‘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.

Combating Human Trafficking in Houston

One of the best parts of my day job is that I get to meet and talk to people who are trying to make the world a better place. Ann Johnson, an assistant district attorney and the human trafficking section chief of the Harris County District Attorney’s Office in Texas, is one of those people. Her office is making a concerted effort to stop human trafficking.

A key step in their efforts is to recognize that people arrested for prostitution are victims rather than criminals. Instead of charging these victims with a crime (as many prosecutors around the country still do) Ann’s team either dismisses the cases outright or at least offers a way to avoid prosecution.

One of the office’s diversion programs, SAFE Court, gives those aged 17 to 25 who are charged with prostitution the opportunity to clear the charge from their criminal records by completing a year-long program of monitoring and social services.

You can listen to my interview with Ann here or on iTunes.

Risk Assessment Tools are Good (but not without Risk)

A significant trend in criminal justice these days is the adoption of risk-assessment tools. These tools–usually short surveys administered to people who have been arrested or charged with a crime or are being released from incarceration–are used to predict the likelihood of recidivism make decisions about mental health/drug treatment or social services.

In a promising development, social scientists have been seeking to validate the effectiveness of these tools. If a tool is dubbed “validated” or “evidence-based” it means there is empirical research to show that its predictions about  the likelihood of recidivism or the appropriateness of a particular social service intervention have a high likelihood of being correct. (I write “high likelihood” because nothing is ever going to be 100 percent predictive).

The application of scientific methods to these tools is exciting; it holds out the promise of being able to remove bias from decisions in the justice system (which, as we know, is rife with bias) and relying on only objective facts to decide punishment. But these tools aren’t foolproof (what is, after all?) One of those dangers is that they can overlook bias so deeply embedded in our culture, they perpetuate it.

That’s one of the points that Professor Reuben J. Miller, assistant professor of social work at the University of Michigan, and his research collaborator Hazelette Crosby-Robinson made when I interviewed them for the Center for Court Innovation’s podcast series New Thinking. They outlined some of the criticisms that have been leveled against risk assessment tools. Those criticisms include placing too much emphasis on geography and criminal history, which can distort the actual risk for clients from neighborhoods that experience an above-average presence of policing and social services. “Geography is often a proxy for race,” Miller says.

You can listen to the podcast, which was recorded on Sept. 30, 2016, on the Center for Court Innovation’s site or iTunes.

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.

The Eternal Optimist: An Interview with Philip K. Dick Award Winner Ramez Naam

My new podcast for New Books in Science Fiction is an interview with Ramez Naam. Here’s my write-up that goes with the interview:

In the fictional battles between humans and machines, the divide between good and bad is usually clear. Humans, despite their foibles (greed, impulsiveness, and lust for revenge, to name just a few), tend to find redemption, proving mankind’s basic goodness through love, friendship and loyalty.

Machines, on the other hand, despite their superior physical and mental capacities, usually prove themselves to be (largely through the absence of the aforesaid capacity for love) to be dangerous and unworthy of the empires they seek to rule. But what if the humans and machines were combined – not merely cyborg-like in a jigsaw mix of man and robot but more elegantly, through a perfect blending of mind and matter? Ramez Naam does just that in his Nexus trilogy by wedding a human being’s soul – her memories, feelings and intellect – to the most powerful computer ever built.

In Apex (Angry Robot, 2015), the trilogy’s third installment and winner of this year’s Philip K. Dick Award, things go awry. Su-Yong Shu, the brilliant Chinese scientist whose consciousness has been folded into a massive quantum computer deep under Shanghai, isn’t feeling so hot. In fact, she’s gone insane. It may seem, at first, as if Naam’s message is the same – that any artificial intelligence, when it gets smart enough (and even when it’s the result of a machine-human blend) craves power and will lead to mankind’s destruction. But Naam’s message is more complex: while the original computerized version of Su-Yong Shu goes on a destructive rampage, a copy of her consciousness in India finds its way back to sanity.

And through the journeys of these identical twins, we realize that Su-Yong Shu is neither human nor machine. She is something new, a powerful and mysterious being who has all the best and worst qualities of both man and machine – seemingly infinite capacities of intellect, strength, fear, paranoia and love. In his New Books in Science Fiction interview, Naam discusses the pluses and minuses of human enhancement, why he’s remained steadfastly optimistic about transformative technology since the 2005 publication of his non-fiction book More Than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement, and the extensive outlines he develops before sitting down to write. This is the second time Naam has appeared on the podcast. Dan Nexon interviewed him in 2013 about the first book in the trilogy, Nexus.

From the Interview:
“I have contact lenses in. I have a smart phone. I have a Fitbit. My fiance is on birth control. We have already upgraded ourselves quite a lot. My view in reality is that generally when you give someone the option of technology that improves their life in some way, and it’s safe enough and it’s cheap enough and enough people have done it already … people are just going to do it because people want these things. But everything is a little bit of a double-edged sword. No technology ever comes with zero downsides. So my phone means – the digital world means – that hackers can steal my identity or steal from my accounts, or it lets child porn go wild, or the NSA can spy on all of us far more easily.” –Ramez Naam

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: 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.

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