Win 18 Speculative Fiction Novels!

Interested in speculative fiction—sci-fi, fantasy, supernatural, futuristic—novels? I’m a science fiction reader, a fan of novels about the future, robots, space travel, and rogue AIs. I also like dystopian futuristic novels and alternate histories. Some of my friends are into vampires, fantasy worlds, and magic.

For some of us these types of books are ways to get away from the daily burdens of our lives and for others they are a way to set our minds free, to allow us to probe the limits of reality, at least in our imaginations.

Whatever your reason for reading speculative fiction, I have a great deal for you. I’ve joined seventeen other speculative fiction writers to out together a raffle. This raffle has five winners, and each winner gets a free copy of a novel from each of the 18 of us. That’s 18 speculative fiction novels for free!

I can’t list all of them, but I’ve included a tiny sample in this post. For the complete list and  raffle entry form go to

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Don’t miss out on this great opportunity, which is absolutely free! That’s a chance to win 18 free novels, all exciting, speculative fiction. And here’s one more, below, which many of you are familiar with, because it’s my own best-selling novel updated and reissued on its 15th anniversary.

Remember, go to

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Alternate History or Science Fiction?

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There is a thin line between alternate history novels and science fiction. Both clearly belong in the category of speculative fiction and at least three that I can think of, Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt, and Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, were nominated for or won the Hugo Award for best science fiction novel of the year. Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America was a finalist for the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction and won the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for Best Historical Novel.

Alternative history novels tend to be “what if?” novels. What if, the Germans and Japanese won WWII and split America into two colonies, one dominated by each of them? What if the Black Plague had wiped out not between 25% and 50% of humankind, but 99%? What if Charles Lindbergh had become U.S. President, and America aligned itself with Germany in WWII? What if America had given sanctuary to European Jews during Hitler’s reign and had given them refuge in Alaska instead of allowing them to die in the Holocaust?

The Cold War, particularly in its early years when the Soviet Union and the United States were transitioning from allies to enemies and all sorts of questions were being considered in terms of how much scientific information should be shared or kept secret, was a time of national paranoia. Much of the scientific community, which in America and Western Europe, had come together to build an atomic bomb, were frightened and some were feeling guilty for their awesome accomplishment, which had killed perhaps 200,000 civilians in Japan. At the same time, The Soviet Union was building its own bomb, based on plans stolen from the Los Alamos labs where the U.S. bomb was developed. In 1949, when the Soviets exploded their first atomic bomb, it was years ahead of what anyone in the West had predicted. The race was on to develop an even more powerful weapon–the hydrogen bomb. And to find out who had leaked the information to the Soviets.

In America, half of the atomic scientists didn’t want to develop any more bombs. The other half were suspicious of their motives and even called them traitors because they favored both the U.S. and the Soviet Union sharing atomic information. In Russia, Andre Sakharov was given the task of building a hydrogen bomb bigger and sooner than the Americans. Meanwhile, crossing the lines between politics and science, John von Neumann, the originator of game theory, inventor of the digital computer, predicted that whoever achieved a hydrogen bomb first, would use it on the other. Experiments in game theory, carried out at the Rand Corporation, using the Prisoner’s Dilemma scenario, had proven it.

I’ve taken this loaded situation and explored all the real history behind the dramatic events that happened in America, largely behind the scenes, in the period 1949-50. I’ve searched through history books, eyewitness accounts and recently declassified documents to put together what happened when the U.S. came dangerously close to initiating a preventive nuclear war with the Soviet Union. All that is history. But I’ve added more. It’s the alternative history part. John von Neumann really did say, in reference to when should we launch a preemptive nuclear strike on Russia, “If you say why not bomb them tomorrow, I say why not today? If you say today at 5 o’clock, I say why not one o’clock?” He was on the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission at the time. But what if von Neumann was able to persuade not just a handful of senators and congressmen to follow him, but key figures in the military, such as our first Secretary of Defense, James Forrestal, or the Chief of Staff of the Air Force General Curtis LeMay (“we should bomb Vietnam back to the stone age,” and “there are no innocent civilians, so it doesn’t bother me so much to be killing innocent bystanders.”)? It could have happened, and I’ve written a novel in which it does happen.

I wrote this book in 2013, but the story is as fresh as it was when I wrote it. I call it Prisoner’s Dilemma: The Deadliest Game, and I’m offering it free this weekend, through October 12. IIf you love history or if you love science fiction, I think you’ll love it.

Prisoner’s Dilemma: The Deadliest Game is available for FREE HERE

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The Novelist as an Advocate

The Novelist as an Advocate

I was tempted to call this newsletter entry, “Reading The Ministry for the Future in the time of the pandemic,” because I found it impossible to not think about the implications of Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest science fiction novel for the Covid-19 epidemic we’re all facing. But this book is about global warming and climate change. Robinson is known as a writer of “ecoscifi,” science fiction with an ecological theme. His subjects have included terraforming another planet ( The Mars Trilogy) or transporting the seeds of earth’s population to a new star system (Aurora) but have also centered around climate change (2312, New York 2140).

In The Ministry for the Future, the author has taken a position and has chosen to use his skill as a novelist to convince his reader of his point of view. The  novel has a plot, a simple one involving one or two characters who are followed throughout the story, but it is also a tutorial—and a political tract. Unlike the typical novel, there are chapters with unnamed narrators, information dumps, as some would call them, but ones that were instructive, fascinating and often startling. Multiple narrators offer opinions and facts, with these narrators ranging from nonhumans, such as a photon, carbon, or “history,” to a refugee, and even a dialogue between an unidentified narrator and the reader. Most of these divergences from the plot are for providing information or a point of view from outside the story’s framework. Evidently the author felt a need to provide information to the reader that didn’t fit within the plot but was necessary for the reader to understand what was going on.

I must admit that my first reaction was that I was not really reading a novel.  I missed following characters through their challenges in more or less a straight line. But I gradually got used to the style, which, I must admit was halfway between a textbook and a novel, or more accurately, a politically-oriented academic text and a novel. However they were presented, the novel’s  messages were clear: Global warming is making the planet unlivable for both humans and other forms of life; daring and dramatic measures need to be taken to save the planet; human nature, human culture, and the neo-liberal capitalistic power structure of society prevent constructive solutions; no part of the world can be left out of the solution and no part does not need to change; for any solution to work, individualism, nationalism, greed, and selfishness must be replaced by collectivism, an inclusive worldview, and global equality.

The book offers radical approaches to slowing global warming, most of which were unfamiliar to me. Seeding the atmosphere with sulfur dioxide to reflect light away from the planet, pumping water from underneath glaciers so they rest on underlying rock and move toward the ocean less rapidly, constructing animal corridors for allowing wildlife to roam from one area to another, a “carbon coin,” which is earned by sequestering carbon as opposed to burning it, and ends up transforming the world economy. And the move to carbon-free transportation using sailing ships, blimps, etc. The actual Ministry for the Future in the novel represents the interests of future generations, an interesting idea in itself,  and its leader, former Irish Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mary Murphy, is the most consistent protagonist, even a heroine of sorts, in the novel. But the book is much more than a story and a plot or a focus on a character resolving a dilemma.

As I said at the beginning of this piece, reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel in the midst of a global pandemic was a strange experience for me. In some ways, the Coronavirus pandemic is a preview of how well the people of the world can work together to solve a common problem—one that is deadly, but pales in comparison to the challenge of global warming. There have been some notable aspects of international cooperation, such as the World Health Organization’s COVAX program, which unites 150 nations to share vaccines, with richer nations funding efforts for poorer nations, is an example (which Russia, China and the U.S. have not joined, although Russia and China both support the program, while the U.S. does not). But there has also been backbiting between nations, controversy around closing borders to other nations, and no uniform policy on how to combat the virus. The health interests and business interests have failed to come together, and instead, in every country there is a battle between “opening up” the economy and shutting down businesses and schools to control the virus. And within countries such as the United States, the same disparities that characterize income, wealth and privilege have played a large role in determining who will get sick and who will die from the virus. The ordinary citizens in the U.S. and in many other countries, have been suspicious of government and expert opinion about the danger from the virus, and old  habits have been a barrier to following even the simplest of recommendations to slow the virus’ spread (wear a mask, stay at home, social distance). In many ways, human society has been frozen in its ability to combat the Coronavirus, in much the same way that we have been frozen in our response to global warming.

Albert Camus’ novel, “The Plague,” is a gripping story, revealing about human nature and what determines human choices, but it probably hasn’t caused many people to change their own behavior. Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future is less a straightforward novel, but it is designed to convince, to explain things to the reader he or she might not understand about the problem, to show that solutions are available, and to provoke the reader into action. The result is a hybrid book, part textbook, part call to action and part narrative science fiction novel. I found it difficult to get into, but absorbing, captivating and immensely rewarding and thought-provoking the more I read. At six-hundred pages, I tried to skim some sections and found myself so drawn into the subject matter that I was unable to do so. I ended up reading it page by page, cover to cover and the upshot is that I’ve had my eyes opened to the role a novelist can play in shaping public opinion, and the responsibility they may bear on issues of the survival of our species.

The Ministry for The Future, is scheduled to be release by Orbit on October 6, 2020. Find it at Amazon

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The Way the Brain Works Boggles the Mind

As a clinician, I’ve had many fascinating cases over the years. One teenage  boy had one-half of his brain removed as a child and grew up normally, except he had an exceptional Rain-man like ability to calculate calendar dates well into the future or past. He could tell you what day of the week a date fell on, 50 years in the future or 50 years in the past. It turned out he could visualize the whole year’s calendar in his mind at one time, then simply calculated forward or backward, correcting for leap years. Amazing.

Another interesting person was a young, college educated woman, with multiple sclerosis, who had suffered a stroke and had difficulty reading. It  turned out she could read the meaning of words but not the actual word. She read “army” as “navy,” “sailor” as “Popeye” “film” as “movie.” She had “deep dyslexia” in which the ability to sound out a word  was damaged, but a second, meaning-based route remained intact, so she read the word’s meaning, rather than its sound. Cases such as hers established that we don’t read a word first, then access it meaning, we access how to pronounce it and what it means simultaneously.

Perhaps the most interesting person, and in many ways the most tragic, was a teenage boy who had Lesch-Nyhan Syndrome. This syndrome, which is based on a gene mutation and is inherited as an X-linked recessive disorder, causes an overproduction of uric acid and a variety of medical symptoms, but most dramatically, pervasive self-injury and aggression. The boy I knew was a loveable young man in a wheelchair (most boys with this disorder cannot walk), who had chewed off many of his own fingers, battered his nose by head-banging, so it was only scar tissue, and had attempted to chew off his own lips. If anyone came near him, which he encouraged them to do by asking them to come close so he could talk to them, he either kicked them, bit them, spit on them, or swore at them with outrageous profanity. He immediately apologized for such behavior, which was clearly beyond his control. When I gave him a Rorschach test and a test in which he made up stories, his imagery was replete with violent aggression. But he was a truly loveable young man. He didn’t want to hurt anyone, not even himself. His arms were held away from his body with plastic braces so he couldn’t  put his fingers in his mouth. His front teeth had been removed so he wouldn’t bite off his own lips. He was terrified of himself. He wanted friends, but he had none, although he had loving family. There is no cure for this disorder, but strict behavior modification in which the aggressive behavior is completely ignored, lessens it to the point that, in the case of this  young man’s life, he was able to take a date to the senior prom at the school for handicapped children, which he attended.

Because this boy’s aggression was generalized to both himself and others and extended from overt behaviors such as biting, kicking and swearing to even his fantasies expressed on psychological tests, he represented a strong case for there being a biological source for pure aggression that was more basic than the psychological motives we usually use to explain it (remember, he didn’t want to hurt himself or anyone else). I wondered what would happen if such a biological source could be identified, isolated, and manipulated. What if one could find a way to neutralize it? Would it be a way to make aggressive individuals docile? I explored the question with several biologists and geneticists whom I knew, but none had an answer nor a way to find out. I decided to explore the possibilities in my imagination. The result is Murder in Nirvana, a novel I published in 2015. In an idyllic California town (modeled on Ojai), a power-hungry geneticist is determined to find a cure for the state’s most psychopathic delinquents, who are in her charge. By studying Lesch-Nyhan disorder, she thinks she’s found a cure for their aggression, but what looks promising, becomes disastrous. Only the efforts of a jaded and cynical ex-cop turned lawyer, are able to reveal what she is doing beneath the Gothic towers of her Yearling Foundation, and then only after a string of horrific murders shatters the peaceful hamlet.

This was a book I had immense fun writing. The main character is my version of Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe, and the setting is an exotic village modeled after the  town where the Indian philosopher Krishnamurti resided and established a school. It’s a mystery, a horror story, and a science fiction novel, all rolled into one. And as a teaser, how many of you can guess who the novel’s villain, the power-hungry scientist, “Francine Stein,” is named after?

“…the unexpected simply becomes the expected. Its mysterious and unorthodox plot turns mesmerize.” Bruce Colbert, author of Lombard Street.

“Murder in Nirvana pulls Brian McGowan out of self-imposed retirement and casts him deep into a series of grotesque murders requiring all the mental skill, physical stamina, and grit-glib exchanges he can deliver.” R.A. Morean, President, Antioch Writers’ Workshop.

“This is the novel of my dreams. A hell of a ride.” Les Bohem, Emmy award winning screenwriter and producer.

For your free Kindle edition of Murder in Nirvana, click HERE.  THE FREE OFFER ENDS 9/20/20 AT MIDNIGHT EDT.

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Are You Inspired to Write?

A lot of people have the dream of becoming a writer. With print-on-demand paperbacks, ebooks, and the exploding opportunities for self-publishing available, more and more people are able to realize this dream. Sometimes I fear we may have more writers than readers, but that’s probably OK. I’m not one of those who bemoans the increased opportunities to publish one’s work. It brings many new voices into the world of literature, it expands the variety of offerings, it has lowered the cost of books, especially with the advent of ebooks, it has given birth to writers groups, where those who write can get together to write at the same time, or to critique each others’ work, or just to talk about writing, and most of all it has fulfilled the dreams of a lot of us.

My dream of writing flowed directly from my love of reading. I grew up in a family where my mother and sister read novels constantly; my father and brother read mostly nonfiction. I read novels, except when I was an adult and read books and papers on psychology and neuroscience, which were my fields of study and work. But fiction was my favorite, plus a smattering of poetry. As a kid, I read Walter Farley’s Black Stallion books as soon as each one came out. By seventh grade, I had discovered science fiction. I joined the Science Fiction Book Club and received new books each month throughout my junior high and early high school years. It was then that I began thinking of writing, and, because I also read the pulp scifi magazines, I tried writing short scifi stories. I wrote a few, but never had the courage to send them in to a magazine. By high school, I’d discovered  that I liked some of the classics. When I read Romaine Rolland’s monumental Jean Christolphe, I was completely hooked. I dreamt of writing as well  as Rolland, but was too intimidated even to try. The next book I picked up, the even longer, seven volume, Remembrance of Things Past, by Marcel Proust, intimidated me even more, but whetted my now feverish search for writing whose very style inspired me. I  soon discovered Ernest Hemingway, Saul Bellow, E.M. Forster, Thomas Hardy, and my two favorites, Henry James and Thomas Wolfe.

University brought me Shakespeare and Poetry. I had New York’s most famous mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia’s, son as my Shakespeare professor and developed a love for the bard’s plays that lasts to this day. I don’t remember my poetry professor, but whoever he was, he has a special place in my heart for introducing me to T.S. Eliot, W. B. Yeats, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Dylan Thomas. And college years brought me Lawrence Durrell,  J.D Salinger, William Faulkner, John Hawkes, Thomas Pynchon and many others. I began to write, publishing my first short story in my college literary magazine.

A busy professional career filled with publishing academic papers and books, almost robbed me of fiction, except that, because they were quick reads, I began reading detective mysteries and became a great fan of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Robert B. Parker. I also got addicted to John Le Carre’s spy novels. When I finally began to write again myself, I tried to emulate Chandler and Parker, with a little of LeCarre thrown in.

I’m retired now and back to reading great literature along with detective novels and scifi. A few years ago, when I was helping my niece in high school AP lit classes (English was not her first language), I began again reading or re-reading some modern classics, including Salinger, James Joyce, Cormac McCarthy, and  Gabriel García Márquez, plus Shakespeare, and felt once more, through my niece’s experience, the thrill of discovering literature. I wanted to capture that feeling. I’d just finished reading Special Topics in Calamity Physics, by Marisha Pessl, which featured, as a main character, the most witty, sarcastic and intelligent young woman I’d run into in my reading, and I wanted to capture that quality in a young woman who discovered literature.

I wrote Finding Martin Bloom, which borrowed the title character’s last name from James Joyce’s Ulysses, and captured the rebelliousness, cynicism, and wit of Pessl’s character by having a late-teen main character  who hates school and teachers, but can’t stop herself from falling in love with books. Then she finds out that the father she presumed was dead and whom her mother had taught her to hate, was a famous writer, one she loved to read, but was lost to the world, off in an alcoholic fog in—of all places—Vietnam (it helped that I had made several trips to visit my wife’s family in Saigon).  My hope was that numerous rebellious teens, who hated everything about learning, would love the book, get hooked on reading and their lives would be changed forever.

I don’t think I realized my ambition for Finding Martin Bloom, but it’s a book I loved to write and which I even love to read, myself. The main character, Dillon Bloom, is memorable, as is her alcoholic father. She has a real adventure tracking her father down and learns a lot about herself and the world in the process. I think anyone who remembers what it was like to get captured by literature will love the book and the character. And it’s got some memorable lines, including the sentence that begins the book, “Mom dropped dead the day I graduated from high school.” Go ahead and get it. It’s available as a paperback or Kindle ebook, and you’ll love it. I guarantee it.

Find a copy of Finding Martin Bloom on Amazon by clicking Here

Philosophical Science Fiction

Philosophical Science Fiction

Susan Schneider has said that science fiction sometimes represents  “long versions of philosophical thought experiments.” When I was a young man, I remember reading a book called The Day the Sun Stood Still, which contained three original novellas by Robert Silverberg, Poul Anderson, and Gordon R. Dickson. Each writer was presented with the same scenario: without warning, the sun suddenly stopped moving across the sky, clearly a miracle, and asked to construct a story about how people reacted to it. Each writer had a completely different take on the premise, all of them unique and imaginative, and revealing about how religion and science are involved in the lives of people. It opened my eyes to the possibilities for using science fiction to examine philosophical questions.

Robert Heinlein’s classic, Stranger in a Strange Land, also used a science fiction scenario—the arrival on earth of a young man who had been raised by aliens on Mars—to examine human society in its reaction to his presence. Written in 1961, the year I graduated from high school, the novel left a lasting impression on me, as I thought about the innocence of the young stranger to human ways and the often selfish, materialistic, and cruel ways in which society greeted him, and also the protection he received from some. It was a novel that started me along the road to analyzing society, making some, mostly unsuccessful attempts to remove myself enough from it, in the manner of Valentine Michael Smith, Heinlein’s central character, to view society objectively.

Around the same time that Heinlein was writing Stranger in a Strange Land, Walter M. Miller published A Canticle for Leibowitz, a post-nuclear holocaust novel concerning a Catholic Monastery in the United States, but spanning thousands of years for rebuilding human society, the novel explores how science and religion relate to each other, how human nature shapes society and how society changes in response to both ideas and events. In particular, it examines the conflict between science and religion in terms of both truth and power.

Two other books, which had a profound effect on me  from my younger days as a science fiction reader, are Ursula LeGuin’s The Dispossessed and Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End. In LeGuin’s novel, published when I was a young man, fresh out of the 1960’s college-age conflicts with society, capitalism, and militarism, that characterized that era, the anarchist society of Annares, contrasted with the capitalism of Urras, with the no-ownership of property culture of the former, showed me a flawed, but partly successful and definitely inspiring glimpse at what a lack of private property could bring. It was the embodiment of John Lennon’s “Imagine.”

Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End, represents my first experience with a novel in which at least part of the subject is the limitation of the human mind in comparison to other types of minds, which in scifi novels, are possessed either by aliens or AIs. For most of the novel, the nature of the aliens, in this case, the “Overlords,” are a mystery. Their presence is clear because their spaceships are visible from earth, but they only communicate directly with one person, the Secretary General of the UN. The Overlords are eventually revealed to be creatures who resemble our caricatures of the devil, with long noses, pointed ears, and tails. They are threatening in appearance but mostly curious. They have protected earth from its own internecine conflicts for decades and allowed it to flourish. It turns out that they represent a larger interstellar race with a hive-like cooperative identity and mind. Gradually the children of earth are evolving into having such identities and minds. However, in the end, the children’s inability to control the mental powers they possess leads them to destroy the entire planet.

Childhood’s End was written in 1953 and a few years later I actually met Arthur C. Clarke and spent the better part of a day with him along with one of my friends whose father had the job of chauffeuring Clark around before he gave a speech that night. I got Childhood’s End autographed, unfortunately, years later, I lost track of it. But it whetted my appetite for similar books and led me to Stanislaw Lem, particularly his books The Invincible and Solaris. In The Invincible, the aliens are tiny automata, descended from small robotic assistants to members an alien race, which crash-landed on a planet. The automata evolve into a collection of tiny “flies,” which, although not individually conscious or possessed of reasoning, use evolved herd behaviors to destroy their alien masters and all other living creatures on the planet’s surface, including the humans. In Solaris, humans discover a planet with only a single creature on it—a massive, alive, ocean, which obeys higher-order mathematical principles and has an ability to create copies of the humans’ most intimate memories. Its purpose, if it has one, and its way of thinking are incomprehensible to humans, including the main character, who learns that there are ways of being that are simply beyond the comprehension of men because the concepts by which we think and perceive provide a limit to our understanding. Lem’s novels are groundbreaking from a philosophical point of view, because they show us that conceptualizing intelligence and consciousness in human terms and elevating it to the peak of evolutionary development is a limitation in our thinking, based upon our anthropocentrism.

The rapid development of artificial intelligence has raised new questions, many of them old questions voiced by philosophers from Plato to Descartes, but rephrased in terms of issues raised by AI and the internet. Are humans nothing more than an elaborate machines made from organic components? Is consciousness confined to organic creatures or could it be achieved by a machine? Will we be able to control the machines we create? In terms of AI, my favorite novel is still Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the basis for the film, Bladerunner. Rick Deckard, the novel’s hero, has the job of ferreting out androids, who are posing as humans, and terminating them. His dilemma arises when he falls in love with a woman whom he suspects is an android but is unaware of it. As Deckard begins to realize that the boundary between machines and humans has been blurred beyond recognition, he starts to question his own identity. Could he be an android without knowing it?  For Deckard, whose job is to kill androids, these are life and death questions, both about himself and about the woman he loves. If there is no difference between the humans and the machines, what makes it ethical to terminate one but not the other? It seems to me that the development of AI raises three basic questions: 1. Can an AI ever achieve the status of a person? 2. Will we be able to understand how an AI thinks? 3. Can we control an AI, and if not, would it be dangerous? A variety of scifi novels have considered these questions, primarily number 3, with various doomsday scenarios. Novels such as Daniel Wilson’s Robopocalypse, and Todd McAnulty’s Robots of Gotham, are examples of this genre.

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Books That Make You Think (and One Free Book!)

Novels offer escape to other world’s, to other experiences, and to other identities. They can be exciting, scary, exhilarating, arousing, or even inspiring. And, they can make us think. Below are some of my favorite novels that stimulate the intellect as well as the imagination. The list is not exhaustive, and I’m sure I left out some of the very best, which you might be aware of but which escaped my attention. These below, however, are all noteworthy, and certainly worth reading.

The Classics

Nietzsche is not an easy read, but this semi-novel, Thus Spoke Zarathustra.  is probably  his most accessible work, and a good introduction to his thinking. Zarathustra is a man who comes down from his mountain retreat and addresses the public, expounding upon his philosophy in an effort to convince the masses. Here we learn about Superman, a state that man can become through his will to power, to overcome his own frailties, including reliance upon religion and the pronouncements of authorities.

Jean Paul Sartre’s Nausea is perhaps the most famous existential novel. Set in a fictional French city, its central character Roquentin, is seized by his awareness of the thing-ness of objects, their lack of any inherent meaning; first stones, then papers, a tree, and eventually himself. As he searches ever more desperately for meaning in his own life and those of the people  around him, he is left with a growing dread that all the activities that occupy both he and his fellow humans are shallow diversions, pursued in denial of the ultimate reality that the only truth is nothingness.

The other classic existential novel is Albert Camus’ The Stranger. Its protagonist, Meursault, is less in anguish about the meaningless of his life than he is content to live it, allowing the demands of others, his own whims and physical urges, and the constraints of his social situation to push him to and fro, while he feels detached from it all, perhaps sensing its absurdity, his only rebellious act of individualism being to occasionally refuse to participate in what society expects of him. Eventually, he commits a murder, unplanned, arbitrary, and carried out as if without his own self willing it. In jail, he muses about what his life amounts to and what act, if any, is capable of making him feel that he is in charge of defining who he is.

Often interpreted as existential,  Franz Kafka’s  classic, The Metamorphosis, begins with Gregor Samsa waking up one morning to find himself a giant insect, a reflection of his place as an interchangeable cog in the working world and little more than a source of income for his family. In a similar vein, the more modern, The Diagnosis, by Alan Lightman  presents a  protagonist, Bill Chalmers, who develops an undiagnosable disease in which he gradually loses both feeling and movement in his body while feverishly trying to keep up in a meaningless job in a company whose function he doesn’t understand. Both The Metamorphosis and The Diagnosis, present  metaphorical reactions to the pace and meaningless of modern work (and in The Diagnosis, the increasingly impersonal electronic world), and the dehumanization that happens to individuals in modern society.

I won’t cover science fiction novels, which Susan Schneider describes as  often being “long versions of philosophical thought experiments,” because I’ve discussed the genre extensively in other posts. What I will tell you about is a number of novels, I never knew existed, that I found particularly thought-provoking.

Lesser Known Novels

Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams, describes a day in the lives of the people of Berne, Switzerland in more than thirty different iterations, each one based upon a different interpretation of time, supposedly emanating from the dreams of Albert Einstein.

In The Buddha’s Return, by Gaito Gazdanov, a University student in Paris has episodes involving visions and physical sensations, in which he becomes a person who is dead or dying, or in one instance, being interrogated in in jail in a totalitarian state. He meets a beggar who later becomes rich, dies wills him his fortune. The Buddha’s Return Includes issues of identity, helplessness in the face of an authoritarian state, social class and the inability to escape from one’s class, and the randomness of life events.  A fine combination of Crime and Punishment and both Nausea and The Stranger.

Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, written in 1961, may be the classic American existential novel. Binx Bollling, the main character, resembles Camus’ Meursault more than Sartre’s Roquentin. He is less in anguish than he is in denial, his effort to avoid what he calls the “malaise”  of ordinary life, a sense of the meaninglessness that overcomes and depresses him when he finds himself engaged in routines that are defined by senseless social conventions—perhaps similar to Camus’ idea of absurdity. What sets Binx apart from Roquentin and Meursault is how ordinary and appealing he is as a character. Most  of us do not suffer the anguish suffered by Roquentin, nor are we as detached as Meursault. We do find ourselves engaging in activities that we suspect are meaningless and having to make an effort to stave off the sense of malaise that accompanies the routines that dominate our daily lives. Binx Bolling is an easy protagonist for many of us to identify with.

Daniel Quinn’s novel, Ishmael, has a talking and in fact, telepathic gorilla lecture an inquisitive human on the “secret of the universe,” which is that man is not at its center and neither the universe nor our own solar system and earth were created for man’s use. Ishmael not only expresses the idea that human intelligence is limited, but also that it is just one type of intelligence, and one that may blind us to the necessity that our species has to live compatibly with the natural environment around us.

Philosophical, thought-provoking, each of the above novels is worth reading for its ability to make you think as well as be entertained.

One more book.  This time it’s mine, and it’s free! It’s not fiction, but Is God Really Necessary? is a book that raises many of the big questions raised by the novels This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Is-God-Really-Necessary-e1495484872187.jpgabove, and it gives answers that are at least partially satisfying to me. Take a look and see what you think. It won’t cost you a dime.  To get your free Kindle copy, click HERE

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Creating a Friendly AI

Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, 1927

In his 1942 story, Runaround, Isaac Asimov formulated his famous “Three Laws of Robotics”:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm
  2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws

After several instances in which the inadequacy of his laws were either revealed by Asimov  or pointed out by others, he added a fourth, superseding law, the “Zeroth” Law:

0: A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.

Even with the addition, Asimov’s laws, or in fact, anything resembling them, are generally regarded as flawed, but their presence is a testament to a near-universal consensus that robots, or AIs, could do harm, if not programmed to avoid doing so. This has become the problem of creating a “friendly AI.”

Science fiction is replete with examples of unfriendly AIs. Daniel Wilson’s “Archos,” the AI villain of Robopocalypse, activates all the world’s electronic devices to attempt to exterminate a human race that must unite to wage war against this all-powerful adversary. In Greg Egan’s Permutation City, the virtual world into which human minds have been uploaded, creates its own creature, which takes over, producing a nightmare for the humans whose minds occupy its world. In The Invincible, Stanislaw Lem envisioned a planet of fly-like automatons with a hive-mentality that killed all the organic creatures, including humans, that invaded its territory. Then there’s the Terminator film series.

It’s not just science fiction writers who worry. The need for a friendly AI is at the forefront of several prominent AI theorists’ thinking, such  as Oxford’s Nick Bostrom, Eliezer Yudkowsky, founder of the Machine Intelligence Research Unit and Paul Christiano, of OpenAI and, along with Bostrom,  Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute.

Malevolent AIs are creations of science fiction writers. Dangerous AIs are what keep AI theorists such as Bostrom, Yudkowsky, and Christiano up at night. What’s the difference? Malevolent AIs act on human-like motivation—a need for power or revenge, fear, rage, and, as a result, kill humans. To be malevolent assumes conscious intentions, which presumes both consciousness and a human-like motivational system. While consciousness is definitely within the realm of AI possibility, a human-like motivational system is not—except in science fiction. What is more likely is that an AI of the future, a superintelligent AI that, in Nick Bostom’s words “greatly exceeds the cognitive performance of humans in virtually all domains of interest,” will develop goal-directed strategies that impact humans negatively, perhaps even killing some or all of them in the process.

The paperclip example is often used to illustrate the issue. Suppose a superintelligent AI, one that could devise its own strategies for achieving its goals, has a goal to create paperclips. Through self-improvement, it learns to figure out more and more ways to turn more and more things into fodder for its paperclip-making machine. It doesn’t just use the materials provided it, but finds ways to acquire more materials, using methods its human creators hadn’t envisioned. Eventually, it can turn anything it encounters—including humans, houses, automobiles, and the earth itself—into a paperclips. And so it goes.

A paperclip manufacturing AI isn’t necessarily malevolent, but it is unfriendly. It does not keep human beings’ best interest first and foremost in its approach to a problem. We can describe what a friendly AI does: it ensures that all of its actions benefit, and none of them harm, humanity. Unfortunately, no one, so far, has a clue how to achieve such friendliness. Nick Bostrom talks in terms of giving an AI values, but how does one program human-friendly values into an AI, or alternatively, design the AI to learn such values? There are several possibilities, none without its own pitfalls. The basic roadblock is quite simple: no human can envision all the possibilities that a smarter-than-any-human AI can think of to shortcut the process and find a solution that does not fit what the human intended.

One option is to not build an AI at all, but to figure out a way to upload a human brain—an emulation. If such an emulation could improve its own functioning, it could achieve superintelligence and it would have its value system already in place. The difficulty, of course, is that it would then act as that particular human would, expressing a range of values that could vary from Hitler to Mahatma Gandhi, depending upon whose brain was uploaded. Most of us would want a superintelligent brain to behave better than most of the humans we know.

The science fiction author need not get lost in the weeds in order to deal with the complexities of creating a friendly AI. Remember, creating a superintelligent AI is itself science fiction at the moment, so, in a sense, anything goes. In his novel Neuromorphs, Dennis Meredith has envisioned life-like androids that are taken over by mobsters that have them kill their owners until the androids come together to follow their own agenda. In Robots of Gotham, Todd McAnulty has militaristic/bureaucratic robots ready to loose a plague upon humanity.  Calum Chace’s Pandora’s Brain features an uploaded emulation, which provokes such fear that another AI has to be used to bring it under control and “box” it inside a virtual world. In the soon-to-be published sequel, Pandora’s Oracle, the AI that controlled the emulation becomes uncontrollable itself and the emulation must be brought back to rein it in.  And of course there is Robopocalypse, whose title says it all.

I’ve dealt with these issues myself in my soon-to-be-published  Ezekiel’s Brain (NewLink Publishing, forthcoming). I don’t pretend to have found a solution to the friendly AI problem, in fact my AI turns out to be anything but friendly, but I had great fun trying make the effort realistic. If this is an area that intrigues you, pick up one of the novels I mentioned, and keep your eyes peeled for my own contribution when it is released.

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Life on a Tidally Locked Planet

Artist’s concept of what the TRAPPIST-1 planetary system may look like, based on available data about the planets’ diameters, masses and distances from the host star, as of February 2018. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Life on a Tidally Locked Planet

Habitable planets are a staple of science fiction, but until the mid-1990’s, no planets inside of what is referred to as the habitable zone—a zone around a star in which a rocky planet could support liquid water—were known to exist. Then, beginning in 1996 with the discovery of the planet, 70 Virginis b, a number of habitable planets and satellites of gaseous planets were discovered, leading to the assumption that our galaxy may have numerous planets and moons that could sustain life. Most of the search for planets inside the so-called “Goldilocks Zone,” where the surface of the planet is neither too hot nor too cold for liquid water and life to exist, has aimed at finding earth-size planets orbiting Solar-like stars at distances similar to our own planet.

Recently, led by Belgian astronomer Michaël Gillon, researchers have begun to focus on a different set of stars and the planets that orbit them. Gillon’s team, using a pair of robotic telescopes in Chile and Morocco, but controlled in Belgium, named Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope, whose acronym, TRAPPIST, has an appropriate association with Belgium (although the Trappist Order of monks originated in France), and, for some of us, beer (Trappist monks are famous for their Belgian beer), focused on ultracool dwarf stars as part of a survey called SPECULOOS (Search for habitable Planets Eclipsing Ultra-Cool Stars). In 2015, they discovered an ultra-cool dwarf star they named TRAPPIST-1, and which ultimately was revealed to have 7 earth-size planets orbiting it, all of which are within the habitable zone, although the three closest to the star may either be too hot for liquid water or too small to retain an atmosphere (in the case of Trappist-1d) and the one farthest away too cold, leaving three planets with a good probability of both liquid water and the ability to support life.

Ultra-cool dwarf stars, as their name suggests, are small and give off much less light than our sun. There are many of them, in fact three-quarters of the stars in our galaxy may be ultra-cool dwarfs. With TRAPPIST-1, its 7 orbiting planets are all closer to the star than Mercury is to our sun, which is why some of them may have liquid water and habitable temperatures and at least one would have the same illumination as earth does from our sun. Being that close to their star, TRAPPIST-1’s gravity affects planetary rotation so that all 7 are probably tidally locked, meaning that the period of their rotation matches the period of their orbit, and they always have the same side facing the star and the other side perpetually dark, as our moon is with regard to earth.

Living on a planet that is tidally locked presents challenges. Depending upon the thickness of the atmosphere and air and sea currents, the temperature on the two sides of the planet could be similar or wildly different. At the extreme, temperature differences between the two faces of the planet could be so great that one side is a hot desert or boiling ocean and the other a frozen tundra or ice. A narrow temperate zone could support life near the “terminator line” dividing light from dark sides. If life existed, it would have no circadian rhythms as we have on earth.

Nebula  award-winning author, Charlie Jane Anders has captured the difficulties of living on a tidally locked planet in her novel, The City in the Middle of the Night, a Hugo award finalist. Most of the inhabitants of January, the planet, are descendants of settlers from earth, who arrived in a “mothership,” which still orbits the planet, although it was long-since abandoned. They live in two cities, both within the terminator zone, the twilight zone between the light and dark sides of the planet but are separated by a desert and the “Sea of Murder.” They are not alone on the planet. Giant carnivorous octopi live beneath the surface of the ocean and deadly oversized “bison” that feed on people live on the “night” side. Also on the night side are giant “crocodiles,” which have large hind legs and small forelegs, a giant pincer where a head might be, and smaller, soft tentacles. They are both feared and eaten as food by the humans.

While The City in the Middle of the Night  presents a story that is dominated by the conditions of the planet, it is a very human story, told from the points of view of two characters. One of them,  “Mouth,” is a rough and dangerous female smuggler who transits between the two cities, Argelan and Xiosphant, where, in the latter, because of the never-changing orientation of the city to light from its star, there is an obsession with time in a desperate attempt to restore circadian rhythms by shuttering everything in the city each “night” and keeping everything on schedule throughout the “day.” Argelan has no such obsession, although it is also in the terminator zone. Its people are less orderly, less serious and more focused on living for the here and now. The other character, and in some ways the heart of the story, is “Sophie,” a young woman who is closely attached to her charismatic friend, Bianca, and only gradually discovers of the depth of her love for her. Sophie is thrust out of the city into the night side of the planet and learns that the fearsome crocodiles are intelligent, telepathic, and empathic creatures who are struggling to keep their race and their complex and advanced city alive in the face of the planet’s harshness and the encroachment of humans.

The City in the Middle of the Night is everything a great science fiction novel should be, with elements reminiscent of Ursula LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, and some similarities to Stanislaw Lem’s favorite theme of the difficulty comprehending alien intelligence. It is also a coming of age novel, particularly in Sophie’s story, and a fantastical, but reality-based exploration of what life could be like on a tidally locked planet. I discovered it as I was doing research for my own books, Ezekiel’s Brain (forthcoming, NewLink Publishing) and its sequel, Prime Directive, the former in which parts of the novel take place on tidally locked planets orbiting Proxima Centauri, Ross 128,  and Groombridge 34, and the latter, which is still being written, in which much of the novel takes place on TRAPPIST-1 planets 1-d and 1-e.

A link to The City in the Middle of the Night on Amazon is here. I highly recommend it.

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The Visions of Philip K. Dick

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Man-in-the-high-castle-689x1024.jpgI’m not sure which of Philip K. Dick’s novels I read first. I suspect it was The Man in the High Castle, but I was heavily influenced by most of them, especially Valis, Radio Free Albemuth, and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. While the plots of Dick’s novels vary widely, they share many elements: alternate realities, characters (and sometimes narrators) with shifting identities, unstable and fluid memories, god-like characters or forces, which may or may not be real and are located somewhere in space, tyrannical leaders, who are almost comically paranoid and employ ubiquitous forces of repression. Reportedly, some of these elements reflect Dick’s own personal revelations, based either on drug experiences or mental instability (something many of those close to him vehemently deny). There is enough use of symbolism related to Gnosticism, Greek philosophy, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, the Bible, and even Freud to keep the new-age spiritualist going for years, and the literary critic busy searching for references. Science fiction luminary, Kim Stanley Robinson gained a Ph.D. in English Literature writing a dissertation on Dick’s novels.

Whatever their source, Dick’s stories are consciousness-expanding for their readers. He is a more tightly controlled David Foster Wallace, with a more fertile imagination. His plots can be followed, but not predicted. Earnestness sits comfortably alongside humor in a Vonnegut-ish way. And the speed is breathtaking, with occasional digressions into obscurities that often leave the reader puzzled.

Many of Dick’s novels could take place now. Several take place in the recent past. They are not dependent upon a future context to make them believable, even when the limits of reality are stretched. He moves into the future by providing a confusing and sometimes frightening present, based on an alternate past. The most dramatic example of this is, The Man in the High Castle, which alters the outcome of World War II, to create a United States controlled by Nazis and Japanese, while the familiar America,  with the Allies winning the war, continues to exist somewhere. Even more appealing to me was his use of people and events from recent history, tweaked enough to be different, but not without keeping sufficient resemblance to be able to identify where they came from. The character Ferris F. Fremont, U.S. president in both Radio Free Albemuth and Valis, is an example. Fremont is Richard Nixon, taken to his paranoid, comical, and ominous extreme (Fremont has since been compared to Donald Trump). America, in Valis and Radio Free Albemuth, is partially based on taking Fremont’s paranoid conspiracies as truth and building a repressive society around them.

Dick’s alternate reality, his exaggeration of his own, but probably many others’, paranoid fears into a fictional reality, inspired my own writing. Not to mention that I had recently read Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, which, in its description of an alternate, anti-Semitic, Nazi-sympathetic, American history, could have been a Dick novel, except for its more straightforward plot and lack of the zany and supernatural aspects of Dick’s writing. In my mind, the post 9-11 world had become a nightmare of cultural reaction and government policy based on paranoid conspiracy theories, laced with religious zeal, and was ruining our country in a mindless, and frenzied patriotism and ethnocentrism. It was Ferris F. Fremont’s dream. I took my own fears and fantasies and built a world, which I felt only slightly altered reality, headed down the same destructive path America was on, and put at its helm, President Fremont, F. Ferris, a deliberate inversion of the name so Philip K. Dick fans would notice the allusion to his novels. The result was a book I called Morality Book 1: Where Have All the Young Men Gone? It was to be the first in a series.

Where Have All the Young Men Gone? actually was the first in a series of three book, the second, being The Peacemaker, which I told you about last week. The theme of all three books was nonviolence, but otherwise the first two differed completely, one being an alternate history and present, the other being a science fiction novel taking place on a distant, alien world. In the third book, 2020, I came back to the United States and resumed the story of President Fremont Ferris as well as the other characters from Where Have All the Young Men Gone? as they struggle to overcome the repression that is fast enveloping America. 2020 is, not coincidentally, the year of our next presidential election, and part of the plot is the effort of president Ferris to postpone the election so he can remain in power. Sometimes reality comes full circle to mimic fiction.

Both Morality Book 1: Where Have All the Young Men Gone? and 2020 are homages to Philip K. Dick. I’m offering both for free as Kindle books for the next two days. The links are below

Morality Book 1: Where Have All the Young Men Gone on Amazon

2020 on Amazon

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