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Book Review: I, Robot by Isaac Asimov (Series, #0.1) (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

September 21, 2013 Leave a comment

Image of a see-through robot with red eyes.  Blurred like it is in motion. It is on a black background, and the book's title and author are in white text at the top.Summary:
This collection of short stories tells the history of the invention and gradual improvement of robots.  The robots in this future must follow the 3 Laws of Robotics:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

But following these laws doesn’t always have quite the outcome the inventors and managers of robots intended.

Review:
I wasn’t aware I, Robot is actually a short story collection.  It’s precisely the type I enjoy though because they all work together to tell one overarching story in order.  Beginning with the earliest robots, they slowly move up through important points in the history of robotics to lead up to the world run by big brain machine robots that Asimov has imagined.  This collection is a prequel of sorts (and of many) to Asimov’s robot series that begins with The Caves of Steel (list of entire series).

One thing I like about the world Asimov sets up is that unlike many scifi books featuring AI, the people in Asimov’s world are highly, intensely cautious of robots.  They’re very concerned about robots taking jobs, killing humans, and even robbing humans of their autonomy.  It sets up a conflict from the beginning and frankly presents the humans as just a bit more intelligent than in some AI scifi universes.

I was under the impression from pop culture that in I, Robot they think they’re protected by the Laws of Robotics but something happens so that the robots aren’t programmed with them any longer.  That’s not what happens at all.  What happens is much more complex.  How the robots interpret the Laws and how the Laws work end up being much more complex and less straight-forward than the humans originally imagined, so much so that they have to have a robopsychologist to help them interpret what’s going on with the robots.  This is really quite brilliant and is one of my favorite aspects of the book.

Unfortunately, the book can read a bit sexist sometimes, in spite of having a female protagonist through quite a bit of the book.  (The robopsychologist is a woman).  The book was first published in 1950, though, so when you think about the time period, the sexism is pretty minor, especially compared to having a female worldwide expert on robopsychology.  The main time sexism comes up is when the leader of Europe is a woman and says some self-deprecating things about difficulty leading because she’s a woman.  Yes, there is older scifi that avoids sexism pretty much entirely, but I am able to give this instance a bit of a pass considering the other strong portrayal of a woman in a leadership role.  But be aware that at least one cringe-inducing sexist conversation does occur.

Overall, this piece of classic scifi stands the test of time extraordinarily well.  Its film adaptations do not do it proper service at all.  Come to this book expecting a collection of short stories exploring robopsychology, not an action flick about killer robots.  Recommended to scifi fans.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Harvard Books

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Book Review: Initiate by Tara Maya (Series, #1)

September 20, 2013 1 comment

A bunette wearing a white dress with blue embroidery gazes at a blue pixie.  The book's title and author's name are on the cover in blue and white lettering.Summary:
Dindi is about to undergo her people’s initiation test and ceremony that not only welcomes her to adulthood but also will determine whether or not she is a member of the Tavaedi.  The Tavaedi are a mix of religious leader, healer, and warrior who cast magic spells by dancing.  Since Dindi can see the pixies and other fae, she thinks she has a chance.  But no one in her clan has ever successfully become a Tavaedi.  Meanwhile, an exiled warrior, Kavio, is attempting to shed his old life and the haunting of his father’s wars and his mother’s powers.  But he slowly discovers a deadly plot that brings him directly to Dindi’s initiation ceremony.

Review:
It takes something special for me to pick up either a YA or a fantasy book, and this one is both.  But Jessica’s review over on The Bookworm Chronicles had me intrigued.  A fantasy series based on Polynesian tales and traditions is unique in fantasy.  Plus the idea of magic from dancing really appealed to the dancer in me (years of tap and jazz, also many lessons in ballroom, zumba, etc…).  When I found out the first book in the series is free on the Kindle, I had to try it out, and I’m glad I did!  I really enjoyed the book, and its presence highlights many of the strengths of indie publishing.

The world is richly imagined and well described.  The tribes and clans have clearly defined and described cultures that vary from stable farming to warrior to cannibal.  The structure of the societies make sense and are rich without being overly detailed.  I particularly appreciated that this is a tribal culture fantasy without ever claiming to be the real or imagined history of any known to exist (or to have existed) tribe.  It is inspired by Polynesian culture but it is still a fantasy, similar to how medieval fantasy is inspired by the real Middle Ages but never claims to be what happened.  This lends itself to rich world building without ever venturing off into ridiculous “historical” fiction.

The plot slowly builds Dindi’s story and Kavio’s story, gradually bringing them together.  This is good since Dindi is still young enough that she doesn’t see much of the intrigue going on around her.  Dindi’s perspective shows us the day-to-day existence of people in this world, whereas Kavio shows us the higher-ranking intrigue.  It didn’t bother me that Dindi starts out a bit innocent because it is clear she will grow in knowledge with time.  Meanwhile, bringing in Kavio’s perspective helps establish the world for the reader.  There were also enough smaller clashes and twists that I never felt that I knew precisely what was going to happen next.

Although the characters at first seem two-dimensional, they truly are not.  Everyone is more than what immediately meets the eye, and I liked that this lesson occurs repeatedly.  It’s a good thing to see in YA lit.  Dindi is strong, kind, and talented, but she still has her flaws.  She is good but she’s not perfect, which makes her a good main character.  I also appreciate that what will clearly be a romance eventually between Kavio and Dindi starts out so slowly with longing glances from afar.  It’s nice that Dindi and Kavio get a chance to be established as individuals prior to meeting each other, plus the slowly building romance is a nice change of pace for YA lit.

Sometimes the chapter transitions were a bit abrupt or left me a bit lost.  With changing perspectives like this, it would be helpful if the chapter titles were a bit less artistic and gave a bit more setting.  It’s nice that when perspective changes the cue of the character’s name is given, no matter where it happens, but a bit more than that would be nice at the chapter beginnings.  Similarly in scene changes, the break is three pound signs.  I think using a bunch of centered tildes or even a customized drawing, such as of pixies, would be nicer.  At first when I saw these I thought there was some coding error in the ebook.  There also are a few editing mistakes that should not have made it through the final edit, such as saying “suffercate” for suffocate (page 144).  As an indie author myself, I know it is incredibly difficult to edit your own book, so I give a pass to minor typos and things like that.  However, the entirely wrong word for what the author is trying to say should be fixed.  There were few enough that I still enjoyed the book, but I hope that there are less in the future installments of the series.

Overall, this is a unique piece of YA fantasy set in a tribal world inspired by Polynesia.  The romance is light and slow-building, and the focus is primarily on growing up and becoming an adult.  A few minor formatting and editing issues detract from it being a perfect escape read, but it is still highly enjoyable.  I intend to read more of the series, and I recommend it to fantasy and YA fans alike.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

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Note: the Kindle edition is free

Book Review: The Time Machine by H. G. Wells (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

September 7, 2013 11 comments

Simple cover image containing a broad off-white background on the top third of the cover and a red background on the bottom two thirds.  The book's title and author are printed on the background.Summary:
Nobody is quite sure whether to believe their eccentric scientist friend when he claims to have invented the ability to travel through time.  But when he shows up late to a dinner party with a tale of traveling to the year 802,700 and meeting the human race, now divided into the child-like Eloi and the pale ape-like ground-dwelling Morlocks, they find themselves wanting to believe him.

Review:
I was always aware of this scifi classic but oddly had managed to never hear any spoilers.  When I saw it available for free on the kindle, I decided I should download it for when a classic scifi mood struck me in the future.  I’m glad I did because it was there and waiting for me when that mood did strike, and it was completely satisfying.  Like when you eat a food you’ve been craving for days.

The structure and writing style are typical for the late 1800s.  An unnamed narrator tells us of a strange person he met who then takes over the narration to tell us about an event that happened to him.  In this case, that second narrator is the Time Traveler.  The Time Traveler then expounds quite eloquently and philosophically on everything that has happened to him.  I enjoy this storytelling method, because it gives space for the narrator of the strange tale to do this philosophical thinking.  It makes sense to think about what you’ve learned when you’re talking about a past event.  The events are exciting, but they don’t happen at such a break-neck speed that the reader doesn’t have time to think on what they might mean.  After reading a lot of more modern dystopias, it was interesting to read a slower paced one.  Both storytelling techniques work well, but it was definitely a nice change of pace for my reading personally.

The dystopia is really enjoyable.  Instead of getting hung up on politics or climate change, the dystopia revolves entirely around evolution.  The Morlock/Eloi split happened because of the ever-increasing gap between the haves (the future Eloi) and the have-nots (the future Morlocks).  The Eloi are childlike in both stature and behavior.  They are the ultimate end result for what happens when people have no responsibilities and everything done for them, which is clearly how Wells sees the then modern-day elite functioning.  The Time Traveler talks about the ultimate evolutionary faults of a living that is too easy at multiple times.

Strength is the outcome of need; security sets a premium on feebleness. (page 30)

In contrast, the Morlocks live underground in old industrial tunnels.  They are physically strong but have lost their humanity due to a lack of the finer things.  They have no contact with the natural beauty of the world and so have turned into these ape-like, cannibalistic creatures.  The Time Traveler expounds on this:

Even now, does not an East-end worker live in such artificial conditions as practically to be cut off from the natural surface of the earth? (page 50)

I really like that this dystopia is so well thought-out but simultaneously so simple and easy to understand.

The plot itself kept me on the edge of my seat and constantly surprised at what happened.  Although it’s obvious the Time Traveler makes it back from his first voyage, there are other threats and dangers that are sufficient to keep the reader engaged.  The ending actually surprised me as well.

This book has withstood the test of time extremely well.  It has not yet saturated pop culture to the extent that the potential reader is unavoidably spoiled for the details of the plot or the ending.  The dystopia is unique and interesting, in spite of the proliferation of dystopian literature since then.  The philosophical thoughts of the Time Traveler are still applicable to modern society.

Overall, this is a piece of classic scifi that has aged very well.  It simultaneously entertains and challenges the reader.  In addition, it is a short read for a classic, more similar in length to modern fiction.  It is the ideal read for both hard-core scifi fans and those interested in dipping their toe in classic scifi.  Highly recommended!

5 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

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Note: the Kindle edition is free