In his New Book, Douglas Lain Asks if the ‘Singularity’ will Bring Man’s Salvation–or Endless Rounds of Mario Kart

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The technological “singularity” is a popular topic among futurists, transhumanists, philosophers, and, of course, science fiction writers. The term refers to that hypothetical moment when an artificial superintelligence surpasses human intelligence, leading to runaway—and unpredictable—advances in technology.

Among the biggest unknowns is whether or not the superintelligence will turn out to be benign of malevolent.

Douglas Lain

“All sorts of visions arise, one of which might be the total annihilation of humanity by [artificial intelligences] and robots. Another might be that we all get to live forever as the robots and A.I.s overcome aging and help us launch into space,” Douglas Lain tells me in the new episode of New Books in Science Fiction.

To some, Lain’s vision of the singularity in Bash Bash Revolution might sound benign. It involves an idealistic government scientist, who designs an artificial intelligence named Bucky to prevent the apocalypse; in short order, Bucky decides the best way to do so is by enticing people to play augmented-reality video games.

But things turn dark when people abandon their ordinary lives—including jobs and families—to don virtual-reality headsets and become their favorite characters in retro video and arcade games.

Told through the social media posts of the son of Bucky’s inventor, Bash Bash Revolution is set in today’s America, with Donald Trump serving as Bucky’s most urgent problem. “It’s a race between Trump’s stupidity and the A.I.’s ability to transform society to make Trump irrelevant. That was certainly how [Bucky’s inventor] conceived of it. His task was to help the A.I save us from ourselves and save us from Trump,” Lain says.

Lain was a guest on New Books in Science Fiction in 2016 to talk about After the Saucers Landed, which was nominated for the Philip K. Dick Award. He is also the publisher of Zero Books, which specializes in books about philosophy and political theory.

A student of philosophy, Lain was partially inspired to write Bash Bash Revolution by philosopher and Marxist Guy Debord who argued in The Society of the Spectacle that images had become the ultimate commodity. “I thought ‘What if you really took that to heart?’” Lain says. “This concept of the singularity and being absorbed into virtual reality and video games and augmented video games is what I came up with—what the society of the spectacle would really be.”

Another inspiration for the book was his frustration with always losing to his son at video games. “I wanted to tell a story about a middle-aged father who could beat his son at Super Smash Bros. Melee,” he says.


Anti-Patent Pirates are the Cure to Capitalism’s Ills in Annalee Newitz’s Autonomous

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Jack Chen is a drug pirate, illegally fabricating patented pharmaceuticals in an underground lab. But when she discovers a deadly flaw in Big Pharma’s new productivity pill, corporate bosses hire a team of assassins to silence her.

Annalee Newitz’s novel Autonomous isn’t only a fast-paced cat-and-mouse story. It’s also an exploration of the rapaciousness of capitalism and its ability to turn everything, even freedom, into a commodity.

Annalee Newitz

Her first novel, Autonomous has been widely acclaimed, receiving Nebula and Lambda Literary award nominations.

“I’ve written a lot about patents and how they affect innovation and how companies use patents to screw customers over,” Newitz, a journalist and founder of io9, told me on New Books in Science Fiction. In Autonomous, she highlights how “something dry and wonky like patent law has a life or death hold over us.”

Newitz also turns the idea of robot rebellion on its head. “I wanted to tweak this idea that is such a big cliché in science fiction about a society that builds a bunch of robots to be their slaves, and these slave robots rise up and enslave humanity.”

In Autonomous, which is set 150 years in the future, robots and human are in the same boat—both subject to servitude. “As soon as we can quantify something that we’re saying is equivalent to human life—we’re saying these robots are human equivalents—it’s super easy legally and ethically … to put a dollar value on human life.” And when that happens, “everyone will end up being enslaved,” she says.


Tilting at Green Windmills: E.J. Swift Changes the Landscape of Paris in her Chrono-Adventure Paris Adrift

 
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Paris has a way of resisting history, absorbing change gradually instead of being transformed by it. The same can be said of Hallie, the protagonist of E.J. Swift’s Paris Adrift (Solaris, 2018), who is compelled by the threat of a future apocalypse to travel through time to key moments in history—and manages to do so without losing herself.

In her conversation with Aubrey Fox and me on the latest episode of New Books in Science Fiction, Swift discusses, among other things, her personal connection to Paris and the city’s allure, the challenge of making the plot of a time-travel story hold together, the power of small gestures to change history, and some of the authors she admires.

Swift’s novel is both a suspenseful chrono-adventure and a portrait of Hallie, a young British woman running from an unhappy life. When she gets a job in current-day Paris as a waitress at a bar, she makes intense friendships among the staff of hard-drinking ex-pats. She also finds a time portal in the keg room.

E.J. Swift

Hallie’s brilliance is in her economy of effort. For instance, with a simple suggestion whispered in the ear of architect Paul Abadie, she prevents the construction of Paris’ famous Sacré-Cœur Basilica (and thereby carries out an important leg of her mission). In a delightful twist, the church becomes a massive green windmill, turning into a symbol for an “Occupy Wall Street”-like movement that will give  Marine Le Pen’s right-wing nationalist party a run for its money (and require another corrective intervention from Hallie).

It’s easy to imagine that traveling through time would become addictive, and Swift explores that possibility, turning the portal into an organic consciousness that literally seduces Hallie, as similar portals have done with other travelers, literally turning them into disembodied spirits. Paris Adrift becomes not just a race to save humanity but a struggle to save Hallie from the portal’s seductions.

I Want to be a Clone: Murder Victims Investigate Their Own Deaths in Mur Lafferty’s Six Wakes

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Mur Lafferty follows through on a great premise with Six Wakes (Orbit, 2017), a novel about six people murdered on a generation starship. What makes the story unusual is that the six victims have to investigate their own murders, a twist possible thanks to the fact that the investigators are the clones of the deceased. To make the story work, Lafferty creates a history of cloning complete with a set of laws that are informed (like any good legislation) by past abuses. It’s a believable world with interesting characters, diverse back stories, and enough mystery and surprises to keep the pages turning.

The only thing that’s not a surprise is that the book has received nods for this year’s Philip K. Dick, Nebula and Hugo awards. Lafferty is no stranger to awards, having won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 2013. She has been podcasting since 2004, using the medium to serialize her fiction and host the shows I Should Be Writing and Ditch Diggers, the latter of which was also nominated this year for a Hugo in the Fancast category.

On the pod, she talks about cloning laws, the risks of reading an unfinished novel in public, the lessons she learned from Agatha Christie, and the thrill of having her work nominated for science fiction’s most prestigious prizes.


This is the third in my series of interviews on New Books in Science Fiction with this year’s nominees for the Philip K. Dick Award. I also interviewed Meg Elison and Tim Pratt. The winner, Carrie Vaughn for Bannerless, was announced at Norwescon on March 30, 2017 during a ceremony in which all the nominees read from their novels.

Alien Artifacts and Talking Squid: A Conversation with Prolific Sci-Fi Author Tim Pratt

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This is the second in my series of interviews with this year’s nominees for the Philip K. Dick Award.

Tim Pratt is the author of over 20 novels, picking up a Hugo Award and nominations for the Nebula and many other awards over a productive and varied career. Until now, however, he’s written mostly contemporary fantasies, avoiding science fiction–even though he’s always been a fan of the genre. “I always thought I just wasn’t qualified to write science fiction,” he says in my conversation with him on the latest episode of New Books in Science Fiction. “I felt my grasp of the physics and orbital mechanics and the hard SF elements weren’t good enough.”

But after finishing his Marla Mason urban fantasy series, he was ready for something new–and no longer felt intimidated by the idea of writing science fiction. “I thought, ‘It’s not as if writing science fiction means I have to write utterly plausible, completely grounded, hard science fiction.’ There’s a continuum that at one end has hard SF and at the other end has Star Wars.”

The Wrong Stars, one of six books short listed for this year’s Philip K. Dick Award, is the first in a planned three-part space opera and reveals Pratt to be a master storyteller. The novel has fascinating characters (including two colleagues who are sewed together into one entity by well-meaning aliens ignorant of human physiology). It’s got a plot of surprising twists that unfolds at a rapid clip. It’s got sufficient threats to the human race to keep the stakes high. It even has romance and humor.

And, of course, The Wrong Stars is full of the kind of mind-bending inventions and concepts that only an advanced alien species–or wildly inventive author–can devise.

“I actually literally made a list when I sat down and started thinking about making a space opera system—what are things I really love in science fiction? I like really interesting weird artificial intelligences. I like bizarre incomprehensible alien artifacts. I like talking squid from outer space. I like wormhole bridges and all the problems that come when you can travel places so quickly that you can violate causality. … I just wrote down all this stuff and I’m going to get most of it in the three books.”


This is the second in a series of interviews on New Books in Science Fiction with this year’s nominees for the Philip K. Dick Award. I also interviewed Meg Elison and Mur Lafferty. The winner, Carrie Vaughn for Bannerless, was announced at Norwescon on March 30, 2017 during a ceremony in which all the nominees read from their novels.

Meg Elison’s The Book of Etta Explores Gender, Writing, and Memory

For my next few New Books podcasts, I’m going to be talking with some of this year’s Philip K. Dick Award nominees.

My first interview is with Meg Elison, who I last had the privilege of speaking with in 2015 when she earned the PKD Award for The Book of the Unnamed Midwife.

Meg Elison

This year, Elison was nominated for the sequel, The Book of Etta.

In Midwife, Elison explored the dangers of being female in the aftermath of an apocalyptic illness that killed more women than men and rendered childbirth nearly always fatal.

Etta is set a century later. The midwife is now revered as the founder of Etta’s hometown, Nowhere, and the midwife’s diary is a bible of sorts, the subject of study and interpretation.

Thanks to the midwife’s influence, women wield power in Nowhere. They are the leaders and decision-makers, and family life is organized into Hives, with one woman free to choose multiple partners.

And yet even in a town where women are safe and respected, Etta feels out of place. She is most at ease on the road, where she assumes a male guise, calling herself Eddy. In her lone travels, of course, it is safer to pretend to be a man. But Eddy is more than mere disguise. Over time, Etta realizes that Eddy is a true expression of her identity.

“People like Etta often grow up feeling that the strictures imposed on them because of their assumed gender don’t suit them at all,” Elison explains in her New Books interview. “In Etta, I get to react to a lot of the gender roles that are imposed on women. … and explore what it looks like to pursue your own individual destiny.”

The Book of Etta has many layers. It is an adventure story, as its hero looks for useful relics among the ruins. It is a rescue story, as Etta/Eddy seek to free women trapped in bondage. And it’s a story about memory and the power of writing, as reflected in the biblical resonance of Elison’s titles.

“I was really drawn to the idea of people without books, people without the ability to print books… People who don’t have books will come to rely on diaries,” Elison says.


This is the first of three interviews on New Books in Science Fiction with this year’s nominees for the Philip K. Dick Award. I also interviewed Mur Lafferty and Tim Pratt. The winner, Carrie Vaughn for Bannerless, was announced at Norwescon on March 30, 2017 during a ceremony in which all the nominees read from their novels.

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, 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.'”

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.