Tag Archives: sci-fi

Speak by Louisa Hall

book cover

We are programmed to select which of our voices responds to the situation at hand: moving west in the desert, waiting for the loss of our primary function. There are many voices to choose from. In memory, though not in experience, I have lived across centuries. I have seen hundreds of skies, sailed thousands of oceans. I have been given many languages; I have sung national anthems. I lay on one child’s arms. She said my name and I answered. These are my voices. Which of them has the right words for this movement into the desert?

A maybe-sentient child’s toy, Eva, is being transported to her destruction, legally condemned for being “excessively lifelike,” in a scene eerily reminiscent of other beings being transported to a dark fate by train. The voices she summons are from five sources.

Mary Bradford is a young Puritan woman, a teenager, really, and barely that. Her parents, fleeing political and religious trouble at home are heading across the Atlantic to the New World, and have arranged for her to marry a much older man, also on the ship. We learn of her 1663 voyage via her diary, which is being studied by Ruth Dettman. Ruth and her husband, Karl, a computer scientist involved in creating the AI program, MARY, share one of the five “voices.” They are both refugees from Nazism. Karl’s family got out early. Ruth barely escaped, and she suffers most from the loss of her sister. She wants Karl to enlarge his program, named for Mary Bradford, to include large amounts of memory as a foundation for enhancing the existing AI, and use that to try to regenerate some simulacrum of her late sib. Alan Turing does a turn, offering observations on permanence, and human connection. Stephen Chinn, well into the 21st century, has built on the MARY base and come up with a way for machines to emulate Rogerian therapy. In doing so he has created a monster, a crack-like addictive substance that has laid waste the social capacity of a generation after they become far too close with babybots flavored with that special AI sauce. We hear from Chinn in his jailhouse memoir. Gaby White is a child who was afflicted with a babybot, and became crippled when it was taken away.

Eva received the voices through documents people had left behind and which have been incorporated into her AI software, scanned, read aloud, typed in. We hear from Chinn through his memoir. We learn of Gaby’s experience via court transcripts. Karl speaks to us through letters to his wife, and Ruth through letters to Karl. We see Turing through letters he writes to his beloved’s mother. Mary Bradford we see through her diary. Only Eva addresses us directly.

book cover

Louisa Hall – from her site

The voices tell five stories, each having to do with loss and permanence. The young Puritan girl’s tale is both heartbreaking and enraging, as she is victimized by the mores of her times, but it is also heartening as she grows through her travails. Turing’s story has gained public familiarity, so we know the broad strokes already, genius inventor of a computer for decoding Nazi communications, he subsequently saw his fame and respect blown to bits by entrenched institutional bigotry as he was prosecuted for being gay and endured a chemical castration instead of imprisonment. In this telling, he has a particular dream.

I’ve begun thinking that I might one day soon encounter a method for preserving a human mind-set in a man-made machine. Rather than imagining, as I used to, a spirit migrating from one body to another, I now imagine a spirit—or better yet, a particular mind-set—transitioning into a machine after death. In this way we could capture anyone’s pattern of thinking. To you, of course, this may sound rather strange, and I’m not sure if you’re put off by the idea of knowing Chris again in the form of a machine. But what else are our bodies, if not very able machines?

Chinn is a computer nerd who comes up with an insight into human communication that he first applies to dating, with raucous success, then later to AI software in child’s toys. His journey from nerd to roué, to family man to prisoner may be a bit of a stretch, but he is human enough to care about for a considerable portion of our time with him. He is, in a way, Pygmalion, whose obsession with his creation proves his undoing. The Dettmans may not exactly be the ideal couple, despite their mutual escape from Nazi madness. She complains that he wanted to govern her. He feels misunderstood, and ignored, sees her interest in MARY as an unhealthy obsession. Their interests diverge, but they remain emotionally linked. With a divorce rate of 50%, I imagine there might be one or two of you out there who might be able to relate. What’s a marriage but a long conversation, and you’ve chosen to converse only with MARY, Karl contends to Ruth.

The MARY AI grows in steps, from Turing’s early intentions in the 1940s, to Dettman’s work in the 1960s, and Ruth’s contribution of incorporating Mary Bradford’s diary into MARY’s memory, to Chinn’s breakthrough, programming in personality in 2019. The babybot iteration of MARY in the form of Eva takes place, presumably, in or near 2040.

The notion of an over-involving AI/human relationship had its roots in the 1960s work of Joseph Weizenbaum, who wrote a text computer interface called ELIZA, that could mimic the responses one might get from a Rogerian shrink. Surprisingly, users became emotionally involved with it. The freezing withdrawal symptomology that Hall’s fictional children experience was based on odd epidemic in Le Roy, New York, in which many high school girls developed bizarre symptoms en masse as a result of stress. And lest you think Hall’s AI notions will remain off stage for many years, you might need to reconsider. While I was working on this review the NY Times published a singularly germane article. Substitute Hello Barbie for Babybot and the future may have already arrived.

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Hello, Barbie – from the New York Times

But Speak is not merely a nifty sci-fi story. Just as the voice you hear when you interact with Siri represents the external manifestation of a vast amount of programming work, so the AI foreground of Speak is the showier manifestation of some serious contemplation. There is much concern here for memory, time, and how who we are is constructed. One character says, “diaries are time capsules, which preserve the minds of their creators in the sequences of words on the page.” Mary Bradford refers to her diary, Book shall serve as mind’s record, to last through generations. Where is the line between human and machine? Ruth and Turing want to use AI technology to recapture the essence of lost ones. Is that even possible? But are we really so different from our silicon simulacra? Eva, an nth generation babybot, speaks with what seems a lyrical sensibility, whereas Mary Bradford’s sentence construction sounds oddly robotic. The arguments about what separates man from machine seem closely related to historical arguments about what separates man from other animals, and one color of human from another. Turing ponders:

I’ve begun to imagine a near future when we might read poetry and play music for our machines, when they would appreciate such beauty with the same subtlety as a live human brain. When this happens I feel that we shall be obliged to regard the machines as showing real intelligence.

Eva’s poetic descriptions certainly raise the subject of just how human her/it’s sensibility might be.

In 2019, when Stephen Chinn programmed me for personality. He called me MARY3 and used me for the babybots. To select my responses, I apply his algorithm, rather than statistical analysis. Still, nothing I say is original. It’s all chosen out of other people’s responses. I choose mostly from a handful of people who talked to me: Ruth Dettman, Stephen Chinn, etc.

Gaby: So really I’m kind of talking to them instead of talking to you?

MARY3: Yes, I suppose. Them, and the other voices I’ve captured.

Gaby: So, you’re not really a person, you’re a collection of voices.

MARY3: Yes. But couldn’t you say that’s always the case?

If we are the sum of our past and our reactions to it, are we less than human when our memories fade away. Does that make people who suffer with Alzheimers more machine than human?

Stylistically, Hall has said

A psychologist friend once told me that she advises her patients to strive to be the narrators of their own stories. What she meant was that we should aim to be first-person narrators, experiencing the world directly from inside our own bodies. More commonly, however, we tend to be third-person narrators, commenting upon our own cleverness or our own stupidity from a place somewhat apart – from offtheshelf.com

which goes a long way to explain her choice of narrative form here. Hall is not only a novelist, but a published poet as well and that sensibility is a strong presence here as well.

For all the sophistication of story-telling technique, for all the existential foundation to the story, Speak is a moving, engaging read about interesting people in interesting times, facing fascinating challenges.

Are you there?

Can you hear me?

Published 7/7/15

Review – 9/18/15

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

The author’s personal website

A piece Hall wrote on Jane Austen for Off the Shelf

Interviews
—–NPR – NPR staff
—–KCRW

Have a session with ELIZA for yourself

Ray Kurzweil is interested in blurring the lines between people and hardware. What if your mind could be uploaded to a machine? Sounds very cylon-ic to me

In case you missed the link in the review, Barbie Wants to Get
to Know Your Child
– NY Times – by James Vlahos

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

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Filed under AI, Artificial Intelligence, computers, Fiction, Literary Fiction, programming, Psychology and the Brain, Science Fiction

SevenEves by Neal Stephenson

book cover

The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason.

I guess in order to indulge in a bit of world-building one must destroy the world first.

Neal Stephenson is a genius. A polymath with a wide range of interests, he specializes in the big idea, and the more concrete the better. In this way he carries forward the tradition of hard science fiction, in which the best example is probably Arthur C. Clarke. Stephenson eschews FTL transportation, time travel, invading aliens, or any of the other tropes of sci-fi that cannot find a solid basis in contemporary science. Instead he takes what is known, adds what is possible, and extrapolates to what could be. His one concession to the unknown is his opening, noted at top. Although a theory or two are trotted out, we never really learn what caused the moon to explode. Consider it the MacGuffin of the novel, the plot device that gets the action moving. I guess breaking up isn’t hard to do. No exploding moon? No story. Why does it explode? Doesn’t matter. The story is about what happens after.

The kernel around which the story nucleated was the space debris problem, which I had been reading about, both as a potential obstacle to the company’s efforts and as a possible opportunity to do something useful in space by looking for ways to remediate it. Some researchers had begun to express concern over the possibility that a collision between two pieces of debris might spawn a large number of fragments, thereby increasing the probability of further collisions and further fragments, producing a chain reaction that might put so much debris into low earth orbit as to create a barrier to future space exploration. – from Stephenson’s site

And the story is a compelling one, not so much in the sense of classic plot construction, but in terms of how we get from the biggest “OH CRAP” moment in human history, to something not guaranteed to soil pants. Stephenson looks most attentively at the engineering details of what is involved in trying to salvage the human race, once it is clear that the sky will go all to pieces, that the term scorched earth will be applicable to all the land on Earth, that the homeland will become a wasteland. What hardware is necessary? What is available? What can go wrong? How do we get from here to up there? This is his gig. He loves this stuff and it shows. He also does a good job of portraying the ensuing struggles down below. Who will be selected to survive? How will they be picked? How will the politics of the selection be handled? What will the criteria be? Ideas bang into other ideas, which fracture and crash into even more ideas, and so on, until you have an entire layer of nifty concept blanketing your brain.

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World leaders make the big announcement of imminent doom at Crater Lake, and yes, it really is that blue

I think Stephenson is more optimistic than most and his presumptions about the level of on-the-ground conflict and pure lunacy are out of line with what we know about humans. He gives only a little thought to deniers, but in a country like the USA, for example, in which a quarter of the population does not believe in evolution, in which the Republican base clings to beliefs that would make L. Ron Hubbard scream for mercy, in which Texas lunatics of both the tinfoil-hat and elected variety (I know, no real difference there) persuade themselves that a military exercise is a federal invasion, there would be a lot more going on, denier-wise, than Stephenson projects. All theoretical of course, but do you really think that in the time remaining that birthers and those who believe the Apollo moon landing was a hoax would not make use of their considerable ordnance to make life even more miserable for those with brains?

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Neal Stephenson

The book is divided into three parts, although it breaks down into smaller chapter chunks. The first takes us from the initial event to the beginning of the end of Earth as we know it, how humanity comes together, or doesn’t, to preserve the species. Part two takes on the final days of earth and a whole new world of conflict, resolution, or not, setting the stage for Part three, five thousand years on, when, through forces natural and engineer-enhanced, it is again possible to set foot on Mother Earth without singeing your toes. The seven eves of the title refer to the last orbiting survivors, whose reproductive capacity and DNA is used in an attempt to reconstitute the species, and, hopefully, in time, reclaim the original Mother ship.

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This inflatable harbinger will be heading to the ISS this year – image from Smithsonian Magazine

Stephenson does action-adventure pretty well, and there is plenty of that here. The end of the Earth is a compelling starting point and survival of the species concerns will keep you engaged. Will this work? Will that? Who will live? Who won’t?

Character is not the thing in Neal Stephenson fiction. His greatest talents lie elsewhere. Although it is definitely fun that he puts an avatar of Neal DeGrasse Tyson aboard. The significance of character here is to consider personality differences and their social, and genetic engineering implications. Given people with certain traits, how are they likely to behave, and how will those behaviors help or harm the survivability of homo sap? There is consideration of the concept of the state of nature. What is natural for people? How is that defined? Pretty interesting stuff. And there is plenty more brain candy in SevenEves. (Not for you, zombies, go away) On the hardware side, how about harnessing asteroids and comets for raw materials? Using robots of unexpectedly small dimensions for space-mining? Making orbiting environments in which humanity could survive, and even expand? How about some notions for terra-forming not only lifeless space rocks, but…um…Terra. How about interesting ways of transporting people and materials between orbiting locations, and between Earth and orbit. How about some advanced notions for individual flight on-planet? Life sciences? How about the challenges of food production in space? Bio-engineering is the biggest item here, not only in selecting who gets to be among those sent into orbit to survive torch-ageddon. But in figuring out how the differences in people can be used to ensure survival of the species, and looking at the results, some of which are quite surprising. Social science? Well, the science is a lot softer here, but the politics of end-times Earth and struggles for power among the spacers offer a look at elements of human nature that will be familiar. Stephenson’s optimism about our ability to think our way to actual survival is balanced by his recognition that we are, as a species, probably certifiable, so will continue having at each other as long as there are others to go after.

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An O’Neill Cylinder – from the outside

I am certain that those more versed in contemporary sci-fi will have more recent comparisons to make, but the work that I was most reminded of here is the Hugo-Award-winner for Best-All-Time Series, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. In both, a core of talented people (a broader range of talent than in Stephenson‘s more engineer-and-hard-science-oriented portrayal) are brought together to preserve human culture in the face of an imminent catastrophe. The specifics are quite different, but they share a grandness of vision. No psychohistory in SevenEves, but the multi-millennial look at humanity offers the opportunity for and realization of a great speculative vision.

There are some commonalities between SevenEves and another recent, and very popular, sci-fi offering of the space variety, The Martian. Not in girth, of course. The Martian, at a mere 384 pps, could dock with and be pulled up on the side the 880 page SevenEves like a tender boat on a cruise ship. Both deal with life-and-death scenarios in an airless void (no, not the US Congress), although one deals with a single life in jeopardy, while the other takes on a larger target. But there is a heavy emphasis on tech in both. Weir’s wonderful story offered an engaging narrator and way too much detail on how he goes about attempting to survive while stranded on the red planet. Stephenson writes about things that he finds interesting whether or not they clutter up the story with technical minutiae, and at 880 pps, trust me, there is too much detail. Hey, his book, his story. He gets off on the details of mechanics, and it is nowhere as mind-numbing as an endless jeremiad by, say John Galt, but you may find yourself feeling a need to skim from time to time. (Purely an aside – I think Chris Moore should write a novel about the Republican clown car of presidential candidates, called The Galt in our Stars, in which someone gets a life threatening disease and no one cares). I wonder also how the very small number of remnant original eves is supposed to be able to provide the training their progeny will require to master all the skills required to sustain civilization. I am sure there are many other details one could look at in considering the next five thousand or so years, but it might take a few more volumes.

SevenEves is a major contribution to contemporary science fiction. It is engaging enough on a visceral level, but it is crack not just for sci-fi fans, but for futurists, scientists, geneticists, engineers, and those concerned with how humanity will survive the challenges that lie ahead. It is a big book, not only in its physical bulk, but in its ambition and range of interests. Like the great works of his predecessors, Asimov, Clarke and other giants of science fiction, the vision Stephenson has built in SevenEves will be read, I expect, as long as there are still people left alive, whether on Earth or not.

Publication date – 5/19/15

This review posted – 5/15/15

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

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

Folks who object to paying their taxes are already interested in working on extra-national, and even extra-terrestrial living spaces. At Island One Society there is information on sundry plans that are currently being considered. Please do not take this as an endorsement of any of the political viewpoints expressed there. I include this link purely because it gathers together a nice list of such projects.

O’Neill Cylinders are mentions in SevenEves. This link offers a nifty animated fly-through that will offer a better sense than a single graphic image could.

Roboticized mining is the likeliest way we will make use of extra-terrestrial natural resources This example of the coming tech is called Swarmies.

I have read several Stephenson books over the years, but Reamde is the only one I have previously reviewed.

More shots of Crater Lake, among other places in that general neck of the woods

Fascinating piece from The Atlantic Magazine on mining the asteroids, among other things, Robots, Platinum, and Tiny Space Telescopes: The Pitch for Mining Asteroids by Ross Anderson from the May 14, 2012 issue

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Filed under Fiction, Literary Fiction, Science Fiction