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Book Review: A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers (Series, #1)

Image of a digital book cover. A path runs through a flowery nature with a 1950s style metal robot on one side and a monk sitting on the back stoop of a tiny house on the other. The title A Psalm for the Wild-Built runs across it.

Summary:
Dex is a tea monk on a planet that lives an eco-friendly lifestyle on a minimal share of the planet with a large portion left wild. The robots found sentience years ago and left for the wild themselves. When Dex diverges suddenly from their usual traveling path, a robot makes contact for the first time in generations.

Review:
This book just oozes coziness and relaxation. Things happen but reading it feels sort of like visiting a 1990s era fantasy/scifi tv show where nothing truly dangerous happens and everything gets wrapped up nicely within 60 minutes. If that tv show was progressive enough to have a non-binary main character that is.

Sibling Dex’s planet is a lot like Earth but definitely is not Earth. The most notable clear indicator that this is not Earth is the universal religion, which Dex is a monk in service of. That said, this religion seems like kind of a mash-up of Buddhism and Hinduism to me. It’s got a lot of Buddhist traditions but tied to a set of 6 gods/goddesses. Dex is in particular service to Allalae, who is tied to bears somehow. I enjoyed the tie to bears. It means there are cute carvings and things of bears everywhere.

The book follows Dex’s journey from an urban monk to a traveling tea monk who roams around the countryside on a bicycle/tiny house extravaganza. Tea monks basically show up, listen to people’s feelings, and then make the perfect cup of tea for whatever their current needs are. They eventually feel what struck me as a bit of a quarter-life (or mid-life?) crisis and veers off-course to visit an old monastery. It’s at this point that Mosscap the wild-build robot reaches out to make contact.

When the robots gained sentience, it was agreed that humans would not contact robots but robots could contact humans. Mosscap is on a mission to see how humans are doing, and of course Dex and Mosscap pair up and help each other on their quests. This is when the fun conversations take place between Dex, who is clearly a bit overly tied to his emotions, and Mosscap, an externally observant logical being. I enjoyed these conversations, even though I found them to be rather expected.

Here’s the thing. I would have loved this book if it had gone on longer. I felt like we were just really starting to get into the meat of things when the book ended. I get it this is the start to a series. But it’s quite short (almost novella length), and I was enjoying the world. I also, from a story structure perspective, feel that essentially things just got set up. I supposed one could chose to write a trilogy that splits the basic story structure out across three books but that will inevitably feel to some people like a bit of a let-down because we expect a complete story. I wish someone had said, “Hey! Just finish telling Dex and Mosscap’s story! No need to stop yet.” I’d probably be less annoyed by this if the next book was out already.

I didn’t find anything in this to be incredibly deep, although I suspect I may have if I had read it before I had studied a lot of philosophical and religious literature. I did however find it to be cozy and relaxing, and I loved the juxtaposition of a cottage core tiny house monk with a 1950s style robot with sentience. Yes. I was also pleased to see Dex as non-binary, and how smoothly their culture just clearly had it set up to say Sibling Dex instead of Brother or Sister. The representation worked and never felt forced.

Recommended to anyone looking for a short, cozy, scifi read and/or to those looking for non-binary representation in scifi.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 160 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: Library

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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: vN by Madeline Ashby (series, #1)

A white woman's face surrounded by machine parts.Summary:
Amy is 5 year old robot. An exact replica–iteration–of her mother, who is in a relationship with a human male.  Her parents are restricting her food to raise her slowly at a human child’s pace instead of at a robot’s.  But when her grandmother shows up to her kindergarten graduation and threatens her mother, things go haywire.  It quickly becomes apparent that the failsafe that makes robots love humans innately and makes them incapable of withstanding seeing violence against humans has failed to activate in Amy.  She finds herself full-grown and on the run from humans and her robot aunts alike as she struggles to figure out who she is and what her existence means to humanity.

Review:
Artificial Intelligence/Robot books tend to take a bit more to draw me in than say a zombie book.  It’s really hard to do AI in a way that is simultaneously scientifically/culturally believable and unique.  Frankly, I need a bit more believability in an AI book than in a zombie one, since AI is real science.  Plus, the book should examine their cultural place in the world, and that needs to be believable.  I am pleased to say that this book gets it mostly right.  It’s enjoyable, scientifically minded, culturally thought-provoking, and examines a real life issue in the context of genre, which long-time readers of this blog know is something I highly enjoy.

The first thing that made me know this is a smart book is the source of the robots (called Von Neumanns after their creator).  A fundamentalist group in the American South decided that the humans left behind after Jesus’ Second Coming should have someone to help them through the Tribulation, so they invented humanoid robots to be ready to help.  Clearly, the Second Coming didn’t happen, and the fundamentalists ended up selling Von Neumanns, and the Von Neumanns wind up a part of the cultural backdrop, not to mention the porn industry.  As a character says to Amy:

There are only two industries in this world that ever make any kind of progress: porn, and the military. And when they hop in bed together with crazy fundamentalists, we get things like you. (location 1944)

This is the most unique and engaging origin story for robots that I’ve seen, plus it makes sense and provides cultural commentary.  The Von Neumanns originated as a religious experiment, were swiped by the military and the porn industry, and became a part of everyday life.  It’s just an awesome origin story for the world that Amy is in.

The characters, including the robots, are three-dimensional.  Everyone has complex motivations and the main characters definitely grow and progress with time.  No one is presented as pure evil or good.

The plot is similarly complex.  There’s a lot going on in Amy’s world, and none of it is predictable.  What is the failsafe precisely and is it a good or a bad thing?  Is it a natural progression that it doesn’t work in Amy?  What about how Amy’s mother and grandmother reacted to the human world around them?  Did they see accurate shortcomings or were they just malfunctioning?  And what about how the various humans use the Von Neumann’s?  For instance, pedophiles acquire Von Neumanns and keep them young by starving them.  Is this a good, harmless thing since it protects human children or have robots evolved to be far more than just a machine?  The world is complex and full of tough questions, and thus is challenging and unpredictable, making for an engaging read.

What I most enjoyed though was how the whole book presents the question of nature versus nurture in a genre setting.  Are we our parents with no hope of improvement or escape?  Or do we have more say in the matter than just our genetics or “programming”?  Amy has a psychopathic grandmother and a mother who has made questionable choices.  Does this mean that Amy is evil or malfunctioning or even capable of being something different from the rest of her family?  All of these questions lead to some interesting stand-offs, one of which includes my favorite quote of the book:

An iteration isn’t a copy, Mother. It’s just the latest version. I’m your upgrade. That’s why I did what I did. Because I’m just better than you. (location 2581)

All that said, there were two things that kept this back from five stars for me.  First, some of the writing style choices Ashby uses drew me out of the story a bit. They are periodically highly artistic in a way that didn’t jibe with the story for me.  I get why she made those choices, but as a reader they aren’t ones that generally work for me.  Second, one thing that really drew me out of the story is the fact that the robot’s boobs don’t move.  This is mentioned at one point as being a way to tell if a woman is robot or not.  This drew me out of the world very hard while I laughed uproariously.  I’m sorry, but machines designed by men would simply not have hard plastic boobs.  Their boobs would bounce, dammit.  This would at least be in the top 10 list of robot requirements.  It simply wasn’t a realistic design choice, and it pulled me out of the story to such an extent that it lost the believability for a bit for me.

Overall, this is a creatively written and complex scifi artificial intelligence story that examines not just what makes us human but also individuality and uniqueness separate from parents and family.  Some of the more artistic writing choices and high levels of violence might not appeal to all audiences, but if you’re an AI or scifi lover with an interest in nature versus nurture and stories featuring strong female leads, you should definitely give this a go.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: NetGalley

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Book Review: Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson (Audiobook narrated by Mike Chamberlain)

June 16, 2012 3 comments

Robot face with red eyes.Summary:
Cormac Wallace reviews the surveillance tape taken by Rob (robots) during the New War–the war between humans and robots.  He thus recounts the history of the war to the reader.

Review:
Basically this is supposed to be World War Z only with robots.  It falls incredibly short.

What makes World War Z such an awesome book (beyond the fact that zombies are better than robots) is that it is a mock oral history of a war.  This is a thing that actually happens after a war in real life.  Oral historians go around and gather real information from the survivors about the war.  Although the NPR style narrator frames the chapters, they are all given by different survivors from their own perspectives.

The problem with Robopocalypse is that it tries to use the same method for a very different story.  Much as Wilson may want a robot war to be like a zombie war, it ISN’T.  And it shouldn’t be recounted in the same way.  Wilson sort of realizes this, because he has Wallace recount the war by watching the “black box” surveillance of Rob.  The thing is, though, that really doesn’t work in book form.

A)  Why would Cormac write down something that is already available visually?  Why wouldn’t he just copy/pasta the videotape and send it out?

B)  The chapters swing wildly between Cormac describing what he’s seeing on screen (insanely boring) and random first hand accounts from everyone from himself to dead people. Yeah. Dead people have first-person accounts in this book. THAT MAKES NO SENSE.

Also, the pacing is off.  The build up to Rob attacking is painfully slow, but Rob taking over misses a lot of the details that would be interesting.  Similarly, details as to how people all over the world start collaborating and beat the brilliant Rob is sped up and glossed over too much.  Essentially, things that should have more space in the book have too little, and things that should have very little space have too much.

I have to say that the narration by Mike Chamberlain did not help matters any.  His voice is practically monotone, and he adds nothing to the story.

The concept of a robot war is a good one, although I admit to having more loyalty to zombies.  However, the format used in World War Z just will not work in a robot war.  Wilson should have focused on one small group of people or actually tried out the whole oral history thing.  This bouncing around between perspectives and verbally recounting surveillance footage simply does not work.  I cannot recommend this book. There is simply far better plotted scifi out there.

2 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Movie Review: Metropolis Restored (1927)

April 26, 2011 1 comment

Robot surrounded by blue rings.Summary:
Fritz Lang’s classic silent film tells of a future dystopia in which the elite few who live in a shining city are supported by the low-class masses in the depths of the earth performing mundane jobs.  Joh, the son of the mayor, becomes curious and goes to the slums below where he becomes infatuated with Maria, a peace-loving woman the masses look up to and adore.  The mayor along with the sinister inventor, Rotwang, decide to steal her likeness for a robot in order to bring the masses back under control.

Review:
This classic film has inspired art, music, and other films for decades, so I suppose I was expecting something mind-blowing.  Instead I found myself and my friend creating a drinking game to go with watching it, because it is just that ridiculous of a movie.

Now I have an appreciation for older films, including silent ones.  What made the film disappointing had nothing to do with the trappings of the time–the overly expressive facial cues, the odd choice of dress, the exaggerated movements.  It had entirely to do with the plot.

Supposedly the “moral” of the story is “between the brain and the hands there must be the heart–the mediator.”  Ok, so, this whole incredibly unequal society is a-ok and the only thing that will work for everyone, it’s just that there has to be a mediator between the elite and the lower class?  That’s a bit….depressing.  One wonders why such a film has remained so popular for so long with such an awful final message.

Plus there’s the whole Maria and her double plot that makes almost zero sense.  Although the robot double was supposedly made in order to make the lower class rise up to give the elite an excuse to be violent against them, her first task is to go to an elite club and dance sexually before the men causing them to abandon the women they usually sleep with.  What does that have to do with anything?  Why was that even included in the film?

In the end, I’m a bit baffled as to how this has remained such an inspiring classic over time.  Although it wasn’t dull to watch, there was nothing mind-blowing about it.  Overall I would recommend it to fans of silent films and those wondering what the fuss over Metropolis is all about, just don’t expect to be blown away by it.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Netflix

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