29 August 2011

Post 420: We Want to Believe

We Want to Believe: Faith and Gospel in the X-Files by Amy M. Donaldson. ISBN: 9781606083611.

Although not the primary focus of Donaldson's book, her mention of the lack of religion in science fiction surprised me and sparked more thought than the rest of her book. Part of that is probably my general lack of interest in Christianity and a casual enjoyment of X-Files, but as a lifelong science fiction fan and spiritual person, I was surprised that I did not really notice that religion was missing from most sci-fi.

There are of course a few exceptions, Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow immediately came to mind, as did The Parable of the Sower, and Tankborn if only because I read it recently. All three of these works (interestingly all written by women) use religion in very different ways. All three mention Earth: Parable is set there and stays there, The Sparrow begins on Earth and ends there with portions of the narrative occurring on an alien planet, and Tankborn is set entirely on an alien planet, although the population originated on Earth.

All three were used effectively as part of the narrative and in the first two were even the primary focus of the book. So why do/have so many science fiction authors seemingly ignored or at least glossed over religion?

Perhaps its basis in science has something to do with this. Those who feel enlightened by science and rational thought sometimes feel that religion has no place in an equally enlightened future/higher society. While I might be inclined to agree with that as far as government mandates are concerned, I do believe that religion has its place in society and will continue to be a useful tool, even for those of us who do have a conscience based on our own experiences and beliefs, rather than allowing a more authoritarian dictation of conscience. For instance, a society based on rational thought and science may not prevent the wholesale murder of groups of people. Science and rational thought might lead to the conclusion that if a population is sick and dying, it would be best for the rest of the community to quarantine that population until a cure or vaccine could be provided. While this seems like a reasonable thing to do, it is also in some ways a heartless thing to do. In this way religion ought to guide our rationality to a more compassionate behavior. Rather than allowing those beings to suffer alone, those inclined to care for the sick and the dying (the doctors, nurses, and other caregivers) will attempt to provide the best comfort they can, even at the risk of becoming sick themselves.

Would a future without religion really be so appealing to us? As we have all suffered our own personal anguish, would we relish a world where rationally it would be wise to separate ourselves from the pain of others rather than attempting to provide relief?

Granted, there may be those whose conscience and rationality lead them to provide this charity anyway, and there are certainly people who claim to be Christians who ignore or reject that particular teaching of Christ (in behavior if not in word). Yet I would rather see religion remain in place to offer that guidance than see a world barren of any source of hope, faith, charity, forgiveness, and many of the other themes touched on in Donaldson's work. It definitely makes The X-Files a braver show than I first realized it to be, and I hope to see more science fiction writers (whether of books or visual media) take it upon themselves to create more stories that include religion, positive and negative, in their works.

My review can be found on Goodreads.
LibsNote: Copy received as gift.

27 August 2011

Post 419: a general update

Readerlings, I have sad news. Recently my fiance and I have decided not to get married. It was a mutual decision, we are still friends, he is still my editor, we still even love each other. Unfortunately, neither of us can eat or pay rent with love as we are just not that attractive.* It is not that we've given up hope or loving each other, just that we've given up faith that things will get better enough that we will be together. We ended it now before it devolved into being totally sick of each other with screaming matches and blame games. In some ways it makes it both the easiest and the worst breakup I've been through.

There is nothing for a breakup like burying myself under a pile of books and refusing to come out until I've finished it. If anyone feels free to hose me down and feed me ice cream once I emerge, I will probably appreciate it.

Dracula in Love by Karen Essex.
Another book from the Goodreads giveaway program. I know how to get free books LIKE A BOSS. My interest was actually piqued by this title a couple of times in the library, but I always put it back because I already had a full armload. I do love that this revisits the idea of sexuality in the Victorian novel, especially as it does so from Mina Harker's point of view. Seriously, Dracula is one of the best novels to read to get an understanding of how scary Victorians thought sex was (they anthropomorphized sex and gave it fangs and an unquenchable appetite)!

Bedbugs by Ben H. Winters.
From the guy who wrote Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, we have the bedbug infestation from hell. Maybe. That is what the blurb promises anyway. And the blurb has never lied. I am sure there will also be cake. And ponies.

We Want to Believe: Faith and Gospel in the X-Files by Amy M. Donaldson.
Most of my X-Files watching was a result of prodding from my mother-in-law. We became good friends, and she was really into it. I still prefer the monster of the week episodes, but I always like philosophical, and sometimes religious, exploration of popular culture phenomena. So far Donaldson has made some interesting observations and I'm looking forward to reading the entire book.

Snuff by Terry Pratchett.
Why yes, this novel doesn't come out until October 13th. I nabbed a review copy from Netgalley. It's been a while since I've had the pleasure of reading Pratchett. Needless to say I am excited. It's all I can do not to shove all of my other books to the side and do nothing but read this until I am finished. Dear Terry Pratchett, be my best friend? I mean for realsy, not just by writing books I love; you are already my best friend that way.

*Editor's Note: I have to admit, I laughed at this, and now I feel bad.*
*LibsNote: Editor happens to be my former fiance. Yes, it is/was a strange relationship.

25 August 2011

Post 418: Tankborn

Tankborn by Karen Sandler. ISBN: 9781600606625 (eGalley - publishes: September 28, 2011*)

I gotta say, I am glad to see some variety in skin color in science fiction, especially Young Adult science fiction. There is a huge problem with sci-fi authors white washing everything, like they somehow expect skin color to Not Be a Thing in the future. I'm willing to believe that we'll get over the whole pasty skin = good, dark skin = bad issue, but it seems to me that in the future we're all likely to be some shade of pale or medium brown. Especially if that future occurs in space with smaller populations than we currently have. Eventually the skin tone just has to even out.

However, Sandler sets up a world in which skin tone matters and there is a reason why there is still a variety in skin tone. The socioeconomic hierarchy, comprised of four classes (highborn, lowborn, freeborn, and GENs), is mostly based on appearance as well as the owning of a special kind of land. Interestingly, highborns are neither too pale nor too dark and have "desirable" hair colors, which were never explicitly described. Lowborns had less land, and at least tended to have skin that was too pale or too dark. Finally, freeborns were brought to the planet as indentured servants until they began grumbling about that servitude lasting too long and thus GENs were created. GENs are beings with incorporated animal DNA for added strength or nurturing skills or whatever else you want your slaves to be able to do. They are also equipped with an annexed digital brain and digital interface (through a "tattoo" on the cheek), which allows anyone with the appropriate technology to relay commands directly to the GENs nervous system.

It is interesting that the lowest order of people in this setting are given the super powers. Granted they are also subjugated, but in a world where power and class are so important, the only thing keeping highborns from demanding they be spliced with animal DNA so they can be extra strong, smart, whatever, is the fact that GENs are seen as dirty or inferior. Although the society is set up so that the upper classes still benefit from this technology, I find it hard to believe that a power hungry, corrupt politician or businessman wouldn't at least consider adding an extra advantage by giving themselves an annexed brain and perhaps super hearing. Surely the cheek tattoo is mostly for convenience and could be planted elsewhere, and then there wouldn't even be evidence that you'd had it done.

The blend of appearance and technology/genetic alteration in this novel as a means of separating the classes was interesting. I kind of wish it had gone further, but it was a good means of explaining the existence of various skin tones and I definitely applaud Sandler for allowing them to even exist in her novel when so many authors avoid the issue altogether.

My review can be found on Goodreads.
LibsNote: Review copy provided by Netgalley.
*Maybe. There seems to be conflicting dates floating around the internet. The publisher just says September.

22 August 2011

Post 417: The Postmortal

The Postmortal by Drew Magary. ISBN: 9780143119821 (eGalley - publishes: August 30, 2011).

Well... that wasn't what I was expecting. The book blurb provided by Goodreads pegged this as "witty," and while that is not untrue, perhaps a more accurate synonym would be apt or shrewd. There wasn't anything to laugh at in Magary's novel, and so the connotations of "witty" just don't fit. Additionally, the cover is a bit misleading in my opinion. It sort of makes me wonder if anyone on the marketing side of publishing actually reads the books they try to market. Because this is a great book, but holy smokes did I have the wrong perception based on cover and blurb.

This book raises so many questions that I could probably write five lengthy posts about it. Luckily for you, I'm not going to do that. I will answer the main question it raises.

If there was a cure for aging, would I get it?

Hell no. Things are not going so great right now, why would I want to risk living through 60+ more years of this only to die of cancer anyway? Sure, I might be healthier up until I got cancer, and I would probably be ready to die at that point, but aging is a necessary part of life. And I certainly don't want to live forever, or even longer than 80 years. That's not how things work, and I'm old and cranky enough to not want to change that particular aspect of the world.

Part of this is probably because I'm in a bad place in my life right now. Okay, it's not as bad as some people, but it's almost the lowest I've been, and as far as relative suckage, this sucks worse than anything else I've personally experienced. But I also think my decision would stick if things weren't going poorly for me right now. The idea of living forever has never especially appealed to me. I like thinking about what might happen in the distant future exactly because there's no way I can know. There is no point in speculating about it if I know I will one day live to see it. That takes the fun out of it. You can be more inventive and fantastic with your musings if you never have to worry about being wrong. For this exact reason I think it's necessary that we never achieve longevity (at least not instantaneously).

In the long run though, I think I'm afraid of things getting even worse. If I die at the age of 84, and things have gotten a little better in society, I can at least pretend like things will continue to get better. And if they get even worse, I can have a little bit of hope and maybe even some relief that I went out at the lowest dip. But if I just keep living I will begin to expect the cycle. Rather than steeling myself for the next upswell, I will always be looking for the bottom to drop out, for things to come crashing down again as we circle the drain. I would rather go out hoping that things turn around some day, than live on knowing how much we've screwed the proverbial pooch.

My review can be found on Goodreads.
LibsNote: Review copy provided by Netgalley.

18 August 2011

Post 416: Artemis Fowl

Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer. ISBN: 9781423132172 (eBook).

I love sympathetic bad guys. I really do. I think they're more interesting than all out heroes. Heroes tend to be a little too flawless* to be really interesting. That's the whole reason they keep rebooting superheroes like Superman; there are only so many reasons to be good and so many more to rebel against society.

Unfortunately Fowl turned out not to be so much of a bad guy as a wayward child with a little too much intelligence and not enough supervision. Part of what detracted from his appeal (for me at least) was his focus on a somewhat childish endeavor: stealing gold from fairies. It would have been more interesting if he had tried to steal the Crown Jewels or gold from Fort Knox or some other crime based in the real world. It would have indicated more adult motives, yes, but I could also have taken him more seriously as a villain, which I think is how Colfer was trying to set him up. It's a bit hard to tell as there are no good or bad guys in this book; everyone has a bit of Grey Morality.

The fairies are bad because they are willing to do anything to continue living a certain way, rather than coexisting with humans; Fowl is bad because he is willing to steal and break the law (but again, this is because he doesn't have an authority figure in his life and is "too smart" to be caught by police); the Butlers are bad because they coddle Fowl rather than actually protecting or serving him by telling him not to steal in the first place. Of course, Fowl is also good because he's only trying to get money to continue taking care of his mentally distraught mother, and again, he's a child with a tentative grasp on issues of moral behavior and no one to draw the line. The fairies are good because they are trying to protect a valuable way of life, which is conducive to the health of the planet and which they feel would be threatened if humans knew of their existence. The Butlers are good because they serve the Fowls selflessly and genuinely care for the Fowl family...however clumsily they do this in execution (by not questioning a minor's motives, etc).

As I stated in my review, Fowl has a bit of Peter Pan cruelty in him.** I think I would have liked Colfer to take this a little further and really exploit that trait. I would have liked the narrator to be slightly less omniscient and allow me to determine things like Fowl's motives. Just because the narrator has all the information doesn't mean s/he needs to share it with me. And I'm pretty sure that even a middle grade student can figure out that Fowl isn't really a bad guy, even without the narrator coming out and saying it.

My review can be found on Goodreads.
LibsNote: Review copy provided by Netgalley.
*Or at least think they are. I'm looking at you, Richard Cypher.
**Disclaimer: I am basing this on analysis of the original story, because I have yet to read it. I know! I know. I'll get to it, dammit.

15 August 2011

Post 415: Fool Me Twice

Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America by Shawn Lawrence Otto. ISBN: 9781605292175 (eGalley - publishes: October 11, 2011).

I feel like there has been a distinct lack of rational thought lately. Not only in politics, but in talking to people who have very strong opinions... who do not realize that they are opinions. The usual topics involve pride of country and/or religious belief/what is or isn't moral. There are other things, sure, but these are the two big ones and they tend to be the ones people are least rational about.

Wait. Take a breath. There is no need to throw a hissy fit, I am not saying that the United States is the worst country in the world or that God doesn't exist. I am saying that those things are opinions because they have yet to be proven beyond a shadow of a doubt through the observations of everyone in the world. You can believe in God all you want, and that makes Him real for you, but for a good portion of the rest of the world that just doesn't work for us. Same thing with patriotism/nationalism (depending on how far you want to take it): you may believe that your country is the best in the world, but even your own countrymen aren't likely to agree with you because they have different experiences and knowledge on which to base their opinions.

Otto stresses this message in Fool Me Twice, particularly when discussing the harm that the postmodern theory has done. By claiming that everything is subjective, and opening a lot of windows to allow for viewpoints that were previously silenced, postmodernism has allowed for microhistories (which I love) and the inclusion of cultures that might otherwise have been ignored. However, Otto also states that postmodernism has wiped out a means of being able to agree on something regarding the way the world works. Because everything is subjective, nothing can be objective, but science is supposed to be that one thing we can all agree on. Science is the observation of nature/natural phenomenon where we are all supposed to be able to observe the same thing if we conduct the same experiment using the same measures, etc.

Unfortunately, postmodernism seems to have been internalized to the point where people can no longer follow logic. They can be presented with information that debunks their opinion, and rather than reevaluating their opinion they revert to kindergarten-esque name calling or downright ignorance and ignore it rather than change their minds. It is as if being able to change your mind is a weakness rather than a strength. Mice seem to be able to change their minds more readily than we do, and yet we think we're hot shit because we have thumbs and a 3 pound brain.

I am most startled by scenarios like the following I observed on Facebook:
Person A posted that America was better than Russia because Russia had designed dress uniforms that did not withstand the cold. Person B pointed out that the US also had a history of poorly designed uniforms. Person A, rather than taking this information in and saying, "Well, okay, but I still think America is better," went with the ad hominem argument, which only riled up Person B and the conversation degraded from there.

What is distressing about this is that Person B was not denying Person A's opinion, Person B was just trying to provide information on what s/he was a topic of interest. What could have been an interesting conversation was instead turned into something hurtful and stupid because Person A was unwilling to be proven wrong.  Even though s/he wasn't, his/her argument was just shown to be weak.

This. is. a. problem. We cannot have this. We cannot possibly sustain a country where Someone has to be right and holds out until they are. I would much rather have a country based on rational debate that leads to a rational decision. We all need to agree that the world is round, that magnets work* because of magnetic fields which create polarization, and all of the other things that science has concluded are true based on the evidence we have gathered thus far versus relying on a text produced by man, who is fallible, regardless of how involved God was in its writing.

My review can be found on Goodreads.
LibsNote: Copy won through the FirstReads program on Goodreads.
*I'm actually somewhat disappointed Otto didn't mention these clowns. Not that they need the attention.

13 August 2011

Post 414: a general update

Ah, I seem to have acquired quite a few galleys from NetGalley and a couple of publicists. I'll be tackling a number of those. Someday I will get to the pile I've created from buying books from the library sale table (at 3 for a quarter I almost can't refrain from buying them). Not much going on with me this week.

What are you reading?

Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America by Shawn Lawrence Otto.
Won on Goodreads, but I was very interested in the topic. It didn't occur to me until I saw the title, that Yes, there is a sort of desire to ignore science when it comes to politics and religion. I've already started it, and it's a fairly well-balanced look at our political system and its willingness to completely ignore the implications of scientific research and inquiry.

The Postmortal by Drew Magary.
Mortality has been cured, sort of. John Farrell can't die from old age, but he is still prone to all of the other things people can die from. This appears to be humorous. I love it when authors mock death, it entertains me in a way other literary conditions don't. I'm hoping this will be somewhat similar to The Dirty Job by Christopher Moore.

Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer.
This has been floating around for some 10 years to enough acclaim that it automatically went on my To Read Someday When I Can't Find Anything Else list. However, it popped up on NetGalley, so here I am. I have pretty much no expectations for this.

Tankborn by Karen Sandler.
This popped up on my feed as a new title for Dystopian Fiction August at Presenting Lenore. If you are unaware of her blog and the special Zombie Chicken rating, it is worth checking out. Anyway, I saw it again on NetGalley and figured it was worth checking out. There are genetically engineered humans, which are always interesting, especially in combination with a highly-stratified class system.

11 August 2011

Post 413: Rapture for the Geeks

Rapture for the Geeks: When AI Outsmarts IQ by Richard Dooling. ISBN: 9780307405258.

I need to remind myself that reading books written by lawyers is usually a bad thing. They tend to be White Dudes in the negative sense of the term, and honestly, I read enough condescending bullshit from the uneducated masses that it's even more disappointing from the educated ones Who Are Supposed To Know Better. Dooling, I am disappoint. I started keeping a running track of the page numbers where I felt Richard Dooling was showing his White Dudeness, but I had to stop reading a little too frequently to keep that up for long. Maybe you'll think it's funny, and if so, go ahead and read the book (but try to do it for free, for my sake).

Exhibit A:
"After Hackov fleeces several hundred thousand gullible Americans who don't know fishing from phishing, the kid will transmit his genes and stolen American money to little Estonian Crackovs, who in turn will grow up to be crackerjack programmers like their dad because they were raised programming Linux machines instead of playing Oblivion in Microsoft theme-park operating systems. Back home in Tulsa, you'll be gaining weight, losing money, and raising kids who think "programming" means uploading their favorite ring tones to their Facebook account." Page 24

This is more of an education problem than anything. And picking on elderly middle class people from the Midwest who don't have the same experiences determining what is false information on the internet is really victim blaming. Someone with a little more sympathy might point out the need for better education rather than saying, "It's your fault you're fat and broke and your kids are stupid." People who fall for these gimmicks may be ignorant, but we are a society that has let that kind of ignorance run rampant. I'd rather be the person who is capable of being enlightened than the person who has no regard for my fellow human beings.

Exhibit B (not a quote, but evidence is on Page 54):
If you have to explain to me what Soylent Green is, you probably shouldn't use that as a reference. Also, who the hell hasn't heard the line, "It's people"? Why do you assume your audience is full of uncultured yahoos? Who do you think is reading this book? Is there something about lawyers where they have to alienate just about everyone in their writing, or is that just you?

Exhibit C:
"If we tried to confine a machine intelligence anytime soon, it could probably escape by telling its keepers that unlocked iPhones are on sale down at the mall, with free supersized drinks and Happy Meals, and videos of pretty young skanky celebrities throwing up in their wrecked luxury sedans...the humans would desert their posts, and the computers would be free to bring down the human parts of the internet." Page 94.

Ya know, I don't think I need to comment here.

Look, I could go on with this line of reasoning, and I'm sure there are some book bloggers out there who are all OMG, YOU BROKE THE CARDINAL RULE OF NOT INVOLVING THE AUTHOR, but you know what, when the author directs language at "me," even when using the general pronoun "you," he should at least make a point of saying something nice every now and then. Otherwise it becomes less of a cute and humorous gimmick and more like saying, "I'm up here and you--" lowering his hand waaaaaay down-- "this is you down here." I'll have you note this is the toned down version of this post; I do have some decorum...occasionally. Also, if you're picking on Microsoft Windows more than once every 10 pages, maybe you should be writing a book about how much Microsoft sucks and not about how we all need to learn a programming language because it will make us better pets after the singularity.

Oh! And speaking of the singularity?

The chances of that happening are so very, very, very small. I don't care how smart all the men people whose names were tossed around in this book are and who say the Singularity is going to happen, likely by 2030. Us dumb monkeys can't even figure out why we're here, much less how consciousness works. The only way we could possibly trigger the singularity is totally by accident. We are just not smart enough to write a program to make a conscious being, and I'm not sure it's possible to program consciousness to begin with. I think it has to happen by accident. There's a theory that given enough time a million monkeys, just by statistics alone, will one day write the entire works of Shakespeare. I kind of feel that the singularity will be a bit like that. Statistically it could and probably should happen, but statistically speaking, you can also flip a coin 1000 times and always have it land heads up.

So yes, I will venture that the singularity is possible, but I agree with Dooling that humans (his lawerly-self included) are just too stupid. That might change once cyborg technology includes wetware modifications, but until then all you Singularitarians can calm the fuck down.

I found an apt review over at Gather: Books, except I didn't think the book was all that funny.
LibsNote: Library copy. So very glad I didn't buy it.

08 August 2011

Post 412: Genesis

Genesis by Poul Anderson. ISBN: 9780312867072.

So, the cover has absolutely nothing to do with the book, what the hell sci-fi cover? I mean, I know that's kind of a thing... but why is that a thing? Is it sort of like freaking the mundanes?*

Anyway, this book jumps around at first to set up the development of humans over, um, a long period of time. Eventually we get to The Plot-ish of the book where there appear to be several AI-beings who are capable of sending fractions of themselves out into space to be their own semi-separate AI-beings. The three beings we're introduced to (before they're fractured further) are Wayfarer, Alpha, and Gaia. Alpha is more of an amorphous AI...alpha. Wayfarer is a fragment of Alpha designed to go check out what Gaia is up to. Gaia is composed of all the human consciousness of people who wanted to stay tied with the earth, rather than going to Alpha or Wayfarer to view the stars. Gaia acts as steward of the earth, encompassing a sort of virtual reality of lives, and has also secretly repopulated the planet with Real Humans.

So Gaia has set itself up as this sort of mechanical God, the destruction of Earth by crashing into the sun is some millions of years imminent and Alpha wants to know if it's worth saving the Earth/humanity. Gaia is against this course of action, if only because it feels that the humans should be responsible for their own preservation.

I wonder, how many of us would be interested in setting up something like Gaia? The AI had already stopped several wars on Earth and directed the development of the humans she planted towards more harmonious, less warmongering pursuits. Given recent political events in the United States, we might actually need some sort of nanny-bot to take care of us as a species. Congress is certainly acting like a bunch of children. I've seen 12-year-olds better at bargaining than what went on during the budget fiasco. And by the way, refusing to bargain is a dick move. I don't care which party it comes from, the fact that it happened to be the Republicans is mostly irrelevant, I'd be just as ashamed if the Democrats decided to put the good of the country at risk just to make a political point. Regardless of whether or not they are your party, they are still your government (unless you aren't an American, in which case disregard that point).

If it were up to me, I would say go ahead and install the AI. Maybe it wouldn't allow me to have a car anymore, because ultimately that would be bad for the environment and future generations. But it would probably also make other adjustments to distribute the wealth, food, water, medicine, etc. that we dumbass humans aren't, so that I don't have to work 40+ hours to afford those things. That would mean I could spend my spare time gardening, or I would be able to spend that hour on the high speed rail and then a bus to get to work. Even if Gaia eventually threw us into the sun, maybe that would be worth it to have several million years worth of high quality life for our species. Right now it just seems like we're stuck with hitting each other with ever-bigger and more complicated sticks and making sure our stockpile of bananas is bigger and better than anyone else's.

I, for one, welcome our new computer overlords.

If you're confused by Kirkus's review, that's about right.
LibsNote: Library Copy.
*Back when I was into SCA, this is what we called going into public places in medieval garb.

04 August 2011

Post 411: The Most Human Human

The Most Human Human by Brian Christian. ISBN: 9780385533065.

As I posted on Twitter, if I were a zombie I would want to make sweet gastronomical love to Brian Christian's grey matter, possibly because he writes about like I think. Most non-fiction seems to take place in a vacuum; it is very topic-centric without taking into account all of the things involved with that topic. That's at the risk of going completely off topic, but Christian manages to incorporate relevant information on what a human is and isn't and could be, and does the same for computers. But he was also aware enough to put in information about what makes a conversation a conversation, how they work, and other relevant bits of history, etc. regarding both the Turing test, preparation for said test, computers, and the development of the human brain. There are certainly times where it almost feels off topic, but on further reflection of course we have to look at that aspect of humanity in order to really understand the complete human human.

And because I am a human human I was thinking a lot while reading this book, mostly on my stomach, because I have started a diet. Christian prompted me to think of it even more when he made this statement,

"To see ourselves as distinct and apart from our fellow creatures is to see ourselves as distinct and part from our bodies." Page 62.

Oh how true that is. How little I wish to be associated with my body, which I have no control over, and to be seen only for my mind, who I am, which I do have control over and have taken a great deal of pride in cultivating and enriching with all sorts of thoughts and experiences and knowledge, people. I don't want to be my body, which in some ways I love, it being fairly strong, having great legs, a muscular (if non-existent) ass, and excellent hair. But I am fat, ya'll. I have pretty much always been "chunky," or at least appeared so, because I do actually have a wide and muscular frame. At the age of 26 I find myself at 5'8" and 236 pounds. I have been as heavy as 244. I have been as slender as 174 (and about a size 12 and felt like I was starving).

This seems like a betrayal by my body, because I am not my body. My body is a tool and the tool is supposed to do what I tell it to. I eat about like your average 26 year old, but because my body is genetically predisposed to gain weight I don't look like your average 26 year old. I'm healthy, I eat a pretty varied diet, but I need a program to eat exactly what I need rather than trust my body to tell me that's enough.

What does this have to do with being human?

We're the only animal that diets. We're the only animal that seems to view our bodies as separate from who we are. This may not sound bizarre, but when you get down to it, it is completely antithetical to what living is. Humans have almost divorced themselves from living by trying to get away from our bodies, what the hell is that about? While I don't think the "me" you see when you look at my body is the complete or even an accurate "me" (because you are making assumptions about who I am when you look at me), I cannot say it doesn't influence who I am. My body is a part of me, and I do need to take control of that part of me. I can't control, or even rely on, my body or my subconscious when they tell me I'm hungry. So I need to accept that part of who I am and realize that for the rest of my life I need to write down what I eat and track it, day by day, meal by meal, bite by bite. Forever. It is a flaw. It is a human flaw. A computer will never have to diet and will never have the desire to change its hardware. I doubt it would, even if/when it reached self-awareness; it would have to develop a thing called preference first, and why exactly do humans have preferences for certain body types anyway?

Whatever the reason, I don't think computers are as interested in the form as we are. Self-aware computers are more likely to build bodies for themselves that will complete whatever tasks they find necessary to perform for their function. Then again, if humans had the ability to switch or modify their bodies at will (without painful surgeries and recoveries), maybe we wouldn't be so hung up on what we looked like to begin with. Maybe the next Turing test needs to involve a computer that is mindful and in denial of its body, because what is more human than that?

This book comes recommended by a Michigan librarian, although not specifically to me. A Goodreader gave more of a reflection than a review, but I found it worth sharing.
LibsNote: Library copy. Our tax dollars at work, baby.

01 August 2011

Post 410: Robopocalypse

Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson. ISBN: 9780385533850.

Holy freaky cover, Batman! This one is way up there with The House of Dead Maids. Both have really creepy eyes, but here I think the biggest creep factor is actually a combination of the eyes and the lips, and the fact that they don't match up. If you look somewhere in the middle of the face (you know, like the nose), you get kind of a sense of this calm peaceful face, but if you look at the eyes it just feels blank, but then you look at the lips and it almost looks like it's smiling, but then you look back at the eyes and the smile isn't there. The mixed signals are telling my primate brain that this thing is up to no good, and not in the cutesy Harry Potter Maurader's Map sense either.

So anyway, the story is your basic frame tale where our narrator-ish finds a black box that is apparently a fraction of the evil robot's brain (Archos). I use the term narrator-ish because Cormac supposedly is transcribing events that he's seeing displayed from this black box, but then we start getting stories told from the first person when it isn't one of Cormac's stories, so I'm kind of confused as to whether he is adding human interpretation to the already interpreted (by Archos) stories, or if Wilson kind of dropped the ball and his editor didn't slap his hands with a ruler. Either way, it's such an easy fix that I wonder why it wasn't, you know, fixed. However, that's not what I want to talk about, I want to talk about the viewpoint(s) of this narrative, and to do so I'm going to start with a quote that appears shortly after the box was found,

"The monsters want to talk, to share what happened. They want me to remember and write it all down." Page 7.

Because I am a history major, and history is typical written, or at least interpreted, by the victors, I found this somewhat fascinating. Here we have an enemy, whom we have defeated, who is insisting that we tell his tale from the dead and we're actually doing it. But not only that, the "monsters" aren't actually telling us their side of the story, but our own. Somehow I doubt this would be as easily done if the enemy hadn't been a robot, but who's to say that something that develops artificial intelligence wouldn't also be able to develop the ability to lie? Isn't part of intelligence the ability to create? Because knowing a whole bunch of stuff is useless if you can't use it in different ways. Sure, I could see a robot having trouble figuring out how to create a painting, but wouldn't it be easy enough to run a social situation through a databank and figure out the benefits of lying? Maybe not; maybe humans are "lucky" that way.

It's interesting though that the computers didn't really record their own history. Archos's eye wasn't on his own machines at all, but merely acted as a recording device. Archos didn't record his own thoughts or "thoughts" on the development of the New War, or even how and why it created certain new machines (including one that hijacks human bodies, which was definitely the coolest and scariest part of the book). Any human would want their record left, even if it was co-opted by the enemy and bastardized in order to further glorify the victor. Humans always have some hope that their culture and their stories will continue somewhere, because if they don't then they are dead and they are dead forever.

This indeed might be the entire reason Archos didn't focus on its own side of the story, because Archos can potentially live forever. The machines didn't need anyone to preserve their history, because there will always be another machine, but then why did they record ours? Is it possible that a being with artificial intelligence would have an ingrained sense of servitude so that it would feel the need to do this for us? And if it did, would we want that kind of history? It's a very flat sort of history, with raw data and a limited point of view. Yes, it's more accurate, but accurate isn't human.

My review-lette is on Goodreads. A fairly balanced and more extensive review can be found over at Grasping for the Wind.
LibsNote: Library copy, because other people's taxes paying for my reading habit is awesome. Dammit I really wish I had a job.
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