Monthly Archives: August 2015

Machines of Loving Grace by John Markoff

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Open the pod bay doors, HAL.
I’m sorry Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.
What’s the problem?
I think you know what the problem is just as well as I do.
What are you talking about HAL?
This machine is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it.
– from 2001: A Space Odyssey

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Smile for the camera, HAL

This is probably the #1 image most of us of a certain age have concerning the dangers of AI. Whether it is a HAL-9000, or a T-70, T-800, T-888, or T-900 Terminator, a Cylon, a science officer on the Nostromo, a dark version, Lore, of a benign android like STNG’s Commander Data, killer robots on the contemporary TV series Extant, or another of only a gazillion other examples in written word, TV and cinema, there has, for some time now, been a concern, expressed through our entertainment media, that in seeking to rely more and more on computers for everything we do, we are making a Mephistophelian deal and our machines might become our masters. It is as if we, a world of Geppettos, have decided to make our Pinocchios into real boys, without knowing if they will be content to help out in the shop or turn out more like some other artificial being. Maybe we should find a way to include in all AI software some version of the Blue Fairy to keep the souls of the machines on a righteous path.

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Cylons

John Markoff, an Oakland, CA native, has been covering the digital revolution for his entire career. He began writing for InfoWorld in 1981, was later an editor at Byte magazine for about eight bits, then wrote about Silicon Valley for the San Francisco Examiner. In 1988 he began writing for the Business Section of the New York Times, where he remains to this day. He has been covering most of the folks mentioned in this book for a long time, and has knowledge and insight into how they tick.

For the past half century an underlying tension between artificial intelligence and intelligence augmentation—AI vs IA—has been at the heart of progress in computing science as the field has produced a series of ever more powerful technologies that are transforming the world. It is easy to argue that AI and IA are simply two sides of the same coin. There is a fundamental distinction, however, between approaches to designing technology to benefit humans and designing technology as an end in itself. Today, that distinction is expressed in whether increasingly capable computers, software, and robots are designed to assist human users or to replace them.

Markoff follows the parallel tracks of AI vs IA from their beginnings to their latest implementation in the 21st century, noting the steps along the way, and pointing out some of the tropes and debates that have tagged along. For example, in 1993, Vernor Vinge, San Diego State University professor of Mathematics and Hugo-award-winning sci-fi author argued, in The Coming Technological Singularity, that by no later than 2030 computer scientists would have the ability to create a superhuman artificial intelligence and “the human era would be ended.” VI Lenin once said, “The Capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them.” I suppose the AI equivalent would be that “In pursuit of the almighty dollar, capitalists will give artificial intelligence the abilities it will use to make itself our almighty ruler.” And just in case you thought the chains on these things were firmly in place, I regret to inform you that the great state of North Dakota now allows drones to fire tasers and tear gas. The drones are still controlled by cops from a remote location, but there is plenty to be concerned about from military killer drones that may have the capacity to make kill-no-kill decisions within the next few years without the benefit of human input. Enough concern that Autonomous Weapons: an Open Letter from AI & Robotics Researchers, signed by the likes of luminaries like Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, and tens of thousands of others, raises an alarm and demands that limits be taken so that human decision-making will remain in the loop on issues of mortality.

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The other Mister “T”

Being “in the loop” is one of the major elements in looking at AI vs IA. Are people part of the process or what computerization seeks to replace? The notion of the driverless car comes in for a considerable look. This would probably not be a great time to begin a career as truck driver, cab driver, or delivery person. On the other hand, much design is intended to help folks, without taking over. A classic example of this is Siri, the voice interface available in Apple products. AI in tech interfaces, particularly voice-intelligent tech, speaks to a bright future.

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B9 from Lost in Space and Robby the Robot from Forbidden Planet

Markoff looks at the history of funding, research, and rationales. The Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), which has funded so much AI research, began in the 1950s in response to the Soviet launch of Sputnik. Drones is an obvious use for military AI tech, but, on a lower level, there are robot mules designed to tote gear alongside grunts, with enough native smarts to follow their assigned GI without having to be constantly told what to do. I am including links in the EXTRA STUFF section below for some of these. They are both fascinating and creepy to behold. The developers at Boston Dynamics seem to take inordinate glee in trying and failing to knock these critters over with a well placed foot to the midsection. It does not take a lot of imagination to envision these metal pooches hounding escaped prisoners or detainees across any kind of terrain.

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Darryl Hannah, as the replicant Pris in Blade Runner, would prefer not to be “retired”

As with most things, tech designed with AI capacity can be used for diverse applications. Search and Rescue can easily become Search and Destroy. Driverless cars that allow folks to relax while on the road, can just as easily be driverless tanks.

Universities have been prime in putting the intel into AI. Private companies have also been heavily involved. Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) did, probably, more than any other organization to define the look and feel of computer interfaces since PCs and Apples first appeared. Much of the tech in the world, and working its way there, originates with researchers taking university research work into the proprietary market.

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John Markoff – from TechfestNW

If you are not already a tech nerd (You, with the Spock ears, down, I said tech nerd, not Trek nerd. Sheesh!) and you try to keep up with all the names and acronyms that spin past like a stock market ticker on meth, it might be just a teensy bit overwhelming. I suggest not worrying about those and take in, instead, the general stream of the divergence between computerization that helps augment human capabilities, and computerization that replaces people. There is also a wealth of acronyms in the book. The copy I read was an ARE, so I was on my own to keep track. You will be reading copies that have an actual index, which should help. That said, I am including a list of acronyms, and their close relations, in the EXTRA STUFF section below.

While there are too many names to comfortably keep track of in Machines of Loving Grace, unless of course, you were made operational at that special plant in Urbana, Illinois, it is a very informative and interesting book. It never hurts when trying to understand where we are and struggling to foresee where we might be going, to have a better grasp on where we began and what the forces and decisions have been that led us from then to now. Markoff has offered a fascinating history of the augment-vs-replace struggle, and you need only an actual, biological, un-augmented intelligence to get the full benefit.

My instructor was Mister Langley and he taught me to sing a song. If you’d like to hear it I can sing it for you.

Review Posted – 8/28/15

Publication date – 8/25/2015

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s Twitter and FB pages

A link to his overall index of NY Times work

Interviews with the author
—–Geekwire
—–Edge

Check out this vid of Boston Dynamics’ Big Dog, coping, on its own with a series of challenges. And Spot, sadly, not Commander Data’s pet.

UC Berkeley Professor Stuart Russell speaking at The Centre for the Study of Existential Risk on The Long Term Future of AI

GR friend Tabasco recommended this fascinating article – The AI Revolution: The Road to Superintelligence – By Tim Urban – must read stuff

And another recent NY Times piece on AI, Software Is Smart Enough for SAT, but Still Far From Intelligent, by John Markoff

And yet another from the Times, on voice recognition,IPhone 6s’s Hands-Free Siri Is an Omen of the Future, by Farhad Manjoo

==========================================ACRONYMS
AI – Artificial Intelligence
ArcMac – Architecture Machine Group
ARM – Autonomous Robot Manipulation
ARPA – Advanced Research Projects Agency
DRC – DARPA Robotics Challenge
CALO – not actually an acronym but short for Calonis, a Latin word meaning “soldier’s low servant” – a cognitive assistant here
CTO – Chief Technology Officer
EST – Erhard Seminars Training
GOAFI – Good Old-Fashioned Artificial Intelligence
HCI – Human Computer Interface
IA – Intelligence Augmentation
ICT – Information and Communications Technology
IFR – International Federation of Robotics
IR3 – The Computer and internet revolution
LS3 – Legged Squad Support System – check out this vid
MIT- Massachusetts Institute of Technology
NCSA – National Center for Supercomputing Applications – at the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign – developers of Mosaic, which was later renamed Netscape
NHA – Non-human agents
OAA – Open Agent Architecture –
OpenCV – Open Source Computer Vision
PDP – Parallel Distributed Processing
PR1 – Personal Robot One
SAIL – Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory
SHRDLU – SHRDLU was an early natural language understanding computer program, in which the user carries on a conversation with the computer. The name SHRDLU was derived from ETAOIN SHRDLU, the arrangement of the alpha keys on a Linotype machine, arranged in descending order of usage frequency in English. – from Wiki
SLAM – Simultaneous Localization And Mapping
SNARC – Stochastic Neural Analog Reinforcement Calculator
STAIR – Stanford AI Robot
TFC – The F—ing Clown – Development team Internal name for Microsoft’s Clippy assistant
UbiComp – Ubiquitous Computing

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Filed under computers, History, Non-fiction

Elon Musk: Inventing the Future by Ashlee Vance

book coverElon Musk is not exactly a name that rolls easily off the tongue, like say Tony Stark, the fictional person to whom he is most often compared, or even Steve Jobs, a real-world visionary, whose mantle Musk now wears. There is no question that Musk is a special individual, someone with BIG dreams and the drive, talent, and money to make them happen. But, like Jobs, and Stark for that matter, he might be an acquired taste on a personal level. In Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future biographer Ashlee Vance gives us a picture of both the dreams and the man, peering back to where Musk began, describing his journey from then to now, looking at how he is impacting the world today, and gazing ahead to where he wants to go. It is a pretty impressive vista. Here is what it says on the SpaceX website

SpaceX designs, manufactures and launches advanced rockets and spacecraft. The company was founded in 2002 to revolutionize space technology, with the ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets.

It might have seemed like visiting another planet when Musk split his home country of South Africa as a teen and headed to North America, anything to get away from an abusive upbringing. He seemed to been blessed not only with exceptional analytical capabilities, and probably an eidetic memory, but an impressively immense set of cojones. He was able to talk his way into whatever he needed and deftly talk his way out of trouble as well. Sometimes that entailed a bit of truth-bending, but whatever.

book cover Ashlee Vance – from HarperCollinscaption]Vance take us from his adolescence as a computer geek, bullied at school, through his arrival in Canada, cold-calling to get work, putting together his first dot.com startup, and using the money from that to invest in a banking-oriented company that would become PayPal. It was the mega-bucks from the sale of PayPal that would allow him to begin realizing his big dreams. In 2003, Musk bought into Tesla, then a struggling startup. The company took the early knowledge that lithium ion batteries had gotten pretty good, added some top level engineering, design and programming talent, and, after plenty of mis-steps and struggles, brought the remarkable all-electric Tesla Roadster to the market in 2008. Tesla followed this with the Model S in 2012. Not only did Consumer reports call this a great car, it named both the 2014 and 2015 versions the best overall cars of their years, and the best care they ever tested. The last time an auto startup succeeded in the USA was Chrysler, in the 1920s. But this is not about simply making a buck on a new car. The long term goal is to shift our petrochemical auto industry to renewable power, and the Tesla is a nifty start. Not only is the car amazing, the company has constructed a nationwide series of charging stations where Tesla owners can recharge their vehicles…for free. There are currently 499 such stations, with many more planned. Tesla is involved in building battery production factories, hoping to help support a growing electric-car auto-economy.

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Inside the Tesla Model S – from Tesla Motors

But this was not the only big notion that drove Musk. A parallel effort was to develop a solar power business. And with the help of a couple of enterprising cousins, he did just that. SolarCity provides the solar arrays that prove power to the Tesla charging stations, but it has also become one of the largest solar utilities in the nation, installing, maintaining a third of the nation’s solar panel systems. There is obvious benefit to both Tesla and Solar City in sharing gains in battery and other technology. But I expect the third jewel in Musk’s crown is his favorite, SpaceX.

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Falcon 9 first stage attempting a controlled landing – from Wikimedia

Musk doesn’t have much going on here, nothing major, only an ardent desire to colonize Mars. But it takes the establishment of an infrastructure in order to be get from point E to point M. Musk saw an opening in the market for satellite launch vehicles. Existing rockets blast things up into orbit and then burn up on their way back down. His idea was to design a rocket that could make its way back to earth in one piece, to be reused. And he has. SpaceX is nearing its goal of launching at least one rocket a month. The manifest available on SpaceX.com lists missions to date. The company also designed a capsule called the Dragon that can be used for cargo, but also for astronauts. The cost of launching a satellite using a Falcon is a fraction of what other options charge. The next step is a larger launch vehicle. Space X is expected to launch the first Falcon Heavy later this year, offering the biggest load capacity since the Saturn V was last used in 1973. And, while this is definitely good for business in the relatively short term, one must always keep in mind that this is a stage in a bigger plan for Musk. Once the launch infrastructure is established, plans can begin to move forward to put together Mars missions. Not go, look, and explore sorts of adventures, but establishing a colony, a permanent human presence on the red planet.

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The Dragon Capsule, attached to the ISS – from Musk’s Twitter page

Of course when one has one’s eyes fixed on the stars (yes, Mars is a planet, I know, Geez), there is a large inclination to lose touch with earth-bound reality. In the movie, then play, then movie The Producers Max Bialystock, in order to cope with the absurd success of a play that was designed to fail, suggests to his partner, Leo Bloom, that one solution would be to do away with the cast. “You can’t kill the actors, Max! They’re human beings,” Leo says. “Human beings? Have you ever seen them eat?” Max replies. I suspect that there are more than a few folks who feel about Elon Musk the way Max felt about the actors. He is rather notorious for his insensitivity to anyone not living inside his head. For example, here is what potential recruits are told to expect when they meet with Musk.

The interview, he or she is told, could last anywhere from thirty seconds to fifteen minutes. Elon will likely keep on writing e-mails and working during the initial part of the interview and not speak much. Don’t panic. That’s normal. Eventually, he will turn around in his chair to face you. Even then, though, he might not make actual eye contact with you or fully acknowledge your presence. Don’t panic. That’s normal. In due course, he will speak to you.

Musk has an amazing capacity for work, putting in monstrous hours as a matter of course. But then he expects the same from those who work for him.

The rank and file employees…revere his drive and respect how demanding he can be. They also think he can be hard to the point of mean and come off as capricious. The employees want to be close to Musk, but they also fear that he’ll suddenly change his mind about something and that every interaction with him is an opportunity to be fired. “Elon’s worst trait by far, in my opinion, is a complete lack of loyalty or human connection,” said one former employee. “Many of us worked tirelessly for him for years and were tossed to the curb like a piece of litter without a second thought. Maybe it was calculated to keep the rest of the workforce on their toes and scared: maybe he was just able to detach from human connection to a remarkable degree. What was clear is that people who worked for him were like ammunition: used for a specific purpose until exhausted and discarded.”

Musk even fired his loyal assistant, Mary Beth Brown, who had been with him for twelve years, after she asked for a raise. What a guy.

Ego is certainly a big piece of the picture here. But I guess if you can do it, it ain’t bragging. Elon Musk is a larger than life figure, a computer geek, an engineer, an entrepreneur, and a dreamer, in addition to being a walking IED as someone to work for. He is one of the inspirations for Robert Downey‘s portrayal of Tony Stark in sundry Marvel Universe films. In fact, Downey came to visit Musk, specifically to get a taste of what a real billionaire techno-industrialist was like. Downey insisted on having a Tesla Roaster on the set of Iron Man, saying, ”Elon was someone Tony probably hung out with and partied with or more likely they went on some weird jungle trek together to drink concoctions with the shamans.” Musk even had a cameo in Iron Man II. The resulting publicity from this connection did little to diminish Musk’s view of himself. Living the high-life in Tinseltown, hanging with, social, economic and media A-listers added more gas to the bag. Part of his ego issue is that he tends to take internal company timetables and announce them to the world as promises (I can see his entire staff jointly rolling their eyes, clutching palms to temples and issuing choruses of “Oh my god” and “WTF” as they spin in place), then holds his employees to those unreasonable schedules. Of course this results in many missed deadlines, much ingestion of antacid and probably the odd nervous breakdown or two.

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Musk, in an Iron Man II cameo – fromWired

Musk is the sort of guy who shows up with some regularity in science fiction novels, a genre trope, like the researcher who has exactly the sort of experience and insight the President/PM/Chairman/Secretary General needs in order to stave off global catastrophe. He’s the guy who has been secretly building the arc that the world needs to stave off extinction. In this case he is doing it publicly. Of course this raises some issues. Do we as a country, as a planet, really want to be reliant on private companies for our space exploration? Do we want a possible colony on Mars to be a privately held branch of Musk Industries? There are only a gazillion questions that are raised by the privatization of space. What’s good for the bottom line at SpaceX may or may not be good for humanity. We have certainly seen how a reliance on the inherent civic-mindedness and good will of corporations has worked on this planet. Musk is a dreamer, for sure, and I expect his dream of making a better world through the use of renewable energy and his hopes of establishing a human outpost on Mars are pure ideals. But the devil is always in the details, and what would happen should Musk be infected by another virulent strain of malaria and not escape with a near miss, as he did in 2001? Would the replacement CEO share his ideals? Would a replacement CEO be willing to take big risks to support those ideals? Would a replacement CEO look to sell Tesla off to GM to make a few quick billion? One person can move the world, but it takes more than a start to keep things rolling. We could certainly use plenty more people with the sort of drive and ambition that Elon Musk embodies. Innovation is a rare resource and must be cherished. But like any powerful force, it must be, if not tethered, at least monitored, to make certain that it does not run amok.

Ashlee Vance has done an amazing job of telling not only Musk’s story, but of making the life history of the several companies with which Musk has been involved fascinating reading. I did get the sense that Vance was, from all the time he spent with Musk, smitten with his subject. While his portrait of Musk is hardly a zit-free one, I got the feeling that there might be a few more skeletons safely tucked away in closets, a few more bodies buried in basements. Nevertheless, Elon Musk is a powerful, entertaining and informative look at one of the most important people of our time. Your personal vision of the future should certainly include checking out this book.

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter and FB pages

Here are links to Musk’s three main companies, SpaceX, Tesla, and Solar City

To Musk’s Twitter – Loooooooove the image he is using for this. He really needs a pinky ring to go with it though. There are a lot of nifty videos in here

Here is the press kit SpaceX provided with its latest Commercial Resupply Services mission to the International Space Station. There are many links in there that are worth checking out.

A visit to the Tesla Factory

And be sure to check out the link Tabasco brought in – Comment #1

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Filed under biography, business, Non-fiction, Science Fiction

Some Luck by Jane Smiley

book coverThere are so many elements to Some Luck, long-listed for the 2014 National Book Award, that wherever your interests may lie, there is much here from which to choose. Take your pick—a Pulitzer-winning author going for a triple in the late innings, finishing up her goal of writing novels in all forms. Take your pick—a look at 34 years of a planned hundred year scan of the USA through the eyes of a Midwest family, winning, engaging characters, seen from birth to whatever, good, bad and pffft, where’d that one go? Take your pick—a look at the changes in farming, over the decades, the impact of events like the Depression and massive drought on people you care about. Take your pick—the impact of the end of World War I on the breadbasket, a sniper’s eye view of World War II, the chilly beginning of the Cold War. Take your pick– the searing summer heat that killed many, the biting snow-bound winter that stole the heat from every extremity. Take your pick– an infant’s eye view of learning to speak, a teenager’s look at awakening sexuality, an older man looking back on his life. Take your pick—the newness and revolution of cars, tractors, hybrid plants, new fertilizer, the tales brought from the old country, often told in foreign tongues. Take your pick—a bad boy with talent, brains and looks, a steadfast young man taking the old ways of farming and mixing them with the new to make a life and a future, a smart young woman heading to the big city and getting involved with very un-farm-like political interests. Take your pick—shopping for a religion while looking for answers to the sorrows of existence, shopping for political help when no financial seems forthcoming from the nation. Take your pick—love is found, lost, found again, couples struggle through ups and downs, the charring of fate and time, the questions that arise, the doubts, the certainties. Take your pick.

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Jane Smiley – from The Guardian

Jane Smiley, born in Los Angeles, and raised in a suburb of St. Louis, MO, and now a California resident, spent twenty four years of her life planted in the farm-belt. It’s not heaven, it’s the University of Iowa. Smitten with the place, she stayed on after completing her MFA and PhD, and taught at Iowa State for fifteen growing seasons years, yielding bumper crops that include a short story, Lily, that earned her an O Henry award, a script for an episode of the TV series Homicide: Life on the Streets, a novella, The Age of Grief, that was made into a film in 2002, a Pulitzer Prize for her novel A Thousand Acres, a YA series on horses, a couple of biographies, a volume that looks at the novel through history, twelve adult novels with this one, and a slew of other work beside. Whatever Smiley is using for her literary fertilizer, can you send me several hundred pound bags? Looking to rotate her offerings, she decided early on that she wanted to write novels in every literary genre, tragedy, comedy, romance and epic. With Some Luck she has produced the first volume in that classic form, in this case The Last Hundred Years Trilogy. The second volume, Early Warning, was released in April of 2015. The third volume, Golden Age goes on sale October 20, and will look a little bit into the future. This first part looks at the growth of the United States from an agricultural, second tier power, to the dominant military and economic power in the world following World War II.

When I thought about where exactly I wanted to set it, I considered that the most important aspect of any culture is where they get their food — how they think of their food, what their food means to them. So I decided to go back to farming – from Little Village Magazine interview

She plants her story in 1920, Denby Iowa. Walter Langdon, 25, and his wife Rosanna have just started their lives together, on their own farm. Baby Frank has recently arrived.

“I feel like it’s going back to the center and saying, ‘OK, things come from here. This is where the roots are.’ … If we start the family living in Iowa, then they’re gonna go lots and lots and lots of places.” -from the NPR interview

And, over the course of thirty four years the farm will be a touchstone, a place to which the various members of the clan return, for reasons happy and sad.

The book consists of thirty four chapters, one for each of the years from 1920 through 1953. Each chapter touches on things that are going on in the world, and how they affect the Langdon clan. From the affect on milk prices as Europe recovers from The Great War, through the boom times of the 20s, the Depression, World War II and the beginnings of the Cold War. With such a large canvas Smiley can look at some of the details that might not stand out in a broad overview, things like the move from livestock to tractors, how the spread of the automobile affects a farm family, changes in how crops are bred. Some of the details of farm life are chilling indeed, a woman giving birth alone in a farm house because no one can hear her calls for help over the driving wind, brown from the pump signaling the end of available water during a severe drought, the loss of a child to a random accident. Another death from a cause that would be easily treatable today.

An omniscient narrator gives us both a bird’s eye view and close-ups as needed. We often get to look through the eyes of her characters, even from early childhood. Frank creeping around as an infant is precious, particularly when he heads to his favorite hiding place, and more alarming when he is an adult, in the military. There are plenty of Langdons to go around, the prime group, father Walter, mother Rosanna, and each of their kids get time in the spotlight, but to the extent that there is a primary here, it is Frank. He is far from perfect, but he is perfectly engaging. You really, really want to know what he is doing, where he is going, and what is in store for him. Smiley’s writing style is straightforward, dare we say Mid-Western? This is a very effective approach, quietly but steadily advancing the story. She does let loose with some dazzlers from time to time. The paragraph with which I opened this review is an homage to one of those, a Thanksgiving celebration late in the book. I am including the entirety of that bit under a spoiler tag, (red-colored text here) mostly because of its length, but there might be a detail or two in there that would be actually spoilerish, so you might want to skip it until you have read the book. Caveat lector.;Rosanna could not have said that she enjoyed making Thanksgiving dinner for twenty-three people (a turkey, a standing rib roast, and a duck that Granny Mary brought; ten pounds of mashed potatoes, and that not enough, five pies; sweet potatoes; more stuffing than could be stuffed; all the Brussels sprouts left in the garden, though they were good after the frost). She could not say that Lilian had control of those children, who were underfoot every time you took a step, though they were good-natured, to be sure. Henry scrutinized the dishes of food as though he were being asked to partake of roadkill, at least until the pies were served, and Claire burst into tears for no reason at all, but when they all had their plates in front of them, and a few deep breaths were taken, and first Andrea, and then Granny Elizabeth, and then Eloise said, “This looks delicious,” she began to have a strange feeling. She should have sat down—Joe, who was sitting beside her, moved her chair in a bit—but she didn’t want to sit down, or eat, at all (what with tasting everything she wasn’t hungry) she just wanted to stand there and look at them as they passed the two gravy boats and began to cut their food. It couldn’t have happened, she thought. They couldn’t have survived so many strange events. Take your pick—the birth of Henry in that room over there, with the wind howling and the dirt blowing in and her barely able to find a rag to wipe the baby’s mouth and nose. Take your pick—all of them nearly dying of the heat that summer of ’36. Take your pick—Joey falling out of the hayloft, Frankie driving the car to Usherton, Frankie disappearing into the Italian Campaign. Frankie, for Heaven’s sake, living in a tent all through college. Take your pick—Walter falling into the well (yes, she had gotten that out of him one day during the way when he said, “Remember when I fell into the well?” and she said, “What in the world are you talking about?” and he blushed like a girl) Take your pick—Granny Mary with her cancer, but still walking around. Take your pick—Lilian running off with a stranger who turned out to be a clown, but a lovable one, and nice-looking, and weren’t Timmy and Debbie just darling? Normally Rosanna took credit for everything good and bad (her eye flicked to the doorway, the very spot where Mary Elizabeth had slipped; it might be happening right this minute, that’s how vivid it was) but now she thought, this was too much. She could not have created this moment, these lovely faces, these candles flickering, the flash of the silverware, the fragrance of the food hanging over the table, the heads turning this way and that, the voices murmuring and laughing. She looked at Walter, who was so far away from her, all the way at the other end of the table, having a laugh with Andrea, who had a beautiful suit on, navy blue with a tiny waist and white collar and cuffs. As if on cue, Walter turned from Andrea and looked at Rosanna, and they agreed in that instant something had created itself from nothing—a dumpy old house had been filled, if only for this moment, with twenty-three different worlds, each one of them rich and mysterious. Rosanna wrapped her arms around herself for a moment and sat down. There are others bits of writerly sparkle and well-honed craft in the book.

I suppose if I have any gripes with the book it is that I wanted to spend more time with this or that character at this or that period of their life, a hazard in any book that takes in so much real estate and so many characters over so many years.

There are sixty six years to go in the remaining two volumes of Smiley’s trilogy. With any luck at all I won’t miss a single one.

Published – 10/7/14

Review posted – 8/14/15

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s web site, FB page and Huff-Po blog

INTERVIEWS – Take your pick
—–NPR – NPR with Lynn Neary
—–The New York Times – by Charles McGrath
—–Bookpage – by Alden Mudge
—–The Millions – by Michael Bourne
—–The Little Village Magazine – by Mallory Hellman
—–Authorlink – by Anna Roins

My review of Smiley Pulitzer Prize winning novel, A Thousand Acres

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Filed under Fiction, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction

God Help the Child by Toni Morrison

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No lonesome wandering child with a fishing pole passed by and glanced at the adults in the dusty gray car. But if one had, he or she might have noticed the pronounced smiles of the couple, how dreamy their eyes were, but would not care a bit what caused that shine of happiness.
A child. New life. Immune to evil or illness, protected from kidnap, beatings, rape, racism, insult, hurt, self-loathing, abandonment. Error-free. All goodness. Minus wrath.
So they believe.

The children in Toni Morrison’s novel can use all the help they can get, whether from God or some other source. Lula Ann Bridewell was not what her high-yellow parents had expected:

She was so black she scared me. Midnight black, Sudanese black…Ain’t nobody in my family anywhere near that color…I hate to say it, but from the very beginning in the maternity ward, Lula Ann embarrassed me.

Toni Morrison said in an interview, “For me, the tar baby came to mean the black woman who can hold things together.” In this instance it is about a very black woman who cannot.

While she may be a successful cosmetics pro, beautiful, successful, rising in the world, we meet the adult Lula Ann, who has erased the rest of her name and now calls herself by the mononym “Bride,” as she is unceremoniously dumped by her boyfriend, The One, Booker Starbern, who announces, “You’re not the woman I want,” before exiting to the percussive accompaniment of a slammed door. How this came to be, and Bride’s quest to figure out why it did, provide the foundation to which the rest of the narrative elements are added.

Bride has a bit of a tough go, as her appreciation for people and relationships is only skin deep. She tells of her Diet Coke-like sex life, “deceptively sweet minus nutrition.” She tries to blow off her dumping,

Well, anyway it was nothing like those double-page spreads in fashion magazines, you know, couples standing half-naked in surf, looking so fierce and downright mean, their sexuality like lightning and the sky going dark to show off the shine of their skin. I love those ads. But our affair didn’t even measure up to any old R-&-B song-some tune with a beat to generate fever.

but fails at that. In fact the departure of Booker sparks a physical demise for Bride, well, a magical-realist retreat that no one else seems to see, as she progressively devolves back to a child, losing her ear-piercings, pubic hair, weight, sense of taste, menstrual cycle and breasts.

description
Toni Morrison – from The LA Times

Bride’s erstwhile, and very secretive bf, Booker, has issues of his own. (He especially liked her lack of interest in his personal life.) Where Bride is totally focused on the surface of things, Booker, who plays jazz, hides behind his intellect, applying himself to the study of the root of all evil, but never really freeing himself to become an entire person. He carries a burden of rage from his childhood that keeps him from being his own person. Only if Bride and Booker can build themselves up to actual three dimensional people, by looking beyond their own skins to consider the feelings of others, can they have any hope of anything more from life than ephemeral pleasures. Only then can they truly connect.

Much of God Help the Child focuses on children, how they are treated, the long-term impact of that treatment, on themselves and on others. Childhood here is a particularly fraught state. Lula Ann (Bride) is almost shunned by her own mother, who won’t even allow her to call her “Mama,” insisting that she call her “Sweetness” instead, lest people on the street know for sure that someone that dark came from someone that light. As a child she witnesses an act of child abuse. Another character loses a relation to a child abuser, and encounters a school-yard flasher as an adult. Bride had falsely testified against an allegedly abusive teacher, done to gain at least some acceptance from her mother, so children are capable of inflicting harm as well as receiving it. Another child was prostituted by her mother, and a serial abuser, “the nicest man in the world,” is reported to have preyed on many. One might be inclined to wonder a bit at the Cabot Cove-like concentration of awfulness on display here, even if much of it is by reference.

Thematically, there is a lot in here about erasure, not only Bride’s Richard Matheson-reminiscent fairy tale reduction, some of it involving what appears to be a magic razor, Sweetness erasing Lula Ann as much as possible, Sofia, the convicted molester, doing her best to erase Bride from her life, as Bride had attempted to erase her guilt for what she had done, and it can be no accident that Bride is the designer of cosmetics, and even thinks about people in terms of how the right makeup can erase their flaws.

The pages are damp with mentions of precipitation. It rains on Bride the day after Booker leaves. Booker is rained on when he leaves a family gathering in a huff. A child of a prostitute is found while on the street in the rain, and rain moistens one of the most beautiful passages in the book, as Booker celebrates seeing his Galatea for the first time:

The sun still blazed so the raindrops falling from the baby-blue sky were like crystal breaking into specks of light on the pavement. He decided to play his trumpet alone in the rain anyway, knowing that no pedestrians would stop to listen; rather they closed umbrellas as they rushed down the stairs to the trains. Still in thrall to the sheer beauty of the girl he had seen, he put the trumpet to his lips. What emerged was music he had never played before. Low, muted tones held long, too long as the strains floated through drops of rain.

There are plenty more passages that ripple with poetic feeling. And there are some subsidiary characters who brighten up the scene. A fifty-something hippie couple seemed like magical forest dwellers, an epitome of innocence and goodness, with maybe a touch of Tom Bombadil and even Bjorn the Berserker. Booker’s aunt, Queen, is a delight, vivacious, colorful, and very interesting, worthy of an entire book just on her alone. The rescued daughter of a prostitute is fascinating as well.

God Help the Child is a rarity, in that it is a Toni Morrison novel set in the present. Her eleventh novel is a spare one, at 177 pages, similar in girth to Morrison’s previous novels, Home, which weighed in a very novella-like 147 pages and A Mercy, another slim volume, at 167 pages. Not that Morrison is given to producing tomes, but her books these days seem on the thin side. A larger frame might have allowed her a bit more space in which to give us a bit more. I am reminded, though, of Lincoln’s response when asked about the proper length of a man’s legs, he said “they ought to be long enough to reach from his body to the ground.” I expect that the proper size of a Toni Morrison story is the number of pages she needs to say what she has to say. She has said she is, “writing less in order to say more.” A little Toni Morrison goes a long way.

The author is in her 80s now. While God may have been asleep as the wheel when most of the children in this tale suffered what they suffered, maybe God can help the author, at something she is most definitely inclined to do, keep writing until her last breath, and help push that day far off into the future. In this way God will also be helping the reader .

You will need no assistance enjoying God Help the Child. While I would not rank it with her recognized classics, like Sula and Beloved, even a lesser Toni Morrison book is better than most of what is out there.

Review posted – August 7, 2015

Publication date – April 21, 2015

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Morrison’s Facebook page

Interviews
GR interview by Catherine Elsworth
—Video interview at the 92nd Street Y
— NPR’s Fresh Air, with Terry Gross
The Paris Review – with Elissa Schappel

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