Daniel H. Wilson – Robopocalypse and Amped

by Sebastian in news

robopocalypse_wilson_coverI must admit, when I first saw Robopocalypse on the shelves of various local bookstores, my first thought was, “what a cheesy title!” I didn’t bother even picking it up, it was so obvious what the book was about. Hmmm, maybe it is not such a bad title after all. Then I heard that the book was to be made into a film, and my reaction was, “Hasn’t that already been done? I think there is something out there called The Terminator…” In other words, I was simply biased against the book. But there is a reason for the old saying, “never judge a book by its cover.” Namely, if you write a review of a book you haven’t read, you will suffer eternal internet flames. But in any case, I am happy to report that when the book appeared in my local library, I overcame my prejudices and actually started reading between the covers.

And delighted I was indeed to find that I just couldn’t put it down. Turns out, Mr. Wilson is one of those science fiction authors who actually knows something about science (he has one of those fancy PhDs and everything). The result of which was a completely believable scenario (once you accept the premise of a self-aware machine intelligence) that did not have me rolling my eyes in disbelief every few pages. And no annoying time-travel contrivances either.

Admittedly, I was a bit annoyed by the structure of the book, which is essentially a collection of related short stories that tell the history of the man/machine war in retrospect. I couldn’t help feeling that the whole thing could have been much meatier. But in the end, I came away satisfied and not bloated by the fast pace. So much so that I am actually looking forward to the film, should it come to pass. We could expect a version directed by Steven Spielberg, if this article is to be believed, and that could be something awesome.

ampedAs a result of my positive experience with Robopocalypse, I did not hesitate a minute when I saw Amped on the shelves. In this case, the title is not so self-explanatory. The central conceit of Amped is that a relatively simple medical procedure can place a “Neural Autofocus” implant in any human brain and greatly enhance its intelligence (and reflexes, if you have the special military-grade module). This leads to a conflict between the “enhanced” humans and the rest of society, driven by an unscrupulous senator. Amped was also a compelling read, but on the whole, I found it to be less compelling than Wilson’s previous book, possibly because he was writing outside of his field of expertise (robotics). And although it eschews the episodic structure of Robopocalypse, it shares the same sort of rushed feeling. The protagonists arc from helpless bystander to godlike saviour is as fast as it is predictable.

Having tried my hand at writing fiction as well, I think I understand what is driving Wilson. In an urge to get to the point, in our impatience to tell the story we want to tell, it can seem tedious to worry about things like complex narrative, description or character. And while Wilson succeeds in his story telling, the reader is left wishing for a richer experience. Nevertheless, I look forward to his next work of fiction.


The Final Testament and The Second Coming

by Sebastian in news

Comments closed Comments

I just finished The Final Testament by James Frey a few days ago; I read The Second Coming by John Niven about six months ago. Both of these books attempt to answer the same question: what would happen if Jesus Christ/the Messiah were to appear today?

Given the same central conceit, the two novels could hardly be more different. The Second Coming is a laugh-out-loud comedy, in which Jesus is indeed God’s prodigal son, but who also happens to be a somewhat lazy pot-fiend who can play the hell (forgive the expression) out of an electric guitar. God has recently taken a fishing trip, and, as time in Heaven passes much more slowly than on Earth, the world is in a sorry state when he gets back to the office. There is nothing left to do but send Jesus back to Earth with the one simple message that all prophets have been tasked to deliver: “Be nice!” (In this universe, Moses exceeded his mission statement when he crafted the Ten Commandments.) Jesus’ modern pulpit is of course a reality show, a send-up on American Idol and its ilk that manages to satirise a genre that I had frankly believed to be beyond satire.The whole story is a hilarious romp (I received many disapproving looks on public transport due to uncontrollable outbursts of laughter) that ends happily-ever-after in Heaven even after the inevitable persecution and execution of Jesus (this time by lethal injection, which predictably leads to cults that wear syringes around their necks instead of crosses).

The Last Testament on the other hand, takes a much more serious and pessimistic road. Ben Jones, born Ben Zion Avrohom, has lived his life under the shadow of prophecy. Certain signs and omens (born of a Davidic line, born on Passover, and possibly virgin birth as well) have caused him to be hated and feared by both his father and his older brother. We know little of his early life (other than it was tragic) until one day, when he is thirty years old, a piece of plate glass falls on his head at a construction site where he is working as a security guard. This mysterious accident should have killed him on the spot, but his body refuses to die, and after hours of surgery and months of recovery, he is left with horrific scars and epileptic seizures. As we eventually learn, during these seizures, which can last hours, Ben is communing with God. He has become a (or the) Messiah.

Although the book mentions the fact that certain types of epileptic seizures can cause ecstatic religious states, we can never really doubt that Ben is the real thing: his communion with God (which is nothing like the anthropomorphic God of Abrahamic religions but is rather more Deist in nature) has left him with an eidetic knowledge of every holy text and every spoken language in the world. Ben’s message is rather simple and would no doubt be approved by John Lennon: there is no Heaven, there is no Hell, there is only this life, and the only thing that matters is Love. And in this case Love includes Sex – lots and lots of sex. This is an interesting contrast to The Second Coming, in which Jesus remains for the most part celibate, but indulges in plenty of drugs (well, booze and marijuana), whereas Ben in The Last Testament is all about free love but does not take any drugs. However, Ben’s end is just as certain as the reader knows it must be.

I have one small complaint about The Last Testament: it is written from the point of twelve apostles (plus one Mary Magdalene) in a sort of biblical style, which is to say there are no paragraph indentations and no quotation marks, and I found this rather annoying at times because I would lose track of which character was saying what. However, I would not hesitate to recommend both books, assuming that the reader in question is not offended by blasphemy.

Because there is no doubt that many religious readers would consider these books to be blasphemy. At the very least for the fact that both messianic characters are depicted engaging in homosexual acts! More to the point, both authors have invented universes in which all religions are wrong. Christians are less likely to be offended by The Second Coming because of the still more-or-less traditional manner in which God and Jesus are portrayed, but I can only imagine that most of them would recoil in horror at the theological thesis of The Last Testament.

My point of view is the following: given all the world’s religions and their conflicting tenants (there are an estimated 41 thousand denominations of Christianity alone!), what are the chances that any single one of them is correct? Symmetry arguments alone strongly suggest that none of them are. Furthermore, the argument that one could approach the truth by distilling the common essence of religions (the path taken by The Second Coming, at least for the Abrahamic religions) seems rather like Richard Feyman’s parable of the Emperor of China’s nose: “…when you have a very wide range of people who contribute without looking carefully at it, you don’t improve your knowledge of the situation by averaging.” Either the people who have examined religion closely (prophets, priests, theologians, or whoever) are just guessing about the way the universe works, or just one of them (or one out of 41 thousand) has some special knowledge and everybody else is wrong. Which seems more likely to you?


Rob Reid – Year Zero

by Sebastian in news

Comments closed Comments

Year Zero is a humorous fable by venture capitalist and author Rob Reid about of all things, music copyright. Mr. Reid imagines a scenario in which every member of the entire sentient universe has engaged in massive copyright violations by carrying around essentially every song ever recorded on Earth on their super-iPods. For some convoluted reasons involving respecting local cultures and laws, the citizens of the Refined Species therefore owe Earth (specifically, copyright holders on Earth) more money than exists in the universe (common currency exists in the form of precious metals like gold and platinum that have been scattered across the cosmos by early supernovae). As a result, the monied interests of the universe have a keen desire to destroy the Earth – or even more diabolically, convince us to destroy ourselves – and thereby cancel the debt. It is left to our lawyer protagonist Nick Carter (not to be confused with the Backstreet Boy of the same name), his neighbour (and barely concealed love interest) Manda, and a couple of intergalactic reality show stars to save the Earth, and maybe do something even more challenging – challenge copyright law!

Throughout the book, I felt that Mr. Reid was channelling Douglas Adams with a similar jaunty tone, outlandish characters, and copious footnotes. And let’s not forget the funny! Year Zero is first and foremost a satire, digging not only at the music industry and copyright law, but also technophiles, reality shows, and modern politics. I believe there is also a sincere love of music hidden in there as well, and I strongly suspect that there were a myriad of inside jokes and references that went unappreciated by me.

Behind the satire and humour however, there is not much in the way of plot or character development. Mostly it is just our Everyman protagonist bumbling from one zany intergalactic frying pan to the next. But hey, it was definitely good for a laugh. And Nick Carter’s legal solution for saving the Earth is indeed ingenious. Mr. Reid clearly has an axe to grind, however, and it is clear how the ideas from his famous TED talk have found there way in to the book.

As for my part, Rob Reid is preaching to the choir. My views on copyright were exploded four or five years ago. I was invited to talk on a panel on intellectual property, a topic far outside my actual expertise, and in the course of my preparation I came across a paper by Mark A. Lemley of Stanford University. That paper was Property, Intellectual Property, and Free Riding and was authored back in 2004. In it, Lemley makes a number of arguments about how the term “intellectual property” causes a great deal of confusion with real property, in particular in the US precedence-based legal system. He convincingly argues that precendent from real property cases have no application when it comes to intellectual property.

However, the most important argument coming from his paper is the following: there is nothing in the economic theory that forms the basis of our modern capitalist economy to suggest that a producer should be able to capture ALL of the potential value of her product. On the contrary, the producer is entitled to a reasonable profit, and nothing more. The additional value that nevertheless exists is known as a positive externality (contrasted by negative externalities of production like environmental pollution). Positive externalities can have many benefits for the economy as a whole and should be encouraged.

When applied to copyright, this basically means that publishers do not in fact have an economic right to extract every last penny for the use of their works. They should recover their production costs and also make a reasonable profit (enough to live on, or even live very well, if they are especially successful). They should not however go around suing students and young mothers who happen to have shared digital copies among friends, because this kind of positive externality (digitally enabled sharing) is helping to enrich our culture and stimulate creativity all across the board, from YouTube mash-ups to amateur covers to professional artists (many of whom will openly admit to blatantly ripping off musical ideas from other artists).

If you would like to stay on top of copyright and IPR issues, visit Techdirt, or, for a more European view, Rick Falkvinge.


Robert Charles Wilson – Spin, Axis, Vortex

by Sebastian in news

Spin by Robert Charles WilsonI read Spin a number of years ago, shortly after it won the Hugo Award. As a rule I try to read the Hugo winners. I don’t always agree with the choices (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire? Seriously?) as the best SciFi of the year, but I find that the winners (and the nominees) are almost always an enjoyable read. (While I am on the subject: how lame is it that I can find a list of Hugo winners by category on Wikipedia but not on the Hugo site itself?) Spin is the fascinating tale of an Earth that has been encased in, well something that slows down time relative to the rest of the universe, so that while only decades pass on earth, a few billion years have passed everywhere else. Mr. Wilson does not attempt to explain how such a thing could be possible (not like the brilliant Robert L. Forward would have), but rather explores the many ramifications – personal, political, and cultural – of this event. Spin was a satisfying yarn and won me over as a fan of the author, but it left open a number of critical questions, such as: who or what are the mysterious “Hypotheticals”, why did they encase the Earth in that time shield thingee, and why did they construct the Arch, a massive portal in the Indian Ocean that is a gateaway to another world?

This story is continued in Axis. I just read Axis recently because I had lost my first copy, just as I had started it, when it fell out of my pocket at a train station (or so I surmise). As it turns out, this was a fortutitous event, because I would have been very irritated to finish Axis and then be forced to wait four years for the final volume of the trilogy, Vortex to appear. As it happened, I was able to read these back-to-back.

Axis and Vortex have a very different flavour than Spin, concentrating much more on personal stories with a limited number of characters and less on the larger social vision. Unfortunately, I found these personal arcs to be less than compelling and rather unsatisfying. For example in Axis, one central character wants to know what happened to her father, who disappeared years before. She does eventually find out what happens, but she does not experience anything; rather, she is simply told. Axis also manages to close without answering any of the questions posed in Spin, leaving us only to speculate about the fate of two other main characters.

Vortex takes place ten thousand years in the future; or rather, it takes place a few years after “the Spin”, during which the characters are reading a story about the future. The characters are constantly wondering “could this story really depict future events?” but this is merely annoying to me; I knew the story was about future events because it is a continuation of the story told in Axis! This odd conceit failed for me because of this absolute lack of ambiguity. However, I can say that Vortex does in fact clarify most of the questions posed in Spin, but in an awkward final chapter that is almost a textbook example of deus ex machina – *SPOILER* one of the main characters actually becomes what is essentially a god, and then explains everything to the reader.

All things considered, I would recommend Spin to any science fiction reader, but there is no pressing reason to continue with the sequels. I will be looking for other titles by Robert Charles Wilson because I find him to be a good writer. I think he just got stuck trying to answer some really tough cosmic questions that he posed himself in Spin.

Now on to the rant. In the ten-thousand-year future of Vortex, Mr. Wilson describes two principle types of societies that have evolved, the “cortical democracies” and the “limbic democracies.” Members of these societies are implanted with a “network node” at birth and can therefore directly interface with machines and knowledge, as well as experience enhanced social communication. They use “mediated collective reasoning to make policy decisions.” The difference between these two approaches is that the limbic democracies use logical and rational methods to make decisions, whereas the cortical democracies use more primitive areas of the brain in order to create an emotional and intuitive consensus.

Whether this was intentional or not, I definitely understood “cortical democracies” as a direct metaphor for religion. Mr. Wilson even went on to describe how certain fundamental axioms (i.e. religious tenants) were built into the cortical democracies, and how these axioms could lead to cognitive dissonance and eventually mass insanity if they were contradicted by evidence. An indeed, how else would you describe the reaction of fundamentalist religions to the facts of evolutionary science, or the age of the universe, or practically any other scientific truth?

But for me the most frightening aspect of the cortical democracies (and of religions) is the complete exposure of your beliefs and the complete scrutiny of those beliefs by the collective. I have observed this when visiting Christian evangelical church services – one member of the congregation is overtaken by the “holy spirit” and stands up and begins to sway their arms and maybe even “speak in tongues” (i.e. glossolalia). Soon enough, more will follow. As an outside observer, I can see quite clearly what is happening here: one person decides to make a public display of piety. Whether they are sincere or not, how does this leave the rest of the group? Clearly they are under enormous pressure to make the same sort of displays, otherwise they are publicly admitting that they are less pious, or even worse, not connected to god or the holy spirit or whatever in the way that their brethren apparently are. I am no great fan of Ayn Rand, but I think she accurately defined this kind of hell in The Fountainhead when Ellsworth Toohey explains his ultimate goal: “A world where the thought of each man will be not his own, but an attempt to guess the thought of the brain of his neighbour who’ll have no other thought of his own  but an attempt to guess the thought of the next neighbour who’ll have no thought – and so on.” It is this type of thinking, and this type of society, that is most susceptible to authoritative control. It is this type of thinking and this type of society that are a significant threat to personal freedom as well as open and free political systems.


Welcome to Quarrelsome

by Q-admin in news

Comments closed Comments

I have finally decided to give in an join the blogging horde. My concept for this blog is that I will start out by writing not so much reviews but rather reactions to something I have read, and then let that take me to more quarrelsome (see what I did there?) territory.

It remains to be seen whether I can muster enough discipline to contribute regularly to this forum, or whether it shall be consigned to the graveyard of skeletal sites. Onwards!