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…

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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

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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: 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.

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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.

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Game Review: Hatoful Boyfriend

Type of game: Visual novel
Developed by: (original) Moa Hato (remake) Mediatonic
Published by: (remake) Devolver Digital
Year: (original) 2011 (remake) 2014
Played on: Steam

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! And no, I don’t mean Christmas, I’m talking about the Steam Summer Sale – which admittedly does have things in common with December 25th *insert fat man Santa / Gabe Newell joke here.* During this week or so of heavily discounted PC games our spending here at AddAltMode tend to fall in to 2 categories: the ‘big’ games we really wanted but were waiting to obtain at a bargain price, and usually at least one or two really odd games purchased either out of curiosity or just for the giggles because they were so cheap. This is why our (non-Borderlands) gaming has become particularly random and uh, farmyard themed (?) in recent weeks: with AddAltMode B playing Goat Simulator and me settling down with this um pigeon-dating simulator….

Hatoful Boyfriend menu screen

Hatoful Boyfriend menu screen

Yes, Hatoful Boyfriend is a pigeon-dating simulator. Don’t judge me. In it, you play as the only human attending St.Pigeonations, a prestigious Japanese high-school run and attended by sentient birds. Ostensibly the goal is to progress through the typical milestones of the school calendar: classes, holidays, sports days and festivals, while getting to know “everybirdie” (the game uses this and similar terms throughout) and to find that special “somebirdie” to pursue more intimately. I enjoy interactive fiction a lot. I’d never dated a pigeon before, or indeed considered dating one but I was intrigued by two things: firstly just how off the wall the premise was, and secondly just how many extremely positive reviews this title seemed to have garnered. Could a game about romancing pigeons really be so engaging, or does the world just contain far more pigeon fanciers (and not in the racing sense) than I’d realised? The sale price of £1.74 seemed a reasonable sum to pay to find out more…

I thought it might make me laugh for an hour or two. How wrong can you be?

cheevos

No, I haven’t suddenly become a pigeon pervert but I did get suckered in, hook line and sinker. Because it turns out Hatoful Boyfriend is a much more intense, dark and engaging experience than I’d anticipated. There’s much, much more to this game than meets the eye…

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Book Review: He, She and It by Marge Piercy

Robo Reads

Title: He, She and It 
Author: Marge Piercy
First Published: 1991 by Ballantine

Isn’t it a rare but exhilarating thing when a book comes along that ticks almost all of your personal reading boxes? For me, He, She and It is one such book. It’s a work of feminist (tick),  dystopian (tick), cyberpunk science-fiction but with a strongly literary flavour (triple tick) that also features an affecting and pretty damn sexy robot romance plot (yes that’s a big tick for me too, which should surprise nobody). Piercy’s novel also contains many ingredients – such as its elements of Jewish history and mysticism – that I wouldn’t necessarily seek out in a book but which actually proved fascinating. The novel features two interlinked stories, one set in a grim near-future of nuclear fallout and environmental destruction and one set in 1600s Prague. Despite their very different locales both narratives explore, in a way that is both searching and sympathetic, the consequences of creating an artificial being that can think – and, crucially, feel – for itself.

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Mech Music: 5 Albums for Robot Lovers

Music and robots are two great tastes that go well together – right? Just ask Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter, otherwise known as our funkiest robot overlords, Daft Punk. But why is this? Music is simultaneously a powerful form of individual self-expression and a staple of shared, communal experience so it makes sense that songs have always been a way to explore and to express what it means to be human. Likewise, robots. From android butlers to crazed killbots, robots provide an element of distance that we can use to reflect on ourselves: what makes robots different from us and what does it say about us that the robots we’ve built behave the way they do? And think about the clanking, whirring and beeping sounds typically associated with mechanical invention, you’ve got yourself some great beats and effects right there.  Not to mention the fact that robots simply rock.

Screencap from Transformers Animated "Human Error Prt 2

Rocktimus Prime: Screencap from Transformers Animated “Human Error Part 2”

So it’s hardly surprising that there have been a lot of robot themed songs and albums released over the years, from film and game soundtracks to full robo-rock operas.  For a discussion of some of the real classic proponents, like Kraftwerk, check out Robert Bidders’ interesting post Your Petrochemical Arms: A Brief History of Cyborgs, Superhumans and Robots in Pop Music.  The approach I’m going to take here is a bit less scholarly.  Basically, it’s just a list of robot themed full albums – covering quite a range of musical genres – that I really enjoy. Perhaps you will too. Check ’em out…

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