Saturday, 21 November 2015

Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn

This book was published in 1992 and has been sitting in my reading pile for many years, but when I accidentally knocked it out of that pile I decided that in recompense I might as well read it.

The plot of Ishmael is certainly original. The story is told by a narrator who has long sought a teacher and guide, who might allow him to make sense of his life. Answering an advert appealing for pupils, he discovers on his arrival that the teacher is a very intelligent, well-educated, philosophically inclined, telepathic gorilla called Ishmael (wait, don't stop reading yet!). Ishmael takes the narrator on a philosophical journey of discovery, challenging his assumptions and beliefs, forcing him to think afresh about the relationship of humanity with the rest of the world.

The primary theme of the gorilla's teaching is that mankind went badly wrong in changing its culture when transitioning from primitive hunter-gatherers to an organised, farming-based society. Instead of living in harmony with nature in a sustainable fashion, our urbanising ancestors took the view that the world and everything in it was provided for humanity and could be used or destroyed accordingly. Population was allowed to grow unchecked, leading to more extensive (or intensive) farming, but every increase in food production resulted in a further increase in population, creating an upward spiral that still continues. Meanwhile, plants and animals that are not directly useful to mankind are increasingly pushed to extinction.

It isn't possible to do justice to such a book in a couple of paragraphs; the author extensively mines the Bible and the archaeological record to provide examples to support his viewpoint about human culture. In effect, Ishmael is a vehicle for delivering a polemic about where humanity has gone wrong and the dire consequences which have resulted – with the worst yet to come. I would have appreciated it better had the message being preached been challenged more effectively by the narrator; he spends most of the time saying "yes", "true" or "I agree".

The book apparently made quite an impact when first published and two sequels followed: The Story of B and My Ishmael. I found Ishmael to be a sufficiently intriguing oddity to persuade me to finish it, but I think I'll give the others a miss.

Coincidentally, after finishing Ishmael I picked up issue No. 3045 of New Scientist magazine, which included an article (Quiet revolutions by Bob Holmes) summarising recent archaeological discoveries that have shone a new light on the transition to farming. The author argues that the transition was far less of a revolution than is usually believed, in that many "primitive" cultures, including some that existed well into the last century (e.g. in Borneo), combined small-scale crop growing with keeping a few domestic animals plus hunting and gathering. Furthermore, cultures practising such "proto-farming" had lived like this for millennia without urbanising, damaging their environment or experiencing population growth. Large-scale farming, including the selective breeding of plants and animals, came after centuries or millennia of proto-farming. Exactly why a few cultures made this change, which subsequently swept the world, still seems to be unclear.

Saturday, 14 November 2015

Film: Ex Machina (2015)

Some time in the near future, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a young IT expert, wins a prize: a week with his company's legendary and reclusive boss, Nathan (Oscar Isaac) at his remote summer estate in the mountains. When he arrives, he discovers that Nathan, who lives alone except for a silent young woman (Sonoya Mizuno) has a task for him: to test his latest AI, a humanoid robot called Ava (Alicia Vikander, in a compelling performance) in order to assess whether or not she would pass the "Turing Test", and convince anyone questioning her that she could be human. But neither man is aware that Ava has her own agenda.

That's about as much as I can say without giving away too much of the plot. Ex Machina is a very stylish, quiet and slow-paced film, consisting mostly of conversations. The only CGI in evidence is that which makes Ava's body seem transparent and artificial. These are not criticisms – it makes a pleasant change to watch a film made for adults, with an intelligent script gradually developing the tension between the four individuals until the storm breaks in the climax. It is a very atmospheric film, emphasised by a claustrophobic basement setting. Perhaps most important of all, it is thought-provoking, raising questions which may become all too urgent if the progress which some predict for Artificial Intelligence actually takes place. How would robots with human-level intelligence regard their makers? What agendas might they have? Will they be controllable? Is such a degree of intelligence actually compatible with imposing Asimov's famous Three Laws of Robotics (below)?

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 orders given 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.

The message that I took away from the film was that true intelligence requires free will; and that such AIs might act in ways entirely unplanned by their makers. This is an excellent film – all credit to the British writer/director Alex Garland – which should be seen by anyone with an interest in what the future might mean, or who just enjoys good drama.

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Storm Front, by Jim Butcher

This is the first of The Dresden Files series, featuring a wizard (Harry Dresden) openly practising in present-day Chicago, in an alternative world in which it is accepted (rather reluctantly and with varying degrees of scepticism) that wizardry exists. He makes his living by finding things that people have lost, and also works as a consultant for the police, called in whenever they find a crime in which the supernatural seems to be involved.

Storm Front begins with just such a call, to the scene of a pair of spectacularly bizarre deaths. Dresden is soon caught between conflicting pressures – the demands of the police to help solve the crime, the threats of a gangster boss who doesn't want him to, and the requirements of the secret White Council of wizards, who might decide to execute him if he reveals too much to non-wizards. Threading a route through this minefield stretches Dresden to the limit, especially when he becomes the next target of the murderer.

Although this is the first of the series (published in 2000), Dresden already has quite a backstory, as gradually becomes clear with hints that he has far more powers than he dare reveal. In an interview reproduced at the end of my copy of the book, Butcher reveals that he always intended this to be a long series (fifteen and counting) and planned the story arc accordingly.

The story is recounted by Dresden in the first person, in a laconic style typical of a classic Private Investigator story. I am most reminded of the Alex Verus series by Benedict Jacka, and it is perhaps to Butcher's disadvantage that I only encountered his work after reading Jacka, Aaronovitch and various other authors writing stories about magic in contemporary London. I prefer Jacka's work, partly because I enjoy stories set in a place I know, secondly because I find Alex Verus a more intriguing character – I like the fact that he lacks the devastating powers of most magicians and needs to rely on his talent for divination and his wits to survive. And finally, I prefer Jacka's writing, with its constant thread of dry humour. However, Storm Front is not bad at all – it is entertaining and enjoyable and I might go on to read other books in this series.

Sunday, 1 November 2015

TV – Lost Girl, Season 2 (2011)

I enjoyed the first season of this Canadian fantasy series so, after a suitable break to catch up with feature films, ploughed into the second. To refresh your memories, this is what I said about the first season:

Lost Girl is a contemporary urban fantasy featuring Bo Dennis (Anna Silk) a bisexual young woman who is rather different from human. By touching other people she can make them do whatever she wishes; by having sex with them she feeds on their life force and kills them – usually unintentionally, but she can't help herself. She lives a nomadic life, forever moving on and leaving a trail of victims behind. At the beginning of the series she rescues Kenzi Malikov (Ksenia Solo), a streetwise young thief, from a rapist. The two become friends and partners. But Bo has come to the attention of other non-humans and discovers that she is a succubus – a member of a population of Fae with varied supernatural powers living as normal people.

Bo learns that the Fae are divided into light and dark factions and, after passing a test, she is expected to join one of them. She refuses to choose and sets up as a private investigator in partnership with Kenzi. She forms a liaison with werewolf Dyson (Kris Holden-Ried) who works as a police detective; she discovers that she can have sex with him without killing him, and that by doing so she can rapidly recover from any injuries. Her principal aim – and a plot thread running through the first season – is to discover her origin, as she was abandoned as a baby and given to human parents to bring up.

As the first season of 13 episodes progresses, we see Bo learning how to control and extend her powers while walking an uncomfortable line between the light and dark factions and experiencing a turbulent relationship with Dyson. In the final episode she discovers the identity of her mother, which leads to an outbreak of violence amongst the Fae and high costs for some of her friends.

The second season follows on immediately from the first, although the plot thread concerning Bo’s mother vanishes into the background while she concentrates on her relationship with Dyson (whose backstory we learn a lot more about). There is also a troubling change of leadership among the Fae leading to more tensions and, as the season progresses, a looming threat to all of the Fae. Meanwhile, Bo discovers the hard way that her powers can be far greater than she realised.

As well as the common threads running through the series, each episode contains a self-contained story. These vary considerably in nature (but usually involve some Dark Fae or other supernatural being causing problems), keeping the viewers interested. One aspect to bear in mind is the emphasis on emotions and relationships, which might attract some viewers while deterring others. To sum up, Lost Girl is sexy and amusing and has no pretensions to being anything other than engaging light entertainment – at which it succeeds very well.

Saturday, 24 October 2015

Roads Not Taken, edited by Gardner Dozois and Stanley Schmidt

Another long-standing member of my reading pile! This anthology, published in 1998, consists of alternate history stories which appeared in the magazines Asimov's Science Fiction and Analog Science Fiction and Fact, whose editors have made the selection. The book commences with a brief introduction to alternate history by Shelly Shapiro, Executive Editor of Del Rey Books. There are ten stories, as follows:

Must and Shall by Harry Turtledove (1995). Set in the American Civil War, in which one new event dramatically changes history – but not, unusually, the victor – with dire long-term consequences.

An Outpost of the Empire by Robert Silverberg (1991). One of the author's Roma series, in which the Roman Empire survived to the present day. A new Roman proconsul arrives to take responsibility for Venice, but a high-born lady of the city is determined to be in charge.

We Could Do Worse by Gregory Benford (1989). A dystopian USA in which the changed outcome of a 1950s presidential election has disastrous results.

Over There by Mike Resnick (1991). Theodore Roosevelt successfully campaigns to reform his Rough Riders to take a decisive role in World War 1. For once, this story is not concerned with significant changes in history, but only the consquences of the change for individuals.

Ink from the New Moon by A.A. Attanasio (1992). A world in which the great Chinese naval explorations of the fifteenth century were continued instead of abandoned, resulting in the Chinese occupation of the "Americas". The story concerns what happened when Christopher Columbus arrives and meets the Chinese inhabitants.

Southpaw by Bruce McAllister (1993). Apparently Fidel Castro was once such a promising young baseball player that he was offered a contract by a major US team. He spent some time considering it before turning it down. But what if he had accepted?

The West is Red by Greg Costikyan (1994). Suppose that communism had lived up to its promise and provided a more efficient system of running a country than capitalism? A very different post-1945 world emerges…

The Forest of Time by Michael F. Flynn (1987). A time-traveller, desperate to get home but lost in the ever-branching possible worlds his own journeys are creating, arrives in an alternate world in which the USA has never been formed. Unusually, this story is seen from the perspective of a native of that world, as he tries to judge whether the man is insane, a liar, or telling the truth.

Aristotle and the Gun by L. Sprague de Camp (1958). A disillusioned scientist working on a time-travel machine decides to use it to escape from his unsatisfactory life. He chooses to go back to meet Aristotle in the hope of guiding his scientific development, with unexpected consequences. "Be careful what you wish for" might be the sub-title!

How I Lost the Second World War and Helped Turn Back the German Invasion by Gene Wolfe (1973). An amusing story concerning a late-1930s world in which Hitler had decided to go for economic rather than military domination. Meanwhile, the narrator and his friend were working on a board game involving a war in Europe.

I hadn't come across any of these stories before, so this was an interesting read. They are all good, which should come as no surprise given the editors, but the stand-out one for me was Flynn's tale. It is the longest, at 70 pages, which gave the author the space to develop his characters and their situation. The distress of the time traveller, separated from his lover by the every-growing forest of alternate worlds, strikes a chord. It was nominated for a Hugo award, entirely justified given that it is written so well and to such haunting effect. Like most of the other stories here, it gives a convincing portrayal of how minor changes can have major consequences.