My Favorite Android: The Murderbot Diaries

The first use of the word “robot” dates back to the 1920’s (robotnik or similar being a term for factory worker in many slavic languages), but the word “android,” meaning a miniature human-like automaton, is older, as far as 1863. A robot – a disembodied piece of machinery – does work for you – like a Roomba, or the useless rolling pest in the grocery store that spies on people who might steal things (at least Roomba can clean up a mess it finds, and doesn’t cost $35,000). An android looks like a human, moves like a human, interacts like a human (more or less), but inside is a machine.

That fact has led to a huge amount of introspection – how do we define Human? Is a self-aware, English-communicating Gorilla a person? What about our AI creations? When a computer becomes self-aware, does it have a soul? Is it “human”? At that point, is the use and ownership of an android slavery?  That question was battled in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Measure of a Man,” where Starfleet claimed to own Data the android and control him like equipment, while the case was made he was sentient and free. The movie(s) Blade Runner also focused on that question. 

I’m not a techie. Computers are great if they do what I need,  but I couldn’t care less about future tech, AI interfaces, androids, or streaming. Anyone who knows any science fiction knows you never trust AI or give it too much power. I like Data, I don’t love Data. C3PO is annoying. I hated Marvin the Paranoid Android. No matter how many times I watch Blade Runner, I think it’s one of the most boring movies ever (I still love The Six Million Dollar Man, but he was a bionic human, not android). So I was really, really surprised that I even picked up the book All Systems Red by Martha Wells, also known as The Murderbot Diaries #1. Not my kind of book. But from the first page, I could not put the book down. I read it while cooking. I read it while my kids were in the tub. I read it while walking. I had to finish it in one day. Thankfully, it’s a short novella, and that’s entirely possible.

Murderbot, as it calls itself (it has no gender. Murderbots are not built for sex; that’s a sexbot), is a Security Unit (SecUnit), a partly organic robot/android construct built to provide security detail for whoever rents or buys it. Of course, mostly what security entails is killing whatever might harm the persons it’s hired to protect, hence the term Murderbot. Murderbot, however, manages to hack its own governor module, releasing itself from control by the company who owns it. 

This starts Murderbot on a soul-searching (or soul-developing?) quest to find out exactly who or what it is now, all while working hard not to let anyone realize it’s free, because an uncontrolled killing machine is a very, very dangerous thing (to quote Kyle Reese from Terminator, “That terminator is out there, it can’t be bargained with, it can’t be reasoned with, it doesn’t feel pity or remorse or fear, and it absolutely will not stop… EVER, until you are dead!”).  But Murderbot isn’t fond of killing. He’s fond of soap operas and TV serials (like The Rise and Fall of Sanctuary Moon). All he wants is to be left undisturbed to watch his shows while he tries to figure out the human race. Life never lets him, and he feels obligated (like the heroes in the soaps he watches) to help while trying to solve the mystery of who is trying to kill the people he was hired to protect.

Murderbot is sarcastic, droll, funny, depressed, almost autistic in his stilted approach to emotion and interaction with people. He’s a fast thinker and an opportunist. He says s**t a lot more than Data. He doesn’t want to be human, yet is fascinated by them and can’t stop studying them. And he makes mistakes, just like a human. The innovative – and logical – adaption/hijacking of computer systems has opened my eyes to issues I’ve never given a thought to, such as the power of drones. With all the issues currently happening via ransomware, spying, and breaches, and the mass-market and miniaturization of drones, maybe we should be thinking more along the lines of Murderbot, as our military is also controlled by computers, and nothing but nothing is hack-proof. People mistrusted the NYPD robodog so much they had to send it back.

I had to read the second book Artificial Condition (possibly my favorite, because of ART, Murderbot’s name for the “A*****e Research Transport” ship computer), whipped through the third, Rogue Protocol , flew through the fourth Exit Strategy, (also possibly my favorite), and am now reading the fifth, Network Effect. The sixth and current volume is Fugitive Telemetry, with three more commissioned by the publisher, and a TV version is in the works (please, please don’t mess it up!). All Systems Red has won the Nebula Award, the Hugo Award, the Alex Award, and the Locus Award. Yes, the stories are simple (good guy must take down bad guy) but the humanity and humanism throughout the series will keep you emotionally invested to the very end. 

Pure enjoyment, with no other agenda. Murderbot is my favorite android ever. 

 

Teen Book Reviews: Flowers for Algernon and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Teens: did you know that you can earn community service credit for writing a book review and submitting it to us? Today, we’ll hear from a teen who did just that. Find out more about how to earn community service hours from home at cheshirelibrary.org/teens/.

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes, reviewed by Ali A.

Flowers for Algernon is one of my favorite books of all-time. The main character is a man named Charlie Gordon, who is 32 years old and has an IQ of 68, meaning he is intellectually challenged. Charlie Gordon goes to class at a school for intellectually challenged people and due to his positive attitude towards learning, he was chosen as a test subject for an experiment/operation that makes intellectually challenged people into geniuses. Throughout the book readers can watch the progress Charlie goes through on his quest to becoming a genius. Once Charlie becomes smart, he recalls past memories of his childhood. Once the full effects of the experiment kick in, it turns out not everyone likes the “New Charlie”. The “New Charlie” is stuck-up, arrogant, and makes other people look dumb. Charlie’s co-workers hate him so much that they created a petition to fire Charlie, and 840/841 voted to have Charlie fired. The only person who didn’t sign was Fanny Birden, and even she didn’t care much for Charlie and only didn’t sign because it wasn’t in her place to decide who could work and who couldn’t. As the world starts to turn against Charlie he receives more bad news- the intelligence that he acquired isn’t permanent, and after the operation wears off, Charlie will have a lower IQ than he did before the experiment. As Charlie’s emotional and mental growth goes back to normal, Charlie doesn’t. He starts out as a happy, fun, and care-free person before the experiment but after the experiment he is anti-social, mean, and boring. I enjoyed this book very much but I found it sad to see what happened to Charlie as the intelligence he acquired started to wear off. However this book made me grateful that God gifted us with lots of knowledge, and that we should never take it for granted.

5 stars.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon, reviewed by Ali A.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is a great book about Christopher John Francis Boone, a brilliant but autistic 15-year old boy living in London. Christopher is heavily gifted in math and takes A-level advanced courses at his school. However, Christopher does have some behavior issues, including the time he punched a police officer and was arrested and also when he and his father had a small fist fight. When one of Christopher’s neighbor’s dog turns up dead with a garden fork next to him, Christopher is automatically blamed without any evidence. Christopher then decides to clear his name by secretly investigating who actually committed the dog murder. As Christopher moves closer and closer to cracking the case, he starts to learns more about what happened with his divorced parents. His father, who takes care of him, said his mother died due to cancer in a hospital. Christopher believed his story for a while, but Christopher did remember that it was suspicious that his father casually told him that one night his mother was dead and forever gone. However, during Christopher’s investigations, he starts realizing that his father’s claim might not be accurate, and that his mother might still be alive so Christopher decides to find her and escape his dangerous neighborhood. I really enjoyed The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time because readers can live inside the brain of a kid with autism by feeling their emotions and thoughts, and experience the cruelty of the outside world. I also enjoyed this book because readers can also use their brains to piece together clues and try to crack the case themselves. I recommend this book to people who enjoy mysteries, thrillers, and plot twists, especially when you find out there’s a dog killer in your own family.

5 Stars

Facing the Music with Bill and Ted

I don’t know when I first saw Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, but I know it was likely on HBO. Dumb, mindless comedies were in, harmless “Teen” fluff that didn’t pay much attention to reality. It had George Carlin, and Carlin was cool.

I don’t know if it was the painful but common ignorance of misprounouncing “So-crates” or the stoner-intoned dialogue, but I did find it cute, amusing, it had an actual story line, and it introduced me to that actor with the weird name. This was an era when Saturday Night Live was high on the charts, and comedy was in.

A generation later, my kids loved the film and its sequel, Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, as well.

Fast forward 30 years later – Keanu Reeves is a household name that we can all pronounce. Alex Winter also appeared in The Lost Boys, one of the better vampire movies ever made, but has had a steady career as a director of movies, television, and music videos. Together, along with many of the original cast, they come back to the big (well, Covid-big) screen in Bill and Ted Face the Music. Bill and Ted are middle-aged, still stuck trying to make the Wyld Stallyns band work, when the future calls them into service to save the world with their music.

Can 1989 comedy work in 2020, or is this just a nostalgic film for middle-aged fans? It’s hard to say. After knocking back movies like The Matrix and John Wick, seeing Reeves break the dead-pan assassin mold and fall back into comedy was strange – and fun. Both actors pick up as if they’d never stopped. Conceived and written by the original creator, the script was predictable (did you expect otherwise?) but true to the characters. It has the same feel, the same style, the same details as the originals, which isn’t the easiest thing to do – too many movies bomb on the third try (Beverly Hills Cop 3, Lethal Weapon 3, Die Hard 3, X-Men 3, Superman 3, The Godfather 3, Divergent 3, etc). George Carlin has unfortunately passed on, with his character Rufus seen in tribute as a hologram, so they brought in a new character, Rufus’s daughter Kelly – played by Kristen Schaal. Viewers are introduced to Thea and Billie, Bill and Ted’s 20-something daughters, characters who do a marvelous job of both imitating their fathers and yet modernizing them for a new generation to identify with. While it makes Bill and Ted seem old and outdated, it’s actually a touching way of passing the torch.

If you loved the originals, if you like mindless fairly clean comedy (PG-13 for language), if you like movies you don’t have to think about that have happy endings, then the movie is well-worth seeing. Is it Oscar material? Of course not. But it is faithful fun.

If you like Bill and Ted, try these other similar movies you might have missed!

Susan’s Best Reads of 2019

I don’t read as much as I wish I could; I just don’t have time at the moment. It doesn’t help that I wind up with sometimes 600 page books in my hands, and those take longer.  I never know what I’ll read next, and I read a bunch of good ones last year. Here are some of my favorites:

One of the two best books I read this year, I’ve already blogged about: Creativity, Inc, by Ed Catmull, was amazing. Not just a history of Pixar films, it’s also the best darned, most entertaining book on business and employee management you will read. Pixar is a 5-star company for a reason.

The second of my Best Reads this year is The Man from the Train: The Solving of a Century-Old Serial Killer Mystery by Bill James and Rachel McCarthy James.  From approximately 1898 to 1912, a serial killer traversed the US by train – coming through New Haven’s Union Station on the way – with an MO of bludgeoning his victims with the back of an axe. Because of communications at the time, few people were able to connect the murders. James painstakingly, with the utmost detail, traces the dozens of murders and examines them, deciding if they were likely by the same killer or not, and why. He traces the paths through the states and the seasons, chasing the trail to a man who was most likely the killer. By the time he’s done, you are convinced and amazed. I could not stop reading this book. I read it while waiting for the school bus. I read it while cooking. I would have read it in the shower if I could have. If you love a mystery, if you love history, if you love crime stories, this book is a must.

I’m only 30 years late in reading Neuromancer, the Hugo-winning cyberpunk novel by William Gibson. I can see why it is held as one of the greatest novels of our time. Gibson predicts and writes about today’s modern computers and internet and gaming – long before they existed. The scenarios he describes are both familiar and futuristic at the same time. While not only visionary, it’s written in  a flawless style and with realistic, interesting characters. If you loved Ready Player One or The Matrix (which has to have been influenced by this book), you will love Neuromancer.

If you’re aware of social and racial issues, I strongly recommend Survival Math, by Mitchell S. Jackson. A professor of writing, in achingly beautiful prose worthy of Martin Luther King Jr., with the voice of a preacher without being preachy, Johnson breaks down the issues faced in his own family, examining how he came to where he is, how racism played into it without even being visible, and how despite all the odds, it’s possible to thrive. He covers harsh topics without flinching. The book is brilliant, spellbinding, and a superb read from a voice that soars with truth.

Far more than I expected, I loved Total Recall, an older door-stop of a biography on Arnold Schwarzenegger. From his birth in a tiny town in Austria (which still has only 2500 people) to his divorce from Maria Shriver, Arnold is witty and candid and down to Earth. No matter what you think of his politics or his movies or his personal life, this book may be older, but it was highly entertaining. His best friend just died in September of this year.

Not my favorite, but worth mentioning because of its local importance, is Frog Hollow  by Susan Campbell. Campbell, a former reporter with the Hartford Courant, digs into the history of the notorious Frog Hollow section of Hartford, and through tireless research shows the former glory of the neighborhood as not only an important area in Colonial times, but once a major manufacturing center (in 1898, Pope automotive made half the cars in the US). I was hoping for a deep sociologic dissection of the issues, but instead Campbell gives us an upbeat view from street level about the good aspects of Hartford and the people who live there, not just the doom and gloom of ad-selling news clips.

Last but not least, I’ll throw in a kid’s series you probably missed; with 18 years between my last two kids, I certainly did, but my youngest is so hooked on the British easy reader series Urgency Emergency! by Dosh Archer, I wound up buying most of them. The series is so witty and enjoyable you don’t mind reading them over and over again. Doctor Glenda, Nurse Percy, and the Pengamedics, in predictable melodrama, assist the maladies of Humpty Dumpty, The Big Bad Wolf, the Itsy Bitsy Spider, and many more. They are a delight. The library has several of the stories; be sure to read them all!

Sci-Fi at the Movies

Harold our sci-fi-guy is going to the movies in today’s blog post!

Science fiction is an extremely popular film and video genre and the Library has a sizeable collection of sci-fi movies, videos, and television programs.

If the Force is with you, you can check out a film from the most successful film series of all times: George Lucas’ Star Wars. The library has every Star Wars movie on DVD.  My favorite is: Episode V, The Empire Strikes BackThe library also has a collection of Star Wars novels that have spun off from the films.

You can share in the voyages of the Starship Enterprise with Star Trek.  The library has many of the Star Trek movies and television shows in their catalog including one of the most acclaimed Star Trek films: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.  I enjoy all of them, but one of my favorites is Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. The library also has the complete first season of the new Star Trek Discovery Series along with a great collection of Star Trek books that span all the Star Trek television series and movies.

If more contemporary science fiction movies are more your style, there are some great ones on the shelves at the Cheshire Public Library. Some favorites:

Arrival debuted in 2016. It stars Amy Adams as a linguistic professor recruited by the U.S. Army to figure out how to communicate with intelligent aliens who have landed on earth. It is based on the 1998 short story Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang that is available from the Library as a downloadable audio book. His book of short stories, Exhalation, is also well worth reading.

Ex Machina is a 2014 British science fiction film. IMDB.com says that it is about “A young programmer [who] is selected to participate in a ground-breaking experiment in synthetic intelligence by evaluating the human qualities of a highly advanced humanoid A.I.”

Gravity – This 2013 critically acclaimed film stars Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as American astronauts who are stranded in space because of a Shuttle accident and their attempt to return to Earth. It received 10 Oscar nominations and the Golden Globe Award for Best Director along with the 2013 Ray Bradbury Award.

The Martian – This 2015 film one of my favorites. Directed by Ridley Scott, it is a modern-day Robinson Crusoe story about an astronaut, played by Matt Damon, who is stranded on Mars and his efforts to survive. It is based on the book by Andy Weir that is also and available in print and as an audiobook at the library.

Here are some other great science fiction movies that are available at the CPL:

If you have some favorites that I have missed that are in the library’s collection, let me know and I will add them to a future blog.