Tag Archives: Robots

Surreality – The Caves Of Steel

We’re in week two of the campaign for Surreality, and I need your help more than ever.You can read the first two chapters (which includes the introduction to the character profiled in this post), and nominate at the link below. Help keep Surreality a “hot and trending” book on Kindle Scout. If Kindle Press decides to publish my book, you get a free copy and the satisfaction of helping an independent author. Thanks so much 🙂

https://kindlescout.amazon.com/p/2VSHAGFXNJ50T

Isaac Asimov is one of my favorite authors. He wasn’t exactly a master of prose, but he was definitely a master of ideas. He got more mileage out of three laws of robotics than most authors get out of a whole notebook full of ideas. His later fiction strays into some weird territory (not a big fan of the Gaia sections of the Foundation series or of the direction he takes some of the later robot novels), but one of his early works, The Caves of Steel, is one of my favorite books and an indirect inspiration for one of the characters in Surreality.

TheCavesOfSteel

The Caves of Steel is a science-fiction mystery. The earth of this world is densely populated, with most of the population living in vast underground cities. Some colonization of outer worlds has begun, but the population of those planets is kept deliberately low to allow for increased wealth and extended lifespans. Robots are all but banned on Earth, whereas for the Spacers (the outer colonists) robots are an essential part of maintaining their lifestyle, and are advanced enough as to have a human-like appearance.

When a Spacer ambassador to Earth is murdered, Elijah Bailey is partnered with spacer robot, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve the case. Olivaw serves as a guide to Spacer culture and robots for Bailey, who’s a bit of a curmudgeon (his catch phrase is “Jehosophat!”), and doesn’t trust that the three laws are enough to keep a robot from being responsible for the murder. He also doubts R. Daneel’s capabilities as an investigator, since he is merely a program without the instinct or understanding of human emotions of a true detective.

Surreality is what I call a technological-mystery, though one of its characters, an advanced artificial intelligence, borders on science-fiction. Synthia, short for “Synthetic Intelligence-Algorithm”, is assigned to Detective Keenan when he is tasked with investigating a murder in the virtual world of Surreality. She serves as his guide and partner, since Keenan is a man not familiar with computers, or with this game world in particular. Keenan has some of the same doubts about Synthia’s abilities, and building their partnership through the book presented some of the same challenges, ups and downs.

In the world of Surreality we’re presented with three kinds of in-game characters, avatars, or characters controlled by real-life players, NPC’s “non-player characters” that serve as background ornamentation to the game’s environments, and artificial intelligences like Synthia, who live in the game world, but are more than just a few programmed responses.

“Do you mind if I ask you a question?”

“Shoot.”

“Are you real?”

“Of course I’m real. I’m as real as everything you see here,” she laughed. “I’m not real in the sense you mean, as in a human controlling a puppet in here, but I am real. My full name is Synthetic Intelligence Algorithm, or Synthia for short. Pleased to meet you.” She gave a little mock salute.

“So . . . you’re a program?”

“Not my preferred term but essentially accurate, though that’s a little like reducing your whole existence down to how you think. I have a body and interact with my environment just like you do. Yes, my thought patterns are determined by complex mathematical algorithms, but yours might be too. After all, you are a detective. Your thought process has to be ordered or you’d never solve a case, right?”

Synthia’s a little feistier than Daneel, and doesn’t have the same explicit restrictions. Truthfully she’s fun to write, and probably one of my favorite characters of the whole book (probably why she made the cover). There are things we’ll trust to computers, journals, blogs, that we might never say to the people in our lives. And characters like Synthia give voice to perspectives outside of the patterns our characters are used to operating in.

PS. Thanks to my mom who suggested I read The Caves of Steel back in the day.

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Review: D4VE

D4VE

Writer – Ryan Ferrier, Artist – Valentin Ramon

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Man builds robots, robots rise up, kill man then everything else in the galaxy. Ah, the good old days.

D4VE is a former defense bot pining for the glory days. He’s stuck in an office job he hates, in a marriage that’s falling apart, and with a son with no sense of boundaries. But there’s hope, in the form of a new alien invasion from a race called the Klarr. The robots have allowed themselves to become complacent about defense so D4VE may be their last hope.

Overall, I love the concept of this and there are imaginative and funny sequences, but some of the writer’s predilections get in the way of what could be a great story. One joke about catching the teenage robot son wanking off in the living room is fine … ish. But making it a recurring theme of the book? Ick.

There’s some clever word play in the ways that language, names and even swearing would be changed in a robot filled world. Instead of G–damn you get “Jobsdamn”, or “Holy Woz”. I like the nod, though I feel like this vocabulary isn’t switched on until midway through the first issue. And truthfully I don’t know how well Jobsdamn would roll off the tongue in a swearing context, but I like the way they’re thinking. Computer language is used to varying degrees of effectiveness throughout, though after a while it feels thrown in and without a consistent standard for usage. And as for names, pretty much all of them feature some variation of 4 being using instead of A. So we get S4LLY, TIN4 and HILL4RY.

Ramon’s art has a lot of hidden gems in the background of scenes, but it’s when D4VE returns to his defense-bot ways that it really gets a chance to shine. All of the imaginative ways D4VE finds to kick alien butt are pretty funny including a classic, ripping one alien’s spine out and using it to beat other aliens to death. Okay, it’s kinda gross, but it does a good job of balancing playful humor throughout.

The same cannot be said of the language and the crass content in this. Swearing loses its effectiveness if overused and trying to have D4VE’s catch-phrase be S—balls doesn’t help. Personally, the best catchphrase in the book is that of the boss who repeatedly tells D4VE he is a loser, only to follow it up with, “I really need you to know this.” If that kind of dry humor was consistent throughout the tale I would have enjoyed it a little more.

In short, this was fun, but could have been better with a little more restrained humor. Also could have done without the robot dropping nuts in fear.

(3 Stars | Amusing but could be better)

* I received a free ARC of this from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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Robots, Rocket Girls, Meteors and Glow-y Eyes

As you might have guessed, it’s time for another NetGalley installment or “all Ben really does any more is read comic books”. Hey, I’ll have you know I also wrote 1000 words toward a new story this week, and 1000s more in a technical manual. So, hah! I honestly think there are some of you out there who will like these books better than I did, so don’t let my picky-ness deter you if something sounds interesting.

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Alex + Ada by Jonathan Luna and Sarah Vaughn

coverThis is miles better than Luna’s other work Girls (which I dropped hard after the first issue). That said, there are some pacing problems, and Luna’s artwork still has a tendency toward sullen, bored looking characters.

Alex is still moping after the loss of his girlfriend. His sexually precocious and apparently loaded Grandma suggests he buy an android to take care of his “needs.” Actually, she’s such a nice Grandma that she buys him one for his birthday.

Don’t leave yet. Alex isn’t as much of a creep as some of Luna’s other characters. He doesn’t know what to do with this gift he doesn’t quite want and yet is intrigued by. The problem is Ada is too agreeable. She does whatever he tells her, doesn’t have an opinion of her own, and can’t really form much of a connection with him. Alex, intrigued by robots with more full intelligence and looking to mod or hack Ada, goes online and easily finds a community willing to make her into a real girl. Will Alex + Ada form a real bond, or will she run away screaming?

Well, you’ll have to wait till the next volume, cause Luna + Vaughn take an entire book to tell maybe two issues of story. There are some laughs with a robot asking for cheesesteaks as fuel, and, well, the sexually precocious grandmother, but it’s a long walk to get there. Luna’s depiction of on-line communities is interesting, if you really like hexagons. In short good, but you’ll need more to know if this is really going anywhere. (3 out of 5)

City: The Mind in the Machine by Eric Garcia

downloadWhat if you built a system that scoured every camera, every piece of data it could find, and tried to detect and prevent crime, re-routing resources where they could best keep your city safe? And what if this system was as dumb as a bag of hammers and couldn’t tell a group of kids playing cops and robbers from the real thing? Answer, the most common of sci-fi tropes, you need the human element.

Ben Fischer helped develop this system, Golden Shield, and conveniently (for the plot) lost his eyes in a train gas incident and now has been fitted with cybernetic eyes that also connect to his brain and to Golden Shield. Pretty soon he’s using expensive tram cars to stop car jackers and getting more play with the ladies, as all those who are cybernetically confident tend to do. But when he actually tries to track down the terrorists who bombed his train, his handlers in Homeland want him shut down, with extreme prejudice.

Look, it’s not bad, and it has a few laughs, but it’s basically any action movie with a few sci-fi trappings. Except for Golden Shield, and a few flying drones, everything is decidedly of this period. The story takes place in San Francisco but very little of the actual city bleeds into the plot. It misses some opportunities to really comment on our loss of privacy beyond being able to tell if your buddy’s popcorn is burning, or creepy amounts of detail for a first date. Good bubblegum read, but nothing to suggest this will be a thoughtful continuing epic. (3 out of 5)

Rocket Girl by Brandon Montclare

coverThis book has no pretensions of being profound, as evidenced by the reproduction of the conversation between the creators on its creation. That said, it is enormous fun. 15 year old New York Teen Police Office DaYoung is sent back to the past to stop the technologically advanced world brought about by Quantum Mechanics. She rockets (heh, get it) back to the year 1986 from an alternate future 2013 in which teens are cops because adults can’t be trusted, and DaYoung suspects Quantum Mechanics of sending its own tech to the past to invent it sooner.

Amy Reeder’s reproductions of 1980s New York and its alternate future are a visual delight, as are the antics of the Rocket Girl. Of course within a few pages she saves someone dangling off the statue of Liberty, and breaks up a robbery by sending fruit flying, all while eluding the cops in increasingly acrobatic, or clever camoflage ways. And I’m a sucker for the commissioner in 2013, a kid (well maybe he’s 20) in an over-sized trenchcoat with a big cigar. He looks hilarious and acts accordingly.

While there are some logical questions to be asked, like why the Quantum Mechanics scientists of the past would help the rocket girl thwart their own future success, or why DaYoung would want to take away a future where she gets to fly around and fight crime (except maybe for an over-developed sense of justice). That said there are twists and turns to surprise you, and a sense that even with the first arc closed, there’s a lot more to come in the past. The comic also does some great side-by-side panels of both timelines, unfolding the stories in parallel as if they are happening at the same time. All-in-all, great fun that’s bound to get even better. (4 out of 5)

Meteor Men by Jeff Parker

coverYou and a bunch of your teenage friends, and really everyone in the town, are sitting on your farmland looking at the meteor shower when something falls out of the sky. Suddenly you are the proud owner of a meteorite, well one that has split apart and has a suspiciously uniform hollow part to it. Between trying to assert your ownership of the rock from your over eager scientist friend, and finding a strange alien being in the woods who speaks to you telepathically and likes barbecue sandwiches, your life has suddenly become pretty hectic.

Turns out there are hundreds (maybe thousands) of these meteors that fell all over the world, and yet somehow this teenager out on the farm is the only one who can really communicate with them. And what happened to your boss at the gas station anyway?

This book is kind of E.T. meets Spider-Man 3 (trust me, you’ll get it when you read it). Of course you’ve got a government that over-reacts to the alien beings and tries to kill them all, only to discover they are basically invulnerable and can fling things really far. Oh and they seem to be really protective of this kid and misinterpret almost any action as a threat.

There are a few surprises, particularly the choices and attitudes and the end, but the ending also seems kind of abrupt given the setup. The artwork for the night sky is pretty good, and they do a pretty good job with the teenage moppet, but the alien design is pretty standard and most of the other characters fall into established roles. You’ve read this story, seen this movie, or watched this TV show before, but this is another competent execution of it. (3 out of 5)

Next week I might change things up and review some NetGalley manga. Till then, what are you reading?

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My Pop-Culture Myopia

Pop Culture Happy Hour (or PCHH) is a regular Friday afternoon pastime of mine. This past Friday they were discussing “Pop Culture Myopias” or areas of pop culture that you love despite any evidence to the contrary, otherwise known as the “Billy Joel” line.

For myself this myopia is pretty obvious: Isaac Asimov.

In the words of Professor Frink: “So many books, not too many good.”

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I read most of the Asimov canon sometime between Middle School and the end of High School. I have read all seven of the Foundation books, the four robot novels, and hundreds of short stories and lesser novels. My bookshelves downstairs are lined with back issues of his science-fiction magazine, back when he wrote the editorial column.

Now don’t get me wrong, Asimov is one of the best science (fiction or otherwise) thinkers of all time. The three laws of robotics formed the basis of countless stories, and are even adopted as general principles by many researching AI.

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

(Source: Wikipedia)

The Powell and Donovan robot stories in particular are probably one of the reasons why I’m an engineer, and have influenced some of my writing including Atlantia.

The Foundation series introduced the idea of using mathematics for societal change. And even the detective stories like The Caves of Steel, or the Black Widowers stories offered intellectual puzzles, or noir-esque mysteries that were stylistically formative to a young writer.

But the man can’t write women to save his life, a flaw which is by no means unique among authors of his time, but nonetheless damning. His later books are probably twice as long as they need to be, and riddled with bizarre philosophies of Gaia, or the following:

 A breakfast pastry, kind of like a croissant or baklava, filled with a warm honey like filling that is so messy it must be eaten naked.

And let’s not forget the chops:

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Granted, if you shaved out the middle of my beard at the moment, I’d be rockin’ chops of equal magnitude, but still.

His prose can be painful. It certainly doesn’t have the poetic quality of Bradbury (though at least he’s not as dull as Clarke).

And yet I love him. An Asimov book that I do not own is probably one of the few physical books I buy without even thinking twice. Sometimes even duplicate copies. My paperbacks of Asimov are all dog-eared and well loved from multiple readings. I listen to audiobooks, and I even love the two Asimov movies, even though I, Robot is nothing like the book, and Bicentennial Man suffers a serious case of Robin Williams.

And his essays are hilarious, even ones on science topics that are long out of date. He tells funny dirty jokes and his voice is a unique one to say the least. And he’s responsible for this guy and his positronic brain:

Celebrity City

I know that I will be introducing Asimov to my children, probably one of the first books my mom suggested to me, the aforementioned Caves of Steel. And I’ll be reading him for years to come, no matter what anyone says.

What are your pop-culture myopias?

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