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.'”

Becky Chambers, Author of The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, Enjoys the Short, Well-Earned Way to Success

In the new episode of New Books in Science Fiction, I interview Becky Chambers, author of the Wayfarer series. Her first book, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (Harper Voyager, 2016), was originally self-published then quickly picked up by a traditional publisher, garnering numerous accolades. It was shortlisted for, among other things, the Kitschies, a British Fantasy Award, and the Arthur C. Clarke Award. Her second book, A Closed and Common Orbit (Harper Voyager, 2017), was nominated this year for a Hugo for Best Novel and won the Prix Julia Verlanger.

Billed as a space opera, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet does the unexpected: rather than focus on battles or threats to civilization it offers an intimate portrait of the relationships among the nine members of the Wayfarer spacecraft’s multi-species crew. And with A Closed and Common Orbit, Chambers does the unexpected again: rather than follow the Wayfarer’s crew on a new adventure, it focuses on two of the lesser characters from the first book, offering poignant coming-of-age portraits in a far-flung corner of the universe.

In the interview, Chambers discusses how she creates new species and cultures in such convincing detail, why she decided to place humans in the humbling position of being a minor species in the universe, how being gay informs her sensibilities as an author, and the journey the The Long Way took to publication–from Kickstarter campaign to international acclaim.

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.

Nebula Awards Offer a Guide to the Next Generation’s SF Classics

Julie E. Czerneda

Since their establishment, the Nebula Awards have proven a trusty guide to what the next generation will consider a classic.

Take for example, the inaugural award for Best Novel, which went to Frank Herbert for Dune in 1965. Dune‘s impact can be measured in countless ways–not only in the loyalty of critics and fans (who have left in excess of half a million ratings on Goodreads) but in the proliferation of sequels, prequels, movies, TV shows, games, and more.

The 2015 Best Novel winner, Naomi Novik (for Uprooted), joins the ranks of science fiction and fantasy’s greatest authors, including Samuel R. Delany, Ursula K. Le Guin, Larry Niven, Isaac Asimov, Connie Willis, William Gibson, Octavia E. Butler, Kim Stanley Robinson and many more.

But the Nebulas, voted on by the members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, recognize more than novels. Award categories include stories, poems, and dramatic presentation.

The abundance of categories and nominees posed a challenge for Julie E. Czerneda, the editor of the newly-released Nebula Awards Showcase 2017 (Pyr, 2017), which anthologizes the winners of the 2015 awards. Although Czerneda–who I interview on the latest New Books in Science Fiction podcast–had free reign to decide what to include in the anthology, she still had to fit everything within a strict word count.

Fortunately, Czerneda knows a thing or two about getting a book to print. As an accomplished anthology editor and author–her ninth and final novel in The Clan Chronicles series, To Guard Against the Dark, is out this month–Czerneda relished the freedom she had as editor of the showcase.

Every editor gets to put their stamp on it. “I’m the first one to put in novel excerpts for all the novels nominated,” Czerneda says.

Another first for the current anthology: the winners in all the major categories are women. In addition to Novik for Best Novel, Alyssa Wong won for Best Short Story, Sarah Pinsker for Best Novelette, Nnedi Okorafor for Best Novella, and Fran Wilde received the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy. The Damon Knight Grant Master, which recognizes a distinguished career, was C.J. Cherryh.

This year’s editor, of course, is also a woman. For Czerneda, editing the showcase allowed her to celebrate a field to which she herself has made significant contributions.

The publication of her new book, To Guard Against the Dark, marked to the exact day the launching of her career as a writer in 1987 with the publication of A Thousand Words for Stranger. As it turned out, A Thousand Words became the first book in The Clan Chronicles. “Nine books, 1.6 million words later, I’m finishing it,” Czerneda says. “I like to leave possibilities, but I like to get to a good ending.”

 

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.”

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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.

Advertising is Nothing New, as this Juxtaposition of an Amish Choir and Alien: Covenant Posters Makes Clear

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Often on Saturday, a choir (I think they might be Amish) sings in the busy Times Square subway station. They set up in front of a panel of back-lit ads that changes from week to week. On a recent Saturday, the juxtaposition of puritanically-styled singers next to a promo for the latest Alien flick seemed to carry a hidden message. The end is near? Ain’t life funny? What we define as ‘alien’ is only a matter of perspective?

In any event, it made me think that advertising isn’t a modern idea. Humans have always tried to sell each other stuff–whether it’s goods, or an experience (like a film), or a religion, or a political ideology.

What’s surprising is that you’d think the pretty sounds of a chorus — their voices are lovely, echoing through a station usually dominated with groaning, screeching trains — would attract far more people than a black-and-white image of an anonymous mouth contorted in a terrified scream. And yet I for one would rather watch Alien: Covenant than hear a sermon of any stripe. And I suppose the fact that in just a few weeks Alien: Covenant has earned over $100 million means that I’m not alone in that regard.

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.”