Book Review: The Companions by Katie M. Flynn (2020)

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2020

A haunting glimpse into one possible future.

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through NetGalley.)

four out of five stars

Where I live now is a blank space. I imagine you live somewhere similar. I can fill it with light, with sorrow, drench it in horror, erase it all with an ocean roar. I can fill it with memories, you putting on your sister’s clothes, Lea! I can remember her name—I don’t know why. There are washes of gray nothing where whole years should be, but I remember thinking something bad would happen at that house party.

Standing on the cliffs, holding that shovel in my living teenage hands, the hot feeling of anger. We were just girls—what was I so angry about?

The Companions imagines a future San Francisco that feels all too possible; one shaped in equal measures by disease and capitalism (or are they just one and the same?).

Ravaged by several successive waves of a mysterious and highly contagious virus, the citizens of California are under quarantine. In San Francisco, residents are confined to crowded high rises; children attend school online and socialize in carefully planned and closely supervised play dates in their buildings. The internet is many peoples’ only link to the world outside their tightly sealed towers.

And then there are the companions: when people die, they can opt to have their consciousness downloaded into a semi-immortal body. But this comes at a price: companions are the intellectual property of Metis, the giant megacorp that birthed the companion technology. For a hefty fee, the grotesquely wealthy can remain in the custody of their descendants; the less fortunate belong to Metis, to rent out as it pleases. The bodies used to house the companions’ consciousness run the gamut, from beat-up, trashcan-shaped robots that sport hooks for arms, to lifelike human bodies capable of regenerating skin. Distribution is predictably class-based.

When I read the synopsis for The Companions – a sixteen-year-old murder victim turned first-gen companion goes rogue in order to hunt down her killer – I was hooked (sorry Lilac, no pun intended). However, this plot point primarily serves as a jumping-off point for a much larger story: about technological developments, corporate greed, unintended consequences, and cultural backlash. As much as I wanted to delve into story about robot revenge, I still greatly enjoyed the end result. (Unmet expectations aren’t always a bad thing!)

The narrative unfolds from the alternating perspectives of a whole host of characters, all of them bound by Lilac’s rebellion:

* There’s Lilac, of course, who wakes in her Rosie the Robot-esque body to find that she’s been requisitioned as the plaything of a teenage girl named Delilah.

* Nikki, Lila’s childhood best friend (and secret crush), whose unknown fate haunts Lilac decades later.

* Red/Mrs. Crozier, the teenage girl who killed Lila in a fit of jealousy, now a lonely and bitter old woman who lives in the Jedediah Smith Elderly Care Facility.

* Cam, one of Red’s caregivers.

* Gabe/Gabrielle, an orphaned street kid in San Francisco who ekes out an existence as a semi-professional thief.

* Diana, one of the scientists who developed Metis’s companion technology.

* Kit, an illegal companion duplicate.

* Rachel, a companion recruited as a mercenary.

* Jakob Sonne, an actor with dangerously independent ideas of his own.

* Mrs. Espera, ex-wife of studio exec Sydney Espera and mother to their adult daughter Isla.

* Rolly, the son of a farmer named James, who turned to disposing of companions for Metis after he lost much of his land after the quarantine.

* Andy, Rolly’s brother, who goes missing for a time when he’s kinda sorta kidnapped by a pair of companions.

While Lilac’s escape from Dahlia’s custody does set subsequent events into motion, the story becomes so much bigger than one person. Lilac’s singular act of rebellion inspires insurrection in others – sometimes with disastrous results. There are bombings and terrorists attacks and recalls. Acts of stunning inhumanity, as well as tiny moments of kindness and bravery.

Despite its somewhat diminutive size, The Companions is an ambitious book: it dares us to contemplate what immortality might look like, given our current sociopolitical climate. How might such a promising technology be twisted against us, made dystopian? How can we stop this happening? Can we, even?

Read it if: you rooted for the Cylons in BSG.

Read it with: Arwen Elys Dayton’s Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful, which is grander in scope yet has a similar vibe.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

Book Review: The Unseen World, Liz Moore (2016)

Friday, July 29th, 2016

Brilliant, heartfelt, and full of surprises.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley.)

The work of the Steiner Lab, in simple terms, was to create more and more sophisticated versions of this kind of language-acquisition software. […]

These applications of the software, however, were only a small part of what interested David, made him stay awake feverishly into the night, designing and testing programs. There was also the art of it, the philosophical questions that this software raised. The essential inquiry was thus: If a machine can convincingly imitate humanity—can persuade a human being of its kinship—then what makes it inhuman? What, after all, is human thought but a series of electrical impulses?

“What can I get you to eat, hon?” asked Liston, and rattled off a list of all the snacks of the 1980s that Ada was never permitted to have: canned pastas by Chef Boyardee, Fluffernutter sandwiches, fluorescent Kraft macaroni and cheese. In truth, Ada had never even heard of some of the food Liston offered her.

I was told to ask you something, said Ada finally.
I know, said ELIXIR. I’ve been waiting.

Ada Sibelius had something of an unconventional upbringing, beginning with her very conception. At the tender age of 45, Dr. David Sibelius – “director of a computer science laboratory at the Boston Institute of Technology, called the Bit, or the Byte if he was feeling funny” – decided that he wanted a child. Ada (named after one of David’s favorite entries in the Encyclopædia Britannica) was born to a surrogate one year later. This was no small thing back then: 1971, to be exact.

In keeping with his eccentric nature, David decided to homeschool his daughter; or rather lab-school her. Ada accompanied David – as she called him – to work every day, where she was immersed in his world, in the language of mathematics, neurology, physics, philosophy, and computer science. In the absence of any biological relatives, David’s colleagues – Charles-Robert, Hayato, Frank Halbert, and Diane Liston – became her extended family; his interests were hers. Ada learned to solve complex equations, decrypt puzzles, and present and defend theories. David filled composition books with the names of books, songs, pieces of artwork, and even wines that she should try one day; a cultured bucket list before its time. In many ways, their relationship was more like that of a teacher and his student than a father and his daughter.

At the Steiner Lab, David and his colleagues studied natural language processing and developed language-acquisition software. Their crowning achievement – David’s second child, if you will – was ELIXIR (mmmm, magic!). Everyone at the lab – including Ada – took turns chatting with ELIXIR, to teach it the words and rules and complexities of language. The program was meant to acquire language the way that humans do, and learn it did. Slowly but surely, ELIXIR grew alongside Ada, evolving from garbled, nonsense text to a semi-eloquent conversationalist (albeit one who reflected the habits and speech patterns of its teachers). For Ada, ELIXIR was a confidant, a non-recoverable diary; she poured her heart and soul into ELIXIR, especially when things got bad.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Illuminae (The Illuminae Files #1), Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff (2015)

Wednesday, February 10th, 2016

Can’t Stop the Signal

five out of five stars

CitB: stay on task, grasshopper. we let the Alexander burn us out of the sky, your red hot love will be subsumed by a bigger, hotter flame

ByteMe: how do you even function in society?

CitB: it’s a struggle

Before this moment, I have never wished to be something other than what I am.

Normally I try not to let myself get swept up in all the excitement over the Next Big Book; I’ve been burned one (or fifteen) times too many. But Illuminae? Deserves all the hype and then some. It’s a twisty-turny, roller coaster ride with a little something for everyone: action, adventure, romance, suspense, science fiction, horror. Zombies, spaceships, and an insane artificial intelligence. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The story starts with a bang – literally. The year is 2075, and the planet Kerenza is under attack. An illegal mining colony located far from the core, Kerenza is the site of a power struggle between two mega-corps: Wallace Ulyanov Consortium (WUC), which operates Kerenza, and its competitor, BeiTech Industries. Rather than report Kerenza’s illicit activities to the United Terran Authority (UTA) and bury the WUC in fines, BeiTech chooses a more lucrative and diabolical route: kill everyone on Kerenza and steal the planet for itself. Since it’s an illegal settlement, chances are that the WUC will write off the loss rather than report it to the UTA. That’s BeiTech’s gamble, anyway, and it’s a safe one. Only they didn’t wager on there being any survivors.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Love + Sex with Robots, David Levy (2007)

Friday, May 4th, 2012

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Welcome to New Earth

three out of five stars

I have a confession to make: my BSG OTP isn’t Starbuck and Apollo. Or Starbuck and Anders. It isn’t Lee and Doulla, Saul and Ellen Tigh, or even Captain Adama and President Roslin (as lovely as their relationship was). My favorite coupling in the entire series is Helo and Athena – Karl Agathon and his Cylon wife. She defected to the human side of the war to be with him; he saved the Cylons from certain genocide. Their love survived and flourished in spite of overwhelming odds. The product of this love, daughter Hera – the very first human/Cylon hybrid – joined the first settlers of New Earth, eventually becoming Mother Eve to us all.

Perhaps, then, I’m not the best judge of David Levy’s Love + Sex with Robots: The Evolution of Human-Robot Relationships, seeing as I’m already sold on the idea. (Assuming, of course, that we one day develop sentient, self-aware robots. Otherwise it’s all just physical and mental masturbation, don’t you think?) Drawing upon decades of psychosocial research, Levy – an expert on artificial intelligence and author of Robots Unlimited (2005) – explores two (really three) separate but related topics: 1) Will robot evolution result in androids that are physically and behaviorally indistinguishable from humans and, if so, will humans prove willing to enter into 2) emotional and 3) sexual relationships with them?

Levy answers these questions with a resounding – if sometimes overenthusiastic – “YES!” Tracing the history of sex toys, Levy demonstrates that humans are already “having sex” (read: masturbating) with technology, and have been for some time: consider, if you will, sex dolls, vibrators, virtual reality, teledildonics, and the like. Whereas sexual aids were a source of shame (and even criminal prosecution) in days past, they’re now sold openly in Western societies. Likewise, many people retain the services of sex workers at one time or another; taking into account their reasons for doing so, robotic sex workers seem inevitable. On the “love” side of the equation, Levy delves into psychological research which parses out the hows and whys of human relationships – and adeptly explains how most (though not all) of these factors would play out in human-android couplings. He points to peoples’ attachment to their robotic and virtual “pets” – such as the Tamagotchi and Digimon – as an example of how we extend attachments from sentient, organic beings (dogs, cats, gerbils) to their artificial (albeit not quite intelligent – not yet!) counterparts.

While Levy presents a compelling argument, there are also a few missed opportunities. Given that popular culture – movies, television shows, literature, music, etc. – both reflects and influences social mores, I would’ve liked to have seen a discussion of human-robot relationships in pop culture. Blade Runner, Battlestar Galactica, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Alien, Star Trek, Wall-e, Futurama, A.I. – there are so many from which to choose! An examination of the audience’s reaction to human-Cylon couplings in BSG, for example, might evince how viewers feel about “love + sex with robots” – in theory at least. Further, a generation of kids weaned on shows that positively portray such relationships is bound to be more receptive to the idea in practice.

More problematic is Levy’s near-total failure to examine the ethical implications of such relationships. As objects – pieces of property belonging to their human owners – can robots even be said to have sex or fall in love “with” humans? “With” implies some degree of reciprocity, which requires not just intelligence but also free will. If robots are made to order and can be reprogrammed at the owner’s whim, can their “choice” to enter into an emotional or sexual relationship with a human (particularly their owner/programmer) ever be truly consensual? And how can a mere piece of property, with the same legal status and moral standing of a tv or computer, enter into a legal contract such as a marriage?

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Sweet Spot: A Taste of Things to Come, a catalogue from Hong Kong, lists nearly 70 different models of blow-up doll, including saucy Sondrine, whose hair, nipple, and genitalia glow in the dark; Betty Fat Girl Bouncer, to satisfy the chubby chaser; Brandi Sommer, with ‘super vibrating LoveClone lips’; and The Perfect Date, which is just 36 inches tall and is equipped with a mouth and a cup holder built into her head. There’s even a dairy maid doll who lactates and has short blonde braids reminscent of Swiss Miss. Some of the blow-ups vibrate and, oddly enough, scream.”

Meghan Laslocky, quoted in Love + Sex with Robots, David Levy (2007)
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Some will argue that a robot can be re/programmed to enjoy whatever fate her owner has chosen for her. If the robot is “happy” with her treatment, then, what’s the harm? Consider the following scenario, if you will. John Smith is a misogynist. He gets off on humiliating, hurting, and dominating women. Rather than rape human women and risk jail time (a slim risk, but that’s another matter), he decides to buy a robot and program her to “enjoy” physical and sexual abused. Is this acceptable? Why or why not?

But let’s say that John doesn’t want “his” robot to enjoy being treated so poorly; after all, causing a woman to suffer is the best part! Suppose the robot is programmed to merely tolerate his sadism, or perhaps to be traumatized by it. What then? Or maybe John Smith is a pedophile or zoophile. Is “sex with” a child or nonhuman animal somehow more ethical if these children and animals are artificially created? Where’s the line? Is there a line?

At times Levy describes these future robots as “conscious” and “sentient” without going into further detail. If androids do evolve to the point that they are sentient – capable of feeling pain and suffering – are they not deserving of the same rights that humans enjoy, regardless of how they came into being? (As a vegan, my answer is obvious: I believe that ALL sentient beings have the right to live free of human oppression. Or perhaps “human/oid oppression” is a more accurate phrase, at least in the context of this discussion!) Chief among these is these is autonomy – the right not to be treated as an object, bought, sold, and owned by others. For robots and humans alike, the right to control one’s own body – mind/programming included – is also a basic “human” right. If it’s acceptable to reprogram a sentient android to do your bidding, then what about naturally created humans (a la Dollhouse)?

These moral quandaries are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg – and, while I realize that a satisfactory discussion of these could easily take up an entire book or even series of books, Levy would have been well served not to relegate them to a passing mention in the conclusion. Doubly so since some of these issues go to the very core of his argument: namely, that humans will one day fall in love and have sex with robots. This is only possible if robots are equal partners, capable of falling in love and having sex of their own accord. Otherwise it’s not love and sex – but rather rape, masturbation, and one-way object attachment.

Given how we treat our fellow earthlings, I think it’ll take the equivalent of a Cylon rebellion to realize Levy’s vision.

A promotional image from the Battlestar Galactica sequel, Caprica, shows a young white woman holding a rosy red apple, from which she has taken a large bite. the copy reads, “The future of humanity begins with a choice.” The woman? Zoey Graystone, the very first Cylon in the BSG ‘verse.
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On that note, I seriously need to rewatch Battlestar Galactica and Dollhouse, stat!

As always, this review is crossposted on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please vote me helpful if you’re so inclined!