INTERVIEW: Daryl Gregory, Author of Spoonbenders, Explains Why Psychics Don’t Rule the World and How Fiction Writing is like Magic

If Tolstoy had written Spoonbenders (Knopf, 2017), he might have started it: “All happy families are alike; each family of psychics is unhappy in its own way.” Then again, who needs Tolstoy when you have Daryl Gregory, my guest on this episode of New Books in Science Fiction, whose masterful family drama is tied together with telekinesis, astral traveling, and genuine mindreading magic.

A Nebula Award finalist and an NPR Best Book for 2017, Spoonbenders tells the story of the one-time Amazing Telemachus Family, who have struggled to make ends meet ever since they were exposed as frauds on national TV. Only they really aren’t frauds. Most of them have true psychic gifts. The problem is that psychic gifts aren’t all that they’re cracked up to be.

As Gregory explains, “I was trying to figure out why if people have these powers … wouldn’t they just become rulers of the world? Why wouldn’t they become rich and famous, and I was struck by the rationale that Uri Geller always used, which is ‘there are so many things that can reach out and interfere with your powers that only a faker can make his powers work all the time.’”

Frankie Telemachus, whose get-rich-quick schemes have left him in debt to the mob, can move objects with his mind, but his ability never comes when he needs it. His sister, Irene, a grocery store cashier, is a human lie detector, which makes it impossible to have intimate relationships. And their brother, Buddy, is so worried about the looming end of the world (which he replays over and over again in his clairvoyant mind) that he devotes every waking moment to fretful, obsessive planning to prevent it.

The story is told from five alternating points of view, revealing a cascade of secrets that explain the siblings’ inability to lead fulfilling lives while laying a foundation for their future salvation.

Among the inspirations for the Spoonbenders is the U.S. Army’s Stargate Project, launched in 1978 to study the potential military uses of psychic phenomena. “I was intrigued by the idea that the government was buying into this… Up until 1995, we were throwing millions of dollars into it,” Gregory says. The book, in fact, is set in 1995, when a CIA agent hopes to save the program by recruiting Irene’s adolescent son, Matty, who has just discovered he can astral travel.

Gregory himself doesn’t believe in psychic powers. “I’m a skeptic but I do like it in science fiction.” The only magic he believes in is that which a writer produces from his imagination. “A reader with a writer is making the same kind of contract as an audience with a magician. You know that magician is trying to fool you; you want them to fool you… And that’s what I’m really interested in. You know I’m going to tell you a story… but hopefully you’re willing to go along.”

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It’s Raining Men in Maggie Shen King’s An Excess Male, a Near-Future Vision of China’s One-Child Policy

Maggie Shen King
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Maggie Shen King’s An Excess Male (Harper Voyager, 2017) is a work of science fiction inspired by a real-world dystopia: a country with tens of millions of “extra” men will never find spouses.

The country is China, which in 1979 adopted its one-child policy in the hope of reducing its population of 940 million to around 700 million. The plan was intended to last only one generation, but it endured until 2015. The degree to which the policy has contributed to a drop in China’s fertility rate is an open question, since other factors (like rapid economic development) are also at play. But one consequence of the policy is clear: China now has millions more men than women.

An Excess Male made the James Tiptree Jr. Literary Award Honor List and was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award. It also earned spots on a number of “best of” lists, including Barnes and Noble’s and the Washington Post’s lists of the Best Science Fiction and Fantasy novels of 2017.

King told me that the idea for An Excess Male came to her five years ago after she read a newspaper article about the gender imbalance. “The statistics say that by 2030, a quarter of the men over the age of 35 will not be able to find a wife,” King says. But the problem impacts more than marriage; it also affects social order. “When you have 30 million men at the prime of their lives, testosterone-fueled, you have a society that’s more prone to aggression and violence and crime, or, if you go to the other end, dissatisfaction or possibly depression. It’s a very, very volatile mix.”

In An Excess Male, the government solves the problem by allowing (and incentivizing) polyandry. “What if a woman could marry more than one husband? I thought that would be a really provocative way to talk about how China, in favoring their sons, actually achieved the opposite and a very devastating effect,” King says.

The story is told through the eyes of the members of the family of Wu May-Ling, a woman with two husbands, and their suitor, Lee Wei-Guo, who aspires to be her third. One might expect such a complicated courtship to collapse of its own weight, but Wei-Guo’s determination to find love allows him to develop genuine affection for all three potential mates. Whether these bonds are mutual, however, becomes the crucial question when two characters, for different reasons, become enemies of the state and Wei-Guo’s would-be spouses must risk their lives to help each other as only a family can.

In our conversation on New Books in Science Fiction, King discusses, among other things, the historical precedents for polyandry, China’s repressive policies toward homosexuality, and the role a writing group played in the shaping of her novel.


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.

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.

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


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.

Protest is the new normal

Jan 29 2017 Rally 2

Jan 29 2017 Rally

It’s not surprising that “the most unpopular new president in modern times” is generating daily protests, including a vow to ensure rallies follow him wherever he goes. The remarkable thing is how many people show up at these rallies–three times as many showed in Washington for the Women’s March as attended his inauguration (and 2.5 million joined them around the world). Of course, numbers can always be questioned but with the president making such a big issue out of them, people seem to be more meticulous in their counting.

Jan 29 2017 Rally 3

These photos are from a protest and march on Jan 29, 2017 against Trump’s executive order banning refugees and travelers from seven Muslim-dominant countries. The march went from Battery Park to Foley Square. Media reported that about 10,000 attended but, as Trump would say, it looked like more than that to me.

Sense of Risk: A Trampoline in Mexico



When I was a little kid in Illinois, I remember some neighbors had toy trampolines in their backyards. But by the time I was eight or 10, they had all disappeared, and I remember my mother telling me they’d been banned as toys because too many people were getting injured.

Although I can’t find any record via Google that a ban actually occurred in the 1970s, there’s plenty of information today regarding the risks of casual trampolining and the precautions people should take. That’s why it was both alarming and refreshing when I saw these folks setting up a big trampoline for kids to play on in Parque de España in Mexico City.

Of course, safety is crucial. Playgrounds should be safe spaces. And I’m not saying that trampolines without safety belts and mats are safe toys. But I sometimes get the feeling that the average American playground is too safe.

Does every swing and jungle gym need a mat under it? Isn’t it sometimes OK if a kid, while playing, gets a scrape or a bruise now and then?

Exvotos: Mexican Folk Art

I bought this exvoto (or ex-voto) in the Lagunilla flea market in Mexico City from the painter, Rafael Contreras.
I bought this exvoto (or ex-voto) in the Lagunilla flea market in Mexico City from the painter, Rafael Contreras.

I’ve always loved Mexican exvotos (or ex-votos) ever since I bought one in a little shop in Merida in 2006. At the time I didn’t know they were a form of folk art with a long tradition. I was simply struck by the painting’s emotion. Traditionally, exvotos are left in churches to express gratitude to God, a saint or some intercessor for a miracle. The one I bought depicted 9-11 and flames pouring out of the Twin Towers. On the bottom, it expressed thanks that the author’s cousin survived the attack.

The simplicity of the medium–paint on tin–and the earnestness of the message moved me. But I was also intrigued by the contemporary setting and my connection to it. Of course, the whole world is connected to 9-11 thanks to its ongoing impact on international affairs. But I was also living just a few miles from the World Trade Center and remember the day vividly. The weather was confusingly beautiful, sunny and warm, even as we wondered what the hell was going and worried if anyone we knew had died or was trapped in the rubble. I remember playing in the park with my son, a toddler, who remained unaware despite the fact that fighter jets were racing back and forth and thousands of people were streaming on foot through the streets, wending their way home after the shut-down of public transportation. The exvoto reminded me that I, or New Yorkers, or even Americans, weren’t the only ones worrying. The person who wrote the note about her cousin had also been worrying. Who knows how long she had to wait before news of her cousin’s survival reached her.

Of course, I have no way of knowing if the story about the cousin was real–if someone had been expressing her specific thanks for the survival of a specific person through the creation of this particular exvoto. At the time, I imagined that a woman had written her thanks in a note and left it on an altar and a folk artist had picked it up and painted the scene. But now I know, thanks to Google, that exvotos are a votive offering that frequently combine text and imagery. (The National Library of Medicine had an exhibit on “Medical Imagery in Ex-Votos” in 2008-2009.)

I’m pretty sure that if my exvoto had been connected to a real person, it would have been in a church, not for sale in a shop in Merida. (Then again maybe the church where it had been brought as an offering had been overflowing with exvotos and had sold some off). In the end, I don’t care too much about my exvoto’s provenance. I still find it moving, expressing something true even if the “cousin” is fiction.

This brings me to the exvoto I bought today. Perhaps it isn’t really an exvoto because it doesn’t express thanks. It simply tells a story. “Calixto Verrera and Carmen saw in the sky a flying saucer that followed them to the Zumpango Lagoon.–Zumpango, April 1940.” I asked the artist, Rafael Cardenas, where he found the story. He pointed to his head and fluttered his fingers, indicating he’d made it up. But the date–where did that come from? I asked. Again, he fluttered his fingers around his head and smiled. I asked (not sure why I bothered) about the levitating Lucha Libre fighter, which has nothing to do with the text, and he just laughed.

I found an article about an exhibit, Favores insólitos (Unusual favors), at the National Museum of Popular Cultures in Coyoacán, Mexico City, in 2012 that featured a new brand of exvotos. Contreras’ work was among those featured in the exhibit. According to the curator, Raúl Cano Monroy, classic exvotos became far less common in the 1980s when the painted plates were replaced by “copias fotostáticas, fotografías y recetas médicas, objetos varios, como trofeos, muletas y prótesis” (photostatic copies, photographs and medical prescriptions, various objects such as trophies, crutches and prostheses.)

But the exvoto lives on, as demonstrated in the museum’s exhibit. As Monroy explained in the article: “No obstante, el exvoto tomó un nuevo camino, en el cual hay dos vertientes: la primera es imitar milagros ya existentes en los exvotos tradicionales, cambiando nombres, escenarios, milagreros, ciudades y hasta santos intercesores, con la única característica de que se trata de milagros ficticios. La segunda se deriva de mostrar temáticas desde inusuales hasta transgresoras, que van en contra de la religiosidad y la doctrina católica.”

(However, the exvoto took a new path, in which there are two approaches: the first is to imitate miracles already existing in the traditional exvotos, changing names, scenarios, miracles, cities and even intercessor saints, with the only characteristic that is Of fictitious miracles. The second is derived from showing themes from unusual to transgressive, which go against religious and Catholic doctrine.)

I suppose the exvoto I bought in 2006 fits the first category as it may be fictional in regards to the person named but not fictional in spirit. And the second may be transgressive for not only depicting a UFO as a reality but for not offering thanks to a saint or spiritual intercessor for saving Calixto Verrera and Carmen from being captured and experimented on or perhaps being whisked away to a distant star.

New Animated Video Highlights Ways Courts Can be More Sensitive to Diverse Populations

I helped write, direct and produce this animated video that encourages courts to become more user friendly for diverse populations. Although it might seem simple and straight forward, a lot of discussion and planning went into every aspect, from the script to the animation to the music.


Post-Election Post-Its for Post-Traumatic Stress


The Union Square subway station is full of emotional Post-its mourning the outcome of the election. What’s remarkable isn’t the sheer quantity. What’s remarkable is that three weeks after the election no one has torn them down. I would have thought a Trump supporter would have tried; or someone tasked with cleaning the subway would have done it. At the very least, I’d expect a homeless person to hear a voice telling him to do so.

Maybe people are taking them down and other people are adding new ones every day. In any event, it’s a remarkable record of the shock, grief and fear generated by Trump’s victory.


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