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.

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.”

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Enlightenment meets traffic jams in Zen City

“The future begins with a traffic jam.”

This is how Eliot Fintushel described to me the setting of Zen City (Zero Books, 2016), his science fiction novel about the obstacles encountered along the path to spiritual fulfillment, when I interviewed him on the new episode of New Books in Science Fiction.

In Fintushel’s book, the quest for enlightenment manifests as a physical journey as his protagonist, Big Man, makes his way from an eternal traffic jam (in which people have been rooted so long on a highway exit ramp that they’ve created cults around their Econoline vans and Chevrolet Chevelles) to the City, where those who have achieved true enlightenment are literally merged into a single body-consciousness that transcends reality as we know it.

More than a commentary on Buddhism, the story is a meditation on religion and the challenge of using “robes and rituals” to find enlightenment, Fintushel explains. The problem is when enlightenment itself becomes a sign of status, he says, undermining the goal of enlightenment, which is supposedly a state of “no status.”

Fintushel’s adventure is both poetic and funny, meditating on language as much as belief. He is playing with the “limits of identifying things,” evoking the viewpoint of a baby. “If you watch a baby’s eyes moving around, they don’t fix on objects or even on people the way we do. They don’t have categories of objects and people. And I’m assuming, for the sake of the fiction anyway, that that’s more real than the reality of objects and things and people.”

The Brexit Interview: Dave Hutchinson’s Fictional Europe is Falling Apart but Don’t Call Him Prescient

Don’t call my latest guest on New Books in Science Fiction prescient. Even though Dave Hutchinson‘s Fractured Europe Sequence envisions a continent crumbling into ever-smaller countries, the idea that his homeland could Brexit the European Union hadn’t occurred to him when he started writing Europe in Autumn.

The book chronicles the adventures of Rudi, an Estonian cook-turned-spy who discovers the existence of an alternate Europe, one in which the Eurasian continent has become a Brexiter’s dream come true, a bucolic but boring England that extends from Spain to Siberia.

Its sequel, Europe at Midnight, isn’t really a sequel but a spinoff, introducing new characters who explore the dark side of Europe’s parallel universes. Both books are imaginative, elegant and unexpected, combining elements of thriller and science fiction. And there’s more to come. A third book, Europe in Winter, is due out in November, and a fourth and final book, Europe at Dawn, is in the works.

I was fortunate to have Aubrey Fox (author of Trial and Error in Criminal Justice Reform: Learning from Failure) as a co-host for this interview. He not only recommended Hutchinson’s books to me, but he’s an avid fan of both science fiction and mysteries. Among the topics Hutchinson discussed with us were the ideas that inspired him to write Midnight in Autumn, the ups and downs of his long writing career, his decision to write a series when he’d set out to write only a single book, and, of course, the Brexit vote, which took place the day after our conversation.

Adam Rakunas Delivers Action, Environmentalism and Union Organizing in Windswept

My interview with Adam Rakunas, which was posted on the New Books Network today, is my fifth with the nominees for this year’s Philip K. Dick Award. His novel, Windswept, is a sprawling and funny adventure that focuses on a very stressful few days in the life of Padma Mehta, a labor organizer turned action hero on a planet far far away.
Mehta is basically part Philip Marlow, part Norma Rae, part Jessica Jones as she manages the day-to-day machinations of helping run a blue-collar planet and simultaneously battling an interstellar corporate conspiracy.
Windswept is full of action, plot twists and humor. But that doesn’t mean it shies away from grappling with important issues, including a looming environmental disaster—specifically a crop-killing plague that threatens to destroy the monoculture crop that the entire universe depends on.
Just as Mehta jumped through numerous hoops to save her world, so did Rakunas to get Windswept published. After working on the novel for several years, he sent the manuscript to 65 agents, and was rejected by 64 of them. The wisdom of the 65th to take him on was vindicated this past January, when Windswept was nominated for the Philip K. Dick Award. Although it didn’t win top honors (which went to Ramez Nam, who will be featured in the next New Books in Science Fiction podcast), Rakunas is well on his way to establishing himself as a science fiction writer with a unique voice and vision.
Windswept’s sequel, Like a Boss, will be published June 7.

Marguerite Reed’s Unconventional Hero Juggles Saving Her Planet with Daycare

Marguerite Reed’s Archangel (Arche Press, 2015) introduces a hero not often found at the center of science fiction: a mother, who takes cuddling responsibilities as seriously as she does the fate of her planet.

Of course, Vashti Loren plays many roles besides Mom. She’s also a hunter, a scientist, a tour guide and the widow of a revered early settler. But Reed spotlights her relationship with her toddler, offering a protagonist who’s not only good with a gun but manages to get her kid to daycare on time.

“So many protagonists, whether in science fiction or fantasy or adventure fiction or film are disconnected or separate or isolated from family ties, and I wanted to see if I could write something where people did have family ties, where they were connected, as we so often are in the real world,” Reed told me in her New Books interview.

When Loren discovers that a genetically-enhanced and potentially dangerous human soldier has been illegally smuggled onto the planet, she must decide whether he is friend or foe. The former means she can enlist his aid to protect her world, a lush colony faced with the threat of massive—and potentially destructive—immigration; the latter means she must kill him. Ultimately, like a number of books nominated for this year’s Philip K. Dick Award, Reed takes readers on an adventure that explores what it means to be human.

Archangel was one of six books nominated for this year’s Philip K. Dick Award. It received a special citation on March 25 at Norwescon.

The winner of this year’s award is Apex by Ramez Nam; I hope to have Nam as a guest on the podcast in the coming weeks.

PJ Manney on her book (R)evolution: ‘It Doesn’t Fit Neatly into Any Boxes’

PJ Manney’s fast-action novel (R)evolution (47North, 2015) has all the ingredients of a Hollywood thriller: a terrorist attack using nanotechnology, a military-industrial conspiracy, a scientist who augments his brain—plus, of course, romance, betrayal, and rapid-fire plot twists.

The movie-style storytelling comes naturally for Manney, who spent most of her career in Hollywood, developing films and writing for television. “I don’t see myself as a literary stylist or as a great wordsmith. I see myself as a … Hollywood-influenced storyteller,” she told me when we spoke on New Books in Science Fiction.

A first-time novelist, Manney says she was “flabbergasted” when she was nominated for this year’s Philip K. Dick Award. “I ended up melding genres and ignoring people’s advice,” she explains. “It doesn’t really fit neatly into any boxes and people who like boxes have a hard time with it… I thought it was just me and my editor who liked it.”

(R)evolution explores transformative technology—a brain-computer interface that relies on nano-materials to create a prosthetic hippocampus and cortex. Manney’s protagonist, Peter Bernhardt, seeks to use the technology for good—to aid brains destroyed by Alzheimer’s disease—but business and political forces try to grab the science for their own nefarious ends. Eventually, Bernhardt experiments on himself, pursuing super-human capacities to literally outsmart his enemies.

Manney had envisioned (R)evolution as a next-generation e-book: one with active Web links to provide context and background information and a soundtrack that allowed readers to hear the music that helps Bernhardt make connections and solve problems. “I wanted you to be able to play the music so you could actually experience his mental process… I wanted people to really have that sense of having a hacked and jacked brain. If you did have a quirkily wired brain to begin with and this ability to pull from endless amounts of data, what would that feel like?”

Yet while Manney’s imagination rushes headlong into the future, e-book technology moves at a slower pace. The e-book version of (R)evolution has no links or music. But Manney hasn’t given up. She is working furiously on the next installment, (ID)entity. That gives e-book designers a chance to up their game and, I hope, design an e-book format worthy of Peter Bernhardt.

(It’s not too late to sign up for a giveaway of the six books nominated for the 2016 Philip K. Dick Award. Entries will be accepted until midnight Pacific Daylight Time on March 22, 2016.)

Podcast with Douglas Lain: ‘I Think Therefore I’m an Alien’

I’m planning to interview on New Books in Science Fiction all six nominees for this year’s Philip K. Dick Award. First up is Douglas Lain, whose After the Saucers Landed (Night Shade Books, 2015) is set in the early 1990s, when aliens, with the theatrical sense of B-movie directors, land flying saucers on the White House lawn.

At first, the visitors seem fit for a Las Vegas chorus line; they’re tall, attractive and never leave their spaceships without donning sequined jumpsuits. Even the name of their leader–Ralph Reality–is marquee-ready.

But is Reality as real as he seems?

That’s the question that Lain poses for readers and his first-person narrator, Brian Johnson, who confronts the alien invasion head-on when one of the interstellar travelers assumes the identity of his wife. This propels Johnson into an examination of reality through various prisms: popular culture, science, philosophy, art, and even fiction.

A kaleidoscope of personalities, artists and thinkers are name-checked as Johnson and his colleagues search for the ultimate truth. There are as many nods to mainstream culture (think Elvis Presley, Arsenio Hall and David Letterman) as there are to high-brow (e.g., René Magritte, Marcel Duchamp and Jean Baudrillard). And topping it off are the writings of ufologists, including the work of one of the characters, Harold Flint, who is so disappointed by the aliens’ tackiness that he decides to stop studying UFOs altogether.

“The big challenge is try and take sometimes abstract ideas and philosophical concepts and bring them to life in the story while not losing any of their complexity,” Lain says. Far easier, he found, was conveying the narrator’s sense of unease and growing paranoia as he learns more about the aliens. “I’ve spent far too much of my life in that kind of state, so it comes naturally me to write about that feeling.”

Podcast: Interview with David B. Coe

David B. Coe just finished a busy year in which he published three novels, two of which we discuss in this episode of New Books in Science Fiction and Fantasy.

His Father’s Eyes (Baen, 2015) is the second book (the first, Spell Blind, was also published in 2015) to follow the adventures of P.I. Justis Fearsson, a weremyste whose investigations are interrupted once a month during the full moon when he slips into psychosis. Dead Man’s Reach (Tor, 2015) written under the pen name D.B. Jackson, is the fourth book in the The Thieftaker Chronicles and focuses on Ethan Kaille, an 18th century version of a private detective (known poetically as a thieftaker) who also happens to be a conjurer.

While both protagonists share a number of traits (they’re both crime-solvers and both have magic powers) the series are quite different.

The Thieftaker books are partly historical novel, ones in which Coe (aka Jackson) interweaves real people (e.g., Samuel Adams) and events of pre-Revolutionary Boston (e.g., the Stamp Act Riots, the Boston Massacre) with mysteries that Kaille is trying to solve.

“I spend an enormous amount of time searching for these tiny historical details to bring the verisimilitude to my story,” Coe says.

Kaille’s opponents (who include those who would like Kaille to meet the same end as the alleged witches of Salem) are external. But the eponymous protagonist of Coe’s Case Files of Justis Fearsson series faces an internal enemy: the monthly psychosis that accompanies the full moon. These episodes are gradually making Fearsson permanently insane, as they did his weremyste father.

Related link:

  • Here is a blog post in which Coe interviews his two protagonists from the separate series, Justis Fearsson and Ethan Kaille.

Podcast No. 11: Alex London Discusses Pen Names, Gay Characters, and the ‘Dystopia’ Label

This week’s podcast was an experiment. Rather than record the conversation with author Alex London over Skype, I decided to take the subway to Brooklyn and meet with him face-to-face in a coffee shop. I found it liberating to be unchained from an Internet connection, which has been known to fail mid-conversation, but the price of having a barista nearby is boisterous background noise.


London’s novels about class conflict, debt, and rebellion are set in a dark future. A significant portion of Proxy takes place in a city where the poorest citizens dwell in a violent shantytown known as the Valve while the wealthy thrive in well-guarded neighborhoods of private speedways, luxury homes, and high-tech toys. The sequel, Guardian, is set in a crumbling Detroit exponentially more decrepit than the Motor City of today.

As London explains, the horrors of the Valve are his “futuristic re-imagining” of slums outside of Nairobi, which he witnessed while researching one of his non-fiction books, One Day the Soldiers Came, about children affected by armed conflict. “For a lot of children all over the world caught up in wars and poverty and natural disaster … dystopia is not some kind of fantasy but the day-to-day reality of how they are living,” he tells me.

Although the books portray a grim future, the publisher avoids the word “dystopia” in its marketing of Proxy and Guardian. “They call it a ‘futuristic thriller,’” London says. The marketing department also shies away from the science fiction tag, fearing it’s too narrow. But London says he embraces the label. “Science fiction for me implies … an awareness of possibility.”

London himself is brimming with possibility. For one thing, he writes under three names. Proxy and Guardian, which are aimed at young adults, bear the name Alex London. But as Charles London, he’s published adult non-fiction about war and the survival of beleaguered Jewish communities around the world. And as C. Alexander London, he continues to write for middle-grade readers about real-life war experiences and fantastical adventures involving squids and dragons.

Like any good science fiction writer, London seeks to push boundaries. Proxy explores what would happen if wealthy transgressors rigged a system of debt and credit to avoid punishment for their crimes and instead made the poor (known as proxies) receive the punishment instead. London also pushes cultural boundaries: Proxy and Guardian’s main character, Syd, is gay, which makes him unusual as the star of a science fiction series geared for young adults. As a result, London has received an outpouring of fan mail from young people seeking advice. “It’s been very touching to see kids who might not otherwise be drawn to explicitly queer books … find their way to Proxy,” he says. Because the books are primarily thrillers, some kids, especially those living in conservative communities, feel safer reading them than gay-themed books that focus on romance or coming out, he explains.

“I’ve been getting letters from a lot of actually straight boys writing about their friends and wondering how they can be better allies. Those are my favorite,” London says.

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Spoiler alerts:

  • From 18:45 to 22:16 we discuss some aspects of Syd’s love life that those who haven’t read Proxy and Guardian may prefer to skip.
  • From 33:12 to 34:00 we discuss the science behind a key plot point integral to the resolution of Proxy.