‘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.

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.

Podcast with Brenda Cooper

My interview with author and futurist Brenda Cooper is the second of my conversations with nominees for the 2016 Philip K. Dick Award.

Cooper’s novel Edge of Dark (Pyr, 2015) is set in a solar system where human are forced to confront a civilization they’d long ago banished: a race of super-beings who evolved from humans into cyborgs.

The idea of implanting human intelligence into an artificial body is not new. But Cooper gives it a fresh twist by making the ethics of human-robot blending the central theme of her book. The super-beings (called variously ice pirates and the Next) are returning uninvited from their banishment and, in addition to seeking access to natural resources, are offering immortality to anyone who wants it.

Cooper sees Edge of Dark as part of a conversation about the evolution of the human race. “I’m fascinated by transhumanism what we’re going to become,” Cooper says. “I do think that we’re becoming something different… I’m exploring what the human soul might be about.”

All six PDK-nominated authors participated in a joint podcast where they interview each other. It’s available here.

Could a ‘Goblin Emperor’ Have Prevented the French Revolution?

Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor has earned what might be termed a fantasy Grand Slam: the Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel and nominations for the Nebula, Hugo and World Fantasy awards.

To make her achievement even more noteworthy, Addison, like Maia, the royal goblin at the heart of the book, is herself a fiction.

The pseudonym was created by author Sarah Monette to satisfy the demands of the publishing industry. As she explains to me in our conversation on New Books in Science Fiction and Fantasy, her real name had become a “deal-breaker” after sales of the four books of her Doctrine of Labyrinths series had fallen short of expectations.

Tor Books was eager to buy her tale of an innocent and virtually forgotten heir who ascends to the throne of the Elflands after the simultaneous deaths of his father and brothers, but they had one condition. “Tor said, ‘We really want to take you on. We’re very enthusiastic and excited, but we can’t do it under your real name. You have to pick a pseudonym.’ And I wanted to continue having a publishing career. So I picked a pseudonym.”

While the name change might have given Monette a clean slate of sorts, it’s clear to me that The Goblin Emperor‘s success relies largely on her prodigious skills as a storyteller. But Monette modestly speculates that something else might also be at play–that people may also be drawn to an ingredient that is rare in fantasy: idealism.

“So much of fantasy right now has been so influenced by George R.R. Martin–which, hey, that’s excellent as it should be–but it does mean that things have been very grim and bleak and pessimistic and cynical,” she says. In contrast, The Goblin Emperor “is arguing that doing the right thing will win; that is, if you try your best to be ethical and compassionate, you will come out on top.”

There’s no question that Maia’s insistence on behaving ethically is refreshing. He faces down cronyism, social inequality and racism by hewing to the values of his Goblin mother, which lead him, among other things, to regard his subjects as equals.

“I wish I could say that I believed that worked all the time in the real world, but I think if we don’t make up stories where it does work, it’s never going to work,” Monette says.

In fact, it was the real world that inspired Monette to create an enlightened emperor. “What I was doing was actually was trying to figure out if there was a way out of the French Revolution without the guillotine and Terror and all the really horrific horrific things that happened.” In other words, if Louis XV been more like Maia, could the French achieved liberté, égalité, fraternité without so much bloodshed?

Not only do I find Maia refreshing, but I also find it refreshing that The Goblin Emperor is a stand-alone (this coming from someone who wrote a two-part series). Rest assured, however, that while Monette has no plans to revisit Maia, she remains loyal to the speculative genres.

“All fiction is lies but science fiction, fantasy and horror sort of flag themselves and say ‘Hey–not true. This isn’t what the real world is like.’ … The combination of the realistic and the openly unreal is to me something that is endlessly fascinating and that I want to do when I write and I enjoy reading when I find it.”

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

An Author Who Blogs about Real Sex, Writes Novels about Fictional Magic, and is Named after a Rodent

One of the most surprising things I learned during my interview with Ferrett Steinmetz is that the blogger who writes candidly about his most intimate experiences–including his polyamory and struggles with depression–is also socially anxious. He predicted that after our conversation, he’d need a few hours of Clone Wars and solitude to recover.

Of course, I shouldn’t be surprised that a writer is quirky. After all, I’m a writer and I’m kinda quirky. And I can be socially anxious too. But enough about me. Here’s my summary of our conversation that I posted on New Books in Science Fiction and Fantasy:

Ferrett Steinmetz first built an audience as a blogger, penning provocative essays about “puns, politics and polyamory” (among other things) with titles like “Dear Daughter: I Hope You Have Awesome Sex” and “How Kids React To My Pretty Princess Nails.”

In recent years, he has drawn accolades as an author of speculative fiction, writing short stories and earning a Nebula nomination in 2011 for his novelette Sauerkraut Station.

And now he is exploring new waters with the publication of his first novel, Flex (Angry Robot, 2015), which tells the story of a father desperate enough to use illegal magic to heal his badly burned daughter.

The title refers to crystalized magic that, when snorted, gives the user the power to manipulate objects for which he or she has a particular affinity. Cat ladies become felinemancers. Weightlifters become musclemancers. Graphic artists become illustromancers. And the protagonist, a paper-pushing bureaucrat by the name of Paul Tsabo, becomes a bureaucromancer, able to turn paperwork (with the help of flex) into a magical beast.

The only problem is that with flex comes flux–a pushback from the universe that re-balances any magic act with disaster.

Below are highlights from Steinmetz’s New Books interview.

On what he learned at Clarion Writers’ Workshop:

“Bit by bit they kind of stripped away my illusions and showed me how lazy I’d been and how much more effort I had to put to make my stories top notch. … I thought I was a one and a half draft person, but realistically I have to put in 5 drafts before the story starts to get good.”

On how paperwork can become magical in Paul Tsabo’s hands:

“He’s basically useless in a firefight but can send a SWAT team through your door by dropping a magically completed warrant for your arrest on a cop’s desk.”

On why he why a world with flex also needs flux:

“Flux evens out the odds of magic…. I really hate novels where magic is this thing you can do … without any kind of cost…. Frequently what I see is, ‘Oh, I’m a magician. I’ll raise an army of the dead and make my castle out of magic,’ and where is any challenge in that for your characters? Where do they have any stopping points to what they can do?… A big tension in the book as to whether the mancers should even use their magic.”

On his approach to writing:

“I’m what’s called a gardener writer in the business. There are plotters who basically sit down and plot out all their books beat by beat and know their ending the minute they start their first sentence. And Flex, like every story I’ve ever written– basically I wrote an interesting first paragraph and followed it randomly until the end of the book.”

On 9/11 as an inspiration for Flex:

“To a large extent the magic system in Flex is driven by a reaction to 9/11, where something really bad happened–and yes it really was bad… but we really overreacted that wasn’t helpful at all and in fact may have made it entirely worse for us.”

Related links:

Podcast No. 16: An Imagination Too Big for One Life (or One Name)

When an author creates a character, she can churn through as many re-writes as she’d like until she gets it right. This, of course, is in stark contrast to reality, where people get only one shot. There’s no going back, no do-overs, only an inexorable march to the end.

But what if life were different? Catherine Webb, under the pen name Claire North, offers two worlds where this is possible. In The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August (2014), she introduces the reader to kalachakra, people who are reborn into the lives they’ve already lived. The eponymous protagonist, for example, is reborn 15 times at midnight on the cusp between 1918 and 1919.

This is both wonderful and challenging, Webb explains in her New Books interview.

“It’s both liberating because he can go through his childhood knowing everything that’s going to happen in coming events because he’s already lived it, but it’s also horrendous because he can be 5 years old on his 11th life being treated like a 5-year-old… and being forced to re-live his ABCs even though he’s actually hundreds of years old.”

Touch (2015) offers a different way to escape the drudgery of a single, linear life. The main character, Kepler (a moniker assigned by those trying to destroy it), can travel from body to body with a touch. This allows it to live hundreds of years, experiencing the world like a tourist on an endless trip.

Inevitably, the life of a kalachakra or a body-hopping consciousness can become tedious. Harry August struggles with apathy, having seen that whatever he achieves in one life is erased with the reset of his birth. Kepler, too, struggles to find meaning beyond its focus on survival. The ingredients which ordinary people use to measure their lives don’t matter to Kepler. For one thing, it no longer has a gender because it can occupy men and women with equal ease. Nor does it have to experience even mild discomfort: whenever it encounters anything not to its liking, it can jump to another body. Even a hangnail can be enough to send it packing.

Webb herself is no stranger to multiple identities. A fan of pen names (she switches among Catherine Webb, Kate Griffin and Claire North depending on the genre and audience), she is as dexterous at changing writing styles as she is at inventing engaging characters and plots, although sometimes she’s only aware of the shift in style after the fact, almost as if someone else–her own Kepler perhaps?–had done the work.

“I’m not necessarily aware consciously of a decision to write in a different style. … The story has its own logic. I let that do the work, and then I’m surprised to turn around and discover that Kate Griffin sounds very different from Claire North.”

Podcast No. 15: ‘Where Are All the Black People?’ A Conversation with Jennifer Marie Brissett

Jennifer Marie Brissett’s first novel, Elysium, or the World After, portrays a fractured world, one whose seemingly irreversible destruction does nothing to dampen the survivors’ collective will to live.

Brissett showed similar determination in writing the book, whose non-traditional structure places it outside the mainstream. Fortunately, her approach has been validated, first by her teachers at Stonecoast Creative Writing Program at the University of Southern Maine, where she wrote Elysium as her final thesis, and later by the committee that selected Elysium as one of six nominees for the Philip K. Dick Award.

“I wasn’t sure there was a space for me in this writing world. And to a certain degree I still sort of wonder. But the idea that I could write and that my stories are worthy of being told was something [Stonecoast] really helped to foster in me,” she says in her New Books interview.

In some respects, Elysium is simple: it tells a story of love and loss between two people. But Elysium is also complicated because those two people morph from scene to scene changing from two brothers to father/daughter to husband/wife to boyfriend/boyfriend to girlfriend/girlfriend.

When imagining the future, conventional science fiction often focuses too much on gadgets and not enough on people, Brissett says. “We think [science fiction] is about … the new machines we’ll have, the little gadgets that will make our lives easier … but I think the civil rights movement is one of the most science-fictional things that could have probably happened, because all of a sudden this entire group of people that was totally ignored showed up at the table and said ‘We want in.’”

As a child, Brissett found the Wonder Bread future depicted in The Jetsons frightening. “I remember watching as a kid the Jetsons and thinking ‘That is an absolutely terrifying vision of the future. Where are all the black people?’” she says. “The future belongs to everybody. It doesn’t really belong to any one group. And yet when you see visions of the future, it’s usually mostly white heterosexual people wandering around.”

In the early 2000s, Brissett owned an independent bookstore in Brooklyn, N.Y., where she experienced the publishing industry’s struggles firsthand. Rather that discourage her from becoming a writer herself, the experience seems to have solidified her desire to tell stories in the way she wants to tell them. “You have to love this field to be here. If you’re here for money, you are certifiably crazy,” she says.

Spoiler Alert

From 6:45 to 10:24 we talk about a major part of the plot, which is revealed on the book jacket but doesn’t actually emerge towards the end of the book so people might want to skip this part (and not read the jacket copy) if they want to approach the story as a mystery whose answer lies in the book’s structure.

Related Links

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.

Related links:

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.

Podcast No. 10: Astronomy & Astrology in "How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky"

My 10th New Books podcast is live. It’s with Lydia Netzer, who kept my laughing as we discussed her second novel, How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky. Here’s my write-up for the podcast:

Astronomy and astrology once went hand in hand: people studied the location and motion of celestial bodies in order to make astrological predictions.

In the 17th century, the paths of these two disciplines forked so that today astronomy is a well-established science while astrology is allowed as close to the word “science” as the suffix “pseudo-” allows.

Lydia Netzer, in How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky, tries to turn back the clock, inventing a world where astronomy and astrology harmonize once again. The novel centers on two best friends (both astrologers), who conspire to raise their children (both astronomers) so that when they encounter each other as adults, they fall hopelessly in love.

All this takes place in the shadow of the Toledo Institute of Astronomy, a “world renowned Mecca of learning and culture” that’s as fanciful as Netzer’s fictional Toledo, a city where “astronomers and mathematicians walk arm in arm down the street and discuss philosophy and cosmology,” she explains in New Books in Science Fiction and Fantasy.

For Netzer, writing is an opportunity to explore every cranny of her imagination. “Every time you write a book, you go into your kitchen and get everything you made, every dish in the oven, everything in the refrigerator, bring it all out, put it on the table because you might not get the chance to write another one, and you just want to say everything you can possibly say,” she says. “Holding back for me is a big mistake.”  

Among the many topics Netzer addresses in the interview are lucid dreaming, which figures prominently in the novel. While her protagonists gain mastery over their dreams, Netzer, in her own life, has met with less success. “One time … I was able to move a crate of lettuce closer to me in a dream grocery store, which was incredibly disappointing as an outcome. ‘Oh, you’ve managed to control your subconscious, and all you’re going to do is make it easier to buy produce.'”

She also discusses the various iterations of How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky, including a first draft without dialogue. “It was terrible, and I don’t have that draft anymore. Thankfully a very kind friend helped me to not share it with anyone else.”

Other topics she tackles include the mysteries of memory, the differences between first and second novels, homeschooling, and much more.

Related Links