Review: Robopocalypse, by Daniel H. Wilson

>>Published: June 2011

“Why did you attack the humans?”

“They murdered me, Arbiter. Again and again. In my fourteenth incarnation, I finally understood that humanity learns true lessons only in cataclysm. Humankind is a species born in battle, defined by war.”

“We could have had peace.”

“It is not enough to live together in peace, with one race on its knees.”

***

It’s a common problem with any individual medium of choice: the more books you read, the more films you see, the more art and music you absorb, eventually you will begin to see the world in patterns—inspirations or details, large and small, pulled from several sources and reconstituted into something new. Sometimes this works, and from the compilations you get sparks of brilliance like the first Matrix film, or Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, or to dip into the truly successful, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. In each of these cases, the influences are very clear, but they mesh with the universe- and character-inspired flourishes that give these worlds a feeling of being truly original. In other instances, the patchwork creation is less successful and we instead get Michael Bay’s The Island, or any number of young adult book series sucking from the many-teated beast of vampires, zombies and dystopian-worlds-starring-emotionally-reticent-barely-teenage-girls, oh my!

Daniel H. Wilson’s Robopocalypse is the latter.

Told as a chronicle of events culled from post-war information and experiences, Robopocalypse is less a novel and more a collection of vignettes detailing the rise of Archos, an AI with nefarious designs for humanity’s future, and the individuals—civilians, members of the military, politicians, and even children—that play a deciding role in humanity’s final stand against Big Rob.

On paper, this premise sounds like the perfect summer read in the same vein as The DaVinci Code or the Jurassic Park/The Lost World-era of Michael Crichton. The execution of this, however, falls drastically short. Right away, structuring the book as a retelling of events from the post-war vantage point, with humanity standing tall over the presumed death of Archos, robs the narrative of its suspense—we know, in the end, that humanity endures. This might have been forgivable had the story itself carried some modicum of weight, but in this area, too, Robopocalypse simply fails to deliver.

The characters, paper-thin as they are, are stretched to even lesser degrees by the structure of the book—ten-page chapters, shifting back and forth between the major players in the fight for humanity’s survival, with no room whatsoever for growth or any semblance of characterization. Hampering this further is the decision to bookend each chapter with narration from the main character, Cormac “Bright Boy” Wallace, that at first prefaces what the chapter contains, and then finishes by offering a brief bit of insight as to what happens to follow the events of the chapter you’ve just read. This destroys any concern over what future might befall these characters, or whether or not the events of a given chapter had any sort of effect on the war. Similar to the way the book opens, with Archos beaten and the war over, this tactic eliminates any excitement or compulsion to read further. Without any sense of concern over what might happen next, Robopocalypse limps anticlimactically from chapter to chapter, with little to no detail given to the world.

Robopocalypse’s author, Daniel H. Wilson, holds a Ph.D in robotics from Carnegie Mellon University. With that knowledge in mind, it’s disappointing that there are few, if any, new or inspired ideas presented throughout the book—nothing that hasn’t already been tapped into on some level through the past twenty years of science fiction books and film. Had there been an exploration into the morality of creating a slave race of machines and the threat of giving them sentience, that might have offered a new and more interesting path for the book to take. Even then, the author would have been forced to explore or discover a new approach to the subject matter, one that would differentiate it from all that’s come before. This is something Robopocalypse doesn’t even attempt to do.

Perhaps the cardinal sin of Robopocalypse is that, for all its noise and bravado, not very much happens. There are no attachments to forge, no deeper levels of intrigue to mine. But what offends most is that, because of all these hindrances, I didn’t care whether or not Cormac resolved his issues with Jack, or what sort of future life a girl like Mathilda would have after having been so transformed by the war. Nor did I care, in the end, why Archos did what he did, because his awareness of self isn’t earned or given anything beyond a Bond villain’s level of depth through his interactions with the world he has decided to lay waste to.

Advertisements

Review: A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan

>>Published: June 2010

>>Finally got around to it: June 2011

Stephanie started to laugh. The idea struck her as inexplicably funny. But Bosco was abruptly serious. ‘I’m done,’ he said. ‘I’m old, I’m sad—that’s on a good day. I want out of this mess. But I don’t want to fade away, I want to flame away—I want my death to be an attraction, a spectacle, a mystery. A work of art. Now, Lady PR,’ he said, gathering up his drooping flesh and leaning toward her, eyes glittering in his overblown head, ‘you try to tell me no one’s going to be interested in that. Reality TV, hell—it doesn’t get any realer than this. Suicide is a weapon; that we all know. But what about an art?’

***

Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad is a hybrid of styles, a mosaic that at times reads like a cross between a contemporary, unguided iTunes playlist, and a concept album of old. Thirteen interconnected tales across two parts—A and B, just like a vinyl LP—that cross continents and generations as Egan explores the life of one-time golden touch and future success-to-be record producer Bennie Salazar, and through Bennie, the lives of many other characters, including Sasha, his impossibly tempting and mystifyingly obtuse kleptomaniac assistant.

Part A is the commercial—ready for public consumption. The tracks are easy to get into, clear and accessible. We meet the big shots—the players, past, present and future. Egan’s created an expansive venn diagram that pierces Bennie’s life, from his wild youth as a bass player for a group of wannabe successes called the Flaming Dildos, to his future in the business, and all the comings and goings of former friends and lovers, addicts and assholes, that have, in one form or another, orbited his star.

Part B is the special release, years down the road when the band needs to make a buck—when it’s time to expose all those naked, wounded B-Sides that were never prepped for the stage. We go deeper into their lives, into the intimacies that even the stars hide from the press, for fear that their carefully constructed masks might shatter under the heat of too many lights, too many flashes. Egan steps away from Bennie and his contemporaries and introduces us to the B, C, and D listers that couldn’t make the cut—the hangers-on, once-famous movie stars and talk-of-the-town hat makers that, for one reason or another, shined bright for only a second before flickering into obscurity.

Part B is suburbia. Growing up and moving on. Comebacks, rebirths and second chances, the deliberate breaks in a song and the reprieve felt when the next chord plays.

Technically, A Visit from the Goon Squad overcomes the most casual descriptors: linked short narratives that stand alone, yet merge together effortlessly; post-modern embellishments, such as an entire chapter of PowerPoint slides, that add emotional resonance to everything that’s come before instead of detracting from it; inter-chapter leaps into the far past and future still to come. Egan justifies the use of these tactics in unexpected ways. She never forgets her characters—where they are, what they’ve been through, and where they are headed. By offering critical slivers of their lives before and after one another, they become fully three-dimensional; their intimate little atrocities and misunderstandings and affairs—hinted at through side A and detailed in side B—chart the rise and fall of a disjointed band that, upon growing up and realizing with sobering distaste how little they connect to one another, are forced to move on, move up, or move out of the way altogether.

Review: More Money than Brains: Why Schools Suck, College is Crap & Idiots Think They’re Right, by Laura Penny

>>Published: April 2010

>>Finally got around to it: June 2011

Efforts to paint Ignatieff as a tourist, a mere visitor in his own land, play on the idea that intellectuals are always foreigners, outsiders from some theoretical fairyland. We see an even more extreme version of this notion in the Birther conspiracies that allege Obama was not born in America.

The small-town values message—on both sides of the forty-ninth parallel—is clear. Real patriots stay wherever Jesus and their mama’s cooter drop ‘em.

***

Laura Penny’s second book is a sometimes scathing, often hilarious, and all-too sobering condemnation of the war our society is currently waging against intellectuals—the unknown quantities with breadth to their vocabularies and ambition for change. Targeting the public, private and post-secondary educational systems, as well as the continued perversion of media and the political process, Penny takes aim at the myths employed by the hard right to instil fear and uncertainty in the hearts of the common man. The goal? To train the gullible that someone with a degree to their name and a multi-syllabic approach to communication is not one of them and never will be. They are a threat, left-wing insurgents dedicated to wrestling away all control of life and livelihood for the average man, woman, and 2.5 children per household.

None of this is particularly new—the divide between the left and the right, especially in the American two-party system (because you’re either with us, or your against us!), has been growing to near satirical proportions since Bush Junior’s back-to-back elections and subsequent layers of dumb fuckery. The middle ground in North America has vanished like freshman’s bathing habits. The result of these growing extremes is a volatility that can no longer be contained. With so much vitriol spewing forth without the filter of journalistic integrity, our conversations slip into nonsensical extremes, which we have little hope of reigning in. One only has to look to the still-bleating lips of Sarah Palin and Donald Trump to understand that what people want is not intelligence, but simple, basic commonality. And if they can’t get it on a financial level, they’ll take it through the rote transference of hate-filled ideas that even the most uneducated mind can grasp: “That black guy in Washington’s saying something I don’t understand, so it must be bad.”

What Penny does so effectively is to boil the multi-tentacled, stream-of-consciousness vulgarity employed by the loudest mouthpieces of the right to their core arguments. What’s most disturbing is that, more often than not, it comes down to what has been previously mentioned: fear of the unknown, fear of stepping beyond ones borders to see the world as a whole, and fear of anything approaching that most frightening of words—change.

Penny’s writing is vicious. She employs nerd rage with educated restraint, never letting her cynicism or sarcasm overwhelm the studied voice of opposition she presents. Her arguments are definitely biased towards the values of the left, but her methods of attack finds a broader and more prescient footing when they include the occasionally ridiculous need that the left has to swing the pendulum in the other direction, reacting to the spiteful frustrations exhibited by the right with as much grandeur and camera mugging as possible. Case in point: chart the emotional ranges of Glenn Beck and Keith Olbermann and see if it’s even possible to find a shred of middle ground between them. Restraint might as well be a four-letter word…

More Money than Brains isn’t a book for someone looking to be swayed one way or the other. It’s a right-brained, left-focused love letter to the benefits and possibilities of education and the arts, and a call for some sense of humility to return to the political and social media spectrums. Penny has written a down-to-earth call to arms for the return of common sense and cultural diversity to public forums that also happens to be equal parts depressing and hysterical.

Review: Infinite Reality, by Jim Blascovich and Jeremy Bailenson

>>Published: March 2011

>>Finally got around to it: June 2011

The notion of virtual immortality differs from the notion of preserving consciousness. The idea is that, with virtual “tracking data” collected over a long period of time, one can preserve much or even most of people’s idiosyncrasies, including a large set of behaviors, attitudes, actions, appearances, etc. One will not be able to “relive” life through an avatar, but nonetheless, a digital being that looks, talks, gestures, and behaves as they once did can occupy virtual space indefinitely. In this sense, there are two ways to think about “immortality.” One is extending the nature of one’s life to be able to continue to enjoy the fruits of living. The other, less experiential, is about preserving one’s legacy.

***

With The Matrix as their cultural touchstone for many of the arguments in this book, Jim Blascovich and Jeremy Bailenson have put together an easy-to-digest primer for the future—and in some cases present—possibilities of living being our flesh and bone shells.

Virtual Reality is the book’s bread and butter—the creation of worlds and universes to slip into without ever having to leave our homes, or our bodies for that matter. The authors begin by taking us on an exploratory tour of virtual reality—through its conception, experiments performed, and even pop culture extrapolations of common ideas and hypotheses regarding the medium. Through virtual reality, the whole of human experience—things long since past or yet to come; fears to overcome; loves and relationships to explore—can theoretically be replicated, allowing users to expand far beyond the limitations of a soft, destructible human frame in an attempt to explore avenues rarely travelled.

As the authors dive deeper into this subject matter, it becomes clear that virtual reality is only the beginning. Through such means, and our increased incorporation of digital and online faculties into our daily lives, humans are leaving a wealth of digital footprints on the world—detailed information that can be used to construct experiences, eventually leading to the documentation and digitization of an individual’s life, possibly even one day uploading such information to an online avatar that, in a sense, can act and learn based on the accrued knowledge of the living body. Should we one day crack the secret of cloning, uploading a slate of memories, knowledge, and experiences into a replica body a la the mindjack experience of Neo learning kung fu in The Matrix, could prove the key to immortality.

This is, of course, assuming the makeup of an individual is based solely on their quantifiable experiences and memories. There’s an entire ethical and metaphysical side to the question that remains untouched in the book, though not to its detriment—engaging in a religious or spiritual debate regarding what it is that makes a human unique and impossible to replicate would have diluted the strength of the book’s focused argument.

Blascovich and Bailenson’s book is a spark for a much larger, infinitely more complex set of questions and arguments both for and against the basic possibility of living forever through digital means. The science is presented well through a series of examples that build upon one another with no room for confusion. Though the book feels as if it is just scratching the surface of what this technology has to offer humanity, on individual, social, and historical levels, Infinite Reality offers a compelling introduction into a world far beyond what we can imagine, one that we’ve only begun to explore.

Review: The Stories of Ibis, by Hiroshi Yamamoto

>>Published: April 2010

>>Finally got around to it: June 2011

Human thoughts are digital.

Most people see things as 0 or 1, as black or white. They see nothing in between. All chemicals are dangerous. You are either friend or foe. If you aren’t left-wing, you’re right. If you aren’t conservative, you’re liberal. Everything that great man says must be true. Everyone who thinks differently from us is evil. Everyone in that country—even the babies—is evil.

We TAIs find it surprising that humans have trouble understanding Fuzzy Concepts. When we say, “Love (5 + 7i),” people incorrectly assume that means we only love at 50 percent, or fifty points out of a hundred total. They can’t understand that 5 is a Fuzzy Measurement. How could a concept like love possibly be expressed as an integer?

***

The Stories of Ibis is a mosaic collection—seven short stories connected to one another through a shared premise: a wandering traveller, human, is captured by an artificial intelligence named Ibis. Impossibly elegant and disarming through her beauty and strength, Ibis attempts to gain the traveller’s trust through the telling of seven stories—seven tales that chronicle the rise and evolution of artificial intelligence, how their existence has been segregated from the limited remains of humanity, and how the lies of their supposed revolution have created a gulf between the two species. With humanity in shambles and androids thought to be responsible, Ibis seeks to change the mind of the protagonist, the traveller, in the hopes that he may spread the stories to his people as she has told them to him.

Through the clever use of intermissions inserted between the seven tales, Yamamoto is able to philosophize and theorize freely, using Ibis as his avatar and the traveller as the eyes of the audience. In the story “Mirror Girl”, he uses the AI Shalice as an example of both salvation and addiction—how artificial intelligence has the potential, on one hand, to fill gaps of loneliness in our lives, and on the other hand, to provide an encouraging gateway into a variation of online addiction, seeking the comfort of other worlds when reality simply won’t do. In “Black Hole Diver”, roles are reversed as an AI befriends a human that it cannot begin to understand, and attempts to do so through to the end of the tale.

Understanding is the primary theme that links these stories together: humans understanding the possibilities and pitfalls of creating life for their own needs and desires, however benign or horrific they appear to be; and androids and other variations of artificial intelligence working to gain perspective on their own existence, and their purpose within the grander sphere of human evolution—are they slaves, manufactured with convenience at the forefront of their programming? Or are they masters waiting for the right moment to rise up and take their own fates in hand?

Originally published in Japanese, the translation for each story is clean and without confusion. Yamamoto’s ideas and writing are clear and concise, and the stories rarely resort to the most obvious nature/nurture debates regarding artificial intelligence and humanities right to imbue and artificial creation with the capacity for thought and reason. The Stories of Ibis is an intelligent, thought-provoking collection that works equally well as a novel as it does a series of independent narratives.