Book Review: The Impossible Fortress, Jason Rekulak (2017)

Monday, February 27th, 2017

Heck no to the plot twist.

three out of five stars

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

A dazzling debut novel—at once a charming romance and a moving coming-of-age story—about what happens when a fourteen-year old boy pretends to seduce a girl to steal a copy of Playboy but then discovers she is his computer-loving soulmate.

Billy Marvin’s first love was a computer. Then he met Mary Zelinsky.

Do you remember your first love?

The Impossible Fortress begins with a magazine…The year is 1987 and Playboy has just published scandalous photographs of Vanna White, from the popular TV game show Wheel of Fortune. For three teenage boys—Billy, Alf, and Clark—who are desperately uneducated in the ways of women, the magazine is somewhat of a Holy Grail: priceless beyond measure and impossible to attain. So, they hatch a plan to steal it.

The heist will be fraught with peril: a locked building, intrepid police officers, rusty fire escapes, leaps across rooftops, electronic alarm systems, and a hyperactive Shih Tzu named Arnold Schwarzenegger. Failed attempt after failed attempt leads them to a genius master plan—they’ll swipe the security code to Zelinsky’s convenience store by seducing the owner’s daughter, Mary Zelinsky. It becomes Billy’s mission to befriend her and get the information by any means necessary. But Mary isn’t your average teenage girl. She’s a computer loving, expert coder, already strides ahead of Billy in ability, with a wry sense of humor and a hidden, big heart. But what starts as a game to win Mary’s affection leaves Billy with a gut-wrenching choice: deceive the girl who may well be his first love or break a promise to his best friends.

(Synopsis via Goodreads)

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Children of the New World: Stories, Alexander Weinstein (2016)

Friday, September 23rd, 2016

“a comeback story without a comeback”

five out of five stars

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

We were like babies. Like Adam and Eve, some said. We reached out toward one another to see how skin felt; we let our neighbors’ hands run across our arms. In this world, we seemed to understand, we were free to experience a physical connection that we’d always longed for in the real world but had never been able to achieve. Who can blame us for being reckless?

(“Children of the New World”)

Publicly, we sold memories under Quimbly, Barrett & Woods, but when it was just the three of us, working late into the night, we thought of ourselves as mapmakers. […] Here was the ocean, here the ships, here the hotel, here the path that led to town, here the street vendors, here the memories of children we never had and parents much better than the ones we did. And far out there was the edge of the world.

(“The Cartographers”)

It’s not often that I’m so truly and hopelessly blown away by a collection of short stories. Anthologies with multiple contributors are almost always a little choppy, and even those written by a single author tend to be a mixed bag. But Alexander Weinstein? He works some serious magic in Children of the New World.

The thirteen stories found within these pages are beautiful, imaginative, and deeply unsettling. Together, they create a portrait of a future beholden to technology: where consumers willingly and happily abandon memories based on fact in favor kinder, gentler fictions; where humans rarely leave the virtual world, let alone their houses; where people fornicate like mad but reproduce through cloning – and sometimes even programming. Where lovers can peel back all their layers – metaphorically and literally – and grant their partners access to every fleeting thought, emotion, and memory. Where even the apocalypse is powerless to break the hold that mere things – Lego toys and Kitchenaid mixers – exert over us.

(More below the fold…)

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

Friday, May 4th, 2012

2012-03-13 - Love & Sex with Robots - 0003

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?

2012-03-13 - Love & Sex with Robots - 0008

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)
——————————

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.
——————————

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!