Rob Reid After On : Narrating the Intellipocalypse

In their tales of terror, imagination and innovation, how do bacteria describe humans? Do the microbial authors of the world’s smallest bestsellers see us as benevolent super-beings, waiting to bestow upon them their fondest wishes after some 17 hours of existence? Or are we mindless, bactericidal maniacs, bent only on destruction? Perspective and narration are, of course, human attributes, on admirable display in Rob Reid’s After On. Alas, in Reid’s novel, we’re the bacteria.

Book Review After OnReid’s narrator is introduced on page one, daring us to finish, which is quite a dare given that the book is more than 500 pages. Soon enough, the bordering-on-overbearing stream-of-consciousness teleports into what feels a bit like the omniscient third person, for, at least, some portions of the novel. That omniscience is not without import, but make no mistake, even a well-muscled Deity is going to have to queue up in After On. Reid stuffs his novel with all the hilarious, wildly-imaginative, weirdness that unfolds in the Silicon Valley business landscape and then extrapolates the eternal tomorrow. The result is a novel so full of propulsive fun that you’ll be well into the future it describes before you’re able to put down the book.

Reid’s story unfolds in the white-hot world of Silicon Valley start-ups, a sort of savanna-survival stand-in for today’s brilliant (and almost brilliant) minds. Mitchell Prentice is hoping to keep his start-up, Giftish.ly afloat long enough for it to be subsumed by Phlutter, a social-networking/hookup app. His story is punctuated, no interrupted, by what appears to be a very badly-written (but thought provoking) science fiction novel. That story is interrupted by the story of Jepson, the founder of Phlutter. Intertwined are rants from bloggers (NETGRRRL!), insane and amazing and Amazon review posts, technical papers, and even government documents. Reid wrangles much of our modern world into a dizzying thriller with serious philosophic implications.

The thorny question here is how do we ascertain the arrival of artificial super-intelligence, and what do we say to it… or rather, what does it do to us? Reid explores his answers in a novel that is at once page-turning and mind-boggling. Happily, the AI thought-experimentation is matched by a witty and a very irreverent dismantling of Silicon Valley morals and mores. All this works because Reid gives us a batch of characters we come to love, even as they blithely contemplate and bring about irrevocable change.

Reid’s thoughts and plots regarding artificial intelligence are best discovered by the reader, but he manages to astonish us even as he keeps his and our feet on terra firma. And for all the futures he imagines, Reid is equally great at nailing the present. More than a few scenes reveal what is happening at this moment in a manner that’s quite funny, but equally insightful. After On is fun to read taken simply as a Silicon Valley satire, even though it is much, much more.

With more parts than you might be able to count, moving at a clip that feels as fast as life, After On bears a remarkable resemblance to the great, capacious novels of their day, say, Dickens, or Melville. It’s a blast to read even as you realize that said blast may be subtly rearranging your mind. You’ll listen to yourself think and wonder just whose voice you are hearing. And by the time you do, that may be a very good question indeed.

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Reid himself is chock-a-block with good questions; one need only give a listen to his amazing podcasts. Unsurprisingly, he’s equally awash in good answers, obvious as you listen to our conversation about his book, which is currently possible using today’s cutting-edge technology moldy technology from nearly two decades ago by following this link and downloading the file. It is possible that downloading this file will tip the scales, so to speak, after (on) which your podcast playback application might have a mind of its own. Blame Reid for that, he brings all the intelligence, none of it artificial, all of it even shockingly mature. I hope you’ve been kind to that podcast app!

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Annalee Newitz is Autonomous: Indentured to Self

Property is problematic. What can be owned and who can own it? Ownership can be onerous, which is to say a responsibility, or it can be empowering, an exemption from the obligation to care. With Autonomous, science journalist Annalee Newitz uses the science fiction novel in an exciting, emotionally engaging exploration of the edges of our economy. Pulse-pounding adventure proves to be the perfect instrument for examining the wreckage left after technology steamrollers over philosophy.

newitz-autonomousNewitz sets her story some 125 years into the future, in a world that is recognizably ours. Jack is a gene-splicing pharma pirate, a young woman who replicates patented life-saving and -extending therapies, bootlegging them so the poor can get a leg up. Paladin is a “human level” AI, indentured to the African Federation and working with Eliasz, a human, to bring Jack in. She’s pirated a prescription drug that unfortunately has terminal side effects. Ownership, moral and economic, are at war. Survival is optional.

Newitz expertly immerses readers in this world, wisely doling out bits of what we expect, what we hope and what we desperately want to find out with a plot that manages to be tense without ever getting into “artificial thriller” mode. We turn these pages because Newitz crafts characters who feel real. Everyone is shaded, with motivations that are both selfish and selfless. As Paladin and Eliasz make their way through the world seeking Jack, she seeks to undo what she has done. The thrill here is that we like both halves of this equation, and want everyone to succeed, which by definition should be impossible.

Newitz pulls off a lot of amazing feats in this novel. It’s a quick fun read that will make you think about a lot of current affairs by taking them out of today and resetting them in her future. Her characters, from the walk-ons to the leads are all superb and feel particularly real, especially Paladin, a masterpiece of neuroscientific pansexual speculation. The character arc of this robot, and others, including Med, a medical robot that appears human, are exciting and emotionally engaging incarnations of cutting-edge speculation about neuroscience and intelligence, artificial and “natural.”

Autonomous is bursting with ideas, and informed by a vision that’s not dystopian or utopian. It feels particularly real and agenda-free, almost slice-of-life some 125 years hence. In the here-and-now, Autonomous is a perfect example of all the great things that fiction can do. It’s as close to action-packed, emotionally charged science (fiction) journalism as you might hope to find. Explore Newitz’s world and you’ll return knowing a lot more about your own.

annalee_newitz-2017-cropThis is also the effect of talking with Annalee Newitz in person. Autonomous was the result of her work as a journalist, and as we sat down to talk about it, our conversation flowed from one mind-blowing bullet point to the next. We talked around the plot without talking too much about the plot, and she knows her science just as well as she knows her fiction.

You can jump into the world of your great-great-great-great grandchildren by following this link to the MP3 file of our conversation, or declare your autonomy in the here-and now by clicking below and listening aloud wherever you are.

Muhammad Yunus Creates A World of Three Zeros: Worldbuilding Writ Large

yunus-a_world_of_three_zerosWorldbuilding is no longer a dweeby technical term for science fiction readers. The popularity of genre fiction has taken worldbuilding from the specialty shelves to general parlance. Moreover, the concept is catching on in the real world as well, and not a second too soon. With A World of Three Zeros: The New Economics of Zero Poverty, Zero Unemployment, and Zero Net Carbon Emissions Muhammad Yunus (“the father of micro-lending”) proposes that we take concrete action to rebuild our own world, and offers specific plans and means to do so. A World of Three Zeros is a book brimming with joy, good news and smart ideas about remaking this world by re-thinking both how we define ourselves and our economy.

Yunus begins by describing the problem with our concept of the “economic human.” Our default description assumes that the economic human is motivated solely by selfishness; we want more stuff. But in actual life, Yunus writes, humans act selflessly as or more often than they do selfishly. Selflessness accounts for a large portion of what we do, for our family, our city, our peers, our country, even this world. Yunus has created a model for what he calls a “social business,” which is economic (and human) activity aimed at solving social problems (poverty, hunger, malnutrition, unemployment, etc.) that offers investors the return on their original investment without a “profit.” Social business scales extremely well, from the microcosm of a rural village to the macrocosm of a cosmopolitan city, and by solving seemingly intractable problems, everyone benefits.

With these arrows in his quiver, Yunus takes aim at three problems that they can solve; poverty, unemployment, and carbon gas buildup. Each problem gets its own chapter, with detailed examples of working solutions and social business success stories. It’s inspiring stuff, pragmatic and suggesting that what we need most overall is a change in perception. For example, Yunus suggests that humans are not naturally divided into a majority of “worker bees” best managed by a minority of “boss bees.” Who knew? Instead, he believes that we are by default all entrepreneurs, ready (as we graduate from college or a village) to create jobs, not simply seek them. He describes global surges in small business creation where you [might] not expect them (Uganda, Bangladesh). We read engaging specific examples of social problems solved by small investors looking only to recoup their investment. These are gripping stories of real-life problems and solutions.

In the final section, Yunus looks at the three forces he believes will be primary to the coming change; youth, technology and “Good Governance And Human Rights.” In all things, Yunus unites optimism and pragmatism. It’s a delicate balance and hard to pull off, but strong ideas and real-world experience in the hardest conditions ensure that Yunus does not simply score points; he inspires action.

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Not surprisingly, Yunus is inspiring as all get-out in person as well. I had the excellent fortune to sit down and chat with him, thanks to the good folks at KQED and his people at PublicAffairs Books. He started by telling me the parts of the micro-lending story I had not heard, and from there, we went on to discuss the virtues of science fiction, which he loves because the genre offers writers the potential to remake the world. It’s a skill he deems essential. You can hear the entire in-depth interview by following this link to the MP3 audio file, or engage your peers, gather round the console and listen below.

 

Ann Leckie Provenance: Values, Real and Imagined

In The Imperial Radch Trilogy (Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, and Ancillary Mercy), Ann Leckie created a space opera-style universe with the hard-headed hermetic depth of Frank Herbert’s Dune, a kick-ass through-line hard-SF military narrative and an insightful emotional core that re-thought gender. That left her a lot of room to play, and in Provenance she does just that, offering readers a coming-of-age heist-in-space novel that feels a lot like what you might hope for were we to resurrect Jane Austen and tasked her with the creation of an SF heroine. Provenance is understated and brilliantly imagined, thought-provoking and often hilarious fun.

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Readers who missed Leckie’s trilogy need not worry, as Provenance stands quite well on its own; those who enjoyed the trilogy will find something rather different here, but equally inventive and adept. When we meet Ingray Aughskold, she’s in trouble and not handling it well. She’s one of six adopted children in the Aughskold household, and certain that Danach, her rather nasty older brother (also adopted, but from better circumstances) will be the one to take their mother’s title of Netano. Ingray has tried to pull off a rescue, we realize, and it’s not gone well. Her primary response to this and the other obstacles she fails to overcome is to cry.

leckie-provenanceEven as Ingray resigns herself to deal with the problems she’s created, readers will slowly begin to adopt and adore her. Hwae, her home, is part of a very complicated interstellar society (The Radch Empire), which is a delight to unpack. On Hwae, one’s wealth and position are partially determined by the possession (or not) of “vestiges,” relics and keepsakes that reference events, people and places of personal or societal import. The provenance of these items is critical and unquestioned. Flailing and failing, Ingray is forced to be particularly skeptical of not just herself, but the rest of her world as well. For readers, the true joy is determining which cracks are the result of our ignorance of the world as readers and foreigners, so to speak, and which are part and parcel of the fabric of Leckie’s carefully crafted universe.

Leckie is a master of powerful prose that gives us emotional depth even as we are trying to suss just how the world works. Her spectrum of sexuality is superbly crafted, and her sense of character rings utterly true. And while there are big questions to be answered, there are also small moments of honesty, cowardice and valor to play through as well. There’s a wonderfully sly romance afoot, and a series of set-pieces that are outstandingly visual and tense. We meet a drily comedic alien, the Geck ambassador, and Captain Tic Uisine, a resourceful rogue with a talent for running mechs remotely. Our antagonist’s ambitions are eminently understandable, while our protagonist’s weaknesses equally empathetic. The upshot is that every scene is chock-a-block with characters we enjoy doing something that is fun, mysterious, exciting and emotionally engaging.

Leckie has a lot of fun with the Imperial Radch in Provenance, and as a reader, I’d be thrilled to see her follow up these characters, or any others in this universe. The triumphs of Provenance are many. It’s a fantastic stand-alone novel, a wonderful introduction to a space-opera universe that’s fresh, different, weird and foreign, yet ultimately grokkable and relevant to the here and now. Provenance is a novel that shows a mature talent making merry by letting her readers knock about in a well-worn universe. It’s fresh, wild science fiction wedded to the virtues of timeless storytelling, important and yet light-hearted. Leckie’s future is intelligent, imaginative, but most importantly fun. That this universe was created in our universe can only be a good sign for both.

ann_leckie-2017-ocropI had a blast chatting with Ann Leckie about Provenance and the universe of The Imperial Radch, even as the book itself gave me chills of space opera perfection. The dense language evoked memories of my first encounter with Dune, and we talked about the inspirations and inclination that went into building the work. And yes, I admit that I did ask the spell-check question, because part of the joy of reading this book is Leckie’s ability to craft a semantic version of the future.

You can follow this link to our lightning round, where we use gate technology to whip through universe – or you can just listen below in this world.

Follow this link for a deep dive into the craft of writing science fiction, thoughts on the spectrum of gender and the import of tears, or listen below, trying to remember just which universe is yours.

Loren Rhoads Suggests 199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die: Life, Death and Everything In-Between

The word “cemetery” might first conjure up your own local variant, a big lawn studded somewhat regularly with cement tombstones. It’s a place you might not think about much, until you read 199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die by Loren Rhoads. Rhoads innocent-seeming travel guide is actually a thought-provoking look at life, death and everything in-between. Gorgeously photographed and stunningly well-traveled and researched 199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die the perfect logical endpoint of all bucket lists.

rhoades-199_cemeteries_to_see_before_you_dieAfter an admirably eloquent and brief introduction, Rhoads offers up exactly what is advertised. Divvied up by location, she finds the most destinations in the US. She then goes ’round the world. Every destination gets at last one photo, sometimes more, and they are all top notch. The whole book is in color; it’s a gorgeous thing just to look at. Moreover, Rhoads is a great writer, whose summaries are much more than mere travelogue. They’re miniature essays that touch on all the things suggested by cemeteries, which is to say, life’s rich pageant.

The utility of this book is manifold. If you want to ponder just about any aspect of life, these elaborate visions of where we house our dead will take you places you might never expect. If you’re looking for a reason to travel just about anywhere, you will find it here. And if you are planning on travelling just about anywhere, this book is likely to serve up a perfect little side trip.

lorren_rhoades-2017Whether or not you are planning on rising from the chair in which you read it anytime soon, this book has something to say to you. It says it well, it says it with both eloquent prose and beautiful photographs, it is a pragmatic assessment and an inducement to whimsy, and it does all of this 199 times. Loren Rhoads 199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die is arguably the best, indeed the only travel guide for the living and the dead. The grass is always greener on your grave.

As far as I was concerned, 199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die had another benefit as well, which is the opportunity to speak with the author, about my favorite places in the book and all the odd thought-paths those places took me. I thought Loren Rhoads every bit as riveting as her book, and lots of fun to talk to. Here’s a link to our lightning round, which served up something different from the main interview.

Follow this link to listen to the long-form version, and take a deep dive into the wild and wooly world of after-life housing.  Or, if you prefer to transition to the next world while at your desk, listen below!