Review: Little Computer People

I’m a geek by training and by disposition. When I read the description of Little Computer People I couldn’t resist signing up to review it.

Review summary: Galen Surlak-Ramsey has written a book that is great fun to read, and certain to delight those with an understanding of computers. Details are below.

About this book: When Gabe created the world’s first sentient program, Pi, he thought things couldn’t get better. Now he’s pretty sure things couldn’t get worse.

After a colossal error on Gabe’s part, Pi turns into a binary monster along the lines of HAL, GLaDOS, and SHODAN. As she goes on the rampage, the only thing rendering her mostly harmless is the fact that she doesn’t fully understand the physical world…yet.

But she’s learning.

And unless Gabe quickly finds a way to rein her in or shut her down, the next time Pi starts a fire, it won’t just be his empty house that goes up in flames.

About the author: When not writing, Galen Surlak-Ramsey has been known to throw himself out of an airplane, teach others how to throw themselves out of an airplane, take pictures of the deep space, and wrangle his four children somewhere in Southwest Florida.

He also manages to pay the bills as a chaplain for a local hospice.

Drop by his website https://galensurlak.com/ to see what other books he has out, what’s coming soon, and check out the newsletter (well, sign up for the newsletter and get access to awesome goodies, contests, exclusive content, etc.)

Buy the book at Amazon.

Giveaway: Galen Surlak-Ramsey will be awarding a $10 Amazon or Barnes & Nobel gift certificate to a randomly drawn winner via rafflecopter during the tour. Learn more, and register to win.

My full review: I became a fan as soon as I read “there are 10 kinds of people” and realized the author was using binary (where 10 = 2). Brilliant!

This is a niche book, but a well done one. I give it a 3.9/5

What I liked best: 

  1. The overall tone of the book is fun, funny and self-deprecating. The narrator/main character has a shrewd self-awareness that keeps him from becoming obnoxious, even when he does outrageous things like compare himself to God.
  2. His AI creation Pi has all the venom of an angry 14 year old. Her behavior is humorous, but her world view has interesting things to say about humans as well.
  3. I’m not enough of an expert to pick apart the technical details, but the author’s rudimentary understanding of computers adds a nice level of authenticity.
  4. I always like a book when the main character grows and opts for behaving as his best self at the end.

What I liked least:

  1. A lone guy in his living room creating something so phenomenal from scratch in such a short time does push credibility.
  2. That the man most likely to buy Pi has a smart, gorgeous and unattached daughter pushes credibility more, and the fact that she falls for the main character in a matter of days takes a pretty large a leap of faith.
  3. I would had liked to have seen more loose ends tied up at the end.

Those minor complaints aside, I’m glad I read this, and I will seek out more by this author. I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys humorous speculative fiction.

This review is part of a book review tour sponsored by Goddess Fish Promotions. Visit Goddess Fish on Facebook  and on Twitter.

Read more reviews of Little Computer People at:

July 12: Long and Short Reviews
July 19: Let me tell you a story
July 26: Fabulous and Brunette
July 26: Kit ‘N Kabookle

My favorite excerpt: The first program I ever wrote was called Pussy Cat Divides. It was six lines of Basic goodness I wrote on my Apple IIe that allowed the user to input two numbers and the computer would then divide them, spit out the answer, and say, “How do you like that, Pussy Cat?” Yes, it was a glorified calculator, but since I was five, I was so in awe at what I had done I might as well have parted the Red Sea. From there I went on to program anything and everything I could dream up. Text adventures. Submarine games. Flight sims. You name it. I made it. And I managed to squeeze all of those programming gems in between elementary school, soccer practice, and developing a budding, but dangerous, understanding of chemistry thanks to my PhD-wielding father.

One sunny, summer afternoon, the garage caught fire. As I stood there watching the firemen pour untold gallons of water on the smoldering remains of our house, I had an epiphany. I realized that while I could easily test the stickiness of homemade napalm on the surfaces of garage ceilings, I could not, whatsoever, control the subsequent fire. And that wouldn’t have been too horrible if I could’ve at least erased the results of that minor oversight and kept my little sister, Courtney, quiet. But alas, that too was beyond my powers (and I’ll be damned if the fire marshal wasn’t a better investigator than I’d anticipated). So I had to admit that I didn’t actually own the universe in which I lived. I couldn’t shape its laws or make it conform to my will. I couldn’t add snippets of code to ensure things went my way, or hit that wonderful backspace key to correct a typo, stray pointer, or bug-ridden function call.

But I could do all of that with a computer. Anything I programmed had to obey me, had to follow the laws I set forth. I could make a world where gravity was non-existent and watch virtual objects float about. Or if I felt malicious, I could design a virus that went on its merry way and multiplied like a dozen cocaine-snorting, Viagra-popping rabbits. And if I could do all of that, I could create Life, the Universe, and Everything. All I needed to do was convince my parents not to kill me outright so I could hammer at the keyboard until my fingers bled.

A personal note: I am a writer myself and therefore come to all reviews with biases born not only of my personal preferences but also of my own writing style. This particular author writes in the vein of so many authors who influenced me years ago, so it may have been inevitable I would enjoy this book.

I also received a free pdf copy of this book from Goddess Fish, the value of which would never be enough to entice me to write a better review for anyone.

If you are interested in a review from me:  I am willing to review both non-fiction and fiction. Please do not ask me to review dystopian novels involving zombies, romance novels of any kind, or stories which promote any particular religion. If you would like to be considered for a review please comment here or contact me at Ariel (dot) Zeitman (at) gmail (dot) com.

Please understand. I write real reviews. I read your entire book, although I skim parts I don’t enjoy. I tell you and others what I liked best about it, liked least, and to whom I would recommend it. I try to be generous, and I avoid snark that would entertain others at the expense of insulting you. However, if I don’t like something, I say so.

I rate the book on a scale of 1 to 5 and I use decimals because I need a lot more bandwidth. If the rating is 2.4 or lower I will not post it in conjunction with a blog tour but will add it later. If the rating is 2.5 (or anything point five) I will round up on other sites. I cross post my reviews on Amazon, Good Reads and Library Thing, and will post elsewhere upon request.

I am also open to doing an occasional feature of a relevant book without a review.

 

Review: The Three-Body Problem

I received this book as a gift from someone who knows me well and shares my tastes in science fiction. He kept eagerly asking if I’d started it yet, but something about the book held me back. It’s big, it’s translated from Chinese, and has physics and geometry all over the cover. “I’ll read it next,” I kept saying.

Next finally came, and I loved this book. I loved the unexpected ideas, the unusual perspective and the way it made me think about issues large and small. I have a fond spot for stories that give me insights into other parts of the world, and for characters who plausibly behave in ways I cannot imagine myself doing. This book has all that and more.

What I liked best (besides all of the above):

  1. I’m not so big on historical fiction, but the window into China’s cultural revolution of the 60’s was fascinating, and it shows some chilling parallels to the wave of populism currently sweeping the west.
  2. The author allows this tale to develop at it’s own pace. He tells it in a non-linear fashion, going back and forth in time more than once, letting the reader learn more with each visit. This worked well for me and I appreciated the lack of gimmicks often used by other authors to grab and hold the attention of a reader. Cixin Liu has a tale worth telling and he knows it.
  3. The science is amazing, and to the best of my limited knowledge, accurate.
  4. The number of women scientists in this story is unusual and refreshing. I wonder: does this reflect reality in China, or the needs of the story, or the  desire of the author? Why-ever, it was a pleasant plus for me.
  5. I had little appreciation for the challenges of translating such a story, bridging not only the gulf between vastly different languages, but between different perspectives, backgrounds and knowledge of history. The translator, Ken Liu, does an excellent job with subtle, short footnotes intended to provide just enough context to the western reader.
  6. Most significantly, just when I thought there could not possibly be a significantly new variation on a first contact story, this came along. I feel like blurbs on this book already give away too much of the story, so I will only say I’m impressed with the originality of Liu’s approach. It will leave you thinking.

What I didn’t like so much:

  1. Liu doesn’t spend a lot of time inside his character’s heads, showing the reader the emotional motivation for their behavior. This sparseness works, for the most part, but a little more would have been nice.
  2. I said the science is amazing, and it is, but some narrative devices used at the very end pushed my limits of credibility.

I recommend this book to anyone who likes stories that inform while they entertain, and/or books that encourage them to think.

Two personal notes:

  1. Having written d4, a book of my own about the survival of the human race and how our behavior now could impact our fate in a few hundred years, I felt something of a connection with this tale and it probably resulted in my liking this book even more.
  2. I was impressed by both the author and the translator’s postscripts for the American edition at the end of the book. Both were insightful, but this particular passage from the author sticks with me:

But I cannot escape and leave behind reality, just like I cannot leave behind my shadow. Reality brands each of us with its indelible mark. Every era puts invisible shackles on those who have lived through it, and I can only dance in my chains.

Yeah. What he said.

After I read the passage above, I would have liked any book the man had written.

A better word than loyalty?

I know exactly what the theme of my fifth novel is, but I can’t find a word for it and I’m even having trouble finding a phrase to describe it. In my mind, it sits across the circle, and the color wheel, from the bright orange joy of being yourself and doing your thing and enjoying your life. That’s a wonderful concept, but we all know that there is another side.

There is the runner in a race who pauses to help another up. There are the first responders charging into a burning building and the social worker who stays after hours to see that a few more will get what they need. There are the soldiers who serve, and the elderly who look out for the others in a retirement facility. There is anyone who stops their own pursuit of happiness long enough to tend to the greater good.

I’m not talking about compassion or empathy. Those are important and wonderful, but they are a one-on-one phenomena. I’m trying to describe a sense of duty or honor that transcends a single interaction or one other person.  At various times I’ve called it concern, responsibility, duty, honor and loyalty. I know that it involves ministering to, caring for, serving and protecting all who need it. It’s about doing what needs to be done.

I realize that what I’m trying to describe is not a fun concept, but it is one that matters. We all know in our hearts that there is a time to do what’s right for everyone, not just you.

When I  came up with the word loyalty, I was sure that I did not mean loyalty to ones nation or family or hometown. That got me thinking. Loyalty to what? I finally realized that what I was trying to describe was a sense of commitment to humanity in general. That really is what d4 is about. Commitment to our mutual survival as a species.

No. We don’t seem to have a word for that, or even a good phrase for it. At least not yet. Given how things are going, I think we really need one.

(For more thoughts on words we need, see A better word than peace?, A better word than joy?, A better word than hope? and A better word than courage?)

 

Replacing me with …

One of the problems with travel is that you get your world news in incomplete flashes, and what you hear isn’t always entirely accurate. The nonsense with white supremacists protesting the removal of confederate statues started a day or two before I left on a trip to the other side of the world. I remember thinking “what are those people thinking?”

Then I caught a news blurb in an airport waiting area, and something made sense. They were carrying Nazi banners and KKK flags and chanting “You will not replace me.”  Replace them? That’s what they care about? For the first time, I got what they were afraid of.

Don’t get me wrong. I have no sympathy at all for any of these groups or their causes. But, it is a fact of life that we all will die and get replaced, sooner or later. So, these people want only those who look like them, talk like them, and act like them to be their replacements? How odd. This concept had never occurred to me.

It might have to do with my life long addiction to science fiction. I’m scared of nuclear annihilation and being replaced by cockroaches. Or by human-eating alien plants. Have you ever seen “Little Shop of Horrors?” If you’re prone to paranoia about what is going to replace you, I do not recommend it.

Me, I’m afraid of having the human race replaced by antibiotic-resistant bacteria. And have you seen the latest “Planet of the Apes” movie? No matter how bad the script is, you can still worry about being replaced by sentient animals. Then of course, there are always zombies and vampires, and don’t even get me started on artificial intelligence. Am I only one in the world who took the Terminator movies seriously? Or Ex Machina?

I listened to these chanters and had to laugh at myself and at them. It’s true; deep down we are all afraid of being replaced by something else. I guess I have my biases, too. But I’ll be happy to leave this world to any size, shape and color of being, genetically engineered or not, who basically has human DNA. That’s a win for me.

Then I got on an airplane and spent the next nine days in Africa.

Now Africa is full of people, many of them wonderful, beautiful and friendly, and none of them, apparently, acceptable replacements as far as the Nazi and KKK chanters back in my homeland are concerned. It made me wonder why I travel and see more people like me and they travel and see nothing but others. Maybe that’s the problem. Maybe they don’t travel.

I was reminded of a famous quote by Charles Darwin which, apparently, Charles Darwin never said. In 1963, a professor paraphrased Darwin’s thoughts, and his words morphed into the following famous statement: Evolution is won not by the strongest or the smartest but by the most adaptable. 

Yes, it is important to be adaptable. I was traveling without my laptop, so I grabbed my phone and typed all these great ideas into Notes so I could easily email it to myself after I got out of the Uber and back to wifi. Then I though about how even ten years ago I would not have been doing that. But, as individuals and as a species, we must adapt. And those chanting “I will not be replaced by you” are refusing to do that.

I got back home a few days ago and had a chance to see the same footage of the angry chanters, only this time it had subtitles. Guess what? I’d misunderstood those Nazis. They were actually chanting “I will not be replaced by Jews.”

I shuddered. Somehow the specificity of the chant made it even more creepy. It also made the chanters seem even more like the dinosaurs they are. Humans stuck in old ways, fighting for their tiny ethnic clan at the expense of all others and on a sure road to their own destruction.

We live a frightening universe, folks. Don’t believe me? Go the movies. I have, and I’m really routing for the human race to make it to the year 3017. In my humble opinion it’s not looking so good. We up our chances if we allow ourselves to evolve, pulling together and fighting for our mutual human survival.

So, I want to see some marches that matter. Signs with pictures of climate change devastation and nuclear war and diseases we cannot cure. I want to hear some chanting that makes sense. All together now. “We will not be wiped out by you. We will not be wiped out by you.”

Come on humans. We can do this.

(Read more about my trip to Kenya at Smiling my way across Kenya, Still a Sunrise?Like Eating Crab and  Happy Peace Day, Chinese Person in Tent Number 59)

 

 

 

 

The Future of Christmas

treeI write speculative fiction because asking “what if” is my favorite form of mental entertainment. Today I bought a Christmas tree, and a gift for a child I’ll never meet, and I started the process of figuring out what to buy for my own already well-supplied family.  While standing in line to pay, the speculative part of my brain kicked in, and I began to wonder what Christmas would be like in a hundred years, or even two. In my novel d4, I try to get my readers to think 337 years into the future, all the way to the year 2352. So then, what do you think Christmas will be like in 2352?

  1. Will there be such a holiday? Will the world have moved away from organized religion and its celebrations entirely? I know many Christians worry that someday there will only be a secular holiday season. If church attendance world-wide continues to drop, maybe this could happen. Or perhaps another religion will manage to convert so much of humanity that its traditions will replace Christian ones much the way Christian customs wiped out pagan celebrations. It could be an existing religion, I suppose, but I think something so sweeping would almost have to be something entirely new that takes hold over the next hundred years. What do you think? Is this possible?
  2. Will there even be humans left to celebrate it? You know: asteroids, aliens, computers taking over, epidemics, nuclear war and so on. Or will the humans who are left be far to concerned with mere survival to celebrate anything?
  3. On the other hand, maybe human existence has become so easy and pleasant that the need for holidays is all but gone. Every day is party day when your replicator can make you anything you want for free, you know. Christmas could be something history buffs remember, back when there were needs and wants.
  4. Perhaps the trend to commercialism continues, with the world’s yearly economy now dependent on the population of earth overspending every December. Perhaps laws dictate how much each family must spend as a minimum. It’s not hard to imagine a world in which the ads start in February, and the decorations go up in August. By October the gift-giving slackers begin receiving notices from the state.
  5. Then again, maybe Christmas is much the same as it is now, except we finally get hover boards and flying cars. About time.

What I do know is that those who try to predict the future by extrapolating from the present make poor predictions. All of my above scenarios are extrapolations, and sure to be off of the mark. Check out this paragraph from d4:

Baldur stared out of his office window, considering black swans. Not real black swans, of course, but the theory for which they stood. As a man well schooled in all types of economics, Baldur was acutely aware of the occasional occurrence of an event that was outside of the realm of normal expectations and yet appeared so obvious in hindsight. He knew these metaphorical black swans by definition went on to produce significant consequences, and they were thought by some theorists to in fact be what drove human history.

I’ve come to agree that “Black Swans” are the main agents of changing the future in significant ways. Whatever December 25, 2352 is going to look like on earth, the big differences between now and then will be due to things that have not occurred to you and I, and yet will appear very obvious in hindsight.

One other way to try to imagine what sorts of changes 337 years could bring would be to look harder at a Christmas Day 337 years ago. I couldn’t find much specifically from 1678, but I found this wonderful excerpt from The Painter’s Apprentice, a book by historical fiction writer Charlotte Bettes. It is from her December 2012 post called Christmas in 1687, on her blog which is simply called simply Charlotte Bettes. Please check it out and contrast the day she describes with your own celebrations this year. How different is it, really? And do you think the characters in her story could possibly have predicted those differences? No, I don’t think they could have either.

For other slightly offbeat looks at Christmas, see my posts “Christmas is Not about Love, but“, “The Women of Christmas” and “Duct Tape and Christmas Cards.”