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.”

Related links:

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.

 

‘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.

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.”

Girl Walks Out of a Bar

Lisa F. Smith, my colleague and friend (right), had a righteously fun book party to celebrate the publication of her memoir Girl Walks Out of a Bar, which she wrote in our writing workshop led by Jennifer Belle. The party was held in The Writers Room, of which Donna Brodie (center) is executive director.

Jennifer, left, gave an amazing toast in which she praised Lisa for her beautiful, candid writing about recovery from addiction.

Lisa’s personal story is inspiring–and humorously told, and I recommend everyone interested in a) lawyer who work in a high-pressure environments b) people who learn to succeed despite life’s challenges or c) having a good laugh buy Lisa’s book!

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.”

Jane Lindskold Creates a Consciousness with a Planet-Sized Body in Artemis Invaded

At a time when science fiction is more likely to portray ecosystems collapsing rather than flourishing, Jane Lindskold‘s Artemis series is an anomaly. Its eponymous planet is not an ecological disaster but rather full of so many wonders that it was once a vacation paradise for a now vanished society.

Of course, like any good science fiction (or fiction, in general, for that matter) Lindskold’s Artemis is full of surprises. But Lindskold, who I interviewed on New Books in Science Fiction and Fantasy, takes care not to bludgeon readers with messages about the dangers of science run amok or human interference in nature.

“I thought it was completely possible to tell a story without lecturing people,” she says in her New Books interview. “I wanted to put together an exotic and interesting world and let people go adventuring on it with me and if along the way they figured out that ecosystems don’t work if they’re exploited, great but I’m not going to write lectures.”

Artemis is a genuine character in the story, one with an evolving consciousness that communicates regularly with one of the main characters. Lindskold has been frustrated that some reviewers have mistaken Artemis for an artificial intelligence when, in fact, she’s a highly complex network made out of various forms of fungi. As Lindskold puts it, “Artemis is a living organism that happens to have a planet-sized body.”

Artemis Invaded, published in June, is the second book set on Artemis. The first, Artemis Awakening, came out in 2014. Whether there will be a third remains to be seen, but Lindskold is full of ideas if she gets a green light from the publisher.

“I think a lot about the people on Artemis and what they are doing and would be doing, and I would find it very easy to pick up again. And one thing I’ve promised myself I would do is if there was a delay between the publication of Book Two and Book Three is that I would write some short stories so that the readership would have something in between.”

Follow host Rob Wolf on his blog or on Twitter @RobWolfBooks

Melinda Snodgrass pits science against religion in Edge of Dawn

What do the jobs of opera singer, lawyer and science fiction writer have in common?

Answer: Melinda Snodgrass.

The author of the just published Edge of Dawn‘s first ambition was to sing opera. But after studying opera in Vienna, she came to the conclusion that “I had a nice voice, [but] I didn’t have a world-class voice.”

She then went to law school and worked for several years as a lawyer. Unfortunately, “I loved the law but I didn’t love lawyers,” she explains in my interview with her on New Books in Science Fiction and Fantasy.

Her first published books were romance novels, which taught her the “extremely valuable lesson of how to finish what you start. Because that actually is a real problem for people. They’ll have brilliant ideas and write the first three chapters and they’ll never finish.”

Her first science fiction novels, the Circuit Trilogy, drew on her knowledge of the law as she chronicled the adventures of a federal court judge riding circuit in the solar system. She also collaborated with George R.R. Martin to create the shared world series Wild Cards.

It was Martin who encouraged her to write a spec script for Star Trek: The Next Generation. That spec script, inspired by the Dred Scott decision, turned into the episode The Measure of a Man, and a job as story editor for the series.

Her newest contribution to science fiction is Edge of Dawn, the third book in the saga of Richard Oort, who leads a team seeking to destroy beings from an alternate dimension that use religion to create strife on earth.
The trilogy is in large part a battle between science and religion.

“Science is all about doubt. It’s about saying, ‘is this real and how can I test it?’ … Religion is about the opposite thing entirely. It’s about faith and acceptance of it without questioning, and I think that that can lead to very dangerous results and outcomes,” Snodgrass says.

The idea for the series came to her New Year’s Eve in 1999. “I thought to myself, why on the dawn of the 21st century are people putting more faith in guardian angels and crystal healing power and tarot card readings than they are in medicine and chemistry and science? … Why are we seemingly going backwards and becoming more superstitious?” she says. “I cooked up this idea about these creatures encouraging us to believe in fairytales and to fear each other and hate each other on the basis of externalities like the color of our skin, or gender, religion all these different things.”

Pirates! In Space! James L. Cambias embraces the near future in his second novel

For his second novel, James L. Cambias chose one of the most challenging settings for a science fiction writer: the near future.

Unlike speculative fiction that leaps centuries or millennia ahead or takes place on other planets, a book about the near future presents a world that varies only incrementally from the present. The risk, of course, is that the author’s vision will all-too-quickly be proven wrong.

In my conversation with him on New Books in Science Fiction and Fantasy, Cambias explains why he was drawn to the near future and how he navigated those tricky shoals in the writing of Corsair, which follows space pirates as they hunt and plunder treasure (hydrogen mined on the moon) using remote-controlled spacecraft.

Cambias is certain that space piracy will come to pass. “I absolutely expect that some point that space piracy or space hacking… will become a criminal enterprise. Space hardware is just too valuable,” he says.

Cambias also discusses the Hieroglyph Project, which is trying to get science fiction authors to write the kind of visionary fiction that has the capacity to spark brick-and-mortar innovation. Cambias contributed to the project’s collection of short stories but also penned a series of blog posts in which he declares the project a “failure.”

Related links:

  • This is Cambias’ second appearance on New Books in Science Fiction and Fantasy. His first interview, about his book A Darkling Sea, is available here.
  • An episode of New Books was also devoted to the Hieroglyph Project.

Follow host Rob Wolf on his blog or on Twitter @RobWolfBooks