Category Archives: robots

Novels about robots.

Review 196: And Another Thing

And Another Thing… by Eoin Colfer

If you pay close attention, Colfer tells you exactly what you can expect from this book right at the beginning, using a well-chosen quote from Douglas Adams: “The storm had now definitely abated, and what thunder there was now grumbled over more distant hills, like a man saying ‘And another thing…’ twenty minutes after admitting he’d lost the argument.” (So Long and Thanks for All the Fish)

As Adams well knew, the phrase “And another thing…” is superfluous. It is said by the person who just can’t let things go. It’s a sullen, resentful phrase that doesn’t add anything to the discussion that came before. In other words, Colfer is telling us, this book didn’t need to happen and you probably don’t need to read it. Which is very kind of him, I think, warning us in advance that way. But still, after a long time where I refused to give in, I finally, well, gave in and read the book.

Vogon Sociology is considered a fallback major in most schools.

It’s not as bad as I expected it to be, certainly, but it lives up to its title. If you haven’t read it, you don’t really need to. It doesn’t add very much to the overall mythos of the Hitchhiker’s Guide universe, or to its characters, and while it has some entertaining moments in it, a few places where I genuinely laughed out loud, and some interesting explorations of Vogon sociology, if you give it a miss then you’re probably not missing a whole lot.

If you’ll recall, at the end of Mostly Harmless, the fifth book in the trilogy, the Earth – all of the Earths – were destroyed by the Vogons once and for all. The galactic conspiracy of psychiatrists had won, with the omnipresent Guide Mark Two as their weapon of choice, and the whole business about the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything was finally at an end. With the exception of Zaphod Beeblebrox, all of the main characters were vaporized, much to Arthur Dent’s own relief. If ever there was a conclusive ending to a series, that would be it, although allegedly Adams had a couple of ways in his back pocket to bring everyone back, should he need to do so.

Alas, Adams left us far too soon. In 2008, however, it was announced that there would indeed be a sixth book, penned by Eoin Colfer, of the hugely popular Artemis Fowl books. Fans across the world were both excited and apprehensive to see what would be done with the characters we had grown to love over so many years.

To his credit, Colfer wrote a very funny book. I was laughing by the first page, and he really did a fine job of capturing the tone and cadence of the Guide entries and the way that Adams would narrate the story. His depictions of some characters – especially Zaphod and Random – were spot-on, and you could see a lot of elements in the book that were nods to some of Adams’ favorite themes.

If this is how your book begins, you really need to live up to it…

In essence, what happens is this: Our Heroes are introduced to us in a stasis hallucination, held between ticks of the clock by the Guide Mark Two as the planet-destroying beams of the Grebulons descend towards Earth. They are rescued by the Heart of Gold and Zaphod Beeblebrox, who has detached his left head and is using it as the ship’s computer. Unfortunately, Ford causes Left Brain to freeze up, so they need to be rescued again – this time by one of the most popular bit players in the series, Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged, an immortal being who has decided to spend eternity insulting everyone in the universe in alphabetical order. Wowbagger reluctantly takes them aboard, and in doing so insults Zaphod to the point where Zaphod promises to find a way to kill him, a proposition that Wowbagger has no problem with. Zaphod’s weapon of choice? A down-on-his-luck thunder god who’s been slumming it around Asgard.

Meanwhile, there is a planet of human refugees that is undergoing some rather entertaining class warfare, and the solution to this is, apparently, to find just the right kind of god to run the place. And even more meanwhile, a young Vogon is having second thoughts about his Vogonity and whether or not it’s okay to destroy inhabited planets just because there is a work order on hand that says they should.

I want to criticize the book for being directionless and unfocused, but let’s be fair – that describes the first book as well. Given its genesis as a radio drama, Adams never really had a grand plan for what would happen in the beginning of the series, and wrote in an episodic fashion that had (as far as I could tell) no real end point in mind. The difference, however, is that while those books had no real direction to them, they were charged with a kind of chaotic energy that made you want to keep reading just to find out what happens next. Arthur Dent, our avatar in this universe, never got a chance to rest or even change out of his dressing-gown, and so we were dragged along with him. It was exciting and confusing and weird in all the right ways, and we didn’t mind not knowing where we were going because the trip to get there really was just that much fun.

To be fair, though, Arthur NEVER wanted to be involved…

In this book, however, Arthur really doesn’t want to be involved. He’s had an imaginary lifetime of living in peace and quiet, and seems to have outgrown the antics of Ford and Zaphod. He’s the reasonable adult in this book, and not all that much fun anymore. As I read, I was disappointed that Colfer didn’t seem to have captured Arthur’s character very well, but perhaps I was wrong – Arthur didn’t belong in this story, and he wanted nothing more than to not be in it anymore. And it showed.

Another telling moment comes near the end of the book. The narrative takes a moment to remind us that, “There is no such thing as a happy ending.” And a few lines later, it quotes a certain pole-sitting philosopher who says, “There is no such thing as an ending, or a beginning, for that matter, everything is middle.” That certainly is true of life, and you can imagine it being true of the lives of fictional characters. Louis and Rick will walk off the tarmac in Casablanca and go on to do other things, perhaps help the resistance fight the Nazis. The lives of Luke and Han and Leia have been extended far beyond their original showing on film, thanks to the Extended Universe of Star Wars. Scout Finch and her brother Jem will grow up and have children of their own; the rabbits at Watership Down will live and breed and die; Guy Montag will help rebuild the intellectual society that he was originally trying to destroy…

We know that these worlds have lives beyond the last page, no matter how thoroughly they’re destroyed at the end. There’s always going to be some thread hanging loose that can be picked up and used to continue the story beyond where it left off.

But that doesn’t mean that we should.

I applaud Colfer for taking on the project, knowing that it is better for the series to be continued by someone who knew it and loved it and who was influenced by it, rather than by someone who couldn’t show it all the love it deserves. As I said, I laughed while I read this book, a lot more than I expected to. But as the title implies, this feels like an attempt to continue a story that has been finished for a long time. Rather than breathe new life into the Hitchhiker’s franchise, it simply reminds us all the more sharply of what we once had and will never have again.

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“I do not hate myself. In many ways, I am not altogether too bad.”
– Constant Mown (Vogon)

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Filed under adventure, aliens, Douglas Adams, Eoin Colfer, gods, humor, robots, science fiction, UFOs, war

Review 111 – Wolves of the Calla

Wolves of the Calla by Stephen King

Okay, before we get into this book, let me take a little survey: Have you ever seen The Seven Samurai? How about The Magnificent Seven?

The Three Amigos? GalaxyQuest?

If you’ve seen these movies, and any number of stories like them, then you know the basic outline of this book. Say it along with me now….

'We deal in lead, friend.' - Vin

Calla Bryn Sturgis, a small farming village on the far end of the world, is notable for a few things. Its rice, its peaceful people, and its abundance of twins. The farmers of Calla Bryn Sturgis want nothing more than to live their lives in peace, but their idyllic existence is threatened by invaders from the east.

They come from the evil town of Thunderclap, once a generation – the Wolves. Armored and cloaked in green, riding identical deathless gray steeds and armed with terrible weapons, the Wolves come to Calla Bryn Strugis to steal one child from every set of twins. They take them to their dark city, and when the children come back, they come back as damaged goods. “Roont,” the Calla-folk call them, and it’s an apt word for they are ruined indeed. Over the years, these children, whose minds have lost all of their intelligence and humanity, grow into pain-wracked giants, and then die horrible deaths years before their time.

No one knows why the Wolves come, and no one has ever even considered trying to stop them. Until now.

Word has come that Roland and his ka-tet – Eddie, Susannah, Jake and Oy – are in the area, and if anyone can stop the Wolves, it would be Gunslingers. If the people of Calla Bryn Sturgis can convince them to help, and are willing to fight alongside them, then they have a chance to repel the Wolves once and for all.

If only it were that simple.

'Once more, we have survived.' - Kambei Shimada

Interlaced with this this pretty straightforward tale is, of course, the larger story of the quest for the Dark Tower and the fight against those for whom the Wolves are merely agents. A new warrior in this fight is Father Donald Callahan, whom we last met way back in ‘Salem’s Lot as a broken and ruined priest, damned by a vampire king and sent out into the world to live or die as he pleased. Through his damnation, Callahan has found himself able to see things he shouldn’t be able to see, including the various classes of vampires and the Low Men – agents of the Crimson King who serve His interests in the various levels of the Tower. Callahan discovers a knack for traveling through the Americas along secret highways. In his ramblings from coast to coast, looking for peace – or death – he slips from one version of America to another, never knowing how or why.

In the end, he brings himself to the attention of forces far greater than himself. It leads to his death and reappearance in Roland’s world, but more importantly it puts him in possession of an object of great power and even greater peril – Black Thirteen, an inky sphere that could be the black eye of the Crimson King himself, and which has the power to send its bearer through a door to any point in space or time.

Roland and the others are going to need that door, too. While they’re busy planning their battle against the Wolves in Calla Bryn Sturgis, they have another fight to win, in another world. In New York of 1977, there is a vacant lot, and in this lot is a rose. The rose must be protected at all costs, for it is the other end of the Tower – one axis upon which all the worlds turn. This lot is in great peril, and it is imperative that our heroes keep it safe. By whatever means necessary.

'Oh GREAT!!! REAL bullets!!!' - Lucky Day

It’s a really good tale, and one that is actually better than I remember it being. The first volume after King’s near-fatal accident, it’s all put together very neatly, while getting us set up for events to come, even if some of them aren’t entirely clear, or seem a little random at first glimpse. For example, Roland discovers that he’s beset by the Dread Foe Arthritis. As it is now, it’s making him kind of achy, but should it spread to his precious shooting hand, then it’s all over for him. Why King decided to afflict Roland with something as mundane as arthritis isn’t entirely clear (although to be fair, Roland is technically over a thousand years old and could be considered due for a few of the ravages of old age).

Perhaps it is a sign of Roland’s encroaching humanity. In The Gunslinger, mention is made of his ability to detach himself from his body somewhat so as not to feel thirst. In that book, he is largely mechanical, only showing any kind of real emotion when he finally faces the Man in Black. Over the course of the series, Roland has become more tuned into what it means to be a person and to feel, y’know, feelings and things. This gives him the bond with his ka-tet that he needs, but it also comes with a price. Perhaps the arthritis is the first price he must pay for allowing himself to feel.

Mention must also be made here of poor, beleaguered Susannah. I mean Detta. Odetta. No, wait – Mia.

'Never give up, never surrender!' - Jason Nesmith

Out of the seething cauldron that is this poor woman’s mind, a new personality has emerged. Mia, Daughter of None is still something of a mystery to us. As far as we know, she has only one ambition – to protect the child growing in her belly. This child was not fathered by Eddie Dean, Susannah’s beloved husband, but by the cold and unnatural demon that Susannah held at bay while the two men pulled Jake from his world to theirs. Growing within her now is something horrible, something that Mia was born to protect, even at the expense of the body she inhabits. Right now, that’s all that she is, and her greater purpose is yet to be revealed.

King does a pretty good job of juggling the various plot lines in this book, making sure that we aren’t left hanging for too long on any of them. Of course, they feed into each other as well – Father Callahan’s tale interweaves itself with the story of New York in ’77, and its ultimate conclusion allows the plot to progress through this book and into the next. I actually enjoyed Callahan’s story a great deal, and thought it would have made for a wonderful stand-alone short story. Not a novel, as there’s a whole lot of “I walked around for a few years and did manual labor” in there, but the story that he told to Roland and the others would have stood on its own quite nicely. He’s an interesting, complex character, and I look forward to seeing what awful thing happens to him next.

What’s more, there’s a wonderful meta-fictional element to this book as well, and it introduces that idea of a story that is aware of itself being a story. For example, in the beginning of the book, Eddie notices that time has started up again. While it is true that time, like everything else in this world, is unreliable, I found it interesting that he should make mention of it at that point, right when their story starts up again after a break (from our point of view) of six years. From the characters’ points of view, on the other hand, the time between books is indeterminate, but Eddie notices that they don’t seem to really do anything in that intervening time. It made me wonder about what happens to fictional characters when they’re not being written about, a train of thought for which I am not adequately medicated.

Think about it....

More importantly, the impact of real-world fiction becomes painfully obvious in this book. For one, Stephen King is established as an as-yet-unseen character, which comes right on the heels of a very serious existential crisis for Father Callahan. The Wolves themselves are explicitly noted to be rip-offs – er, homages to fictions ranging from Marvel Comics to Harry Potter. Whatever else Roland’s world is, it has a very close connection with the fiction of our world, and that connection may offer important clues as to the true nature of their quest.

So, what purpose does this book serve in the greater series? Well, there are many out there who see Roland’s quest as being not so much for the Dark Tower as for redemption. After the loss of his love, his friends, his family and his homeland, Roland made himself into something that was only technically human. Over these books, he has had to learn how to re-connect, first with individuals, then as a small group, and now with a community. In this book, Roland has to come to grips with Calla Bryn Sturgis not just as a hired gun but as their leader, if only temporarily. He has to see himself as part of a greater whole, thus becoming – as I mentioned above – more human. Each book forces him to be more and more connected with those around him. The only question is if he can hold on to this new humanity before his quest for the Tower destroys him.

All in all, a good read, which moves ever-so-smoothly into the next book….

————————————————————
“First come smiles, then comes lies. Last is gunfire.”
– Roland, Wolves of the Calla
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Wizard and Glass on Wikipedia
The Dark Tower Portal on Wikipedia
Stephen King on Wikipedia
The Dark Tower homepage
Wizard and Glass on Amazon.com

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Filed under adventure, Dark Tower, death, fantasy, fathers, friendship, horror, meta-fiction, murder, quest, revenge, robots, sons, Stephen King, survival

Review 93: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?


Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick

I have kind of a weird confession to make. It’s not really a confession as such, since you only confess things that you’re ashamed of or that you feel you have done wrong. But this is something that I believe people may find a little odd, so I suppose it’s the best word under the circumstances.

I don’t kill cockroaches.

Fortunately, I live up on the tenth floor in a nice modern apartment building, so they’re not really a problem for me. But even in my old place, where they’d turn up from time to time, or walking about in the city, where you’re bound to see them, especially after dark, I feel no desire to do what everyone else seems to do – freak out and jump on them with both feet. After all, why should I? They’re just being what they are. They’re just doing what millions of years of evolution have programmed them to do. They don’t act out of malice or with the intention of trying to harm me, so I say live and let live.

Oh, don’t get me wrong – I don’t let roaches stay. I’ll capture them, take them out to the riverbank or somewhere and let them go. I’ll put down deterrents to roaches around the house. I may be kindly-disposed towards all living things [1], but I’m not an idiot. My point is, I feel a certain empathy towards those little guys, just trying to make their way in a hostile, anti-cockroach world.

And that’s how I know I’m not an android.

When we talk about things like computer intelligence, one of the questions that comes up is how we would tell an artificial intelligence apart from the real thing? For a computer-bound AI, there’s the Turing Test – a conversation with a human wherein the human cannot tell that she’s talking to a computer. And that’s good, as far as that goes. But what if we start putting them into physical bodies? What if we make these AIs in our image? Fleshy, sweaty, hairy robots that look and behave just like humans do? How, then, would we be able to tell the difference between a made being and a natural-born human?

Philip K. Dick’s answer is empathy, and it is at the core of this book.

Dick is kind of like science fiction’s mad mystic. He explores the hidden inner worlds of the people involved in the story, peeling apart issues of identity and psychology and reality itself, forcing the reader to ask him or herself what’s really going on.

In other words, reading his work can be something of a head trip.

This novel introduces us to a near-future America, one which is greatly different from the one we know today. After a devastating nuclear war that wiped out countless species of plants and animals, the planet is being slowly emptied out. Those who are young, healthy and fertile are allowed to emigrate to off-world colonies. With them go the androids as servants, workers and slaves. Some people stay on Earth for reasons of their own. J.R. Isadore, for example, is a “special,” one who doesn’t make the genetic grade to leave the planet. Rick Deckard, on the other hand, is a bounty hunter, a man whose duty is to hunt down and destroy androids that come to Earth. Deckard has been handed a special assignment – six androids of the latest model, Nexus-6, have landed nearby. They’re strong, intelligent, almost indistinguishable from humans, and Deckard has to “retire” them all before they get away.

Like many people, I first encountered this story in the movie Blade Runner, which followed much the same path. And, probably like a lot of people who saw the movie first, I was a bit thrown by the difference between the two. Rick Deckard in the book is not the morose lone wolf that he is in the movie. He has a wife here, and an electric sheep that he keeps on the roof (though he’d never admit to his neighbors that it was electric.) He has an interest in animals – the keeping of which is a mark of true status in a world where so many species have gone extinct. He’s a more interesting character, with more depth and inner conflict than we see in the film. On the other hand, Roy Baty, Deckard’s adversary, is far less interesting. He’s intelligent and cruel, yes, but with so much less visceral power than Rutger Hauer gave him.

The major themes are different as well. In the movie, one of the overriding themes is the desire to live, the instinctive need that humans have to keep surviving even for just one more second. It’s what keeps Deckard hanging on the edge of the roof when Roy’s already broken his fingers. It’s what sends Roy to Tyrell’s home in the middle of the night with murder on his mind. The replicants in the film, despite being made beings, want what we want: more life.

The book follows a different path, though. The book looks at the difference between human and android, the Born and the Made, especially where it comes to that elusive quality of empathy. It is a capacity that only humans are supposed to possess, and indeed there is a whole religion founded around it – Mercerism. By using “Empathy Boxes,” a person can become one with the iconic Wilbur Mercer, and share the joys and pains of everyone else connected to him at the same time. Life in all its forms becomes utterly sacred, and the destruction of a living thing is one of the greatest sins one can commit.

The androids, on the other hand, know nothing of empathy. They would gladly give up one of their own to die in their place. In one rather vivid scene, the android Pris starts snipping the legs off a spider, an act so monstrous that it drives J.R. Isadore to betray her and the other androids, people he believes are his only friends. The androids can pretend to feel empathy, but a simple test of involuntary physical responses show that they cannot truly feel it.

So, in a world where life has been scythed clean, respect for life is the highest virtue. The androids have no respect for life, and must therefore be kept off the planet, eliminated if they set foot on it. But what happens when they get more complex? What happens when the androids are so good, the humans begin to empathize with them? How can you destroy something when you can imagine its pain as your own? And if you can refrain from killing a lowly cockroach because you have empathy for it, how can you then turn around and kill thinking, self-aware android?

It’s the kind of logical and moral conundrum that Dick excels at. The capacity for empathy cannot be what makes one creature worthy of protection and another not. After all, cockroaches don’t feel empathy any more than androids do, yet they would be cherished in this world. It must then be the ability to generate empathy in others that is important, and in this book we see the androids cross that line. Deckard realizes that he’s beginning to feel for the things he has to kill, and cannot reconcile that feeling with his job.

The theme of Born versus Made is reflected all through the book, especially where animals show up. There are animals that are presented as real, which later turn out to be androids. Others which the characters think are androids, but turn out to be real. Some characters can’t even say with certainty whether they are not androids. All throughout the book, people find themselves in the position where they can’t tell the difference between biological life and constructed life, which then raises a whole new question – if you can’t tell the difference, then is there any difference at all?

It’s the kind of question best discussed over a cup of coffee at Denny’s with your friends in college.

Even today, people look down on science fiction as being less substantial than “real” fiction. Stories of androids and bounty hunters and off-world colonies, they think, can’t compete with tales of single mothers raising kids in the inner cities or soldiers fighting and dying in a pointless war. To those who think there’s nothing to grab on to in science fiction, I submit this book. It’ll stay in your head, keep you up at night, and make you ask the kinds of questions that you’ll never be able to answer.

If that’s not quality writing, then I don’t know what is.

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“You will be required to do wrong no matter where you go. It is the basic condition of life, to be required to violate your own identity. At some time, every creature which lives must do so. It is the ultimate shadow, the defeat of creation; this is the curse at work, the curse that feeds on all life. Everywhere in the universe.”
– Mercer, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
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[1] Well, almost all living things. There’s still Ann Coulter….

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? on Wikipedia
Philip K. Dick on Wikipedia
Philip K. Dick official site
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? on Amazon.com

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Filed under empathy, made into movies, Philip K Dick, robots, science fiction