iD by Madeline Ashby (Angry Robot, 2013) The Second Machine Dynasty continues the discussion of what constitutes a human — is it just a machine running its software in meat rather than in a fabricated body? Putting this in context, the socialisation process modern humans go through as they grow up in a group environment never addresses the problem. By definition, all those in the group are within the range we consider human. Everything else is an animal or inanimate technology, and there’s no real chance of confusion. So long as the group relates to each member as human, everything else is subsidiary, e.g. whether the human is male or female, abled or disabled, and so on. Of course, there can be problems with the roles it’s considered appropriate for particular individuals to adopt and with questions of interpretation, e.g. on whether women are equal members of society or those of the same sex may marry, but nothing approaches the central difficulty in this series of books.
Here we have androids and gynoids, i.e. machines that can be mistaken for human. It’s even confusing for the machines to know whether they are interacting with another machine or a human. So, for example, a machine might consider a mildly autistic human to be a machine because of the lack of emotional affect. This is an intriguing Pandora’s Box to open. It might lead us to speculate that groups would construct identities and roles for individuals as they appear to be. So if an individual presents as a female, the group could agree to confirm this attribution and to maintain it even if it should later appear this is a machine without any ability to reproduce sexually or, indeed, to engage in sexual activity as a female. This is not to say that the labelling process becomes arbitrary, but it allows each group to make its own decisions on how the members shall relate to each other. I suppose if this was entirely a machine group, they could even consider if it was appropriate to hack one or more individual’s software whether as an upgrade or to enable new abilities. That said, we should remember from the first book that all the “robots” have the potential to be self-replicating regardless of external gender appearance.
The protagonist of the first book was Amy Peterson. She’s a von Neumann machine and her version of Asimov’s Three Laws has broken down — whether wisely, this culture also aimed to impose a limit on the machines’ ability to harm humans. Amy belongs to a clade of nurses, and to enable her to give practical assistance to injured humans, she taught herself how to stick needles into them and, later, to assist in cutting them open for surgery. Once the door was opened, she eventually became “human” in her ability to wound or kill, but not to feel bad about doing so (a little like her psychopathic grandmother Portia). This made her a target by humans who preferred robots did not have this ability and from other robots who wanted the freedom to dispose of the inconvenient humans. When we start off, Amy and her equally “manufactured” partner Javier are sequestered from the world on her mobile island (perhaps Never Never Land) collecting fissile material as it travels. Although Amy is more than capable of defending herself and the others on the island, there will always come a point when an attack is going to prevail. This reality forces Javier into the foreground. When a subversive priest arrives, Javier is manipulated and left to make mistakes. The results are the destruction of the island and freedom for Portia.
The rest of the book explores the extent to which it would be possible for humans and machines to co-exist. Naturally, having been here first, the humans remain species-centric and prefer the notion of a world reserved exclusively for them or a sharing based entirely on their terms. To that end, they have an ultimate solution (or perhaps I should say solid). There’s also pleasingly ironic news about the genesis of Amy’s capacity for beating the failsafe injunction about killing humans. Looking over the disparate groups making up the machine side, they are still hobbled by the failsafe, and with Amy disappearing with the island, it’s left to Javier to explore options for survival, both for individuals and for machine-based intelligence at large.
I think iD more successful than vN because there’s a greater consistency of tone and pacing. Although there are inevitable contrivances to move the plot forward and make the required allegorical points, the broader narrative leaves the balance between humans and the machines at an interesting tilt. It will be interesting to see where we go next in this original and thought-provoking saga. As a final thought, I should offer a gentle warning of some sexual activity. I think it tame but if you prefer your fiction to be free from different forms of mating, there are passages you might want to skip over.
For a review of the first in the series by Madeline Ashby, see vN.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
In modern terms, Summer Wars or Samā Wōzu or サマーウォーズ (2009), directed by Mamoru Hosoda and animated by Madhouse Studios is a story about families, the foundation stone of society. Joining a family is easy when you’re born into one. The obligation to help your relatives by blood is hard-wired into the human species. We consider filial behaviour a key duty, and the refusal to respond to the needs of a parent or sibling unnatural. But the social mechanisms for joining a family are far more complex and the outcomes less certain. It requires real commitment on both sides and shared interests to make it work over the long term. Marriage and the adoption of older children are social institutions. We all understand how they are supposed to work, but the bonds formed in the moment are easily broken, trust is lost, recriminations and feeling a need for revenge are quite common. Even when there’s an emergency, it takes generosity of spirit to overcome the sense of betrayal, for a family to forgive someone who has turned away from it, and for everyone to stand together.
Kenji Koiso (Ryûnosuke Kamiki) is a shy seventeen-year-old maths genius who naively agrees to accompany the most popular girl in the school, eighteen-year old Natsuki Shinohara (Nanami Sakuraba), to Ueda where the family is to celebrate the ninetieth birthday of Sakae Jinnouchi (Sumiko Fuji), her great grandmother. He’s disconcerted to find himself allocated the role of sherpa, carrying all her baggage on the journey. Worse, on arrival, he’s surprised to be introduced as her boyfriend. Kenji is like most of his peers at school and attracted to Natsuki, but he’s never had the courage to do anything about it. The only reason she holds him out as her boyfriend is to get a little peace from the endless nagging she receives from the family who expect her to marry and contribute to the next generation. She doesn’t see Kenji as a person. He’s merely a convenient bag for her to carry home with her, as something to be shown off on her arm as a fashion accessory.
As a family, the Jinnouchis are descendants of a samurai who challenged the Tokugawa clan in 1615. Through time, families in different cultures have only had the strength of the few relatives but, if they formally band together in a defensive unit, their strength rises significantly. That said, the history of Japan is littered with examples of individual samurai or close-knit families who were able to rally support from the community in an emergency. This shows real leadership ability. In this family, great grandmother can pick up the telephone and motivate hundreds of key people to pull together in a crisis. She’s the epitome of the historical figures that could rally the villages to stand together when harvests were bad, or floods threatened, or warlords demanded tribute. Through her, we see a balance struck between the actual strength of an extended kin group and the potential strength of the tens of thousands of people who make up social networks. All it takes to promote the can-do spirit to work together is someone inspirational to reach out and touch the hearts of the people.
Wabisuke Jinnouchi (Ayumu Saitō) is an orphan who was adopted into the Jinnouchi family and has repaid their kindness by stealing their money to fund the creation of an artificial intelligence he ironically calls Love Machine. While it’s being tested by the US military, it asserts its independence and infiltrates the Oz network that not only connects major IT systems together around the world, but also operates as a gaming platform. Wabisuke is an older version of Kenji Koiso: both are somewhat introverted but brilliant. Kenji’s only social outlet is working as a moderator and code monkey on the Oz network. He’s merely adequate as a coder but has been picked to represent Japan in the next Maths Olympiad. Separated by age, they represent old and abandoned family loyalties and potential family loyalties based on a misrepresentation.
The dynamic for the narrative is the programmed self-help routines built into Machine Love. As an artificial intelligence, it’s to learn how to fit into and then take control of all the different systems it finds. While this works well when it comes to conventional IT systems, it proves more of a challenge when it comes to avatars on the gaming platform. Although the avatars are merely pieces of code, they represent human beings who object if their virtual identity is stolen. In other words, Machine Love is a metaphor for the process of making acquaintances and forming friendships. You can collect hundreds of “friends” on a social site. Indeed, you can buy “likes” on Facebook through the use of bots and sock puppets. But when the virtual meets the real world, there’s no necessity for the humans to be friends or actually like each other. To show the problem of translating an individual into a virtual person, we’re offered the youngest member of the Jinnouchi family Mansaku (Tadashi Nakamura). He’s physically small and has been bullied at school. Hence, online, he’s become nationally famous as a fighter. He’s King Kazma, the beat-em-up champion and the most devastating rabbit of all time. When Machine Love finds the disconnection between the virtual and the real world, it decides to strike directly at the real world. It takes over the system controlling an asteroid probe sitting in Earth orbit ready to leave, and sets it on a course to crash into a nuclear power plant. If the family did not have a reason to work together before, it has one now.
As a story about the love people have for each other, both within families and in other relationships, this is a great story showing how problems of alienation can be overcome when the need is great. Indeed, the depth of characterisation is remarkable, showing us multiple generations of the Jinnouchis. The quality of the animation is wonderful, not only when showing us the human world, but also in capturing the essence of the virtual environment. But the plot fails to cohere completely in the second half with far too much time taken up with battles inside the virtual world. This unnecessarily dilutes the strength of the human story. One or two short fights would have been sufficient. Despite this, Summer Wars or Samā Wōzu remains visually arresting and of high quality. It’s well worth watching.
The other two anime films directed by Mamoru Hosoda are:
The Girl Who Leapt Through Time or Toki o kakeru shôjo (2006)
The Wolf Children Ame and Yuki or Okami kodomo no ame to yuki (2012)
It’s a curious coincidence that this book opens with a problem I’ve been wrestling with for some time. Being one of the dinosaurs, I’m still hoarding my collection of singles and LPs accumulated over the early years. I copied the 78s to tape many moons ago but I worry about how long the tapes will remain playable. Like Martin Seymour in Zendegi by Greg Egan (Night Shade Books, 2010), I dream of digitising all the recordings but find myself lacking the will. My wife has little interest and will not shed many tears if the original recordings are put on to the funeral pyre when my body is finally sent on its way. She’s not a Hindu and, therefore, would not consider sati (or suthi) an appropriate way of celebrating my death. But relieving herself of the option of replaying some of the hits from the 1950s might give her peace in her remaining years.
Anyway, Martin discovers that, unless you carefully check the sound levels on all the records to be transferred to the computer, it’s very easy to end up with wave shaping, i.e. distorted sound. Being something of a perfectionist, that would mean I could not listen to any of the affected tracks. Because he’s pressed for time, Martin makes the discovery after he has disposed of the originals. This loss makes him sad. But, in a more serious way, it also foreshadows the problems explored in this book. It all starts with the efforts of Nasim Golestani to map the part of a finch’s brain that decides what song to sing. She eventually creates a computer model that replicates bird song. It’s not clear how successful this is because it’s a bit difficult to ask real finches what they think of the tone and melody produced by the computerised version. The rest of the book then moves up to artificial intelligence experiments on replicating human abilities. Not unnaturally, there are some rich people who think it would be just dandy to have themselves uploaded and so achieve immortality.
Greg Egan keeps this real in his consistent rejection of the notion it would be possible to make a recording of anyone’s brain waves and so reproduce the human being. The best his scientists can manage is the replication of physical skills in avatars. Zendegi is a gaming platform and the owners make a lot of money out of people wanting to play football and other sports alongside or against their favourite players. Even inducing natural language abilities is fraught with difficulty because, like the bird song, computers have no understanding of how and why each individual note is significant. So avatars can be given access to comprehensive vocabularies but, even with multiple brain scans taken over months, there’s no consistency in the avatar’s performance as the target human. There’s no reasonable prospect of being able to “clone” a human personality by digitising his or her brain waves.
This is not to say that avatars could not undertake routine tasks and so displace the need for human labour. For example, it might be possible to build systems sophisticated enough to replace call centre staff or to perform other tasks not relying on face-to-face contact with real people. In a sense, this is simply extending the displacement of the thousands of administrative and secretarial staff in the management of any business. With software able to take dictation from bosses who refuse to learn how to type, there’s no longer a need for shorthand and typing skills sitting expensively in another office, nor for the clerks who file all the paper copies of correspondence generated, nor for the filing cabinets thereby closing down industrial production and terminating further jobs. All forms of automation seriously limit the need for human workers. Machines are cheaper and, once they have learned the jobs, make fewer mistakes. So, in all this continuing debate about the extent to which real world societies should allow the development of automated systems, Greg Egan is asking and answering some relevant questions.
However, I find it strange he should place most of the action in a near-future Iran. Although it’s certainly relevant to consider whether, in any sense, machines might capture souls, the political backstory to this novel simply gives us a thriller scenario and does not significantly advance the science fiction element. I’m not convinced the Islamic reaction to the phenomenon of avatars in a gaming environment is constructive in advancing the plot. The reaction of the Christians to the Zendegi project and another US-based attempt to create a massive AI capable of running human government is somewhat predictable and not given much space for development. Indeed, the whole tenor of the book is less science fictional than I expected. The first third is more or less a straight thriller about journalism, and the latter two-thirds is the increasingly sentimental story of Martin and his son. Although the two parts of the book do tie together in the relationship between Martin and Omar — initially a neighbour who gets involved in helping Martin get the news — Martin is somewhat self-absorbed as a person and fails to understand the significance of the relationship. He sees surface reality and is not particularly good in assessing the person underneath. As an early incident shows, you can dress up a man in women’s clothing but this does not convert the man into a woman. Gender identity is based on the whole package of the personality, the physical behaviour and the context. Similarly, you can capture features of human behaviour in avatars on Zandegi, but this does not make them human.
So Zendegi is a sentimental journey through life made by a two slightly inadequate people. Neither Martin nor Nasim are particularly successful as humans although they do manage to get things done. They work on a project together and it fails. I think that sums it all up really. The book is good in part but unsatisfying because it fails to really engage with the social and political implications of the work being done. We see it but there’s not enough meaningful discussion of it. The real questions are whether something approximating human is better than nothing and, if what you create is a kind of Frankenstein monster, would it be moral and legal to kill it by wiping it from the server?
For another review of a book by Greg Egan see The Clockwork Rocket.
vN by Madeline Ashby (Angry Robot, 2012) The First Machine Dynasty is a modern take on The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi, filtered through A.I. Artificial Intelligence, this time dealing with a gynoid rather than an android. It’s a case of “have mind, will travel in search of a soul”, of having to grapple with the problems of self and identity. Initially, her parents slow her physical development so that she grows at approximately the same speed as a human child. Some paedophiles use this system to eroticise young gynoids and so satisfy their own sexual drives, cf Shadow of a Dead Star by Michael Shean (Curiosity Quills Press, 2012). So we start off in the same territory as When Harlie Was One by David Gerrold which is a coming-of-age story about a brain in a box having to learn how to be a “boy” when he has no body. Our heroine has been “born” into a mixed marriage of android woman and human man. Her reduced diet enables her to go to a kindergarten with human children of the same size. Her parents want to give her the chance to experience development over time and to socialise with equally “young” human children. Unfortunately, although the body may be comparable to that of a child, the mind is not. This dissonance is disturbing to those around her. Fortunately, like the Azimovian robots, all these androids also have a built-in safety circuit to prevent them from injuring humans. As a general rule, the failsafe causes them to freeze at the sight of an injured human.
In this book, vN stands for a von Neumann self-replicating humanoid, i.e. all fully-grown androids, regardless of gender, can asexually reproduce. This deliberately undermines the usual female stereotype which is of a body designed to produce children and then take responsibility for their upbringing and homemaking while still playing the role of sex object when the man requires satisfaction. The interesting issue is whether these parthenogenic androids are genuinely gendered or more equal despite being given bodies with the physical characteristics appropriate to their apparent biological sex.
Matching other books and films, these androids are designed in clades for specific functions and so have unique sets of physical and psychological attributes to suit them to their designated roles. Interestingly, the clade to which our heroine belongs was programmed as nurses. This has given her empathy and so, by virtue of her machine-code, she believes in bourgeois happiness for those with whom she interacts, wants to mother a newly “born” android, and seems predisposed to find a male who will love her for herself. Initially, all these androids were created to help and support the few remaining humans expected to be left on Earth after the Last Trump. When this End-of-Days failed to occur, the androids were repurposed as the servants of all humanity. So they are like humans, but now used as slaves without any rights. This book therefore pitches the growing gynoid with her emerging new powers and resident granny against the government and law enforcement agencies that would recall all her clade and trash them to prevent the leakage of any trait that might enable the machines to become more “human”. As an exception to the general Asimovian rule, nurses have a reduced protection circuit. It’s sometimes necessary to cut into humans by way of surgery and other forms of treatment. It would be inappropriate if nurses were to freeze up every time they saw humans being “injured”. It all depends on the context. More importantly, it gives these androids a lower threshold to cross in the decision whether to attack a human.
The problem with this kind of book is that the author delivers escapism. We’re allowed to see all the defects in the given society and then watch the heroine not only survive but beat the system. As in fairy stories, the big bad wolf meets the axe head on and the giant in search of bones to grind for flour is brought down to Earth with a bang. In the real world, humans who occupy the fictional android role are beaten into submission and have no chance of changing anything in our technological world. The only effect when we read books like this is a few hours of satisfaction that one of the downtrodden can fight off oppression. When we put the book down, we return to the real world where we remain powerless. Instead of merely describing dystopias, it would be better if people could be motivated to engage in positive action to change the world. For books to be subversive, to act as a call to action. Except no large corporation as a publisher is ever going to allow revolutionary books on to the mass market. Capitalists guard their hold over the people.
So how does vN: The First Machine Dynasty shape up overall? It actually starts rather well in what we might call action mode. After the initial set-up, she’s off and running, meets up with a serial reproducer and begins an increasingly close relationship with him. But, to my mind, the book loses its way when she allows herself to be captured in the hope she can rescue her parents. The book gets into a more political mode. The issue can be simply put. If the trait now empowering one section of her clade can be reproduced, androids can rise up against their human oppressors and take their freedom. If the humans can eradicate all her clade before this happens, they will remain the “master race”. So there’s an inevitable disagreement between factions both in the human and the android communities. While everyone is squabbling, our heroine and consort, plus his extended family, are offered the possibility of “getting away from it all”. I read through to the end to see how it turned out, but I was less than engaged. Although it’s interesting to see how Madeline Ashby parallels the idea of parents socialising their children with the androids doing the same with their coding of the young, of individuals learning to love each other by overcoming the inbuilt tendency to selfish individualism through trust and “love”, this all becomes less of a dystopian thriller and more of a romance. We’re all supposed to find our heroine’s protectiveness of the little baby ‘droid endearing and go all gooey as he crawls into her lap with adoring eyes. Well, sorry. This is not quite what I signed up for in the android wars to establish independence for AI-kind. So you should only pick this up if you want the mushy side of the rebellion to slaughter all-comers.
For a review of the second in the series by Madeline Ashby, see iD.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
This novel has been shortlisted for the 2013 Locus Award.
Ever since the first man picked up a rock and threw it, or used a stick to knock eggs out of a nest high in a tree, we’ve been dependent on tools of one sort or another. No matter how desirable it might seem, it’s too late to return the gift of fire to Prometheus. Fortunately, our present world is still managing to survive without intelligent machines to tell us where we’re going wrong. It will be worse when artificial intelligence becomes a practical proposition. We’ve always been lazy as a species and many will want to surrender what seem to be the routine tasks to the machines. Yet even in the routine there are dangers. The irony is that, basing their decisions on logic rather than emotions, machines could probably deliver a better world. Assuming they have no survival imperative, they are less selfish and would force us to work together — we’ve not proved very good at that over the centuries. But allowing them into a position where they rule us. . . Ah, now that would be a real game-changer and something to be resisted. For better or worse, humanity should always be in control of its own destiny.
Omega Point by Guy Haley (Angry Robot, 2012) takes us into a future world where AIs have become very powerful and some humans have gone through varying degrees of augmentation. In the best cyborg sense, some enhancements have been purely physical. But others have introduced a more complete integration, blurring the line between machine and human intelligence. In its full form, the so-called mentaug produces a personality blend. Obviously, at a conscious level, the “person” understands that there have been changes, but what of the subconscious? Does one side of the mind actually know or understand what the other half wants or can achieve? It’s problematic and, to ensure there’s a reasonable balance, each individual with a mentaug should have regular counselling. It will help to keep both sides working together and the whole mind more sane. For example, it can get strange when the machine side of the brain dreams. Confusingly, human memory changes selectively over time but the machine’s memory is permanent, confirming organic as subjective, machine objective. Is either better than the other? There has to be a way of reconciling meat and machine, yet there’s no guarantee the human can survive.
Of course, from the other side of the fence, there are some pure machine intelligences that are curious about the world and so equip themselves with bodies. They move around and get a better sense of how the world works. Except, of course, these minds always know this embodiment is purely temporary. At any time, whether they tire of the experience or are somehow at risk, they can instantly transfer back into their own virtual reality. They need never feel the real insecurity of being a unique mind in a vulnerable physical body. They can play at being independent. But what would it be like for one of these AIs to be trapped in a fragile body? It might be a bit of an eye-opener what with suddenly feeling hungry and getting an itch in one of those hard-to-reach places.
So we have a twin narrative structure with Otto and others running around the real world (whatever that is) in a kind of spy mode to track down relevant bodies who are messing with the structure of virtual reality. Richards has the indignity of being stuck in a body in a series of semi-surreal episodes in Reality 36 which is made up of remnants from four other virtual realities. Initially k52, their common enemy, had intended to dismantle this Reality and use the servers to accelerate through time to the Omega Point when he would carry out his big reality-warping plan. Except it turned out he couldn’t break through the coding of this Reality. It’s been acting as a kind of drag on his progress through time. So Richards and an unlikely group of toys have been surviving a number of silly encounters with different forms of threat. It’s all going on far too long without saying anything interesting about anything. All we can say is both threads are a quest (not the most original form whether for a book or game) and, inevitably, they eventually intersect (and not before time).
Frankly, Omega Point is a disappointment. Whereas the first Otto and Richards outing in Reality 36 was lively and interesting, this has emerged from the creative process half-baked (avoiding any of the puns that might assault our senses if aerial pirates were suddenly to be attacked by a pastry chef). The thread describing Otto’s part of the quest has the same high-adrenaline pace as the first book. But Richard’s voyage through the disintegrating Reality 36 is almost unreadable in parts and, as a result, I struggled to finish. I don’t mind short books which exploit allegory, surrealism or absurdism. The best efforts cut through the potential pretentiousness by introducing self-deprecating wit. Unfortunately, this is infected with plain silliness. Why is this? I fear the answer lies in the plot and the underlying nature of Reality 36. To avoid spoilers, I need to drop into my own brand of analogy. Those of you who are brave enough to read these reviews will understand that my head is stuffed with a multitude of eclectic facts and out-of-kilter attitudes. Suppose I was connected up to a virtual reality gaming platform and, linked with an AI, created a scenario for people to play. That might all work well so long as I was around to keep explaining the symbolism. But if I should drop out, the rationality of the gaming might go into steep decline as the AI could not replicate my idiosyncrasies. Remember, the theme of this book is the relationship between the human and the machine mind. I get tired of hearing the stuff in my own head without wanting to read endless stuff about what’s in someone else’s. This is not to say this theme is badly treated. In fact, when transferred to Otto’s thread, there’s a tragic backstory unwinding that beautifully captures the debate over what can go wrong and what to do if it does go wrong. So Omega Point is a nicely constructed plot spanning two books but, to my mind, flawed by spending so much time on Richard’s quest in the second.
For the review of another book by Guy Haley, see Reality 36.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Existence is playing with some big ideas, as you would expect from a book by David Brin (TOR, 2012). Against a fascinating array of problems, the world is having to come to terms with major physical and ethical problems. Just how far should we use technology in protecting selected communities from inundation following global warming when the majority are marginalised at best? Similarly, if there was a way to enhance human intelligence, should this possibility be restricted to the already elite? What would the consequences be if such a development was released to the general population? Then we come to the old chestnuts of artificial intelligence and uplift. If machines did become more self-ware and we created intelligence in “animals”, how should those with access relate to them? For a single world, such questions would be of major importance, but if an alien artifact was discovered. . . Just think of a bottle washing up on our Earthly shores except, instead of it containing a written message, it could talk. That really would be a game-changer, a disrupter of the status quo.
This book describes an Earth on which global warming has done its work, leaving chaos for the majority. The rich survivors enjoy the benefits of sophisticated technology, both physical and intellectual with computers approaching levels of artificial intelligence. Some elites live in fear the people may get tired of merely surviving. A revolution is not impossible, if not by the downtrodden masses, then by the prospective AIs. All this begs the question, just how many threats does it take to terminate human existence? It could be wars or some disease. Or, if we could have our intelligence enhanced, would we stand a better chance of extending our existence? What are the dangers on the way to transhumanity?
We start off in upper orbit where Gerald Livingston, a garbage man, picks up the space debris that may someday collide with a spacecraft on a vital mission. Except he lays his “hand” on something rather more interesting than mere rubbish. On Earth and despite the protests of environmentalists, there’s a space launch for what’s politely called orbital hopping (missing the dangerous rubbish, of course) but that goes wrong when Hacker Sander and another go missing — there’s the option of interspecies assistance coming into play, if there was an uplift project, that is. Tor Povlov, investigative reporter, pursues the news wherever it may be found, while Hamish Brookeman lines up to see the Senator with the intention of injecting a little sense into the man (actually a man he later identifies as Roger Betsby performs the injection and he has an ingenious, if somewhat self-righteous motive for this physical invasion). Then the impoverished Chinese shoresteader from Gateways finds a second artifact. That’s two different alien voices for Earth to listen to, except getting them together in the same room would require an unusual spirit of openness and co-operation between the different self-interested groups. All this assumes, of course, there are only two artifacts. What if there was more to the myths about crystal balls capable of prophesy or gemstones showing fantastic scenes from alien worlds? What if there were hundreds, no thousands, of these things waiting to be found? Then there might be an alien tower of Babel with each artifact saying something different. That would be disconcerting. Why might there be different messages? Well, the artifacts could be sent at different times by different civilisations with different agendas. Who knows in what order they might be found or deliver their messages.
Some of Brin’s set pieces are highly effective. The attack on the zeppelin is terrific. More interestingly, the text is littered with wonderful capsule thoughts, like, “Tomorrow welcomes the bold! And next Tuesday greets the gullible!” It’s true that some of it is a little preachy in its tone. After all it’s difficult to discuss where we came from and where we might be going without getting into religious and philosophical debate mode from time to time. Taken overall, Existence is a fascinating story but, for my taste, told at a slightly excessive length. No matter how interesting the many discussion are, they do become slightly repetitive and slow things down. That said, it does come to a rather different ending than the one I expected. There’s a fundamental cleverness about how all the key personalities fit together and are gradually manoevred so they are all in the right place at the right time to get a proper perspective on the past. Even the alien who acquires the name Om manages to find an appropriate role to play in planning for the future. That outcome, in particular, has a rather pleasingly ironic feel.
So here comes the decision for you readers. I’ve been a big fan of David Brin’s writing from his first book and, in scope, the spirit of this plot matches the scale of the earlier work. At times, I found it slightly heavy going but, with the benefit of hindsight, I can say Existence is a genuinely enjoyable experience. My advice for what it’s worth is that, if you want to read some science fiction by a major author with some provocative ideas in play, you should pick this up. If you prefer something more superficial and action-oriented, give this a miss.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
I’m again obliged to begin a review with the disclosure that I’m an atheist. This will give all readers a basis on which to judge the fairness of what I’m about to say about The Night Sessions by Ken Macleod (PYR, 2012). No world can ever be captured in a few words. This gives the writers of contemporary fiction a distinct advantage because readers can be assumed to know a reasonable amount about current reality. The author therefore only needs to use a few words to set the context and the action can begin. In historical novels, the author’s job becomes more challenging. A balance must be struck between exposition and narrative. The more detail required to establish the setting, the longer it is before the action can begin. Yet this is still manageable because the majority of people who read historical fiction probably already have a background interest in the relevant period or events, so hints, nudges and allusions are all that are required to get things moving. But when we come to science fiction, all that changes. Readers cannot assume anything they are familiar with in our world is relevant to understanding the fictional world they are about to enter. As genres, science fiction and fantasy require a significant amount of authorial effort to explain how each new world works, potentially requiring major infodumps and exposition to set the scene. Except, even with major infodumps, many of which are likely to be dry and potentially boring, the author can only scratch the surface. Worlds are complicated places and no single volume can hope to capture anything more than a few simplified cultural norms and offer sufficient basic descriptions to get the story moving.
So the version of Earth created by Ken Macleod has the benefit of major scientific advances. There are two space elevators. More significantly, the design of robots has become very sophisticated and many are self-aware. The technology exists to create androids but cultural barriers to their acceptance have not been overcome. Sadly, this world also has suffered a major religious conflict. Some elect to call this the Oil Wars, others the Faith Wars. The warped scientific view of the extreme Evangelical survivors is represented by John Richard Campbell who, appropriately enough, maintains the animatronics and robots in the (in)appropriately named Waimangu Science Park, a Creationist display based in New Zealand. As an example of his beliefs, he rejects the idea of there being real stars comprising distant galaxies. He prefers the simple view that God broadcasts beams of light. It completes the creative seven-day process by giving us a night-time display in the sky. That some secularist scientists choose to interpret the parallax of the lights as proving they are stars is a delusion. Needless to say, large areas of the Earth are left radioactive after the Wars, and the rump of countries that have survived are now secular. This does not, of itself, deny the practice of religion. But it leaves the issue in a kind of cultural limbo where no official cognisance is accorded practitioners. In a way, it’s as if all those who wish to believe in any religion have been sent to Coventry. Not unnaturally, a significant amount of time must have passed for this cultural norm to emerge and become the foundation of behaviour in everyday life, including government and policing procedures.
All this creates a major problem for Ken Macleod. Unless a sizeable part of the book is devoted to explaining how all this technology was developed and how the cultural norms evolved, the entire context for the action will be superficial. Yet, if he does spend the book describing the history and explaining how these people arrived in this situation, he has a completely different book to the one he hoped to write. Why have I spent so much time on this? The answer is that the trigger for the action is the murder of a Catholic priest. It falls to Detective Inspector Adam Ferguson, one of Scotland’s finest, and his leki (Law Enforcement Kinetic Intelligence) to investigate. A leki is a relatively self-aware robot designed for police work. The given name of Ferguson’s partner is Skullcrusher but, for PR purposes, it’s actually addressed as Skulk. So we come to the nub of all this. Ken Macleod does refer to events like Roberto Calvi’s death in 1982. But this can’t be our Roberto Calvi because, in the timeline suggested, we can’t develop all this technology, fight a nuclear world war and recover to this level of civilisation. So Ken Macleod is trying to use our history as a kind of shorthand to explain events in this fictional world. Needless to say, the result is unnecessary confusion. It would have been far better to begin with the murder, introduce some of the cultural context through the dialogue between the characters including the leki, and then have flashbacks to explain the wars and the secularisation process. Put another way, if an author is going to attack the notion of organised religion or suggest the secular culture following secularisation is somehow superior, he has to do rather better than this superficial farrago of half-explained historical facts and cultural implications.
Indeed, if this book was really about the exactitude of religious beliefs as represented by people like John Richard Campbell, it would fail because these characters would be so extreme, they would be comic caricatures. If you’re intending to do a hatchet job on extremism in religious belief, you don’t begin with someone whose beliefs are so far from the mainstream. You gently expose someone more obviously moderate and show the danger inherent in everyone. Rather this book is about the robots who are, not to put too fine a point on it, genuinely fascinating. Skulk, unlike his intuitively competent human partner, is shown in the best possible light — it even offers counselling sessions to a human veteran of the Wars. The essence of the plot is the effect of interaction between man and machine. As two of the many who interact with machine-based artificial intelligence, Campbell and Ferguson are programming the machines they talk with. Well, that’s rather begging the question, isn’t it. If the relevant machines are self-aware as a result of their survival in the Faith Wars, can they still be programmed in the sense of being given commands they must obey? Or is it all about persuasion and the choices self-aware “beings” make? Perhaps the humans who have the better belief systems make convincing arguments to the robots. Perhaps the robots, like the humans, have those whose experiences lead them to form certain beliefs while others become cynics. As an outcome, it’s always possible that humans and robots can independently choose to be fanatics.
I’m telling you all this because The Night Sessions is almost a wonderful book and the fact Ken Macleod fails to carry it off is deeply frustrating. Once we get into the second half, the pace picks up and everything in the police procedural and the broader techno-thriller modes come together to make a rousing ending. But the initial set-up is stodgy and, overall, there’s too much exposition crammed into slightly indigestible chunks. So here comes the pitch. When you look back, it’s actually very good. Everything you need to know is there to allow the plot to hang together convincingly. If you’re prepared to be patient, this book repays the effort with a genuinely fascinating story of how people and robots can make the wrong choices. But this is not a book for the impatient nor will those who take the Bible as literal truth find much to enjoy.
For my review of another novel by Ken Macleod, see The Restoration Game.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Blue Remembered Earth by Alastair Reynolds (Gollancz, 2012) is the first in the Poseidon’s Children trilogy and, on the face of it, offers answers to the now relatively familiar question of what would happen to humanity if we wrecked the planet through global warming, then slowly remade the Earth and expanded into the solar system. For this purpose, we assume significant technological advancement with genetic engineering extending life span and producing a new aquatic civilisation in the seas, while computers augment the lives of those who have survived and provide the ultimate Big Brother system for keeping order. In theory, this is a utopian society. Apart from the Descrutinised Zone on the Moon and other places where the surveillance technology cannot reach, the majority of conventional humans have little chance to misbehave. Yet, of course, a certain rebelliousness does remain. You can’t conveniently program minds to be conventional. But apart from the usual imperative to maximise earnings, there seems very little incentive for humanity to progress in any meaningful way. For the “ordinary” people, it’s a relatively quiet life.
Before looking beyond this simple assessment, we need to think about the author. Alastair Reynolds is currently carrying the Olympic torch for “new” space opera or perhaps this is an example of postmodernist space opera. Whatever label you want to apply, we’re introduced to the dangers of old military hardware still dotting the landscape in Africa. Then we visit the Moon and have a run-in with the Chinese who continue to think they should hide behind a Wall and have nothing to do with the rest of us. Then it’s off to Mars and, by the time we’re finished, we’ve had a whistle-stop tour of the highlights of the solar system (not forgetting those folk under the sea, of course). Except the tone of the book lacks that breathless sense of wonder underlying brainless action that characterised “old” space opera. You probably remember those early books used to plunge into the first meeting with hostile forces, showing immediately how they were a real threat. Then the forces of good gathered, mustered and confronted the threat. Those were the days! Yet this book deliberately avoids older plotting conventions.
At its heart, Blue Remembered Earth is a remarkably gentle meditation on cognition. It considers both the process through which information is gathered and processed so that it’s understood and may form the basis of voluntary acts and omissions, and the process of accountability where people take responsibility for what they think and, therefore, how they act. Alastair Reynolds addresses the theme at three different levels. Starting with human beings, we have the ultimate panopticon with the “thought police” allowed a window into everyone’s head. Immediately the monitor detects the decision to bash the living daylights out of another sentient being, it zaps the brain of the offender in motion before the blow can land. This instant sanction has a chilling effect on violent impulses. Except it’s less than foolproof. To achieve their desired results, those who aspire to badness are simply devious, never appearing to be doing anything terrible but actually achieving the result indirectly. All the technology does is turn down the heat and pace of anything potentially operatic. Instead of some great villain coming onstage and blasting out an aria to shake the chandeliers, it must all be whispered conspiracies in physical places where the surveillance is weak or nonexistent. Those who have violent tendencies have machines fight each other — the experience of violence delivers a kind of vicarious catharsis. As a world, this is more dystopian than utopian. Although the environment is physically recovering after humanity’s collective failure to act, the price to be paid is a kind of enforced passivity. If we were not rational enough to prevent ecological disaster, then we must be controlled until we demonstrate enough maturity to be allowed to live freely again. Except who decides on the definition of maturity and how is it to be measured?
The second strand of this debate is found in the work of Geoffrey. He’s an obsessive autodidact scientist who studies elephants in the wild. Well that needs a little qualification. These elephants are a form of walking experiment with enough electronics implanted in their heads to power very high levels of communication. Indeed, Geoffrey is slowly building up a cognitive bridge which will enable him to experience the world as an elephant and, because bridges can carry traffic in both directions, allow the elephant to sample human thought. This is a slightly different version of the system monitoring human impulses because the intention is to allow full sensory identification between the human and host elephant. A more interesting question will be how the elephant will react to thoughts from the human mind. Although Geoffrey is studying the behaviour of the animals both as individuals and within the herd structure, this is both a simple model of human society, and it opens the door to the possibility of improving on the elephant’s level of cognition, i.e. achieving some degree of intellectual uplift.
The third strand of the theme lies in machine-based intelligence. Because both humans and animals have interfaces with advanced technology, there are rules about the extent to which machines may develop their own artificial intelligence and so become independent beings, and the extent to which machines may actually control human or animal behaviour. At this point, we touch on technological singularity. Throughout the book we are shown how technology can augment the human mind, but there’s a strong resistance against any move to allow machines to develop a level of intelligence greater than humanity. With the exception of the use of technology to suppress violence, Alastair Reynolds assumes the mass of humanity prefer to dawdle along rather passively. Having just survived what could have been an extinction event, leaders prefer not to take too many risks until everyone has grown up a little and can take responsibility for their own actions again.
So that’s the set-up in a longish book which quietly explains what has been happening and then shows how the death of a grandmother can suddenly destabilise the lives of her grandchildren and force them to take decisions about what kind of people they want to be. Yes, there are the occasional trappings of space opera as we try to break into a space station that prefers not to be disturbed and meet a few homicidal robots living wild and evolving into who knows what. But the real strength of the book lies in the conversations as we watch people react to the changing circumstances. It’s not gripping, wow-factor space opera, but rather a meticulously constructed adventure story in the quest mode as our two main characters try to follow the clues left behind by their grandmother. This makes Blue Earth Remembered a fascinating read and it should be picked up by anyone with an interest in thoughtful science fiction in which the future of the solar system hangs in the balance — I guess that makes it space opera.
In Firebird, the latest novel going under the label of “An Alex Benedict Novel”, Jack McDevitt has yet again produced a fascinating scientific mystery for us to ponder. On the periphery are a couple of very neat examples of authorial sleight of hand and a crusade. Who could ask for anything more in a story where people move around more than expected and some are rescued?
We have to start with a small note of explanation for those of you not into classical ballet. For some years, the Diaghilev Ballets Russes had recycled the traditional scores with new choreography. But, in 1910, an original score called The Firebird, was commissioned from Igor Stravinski. As they say in showbiz, this was a big hit and the rest is history. The story brings two previously unrelated myths together. The Firebird itself was a Russian version of the phoenix, and it was drawn into the circle of creatures surrounding Koschei the deathless (as in Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente ). The dynamic hook of the story is the willingness of The Firebird to help a human confront Koschei in pursuit of the one he loves. It’s both a classic love story and a metaphorical battle for freedom as a modern man leads a revolt against the immortal magician who has ruled in this garden estate since time began. In its historical context, the ballet was a harbinger of the Russian revolution in which the people rose up and disposed of the Tsarist family that had ruled for centuries.
Returning to the new novel, one of the major themes is the status of AIs. In this version of the future, humanity has long relied on tried and trusted artificial intelligences to run many aspects of their lives. In pursuit of evidence about the past, Alex Benedict and Chase Kolpath visit Villanueva, a planet that has been cut off from the rest of the universe, first because the planetary system passed through a dust cloud and then because the AIs decided not to allow humans to trespass on their world. Ah, so here’s the rub (or wub if you like P K Dick). If these machines have asserted territoriality, does that mean they have evolved to a higher level of intelligence? If it does, should they earn a new status more equal with humanity? In a way, this would have remained a purely hypothetical debate, but our dynamic duo rescue one of the AIs that prefers not to follow in the warlike footsteps of its peers. This proves a catalyst for human society to begin the process of deciding what machine rights should be granted to this AI and to any other AIs that might reach appropriate levels of sentience.
In other hands, this might have become a slightly moralistic crusade, but Jack McDevitt uses the issue very skillfully to undermine the credibility of Alex Benedict at a critical time. Had our heroes not started this hare running, their reputations would have been sufficiently strong for them to argue action on the second important issue. But so great is the political backlash when their enemies rubbish the suggestion humanity rescue more machines, their other requests for help are dismissed by officialdom. Alex Benedict becomes too hot to handle and must rely on less conventional channels for aid.
The Prologue introduces the primary issue for Alex Benedict to investigate. Although the manufacturers of the engines and the spacecraft they power want to maintain public confidence in the safety of their wares, it’s a fact that a tiny percentage of spaceships has disappeared. When a client asks Benedict to handle the sale of items belonging to a physicist who made a name for himself as an investigator of fringe science, it rapidly becomes clear that the man might have been interested in this problem. In trying to follow in the scientist’s footsteps, we have Chase Kolpath doing her thing and digging out interesting nuggets of information. As an aside, I always feel Chase should get equal billing in the labelling of these novels. They are, after all, first-person narratives from her point of view. Following the clues she unearths takes the couple to Villanueva and the aforementioned rescue of the AI. They then realise they must find the titular Firebird, a small ship the physicist bought and then “lost” somewhere in space.
So looking back at the Alex Benedict series, this is easily the equal of Echo which was shortlisted for the 2010 Nebula Award. The sheer inventiveness of the scientific mysteries to solve makes these books great fun to read, blending science fiction and the trappings of a detective procedural with seamless grace. I recommend Firebird to anyone interested in thoughtful science fiction. For reviews of other titles by Jack McDevitt, see:
This book has been shortlisted for the Nebula Award for Best Novel 2011.
I suppose, when you want to construct a new universe, you’re forced to start with people. It’s only fair some humans should get a look in. Then you think about augmenting some of them. This could be genetic — parents designing their offspring to be in whoever’s image they thought most desirable. Or, perhaps, just designing for effect, regardless of appearance. Then we could have various degrees of cloning so that our humans could avoid problems of defective organs by being able to whip one up in a petrie dish. Or you could go the whole hog (metaphorically speaking, of course, even though pigs are supposedly genetically close to humanity) and clone more or less a whole body. Yet this is not necessarily good enough. At the end of the day, humans are all soft tissue and relatively fragile bones. How much more secure you might feel if you became a cyborg. All this improvement is going to depend on a lot of high-powered computer technology, so let’s create different levels of AI from the barely sentient to the clever ones. This is, of course, the tried and tested trope of the singularity where we potentially get what, to mere humans, would appear superintelligence in all parts of this system — that’s not counting the possibility of uplifting animals to some level of awareness. There will also be political strains as different groups may view the others as threats to their continued existence if not prosperity. If there’s actual conflict, the original humans are merely cannon-fodder and unlikely to survive in numbers.
As a final touch, we have a mirror to Iain M Bank’s Surface Detail in which real-world societies have created virtual realities. In the Bank’s use of this possibility, there are virtual Heavens and Hells. Guy Haley has us take an interest in Reality 36 (Angry Robot, 2011), one of the many worlds created for use by virtual gamers, but later given protected status. Morally, it doesn’t do to create “people” whose only function is to be victims for human game-players intent on exterminating them. So real humans have been barred from the virtual worlds, each of which is allowed to develop along the lines laid down in the original specifications. There’s supposedly an academic team (including AIs) monitoring what goes on in the servers and on the virtual worlds, with a policing agency charged with enforcing the rules of human non-interference.
Against this background, it would be possible to produce many different types of drama from relatively small scale to major action across both real and virtual worlds but, intrinsically, they would all be the same story exploring what this “world” considers a person, what level of rights each type of person will enjoy, and how the different types interact. Guiding us through this terrain are two different types of person. Richards is a class 5 AI who’s fascinated by the use of his powers as a detective. When he manifests, it’s as a 1930‘s PI and he has honed his skills to maximise his investigative abilities. He has also made a friend of Otto Klein, a military cyborg who, when not working as a stalking horse for Richards, freelances as “muscle” although he’s rather more than that. We start off with Richards doing his best to capture a particularly elusive criminal only to find this is a feint to lure Klein into a trap. In a separate narrative thread, Veronique Valdaire finds her relatively quiet academic world disturbed when her boss disappears.
The common denominator proves to be the events occurring in the titular Reality 36 and the adjacent areas of the servers. This means we switch up the scale fairly dramatically when the two major narrative threads converge and pitch our warriors into battle both on the real Earth and in the aforementioned reality. As we might predict, this is all a preliminary skirmish to what could prove to be a major war between the persons who believe they are the most superior and the rest.
I get the idea of an AI. Back in the 1970s and 80s, I spent a considerable amount of time working on expert systems so I understand the problems in what would need to be done to create an autonomous machine. I’ve also read a significant number of SF books about making them and fighting them. But I don’t get where all the code comes from to make each person in a virtual reality autonomous. In other books, people upload digital versions of themselves into these gaming or other realities. Assuming enough bandwidth and online memory capacity, large numbers of “people” can therefore exist in these machine-supported environments. But Guy Haley assumes humans have been prevented from jacking into these worlds, leaving only the machine-generated people behind. So are we supposed to assume the AIs replicate smaller versions of themselves to populate these worlds? Or does each “individual” somehow evolve from a non-sentient piece of code? Take Ulgan the merchant in Reality 36 as an example of this problem. He certainly seems to act and react as an archetypal lazy but greedy person. It would be not unreasonable for such a being to be given protected legal status. But what about an orc or some other mythological creature with a language and culture? What would the criteria be for deciding whether such a being should be protected?
You may wonder why I’m focussing on these issues. The answer lies in two of the important characters. Zhang Qifang was the leading light in establishing a legal framework of machine-intelligence rights, and Hughie at Eupol Central is a stickler for enforcing the rules. A little more work explaining the relationship between the different levels of internet, how the interfaces work, and how the laws define the different classes of person would be appreciated. I also note that an atomic bomb is dropped on a part of London during this book and there’s hardly a second thought about it. While I personally would not mind seeing London removed from the map in current reality, a few words referring to the consequences would give the fictional event a little more substance and credibility.
This is not to say there are major flaws in this book. But I prefer things to be neat and tidy and, although this is an excellent attempt, I feel the creativity is a little superficial. That said, I found reading this book highly enjoyable. There’s a certain restrained exuberance at work and, despite the problems, I was pulled through to the end. I wanted to know how it would be left. Guy Haley is a journalist and editor making the transition into fiction and he gives himself a challenge. It’s always difficult to make a reader care about an AI as a hero, but Richards (aka Lazarus) does manage to come back from wherever AIs might go when existence ceases courtesy of a little back-up storage and the work of some enterprising forensic autopsy experts. I found him likeable. Similarly, Otto Klein has various physical problems and is not invulnerable. We get a sense he could die during some of his escapades. So Reality 36 is a good read, full of incident and building to a not unpredictable cliffhanger. It’s definitely worth picking up. The sequel, for those of you who want to join me in following their adventures, is called Omega Point.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
For a review of the sequel, see Omega Point