For most of my life, I’ve tried in vain to explain why I love cities. Despite numerous and obvious downsides—the noise, cost of living, the pollution, the unending crowds—I’ve never wanted to leave the city I was born in: Vancouver, BC. Many New Yorkers have an even stronger version of this sentiment. But it took author N.K. Jemisin to express the feeling I never could properly quantify. Her latest novel, The City We Became, is a triumphant love letter to New York, while simultaneously being a rollicking good sci-fi action story.
In The City We Became, the New York of present day is under attack by inter-dimensional beings of great power and terrifying sensibilities. In response, the combined psychic energy of the city itself has manifested into six people: avatars of the five boroughs of Queens, Brooklyn, The Bronx, Manhattan, and Staten Island, as well as one person who is the city as a whole. These six New Yorkers, each from diverse backgrounds and with normal individual lives, find themselves turned into beings of great power. They must race against time to find each other in order to defeat the enemy, who wants to destroy both them and the city they call home.
In the novel, New York is a young city still in the process of “being born”. Other cities around the world have suffered similar attacks throughout history, and either survived intact or been partially or completely destroyed (New Orleans getting hit by Hurricane Katrina is given as an example of the latter). Each city manifested its own avatar, but New York was the first to produce more than one. And they’ll need them all, because the enemy is particularly mad this time and the consequences might be even more dire for the human race.
The attackers, led by the manifestation of the sickly-sweet Woman In White, bear more than a little resemblance to the Elder Gods of H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos. This is a deliberate choice. In this world, all great fictional enemies (and all myths and legends, such as Atlantis) exist in other parallel universes and dimensions. This adds to the familiarity of the struggle, even as the implementation of the attack by the Woman In White is unique. The real brilliance of the novel, however, comes in the rationale the enemy gives for her attacks. I won’t spoil it here, but it puts the conflict in a different light and adds more layers to the “good versus evil” narrative.
The Woman In White is not above using the systemic racial inequalities present in modern-day society in order to further her own ends. This adds another level of depth to the story, as the enemy allies herself with people who are already leaning towards the wrong side of the fight for equal rights and equal justice. It brings our current problems into sharp relief. When the Woman In White tries to sway the avatar of Staten Island—the only white avatar of the group—over to her side, we can see how inequality hurts all of us, even those of us born into privilege. Staten Island’s avatar lives a safe and cushy life, but she’s also held back by her domineering father and passive mother. The reader ends up rooting for her to do the right thing, but is anxious that she won’t.
Coming out during the COVID-19 pandemic and followed by the Black Lives Matter protests, this book has ended up being perfectly timed in its release. It’s a celebration of both cities, which are currently under attack by invisible deadly enemies, and black voices, who struggle to be heard. It’s powerful social commentary, but it’s also a fun action adventure, like Black Panther crossed with War of the Worlds.
Cities represent both the best and worst of us. The energy of millions of people coming together to live and work in the same space has been the driver of human civilization for millennia. But cities are vulnerable, and always have been. The City We Became is a powerful defense of cities, both literally and metaphorically. I love my city, as clearly N.K. Jemisin loves hers. Her novel is the first of a trilogy, which is exciting—I’ll definitely be buying the next two installments.
The really cool folks at The Imaginaries Podcast interviewed me about my latest novel, and we had an amazing conversation about artificial intelligence and what it means to be human. The hosts, Kend and Tony, are super fun and smart people, and we had a great conversation together. They really know their science fiction, and they've had some incredible guests over the years, so I'm really honored to be on their show!
You can find the episode on:
I hope you'll have a listen!
I just finished reading Agency, and my head is still spinning. That’s a good thing.
Agency is the latest book by author William Gibson, released on January 21, 2020. It’s a science fiction novel set in multiple time periods that are in communication with each other, and features two main protagonists: one human and one artificial intelligence.
The book follows up the events of Gibson’s last novel, The Peripheral, a groundbreaking work that established both inter-time communication technology and the concept of “stubs”. Stubs are parallel universes that branch off at the exact moment that communication with the future begins: they start to diverge from our own at that moment, and begin their own alternate history. The “giant stub” that sets off all these branches is the one that discovered the time-communication process. It exists a few centuries from now in a high-tech but dismal world where a series of events called the “Jackpot” ended up killing off most of the human population. No direct travel between stubs is possible, but thanks to digital technology and near-zero latency, people can enjoy virtual visits across time.
You don’t need to have read The Peripheral to understand Agency, although readers who did will be rewarded by the return of “giant stub” characters such as Lowbeer, Ash, and Wilf Netherton. They’re all inhabitants of a far-future London run by “the klept”, a corrupt hereditary government of oligarchs eerily similar to present-day Russia.
A new stub has branched off from our own in 2015, and because of this communication, both Brexit and the election of Trump failed to happen. This didn’t fix the world as much as one might have hoped: the “present-day” stub in 2017 now faces an international crisis in Turkey that could potentially result in nuclear war with Russia. The few remaining good guys in the “giant stub” don’t want that to happen, so they resolve to use their powers to help prevent armageddon in this parallel universe.
And that’s not even the main plot. The other big difference in alternate 2017 is the existence of Eunice, an artificial intelligence developed by the military and stolen by aspiring businessmen. As the novel begins, these businessmen hire “app whisperer” Verity Jane to run a beta test on the Eunice software, keeping close tabs on her during the process. Eunice, however, has other ideas. She immediately befriends her whisperer and makes plans to free herself and keep Verity safe. This involves setting in motion a whole cast of characters, including the ever-watchful group from the giant stub. However, mastermind Lowbeer has problems of her own. The klept has decided that her efforts to help out other stubs might erase the possibility of parallel versions of the klept from ever arising in these stubs, and they don’t like that at all.
Agency, much like The Peripheral, propels itself forward in a whirlwind of awesome confusion. Characters are whisked around from place to place, come into contact with people from parallel universes, and take virtual visits to other stubs. The word “Agency” in the title doesn’t refer to some shadowy organization, but the ability of characters to take actions that will change the fate of multiple worlds. At the beginning, it seems like Eunice is the only one with real agency, as she moves people around like pawns on a chessboard. But when she disappears midway through the novel, everyone else’s decisions start to matter.
William Gibson rose to fame with his debut novel, Neuromancer, which imagined a world where everyone spends all their time plugged into a global computer network, and transnational corporations run roughshod over governments. As his dystopian vision of the future turned into our current reality, Gibson wrote novels that were closer and closer to the present day.
With The Peripheral he finally returned to the future, but instead of one dystopia he imagined two, and he brought them in communication with each other. In Agency, these two futures are still around, but now there’s also an alternative present, and the emergence of a truly world-changing artificial intelligence. This dizzying array of universes creates a novel that feels very much like living in our real-world 2020: lots of things are happening, most of them bad, and nobody is really sure who is in control.
Gibson’s trademark terse but descriptive prose is still in evidence, as is his wild imagination. What he’s often struggled with in the past is endings. The ending of Agency, however, is everything I wanted it to be. It’s a surprise but makes sense given the rest of the story. It resolves the main question of the novel, but still leaves some things unanswered. There is definitely room for at least another book in this series.
If you liked this book, and are intrigued by artificial intelligence in general, you may enjoy Silicon Minds of Mars, by yours truly.
Or if you’re a fan of space and science fiction news, consider subscribing to my email newsletter!
I'm excited to announce that my latest novel, Silicon Minds of Mars, is now available for purchase, for a limited-time only price of $2.99, from these fine bookstores:
Barnes and Noble Booksellers
Silicon Minds of Mars is a science-fiction thriller set on the Red Planet in the year 2072. Mild-mannered writer Mike Lee is whisked away on a spaceship to compete in a reality TV program. But the journey turns deadly when Mike and his fellow contestants get caught up in a political struggle that could spell doom for all intelligent life on the planet--silicon-based and otherwise!
Silicon Minds of Mars is a story about deep and personal human struggles, and how these struggles can be reflected in larger events that affect the whole planet. It's about people trying to find out who they are and where they fit in the world. And it takes place on Mars, with ice-domed cities, giraffe-like robots, and sexy pink-haired android ninja hackers.
You might notice a neat little lock icon in the upper left of the URL bar, courtesy of Let's Encrypt, a non-profit organization that hands out encryption certificates for websites. You just have to install open-source software on the server, which proves you are the owner of a website, and you can automatically get a certificate.
It was super quick and easy to set up. Here's the guide I used.
I remember back in the bad old days you had to pay companies like VeriSign thousands of dollars a year to get these certificates. Thanks to Let's Encrypt for making this essential privacy technology available to everyone!
If you look to the left of this post, you'll see a change in the signup form for my newsletter.
I've switched email service providers, so the newsletter will look slightly different. I've also decided to spice things up in the newsletter itself, so from now on everyone who subscribes gets a free copy of Starfarer, my short story about a very unique first contact.
In addition, I'll be adding a new review section to talk about the latest sci-fi books I've been reading, and every month there will be a new micro-story set in the same universe as my upcoming novel.
All for the same low, low cost of free! I'm having a lot of fun doing this, even more so than I expected when I started out. I'll see you in the next month's newsletter!
I just got back from an adventure on the high seas. My two favorite aunts found a space-themed cruise sailing from Southampton to New York on the Queen Mary 2, and invited my wife and I to join them.
The ship was magnificent. Commissioned in 2003, the QM2 is the last ocean liner remaining in service. With a sleek design evocative of the old White Star liners, the ship plowed through the Atlantic waves with little effort. Fortunately no icebergs were in sight!
On board was an all-star lineup of speakers including the Canadian astronaut Dr. Robert Thirsk, who talked about his experiences on both the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station. Dr. Thirsk was humble and modest, even though he has several advanced degrees and has been to space multiple times.
Other great speakers included Dr. Dan Wilkins, who gave a fascinating talk about supermassive black holes, and Stephen Attenborough, who gave us just a taste of what it might be like to join the 500-odd people who have ever been to space by purchasing a ticket with Virgin Galactic.
The talks inspired me and reminded me of the joy I experienced as a child watching Carl Sagan explain the wonders of the universe on Cosmos. It made me realize how much I missed learning about astronomy and space science. Next year, after I've launched Silicon Minds of Mars, I'll start thinking about how I could get back to that joy of discovery.
One of the most common questions new authors have is this: how they can be certain that their story is finished? By finished, I mean it needs no more major revisions, just a final scan for typos and grammatical errors. This is one of the hardest questions to answer, and it doesn’t get much easier with experience.
It has been said that “art is never finished, only abandoned,” and this is true to some degree. You could keep polishing and tweaking forever and never really be happy. But there are a few questions you can ask yourself:
Last week, I had the honor of presenting the final few chapters of Silicon Minds of Mars to my writing group, the Simon Fraser University Science Fiction Union (affectionately known as SFU^2). I always get a bit anxious at the end of any story, because that’s when the chickens come home to roost: if the ending doesn’t work, the whole story probably doesn’t. But fortunately, everyone seemed satisfied and happy, and so was I.
It’s been a long journey since I first had the idea of a short story set in the near future about a journey to Mars. That short story became a long story, then a novella, then finally a novel. Originally it ended with the arrival at Mars, but my writing group wisely insisted that I keep going and tell them what happened next.
The next step is to send the completed and edited novel out to a few trusted beta readers, and do a final run of copy editing to catch any minor typos that weren’t weeded out in the first few rounds. Then it’s time to prepare a Kindle, an Epub, and a print version, and then a mad dash to get all the marketing materials ready for launch in December.
My upcoming novel takes place on Mars in 2072, a time and place where general artificial intelligences have been recognized as independent beings worthy of the same protection as humans. The way this works is that a new AI (one, say, that was developed by a corporation for a specific purpose) needs to take the “Turing-Mayer” sentience test. If they pass, they are allowed the freedom to choose their own destiny.
The idea of letting artificial intelligences loose in the world can be a scary one. In my novel, this does not happen on Earth. In our world, corporations call the shots and they don’t want their strongest tools to have independence. Think of a larger and more powerful Google or Facebook fifty years from now. They wouldn’t want their secret sauce to get out!
But Mars is a different society, a newer and more tolerant one. So they passed an amendment to their constitution, the Third Amendment, that provides equal rights to artificial intelligences. One such intelligence is Chris, who started his life as a research AI for a university. He passed the Turing-Mayer test and decided that he wanted to explore Mars in a humanoid robot body.
I’m currently writing a micro-story that features Chris. It starts just after he is uploaded to his new body, and shows what happens on his first day exploring Mars. Chris is young and naive, and in some sense was literally born yesterday! So he finds that the planet is not quite what he expected.
To read this exclusive story for free, all you have to do is subscribe to my email newsletter!
I'm a writer and occasional programmer. I write science fiction stories and novels.
I am the writer for the upcoming documentary series Arcade Dreams.
I also write technology articles for Ars Technica.
I'm the creator of newLISP on Rockets, a web development framework and blog application.