Thursday, October 28, 2010

Review 94: The Gunslinger

Dark Tower 1: The Gunslinger by Stephen King

"The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed."

There's really not much more you need to know about this story except what's right up there. That's the essence of the whole thing - a chase. A man in black, who has obviously done something terrible, and a gunslinger, who is obviously going to set things right.

If, by "set right," you mean "kill a whole lot of people," then you're pretty much on target.

This is the beginning of Stephen King's Dark Tower series, a story told in seven volumes that manages to be the lynchpin for all the worlds that he has created. It's a story that was 22 years in the writing, and almost never got finished. It's an epic story, all about the endless quest for the Dark Tower, the center of all reality, the axle upon which the wheels of creation move.

Roland, the gunslinger, is hunting for this tower. He wants it more than anything in the world. He has lost everything in pursuit of this tower - his friends, his family, his world - and yet he pressed on. The man in black has information for him, can set his path towards his goal. If only Roland can catch him.

On his way to the man in black, Roland finds a small town taken over by a mad preacher woman, a sympathetic hermit, and a boy who doesn't look like he's terribly local to this world. All of them help point the way to the man in black, and none of them make it to the end with Roland. Even he is unprepared for the terrifying reality that awaits him when he and the man in black finally have their palaver....

There truly is something magical about this book. Even if there were no other Dark Tower books, it would stand out as a good story, well told. Part of this is its deceptive simplicity - moving from point A to point B, with only a few flashbacks to fill in the backstory. Well, quite a lot of flashbacks, actually, seeing as how King did set this story in a featureless desert with a singular protagonist, and there's only so much you can work with without dipping into the well of the past from time to time.

The glimpses of Roland's past that we get to see are tantalizing - they tell of a rich and cultured world that is nonetheless hard and merciless. The gunslingers are all that stand between civilization and chaos, and there are precious few of them left. Roland and his friends know they may be the last of their kind, but that doesn't deter them from pursuing their guns and growing up to honor their fathers.

The fact that we know from the beginning that they all fail just makes it all the more poignant to watch them try.

It's hard to talk about this book without trying to talk about the rest of the series, and it's even harder to convey the feeling of reading it when the series was still ongoing. My father, a huge Stephen King fan, had these books when I was a kid, and I eventually got into them, and was - like so many others - immeasurably frustrated by the pace at which King was writing them. I finished this book, which does not necessarily have a happy - or easy-to-understand - ending, and I wanted more. I wanted to know what Roland was going to do now that he'd had his palaver with the man in black, and I wanted to know if he would ever find the Dark Tower. Whom would he enlist in his quest, as the oracle had suggested? Whom else would he sacrifice, as he did young Jake?

Speaking of which, the relationship between Roland and Jake is an interesting one, especially as I got older and re-read it. When I first read the book, I was probably around Jake's age - eleven years old [1]. Reading Jake's story of how he came to Roland's world was horrifying enough, but to see how their relationship would eventually end was even worse. The idea that there might be something more important to, say, my parents [2] than I was - well, that was horrifying. To think that a purpose might exist for which they would let me fall to my death.... That's not the kind of thing an eleven year-old boy wants to think about.

From the point of view of an older person, a grown man, I found something uncomfortable about their relationship. The bond that formed between man and boy was instant, and intense, and having grown up in a culture where a strange man being that friendly to a young boy would be automatically colored with the taint of pedophilia, well, I had to work a little harder to stay in Roland's head. The fact that I know that wasn't where King was going with the relationship helps a little, but every reader brings his or her hang-ups along when they read and some of mine are a little more persistent than others. I'm sure any psychologist who needs to put a down payment on a yacht would be happy to help me work on it.

All in all, it's an excellent beginning. What follows is a massive tale, a great quest that spans time and space and reality, culminating in Roland's final understanding of who he is and why he exists. Not all of it is as good as this book, but it's still worth reading, I say ya true.

So put on your good boots, don't forget your hat and horn and donkey. It's a long trip to the end....

"This is not the beginning but the beginning's end. You'd do well to remember that... but you never do."
- The Man in Black

[1] This is another example of the Eleven Year-Old Boy Rule: if you have a major character in your book who is not an adult, chances are that it will be an eleven year-old boy. King is a master of this.

[2] Because if Roland isn't a father-substitute then I don't know who is.

The Gunslinger on Wikipedia
The Dark Tower Portal on Wikipedia
Stephen King on Wikipedia
The Dark Tower homepage
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Thursday, October 21, 2010

Review 93: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick

I have kind of a weird confession to make. It's not really a confession as such, since you only confess things that you're ashamed of or that you feel you have done wrong. But this is something that I believe people may find a little odd, so I suppose it's the best word under the circumstances.

I don't kill cockroaches.

Fortunately, I live up on the tenth floor in a nice modern apartment building, so they're not really a problem for me. But even in my old place, where they'd turn up from time to time, or walking about in the city, where you're bound to see them, especially after dark, I feel no desire to do what everyone else seems to do - freak out and jump on them with both feet. After all, why should I? They're just being what they are. They're just doing what millions of years of evolution have programmed them to do. They don't act out of malice or with the intention of trying to harm me, so I say live and let live.

Oh, don't get me wrong - I don't let roaches stay. I'll capture them, take them out to the riverbank or somewhere and let them go. I'll put down deterrents to roaches around the house. I may be kindly-disposed towards all living things [1], but I'm not an idiot. My point is, I feel a certain empathy towards those little guys, just trying to make their way in a hostile, anti-cockroach world.

And that's how I know I'm not an android.

When we talk about things like computer intelligence, one of the questions that comes up is how we would tell an artificial intelligence apart from the real thing? For a computer-bound AI, there's the Turing Test - a conversation with a human wherein the human cannot tell that she's talking to a computer. And that's good, as far as that goes. But what if we start putting them into physical bodies? What if we make these AIs in our image? Fleshy, sweaty, hairy robots that look and behave just like humans do? How, then, would we be able to tell the difference between a made being and a natural-born human?

Philip K. Dick's answer is empathy, and it is at the core of this book.

Dick is kind of like science fiction's mad mystic. He explores the hidden inner worlds of the people involved in the story, peeling apart issues of identity and psychology and reality itself, forcing the reader to ask him or herself what's really going on.

In other words, reading his work can be something of a head trip.

This novel introduces us to a near-future America, one which is greatly different from the one we know today. After a devastating nuclear war that wiped out countless species of plants and animals, the planet is being slowly emptied out. Those who are young, healthy and fertile are allowed to emigrate to off-world colonies. With them go the androids as servants, workers and slaves. Some people stay on Earth for reasons of their own. J.R. Isadore, for example, is a "special," one who doesn't make the genetic grade to leave the planet. Rick Deckard, on the other hand, is a bounty hunter, a man whose duty is to hunt down and destroy androids that come to Earth. Deckard has been handed a special assignment - six androids of the latest model, Nexus-6, have landed nearby. They're strong, intelligent, almost indistinguishable from humans, and Deckard has to "retire" them all before they get away.

Like many people, I first encountered this story in the movie Blade Runner, which followed much the same path. And, probably like a lot of people who saw the movie first, I was a bit thrown by the difference between the two. Rick Deckard in the book is not the morose lone wolf that he is in the movie. He has a wife here, and an electric sheep that he keeps on the roof (though he'd never admit to his neighbors that it was electric.) He has an interest in animals - the keeping of which is a mark of true status in a world where so many species have gone extinct. He's a more interesting character, with more depth and inner conflict than we see in the film. On the other hand, Roy Baty, Deckard's adversary, is far less interesting. He's intelligent and cruel, yes, but with so much less visceral power than Rutger Hauer gave him.

The major themes are different as well. In the movie, one of the overriding themes is the desire to live, the instinctive need that humans have to keep surviving even for just one more second. It's what keeps Deckard hanging on the edge of the roof when Roy's already broken his fingers. It's what sends Roy to Tyrell's home in the middle of the night with murder on his mind. The replicants in the film, despite being made beings, want what we want: more life.

The book follows a different path, though. The book looks at the difference between human and android, the Born and the Made, especially where it comes to that elusive quality of empathy. It is a capacity that only humans are supposed to possess, and indeed there is a whole religion founded around it - Mercerism. By using "Empathy Boxes," a person can become one with the iconic Wilbur Mercer, and share the joys and pains of everyone else connected to him at the same time. Life in all its forms becomes utterly sacred, and the destruction of a living thing is one of the greatest sins one can commit.

The androids, on the other hand, know nothing of empathy. They would gladly give up one of their own to die in their place. In one rather vivid scene, the android Pris starts snipping the legs off a spider, an act so monstrous that it drives J.R. Isadore to betray her and the other androids, people he believes are his only friends. The androids can pretend to feel empathy, but a simple test of involuntary physical responses show that they cannot truly feel it.

So, in a world where life has been scythed clean, respect for life is the highest virtue. The androids have no respect for life, and must therefore be kept off the planet, eliminated if they set foot on it. But what happens when they get more complex? What happens when the androids are so good, the humans begin to empathize with them? How can you destroy something when you can imagine its pain as your own? And if you can refrain from killing a lowly cockroach because you have empathy for it, how can you then turn around and kill thinking, self-aware android?

It's the kind of logical and moral conundrum that Dick excels at. The capacity for empathy cannot be what makes one creature worthy of protection and another not. After all, cockroaches don't feel empathy any more than androids do, yet they would be cherished in this world. It must then be the ability to generate empathy in others that is important, and in this book we see the androids cross that line. Deckard realizes that he's beginning to feel for the things he has to kill, and cannot reconcile that feeling with his job.

The theme of Born versus Made is reflected all through the book, especially where animals show up. There are animals that are presented as real, which later turn out to be androids. Others which the characters think are androids, but turn out to be real. Some characters can't even say with certainty whether they are not androids. All throughout the book, people find themselves in the position where they can't tell the difference between biological life and constructed life, which then raises a whole new question - if you can't tell the difference, then is there any difference at all?

It's the kind of question best discussed over a cup of coffee at Denny's with your friends in college.

Even today, people look down on science fiction as being less substantial than "real" fiction. Stories of androids and bounty hunters and off-world colonies, they think, can't compete with tales of single mothers raising kids in the inner cities or soldiers fighting and dying in a pointless war. To those who think there's nothing to grab on to in science fiction, I submit this book. It'll stay in your head, keep you up at night, and make you ask the kinds of questions that you'll never be able to answer.

If that's not quality writing, then I don't know what is.

"You will be required to do wrong no matter where you go. It is the basic condition of life, to be required to violate your own identity. At some time, every creature which lives must do so. It is the ultimate shadow, the defeat of creation; this is the curse at work, the curse that feeds on all life. Everywhere in the universe."
- Mercer, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

[1] Well, almost all living things. There's still Ann Coulter....

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? on Wikipedia
Philip K. Dick on Wikipedia
Philip K. Dick official site
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Thursday, October 14, 2010

Review 92: The Door Into Summer

The Door into Summer by Robert Heinlein

Oh, 1950s science fiction - is there nothing you can't do?

One of the downsides to our modern information age is that we have so much information available to us. If I see a reference on a blog or in a book that I don't know, it's a quick hop over to Google or Wikipedia to find out what it is, and if it's really interesting I can find myself learning about something I never knew before. And so, if I want to know more about cold sleep, robotics or time travel, there's a whole host of ways that I can not only learn about it, but learn why it's just so hard to do. I mean, think about robotics - we've been looking forward to the perfect household robot for decades now. One that can cook and clean and do all those tiresome chores that we would rather not spend our time doing. The problem is that those tiresome chores are actually marvelously complex tasks, involving not only precise physical movements, but some very complicated judgment calls. Every time we figure out how to get a robot to do one of those things, we then have a hundred other things that need to be done to get it even close to human-like competence.

I know this because the internet knows this.

But back in 1957, this stuff was all new and fresh and unknown, so if Robert Heinlein wanted his main character to cobble together the perfect household robot with some off-the-shelf parts and a little bit of magic tech (the Thorsen Memory Tubes), then why not? Assuming we had the technology, what couldn't we build?

Thus is the set-up for The Door into Summer, an adventure in engineering, patent law, and economics, with a little bit of time travel thrown into spice it up. Our hero, Daniel Boone Davis, is an engineer of the purest sort - he got into engineering to solve problems, and that's what he does. He doesn't want to be just one guy working on one cog for a huge corporation; he wants to make things himself that he knows will benefit everyone. He's a real Populist Engineer, too - his creations are made with replaceable parts, specifically so that the owner can quickly deal with any mechanical problems themselves, rather than have to wait for a repair shop to do the work. The parts are all off-the-shelf, too, which not only makes the machines easier to produce, but makes the production cost lower. In other words, he's making machines that will benefit as many people as possible, and the first one is the somewhat misogynistically-named Hired Girl.

This machine (which is a very close approximation of the Roomba, by the way) becomes an instant success, and the company that Dan forms to take care of it is looking to become fantastically wealthy. Unfortunately for Dan, his business partners - Miles and Belle - are far more interested in becoming filthy rich than helping mankind. So when it looks like Dan's newest creation, an all-purpose household robot named Flexible Frank, is going to be a wild success, they manage to freeze him out of the company. Literally. They steal his inventions out from under him and force him to take the Long Sleep - to be frozen cryogenically for thirty years. He wakes up in the year 2000, without money, without a job or prospects, and without his beloved cat, Pete.

A word about the cat angle to this story - if you're a cat person, like me, then the relationship between Dan and Pete will really resonate with you. Its clear that Heinlein himself was a cat person, as he shows a wonderful understanding of the human-cat relationship, including the absolute uncertainty as to which one is in charge at any given time. While the cat is not absolutely necessary to the plot, it's a nice addition to the story. If you're not a cat person, well... you should be.

Anyway, in the wild future of 2000, Dan discovers that something very strange was going on around the time he got frozen, and the more he uncovers, the more it looks like there can be only one explanation - time travel!

This is really classic science fiction at its best. The narrator is a brilliant man who never meets a problem he cannot solve, at least not eventually. He's a certified genius, and were it not for his blind spot for pretty women and his trust in his business partner, he would have had a fantastic life as an inventor. But his love of making stuff gets in the way of how the real world works, and sets him up for a series of thefts and betrayals. But you never really worry about him, because he is a man with no uncertainties. He doesn't wallow in self-loathing and moral dismay when he encounters a problem like being thirty years in the future with no means of supporting himself. No! When he sees a problem, his first thought is, "How do I solve this?"

In other words, he's an engineer.

It's a remarkably optimistic book, too. While the future of 2000 isn't perfect, it's still a whole lot better than 1970. And while 1970 certainly isn't perfect, it's a whole lot better than 1957. The book rests on that wonderful mid-century assumption that while human innovation can't solve every problem (and indeed often succeeds in creating more problems), it is, in the long run, a force for good. For the modern reader this may seem terribly naive, but I found it refreshing.

So while the story is really pretty predictable, it's a fun ride. Even the time travel element isn't quite as risky as Heinlein tries to make it out to be, since the reason Dan opts for time travel is that he's found evidence that he's already done it. Therefore no matter how dangerous it might be, he knows for a fact that he'll be successful. He doesn't mention this, or even seem to notice it, but the sharp-eyed reader should pick it up pretty quickly.

While most of the driving force of the book is what I would normally consider pretty boring - patent law and engineering - there is one element to it that is distinctly Heinlein: the universality of love. Dan is done in by his belief that he loves Belle, who turns out to be a gold-digger of the lowest order. But in the end, Dan knows who he truly loves. The only problem is that she's an eleven year-old girl. Whether in the publication year of 1957, the year Dan starts in, 1970, or the far-flung future of 2000, a grown man marrying a pre-teen is something that is generally frowned upon. They're able to settle this problem with a little time travel/cryogenic jiggery-pokery, but when you stop to think about it, the situation can be somewhat... unconventional. If you stop to really think about their relationship, there's some strange moral ambiguity going on there. Fortunately, the characters don't really care and the book ends without going into the ramifications of what they've done.

The book isn't about moral complexity, though. It's about solving problems and finding happiness, no matter what you have to do to get it. It's about overcoming adversity, betrayal and even time itself to get the life that you know you deserve. It's about finding that door into summer, when all the other doors lead you only into the winter. While we may not be able to solve our problems quite as neatly as Dan Davis did, we can still follow his example.

Except, perhaps, with the romancing eleven year-olds. That's still not cool.

"Despite the crepehangers, romanticists, and anti-intellectuals, the world steadily grows better because the human mind, applying itself to environment, makes it better. With hands... with tools... with horse sense and science and engineering."
Daniel Boone Davis, The Door into Summer

The Door Into Summer on Wikipedia
Robert Heinlein on Wikipedia
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The Heinlein Society

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Review 91: Memories of the Future, vol. 1

Memories of the Future volume 1 by Wil Wheaton

There's something inherently sad about child actors. They're called upon to do what older actors have been doing their whole lives, often acting alongside people who know their craft so much better than they do. To match the level of their adult counterparts, they have to work just that much harder, and they still get pigeonholed into fairly flat characters. For a lot of directors, even a poor child actor is good enough to fill out the character that has been created for him or her, so expectations are usually pretty low. In the end, a lot of child actors either burn out or give up.

Wil Wheaton wasn't a bad actor as a kid - anyone who watched Stand By Me can agree on that. He certainly wasn't what he could have become, but as child actors went, he did okay. Perhaps if he had been given the right roles with the right people, he would still be acting today and impressing us with the depth of his talent. As it was, he was on Star Trek: The Next Generation, which sent him down, let us say, a different path.

Wheaton's experience on TNG was one that a lot of the fans (and I count myself among them) seriously under-appreciate. From the age of fourteen, he was given the unenviable role of playing one of the most despised characters in modern science fiction, at least before Jar Jar showed up. In the early heyday of the internet, before liveblogging and Twitter and Facebook, there was Usenet - an early internet discussion group. And one of those early groups was the infamous alt.wesley.crusher.die.die.die. The fans would speak of "The Wesley Crusher Problem" and write horrible fanfiction that would put Ensign Crusher through some of the most depraved torments they could think of. A small, but very vocal segment of the TNG fan base actively hated Wesley and, by extension, Wheaton.

I think he could have easily been forgiven for dropping out of the public eye forever after being treated like that. Fortunately for us, he has chosen otherwise.

With the growth of the Internet, Wheaton has really found his place. He's a tech evangelist and one of the most active bloggers out there, discussing tech, games, family, politics, and whatever else he feels like talking about. He's carved out a space for himself that doesn't rest on his Star Trek credentials, and even if he had never been on the show, he'd still be a fine and upstanding member of the online community.

Surprisingly enough, he does not reject his days as Wesley Crusher, but embraces them. As terrible as it could be sometimes as The Kid - overlooked by writers and directors, hated by fans - he still got to do what most fourteen year-old boys (including this one) can only dream of doing: playing a space explorer on TV. He got to work with a group of fine men and women, and helped to create a show that would be truly beloved around the world. On balance, the good vastly outweighed the bad, and Wheaton was able to fold that experience into his life, making him a better person for it.

Memories of the Future is Wheaton's tribute to his days on Star Trek. As he describes it, the book isn't a salacious tell-all, revealing all of Trek's dirty secrets. It's more like "you're flipping through your high school yearbook with your friends." It's an honest look at the first half of the first season, described only as someone who truly loves it can do: with snark, sarcasm and admiration for the work, but no illusions about when it was... shall we say, less than up to snuff.

It starts with Encounter at Farpoint and goes up to Datalore, covering the first twelve episodes of Season 1 (the summaries of the remaining episodes are forthcoming in volume 2). Each episode is summarized, in a hilarious and sarcastic fashion. True to his geek roots, he manages to work in references to all of the sacred touchstones: Monty Python, collectible card gaming, Dungeons and Dragons, and of course, the other Star franchise which we shall not name. He isn't afraid to call out the writers when they make stupid choices, such as Dr. Crusher asking to bring Wesley onto the bridge during a major diplomatic/security crisis (Code of Honor) or having him casually solve a major plot point that all the experts in the room have been breaking their brains over, and then leave with a snide, "Heh. Adults." (The Battle).

There's quotable dialogue included for each episode, ("Oh, your species is always suffering and dying" - Q, Hide and Q) and Obligatory Technobabble ("Come off the main lead, split off at the force activator, then reversing the power leads through the force activator, repulsor beam powers against Tsiolkovsky!" - Wesley, The Naked Now). There's also a Behind the Scenes Memory, giving us a good look at what it was like for Wheaton to work on the show, often showcasing how little he really knew about what was going on, and a section called The Bottom Line, which looks at each episode in the context of the whole series.

The episode recaps are at once both sentimental and brutally honest. Where there are flaws in the creative process, Wheaton points them out with a kind of rabid glee. Where there are gems of creativity, he shows us where they are as well. It's the kind of look at TNG that could only have been done by someone who was a part of the show and loved it. He writes with clarity and honesty and, just to be sure I point it out again, humor. Lots and lots of humor.

It's a very quick read, and a very enjoyable one. For bonus points, go find the "Memories of the Futurecast" podcast, wherein Wheaton reads selections from the book. It's even funnier than reading it, and is a good way to kill fifteen or twenty minutes. And we podcasters have to stick together, right Wil? You and me, right? Right?

I may be overestimating our camaraderie.

If you're a Trek fan, this book will be a nice visit to a better time. What's more, this will probably make you want to go watch the first season again, if only to see if some of those early episodes are nearly as bad as he's making them out to be. I can't wait for volume 2.

Riker looks at Troi and very seriously asks what's wrong with his captain. Oh! Cool! We're finally going to get to see Troi use her Betazoid abilities to tell us something more interesting than "Pain! Pain!" This will be the moment when Troi transitions from useless one dimensional plot device into a real character! What's she going to say?!

The camera dramatically pushes in on her, as she looks at Riker and quietly says... "I wish I could say."
From Battle, Memories of the Future, volume 1

Wil Wheaton on Wikipedia
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