Thursday, December 31, 2015

Getting Ready for 2016, in Uniform

What does it take to ensure a safe New Year's Eve celebration in Times Square? A lot of people in uniform, apparently. These NYPD officers started mustering around 2 p.m. on 40th Street while I was eating lunch with a friend. And I'm sure they're just a sample of the force that will be patrolling as the clock approaches midnight.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Queued Up for Christmas

Folks line up inside Esposito Meat Market on Christmas Eve to pick up their holiday orders.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Making a Video

I spoke to members of the Youth Justice Board this week about how to make a video. The board is a very cool teen leadership program that teaches New York City high school students how to analyze policies that affect teens and do something about them. They tackle subjects like truancy, kids in foster care, school safety, and kids and crime. This year's group is planning on making a training video for police officers that provides youth perspectives on cop-teen interactions, and they asked me questions about the videos I've directed and edited. Before I spoke, they placed me in the "hot seat"-- a chair at the front of the room where they asked me rapid-fire yes-no questions for seven minutes: Have you been to Europe? Have you ever gone hiking? Do you eat shrimp? Do you know anyone famous? Do you have kids? And then they asked great questions about how to make a video--so great, that I didn't always have the answers. I'll be helping them now and then, especially toward the end during the editing. If their thoughtful questions are any indication, I'm sure they'll come up with wonderful footage to work with.

Sunday, November 29, 2015


I walked through a pine forest today and was moved to take this photo of moss. It's so lush and complex, a wonderful ecosystem. People say that when it's all over, only the rats and cockroaches will be left. But I hope moss makes it to the other side as well.

Sunday, November 22, 2015


Todd Haynes, director, bottom right, and Christine Vachon, in a q&a about their film Carol at the Paris Theater.  Afterward, they went outside and snapped a photo of the marquee, right. I love how even totally amazing and accomplished filmmakers don't take the wonder of their accomplishments (as evidenced by the beautifully understated, class Paris marquee) for granted.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

'They Treated Me Like a Person: Inside the Red Hook Community Justice Center'

It's rare when something evolves from a good idea to successful reality. I've been lucky to have witnessed part of that process when it comes to the Red Hook Community Justice Center, which was established in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 2000 through the collaboration of many people, organizations and government agencies, including the Center for Court Innovation and the New York State Unified Court System.

I was at its opening ceremony in 2000 and was at its 15th anniversary celebration a couple weeks ago at the Brooklyn Museum. In the interim, the Justice Center has become an international model of justice reform by implementing innovative strategies that have reduced the use of jail, lowered recidivism and strengthened public confidence in justice.

A number of the people who make the Justice Center so successful are captured in this video, which I was lucky enough to direct.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Could a 'Goblin Emperor' Have Prevented the French Revolution?

Katherine Addison's The Goblin Emperor has earned what might be termed a fantasy Grand Slam: the Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel and nominations for the Nebula, Hugo and World Fantasy awards.

To make her achievement even more noteworthy, Addison, like Maia, the royal goblin at the heart of the book, is herself a fiction.

The pseudonym was created by author Sarah Monette to satisfy the demands of the publishing industry. As she explains to me in our conversation on New Books in Science Fiction and Fantasy, her real name had become a "deal-breaker" after sales of the four books of her Doctrine of Labyrinths series had fallen short of expectations.

Tor Books was eager to buy her tale of an innocent and virtually forgotten heir who ascends to the throne of the Elflands after the simultaneous deaths of his father and brothers, but they had one condition. "Tor said, 'We really want to take you on. We're very enthusiastic and excited, but we can't do it under your real name. You have to pick a pseudonym.' And I wanted to continue having a publishing career. So I picked a pseudonym."

While the name change might have given Monette a clean slate of sorts, it's clear to me that The Goblin Emperor's success relies largely on her prodigious skills as a storyteller. But Monette modestly speculates that something else might also be at play--that people may also be drawn to an ingredient that is rare in fantasy: idealism.

"So much of fantasy right now has been so influenced by George R.R. Martin--which, hey, that's excellent as it should be--but it does mean that things have been very grim and bleak and pessimistic and cynical," she says. In contrast, The Goblin Emperor "is arguing that doing the right thing will win; that is, if you try your best to be ethical and compassionate, you will come out on top."

There's no question that Maia's insistence on behaving ethically is refreshing. He faces down cronyism, social inequality and racism by hewing to the values of his Goblin mother, which lead him, among other things, to regard his subjects as equals.

"I wish I could say that I believed that worked all the time in the real world, but I think if we don't make up stories where it does work, it's never going to work," Monette says.

In fact, it was the real world that inspired Monette to create an enlightened emperor. “What I was doing was actually was trying to figure out if there was a way out of the French Revolution without the guillotine and Terror and all the really horrific horrific things that happened.” In other words, if Louis XV been more like Maia, could the French achieved liberté, égalité, fraternité without so much bloodshed?

Not only do I find Maia refreshing, but I also find it refreshing that The Goblin Emperor is a stand-alone (this coming from someone who wrote a two-part series). Rest assured, however, that while Monette has no plans to revisit Maia, she remains loyal to the speculative genres.

"All fiction is lies but science fiction, fantasy and horror sort of flag themselves and say 'Hey--not true. This isn't what the real world is like.' ... The combination of the realistic and the openly unreal is to me something that is endlessly fascinating and that I want to do when I write and I enjoy reading when I find it."

Friday, October 23, 2015

Smoking in a No Smoking Zone

Not that long ago, the idea of outdoor "no smoking" zones seemed silly. But when many cities (including New York) banned indoor smoking, smokers began clustering at building entrances, generating tobacco clouds and butt piles. In other words, the indoor bans only moved the problem of second-hand smoke outside. The solution outside many buildings has been to post no smoking signs, like the one above. And while it seems to have forced many smokers to find another perch, or least get a little more exercise before enjoying a puff, the signs clearly don't always work.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

A Tangible Impact on Justice Reform

I've just completed a video to promote a fundraiser for the Red Hook Community Justice Center. Even if you can't make the event, you might enjoy the video. The Justice Center is a fascinating project that's contributing positively to the community and making a tangible impact on efforts to reform the justice system.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Jane Lindskold Creates a Consciousness with a Planet-Sized Body in Artemis Invaded

At a time when science fiction is more likely to portray ecosystems collapsing rather than flourishing, Jane Lindskold's Artemis series is an anomaly. Its eponymous planet is not an ecological disaster but rather full of so many wonders that it was once a vacation paradise for a now vanished society.

Of course, like any good science fiction (or fiction, in general, for that matter) Lindskold's Artemis is full of surprises. But Lindskold, who I interviewed on New Books in Science Fiction and Fantasy, takes care not to bludgeon readers with messages about the dangers of science run amok or human interference in nature.

"I thought it was completely possible to tell a story without lecturing people," she says in her New Books interview. "I wanted to put together an exotic and interesting world and let people go adventuring on it with me and if along the way they figured out that ecosystems don't work if they're exploited, great but I'm not going to write lectures."

Artemis is a genuine character in the story, one with an evolving consciousness that communicates regularly with one of the main characters. Lindskold has been frustrated that some reviewers have mistaken Artemis for an artificial intelligence when, in fact, she's a highly complex network made out of various forms of fungi. As Lindskold puts it, "Artemis is a living organism that happens to have a planet-sized body."

Artemis Invaded, published in June, is the second book set on Artemis. The first, Artemis Awakening, came out in 2014. Whether there will be a third remains to be seen, but Lindskold is full of ideas if she gets a green light from the publisher.

"I think a lot about the people on Artemis and what they are doing and would be doing, and I would find it very easy to pick up again. And one thing I've promised myself I would do is if there was a delay between the publication of Book Two and Book Three is that I would write some short stories so that the readership would have something in between."

Follow host Rob Wolf on his blog or on Twitter @RobWolfBooks

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Stop Being Fearful and Try to Help Everyone You Meet

It took me two days to read this note. On the first, I was carried along by the rush hour crowd, and anyone with sense never stops on subway stairs at such a moment. The crowd is unforgiving (because it's composed of individuals like me who are very unforgiving when someone blocks the flow). The next day, however, I was ready with phone in hand. I waited for the surge of people to pass and then paused long enough to take a snapshot. Although I'm posting this under the date when I took the picture, I'm actually writing this several weeks later and can report that while graffiti often lingers in this city for months and years, this little bit of advice was was scrubbed away a couple weeks ago.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Melinda Snodgrass pits science against religion in Edge of Dawn

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

Answer: Melinda Snodgrass.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

You Either Think This Poster is Gross or Brilliant

The first thing they tell you when buying a pass to enter the Laugardalslaug swimming pool in Reykjavik is that you must take a shower "without your bathing suit" before entering the pool. And if the verbal message isn't enough, the sign about greets you before entering the locker room.

Personally, I loved the explicit emphasis on cleanliness. I'm not a clean freak (in my opinion) but I find it strange that in America (and many other places, like Scotland, where we'd just visited before Iceland) people consider a quick rinse while wearing their bathing suit adequate preparation before entering a pool. C'mon people! We all know how dirty humans can get--especially in the areas highlighted in the above poster. I think the above sign should be mandatory at poolsides everywhere.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

A Cemetery That's Not by a Highway (Edingburgh, Scotland)

The New Calton Burial Ground was established around 1820 so it's "new" only when compared to the Old Calton Burial Ground. According to Wikipedia, some of the bodies from the old cemetery were moved to the new so that "a number of stones predate the cemetery but are indeed true markers of those interred."

In any event it's a beautiful place, drawing me in for a visit even though I have no connection (that I'm aware of) to those interred.

It's a stone's throw from Holyrood Palace and a block from the Royal Mile. Its central location makes it unlike many of the cemeteries I've seen in the U.S., which are often in out-of-the way places where they and their annoying habit of reminding us of death can be compartmentalized and forgotten. And they're often near highways so the living have easy access and can make speedy getaways.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Pirates! In Space! James L. Cambias embraces the near future in his second novel

For his second novel, James L. Cambias chose one of the most challenging settings for a science fiction writer: the near future.

Unlike speculative fiction that leaps centuries or millennia ahead or takes place on other planets, a book about the near future presents a world that varies only incrementally from the present. The risk, of course, is that the author's vision will all-too-quickly be proven wrong.

In my conversation with him on New Books in Science Fiction and Fantasy, Cambias explains why he was drawn to the near future and how he navigated those tricky shoals in the writing of Corsair, which follows space pirates as they hunt and plunder treasure (hydrogen mined on the moon) using remote-controlled spacecraft.

Cambias is certain that space piracy will come to pass. "I absolutely expect that some point that space piracy or space hacking... will become a criminal enterprise. Space hardware is just too valuable," he says.

Cambias also discusses the Hieroglyph Project, which is trying to get science fiction authors to write the kind of visionary fiction that has the capacity to spark brick-and-mortar innovation. Cambias contributed to the project's collection of short stories but also penned a series of blog posts in which he declares the project a "failure."

Related links:
  • This is Cambias' second appearance on New Books in Science Fiction and Fantasy. His first interview, about his book A Darkling Sea, is available here.
  • An episode of New Books was also devoted to the Hieroglyph Project.
Follow host Rob Wolf on his blog or on Twitter @RobWolfBooks

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Science Fiction, Swedish-style; New Collection Offers Scandinavian Twist to Speculative Fiction

There's far more to Swedish literature than Pippi Longstocking and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. That's the message my guests on the latest episode of New Books in Science Fiction and Fantasy, Anna Jakobsson Lund and Oskar Källner, are trying to send the English-speaking world through their contributions to Waiting for the Machines to Fall Asleep (Affront Publishing, 2015), a collection of short stories by Swedish authors.

Until recently, the world of science fiction in Sweden was so small that it was possible to keep up with everything that was published. But no more. The genre, thanks in part to self-publishing, is "blooming," Lund says.

The few big Swedish publishers are starting to catch up. "The big publishing houses think [science fiction and fantasy] is something that stops with young adults... and there's not any status for a writer to be writing science fiction or fantasy," Lund says.

But Källner says, "Game of Thrones is beginning to change that."

Lund says writing a story in English provided a chance to use more ornate language. "As a Swedish writer ... you do things a bit minimalistic." But English allowed her a fresh take. "I [could] use a bit more adjectives than I usually allow myself."

In one sign of the difference between the United States and Sweden, Källner says he has had some of his most successful book signings in grocery stores. "I usually stand somewhere between the bananas and loaves of bread and smile," he says.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Fiction that blends 9/11 with magic

My newest podcast is about a book that takes a fabulist twist on a story about the months leading up to 9/11. As interesting at the book itself is its author, Porochista Khakpour, who has written candidly not only about her experience being a Middle Eastern immigrant to the U.S. in a post-9/11 world but also about her struggle with both physical illness and depression. Below is my write up about the podcast for the New Books in Science Fiction and Fantasy web site:

Porochista Khakpour moved to an apartment with large picture windows in downtown Manhattan shortly before September 11, 2001, giving her a painfully perfect view of the terrorist attacks.

"The big event of my life was of course 9/11," Khakpour says. "I experienced a lot of post traumatic stress from it and think about it constantly."

It's no surprise that the assault on the Twin Towers features prominently in her writing. Through non-fiction essays and two novels, the Iranian-born writer has tried to understand the tragedy's impact on her, the nation, and the world.

But while her essays are rooted in facts, her fiction takes flight. In The Last Illusion there are, in fact, multiple references to flight. The main character, an albino man named Zal, is raised by his abusive mother in a cage among a balcony full of birds. Although he cannot fly, he yearns to. Rescued by an American and brought to New York in the years before 9/11, he tries to unlearn his feral ways and finds himself drawn to visionaries--an artist who claims to see the future and a famous magician who aspires, in a feat of illusionist virtuosity, to make the then still-standing World Trade Center disappear.

The character of Zal is based on a Persian myth and Khakpour infuses the story with fabulous twists and turns.

"My biggest challenge was doing a mythic retelling of a summer before 9/11 and not just any summer but Y2K to the summer before 9/11... Luckily, what was great about the realism was that the realism was quite surreal. If you look at the Y2K narrative, not to mention the 9/11 narrative, it's full of the magical, full of the fabulist, full of the kind of impossible."

In her New Books interview, Khakpour discusses the impact of 9/11 on "everyone":

"I'm kind of amazed when I meet people who think it didn't really affect them or the event wasn't that big a deal in their life. Maybe the actual day wasn't but their lives have completely been altered, even just economically. Anyone who has a job today has been affected by it."

She speculates about the trepidation publishers might have had about a book that uses myth and fantasy modes to tell a story about 9/11:

"It took over two and half years to sell this book whereas my first book only took a few months.... If I'd done a purely realistic take from say a Middle Eastern woman's perspective, my guess is it would have sold faster but this idea that I was using a fabulous mode, a sort of speculative mode, and addressing this sensitive world event and then add to the fact that here I am, you know, a brown person addressing this--that caused I think some complications.

About her connection to her protagonist Zal, who, like her is an Iranian-born immigrant:

"I don't think I've ever written a character that I've identified with more."

Related links:
  • Khakpour's magician in The Last Illusion was inspired by the real life example of David Copperfield, who made the Statue of Liberty "disappear" in a television special in the 1970s. Here's a clip on YouTube.
  • Follow Porochista Khakpour on Twitter.
  • Follow host Rob Wolf on his blog or on Twitter @RobWolfBooks.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Apparently this is what illness looks like in Spanish vs. English

I found these signs at Lenox Hill Hospital a bit of a mystery. Why is the iconography in the Spanish translation different? Do Spanish-speakers wear old-fashioned ice bag on their heads when they have a fever? Are they more likely to have bags under their eyes? Does their vomit not come from the middle of their mouths but from below? And do they experience a different kind of misery when they get rashes (a squiggly-line kind of misery rather than a frown?) Their airplanes, which apparently tend to be white rather than English-speakers' black planes, seems to travel in straighter lines too.

The sign offered its warning in many other languages. You can see from the image on the left that most people travel in black planes and don't wear old-fashioned ice bags on their heads except for Creole speakers.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

An Author Who Blogs about Real Sex, Writes Novels about Fictional Magic, and is Named after a Rodent

One of the most surprising things I learned during my interview with Ferrett Steinmetz is that the blogger who writes candidly about his most intimate experiences--including his polyamory and struggles with depression--is also socially anxious. He predicted that after our conversation, he'd need a few hours of Clone Wars and solitude to recover.

Of course, I shouldn't be surprised that a writer is quirky. After all, I'm a writer and I'm kinda quirky. And I can be socially anxious too. But enough about me. Here's my summary of our conversation that I posted on New Books in Science Fiction and Fantasy:

Ferrett Steinmetz first built an audience as a blogger, penning provocative essays about "puns, politics and polyamory" (among other things) with titles like "Dear Daughter: I Hope You Have Awesome Sex" and "How Kids React To My Pretty Princess Nails."

In recent years, he has drawn accolades as an author of speculative fiction, writing short stories and earning a Nebula nomination in 2011 for his novelette Sauerkraut Station.

And now he is exploring new waters with the publication of his first novel, Flex (Angry Robot, 2015), which tells the story of a father desperate enough to use illegal magic to heal his badly burned daughter.

The title refers to crystalized magic that, when snorted, gives the user the power to manipulate objects for which he or she has a particular affinity. Cat ladies become felinemancers. Weightlifters become musclemancers. Graphic artists become illustromancers. And the protagonist, a paper-pushing bureaucrat by the name of Paul Tsabo, becomes a bureaucromancer, able to turn paperwork (with the help of flex) into a magical beast.

The only problem is that with flex comes flux--a pushback from the universe that re-balances any magic act with disaster.

Below are highlights from Steinmetz's New Books interview.

On what he learned at Clarion Writers' Workshop:

"Bit by bit they kind of stripped away my illusions and showed me how lazy I'd been and how much more effort I had to put to make my stories top notch. ... I thought I was a one and a half draft person, but realistically I have to put in 5 drafts before the story starts to get good."

On how paperwork can become magical in Paul Tsabo's hands:

"He's basically useless in a firefight but can send a SWAT team through your door by dropping a magically completed warrant for your arrest on a cop's desk."

On why he why a world with flex also needs flux:

"Flux evens out the odds of magic.... I really hate novels where magic is this thing you can do ... without any kind of cost.... Frequently what I see is, 'Oh, I'm a magician. I'll raise an army of the dead and make my castle out of magic,' and where is any challenge in that for your characters? Where do they have any stopping points to what they can do?... A big tension in the book as to whether the mancers should even use their magic."

On his approach to writing:

"I'm what's called a gardener writer in the business. There are plotters who basically sit down and plot out all their books beat by beat and know their ending the minute they start their first sentence. And Flex, like every story I've ever written-- basically I wrote an interesting first paragraph and followed it randomly until the end of the book."

On 9/11 as an inspiration for Flex:

"To a large extent the magic system in Flex is driven by a reaction to 9/11, where something really bad happened--and yes it really was bad... but we really overreacted that wasn't helpful at all and in fact may have made it entirely worse for us."

Related links:

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Meg Elison explores power and gender in Book of the Unnamed Midwife

I spoke with this year's winner of the Philip K. Dick Award, Meg Elison, for my 18th podcast on New Books in Science Fiction and Fantasy. She was easy breezy to talk to, with smart quick answers that, in my humble opinion, made for a great interview. Of course, it helps that her book tackles all kinds of rich subjects: gender inequality (exacerbated by an epidemic that kills far more women than men), reproductive rights, and a need for meaningful emotional and intellectual stimulation in a world sorely lacking both. Below is what I wrote to introduce the podcast.

Despite the odds, Meg Elison did it.

First, she finished the book she wanted to write. Second, she found a publisher--without an agent. Third, she won the Philip K. Dick Award for Distinguished Science Fiction, a stunning achievement for a first-time author with a small, independent press.

The Book of the Unnamed Midwife is set in the American West after an epidemic has killed all but a fraction of humanity. Among the survivors, men vastly outnumber women, setting in motion a desperate journey of survival for the eponymous midwife. To avoid the serial rape and enslavement that threatens all females in this male-dominated landscape, the midwife sheds her name and even her sexuality, presenting herself as a man and continuously changing her moniker to suit the circumstance.

Communication falls apart too quickly for anyone to even know the name or nature of the illness that's destroyed civilization and made childbirth a fatal event for female survivors. The midwife's focus is on giving the few women she meets the hard-won power to prevent pregnancy. "I think the thing I wanted to come across most strongly was to explode notions of gender... And to really think about what your options would be like if you, like your grandmother, had no control over when you had children or how or by whom," Elison says in her New Books interview.

Elison was raised on stories about the apocalypse--the fire and brimstone kind. "I grew up in some pretty crazy evangelical churches, and they hammered on us about the end of days and the Book of Revelation, and it gave me nightmares, and it made always think about the fact that the end was nigh and that it was going to be bad, and I think that stuck with me my whole life even though I shed the ideological parts of it."

For the midwife, the apocalypse poses threats both dramatic and mundane. When not searching for food and a safe place to spend the night, she must negotiate the frustrating reality of spending time with people she doesn't like. "I started thinking about what it would be like if the only people you could find were people you couldn't stand, if they just irritated in you every way," Elison says. "There's nothing wrong with them and they're not unsafe, you just don't like being there. So I wanted to make a character who had to make choices between feeling safe in a group of people and feeling pissed off all the time."

Elison is grateful for the editors at Sybaritic Press, who published her unagented manuscript. "They're very good editors and publishers," she says. But inevitably, she's had to do a lot of marketing herself. "It's good because I've learned a lot about the business doing that and it's not good because no one listens to a writer on her own."

Fortunately, the Philip K. Dick Award has made finding readers a whole lot easier. The award "has opened a lot of doors," she says.

Related links:
  • An article in the Los Angeles Review of Books explores the book's treatment of "Gender and the Apocalypse." [Note: the article has spoilers].
  • Meg Elison shares her thoughts on her blog.
  • You can follow New Books in Science Fiction and Fantasy on Twitter and Facebook
  • and host Rob Wolf on Twitter

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Multi-tasking is Ken Liu's Middle Name

I loved talking to Ken Liu on New Books in Science Fiction and Fantasy about two very different projects. One was his translation of Cixin Liu's THE THREE-BODY PROBLEM and the other was his new (and first) novel THE GRACE OF KINGS. Below is my post describing the interview (my 17th!) on the New Books Network.

Short story writing, novel writing, and translating require a variety of skills and strengths that are hardly ever found in a single person. Ken Liu is one of those rare individuals who has them all.

He is perhaps best known for short stories like The Paper Menagerie, which (according to his Wikipedia entry) was the first work of fiction to earn Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy Awards.

But this year he's making waves with two longer projects, which are the focus of his New Books interview: his translation of Cixin Liu's The Three-Body Problem and his debut novel The Grace of Kings.

The Three-Body Problem has been a break-out success in China for Cixin Liu, who has won China's Galaxy Award for science fiction nine times. The Three-Body Problem is also the first hard science-fiction novel by an author from the People's Republic of China to be translated into English.

Ken Liu (who is not related to Cixin Liu) says sales numbers for science fiction in China would be the envy of American publishers, but Chinese publishers have traditionally considered it a niche market. That is, until The Three-Body Problem and its two sequels came along. Officially, Chinese readers have bought about 400,000 copies of the three-volume series but Liu says the actual number of readers is far larger as books get passed among friends and family.

Liu anticipated it would be difficult to translate the language of science, but the cultural references proved more challenging. Ultimately, he decided to add concise footnotes to fill in some gaps without overwhelming readers with too much information. The success of his translation is reflected in the The Three-Body Problem's Nebula and Hugo nominations for best novel.

The Grace of Kings, the first book in Liu's projected Dandelion Dynasty, is a very different project--an epic fantasy/science-fiction mashup that Liu calls "silkpunk." Liu grew up in a Chinese speaking household. "Every culture has its own set of foundational narratives that are echoed and dialogued with and re-imagined over and over again... They're stories about how a people embody their own values and see themselves as having meaning in the universe." In the case of The Grace of Kings, Liu drew from an ancient historical struggle known as the Chu-Han Contention but reimagines it in a secondary world, using both classic Western and Chinese storytelling techniques.

"The result is this melding of everything into this fantastical universe that I call silkpunk," Liu says. "So there are battle kites and mechanical contraptions of various sorts, underwater boats and airships that propel themselves with giant feathered oars that represent the kinds of things you see in Chinese block prints and historical romances [but] sort of blown up and extended into a new technology vocabulary that I had a lot fun playing with."

Monday, May 18, 2015

Morning People, Discarded

Saw this on the sidewalk by Union Square Park this morning. I hope the kid got an A.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Read the Fine Print

Great deal... except for the part about needing a gas tank, gas line and brake work. Oh yeah, and it looks like sh*t.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

While working on a video in Red Hook, Brooklyn, today we walked by this iconic sign. One might think at first glance that the "R" stands for Red Hook, but the floating period suggests otherwise. The actual story, according to the blog Lost City is this: "This used to belong to paper goods manufacturer named E.J. Trum. When John Turano & Sons Furniture took over the address in 1978, they tried to tear down the Trum letters. All but the stubborn "R," and a period, were removed. There they remain."

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Podcast No. 16: An Imagination Too Big for One Life (or One Name)

When an author creates a character, she can churn through as many re-writes as she'd like until she gets it right. This, of course, is in stark contrast to reality, where people get only one shot. There's no going back, no do-overs, only an inexorable march to the end.

But what if life were different? Catherine Webb, under the pen name Claire North, offers two worlds where this is possible. In The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August (2014), she introduces the reader to kalachakra, people who are reborn into the lives they've already lived. The eponymous protagonist, for example, is reborn 15 times at midnight on the cusp between 1918 and 1919.

This is both wonderful and challenging, Webb explains in her New Books interview.

"It's both liberating because he can go through his childhood knowing everything that's going to happen in coming events because he's already lived it, but it's also horrendous because he can be 5 years old on his 11th life being treated like a 5-year-old... and being forced to re-live his ABCs even though he's actually hundreds of years old."

Touch (2015) offers a different way to escape the drudgery of a single, linear life. The main character, Kepler (a moniker assigned by those trying to destroy it), can travel from body to body with a touch. This allows it to live hundreds of years, experiencing the world like a tourist on an endless trip.

Inevitably, the life of a kalachakra or a body-hopping consciousness can become tedious. Harry August struggles with apathy, having seen that whatever he achieves in one life is erased with the reset of his birth. Kepler, too, struggles to find meaning beyond its focus on survival. The ingredients which ordinary people use to measure their lives don't matter to Kepler. For one thing, it no longer has a gender because it can occupy men and women with equal ease. Nor does it have to experience even mild discomfort: whenever it encounters anything not to its liking, it can jump to another body. Even a hangnail can be enough to send it packing.

Webb herself is no stranger to multiple identities. A fan of pen names (she switches among Catherine Webb, Kate Griffin and Claire North depending on the genre and audience), she is as dexterous at changing writing styles as she is at inventing engaging characters and plots, although sometimes she's only aware of the shift in style after the fact, almost as if someone else--her own Kepler perhaps?--had done the work.

"I'm not necessarily aware consciously of a decision to write in a different style. ... The story has its own logic. I let that do the work, and then I'm surprised to turn around and discover that Kate Griffin sounds very different from Claire North."

Friday, April 24, 2015

Murals of Brownsville, Brooklyn

I spent the day in Brownsville and had a chance to visit some of the amazing murals created by teenagers in collaboration with Groundswell and other partners, including the Brownsville Community Justice Center. I was told that people often stop and photograph them, which is understandable, since they're so breathtaking, eye-catching, and each has a story to tell. I figured there was no reason why I shouldn't take my own photos as well.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

People Still Use Payphones to Communicate (Sort of)

Payphones are still part of the street flora in New York City although I never see anyone using them--at least not to make phone calls. They get more use these days as public bulletin boards, attracting flyers, graffiti, and stickers (and stickers with graffiti), like the one below.

The notion of "payphone" will one day pass into history, and with it the memory of a way of life when people weren't connected to the world and everyone they knew via a touch screen in their pockets. 

These days I hate to carry change, and try to avoid it by always using a credit card, but in the 1980s and 1990s, pay phones made carrying coins a necessity. Once when I needed to make a call and didn't have the 20 cents, I asked a passing couple if they could give me change for a dollar. Seeing that I needed to make a call, they handed me a quarter and said, "Keep it." I was amazed and tried to press the dollar on them, but they refused it with a laugh. 

Twenty cents may seem insignificant but the act of giving wasn't. I thanked them profusely, but I've realized since that it wasn't just a quarter they gave me. They also gave me a conviction that people have the capacity to be kind and generous, and you might never know in advance when or how someone will come to your aid. The fact that I remember that brief interaction from 25 years ago speaks to the lasting impression it made.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

'We Invented Social Security & We're Proud'

More often than not Social Security and other safety-net programs get a bad rap. Politicians and reporters call them "entitlements"--which sounds derogatory to me--and popular wisdom says they'll need to be curtailed or they'll eventually break the federal budget. But there's no hint of doom and gloom on Bascom Hill, where this sign proudly proclaims University of Wisconsin Professor Edwin Witte's role in the development of Social Security. And this bold declaration is within sight of the Capitol Building, where Scott Walker, enemy of labor unions and public education, is trying to leverage his governorship into a presidential candidacy. Fortunately, Social Security has lasted longer than the careers of many nay-saying politicians and hopefully will continue to help government secure "the well-being of its citizens" for many years to come.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Past, Present & Future of Brownsville, Brooklyn

My day job brought me to Brownsville, Brooklyn, today, where I met several life-long residents who shared stories about the neighborhood, past, present and future.

Among the people I met was a grandmother, who talked about learning to swim and sew at the Brownsville Recreation Center and playing games and going to dances at the various community centers in the local housing projects. In those days, anyone could go to any of the community centers, but today, many of the community centers have closed, and those that remain offer fewer activities. Worst of all, the projects where they are housed are divided by rivalries, so that it’s no longer safe for “outsiders” (i.e., someone from another housing project) to walk through them. Projects have their own gangs, or “teams” as one person called them, which zealously guard their territories.

Only a few places are considered neutral, like the Recreation Center and the Brownsville Community Justice Center, which many hope is in the process of inspiring change. The Justice Center has created innovative programs for youth, including art and design workshops, a peer-led youth court and job preparation. The Justice Center is actively trying to change the narrative of Brownsville from the one fueled by media, which habitually portrays the neighborhood as a place of high crime, high poverty, and dense public housing, to one that emphasizes its strengths, like its large, supportive family networks, its many citizens who care deeply about its future, and the vast potential of the its young people, who eagerly grab onto any positive social or learning activity whenever it is offered.

The mural above is the result of one of those activities. Located at the Brownsville Student Farm Project, the mural was created jointly by young people under the supervision of the Groundswell Community Mural Project and Brownsville Community Justice Center. It's one of several murals they've helped young people bring to fruition throughout the community.

This little toy was minding its own business on a window ledge outside one of the Justice Center's offices.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Podcast No. 15: 'Where Are All the Black People?' A Conversation with Jennifer Marie Brissett

Jennifer Marie Brissett’s first novel, Elysium, or the World After, portrays a fractured world, one whose seemingly irreversible destruction does nothing to dampen the survivors’ collective will to live.

Brissett showed similar determination in writing the book, whose non-traditional structure places it outside the mainstream. Fortunately, her approach has been validated, first by her teachers at Stonecoast Creative Writing Program at the University of Southern Maine, where she wrote Elysium as her final thesis, and later by the committee that selected Elysium as one of six nominees for the Philip K. Dick Award.

“I wasn’t sure there was a space for me in this writing world. And to a certain degree I still sort of wonder. But the idea that I could write and that my stories are worthy of being told was something [Stonecoast] really helped to foster in me,” she says in her New Books interview.

In some respects, Elysium is simple: it tells a story of love and loss between two people. But Elysium is also complicated because those two people morph from scene to scene changing from two brothers to father/daughter to husband/wife to boyfriend/boyfriend to girlfriend/girlfriend.

When imagining the future, conventional science fiction often focuses too much on gadgets and not enough on people, Brissett says. “We think [science fiction] is about … the new machines we’ll have, the little gadgets that will make our lives easier … but I think the civil rights movement is one of the most science-fictional things that could have probably happened, because all of a sudden this entire group of people that was totally ignored showed up at the table and said ‘We want in.’”

As a child, Brissett found the Wonder Bread future depicted in The Jetsons frightening. “I remember watching as a kid the Jetsons and thinking ‘That is an absolutely terrifying vision of the future. Where are all the black people?’” she says. “The future belongs to everybody. It doesn’t really belong to any one group. And yet when you see visions of the future, it’s usually mostly white heterosexual people wandering around.”

In the early 2000s, Brissett owned an independent bookstore in Brooklyn, N.Y., where she experienced the publishing industry’s struggles firsthand. Rather that discourage her from becoming a writer herself, the experience seems to have solidified her desire to tell stories in the way she wants to tell them. “You have to love this field to be here. If you’re here for money, you are certifiably crazy,” she says.

Spoiler Alert

From 6:45 to 10:24 we talk about a major part of the plot, which is revealed on the book jacket but doesn’t actually emerge towards the end of the book so people might want to skip this part (and not read the jacket copy) if they want to approach the story as a mystery whose answer lies in the book’s structure.

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Sunday, March 29, 2015

Toys on a Church Fence (Harlem, New York)

The cross on the tree and the proximity of a church suggested to me that there might be more going on here than meets the eye. Is it a memorial for a child? A monument to childhood? A resting spot for lost toys?