Wednesday, March 27, 2013

It takes a village - or a circus - to raise a child

It's an old-fashioned Scottish witch-burning in Cindy Spencer Pape's 5th Gaslight Chronicles story, Cards and Caravans.

Note: Cards and Caravans is the fifth story of the Gaslight Chronicles series. While the stories work well as stand-alones, there are inherient spoilers, especially where the romances are involved.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

One of the space program's pioneers gets one last chance to fly

“Dorothy lived in the midst of the great Kansas prairies, with Uncle Henry, who was a farmer, and Aunt Em, who was the farmer's wife.”

L Frank Baum used this line to start his most famous work, The Wizard of Oz. Now, Mary Robinette Kowal uses this same line to start a whole new story, 'The Lady Astronaut of Mars.'

Here, the space program played out a little bit differently. Instead of simply being content with reaching the Moon, humanity kept pushing out into space. While computers were still in the punch-card phase, man reached Mars and eventually colonized it, beneath bio-domes to keep in the air.

Elma York was the face of the Mars program. With the mind of a scientist, the heart of an explorer and the looks of a starlet, she was the perfect choice to be the face of the colonization program, along with her computer-science husband.

Fast-forward several decades and their lives have become the same as any couple in their later years. Elma keeps in shape for her NASA-compliance physicals, and also to help take care of her husband. While his mind is as sharp as ever, his body has begun to betray him. The tremors have gotten so bad, and his muscle mass has gotten so low, that he is transitioning into 'it's a matter of time' territory.

But how much time? Because NASA has a new project in the works. They need a person to make a one-way trip to the nearest star system, to set up an array to facilitate travel. Does Elma live out her marriage with her slowly dying husband, or take her last chance to fly among the stars?

Mary Robinette Kowal's talent lies in finding the humanity in her characters. Whether they be a clockwork toy, an IT girl on a generational ship, or a woman living on Mars, Kowal makes the reader wonder what they'd do in their place. This is the real joy of Kowal's stories, and what keeps readers coming back time and again.

Highs: It's a amazing what a little girl from the Kansas countryside remembers years later.

Lows: I might resent the narrator using her looks in this way, but then again it was the 1960s.

Verdict: Very much worth the read, for free, on Mary Robinette Kowal's site here.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

An AI to make HAL look like a kitten

Technology is becoming more and more of part of our everyday lives. Surgeons can preform complex operations halfway across the world using mechanical arms and video feeds. Factories automate many of the production lines run by humans just a few decades ago. Google Cars have driven over a million miles, in traffic, without intervention by humans. Drones, some piloted by humans well away from the front lines and others controlled by sophisticated programming, have the ability to identify persons of interest and buildings, both for surveillance and for military action.

All of these are controlled by computer programming. All are connected to some form of network. And anything connect to a network can be compromised.

In Daniel Wilson's near-future novel Robopocalypse, even more aspects of our lives is influenced by computers and automatons. Many households and businesses are aided by domestic robots, as well as the military version that can help with everything from routine patrol of war zones to active combat situations. Vehicles come with automatic driving programs. Even buildings have their electrical grids and other systems tied into these omnipresent computer systems.

Dr. Nicholas Wasserman has been working on a truly conscious AI program. He took every precaution when he brought Archos into being. He enclosed the system in a Faraday cage; no signals should have been able to enter or leave. He only gave Archos limited information about the human race, to help control the views that the program had of humans. He did everything he could to keep his creation from escaping. But humans are sloppy. A laptop left on, with an IR port, was all it took for Archos to slip into the rest of the world. And like any other living creature, its goal is to survive. By any means necessary.

It began slowly. A domestic seemingly on a frozen yogurt run malfunctions and attacks the clerk. A child's toy scares it's young owner with too much knowledge about the family. A phone phreak notices something a bit strange. But nothing to make a coherent picture of what is to come.

And then...Zero hour. 

Written as a series of short stories taking place around the world, Robopocalypse is a terrifying look into a seemingly possible future. Even without an AI to instigate it, humans' reliance on technology and lack of attention to security is already manifesting. From reprogramming insulin pumps to lethal shocks from hacked pacemakers, the general public seems completely unaware of the creativity and ruthlessness of hackers. If the computers themselves were to turn on humans, the results would be catastrophic.

Written as something like a series of short stories, many revolving around a core set of half a dozen humans, Robopocalypse is an amazing novel. As the crisis unfolds and the resistance takes form, Wilson creates a believable world that seems just a few steps away.

Highs: Mr. Nomura and his factory in Japan almost deserves a companion novel all of its own.

Lows: Like many authors, Wilson doesn't quite succeed in writing for our youngest protagonist.

Verdict: A thoroughly creepy book, I would suggest against reading this in a dark room with a computer's standby light blinking.

Further Reading: 'The Perfect Match', 'For Want of a Nail'

Monday, March 4, 2013

Manga Monday: It makes sense that Alexia would end up hanging off the side of an airship

We meet Lord Maccon's former pack, and they have a most peculiar problem on their hands in Gail Carriger and Yen Press' Soulless The Manga Volume 2: Changeless.

Note: Soulless The Manga Volume 2: Changeless is, of course, the sequel to Soulless The Manga Volume 1,  and follows the story of The Parasol Protectorate Volume 2, Changeless. The review for Soulless The Manga Volume 1 is here, and the review of the novel Changeless is here. Otherwise, read on!