Literary Gifts from the Primary Alternate Timeline

The recent discovery that every human decision begets a new quantum timeline might leave those of us in this timeline wondering what’s out there beyond the limits of our backwater universe. As of this writing, the technology that revealed the existence of these timelines has yet to give us any means of sending living humans from one to another. The scientist who tested this met with himself – and an unfortunate fate.

It turns out, however, that with some effort, books can provide worlds where universes slip from one possibility to another. It must be admitted that with higher technology these transfers change the objects, sometimes beyond recognition. So the books that move from these alternate realities may be changed as well; at this point we can (and may) never know. The science seems to indicate that we can most easily glean the wisdom of what’s called the “Primary Timeline,” and we are not on it. As we go to press, the books listed below are available through selected merchants. Given the uncertainties of the transfer process, your copies may not be the same as anyone else’s.

boyle-the_terranautsT.C. Boyle is a well-known writer of literary fiction in this timeline. This is why it is clear his “newest” novel is not from around here. The Terranauts (Ecco; $26.99) might seem like a crafty piece of historical fiction based on the true story of the Biosphere “experiments” from the early 1990’s. It’s funny, takes a hard look at both humans, what they (we) are doing to the planet and how they (we) manage to turn potentially life-saving science into a fashion show. That sounds like the T. C. Boyle we know hitting on all cylinders.

Obviously, this is not the whole story. Boyle’s supposedly “earlier” novel, A Friend of the Earth (published in 2001) was set in a vision of 2026 that reads a lot like current events. Environmental collapse (check), corporate takeover (check), what was “sci-fi” to Boyle some 15 years ago is newspaper articles today. His so-called science fiction novel turns out to be literary romp – like much of his work.

On the other hand, The Terranauts reads as if it were a science fiction novel written in 1975. The characters are full of optimism and humanity. They’re going to save the world one shovel-full at a time, because their scientific experiment is designed to turn them into subsistence farmers, as well as a romantic triangle of romantic triangles connecting inside and outside the enclosure. The Terranauts could be a science fiction novel set in the past, or it could be a science fiction novel written in the past, in our alternate timeline. One can only hope that the timeline from whence The Terranauts was retrieved is as well informed about humanity and the environment as is the novel and those whom the author brings to life within it. Hear the author discuss the book by following this link.  Or listen below!

kornbluth_pohl-the_space_merhantsThere can be no doubt that Tim Wu’s The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads (Knopf; $28.95) hails from an alternate timeline, one where it is a work of fiction, unlike here, where it is all too real. The title might lead you to believe that it is an early novel by Kurt Vonnegut or Philip K Dick, and reading it may evoke the queasy paranoid terror of these authors at their best. In fact, our timeline produced The Space Merchants by science fiction writers C. M. Kornbluth and Frederik Pohl in 1953(!), a satire about an overpopulated world where business has taken the place of government and politics is in corporate control. (When published it was fiction.) Some experts contend that The Space Merchants might be an example of an early literary inter-timeline transfer.

Meanwhile, back in this timeline, The Attention Merchants certainly reads like a page-turning thriller, in which advertising as we know it is invented in the 1830’s by Benjamin Day, who was trying to find a way to make money selling newspapers. Selling the information printed on paper was not a moneymaker. However, selling the attention of those who bought the papers to read proved to be an ingenious source of endless money, up to this day.wu-the_attention_merchants

The history of attention proves to be a real attention-grabber itself. The intricate intertwining of technology combined with the most outrageous lying, thieving human behavior cannot help but bring to mind the best satiric science fiction of our timeline. Needless to say, readers who enjoy Kurt Vonnegut or Philip K. Dick will find The Attention Merchants a dystopian delight. It’s informative and filled with engaging characters and stories, including the man who actually created and sold Snake Oil. (Using rattlesnakes, “They never bite me!”) Wu makes an incredibly important point in this book. For all that we try to be aware of our declining resources (air, water money), one we tend not to think about is thinking itself, that is, attention. More and more, our attention is being usurped and used by those who would sell us anything from a new widget to a new nation. You’ll never hear the phrase “paying attention” in the same way after reading this book. You can hear Tim Wu saying “paying attention” by following this link to our interview.  Or immerse yourself int he days of future passed below….

simon-the_wasp-that-brainwashed_the_caterpillarWith Matt Simon, we find ourselves facing a book we hope comes from an alternate timeline. If Tim Wu’s The Attention Merchants terrorizes your soul by invoking paranoid fear, Matt Simon’s The Wasp That Brainwashed the Caterpillar: Evolution’s Most Unbelievable Solutions to Life’s Biggest Problems (Penguin; $20) scares you the old-fashioned way. It’s like a sketchbook for the body-horror gross-out scenes from a flock of David Cronenburg flicks. Yes, The Wasp That Brainwashed the Caterpillar claims to be non-fiction, then substantiates its claim with lots of notes, and even beautiful illustrations of the monsters it so lovingly describes. That said, having been (literally) engrossed by the compulsive experience of reading the book, I can say with complete authority that I intend to substantiate nothing, seeking out not a single horror to be found herein.

teiTaking as his premise the miracle of evolution, author Matt Simon writes charmingly and disarmingly of the generally unpleasant extremes evolution will go to get the job done. In seven chapters covering critters from the “Ant-Decapitating Fly” to the “Tongue-Eating Isopod,” Simon crafts compelling portraits of evolution’s snappy answers to some really weird questions. In case you wonder what a “Tongue-Eating Isopod” looks like in action, illustrator Vladimir Stankovic is ready to show you in illustrations that are shockingly non-nauseating. Why, that little worm-like thing sitting in the fish-victim’s mouth is almost cute! With Matt Simon’s The Wasp That Brainwashed the Caterpillar, you can turn a frown upside-down – and your stomach – in the same sentence. Hear an interview with the author (if you dare) by following this link.

Or the lightning round!

zikovic-the_five_wonders_of_the_danubeThanks to the combined efforts and talents of Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke and Johann Strauss, The Beautiful Blue Danube is a waltz that flows effortlessly from this world to others beyond our imagination. Apparently, it also flows back from those worlds as well, bringing us The Five Wonders of the Danube (Cadmus Press; $26) by the suspiciously named Zoran Zivkovic, translated beautifully from Serbian by Alice Copple-Tosic. Zivkovic’s book is a collection of five stories from five bridges crossing the Danube, but immersion in his prose makes it clear that this is not the Danube we are used to, and Zivkovic’s idea of what a story might be is equally unusual.

The stories set at each of Zivkovic’s Danube bridges examine the costs of Art, but the stories themselves are clearly not from any tradition in our timeline. Yes, Zivkovic gives us poignant characters and gorgeous descriptions, and yes, events move from beginning to end. But as we read the stories, the details add up in a parallel manner as opposed to serial. Images echo, events resonate. In “First Wonder: Black Bridge, Regensburg” an enormous painting on a huge canvas appears, attached to the cables on the bridge. The canvas shows a sunset about to unfold, and as news of its appearance spreads, those in charge conspire to own it. The off-world content here is the storytelling itself, because as you read of this wonder, small scenes and sentences even, suggest connections beneath the surface flow of the prose. Zivkovic expertly crafts two stories in one; the events you read about, and the story in the connections between the unconnected. As you read further into the book, the parallel images stack up and craft a narrative like no other.

If you remember how you felt when you first discovered that tattered paperback of Jorge Luis Borges’ Ficciones, you are partway there. This is a book where everything that happens could happen, but also where everything that happens would never happen. In our timeline, of course, he also has a collection out titled Impossible Stories. Rest assured it lives up to the title.

egaeusRegardless of the timeline, the shift of seasons remains universal. The tradition of observing the winter solstice, that moment when the world stops in darkness and turns slowly to the light, varies greatly across the continuum of the possible. For evidence, look no further than A Midwinter Entertainment (Egaeus Press; £33), edited by Mark Beech, “Representing an Exclusive Collected Edition of Curious Pieces.” Apparently, in the timeline that Beech either hails from or has access to, the year 2016 looks a lot like 1916, revised by the collaborative efforts of Rod Serling and Nathaniel Hawthorne. The book is dedicated to “the ghosts of Ernest Nister & Ernest Dowson.” Our history records Nister as a mid-19th century publisher who invented the automatic pop-up book and Dowson as a Decadent Romantic poet. It’s clear that they are much better known in the history from whence this book is delivered.

Beech manages some pure magic with A Midwinter Entertainment. Pick up this book and you will find yourself in a gentler, kinder world that is shot through with slivers of darkness that will rend your heart even while they bring a fun, silly grin your face. Those who enjoy a good bit of supernatural detection will be pleased to find a brand new Connoisseur tale (“The Celestial Tobacconist”) by Mark Valentine and John Howard. Two of the stories herein (“The Secret” by Anatole Le Braz and “Il va neiger…” by Francis Jammes) are “translated” by George Berguño, presumably from a foreign language as well as from an alternate history. As a reading experience, A Midwinter Entertainment delivers you to a cozy fireplace surrounded by the darkest of shadows. Matching the written content is the sumptuous presentation. Illustrations, endpapers, everything in A Midwinter Entertainment conspires to convince you that the world you think you inhabit is less real than the world you encounter on the pages.


Here’s an experiment you can perform at this very minute. Cross your eyes until you’re really seeing double, then slowly, very slowly, bring them back into unity. The moment just before the images merge is most likely the tiny but significant distance between our world and that of Julius Knipfel, Real Estate Photographer, the hero of Ben Katchor’s Cheap Novelties: The Pleasures of Urban Decay (Drawn & Quarterly ; $22.95). Katchor’s been slipping between Knipfel’s world and ours for more than a quarter of a century, collecting one-page observations whose oddness serves only to highlight just how weird the most mundane of lives can seem.


Reading the stories in Cheap Novelties is a wildly entertaining and unusual experience. Katchor’s art and storytelling seem pretty low-key, but the further you go, the more you realize that the world you’re reading about, while quite similar to ours, simply cannot be the world in which we live. Every detail is slightly out-of-kilter, and Katchor’s stories do not come to conclusion as much as they seem to layer up, one over the other. He draws the ugly with beauty, but one begins to suspect that his mind, so to speak, is equipped with a set of corrective lenses that is sharp but slightly off-the-mark. You realize the power of his work when you’ve read enough of the book to begin thinking that Knipfel’s world has a leg up on ours. Here’s a link to my interview with Ben Katchor. [Or enjoy the double vision below!]

Or a much shorter chat….

parker-damageOne of the premiere independent publishers of our world is Tartarus Press, run by the Raymond B. Russell and Rosalie Parker. Apparently, in another timeline, they’re both writers, and another independent (from our timestream), PS Publishing, brings us their writing. Damage (PS Publishing; £20) by Parker, is a collection of stories that can best be described as “strange,” though that does not quite capture the whole of it. Yes, stories like “Selkie: A Scottish Idyll” and “Beth–Harvest Home” incorporate elements of the fantastic, and have an eerie beauty. But the Parker, who is not from around here, (which is to say, our timeline) permeates her work with a delicate but tough sense of the feminine. Love and beauty share the stage with distilled terror. Damage is, in the words of Peter Sellers, “life’s rich pageant,” strolling across a bed of nails.

russell-the_stones_are_singingWhile all of the other authors mentioned in this piece are either coy about or in denial of their alternate origins, Ray Russell makes it quite clear in The Stones are Singing that the novella you hold in your hands is not a product of the world in which you are reading it. John Dowson, a British ex-pat lives in Venice, and cherishes his view. He’s quick to notice a jacket draped across a balcony. It seems a bit out of place. He turns around, takes a tumble and hits his head. When he picks himself up off the floor – how long was he out – he’s got a bad case of tinnitus. In the days that follow, his world seems to slowly slip off its tracks. His life as he remembers it no longer quite matches the actual past, if such a thing even exists.

It’s obvious that nobody of this world could write with such a powerful sense of subtle displacement. Russell’s book is compulsively readable, a page-turner about the most minor events of a mostly ordinary life. It’s masterfully written and plotted, yet it is also sweet and generous. It’s close enough to pass as a local, but by the time you finish you will instinctively know that it’s not from around here. The Stones are Singing finds music in the smallest differences of everyday life. It’s there – just listen. (Or alternately, listen to my interview with the Ray Russell and Rosalie Parker.)  [Or drop into the alternate timeline below….]

Even as you read these words, there’s another version of you, who did not read them. Like it or not, your decision to read sent you into another reality. You are actually 100% responsible for this world. Will that knowledge affect your next decision? Your journey has already begun.

His Holiness The Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Doug Abrams Create the Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World

When we speak of trade, we’re usually discussing economics. But there’s a more primal meaning – trading words, as in dialogue. This is where philosophy began, and even in our world suffused by science, it turns out that dialogue is a powerful tool to examine what it means to be human. Doug Abrams, once an editor at HarperCollins, had come to the decision that the one thing he wanted out of life was to work with Archbishop Desmond Tutu. At an event with the Archbishop (charmingly, he likes to be called “Arch”), Abrams found himself speaking with a representative of the Dalai Lama. It took years to bring about, but that meeting did happen. Nobody should be surprised that the book is The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World.

abrams_lama_tutu-the_book_of_joyScience and spiritualism have been on a collision course for more than a century, and Abrams architects this book to examine the crossroads without the crash. But before I even got to the joy, I did have to ask Abrams how he set this all up, and that story in itself is both amazing – and joyful. But that’s outside of the book. Inside, what you find are series of Socratic dialogues concerning joy by two men who Abrams describes as “…the two most joyful people on the planet. In addition to their question for one another, and those posed by Abrams, the two asked for questions from the public. Out of the 1,000 or so questions they received, the most common, Abrams told me was not, “How can I get more joy for me?” but instead, “How can joy co-exist in this world so full of suffering?” The question itself implies exactly the sort of compassion required to make life not just worth living, but joyfully so.

I spoke with Abrams about the power of the very situation itself, and also about his very wise decision, embraced by his co-authors, to include the latest cutting-edge neuroscience that underpins and support much of their philosophical discussion. The two men wanted a common ground upon which the book would function –and they found in our latest understanding of how our brains work on a physical level. That said, they also give readers and listeners lots of great advice for creating joy in your life by transforming your perspective.

As it happens, Perspective is one of the Eight Pillars Of Joy discussed in-depth in the book. I took Abrams through each of them – Perspective, Humility, Humor, Acceptance, Forgiveness, Gratitude, Compassion and Generosity to get a deeper understanding of how each is understood. We also discussed the Joy Practices that are given to the reader begin a personal transformation.

From science to spiritualism, from philosophy to physics, the means by which we understand ourselves are growing deeper and more powerful every day. The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World offers readers (and listeners to the podcast!) an array of powerful tools for changing the way we both see and feel the world.

You can hear a report I did for KAZU by following this link. Please leave a comment!

Here’s the long form interview; you can follow this link or listen here below. Please send email here to request more interviews like this!

John Langan Catches The Fisherman: Rising Tides

We find infinity, in all it’s terrifying endlessness, where it is least expected – our own hearts. We have a bottomless capacity to dive into sorrow, alas, much more frequently than joy. Grief is gravity and it can take us to unimagined and unimaginable depths. The stories of what happens to bring about grief may be prosaic and everyday, but the experience of the emotion is not so easily endured or conveyed. You may find you step a bit outside of this world.

langan-the_fisherman-smallJohn Langan’s The Fisherman takes us inside grief to the place that sorrow creates beyond this universe. We meet Abe, a desk jockey in a calm corporation, after the death of his wife by cancer. Langan’s journey into Abe’s world is powerful, compelling reading. Abe’s a nice guy, with a serious fishing hobby to help him compensate for the loss of his wife. Nothing can accomplish this of course, but fishing helps. When a co-worker named Dan endures an even greater loss, the two begin a tenuous, not-quite-friendship based around fishing. Their journey takes them to Dutchman’s Creek – which may or may not exist. And beyond, which, informed by their terror of life and the grief it involves, definitely and unfortunately does exist.

Langan has a low-key, hunched-over-the-table prose voice. It’s like listening to a fascinating friend. As Abe tells his tale, he swings between the reality of his shared grief and hints of what is to come. The upshot is that readers find themselves enveloped in the emotions and terrified by not just grief, but its emblems beyond this world. It’s a page-turning, powerful experience, made even richer by Langan’s canny and unique plotting. At the center of this tale is another, almost novella-length story, reflecting Abe’s story in a shattered mirror. As one leads to the other and as Abe and Dan find out just how deep Dutchman’s Creek is and where it might lead, Langan crafts a triumphant vision of cosmic horror and personal grief, deeply intertwined, inextricable.

The Fisherman is a very interesting work no matter what school of reading you hail from. Langan’s understanding of character and his finely-tuned prose might make you think you’re reading a literary novel even as the weird creeps in. The same powers of observation and composition are applied to scenes of escalating phantasmagoria. And even in the most otherworldly passages, Langan keeps us at one with the humanity of his characters. Langan’s visions of the fantastic are also reminders that prose can accomplish what no special effect could ever hope to achieve.

john_langan-2016Langan’s understanding of his own work is as deep as the work itself, as is his knowledge of his literary predecessors. He’s best known for his short story collections, and we talked at length about how he came to create The Fisherman, which was itself a lengthy process. The Fisherman is easily one of the best novels of this year, a bracing feat of understanding the infinity of our inner world and the potential for cosmic horror to be found not in alternate dimensions, but here, now – in our own dark hearts.

Take a step sideways to listen to John Langan speak from a heart that is still beating.

Tim Wu Suggests Spend Our Attention on The Attention Merchants: “How can my product be a deliverance for you?”

The more limited a resource is, the greater its worth. We’re quick to apply this to externalities – air, food, water, energy, and money, for example. But we all own a hidden resource, exploited for immense profit on a daily basis. Each week of his or her life, every human being has 168 hours of attention, mental acuity that we can devote to anything we wish. Sure, much of it goes to sleep and the basics of getting around. Those spare moments when we are able to choose how we spend our attention are sought after with mathematical ruthlessness by those who hope to resell our experience. We are the ultimate product.

wu-the_attention_merchantsIt has not always been this way. Tim Wu’s The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads might be described as brief and action-packed history of advertising. But Wu is well aware of the cultural, moral and epistemological implications of his investigation. The mastery to be found in The Attention Merchants is Wu’s ability to let the story he is telling braid into the bigger picture about what’s going into our heads. Suffice it to say that after reading this book, you will be much more precise when you decide whether to want to spend – or pay – your attention to anything.

Wu quickly takes us back to the beginnings of advertising as we know it, with the New York newspaper industry in the early 19th century, when Benjamin Day decided he could make money from a paper that lost money in per-issue sales by charging merchants to advertise. It took almost a year, but after that our world was profoundly changed. The audience became the product, and as Wu says, nothing has been the same since,

Wu is a brilliant storyteller, and he keeps the pages turning relentlessly as he takes us through two hundred-ish years of advertising history. What has happened is that we were invaded. Our private lives, once devoted to family and home, slowly but surely featured less family and more merchandising. The home was once considered a private space, and the idea of hearing advertising on the radio was as foreign and weird as it would (will?) be for us to see billboards in Church, or a sermon “Brought to you by …” But between the television, the computer, the radio and our smart phones, every moment of our waking lives is up for grabs.

Expect to meet a lot of memorable characters here. From Claude Hopkins, the first great copywriter, to the Rattlesnake King (the origin of the term snake oil) to the “Celebrity Industrial Complex,” Wu takes us on a wild ride that is funny, fun to read and yet ultimately thought-provoking. Wu lets his stories reveal his themes, and the page-turning result reveals this book to be perhaps the inception point of a wave of tim_wu-2016literature devoted to the nutrition of our minds. If we are physically what we eat, then we are mentally what we pay attention to. Our attention defines who we are – and Wu expertly, engagingly manages to ask us to pay attention to how we spend our attention. It turns out the two are not synonymous.

Wu and I had a great time talking about the book. We explored a lot of ideas that were on the periphery of the book, and Wu went into some great details you’ll not find in the book. I’d suggest you start with the lighting round interview below, for a fly-over perspective.

Or just dive in to the deep dive for nearly an hour down the rabbit hole.

Dan Slater Raises Wolf Boys: “…they would bring live captives from the rival cartel who had been detained, into the camp, essentially as human target practice…”

slater-wolf_boysIt was a small article in the newspaper that caught Dan Slater’s attention. Two teenaged boys from Laredo, Texas had been arrested – as assassins for the Zeta cartel. At first he thought there was not enough story to give him more than a magazine article. But where life is parsimonious, story can be generous. The story of Gabriel Cardona and Bart Reta – and policeman Robert Garcia – as told in Wolf Boys: Two American Teenagers and Mexico’s Most Dangerous Drug Cartel bears more resemblance to a novel by Don Winslow or T. Jefferson Parker than anything you’ll find in the paper. Credit Dan Slater for not only sensing a great story, but as well for the research and tenacity to bring it all together in the manner of a page-turning novel.

Slater is a smart writer, who knows how to engage the reader both with story and history, that is to say, the background readers need to understand the strange currents that turned two pretty average-seeming teenagers into rock-star style assassins. He begins his story with Robert Garcia, whose parents had “emigrated from Piedras Negras, Mexico, to the Texas border town of Eagle Pass—an international journey of one mile.” There they built their house themselves, on a patch of land, and brought up their children. Robert ended up in the military, then married, then moved to Laredo, where he became a cop.

Slater gives us Gabriel and Bart’s back-stories as well, crafting a trio of characters we want to like even a we know where this is headed. Slater expertly weaves the personal stories of these men into the larger story of drug smuggling in Mexico, which serves an American market eager to consume. It’s not a matter of whether the drugs will reach us, but how and from whom – in this case, Gabriel and Bart.

The trick of the non-fiction writer is to make is to make us care deeply about the characters and to lucidly illuminate the history that drives them. Even if we know what happens, the reading is engaging and gripping, and Slater deliver on all counts. He crafts a narrative that is every bit as compelling as any thriller and utterly true. Slater’s craft is such that he makes the revelation of the information a plot point for tension, as we turn the pages faster and faster to find out how it came to a point when two teenagers night live like rock stars in Laredo, driving Mercedes, wearing Versace and killing with impunity.

dan_slater-2016Part of the reason this is all so effective is that Slater never editorializes, even if he’s quite clear that drug prohibition never works. Slater’s focus on the personal lives and the true-crime elements, on the driving story and intense tension, is perfect. He and I talked about his book and the means by which he corralled his huge story into a taut tale of non-fiction suspense. His easygoing conversation complements the precision of his style. Ultimately, Wolf Boys evokes a complicated set of emotions and understandings. We know these people well enough to recognize that in other circumstances, we might be these people.

You can hear the lightning round, executive summary interview by listening below.

Or settle back and enjoy the long-form discussion….

T. C. Boyle Launches The Terranauts : “…a lot of people couldn’t believe that they would stay in and that they’d sneak out at night to McDonalds…”

The search for immortal scientific truth is, alas, undertaken by mere mortals. Humans, in fact. As much as we might like to think otherwise, it turns out that our humanity tends to get in the way of science. We do manage to turn up a truth now and again, but the journey to those discoveries is fraught with humanity. We are unable to control ourselves, even when the fate of the world we create is at stake, even when that world is domed-over and walled-in. The pristine, austere environments created by the bio-dome E2 should be the perfect place for science to unfold. But in T. C. Boyle’s The Terranauts, it’s 1994, and the experiment about to unfold tells us more about humanity than science.

boyle-the_terranauts.jpgBoyle’s story unfolds in three first-person narratives. The plan is to lock up four men and four women for two years. we meet the team just before they enter, when they are still competing for spaces. Ramsay Roothoorp is something of a Lothario, and one of the lucky ones to get chosen as a Terranaut. Before he even gets inside, he’s measuring up the women who might be chosen, and honing in on the one he plans to seduce. Dawn Chapman is also chosen, unlike Linda Ryu. By giving us both perspectives [those inside and outside the dome], Boyle is able to easily up the mischief ante. As the science spirals out of control, them humans create interpersonal tension with no effort.

Of course, it’s the sex. It’s always the sex. The affairs, the trysts, the covering thereof, the uncovering thereof, the complicated attractions and rejections that are the dynamics behind all our lives manage to come a bit more to the front when isolated under (or outside of) the dome. Lynda is jealous and spiteful and yet wants to support the effort within, on the faint hope that she will be selected next time. Connections inside and outside the dome are woven and rewoven with Boyle’s narrative expertise. It’s funny and tense and intense all at once.

For a book that essentially locks the door and throws away the key for much of its length, Boyle finds plenty to keep us tense and engaged. And trust me, every time you think you’ve twigged to every wrinkle, another is revealed. While you might intuit that this does not end well, you might also be quite surprised by Boyle’s deep affection for the flawed creatures he knows so well. For all the science they attempt, the experiment that works best and offers the most substantive results is the one performed by fiction writer T. C. Boyle, who crafts fully-rounded, living characters in his prose Petri dish and brings them to life in the slippery agar of his gripping plotline.

Given the title it comes as no surprise that The Terranauts is a journey to Earth at its most human. Whether you are in or out of E2 makes little difference. E1 is teeming with humans, who spend an inordinate amount of time engaged in courtship and mating rituals. And yes, the same behavior that gets us in trouble does now and again, give birth to answers that might be a ray of hope. But when those hopes become human, all bets are off.

tc_boyle-2016Listeners who have been tuned in to this podcast for a while will know that I’ve spoken with T. C. Boyle many times over the years. We’ve always had fun and this time was no exception. Before we even got into the studio, I was reminded of the first book by T. C. Boyle I read, World’s End. And here we are hurtling into a future that was only described by science fiction back when The Terranauts takes place. In fact, as Boyle himself observed, his actual set-in-the-future SF novel A Friend of the Earth might well have been set in 2016, not 2016. The merde has hit the fan quite early. Science fiction is, at heart, an optimistic genre of fiction when it purports that there is a future to predict.

You can hear T.C. Boyle and I in the ‘lightning round” interview below.

Or settle back and enjoy the long-form discussion….

Colson Whitehead Boards The Underground Railroad: “…the book is being rebooted every sixty pages…”

How can we understand the truth? How can we ensure that our understandings of the past are clearer than our hopes for the future? In theory, the past is fixed.   But if this is so, it is not because the events themselves are immutable. It is because the past is enclosed by language, trapped by our descriptions of it. The difference between our histories of the past and our fantasies of the future is more a matter of tense than of accuracy.

whitehead-the_underground_railroadColson Whitehead re-imagines the past using the accuracy of the fantastic to create a world that did not in fact exist, but feels just as realistic as anything we are told did happen. The Underground Railroad describes an America where the means by which slaves were in rare cases able to escape were not improvised routes, but rather, an actual underground railroad line, not surprisingly built by enterprising slaves. Once we step on board, history becomes very different, even if it always feels right.

We meet Cora as a slave in a setting so savage and awful, it feels utterly fantastical, like something a racist, fetishist creep might dream up. Yet we know that this opening section hews quite closely to accurately recorded real events. But the feel is so terrible, it’s hard to hold it in. We dissociate whether we want to or not. It’s a pure relief when Cora escapes and begins her journey on the railroad. And that is when Whitehead’s anti-fantastic inclinations kick into overdrive, all to the better for the terrorizing, gripping, beautifully told story.

Instead of veering into some sort of alternate history timeline, Whitehead takes Cora on what feels like an otherworld journey. Each stop along the railroad has its own feel, and its own sinister re-weaving or our world into something different that nonetheless captures the essence of horror and dread implicit in the American slave trade. The fantastic aspects are dialed far back as Whitehead remixes the worst bits of our history into a story just as terrible as that which leads to the present. Everything in The Underground Railroad feels right, but it just looks wrong.

Whitehead’s approach is hardheaded and hermetic. He never lets enough reality in to let you question what is on the page. The Underground Railroad is reality, or might as well be. But the elements of fantasy do more than externalize the horror of the slave trade. They allow us as readers to both enjoy the low-key dissonant strangeness of the narrative and to immerse ourselves in this story where our own involvement and awfulness hovers relentlessly in the background.

History prefers to be seen as non-fiction. We always want to believe that we are just, that we need but, record what has happened and that will tell the tale. Upon hearing what we have just lived through reported back to us, most of us beg to differ. No matter how right the facts may be, the story itself just feels wrong. Alas, experience is ever dry. Life, on the other hand, for better or worse, cannot help but feel fantastic.

I remember finding so many years ago, Colson Whitehead’s first novel, The Intuitionist, and really being struck by the combination of realism and fantasy in that novel. It was a while before we actually got to speak, but he and I have been talking regularly for many years of his career. I must admit that it was particularly thrilling this time around though.

colson_whitehead-2016On the day Colson Whitehead and I spoke, The Underground Railroad was both nominated for a National Book Award and became #1 national bestseller. [The latter according to our local newspaper.]  While it deserves a Hugo, a Nebula or a World Fantasy Award, it is perhaps only in a work in one of those genres where a book like this gets nominated for a genre fiction award.

You can hear our lightning round below.

And here is our long-form conversation:

Paul McComas and Stephen D. Sullivan Navigate Uncanny Encounters: “Rod Serling used to tour the nation…”

mccomas-sullilvan-uncanny_enountersI’m going to give away one early surprise here… Because it is too cool not to. Stephen D. Sullivan, co-author with with Paul McComas in the collection of plays Uncanny Encounters tells us early in this conversation that he actually met Rod Serling. And to my mind that’s an indicator of what you’ll find in their book, Uncanny Encounters. McComas and Sullivan go where surprisingly few have gone before.

Special effects have made movies and television the primary performance outlet for the science fiction genre. But you don’t need special effects to tell a good science fiction story. You just need a good story; and you will find them in this book, as plays, ready to perform. McComas and Sullivan take on all subjects and all genres, horror and science fiction.

Stephen D. Sullivan is well-set to take on the movies.  Some of you my remember, with varying degrees of fondness, a movie from your pre0-teen years watching Chiller on Saturday  afternoons.  I know I saw Manos: The Hands of Fate more than once in this august setting.   Stephen D. Sullivan just won the Scribe Award for his adaptation of Manos: The Hands of Fate – Best Novel Adaptation, 2016.  Think about this; the best novel rafted from Manos: The Hands of Fate. 

The stories include nuanced and often funny explorations of characters who find that one new thing that can change their lives forever. This is often less recommendable than one might assume. It is always, however, entertaining to watch.   In this book you’ll find a perfect example of the range and power of genre fiction when translated to the perforsteve-and-paulming stage. By focusing on story and character, you get human involvement from the get-go, no matter what your genre preferences might think themselves to be. These stories also seem as if they would be both easy and fun to perform.

Settle back and enjoy a unique conversation with two of America’s hardest working artists… and be sure to pick up their book Uncanny Encounters – LIVE!

Here’s the link to download our interview. Or take time out from all the madness to actually select the madness in your mind by listening below.



And… Now …for…something… really really really really really really really WEIRD:

Frightful Fundraiser on Oct. 29 at Woodland Pattern Book Center:
“Hal-Lit-ween” Party Includes Horror/SF Performance, Characters-&-Their-Creators Costume Contest

– Michael Wendt,, 414-263-5001
– Paul McComas,, 224-343-6484
(Milwaukee) 2016 Scribe-Award-winning Wisconsin author Stephen D. Sullivan joins the Chicago-based performance duo of musician-songwriter Maya Kuper & (Midwest Book Awards Silver-Prize-winning author—and Milwaukee native) Paul McComas at Woodland Pattern Book Center for a batty benefit on the Saturday night before All Hallows’ Eve.

Masquerading is optional, but everyone garbed as a famous author or literary character will be eligible for one of three costume-competition prizes.

McComas will host as, appropriately, the host/creator of The Twilight Zone, writer Rod Serling.

Sullivan, McComas and Kuper will perform scenes from 2015’s McComas/Sullivan collection Uncanny Encounters—LIVE!: Dark Drama, Sci-Fi Screams & Horrific Humor (9”x12” playscript format, 160 pp. softcover, from Wisconsin’s own Walkabout Publishing). The book’s eight oft-allegorical short to mid-length genre works comprise a 90-minute, two-act stage show,of which the trio will present 30 minutes’ worth of “greatest hits.”

Admission goes to Woodland Pattern, as do proceeds from sales of Uncanny Encounters and four prior, prize-winning books by McComas and Sullivan. Also benefiting the Center: the sale of Spooky & Sci-Fi Snacks such as vampire punch, “creaturecookies” and Soylent Green wafers. Founded in 1979 as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, Woodland Pattern has spent more than three decades promoting contemporary literature through innovative multi-arts programming, youth outreach and education, and a book store featuring more than 25,000 small-press titles otherwise unavailable in the Milwaukee area.

Go here!

Sat., Oct. 29: 7 pm doors; 7:45 performance
Woodland Pattern Book Center, 720 E. Locust St., Milwaukee WI 53212
$5 suggested donation

Carl Hiaasen Sends Andy Yancy from Bad Monkey to Razor Girl: Can Satire Keep Ahead of Reality?

There’s a huge problem in contemporary literature that to a certain degree, we are in the process of shedding. The problem is that once a writer has finished a book, it may be up to two years before that book can get in front of readers’ eyes. A lot can happen in that time. For writers who are working in non-fiction and in the case of Carl Hiaasen, satire, keeping up with the world is an issue. But to be honest, probably not as big an issue as you might think.

hiaasen-bad_monkey-smHiaasen’s latest novel, Razor Girl, and the novel it is a sequel to, Bad Monkey (from 2013) are excellent examples of the fraught nature of publishing. You might think that as reality hurtles off a cliff into realms beyond satire, novels written say two and five years ago respectively, might have lot some edge. Perish the thought. Hiaasen is one of our most skilled satirists. His comedic writing manages to be timeless, and his characters feel real, and generally likable. He always equals the current level of absurdity, even if consensus reality and the world he creates in his novels have different ideas about where that absurdity is running rampant.

I felt lucky to get to talk to Hiaasen about Bad Monkey and Razor Girl, which comprise the first two books in what I am certain most readers will consider a series they want to see more of. In Bad Monkey, we meet Andy Yancy, who has managed to get ousted from the Miami Police and the Monroe County sheriff’s office. He’s been dumped into Health Inspector job, counting restaurant roaches. There’s a human arm, a bad monkey, a coroner love-interest, and less savory types. You’ll laugh a lot and look forward to Razor Girl, which begins with an inventive twist on the automobile accident insurance scam.

Hiaasen and I talked about the reality factor in his books, which is to say that there’s a formula for readers; if it seems too bizarre to be true, it probably came from the news. If it is believable, it’s made up. The bad news here is that the escaped, 9-pound pet rats are real. The good news in this novel is that it may cut down on your quinoa intake. (It depends on how you feel about quinoa, of course.) You will hear Carl and I talk all about Gambian Pouched Rats in both the long and short interviews.

I must add that while we did not quite get there in our conversation, there’s a bit of monsterific-lite in this novel that would not be out of place in a David Cronbenburg comedy. It’s very funny and creepy enough to feel right around Halloween. Moreover, Razor Girl and Carl Hiaasen leave the door open for sequels. This is the first straight-up sequel he’s done (characters pop up now and again, but not in the serial sense of these two novels), and that’s exciting.

carl_hiaasen-20916-smAlas, the world is headed to hell in a handbasket. It’s almost as if Reality has said, “OK Hiaasen; I’ll see your Razor Girl and raise you, ‘One nation, deity of your choice.'” To a degree one might feel sorry for Reality, having to try so hard to keep up with Hiaasen. Maybe he could give Reality some advice on finding a funnier, more lighthearted and engaging tone.

Here’s the lightning round; take that Reality!

So you think that Consensus makes you tough, Reality? Here’s 45 minutes of Carl Hiaasen with some lessons you need to learn!

Daniel J. Levitin Reveals A Field Guide to Lies: Identifying Information in the Wild

Humans have such an affinity for story that we are easily misled. Every shiny sentence carries with it the possibility for truth of one kind or another. On one hand, it is obvious that made-up fiction, even the most outlandish science fiction, romance, horror, or mystery, may be the means of conveying subtle but intractable and important truths.

levitin-a_field_guide_to_liesOn the flip side, it is equally obvious that many statements of so-called fact are nothing of the kind. In the latter case, we often really need to know what is true and what is false, and Daniel J. Levitin’s book A Field Guide to Lies proves to be witty, though-provoking and flat-out useful in this regard. He gives fib-spotters everything but a special hat to wear– no binoculars required.

The book is divided three sections; one dealing with numbers, one with words and one with “the world.” Numbers are pretty easy to deal with, and Levitin has a lot of fun here. He asks what one might make of the claim that “In the thirty-five years since marijuana laws stopped being enforced in California, the number of marijuana smokers has doubled every year.” On the face of it, this sounds plausible (the section deals with “Plausibility”). But as Levitin points out, assuming just one smoker 35 years ago and then doubling that number 35 times adds up to more than 17 billion. Clearly, we’re being misled. And so it goes – but not without an enjoyable classification by Levitin.

While Levitin believes that graphs are the most succinct way to present numerical information at a glance, he also demonstrates that they are an excellent way to present misinformation. We see pie charts that add up to far more than 100%, and bar graphs that have left-right or up-down axes that are scaled to deceive, not inform. He also dives into some symbolic logic problems that are extremely informative with regard to debunking BS-artists. All of this he does with a nicely understated mordant sense of humor. This is quite easily the best field guide to anything you’re likely to read this year.

Once he’s done with numbers, Levitin turns his attention to words, most specifically their misuse and abuse. Here he dives into our storytelling nature, which makes us easy marks. And then, from Baby Mozart to experts at everything but the subject upon which they are currently being asked to speak, Levitin goes another hunt for lies in the wild. His discourse on alternative explanations is priceless, and especially important when it comes times for citizen to listen to plans for the future. It turns out that for all that humans are concerned with and think about the future, we’re pretty bad at predicting it.

Levitin even gets us to “counterknowledge…misinformation packaged to look like fact and that some critical mass of people have begin to believe.” This might seem to account for the vast majority of verbiage on offer today. and again, the draw of a good story has everything to do with this. Just witness the moon landing conspiracy theories. What could be a more powerful human truth than the accomplishment of a moon landing? Obviously, the cover-up.

daniel_j_levitin-2016_by_peter-pratoAnd so it goes, but perhaps just a bit less effectively thanks to Levitin. When he and I spoke about the book, I heard the last bit of his previous interview while waiting, and he was asked to opine on current events. During that interview, and ours afterward, he pointed out that he had been handed the opportunity to add to the lying landscape by offering an option that seemed like expertise but was in fact outside his range of expertise. He declined to offer an opinion.

You can hear our lightning round interview here:

Or you can sink into our in-depth interview here: