Category: Book Reviews & Interviews (Page 2 of 4)

Interview with Jason Dias, author of Life on Mars

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Welcome to fellow author Jason Dias, author of Sanguine Vengeance, The Worst of Us, Endpoint of Sentience, and more.  Previous interviews with Richard BambergRob ChanskyP.R. Adams, and Megan Rutter are also available.

1. Your book starts out with a character, Jaye, who feels she isn’t human because she was, among other things, born on Mars.  What made you head that direction for this book?  Did you related to her experiences personally, or do they reflect what you’re seeing out in the world?

I’m alienated in a lot of ways. We didn’t have autism when I was a kid; I found out about it quite recently. In the 70s I wasn’t autistic, I was just weird. That weirdness alienated me. It didn’t help to be bi-national – British and American. When we lived over there, I was too American for Brits; over here, I was always too British for Americans. So because of a) weird and b) nationality, I was always friends with the outcast groups and otherwise an outsider.

It wasn’t until graduate school that I was allowed to join the grown-up table of life. And, as a psychologist, there is finally value in the outsider perspective. I get to make the implicit explicit in ways that are socially valuable.

Jaye is an attempt to integrate the past life as outsider into the present life as a real boy. Writing her not only describes but creates some of my experience. I wouldn’t say doing this work was fun; I cried the whole time I wrote this book. Both times – I wrote it twice! But the experience was too valuable not to share.

2. I noticed that you did a lot of hard science fiction in this book–a fair amount of research and math.  What were a couple of the more interesting topics that you had to research?

The old adage for writers is to “write what you know.” I tend to ascribe to that philosophy, but also make it a point to know a lot of stuff. I remember being an unconsciously know-it-all ten-year-old boy aggravating my mother. She said, “You know something about everything, don’t you?” And it wasn’t until decades later I figured out that wasn’t a compliment.

I did very little specific research for this book. I read a few news articles to bring myself up to date on Mars; our planetary knowledge always grows. But I worked in Space Command in the 90s, so I already came equipped with some basic knowledge of orbital mechanics, rocketry, space travel and so on. I worked twenty years in developmental disabilities and have a doctorate in psychology as well as my personal experiences of difference. I’m personally concerned about climate change and interested in intelligence real and artificial. Someone else might have had to do significant reading and integration to write this story but it by and large came naturally to me because I write what I know, but I know a lot of stuff.

Remember Friday, the Robert Heinlein character? God, that story was hardly a feminist epic, but some of it resonated with me as a young man. At one point, the super-assassin and sometime space traveler, Friday, gets assigned a desk. It’s a research desk; her job is an early form of “ask me anything.” Customers ask questions, she dives data to find answers. Her boss wants her to naturally learn a big underlying principle of her fictional universe, arriving at her own conclusions by knowing a bunch of diverse topics. This has accidentally been my life, from being a librarian to a space systems operator to food service and retail, developmental disabilities, psychiatry and psychology.

3.  For what it’s worth, do you feel that it’s reasonable to put humans on Mars?  Do you think we “should,” whether it’s reasonable or not?  Where should we head with our space program, in your opinion?

The barriers to life on Mars are significant. Even the soil is toxic. No amount of terraforming can create an atmosphere because there isn’t enough gravity or a molten metal core to create a magnetic field to deflect solar particles. Not impossible, but a huge challenge with a lot of one-way tickets involved.

The question wouldn’t be so much could we or even should we as why would you want to?

Lately, I see interest in Martian colonies as the desire for an escape hatch. And stories about such colonies are very popular at this moment in history. The thing is, it isn’t a viable escape hatch by any realistic measure, and thinking of it in those terms distracts from very real Earthly problems: climate change, environmental degradation (especially affecting ocean life), geopolitics including the decline of democracy at home and abroad.

I’m generally a pessimist about space travel. Too costly, too slow, and ultimately not much point. My Martian colony was established not as an escape hatch at all but as the appearance of one: to give people small hope in the last days of of a viable Earth. As long as they thought they could win a ticket off-planet, there was some continuing reason to go on. This is why the colony is under-resourced at the time we drop in to visit. It was never really meant to succeed.

Going to Mars is probably a thing we need to do – to study it, to gain our space-legs (as Heinlein would say), to prove to ourselves that we have courage and fortitude. But thinking of our human future has to focus on our one and only home, the place where we keep all our stuff.

 4. Your book has a very philosophical bent, but in what struck me as a very rebellious sort of way, which reminded me of books like The Master and Margarita and Roadside Picnic, as well as Stanislaw Lem.  Can you tell me where you were coming from on a philosophical level, and whether you feel you achieved your aims in that respect?

I remember again being a child, a young man this time. It was a humanities class and I must have been 15. The subject was future careers, and I asked if there were any money in philosophy. Everybody laughed and I didn’t understand why. Luckily, they thought I was kidding. But I’ve always wanted to make my living thinking through complex human problems. At first, as a writer – I idolized Asimov and King and Clarke. Later, as a psychologist. When I discovered existential psychology, this little corner of psychology was balm for wounds I didn’t know I had.

In academia, we spend too much time writing for journals with narrow scope. I’m have a few publications aimed at humanistic and existential practitioners. That’s fine, but it’s a lot of work to swap stories with people who already agree with me. I’m a lazy man at heart, and if I have a choice between writing in APA style and being punched in the face, I have to ask “how hard?”

My fiction is definitely a way of getting out the intellectual and emotional treasures I’ve discovered in existential psychology and sharing them with people in an accessible, hands-on way. More like a discovery center where you can touch everything, play with it, see how it works, and definitely less like an old museum with everything dimly lit and under UV protective glass.

In a way this is intentional, a goal. In another way, “existential psychologist” isn’t just a job you can do; it’s an identity. I had to remake myself as a human to do this. So the philosophy isn’t only something a know but who I am as a person, and the best way to share it isn’t to talk about it but to embody it. I am grateful to a whole host of kindly teachers and mentors, some of whom are now dear friends, for being with me through this work.

It’s for sure an act of rebellion to write stories in this mode. Putting “literary” on the cover is the kiss of death for a modern novel. I ended up doing everything myself because this work is not at all commercial. It’s for a particular kind of reader: one willing to think, grasp for meanings, and to share in my sadness.

It still makes me cry to read it, so I would say it is a success in that limited fashion: it’s authentic. It isn’t modified to fit a market. It’s me. Beyond that, I couldn’t say.

5.  Where do you plan to go in the next book in this series?  Without giving away too many spoilers, por favor… I struggled to imagine that the first book could get resolved, so it’s been boggling my mind.  “Where do you even GO from here?”

Not planning a series here. I’m flattered that people keep asking: it means that someone has really identified with the characters and immersed in the world such that they aren’t ready to leave it. That is gratifying and I’m extremely pleased. For me, too, Jaye’s little world holds enough attraction that I do have the tickles of ideas for more stories.

There is a prequel already: What Hope Wrought visits the last days of the Earth Jaye’s father conspires to leave. Some of the characters in Finding Life on Mars also inhabit this dying world in at least minor ways. That story, too, focuses on a character struggling with the notion of being human.

The last page of FLOM does offer a direction for future inquiry. I’d invite folks to read that last page again. If another book emerges in this universe, it will explore that final event, and be related to the problems of the dying Earth in WHW: synthetic life, artificial intelligence.

Finally, there is a crossover story linking What Hope Wrought to Finding Life on Mars. “The Endpoint of Sentience,” the titular story in a collection of shorts, visits some of the logic and tragedy of the final intelligent decisions of Merlin’s inhuman offspring left behind on Earth.

and last but not least, the bonus question:

6.  Is there any note that you’d like to leave your readers on?  (Hint:  the additional promo question.)

If you like this meditative, broody style of writing, Finding Life on Mars is far from my only work. I write across genres, always reflecting though on basic existential truths. For Love of Their Children does this work in a high fantasy setting, additionally throwing diversity into a genre that lately is much too Euro-centric and hyper-masculine. The Worst of Us is a supernatural thriller that, underneath the horror-story pacing and terse thriller structure is a meditation on guilt.

But before rushing off to fill the empty space we all find inside us when we finish reading a novel, I’d love if readers took some time to consult themselves about this story. Did you cry? Did you identify with a character? Was there any emotional content beyond entertainment? Discomfort? It would be lovely to sit with whatever came up in the course of reading this thing, and I’d love to hear about it.

 

Jason Dias is a doctor of clinical psychology with fifteen years of experience working with developmentally disabled adults, four with people in severe states at the psychiatric hospital, and nine doing international psychology. He is co-founder of the Zhi Mian Institute for International Existential Psychology, an organization helping Chinese psychotherapists to acquire counseling skills and develop professional infrastructure.

Additionally, Jason writes. His credits include web journals and articles for The New Existentialists and A New Domain, two book chapters about existential psychology, a book of poetry and several novels and anthologies. He worries that academic writers spend too much time writing for journals only read by people who already agree with them and tries to get big ideas out in other formats.

Jason lives in Colorado Springs with his wife and son and keeps mostly to himself.

Think Like a Librarian: The Stanley Parable, by Davey Wreden and William Pugh

I’m trying to look at books the way a librarian might, in order to help get me better at thinking from a reader’s point of view. Here are the other posts in the series.

 

 

 

 

 

 

By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use, Link

The Stanley Parable is a video game, not a book.  I had planned to stick to reviewing books and graphic novels for this series, but The Stanley Parable was such a storyteller’s story that I couldn’t resist.

Dear gamers:  I know you know about this game already.  This review isn’t for you 🙂

Some stories don’t tell “a story” in and of itself so much as they are about stories, in general.  The Stanley Parable is a game about stories and how we use them to view our lives, and how stories are used to control our lives.  It questions the nature of storytelling itself, as a kind of funhouse mirror that both distorts and reveals.

The setup is this:  A man named Stanley is working in his office when he realizes that something mysterious has happened.  He’s perfectly happy at his job, and yet…now that this mysterious thing has happened, he has a few questions.  It is your job, as the player, to help him ask them, even though he literally doesn’t have a voice.  Meanwhile, a narrator narrates Stanley’s every move, more or less (often less) accurately, in a “Stephen Fry as the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” voice.

The Stanley Parable, to me, hits the same buttons as a Douglas Adams book.  By turns funny and darkly satirical, this is the kind of story that one might expect the Guide to have under an expanded entry for “Earth.”

I recommend it for mature middle-school students and up, and for adults who enjoyed Douglas Adams.  Gamers have probably already played this simple, not-terribly-difficult game, but if you find one who hasn’t, it’s almost a sure winner.

Thoughtful book recommendations – prose off the beaten path – one terrible pun per month – no questions asked.  Wonderland Press Newsletter.

Think Like A Librarian: Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison

I’m trying to look at books the way a librarian might, in order to help get me better at thinking from a reader’s point of view. Here are the other posts in the series.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m just going to say it.  Sometimes works of pure genius don’t get noticed by white people, because they’re written by and about people of color, and white people are trained to go, “Fiction by people of color isn’t meant for me.”

It’s a subconscious thing.  Which means you can go, “I don’t take a writer’s race into consideration,” and still end up reading no or very little fiction written by people of color.

Which is a shame.

 

Invisible Man is a book set in the 1940s, about a young black man who learns to embrace the Catch-22 setup of his existence.  It’s a funny book, with the main character being thrown from one ridiculous Kafkaesque situation to another, until finally he comes to realize that his trials have given him a unique superpower:  to be unseen by the people around him in an almost literal fashion.

The book isn’t just darkly funny, but is written with the ear of a jazz musician:

I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves or figments of their imagination, indeed, everything and anything except me.

I recommend it for people who are fans of Beat writers like Kerouac, Ginsberg, or Ferlinghetti.  Poetry fans looking for fiction may enjoy the layers of subtle language.  And for those who love the dark humor of Kafka, Catch-22, or The Manchurian Candidate may find this book just as biting and cynical.  Older, more mature teens may enjoy this as well.

But to let the book speak for itself:

Life is to be lived, not controlled; and humanity is won by continuing to play in face of certain defeat.

A wonderful book.

Thoughtful book recommendations – prose off the beaten path – one terrible pun per month – no questions asked.  Wonderland Press Newsletter.

Think Like a Librarian – The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, by Muriel Spark

I’m trying to look at books the way a librarian might, in order to help get me better at thinking from a reader’s point of view.  Here are the other posts in the series.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a short novel set in the period between WWI and WWII, in Edinburgh.  Miss Jean Brodie is a teacher at a girls’ middle school who has particular notions about how to teach girls how to become women.  One of her students reminisces upon her past under Miss Brodie.

At first, Miss Brodie’s ideas seem quite sensible:  girls should be taught how to be independent, how to think for themselves.  Maybe there’s something more important than memorizing facts and learning how to shut up and sit down.  She picks out the six most interesting, special girls to take under her wing.  They become “the Brodie set.”

Then the little things start to stack up.  Miss Brodie does not want the girls to think for themselves; she wants them to agree with her.  She monopolizes their time so they can’t become friends with anyone else.  She tests them constantly, trying to find out which ones she can trust.

And, in the end, she is betrayed.

This book was written in 1961.  After WWII, that is.  And a strong current running underneath the events of the book is fascism:  how it happens, how people get sucked in, how they come to lose their identities, and how it all collapses.

I recommend this book for anyone who wants to know how Hitler operated; just ask Miss Brodie.  It’s a great book for mature early teens (13+) and older students especially, I would think.  Anyone reading The Hunger Games and wondering how something like that gets started might be up for a good conversation about this book.  I would also recommend it for teens interested in horror – is this horror or not?  What does a horror story look like, when it comes from the bad guys’ point of view?

Look.  You just want like one stupid pun per month in your inbox.  I understand.  Sign up for the Wonderland Press newsletter and I’ll send you one, along with (my) book news and reviews.  Mystery, horror, history, and just plain weird.  It’s cool.

 

 

Think Like A Librarian – Her Body and Other Parties, by Carmen Maria Machado

I’m trying to look at books the way a librarian might, in order to help get me better at thinking from a reader’s point of view.  Here are the other posts in the series.

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Her Body and Other Parties is a collection of short stories that centers around the horrific in a kind of fairy-tale way.  (I recently talked about the relationship between horror and fairy tales here.)  The writing is clear, elegant, and readable.  “Once upon a time, there was a woman who…” is the main format of the stories, although I don’t recall the phrase “once upon a time” actually being used.

The stories do not stay with the usual territory of “once upon a time, there was a woman who stepped out of bounds in the deep, dark woods and got what was coming to her, only to be rescued at the last minute,” or “once upon a time, there was a woman whose home was more of a danger than she thought, and she got out at the last minute with the help of a prince.”

I think it’s fair to say that this book covers territory even further out of bounds than the normal run of fairy tales.  “Once upon a time, there was a woman who liked sex, and…”

The women in these stories have to deal with the consequences of their own desires, in a way that goes beyond a mere caution not to have them in the first place.  They don’t always walk away from that reckoning, and they never walk away unchanged, although sometimes they do end up with someone who feels right.

I would especially recommend this collection for women, queer, and non-binary readers who are exploring their sexuality at any age, and who don’t want to be lectured.  I would also recommend this for male readers who are feminists or who are exploring the issue, or who have a broad range of tastes in the horror genre.  This book would make an excellent book club book as well–there are a thousand and one discussions to be had about this book among readers of horror, but also romance and crime stories.

I should give a caution about one particular story in the book, “Especially Heinous.”  The structure is of an alternate Law & Order SVU TV episode guide, and really does include 272 episode descriptions of same.  The plotlines build and interweave with each other, becoming increasingly strange, yet meaningful.  The first few pages are necessarily not as rewarding as the rest of the story.  In other words, stick with it; it becomes something truly memorable.

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Think Like a Librarian: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain

I’m trying to look at books the way a librarian might, in order to help get me better at thinking from a reader’s point of view.  Here are the other posts in the series.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is a war novel about the Iraq War.  The characters are caught on a Fox News camera doing something bloody, desperate, and heroic, and, as a special treat-slash-promotional opportunity, are brought back to the U.S. for a brief period to go on a “Victory Tour.”

There is nothing like a war novel for irony.  There really isn’t.  If a reader’s tastes run in that direction, sending them toward sardonic novels like Catch-22Slaughterhouse-FiveJohnny Got His Gun, The Manchurian Candidate, and other such war novels will do them no disservice.  These novels are also great for character voice, and Billy Lynn is no exception.  The clear, funny, and painfully human voice of the main character is a masterpiece.

Few elements of American culture are left unskewered, from family to football to Beyoncé.  Dragged out for particular punishment are hypocrites in religion and politics.  It’s a strange world when Hollywood is more sane than the man on the street, but that becomes the believable world of this book.

I recommend the book mainly for older teens and adults with a taste in irony, possibly also for those who need to be able to cope with a situation out of their control and have a black sense of humor.  If a reader is a fan of something like Shaun of the Dead, this will probably be a most enjoyable book.

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Think Like a Librarian: True Grit, by Charles Portis

I’m trying to look at books the way a librarian might, in order to help get me better at thinking from a reader’s point of view.  Here are the other posts in the series.

True Grit is a Western adventure story first published in 1968.  Readers who are looking for a tale of the good guys versus the bad guys should look elsewhere–this is a story about the quality of stubbornness, and its benefits and drawbacks.

I would highly recommend the story for reluctant teen readers and reluctant adult readers.  The writing is plain and direct.  The characters aren’t symbols or themes so much as they are flaws with legs.  Not much is romanticized or idealized:  it is what it is, and what happens, happens.  You don’t have to question the text much; not much is implied at a subtextual level.

On a more sophisticated level, the book works as a satire of other, more idealistic books in the Western genre and in fiction in general.  “Don’t try to tell the reader what to think,” this books seems to say.  “Don’t tell them that the past was anything other than dirty, deadly, and full of snakes.”  This level of the storytelling isn’t intrusive, and if a read misses it completely, they’ll still enjoy the book–but this aspect of the book would also make it a refreshing choice for someone who reads literary fiction as well.  And the two main characters are both examples of the best characters in fiction.

Not quite a sly wink at the reader, and not quite the most straightforward novel of all time, it’s the kind of book that can be enjoyed by readers across a broad spectrum.  I would not recommend the book for readers who don’t like gritty details that they’ll remember long after putting the book down.  There is some violence, but more importantly, there are a few scenes that might give a few readers some nightmares (especially regarding snakes).

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Think Like a Librarian: The Prisoner of Zenda, by Anthony Hope

I’m trying to look at books the way a librarian might, in order to help get me better at thinking from a reader’s point of view.  Here are the other posts in the series.

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The Prisoner of Zenda is an adventure story from 1894.  Unlike a lot of the fiction written in that time period and earlier, the language isn’t laborious to read, and in fact is quite witty.

The book is most famous for its plot setup:  two men who resemble each other meet.  One of the men is a commoner.  The other is the heir apparent of the country in which they find themselves, and about to be crowned.

Something happens to the heir, preventing him from being crowned.  But being crowned is essential; otherwise, the king might lose his throne entirely.

So the second man, who really does closely resemble him, pretends to be the heir and gets crowned in his place, while trying to untangle the politics threatening the true king.

The action is fast and exciting; there is, as in The Princess Bride, fencing, fighting, torture, revenge…no giants, though.

In fact, an entire tradition of fiction arose out of The Prisoner of Zenda, called “Ruritanian fiction” after the country of Ruritania out of the book.  Ruritanian fiction involves a fictional, nostalgic European country playing host to a tale of adventure fiction, often involving royalty and inheritance.

I would recommend this book for early teen and up.  The language isn’t simple, but it’s not difficult either, and most of the concepts are presented very smoothly.  The action happens quickly.  There is violence, but nothing is described in graphic detail.  Look to The Prisoner of Zenda for a catchy adventure that doesn’t need a lot of context to enjoy.

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Think Like a Librarian: Haunted, by Chuck Palahniuk

I’m trying to look at books the way a librarian might, in order to help get me better at thinking from a reader’s point of view.  Here are the other posts in the series.

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Haunted is a collection of short horror stories tied together by one story that threads together the others.  I do not recommend this collection for anyone who isn’t already a horror fan.  If a reader has any concerns about gore or offensive material, then I wouldn’t recommend this.  This is a much more challenging book than Fight Club, and liking Fight Club isn’t a good predictor on whether a reader would like Haunted.

The general idea is that a patron of literature has offered a small group of amateur writers the chance to get away from it all in order for each of them to write their masterpiece; however, no one will know where they’ve gone and they won’t have any contact with the outside world.

The writers who become involved with this effort are not, shall we say, on the up-and-up, and look forward for the chance to disappear for three months, even more than they look forward for the chance to write without being disturbed.

Which is just as well, because disturbed is what they get.

This collection contains Palahniuk’s infamous short story “Guts,” which is supposed to have made several people faint with how repulsive the story is.  The story is one of the finest examples of gross-out horror that could ever be envisioned, not even barring Stephen King’s work, but I believe the real cause of the fainting is that the story starts off by telling the reader to hold their breath!

Terrible things happen, and I have to warn you not to look for a happy ending.

To put it mildly.

In addition, don’t expect the supernatural.  Palahniuk finds enough horror within the human species to satisfy without turning to something outside it.

I would recommend this book for older teens and up, people with strong stomachs only.  The book is darkly funny, and is really the most vicious of satires rather than horror–but it almost requires an understanding of how horror works in order for the satire to work.  Reading this book will make things like Saw and Hostel look like lightweights; it may also introduce darkly cynical horror-movie buffs to the enchantments of satire as a literary art.

Incidentally, the cover on some of the print versions glows in the dark 🙂

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Think Like a Librarian: My Favorite Thing is Monsters, by Emil Ferris

I’m trying to look at books the way a librarian might, in order to help get me better at thinking from a reader’s point of view.  Here are the other posts in the series.

My Favorite Thing Is Monsters is another graphic novel.  (I checked a stack of best-of graphic novels all out at once, so there were a bunch.)  What you’re looking at here is older teens and up.  The main character is a middle-schooler, but I would definitely read the graphic novel before handing it off.  Some middle-school kids will do fine with it; it’s told at a middle-school level, but covers some extremely overwhelming topics.  If you need to cover some extremely overwhelming topics with your kids at that age…this might help.  Death, same-sex sexual attraction, attempted rape disguised as “bullying,” prostitution, murder, and loving someone who makes big mistakes are all covered.

The main character is a (human) girl who sees herself as a werewolf.  She is artistically inclined, and the graphic novel, created by an adult, is presented as her handiwork.  The “panels” in the graphic novel are free flowing, free associative doodles done in pen and ink.  People can be drawn beautifully, mockingly, photorealistically, etc., based on the main character’s emotions at the time.

The story ranges from before World War II, to concentration camps in WWII, to the late Sixties, as the main character attempts to solve the murder of a neighbor, the “blue” woman on the cover.

The art in this is loose and improvisational, yet masterful; the writing is a masterpiece on a level with Art Spiegelman’s Maus.  I’m not exactly going out on a limb to say that this volume is one of the masterpieces of Western fiction, graphic novel or otherwise.

It can be a challenging read, but mostly because it’s literally just heavy.  A second volume is planned to come out in the second half of 2018.

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