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If 2 Billions People are Psychopaths, What Does That Make Me? Sci-Fi Author Robert J. Sawyer has the Answer

I caught up with Robert J. Sawyer for the current episode of New Books in Science Fiction. Sawyer is the author of 23 novels, and one of the rare science fiction authors to earn Nebula, Hugo and John W. Campbell Memorial awards.

The subject of the interview was his most recent book, Quantum Night.

Sawyer is considered, as he puts it, “an optimistic and upbeat science fiction writer.” But you wouldn’t know that from Quantum Night. The book explores the nature of evil, and its conclusion is alarming: the vast majority of humans are either psychopaths, lacking empathy for others, or mindless followers.

Sawyer deftly juggles multiple plots lines in Quantum Night, everything from his main character’s painful effort to reconstruct lost memories to geopolitical machinations, including the U.S.’s invasion of Canada. But the main focus is on Jim Marchuk, who discovers through psychology experiments that psychopathy affects two-sevenths of the world’s population–and that it can be diagnosed by taking quantum measurements of the brain. (His physicist girlfriend independently reaches the same conclusion).

What makes this idea particularly scary, is that Sawyer was inspired by real-life theories from a wide array of disciplines, including the work of psychologists Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo, physicist Roger Penrose, anesthesiologist Stuart Hammerof, and philosopher David Chalmers. (Sawyer includes in an afterword a list of over 50 non-fiction books on which he bases the theories in Quantum Night.)

Like the work of Milgram and Zimbardo–who were attempting through now infamous experiments to understand the psychological underpinnings of the Holocaust–Sawyer, too, is trying to understand the origins of evil.

“Could the kind of evil that was Nazi Germany happen again?” Sawyer asks during the interview. “Well there are some signs in some countries… that it is happening again.”

By the time he’d finished writing Quantum Night, Sawyer had come to believe that the story he’d told was pretty close to the way the world actually works, and that humankind consists of “a large number of mindless followers and a very small number of people who are skilled at manipulating them.”

But he insists humanity shouldn’t give up hope. Fighting evil is hard work but good can still prevail. In support of this idea, he cites another expert, Star Trek’s Dr. Leonard McCoy, who famously said: “I found that evil usually triumphs unless good is very, very careful.

 

A Terrorist Comes of Age in El Akkad’s Poignant–and Chilling–American War

Omar El Akkad

Set 50-plus years in the future during, Omar El Akkad‘s debut novel American War (Knopf, 2017) has been widely praised, becoming one of those rare books with science fiction themes to make numerous mainstream publications’ Best Books of the Year lists. It was, for example, among the 100 Most Notable Books in The New York Times, the Best Books of 2017 in GQ, and was the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s top pick for Canadian fiction.

I was thrilled that El Akkad accepted my invitation to appear on New Books in Science Fiction. (Listen to the interview). It’s a wonderful book–lyrical, imaginative, and, as a terrorist’s coming-of-age story, acutely relevant to today.

El Akkad was born in Cairo, Egypt, grew up in Qatar, eventually moved to Canada, and now lives in Oregon. He has worked as a journalist, covering everything from the Arab Spring to the Black Lives Matter movement. He also spent two years covering the terrorism trials of the Toronto 18, which gave him insight into how young minds are radicalized and provided partial inspiration for his depiction of American War’s protagonist, Sarat Chestnut.

We meet Sarat when she’s an appealing, headstrong six-year-old and follow her, via El Akkad’s nuanced writing, as she grows up in a refugee camp, sees her family destroyed, and is groomed to commit acts of terror. Ultimately, she plays a pivotal role in the outcome of the Second American Civil War, and yet, in a reflection of the true-to-life nature of El Akkad’s storytelling, her motives aren’t the black-and-white of Hollywood, but remain murky.

Despite the book’s title, El Akkad told me that he doesn’t feel he’s writing about America. “To me if was never a book about America but about the universality of revenge… That any of us subjected to the injustice of being on the losing end of war, being on the losing end of violence, break down the same way and become damaged the same way and become wrathful the same way. The book is set in an allegorical America.”

In David Walton’s The Genius Plague, a Mind-Bending Fungus Takes the Next Great Step in Evolution

Everyone knows that wild mushrooms can be dangerous, but David Walton in his new novel The Genius Plague raises the dangers to a new plane.

While victims of an unusual fungal infection enjoy skyrocketing I.Q.s, they also find themselves suddenly willing to sacrifice their own (and others’) lives to protect the Amazon rain forest, raising the possibility that the fungus—a species native to the Amazon—has hijacked their minds to advance its own ends.

David Walton

In the new episode of New Books in Science Fiction, Walton talks with me about the wonders of fungi, how he finds time to write while juggling his responsibilities as both an engineer and father of seven, how he came to believe in evolution after growing up in a family that considered Darwin’s ideas “silly,” and the importance of shunning dogma.

The Wall Street Journal named The Genius Plague one of the best science fiction books of 2017. Walton’s first book, Terminal Mind, received the Philip K. Dick Award in 2008.

Walton makes no secret of the importance of religion in his life, which makes it all the more arresting when he incorporates evolution into the fabric of his stories. In The Genius Plague, for example, he depicts the fungus’s behavior as consistent with the Darwin-identified drive to survive and, when opportunity arises, dominate.

It was reading Origin of a Species and eventually coming “face to face with the tremendous amount of evidence there was in support of evolution” that led Walton to accept evolution as fact.

“It’s scary to consider alternate views,” he told me, “but I think it’s necessary and important both for our own growth and the realism of our beliefs and also for the ability to understand and care for others and say, ‘I understand why you think the way you do even though it’s different than the way I do.'”

Becky Chambers, Author of The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, Enjoys the Short, Well-Earned Way to Success

In the new episode of New Books in Science Fiction, I interview Becky Chambers, author of the Wayfarer series. Her first book, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (Harper Voyager, 2016), was originally self-published then quickly picked up by a traditional publisher, garnering numerous accolades. It was shortlisted for, among other things, the Kitschies, a British Fantasy Award, and the Arthur C. Clarke Award. Her second book, A Closed and Common Orbit (Harper Voyager, 2017), was nominated this year for a Hugo for Best Novel and won the Prix Julia Verlanger.

Billed as a space opera, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet does the unexpected: rather than focus on battles or threats to civilization it offers an intimate portrait of the relationships among the nine members of the Wayfarer spacecraft’s multi-species crew. And with A Closed and Common Orbit, Chambers does the unexpected again: rather than follow the Wayfarer’s crew on a new adventure, it focuses on two of the lesser characters from the first book, offering poignant coming-of-age portraits in a far-flung corner of the universe.

In the interview, Chambers discusses how she creates new species and cultures in such convincing detail, why she decided to place humans in the humbling position of being a minor species in the universe, how being gay informs her sensibilities as an author, and the journey the The Long Way took to publication–from Kickstarter campaign to international acclaim.

The Martians Return in the Official Sequel to The War of the Worlds (and They’re as Scary as Ever)

In the latest episode of New Books in Science Fiction I speak with Stephen Baxter, author of The Massacre of Mankind (Crown, 2017), the alliteratively titled sequel to H. G. Wells‘ alliteratively titled classic, The War of the Worlds.

Stephen Baxter on the Galapagos Islands.

Baxter is the author of over 20 novels and dozens of short stories. He’s won the John W. Campbell Award, the Philip K. Dick Award twice, and numerous British Science Fiction Association awards.

Few books (science fiction or otherwise) have had as large an impact on the modern imagination as The War of the Worlds. Since it appeared as a serial in a British magazine in 1897, it has been adapted for movies (at least seven times), comics, television, video games and, most famously, in 1938 for a radio drama by Orson Welles that reportedly caused some listeners, who confused fictional news for real, to panic.

In The Massacre of Mankind, Baxter envisions new technologies adapted from salvaged Martian equipment, the takeover of much of Europe by Kaiser Wilhelm, and, of course, the eventual return of the Martians, now vaccinated against the Earth-bound bacteria that vanquished them the first time.

Baxter’s narrator, Julie Elphinstone, offers a sharp contrast to the bookish and battered narrator of The War of the Worlds (who also happens to be her former brother-in-law). Elphinstone not only faces down the Martians but offers a new (and one suspects more balanced) perspective on the events recounted by her former in-law, whom she dubs the Unreliable Narrator.

To prepare for the writing of The Massacre of Mankind, Baxter combed through earlier drafts of The War of the Worlds to better understand Wells’ themes and intentions.

“By really studying a book like The War of the Worlds … and taking it apart and putting it back together again, you get a great understanding of how the writer actually worked on the book that you can’t get any other way,” Baxter says.

Neon Sets This Artist’s Imagination Aglow

My friend Patrick Nash, who has kept his talent for creating fine art like the proverbial lamp under the bushel for two decades, surfaced on the New York art scene in the last few weeks with a show at SL Gallery.

Tonight he gave a Q&A about his work and career, painting a picture of the East Village as it used to be, full of abandoned and semi-abandoned buildings and people who saw in the devastated  landscape an invitation to create. Eventually, however, Patrick left his squalid digs in the East Village and invested his talents in something more remunerative than pure art, starting Patrick Nash Design, which has done all kinds of amazing installations for big and small businesses and well-known artists. It was only when Bill Schwinghammer invited Patrick to install a show in his gallery that Patrick’s love of art for art’s sake (and neon for neon’s sake) was rekindled. Or maybe the love was always there but the bandwidth wasn’t. 

In any event, as he related during the Q&A, his 20 years of creating signs and installations for others combined with his always active imagination, led him to create one amazing piece after another, like the work in the photo above, a delicate argon-infused circle around a block of cement suspended like a thought bubble over our heads. To learn more, check out this interview with Patrick on whitehotmagazine.com.

Nebula Awards Offer a Guide to the Next Generation’s SF Classics

Julie E. Czerneda

Since their establishment, the Nebula Awards have proven a trusty guide to what the next generation will consider a classic.

Take for example, the inaugural award for Best Novel, which went to Frank Herbert for Dune in 1965. Dune‘s impact can be measured in countless ways–not only in the loyalty of critics and fans (who have left in excess of half a million ratings on Goodreads) but in the proliferation of sequels, prequels, movies, TV shows, games, and more.

The 2015 Best Novel winner, Naomi Novik (for Uprooted), joins the ranks of science fiction and fantasy’s greatest authors, including Samuel R. Delany, Ursula K. Le Guin, Larry Niven, Isaac Asimov, Connie Willis, William Gibson, Octavia E. Butler, Kim Stanley Robinson and many more.

But the Nebulas, voted on by the members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, recognize more than novels. Award categories include stories, poems, and dramatic presentation.

The abundance of categories and nominees posed a challenge for Julie E. Czerneda, the editor of the newly-released Nebula Awards Showcase 2017 (Pyr, 2017), which anthologizes the winners of the 2015 awards. Although Czerneda–who I interview on the latest New Books in Science Fiction podcast–had free reign to decide what to include in the anthology, she still had to fit everything within a strict word count.

Fortunately, Czerneda knows a thing or two about getting a book to print. As an accomplished anthology editor and author–her ninth and final novel in The Clan Chronicles series, To Guard Against the Dark, is out this month–Czerneda relished the freedom she had as editor of the showcase.

Every editor gets to put their stamp on it. “I’m the first one to put in novel excerpts for all the novels nominated,” Czerneda says.

Another first for the current anthology: the winners in all the major categories are women. In addition to Novik for Best Novel, Alyssa Wong won for Best Short Story, Sarah Pinsker for Best Novelette, Nnedi Okorafor for Best Novella, and Fran Wilde received the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy. The Damon Knight Grant Master, which recognizes a distinguished career, was C.J. Cherryh.

This year’s editor, of course, is also a woman. For Czerneda, editing the showcase allowed her to celebrate a field to which she herself has made significant contributions.

The publication of her new book, To Guard Against the Dark, marked to the exact day the launching of her career as a writer in 1987 with the publication of A Thousand Words for Stranger. As it turned out, A Thousand Words became the first book in The Clan Chronicles. “Nine books, 1.6 million words later, I’m finishing it,” Czerneda says. “I like to leave possibilities, but I like to get to a good ending.”

 

If You’re Homeless in New York City, You Have to be Ready for Your Closeup

Living the dream? On first impression I was upset, thinking a bunch of tourists were being ironic by filming this homeless guy and then I saw the massive camera and realized this wasn’t a casual endeavor but a major investment and they must be making a film. The so-called homeless dude must have been an actor or maybe even the director, because he was discussing the filming with the crew in a relaxed, collegial way. And, as I walked away, I was still upset.

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.