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.”

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.

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.

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.

Podcast with Douglas Lain: ‘I Think Therefore I’m an Alien’

I’m planning to interview on New Books in Science Fiction all six nominees for this year’s Philip K. Dick Award. First up is Douglas Lain, whose After the Saucers Landed (Night Shade Books, 2015) is set in the early 1990s, when aliens, with the theatrical sense of B-movie directors, land flying saucers on the White House lawn.

At first, the visitors seem fit for a Las Vegas chorus line; they’re tall, attractive and never leave their spaceships without donning sequined jumpsuits. Even the name of their leader–Ralph Reality–is marquee-ready.

But is Reality as real as he seems?

That’s the question that Lain poses for readers and his first-person narrator, Brian Johnson, who confronts the alien invasion head-on when one of the interstellar travelers assumes the identity of his wife. This propels Johnson into an examination of reality through various prisms: popular culture, science, philosophy, art, and even fiction.

A kaleidoscope of personalities, artists and thinkers are name-checked as Johnson and his colleagues search for the ultimate truth. There are as many nods to mainstream culture (think Elvis Presley, Arsenio Hall and David Letterman) as there are to high-brow (e.g., René Magritte, Marcel Duchamp and Jean Baudrillard). And topping it off are the writings of ufologists, including the work of one of the characters, Harold Flint, who is so disappointed by the aliens’ tackiness that he decides to stop studying UFOs altogether.

“The big challenge is try and take sometimes abstract ideas and philosophical concepts and bring them to life in the story while not losing any of their complexity,” Lain says. Far easier, he found, was conveying the narrator’s sense of unease and growing paranoia as he learns more about the aliens. “I’ve spent far too much of my life in that kind of state, so it comes naturally me to write about that feeling.”

Melinda Snodgrass pits science against religion in Edge of Dawn

What do the jobs of opera singer, lawyer and science fiction writer have in common?

Answer: Melinda Snodgrass.

The author of the just published Edge of Dawn‘s first ambition was to sing opera. But after studying opera in Vienna, she came to the conclusion that “I had a nice voice, [but] I didn’t have a world-class voice.”

She then went to law school and worked for several years as a lawyer. Unfortunately, “I loved the law but I didn’t love lawyers,” she explains in my interview with her on New Books in Science Fiction and Fantasy.

Her first published books were romance novels, which taught her the “extremely valuable lesson of how to finish what you start. Because that actually is a real problem for people. They’ll have brilliant ideas and write the first three chapters and they’ll never finish.”

Her first science fiction novels, the Circuit Trilogy, drew on her knowledge of the law as she chronicled the adventures of a federal court judge riding circuit in the solar system. She also collaborated with George R.R. Martin to create the shared world series Wild Cards.

It was Martin who encouraged her to write a spec script for Star Trek: The Next Generation. That spec script, inspired by the Dred Scott decision, turned into the episode The Measure of a Man, and a job as story editor for the series.

Her newest contribution to science fiction is Edge of Dawn, the third book in the saga of Richard Oort, who leads a team seeking to destroy beings from an alternate dimension that use religion to create strife on earth.
The trilogy is in large part a battle between science and religion.

“Science is all about doubt. It’s about saying, ‘is this real and how can I test it?’ … Religion is about the opposite thing entirely. It’s about faith and acceptance of it without questioning, and I think that that can lead to very dangerous results and outcomes,” Snodgrass says.

The idea for the series came to her New Year’s Eve in 1999. “I thought to myself, why on the dawn of the 21st century are people putting more faith in guardian angels and crystal healing power and tarot card readings than they are in medicine and chemistry and science? … Why are we seemingly going backwards and becoming more superstitious?” she says. “I cooked up this idea about these creatures encouraging us to believe in fairytales and to fear each other and hate each other on the basis of externalities like the color of our skin, or gender, religion all these different things.”

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: