P.J. Manney Explores Humanity 2.0 in (ID)entity

Artificial intelligence has long been a favorite feature of science fiction. Every robot or talking computer or starship operating system has contributed to our idealized image of the bits-and-bytes brain.

In (ID)entity (47North, 2017), PJ Manney further expands our vision of A.I. by uploading her human protagonist to a server; from there, he is replicated and downloaded, re-emerging in everything from a sex-bot to a vegetative man.

Manney joins me to discuss her new novel and the science behind it in the latest episode of New Books in Science Fiction. She joined me last year to discuss the first book in her Phoenix Horizon series, the Philip K. Dick Award-nominated (R)evolution.

Published this month by 47North, (ID)entity is the second book in Manney’s fast-paced, plot-twisting Phoenix Horizon series. As the follow-up to (R)evolution, the new novel is both an exploration of transformative technology and a thriller, set in a world where nations (including the U.S.) have collapsed, swathes of humanity face enslavement, and the future of civilization hangs in the balance.

One of Manney’s ambitions as a writer (in addition to entertaining readers) is to prepare the public for the possible impacts of new technology. “If we know that these things are coming, we can start forming opinions about what to do,” she says. “Because here’s the thing: nothing gets banned. [If] it gets banned in one country, it doesn’t get banned in another country. There’s no way that technology stops from happening.”

Manney likens the idea of transforming a human incrementally–gradually swapping cells for bits–to the thought experiment known as Theseus’s paradox, which asks: if you restore every piece of Theseus’s ship with an entirely new piece, is the final result still Theseus’s ship?

“I’m positing, yes it is,” she says, with regard to her protagonist’s transformation from man to super-sophisticated CPU.

While (ID)entity is set in the near future, Manney doesn’t expect that people will be able to save themselves to their hard drives soon. “Uploading is farther off than we think.”

The third and final book in the series, (CON)science, is scheduled for release in November 2018.

The American Indian Film Festival Shines a Spotlight on Native American Stories

I’m thrilled that a video I directed on behalf of the Center for Court Innovation has been selected to screen at the 42nd Annual American Indian Film Festival, which is sponsored by the American Indian Film Institute. The video showcases the Muscogee (Creek) Nation Reintegration Program, which works with tribal members returning to home from incarceration.

The odds are often stacked against folks who need to find jobs, homes and to reestablish family and social connections after months and years in jail or prison. For many, the task is so overwhelming that they often end up committing new crimes and returning to jail. That’s why reentry programs like the Muscogee (Creek) Nation Reintegration Program are so important. The staff at the Reintegration Program provide emotional and material support, helping with tasks both large and small. For instance, they help clients get their driver’s license (crucial for getting and keeping a job) and clearing fines (crucial for establishing credit and having enough money to pay bills) as well as finding a job and housing.

I feel incredibly lucky to have worked on this project, which is run by wonderful people who are achieving amazing things. For four days last year, the staff of the Reintegration Program answered our questions, introduced us to their clients and collaborators, and allowed us to witness first hand how they’re changing lives.

What Does Reintegration Mean to You? The Muscogee (Creek) Nation Reintegration Program is screening on Nov. 5 in the Brave Theatre Center, 2781 24th Street in San Francisco from noon to 4 p.m.

Malka Older’s Good News about the Future: Democracy Survives (The Bad News: Things Get Complicated)

I interview Malka Older about her Centenal Cycle on the new episode of New Books in Science Fiction.

Though set in the latter half of the 21st century, her series (like all good science fiction) speaks to the current moment.

Null States (Tor, 2017), the second book in the series, builds on the first, Infomacracy, which introduced readers to a near future in which the Earth is crisscrossed by a network of small but stable democracies. But in Null States, efforts to strengthen and expand this world order are threatened by unknown plotters.

What makes Older’s books so timely is that they address some of the most vexing challenges of the Trump era, including the difficulty of separating truth from lies and the uphill effort to foster trust in government.

Drawing on more than a decade of experience working for organizations that provide humanitarian aid and development, Older’s books introduce the idea of mini-nations known as microdemocracies. These tiny states are capped at 100,000 citizens in an effort to ensure that the minority always has a voice. Each microdemocracy can vote for any government around the world, so that coalitions of micro-sovereignties are not massed in one geographic location but scattered around the globe. In a dense city, this means that different microdemocracies can arise every few blocks, with one (for example) under-girded by Rastafarianism and the next guided by the principles of Chabad.

In order to ensure the efficient and fair administration of this system, an organization called Information provides expert advice, education and resources. Older describes Information as a cross between Google and the United Nations. Perhaps Information’s most important function is to constantly stream verified, annotated facts to every citizen as an antidote to fake news, a term that has grown increasingly popular in recent years even though the underlying problem, as Older points out, has been “going on probably for as long as we can trace history and politics.”

For Older, science fiction is an opportunity to explore neither dystopia nor utopia but the real world in between — a place where her policy-minded imagination can explore practical solutions.

“I wanted to show some ideas I’d been thinking about that would improve things in some ways, but they could also make some things worse,” she says in her New Books interview. “There is no perfect system. We’re not aiming to find some system that will work for every case and every country and every group of people and then we’re done. I think what’s really important is the process and the struggle.”

Related links:

The Public Likes (and Respects) Public Art

I spent a day recently in Newark, NJ, and was surprised–and pleased–to see murals wherever I went. Not only were the images and the stories they told captivating, it was wonderful to see that they hadn’t been defaced with graffiti. To me, this speaks to the respect people have for public art. When politicians oppose money for the arts, they should consider the power of public murals to bring beauty and instill community pride. And while pols may think that funding art is a lower priority than, say, funding police departments, they should consider that the lack of graffiti reflects the public’s appreciation of the form. Or they can look at research, which has shown “the great power of public art to influence how we move, think and feel in city environments.”

 

Claudia Casper Flips Cain and Abel in ‘The Mercy Journals,’ This Year’s Winner of the Philip K. Dick Award

My new interview on New Books in Science Fiction is with Claudia Casper, author of The Mercy Journals (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2016), which won this year’s Philip K. Dick Award.

Set in 2047, it tells the story of Allen Quincy through his journals. Quincy–nicknamed Mercy–is a former soldier struggling with memories of his long-lost family and the traumas he suffered during a third world war.

The story touches on complex issues such as genocide, climate change, and post-traumatic stress disorder. But it’s largely a book about one man’s struggle for survival and his attempt to find meaning in a world turned upside down.

I had a lot of fun talking with Claudia, and we covered a lot of ground in our conversation, everything from Cain and Abel (“I wanted to flip it, so the Abel and Cain story would be reversed”) to food shortages (“We’re three meals away from chaos”) to the problem with building walls between countries (“No, Donald Trump had not come on the scene when I wrote that, so that has felt somewhat prescient”). We also talked about her delightful essay, “Attending a Literary Award Ceremony in an Alternate Universe,” about receiving the Philip K. Dick Award at Norwescon.

 

New York City’s Skyline Never Stops Changing

I had a chance to visit the roof of my office building and was reminded that nearby the construction of skyscrapers in Hudson Yards continues apace. Buildings–especially large ones–always seem so permanent, and yet the massive project, which is taking place over 28 acres in Manhattan, reminds me that buildings come and go. If people are so good at creating cities that reach the sky, why can’t we solve world hunger, end poverty, bring everlasting peace? Is it really a defect in human nature or is it just misdirected resources–i.e., if the $20 billion being invested in the Hudson Yards were spent on public health we might be able to, say, end malaria?

‘A game of Clue played out over a 10-mile-long starship’: The Patrick S. Tomlinson Interview

I interview Patrick S. Tomlinson — stand-up comic, political commentator, and the author of the Children of a Dead Earth series — on the latest edition of New Books in Science Fiction.  We discuss the first two books in the series, The Ark: Children of a Dead Earth (Book One) and Trident’s Forge: Children of a Dead Earth (Book Two), which follow the last humans, who are now eleven generations removed from Earth, as their 10-mile-long spaceship (Tomlinson calls it “a giant pogostick that shits nuclear bombs”) arrives on a new planet.

As befits a man who wears many hats, Tomlinson’s books are not easily categorized, mixing mystery, science fiction, cultural commentary and adventure. The third book in the series, Children of the Divide, is due out in August.

Platform Controllers Do Their Part to Fix the Subways–But More is Needed

I’m seeing more and more folks in the New York City subways wearing vests that say “Platform Controller.” The people who wear them carry flashlights to signal to the conductors when they can close the doors and sometimes they shout instructions to stand aside to let people off and not block the doors when people are trying to get on. They provide a sense of order to what often feels like chaos, especially during rush hour, but lately they seem to be the only strategy the MTA is applying to address the growing delays that are snarling travel.

On one level, it’s reassuring to be reminded that humans can step in when technology fails. But obviously a system that moves 6 million people a day needs more than a few people in smart vests to solve its problems. Cuomo recently declared a state of emergency in the subways, pledging $1 billion for improvements, but with subway delays jumping to more than 70,000 each month, from about 28,000 per month in 2012, the improvements can’t come fast enough.

 

 

When Headlines of News Stories Pose Questions, the Answer is Sometimes in Plain Sight

When a headline poses a question, it suggests that the article will shed light on a question the reader wants answered. But I’ve recently noticed a type of headline-question that answers itself. It’s the variation on the question: Is Donald Trump Nuts?

A case in point: “Is Trump making America mentally ill?” by Kathleen Parker in the Washington Post. I don’t need to read the story to know that the article’s answer is Yes. (If you don’t believe me, Parker writes: “Today, about a third of the nation’s population seems to be suffering from a reality discernment malfunction. Have they been ingesting mushrooms plucked from bull dung? Drinking water spiked with credulity-enhancing chemicals? Thus, when President Trump speaks in his fourth-grade, monosyllabic, syntax-challenged verbiage, they hear lyrical lucidity. When he brags that he has accomplished more than any other president, save for Franklin Delano Roosevelt, his starry-eyed minions nod their approval. Exactly no major legislation has been passed by Congress since Trump took office.”)

And some of the suggestions for further reading after Parker’s article are just as effective at communicating an answer. The first article suggested under the “Read More Here” banner is “Is Donald Trump just plain crazy?” (And the article’s answer is, of course, Yes. Or as the writer Eugene Robinson puts it: “During the primary season, as Donald Trump’s bizarre outbursts helped him crush the competition, I thought he was being crazy like a fox. Now I am increasingly convinced that he’s just plain crazy.”)

The second Read More article is Jennifer Rubin’s “When is it okay to say the president might be nuts?” This question doesn’t have a yes or no answer, but it nonetheless communicates the same message as the other articles–that yes, the president is nuts–otherwise there’d be no point in asking when it’s OK to say so.

Here’s a Photo of Real Life Time Travelers Seconds Before They Vanished into a Worm Hole!

These two guys climbed into what they thought was an ordinary cab on the corner of 104th Street and Broadway; it turned out to be a time machine, which took them to 1958. Fortunately, they found a clothing boutique with a farsighted clerk who didn’t notice that they paid for their outfits with bills from 2017. Unfortunately, when they thought no one was looking, they pulled out their smart phones in a foolhardy search for a wireless signal, but, in doing so, violated a fundamental law of time travel, which prevents the use of anachronistic technology. Nano-seconds after this photo was taken, these folks vanished into a worm hole, which took them to a time and place unknown.

Or maybe they were on the set this morning on the Upper West Side of Manhattan of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Just maybe.