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.

Plaque about the History of Movie Making Offers Evidence that ‘Alternative Facts’ are Nothing New

I walked passed this plaque the other day. In fact, I’ve probably walked passed it many times over the years, but this time I noticed it.  Naturally, I thought “Wow! Really?” To think that the motion picture–one of the most influential forms of art and propaganda, that touches literally billions of people, that not only entertains but educates, that not only spreads truth but also lies, that has generated billions of dollars and driven people to suicide–in other words, something that does just about everything–started right here, right at this spot, at a place that once bore the charming and now ancient-sounding name of Koster and Bial’s Music Hall?

And then I Googled it. I’m not saying Googling is the be-all and end-all when it comes to fact checking; after all, the internet if full of fake news. And yet I found what I read here on a site called untapped cities under the headline “Lost and Incorrect Historical Plaques in NYC” persuasive:

“It may have been Edison’s first, but not where the motion picture began. The showing in 1896 was just the first showing of Edison Kinetoscope films on screen to a paying audience, not the first screening of a projection film which happened in Paris 1895, by the Lumiere Brothers. In fact, Edison only allowed this 1896 screening to happen after there were “wide-spread projections of the Kinestoscope films by unauthorized showmen,” reports Raymond Fielding in A Technological History of Motion Pictures and Television.

So apparently even plaques, which seem inherently honest in their fixity and stolid plainness, can be as slippery as a Sean Spicer press conference.


Advertising is Nothing New, as this Juxtaposition of an Amish Choir and Alien: Covenant Posters Makes Clear


Often on Saturday, a choir (I think they might be Amish) sings in the busy Times Square subway station. They set up in front of a panel of back-lit ads that changes from week to week. On a recent Saturday, the juxtaposition of puritanically-styled singers next to a promo for the latest Alien flick seemed to carry a hidden message. The end is near? Ain’t life funny? What we define as ‘alien’ is only a matter of perspective?

In any event, it made me think that advertising isn’t a modern idea. Humans have always tried to sell each other stuff–whether it’s goods, or an experience (like a film), or a religion, or a political ideology.

What’s surprising is that you’d think the pretty sounds of a chorus — their voices are lovely, echoing through a station usually dominated with groaning, screeching trains — would attract far more people than a black-and-white image of an anonymous mouth contorted in a terrified scream. And yet I for one would rather watch Alien: Covenant than hear a sermon of any stripe. And I suppose the fact that in just a few weeks Alien: Covenant has earned over $100 million means that I’m not alone in that regard.

A Vision of the Future in 2 Headlines

It’s bad enough to read a headline like this one tonight in The New York Times: Trump’s Budget Has Sharp Cuts for E.P.A. and State Dept. The story previews Trump’s “budget blueprint for the coming fiscal year,” which would “slash the Environmental Protection Agency by 31 percent … in a brash upending of the government’s priorities.”

But when the same front page has this headline as well–Large Sections of Australia’s Great Reef Are Now Dead, Scientists Say–it’s hard not to despair. The second story explains that “huge sections of the Great Barrier Reef, stretching across hundreds of miles of its most pristine northern sector, were recently found to be dead, killed last year by overheated seawater.” If the words “overheated seawater” don’t make the underlying cause of the calamity clear, the article illuminates: “The state of coral reefs is a telling sign of the health of the seas. Their distress and death are yet another marker of the ravages of global climate change.”

So while the world suffers (and the Great Barrier Reef is just one of seemingly endless examples of the environmental disaster unfolding around us), our new president wants to cut funding to the lone agency responsible for monitoring and regulating greenhouse gases in the world’s second largest emitter of greenhouse gases.

Surprisingly (given the rush to censor damning data), the EPA still has information about greenhouses gases on its website, including this chart. Perhaps because it indicts China as the world’s largest polluter it’s considered non-fake news, but if the EPA’s budget is slashed, it will only make it easier for the U.S. to catch up fast.

Congrats to Moonlight’s Cast and Creators for Advancing Art and Awareness


I was lucky enough to attend the opening of Moonlight last October at the New York Film Festival. I remember reading the description of the film and thinking, “A movie about being black and gay? Sounds interesting.” And of course I was happy we bought the tickets because it turned out to be amazing.

I never posted the photos because I took them with my phone, which does a lousy job in low light. But in honor of Moonlight’s Oscar win, I thought I would celebrate by sharing them.

Congrats Barry Jenkins, Mahershala Ali, and the rest of the creators, cast and crew!

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