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.

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.