Book Review: Beautiful Intelligence by Stephen Palmer

Robo Reads

Title:  Beautiful Intelligence
Author: Stephen Palmer
Publisher: infinity plus
Date: 2015

Quotation: “For the nexus was heavy. It bore down on humanity, never sleeping, spying into every crevice – no respecter of privacy, which was a ridiculous, old-fashoned concept anyway.”

One of the many things I enjoyed about this dystopian novel was its pacing, which manages somehow to be ponderous and frenetic at the same time. Palmer’s examination of the different potential pathways for creating sentient machines, and his wider meditations on environmental collapse, on the perils of religion and on the consequences of the modern networked life as an over-sharing cult of extrovert personality are thoughtfully rendered, expressed in passionate terms that could feel overly didactic if they weren’t constantly interrupted by the pure adrenalin rush of the book’s many heart-thumping chase scenes.  It’s a great mix of deliberation and danger.

Beautiful Intelligence book cover

Beautiful Intelligence book cover

This duality permeates the whole book. Palmer’s tone mixes the colloquial and the clinical while his narrative flits between two fugitive researchers, each employing different strategies not only to create a sentient machine intelligence but also to evade recapture by their former employer…

Continue reading

Advertisements

Book Review: Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson

Robo Reads

Title: Robopocalypse
Author: Daniel H. Wilson
Published: 2011

Quotation: “I did not realize they communicated this much without words. I note that we machines are not the only species who share information silently, wreathed in codes.”

Scrolling back over my past Robo-Reads reviews I notice that the term “thought-provoking” crops up frequently. Perhaps I just need to expand my vocabulary but it’s certainly true that writing about robots can be an excellent way for authors to grapple with some of life’s biggest questions, both scientific and philosophical. As our artificial progeny, robots hold up a mirror to humanity that helps us ponder the nature of consciousness, the path of progress, the relationship between creator and creation, fears about control and autonomy and many other facets of what it means to be human – or not. Daniel H. Wilson has a PhD in Robotics from Carnegie Mellon University, a prestigious pedigree that might lead you to expect his techno-thriller Robopocalypse to continue this path of intellectual inquiry. But there you would be wrong. Wilson clearly knows his stuff when it comes it comes to robotics and his novel does conjure up some interesting scenarios – particularly when it comes to the prospect of surviving a robot takeover in a technologically-saturated urban setting. But overall this is definitely the big-budget popcorn movie of robo-reads…

Robopocalypse book cover

Robopocalypse book cover

Continue reading

Book Review: Speak by Louisa Hall

Robo Reads

Title: Speak
Author: Louisa Hall
Published: 2015

Quotation: “With or without my intervention we were headed towards robots. You blame me for the fact your daughters found their mechanical dolls more human than you, but is that my fault for making a too human doll? Or your fault for being too mechanical?”

This book popped up in my Amazon recommendations a while back and immediately piqued my curiosity. When I saw that it was about robots (one of my favourite subjects) and that critics were describing it as reading “like a hybrid of David Mitchell and Margaret Atwood” (two of my favourite authors) I had to get it!

Cover art for Speak

Cover art for Speak

It easy to see the roots of both comparisons. Speak is a work of literary science fiction. Like several of Atwood’s best novels, its setting is near future and rather dystopian and the narrative has a powerful interest in marginalised voices. Turning to the voices themselves: the novel is arranged, Mitchell-like, as a series of distinct narratives, told by an extremely diverse group of characters. Mary Bradford is a young 17th-century puritan woman unwillingly married and voyaging to the New World, she pours her hopes and fears into her secret diary. Alan Turing is, well, I’m sure you know who Turing is, the AI theoretician and codebreaker is the novel’s only historical inclusion, and he expresses himself here through a series of (imagined) letters to the mother of a deceased childhood friend. Karl and Ruth Dettman are an increasingly estranged married couple, Jewish refugees and academics (respectively a computer scientist and a historian) who prepare monologues to each other as more direct forms of communication break down.  Gaby White is a teenage girl who has been left isolated and paralysed by a strange and debilitating illness, trapped within her room and within herself she converses with an online chatbot called Mary3. Finally, Stephen R. Chinn is a silicon valley whizkid composing his memoirs from prison where he has been sent for creating, “babybots” robot dolls that have been deemed illegally lifelike.

Intrigued? I certainly was. Speak‘s ventriloquism is never quite was polished as that of David Mitchell and its dystopian world building isn’t as considered or expansive as you find in works like Atwood’s Madd Addam trilogy but for a sophomore novel, it’s an impressive read. Poignant and often heart-breaking this is a gripping exploration of communication, loneliness and what it means to be human… Continue reading

Book Review: Robot Takeover by Ana Matronic

Robo ReadsTitle: Robot Takeover: 100 Iconic Robots of Myth, Popular Culture and Real Life
Author: Ana Matronic
Published: Octopus Books: 2015

Ana Matronic is most renowned as the female vocalist in American disco/glam rock band Scissor Sisters. Now it would take a heart of stone and feet like lead weights to remain entirely unmoved by the bands’ supremely ear-wormy toe-tap inducing tunes, but as I’m not a particular follower of their genre of music in general, I confess I hadn’t realised until recently that Matronic is also huge robot fan. On reflection, her (wonderful) choice of moniker and the large tattoo of circuity on her arm really should have clued me in already. But any gaps in my knowledge of or appreciation for Matronic’s interest in all things robot (which I very much share) have now been filled by the arrival of this stylish coffee table volume.

Robot Takeover book cover

Robot Takeover book cover

In Robot Takeover Matronic collects and discusses 100 of the most iconic robots, mixing characters from myth, history and pop-culture with real products of scientific invention. Her passion for the subject gleams like polished chrome from every page. With me, of course, she was preaching to the converted, but her enthusiasm is infectious nonetheless and the chatty warmth of her tone provides a wonderful counterpoint to the stereotypically cold mechanical reserve of some of the characters she discusses.

The reflection off highly polished metal, the red glow of a light-emitting diode, the sound of a vocoder: these are a few of my favourite things. When people ask, ‘why robots?’ I can get a bit confused. Doesn’t everybody love robots?

If you’re already one of Matronic’s “everybodies” then this book may not offer you too much in the way things you didn’t know, but I guarantee you’ll enjoy the ride and the chance to reminisce on a few pop-cultural favourites as well meeting some new mechanical faces. If you’re a member of that hard-to-compute group who don’t love robots, well realistically I guess you’d be unlikely to pick up the book in the first place. But if you do take the plunge you’ll find a great introduction to why robots matter as well as to the important understanding that a “takeover” need not always be a negative thing…

Continue reading

Book Review: The Stories of Ibis by Hiroshi Yamamoto

Robo Reads

Title: The Stories of Ibis
Author: Hiroshi Yamamoto
Translator: Takami Nieda
Published: (Kindle Edition) 2011

Quotation: Why were there so many stories about robots and humans fighting? Did they only exist because that was how mankind had always lived? Did we simply see ourselves in these humanoid machines?

The Stories of Ibis presents a sequence of five short stories and two slightly longer ones, each exploring human relationships with artificial intelligence, or with other humans in a technologically-enabled world. Hugely diverse in setting, the subjects include the following: a group of bulletin-board users collaboratively imagining the adventures of a Star Trek-like fictional space crew (“The Universe on my Hands”); a tale of told by artificially intelligent space station on the edge of a black hole that provides a final stop-off for the adventurous and the suicidal (“Black Hole Diver”); there’s even a bubblegum anime-inspired world populated by powered up AI school-kid fighters (”A World Where Justice is Just”). Each tale stands alone, but scaffolded by an introduction and series of intermissions in which characters reflect on the story they have just heard, the stories combine to offer an impressively original exploration of the possibilities and perils of humans creating artificial life.

Kindle Edition cover

Kindle Edition cover

The creation of autonomous robots and the consequences of this for humanity as a species is a topic to which sci-fiction returns time and again. Yet Yamamato’s work never feels stale precisely because of the extent to which it recognises this fact. Artificial intelligences like the titular Ibis – the female AI who narrates each of these wide-ranging tales, rather like a robo-Scheherazade – are not simply the product of technical advancements, they are also born from stories and fictions that first imagined them. More concerned with language and psychology than engineering, this collection acknowledges the creative power of story telling, particularly those yarns spun about robots…

Continue reading

Book Review: Drood by Dan Simmons

Part of AddAltMode's Creepy Countdown series

Part of AddAltMode’s Creepy Countdown series

When I’m not reading about robots, I do love a good horror story, so as part of our Creepy Countdown series, I’m going to recommend and discuss a few of my favourite creepy reads in the run up to Hallowe’en.

Title: Drood
Author: Dan Simmons
Published: 2009 by Quercus

Now, horror literature is a genre that I think often works best in concentrated doses, ideally suited to short stories or – at a push – novellas, as it can be hard convincingly to sustain terror and suspense for the course of a long novel. Which isn’t to say that long reads can’t be scary, but it’s a different kind of scare: more about creating an atmosphere of mystery and doubt than conjuring jump scares and physical threat. It’s probably significant that most of my favourite 500-pages plus horror reads sit squarely in the genre of Victorian-inspired historical fiction. Why is that? Well, Those triple-decker-penning Victorian writers like Charles Dickens and Wilkie Coillins certainly knew a thing or two about how to pace a marathon read, and even works by modern writers that are set in the nineteenth-century can often get away with being very expansive, as the length feels authentic for this setting rather than just an authorial indulgence. Also, let’s face it, when it comes to creating an atmosphere of spookiness there is something unbeatable about a nineteenth-century milieu, especially an urban one. Perhaps it’s the obscuring smog for which Victorian cities were notorious; perhaps its the darker shadows cast by gaslight, or perhaps it’s the idea of London during this period as a city expanding and mechanising at a prodigious rate, all of which make it a perfect setting for mysteries and secrets.

In Drood, Dan Simmons draws on all of these ideas, as well as re-imagining the lives of two of the era’s foremost writers of spookily atmospheric fiction, the aforementioned Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins. Dickens’ ghost characters (particularly those from A Christmas Carol) have to be among the most famous of all pop-cultural spooks, while Collins’ The Woman in White and Armadale are classic spooky thrillers that would both feature on my list of all time favourite reads. So it’s a wonderful – if slightly crazed – conceit to follow these two men as they become embroiled in a mystery of their own. Simmons speculates (wildly but enjoyably) on the inspiration behind Dickens’ unfinished final novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood in a plot which sees the two great authors battling demons of their own – both metaphorical and slightly less so. If that sounds silly, that’s because it is. Let’s be clear, Drood is a completely ridiculous and overwrought piece of faux-Victorian Gothic hokum. But it’s also unputdownably gripping, brilliantly plotted and tempers its crazed flights of dark fantasy with some impressively heavyweight literary and historical research. In short, although I freely admit this novel is mad, bad and dangerous to know, I adored it – and sustainedly adored it throughout all its mighty 800 pages. So this is one of my top picks for a Hallowe’en read. But Drood is a weighty tome indeed so if want to get it ticked off your reading list before the end of the month it’s probably best to start now. Here’s more on why you should…

Continue reading

Book Review: Armada by Ernest Cline

Title: Armada
Author: Ernest Cline
First Published: 2015

So what do you once you’ve turned the final page of a book you really loved? If you’re anything like me the answer might be:

  1. Feel a little sad that such a wonderful reading experience has come to an end.
  2. Start recommending said book to everyone you know.
  3. Find out if the author has published anything else and if so, buy it.

So you can imagine my glee when I discovered that, conveniently, I had finished Ernest Clines’ superb first novel, Ready Player One, just 3 days before his second book, Armada, was due to be published. Talk about perfect timing! Ready Player One may have presented a dystopian vision of the not-too-distant future but as far as reading experiences go, it was geek nirvana, laden as it was with so many contextually-justified references to the games, technology and pop-culture of the 1980s and 90s. Just like that novel’s protagonist, Wade, I’d been reluctant to logout of the enjoyably escapist virtual world laid out before me. But with Armada touted as offering a similarly pop-culture savvy experience to its predecessor it sounded like I wouldn’t be logged out for long. While Cline’s debut imagined the possibilities and the Pitfalls (Pitfall! Get it?) of a MMORPG style online world, Armada looks to the skies, and beyond: it’s an alien invasion narrative that promised to draw on every space shoot-em-up you’ve ever played and to offer a different context for all the sci-fi classic movies with which I grew up.

That all sounded so promising, and so much fun. You should never judge a book by it cover, of course, but it looked oh so promising too: what a great jacket design!

Armada book cover

Armada book cover

But…. while I can’t deny it was fun, overall, I have to admit I can’t remember the last time I’ve been so disappointed by a novel. I really wanted to like Armada but, though it does have some good moments, compared to the genius of Ready Player One, it just felt flat, forced and predictable. Son, I am disappoint.

Spoiler Alert!

Spoiler Alert!

What follows is a bit more on the novels’s themes as well as what I liked and the somewhat longer list of what I didn’t like about Armada. This is the kind of book that it’s hard to discuss without mentioning some key plot points so Rodimus is here to warn you that there may be one or two spoilers ahead.

Continue reading

Book Review: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Robo Reads

Title: Ready Player One
Author: Ernest Cline
First Published: 2011

I’m not sure this should really count as a fully fledged Robo Read but I’m going to include it under the heading anyway. Reasons? Well, the novel does include one scene-stealing giant robot moment, and although artificial intelligence isn’t really its focus, Ready Player One certainly explores our relationship with technology and the potential of on-line / virtual lives. Indeed, in that respect Cline’s book rather put me in mind of John Scalzi’s Lock In, a great novel that was the focus of my very first Robo Reads book review on this blog. Scalzi is actually name-checked in Cline’s work and has himself sung its praises, describing the book as a “nerdgasm.”

It’s a pretty accurate description. While its “Robo Reads” credentials may be debatable, there is no doubt that Ready Player One fully deserves the accolade of “Geek Lit Classic.” It’s not without it flaws but these are more than compensated by an overall ride that manages to combine some all-too-grimly-plausible near future dystopian world building with a gleefully referential nostalgic pop-cultural odyssey that had me grinning from ear. You probably need to be a bit of a gamer and to have some affection for the 80s to get the most out of this novel but if you fit those bills and haven’t read Cline’s debut novel already I highly recommend doing so now, or at least before Stephen Spielberg’s film version of it comes out. So, you’ve got just under a year and half, which shouldn’t be too much of a challenge considering this is the kind of book I struggled to put down and devoured in just a couple of sittings.

Continue reading

Book Review: The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

Robo Reads

Title: The Windup Girl
Author: Paolo Bacigalupi
Published: Orbit: 2010

Few debut novels come as laden with accolades as The Windup Girl, which won its author both a Hugo and a Nebula award. Does it live up to the hype? There is no doubt that Bacigalupi’s debut novel provides a memorable and intense reading experience. Satisfyingly, this is a novel all about the subject of energy which itself hums and thrums with a vibrancy that can feel both heavy and intoxicating. I picked up the book as part of my ongoing mission to explore the depiction of robots in as many novels as possible. So I was surprised to find that although Emiko – the artificial “windup” of the title – undoubtedly is the catalyst for most of the novel’s key events, her individual story here is somewhat less engaging than the wider experience of Bacigalupi’s world-building. The Windup Girl follows a number of different characters along what is in each case essentially a quest for survival, whether that be the survival of an individual, a company, a city, a nation, an ideology, or even the survival of a species. Yet the real energy source in the book, the power that kept me turning the pages, comes less from character than from setting.  The plot may strain under the weight of a few too many coincidences but Bacigalupi’s dystopian world is intricate, memorable and worryingly credible.

Continue reading

Book Review: The Alchemy of Stone by Ekaterina Sedia

Robo Reads

Title: The Alchemy of Stone
Author: Ekaterina Sedia
First Published: 2008

Robots tend to be imagined as being pretty tough and durable. Even those machines that aren’t specifically built for war or heavy labour are often depicted as having super-strength or the ability to withstand great pressure (check out the TV Tropes page Super-Powered Robot Meter Maids!) This is understandable: metal is stronger than flesh.  But when authors diverge wildly from this stereotype the results can be intriguing. Mattie, the mechanical protagonist of this steampunk fantasy novel is one such divergent creation. She is an (allegedly) ”emancipated automaton” with a clockwork core; less sentient tank and more whalebone-ribbed living doll – with all the frailty that implies. She even has a delicate, porcelain face that is prone to cracking.

It’s refreshing to see a more vulnerable robot for a change; refreshing, but also heart-breaking. Think about how much prejudice and intolerance we see towards sentient machines in other sci-fi and fantasy works and now imagine a creation singularly ill-equipped to defend herself against such abuses. “There are a few intelligent automatons around,” Mattie explains ”…But you know, nobody likes making them. And they… we don’t even like ourselves.”

As this quote suggests, The Alchemy of Stone is a beautifully melancholy read, blending the sensibilities of a dark fairytale with an allusive commentary on real world issues of gender and racial inequality and – as is common in steampunk-inspired fiction – an exploration of the conquests and casualties that are inherent in the unstoppable march of progress. Sedia’s vivid imagination and beguiling way with words kept me intrigued to the end of Mattie’s story, but I have to admit, I felt this novel’s world-building was finally more captivating than its plot.

Continue reading