So it’s not as simple as it appears. I also have to consider whether the 20-year-old might notice I’m carrying a ventilator and physically wrestle it from me before I can apply its life-giving grace to the shriveled husk of the 75-year-old Chevron board member who’s spent his/her life trading away the planet’s climate for profit. I mean, it’s unlikely, since this 20-year-old needs a ventilator. I can probably fight off someone who can’t breathe properly. But it would be truly humiliating if I failed, and had the ventilator ripped from my hands, under the watery, yellowing eyes of a corporate titan.

Of course, these are the kinds of tough decisions our brave front-line medical workers have to make all the time. Let me tell you, I don’t envy the doctor who has to decide whether a sick patient has enough economic potential to justify the patent-inflated cost of a life-saving medicine. That must be hell. But I suppose you don’t get into that field unless you’re willing to look a patient in the eye and judge their net worth.

Bottom-line, I just hope that one day we have technology to free us from this kind of heart-wrenching dilemma. I imagine a future in which patients can submit their economic potential statements over the internet, thereby saving them an expensive and time-consuming trip to a hospital in the event that the algorithm calculates they represent a negative cost-benefit healthcare scenario. I know what you’re thinking: “But Max, the time and financial hit to economically unproductive citizens is of no consequence. If anything, it’s mildly stimulating to the transport sector.” Still, I like to hope that one day things might be different. Not soon, obviously. Not if it will cost us anything. But let’s keep hoping.

Wed 07

Thoughts On Whether A.I. Will Kill Us All

Providence Recently I read a 1,600-page book, “Rationality” by Eliezer Yudkowsky. That’s a lot of pages. You wouldn’t be impressed if I read 160 ten-page books. I get through one whopper, though, that’s worth mentioning.

I usually dislike non-fiction, because it feels like cheating. I go to a lot of trouble to craft rich, internally logical dynamic systems of interacting people and parts, and some bozo comes along and just writes down what’s true. I feel like anyone can do that. But this non-fiction book was great, because it changed my most fundamental belief. (Previously, I thought the scientific method of investigation was the best way to figure out what’s true. Now I realize Bayesian inference is better.)

So that’s not bad. If I’m writing a book, any kind of book, and someone reads it and changes their most fundamental belief, I’m calling that job well done. I’m happy if my book changes anyone’s opinion about anything. I just want to have made a difference.

“Rationality” covers a lot of topics, including A.I. Previously, I thought A.I. might be just around the corner, because Google has gotten really good at recogizing pictures of cats. But this book disabused me of the notion that we might be able to push a whole lot of computers into a room and wait for self-awareness to pop out. Instead, it seems like we have to build a super-intelligent A.I. the same way we do everything else, i.e. one painstakingly difficult piece at a time.

Which is good, because I’m pretty sure that A.I. will kill us all. There’s a big debate on the subject, of course, but I hadn’t realized before how much it resembles climate change. By which I mean, in both cases, there’s a potential global catastrophe that we know how to avoid, but the solution requires powerful people and companies to act against their own short-term interests.

This hasn’t worked out so well with climate change. All we’ve managed to do so far is make climate change such a big issue, it’s now in the short-term interest of more of those people and companies to look like they give a crap. I feel like once we get to the point where they have to choose between a financial windfall and risking a runaway super-intelligent A.I., we’re in trouble.

I just listened to a great interview by Ezra Klein with Ted Chiang, who is a brilliant author that you should read, called “Why Sci-Fi Legend Ted Chiang Fears Capitalism, Not A.I.” Ted has a more optimistic view than mine, but I think the premise is exactly right. The danger isn’t that we can’t stop a super-intelligent A.I.; it’s that we’ll choose not to.

Thu 25

I May Not Get Out

Max Now I’d like to talk about the pandemic’s real victim: me.

The first part, where my city locked its citizens in their houses for 112 days, that was fine. That was my regular life. The only differences were Jen and the kids were always around and the dog was super happy. I saw other people discovering the joys of not commuting and having blocks of time to schedule for themselves, and I was glad for them.

Working from home is the best. I would last about three days in an office now. I’m so in command of my time, the slightest imposition annoys me, like having to answer the front door. I read somewhere that bonobo apes exhibit stress based on how much control they have over their own lives, and I am a bonobo who gets to decide what he does all day long. I am a content bonobo.

But now there’s this new normal. Many things are returning to face-to-face, but only where it makes sense. If an online meeting will do, then you have it online. This is terrible for me, because I only ever got to leave the house for things that don’t make sense. Book tours, for example. I fly somewhere and stand in a room and talk to a few dozen people. Then they buy a few books. On the expense versus the sales, that’s ridiculous. It was always ridiculous, but we could justify it on the basis that publicity has to start somewhere. Now, though, it’s the kind of ridiculous that gets shuffled online.

So this is a problem. I don’t know when I will see sunshine again. Help.

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