‘Karma Kommandos’ by Paul Cook

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“Karma Kommandos” intertwines two stories.

Rory Koestler is a member the Los Angeles Police Department’s Protean Set, a program with undercover cops who have the ability to change their appearance.

The Protean Set’s purpose is to capture Bob Thermopylae, the dealer of the hallucinogen known as “Chuckle” and to get a quarantine on California lifted.

At the same time, a supercomputer named Eidolon Rex disappears from its lab at Eidolon Technology and reappears 10 hours later.

The stories start to connect when the scientists discover an anomalous number of Rex’s programs containing the name Rory Koestler.

Things get further complicated when a third party appears from out of nowhere (literally) and zaps people into what appears to be cold-induced comas.

NARRATOR: "Books & Co." is made possible by the Virginia G piper center for creative writing. Serving writers and readers in the Phoenix metropolitan area, the state of Arizona, and the world.

ALBERTO RIOS: Welcome to "Books & Co.." Bienvenido todos. I'm your host, Alberto Rios. We're joined today by science fiction author and educator Paul Cook. Talking about his most recent book "Karma Kommandos" blushed by Phoenix Pick, which is the science fiction imprint of Arc Manor. Welcome.

ALBERTO RIOS: I love talking about science fiction because it's all about imagining, oh, sure a story happens but the stuff along the way is what I think is always the most exciting. We've talked a lot through the years about science fiction so I hope we'll get to those issues. I'm always struck what would you say "Karma Kommandos" takes place? When?

PAUL COOK: Vaguely the near future.

ALBERTO RIOS: What's intriguing to me is how unfair and fair to readers it is that science fiction writers can't write a regular narrative. You can't just walk down the street. Right? Everything has got to be reimagined.

PAUL COOK: Yeah. Yeah.

ALBERTO RIOS: I remember being at a conference, someone said 98% of science fiction is true. What she meant about that is you have to have language, you have to be able to recognize things, but that 2 percent happens on Mars is what we remember.


ALBERTO RIOS: When you're writing, how do you imagine a walk down the street? Aren't you thinking everything has got to change?

PAUL COOK: That's part of what makes science fiction fun, is where you would have a -- Even in the foreground, but it enhances who the character is, or what the character is trying to do. Let me kind of give you a visual example that really impressed me about one single moment in the movie "Star Wars." When Luke Skywalker is sitting with his aunt and uncle early on in the movie and they're having lunch, it's filmed in Tunis, its underground, and they're having lunch, and Luke pours not milk, but it's purple. And I thought, what an interesting detail, that Luke -- Yes, it's in the future, planet far away, whatever, it was that one detail that meant that this was an unusual place. It just wasn't milk. So in a book like "Karma Kommandos" the slightest detail has to enhance who the character is, and the world in which he inhabits which is a kind of a weird Los Angeles in the near future. But the idea is to make it integral to the plot. You don't want to have stuff that doesn't really matter. So if there's a giant airship in the background, which there is in this book, its got to matter, it's got to be there for a reason. And that's part of the fun of science fiction, is that you can use these things to enhance the story, but it's essentially the story, it's about a character who has a problem or a need, or something to overcome, or to do, or whatever. That's the fun adding all that new stuff.

ALBERTO RIOS: All the context. This is a story, the main character is detective RORY Koestler of the special narcotics bureau of the -- Division of the LAPD. We get a start, is it going to be a detective fiction, is it going to be, whatever. But pretty soon we get launched into this -- One of my favorite things, and you mentioned this several times, but it -- It's sort of what -- Along the lines of the purple drink. He goes into his apartment and the walls come on and he says, those are my ad scans. The moment you started describing them I thought oh, my god, that is coming!

PAUL COOK: In order to pay his rent he lives in a place called Paradise Cove, and that's the expensive area near Malibu and whatever. In order to pay his rent, he hires out wall space and they run ads in his living room. So that cuts off on his rent. Because why not? I was visually -- The way I write in all of my books, they're all very visual. I have to describe each scene. I just can't have him walk in, stuff happen and him leave. The walls should be alive. The couch should be alive. There should be something that would be a minor part, minor trope that should help resonate with the book. And the fact the main character, one of the minor sub themes is he's a responsible. He doesn't know it, everyone else around him knows it. But part of it is he has to pay so much alimony and child support, he does haven't any money, and he can't support his girlfriends, but he's a devoted cop. So how do you do that? You rent out your walls.

ALBERTO RIOS: You've got that gumshoe scenario but in a science fiction context. Where you see new consequences of that behavior. It's akin to those cars where you paint ads and they give you a deal on the --


ALBERTO RIOS: on the purchase payment. It's also an extension of commercials, right?

PAUL COOK: Why not have tattoos that talk and advertise. That's going to happen. Somebody is going to figure out how to do that.

ALBERTO RIOS: In fact, in the novel you talk about something called real leaves, which I loved as well. It's just maybe you will describe that. Putting those sensors everywhere.

PAUL COOK: Right. It's part of the extension of the Hollywood film culture. Reality tv is an extension of that and a lot of reality tv we know is scripted, is chaotic as a lot of it is. But real leaves, it was me turning my imagination loose, having people make their lives ordinary lives into entertainment, which really is what it's coming down to now. It's the average person's life -- Most cable shows are reality show, just average people taking out the garbage, or fishing or whatever. Driving trucks. But the things -- There were so things Koestler uses, his tools, his crime-fighting tools, that it's all part of that mix. And I had to kind of build into it that way so that he would have -- So him being a cop is just more than just being a regular cop. He's in a world of entertainment. And because --

ALBERTO RIOS: Enhanced by L.A.

PAUL COOK: Enhanced by L.A. And he can physically change his appearance --

ALBERTO RIOS: Which we need to know about the character. He's got a chameleon like ability, but in a law enforcement context, which is interesting.

PAUL COOK: So he can enter -- He can change his appearance to look like Bruce Willis if he wants to, but the important part in the novel, there's a drug called chuckle. And it enhances people's reality so that when they take it it's like cocaine except they think they're in a movie, and they can do all sorts of damage while they're thinking in a Schwarzenegger movie or something like that.

ALBERTO RIOS: They believe it.

PAUL COOK: They believe it. And that's part of, you know, I think there are people in this world who think they're in a movie. If they aren't, that they ought to be. So I'm playing with that, and what Koestler has to do is to find out who is selling this stuff, and then of course someone else is taking out the people who are selling it, and that second set of individuals becomes part of the quest of who's this -- This set of players.

ALBERTO RIOS: Chuckle is a kind of drug. It's the main -- It's more than a drug.

PAUL COOK: Oh, yeah.

ALBERTO RIOS: It's all sorts of things happen as a result of that. We don't want to give anything away. I think what I love too is it reminds me of just the very basic word, chuckle.

PAUL COOK: That's why I picked it.

ALBERTO RIOS: Which works well, especially as you reach the end of the novel. It ends up being a very well chosen sort of thing. And we mentioned real leaves before, I imagine you're putting -- People put sensors on themselves and you put sensors on yourself and they match whatever that person is experiencing. So you can sit there while somebody else is out climbing a mountain and you're going to feel it all, or the parts you want to feel.

PAUL COOK: Yeah. It was an extension of a kind of cybertechnology were like, for example, if you are a famous movie star, you could maybe sell your life to a thousand people and they would plug in, follow you around and do whatever. That's going to happen. That's actually going to happen. So you're if -- If you're a boxer like Muhammed Ali in his heyday, there would be a lot of people who would simply want to be in that experience. And that would be that realistic -- That real moment. But that's just the way I turn my mind loose, following up what just makes sense in terms of where we're headed.

ALBERTO RIOS: It's a more visceral version of simulation. Which wore very used to.

PAUL COOK: We technology, why fight it in front of a TV screen when you can sit in a chair and you're in it with somebody else?

ALBERTO RIOS: Wow. Slippery slope.

PAUL COOK: Yeah, slippery slope. We're almost there.

ALBERTO RIOS: Well, you have a very funny thing, we were talking about all these technologies, I laughed at one moment because it reminded me of another science fiction author, but you include a reference to a fax number. And I was thinking, wow, I don't even use a fax anymore. It was a funny thing to encounter. It didn't bother me, but it seemed out of sync. I know you had more with that, but it reminded me of what Robert Heinline did, it doesn't matter what century it is, 29th century, at some point a character gets frustrated with technology and he pulls out a slide rule.

PAUL COOK: What's really weird is to read a science fiction book from 30 or 40 years ago, and they're on Mars or Titan, they're lighting cigarettes. Do you know what a dishism is?


PAUL COOK: This is cool. The science fiction writer Thomas Disch described a -- He made it up. You may have noticed. A Dischism is where the author's life intrudes into the actual story. I read this in Stephen King, the action is going along, and the character takes a nap. Me being a writer, there are times you are writing, you get tired you take a nap. When it didn't require it. But the more common Dischism is when a character is doing stuff and lights a cigarette. That's the author. But Thomas Disch came up with the phrase for Philip K. Dick because so much of Philip K. Dick's life intruded into the actual writing of his novels. So again, it's kind of odd psychology of understanding the relationship between the author and the physical text. Knowing that you're writing something. Now, when Heinline did that a lot, he would say things, I was talking with a friend the other day, during the summer, the main character who's been frozen wakes up in the future and he goes to lunch, and first of all lunch is $10. I read that, in 1967, $10 for lunch! And then he pulls out a card, because there's no cash. [laughter] I read this in 1967, I'm going no way! That's not going to happen! [laughter] And yet that wasn't even a predicted detail. That was just him doing what I did in "Karma Kommandos," or what any good science fiction writer would do.

ALBERTO RIOS: You have -- You came perilously close, however, to the other side of what happens when that is -- It's the oh, I have it written down. I want to read it exactly. "time travel was so impossible, no physicist had seriously considered the prospect in 50 years. An American would be elected pope before that would happen." It almost happened! I just laughed and laughed when I came to that moment.

PAUL COOK: Well, when 9-11 happened, I was -- We were talking about it with one of my classes, and this is the way I think. We're talking, and this is when America learned all about the Middle East and whatever. I certainly discovered the Middle East, became aware of it, and I started -- I said, all right, all right. When are we going to elect our first Muslim president? I hadn't even thought of Obama at that point.

ALBERTO RIOS: Not that he's Muslim.

PAUL COOK: No, but he's black, and we may have a female president soon. And who will be our first Jewish president? That's the way I think. When we exist in a moment of horror, our minds shut down, but my job as a science fiction writer is to step back and say, OK, yeah. But when might we have our first Muslim president? Our first Asian president. That will happen. I know it will happen.

ALBERTO RIOS: I'm going to take a moment to remind our viewers you're watching "Books & Co.," I'm your host Alberto Rios and we're talking today with science fiction author and educator Paul Cook. Paul, this book "Karma Kommandos," do you want to tell us about the title?

PAUL COOK: Yeah. It has to do with -- I mentioned earlier the -- Roy Koestler is part of the Protean set, a group of narcotic, an elite squad that, he's a detective and he infiltrates drug cartels or whatever, going after a drug named chuckle. In part of him tracking down the dealers of chuckle in L.A., as he gets close to tracking down these people, ghost like step out of walls, shoot the person who's doing the dealing or just a seemingly innocent person, steps back in the walls and disappears. And so Koestler, who's this other player? Who are these other people? They end up being the Kommandos. The reference in the title is all revealed in the end. It has to do with karma. The idea of -- I mentioned earlier, the Roy Koestler is irresponsible. One of the sub themes, one of the main themes in the book is personal responsibility and the notion of work is that some people well into their adulthoods don't want to or take the time to do the work of being a human being. Taking care of your family, or even yourself. And Koestler is just hugely avoiding all of this. And he gets --

ALBERTO RIOS: it's not just Koestler you've got real leaves, chugle --

PAUL COOK: It's all L.A., and it's about responsibility. That's like a way underneath – It's mostly action, mostly trying to find out who's dealing the chuckle, because it's widespread, it's everywhere. And --

ALBERTO RIOS: It's like the lone white blood cell.

PAUL COOK: Right. Right. And his job is to track it down. And then he makes a bizarre discovery toward the end. What I really wanted to do is write a Philip K. Dick detective novel. Where reality was not what you thought it was, and in a perfect place, L.A. If you've been to L.A., for all of 10 minutes, nothing is real there. And --

ALBERTO RIOS: and to invoke movies on top of it.

PAUL COOK: Absolutely. It is part of that culture. And I wanted to tap into that. Into this particular book.

ALBERTO RIOS: Which you do quite well. I think that's a good description. A Philip K. Dick detective novel, which I think it follows through on. You're so careful about language. I appreciate that. Even something like the Protean set, if we -- We may not as readers immediately know Protean, of course it means changeable. So you're careful in your placement of things, you're not just off the cuff. What is so intriguing to me about that, is the characters names. You use the names of people you've known.

PAUL COOK: That's right.

ALBERTO RIOS: People we know in common in fact. So as a reader, it's one things but as a friend of yours reading that book, it's another experience when you come across names.

PAUL COOK: I'm surprised authors don't do that a lot more. Tell us about it.

ALBERTO RIOS: Your son Joaquin is the mayor in another book. And he was just born when I wrote this book. It's a homage. That's all it is. And the real names are in there, they don't do bad things or say bad things. It's just a way, it's a Dischism. A way of putting people from my reality, many of them men and women -- It's putting them in these books, it's like me, it's like waving hello to the reader. I can't remember what other book I did that in, I did it a lot. But it's a lot of fun to do. Every now and then people will catch it.

ALBERTO RIOS: I caught those obviously. And that makes me think that every character, I don't know everybody in your life, but I'm thinking, whoa. I know some authors actually to raise money for charities or whatever they'll name a character after somebody who has given some money. Which --

PAUL COOK: That’s a kick starter thing. Where you get a bunch of people to give you a bunch of money to write a novel and you put them in it. I just did this out of fun.

ALBERTO RIOS: It's a version of chuckle, becoming -- You're becoming the book. You mention in this book, and I think you've mentioned it in previous books, Fud's law. You want to talk a little bit about Fud's Law.

PAUL COOK: It's the moral equivalent of Newton's second law of thermodynamics. You can't have your cake and eat it too. Fud’s law is, I've always believed everything balances out. Nobody --

ALBERTO RIOS: is this something you --

PAUL COOK: I just invented it.

ALBERTO RIOS: It's on the internet. Everybody else is trying to describe it, but it's yours.

PAUL COOK: Fud's Law it was just something silly I came up with in college. It was just one of these -- After Elmer Fud. You can't have your cake and eat it too. You can have the world's first trillion air and he can have inoperable hemorrhoids. That would be that balance. And it really is the essence of Taoism, elements of Buddhism. Americans, we tend to be a culture of extremes. We want it all. We want it all. We want to be famous and rich and whatever and healthy. And you can't have it all. You can't -- You can have some things, and I think it's a measure of adulthood to understand that balance.

ALBERTO RIOS: There's that great Steven Wright line where he says you can't have everything. Where would you put it? [laughter] you have so many inventive things that you occasionally, I'm interested in this as a writer, especially as you approach science fiction. You've written poetry as well, you've worked with different genres. And you have one imagistic language moment where you talk about somebody looking like they were standing -- They were looking like a big insect I think or something. It's almost your one simile, your one comparison. Otherwise it's all down to business. Is that real science fiction?

PAUL COOK: No, it's not. Well, what's supposedly allegedly illegal, you're not supposed to used adverbs. And I remember Harlan Ellison called me up one afternoon and he had read 11 pages into one of my novels and threw it against the wall. He calls me up from L.A., right, angry because I used an adverb. Of course I happened to have been that week reading one of his book, it's full off adverbs. And I was flattered that he called me because I send it to him. He's a very nice man, he's a wonderful brilliant man, but I learned to write by reading Lester Dent, the Doc Savage novels.

ALBERTO RIOS: Lester Dent, who wrote the Doc Savage series.

PAUL COOK: Yeah. And he's under the house name Kenneth Robeson. He wrote very energetically, rather than using similes. Sometimes they'll slip through. Sometimes they won't.

ALBERTO RIOS: Did you feel yourself when you wrote that moment; do you know what I'm referring to, that insect moment?

PAUL COOK: Yeah. Yeah.

ALBERTO RIOS: It stood out like neon for me. Reading how you were approaching --


ALBERTO RIOS: Well, in reading these -- Reading your books generally, we'll talk about those perhaps, but I'm just so amazed they aren't all movies. Have you had interest in --

PAUL COOK: Well, my first novel, Francis Ford Coppola had some interest in, and one person had -- I sold the rights to a couple others and they went nowhere. But they're all written as movies. I visualize everything.

ALBERTO RIOS: I think it comes through. And I love it about what's going there. Your genius, I think, it's not exactly how movies work, it's how books work, is your ability to plot. That is to say you are a plotting maniac.

PAUL COOK: That's what the novel is.

ALBERTO RIOS: I want to turn the page. It's also great detective fiction. So you meld two genres important things into I think a single approach which I find very exciting. You're good at plotting regardless. I think that's always something I've admired in your work. I don't know what it is that actually makes me want to move the page.

PAUL COOK: My mom actually taught me that.

ALBERTO RIOS: Tell me --

PAUL COOK: She got me the Tom swift Jr. books when I was little.

ALBERTO RIOS: I remember them!

PAUL COOK: She said, watch how he end as chapter, makes you want to read the next chapter. And she -- I was 9 when I read Tom Swift Jr., 9 or 10. And I remember her telling me, it's done to make you read. To go from one point to the next. I got it from my mom.

ALBERTO RIOS: Thank you, Paul. And I want to thank our viewers. You've been watching "Books & Co." I'm your host, Alberto Rios. We've been joined today by science fiction writer and educator Paul Cook, talking about his latest book "Karma Kommandos." We hope you'll join us again next time when we will bring you another good book. Thanks, Paul.

PAUL COOK: You bet.

Learn more about Paul Cook.
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