Sense of Wonder: Exploring artificial intelligence
This month’s picks take us from the exciting world of artificial intelligence to that of a criminal genius to the very best best-of-the-year collection.
One of the most wildly anticipated technological feats possible in our lifetime is the development of genuine artificial intelligence. Luckily for us, Robert J. Sawyer has written a series covering a wide range of the issues and obstacles surrounding AI, including perception, tactility, beauty, language, game theory, neurophysiology and morality. In WWW: Watch, the second book in a trilogy, teenager Caitlin Decter continues to discover the visible world after receiving her eyePod implant. Webmind, the emergent AI she has awakened, grows into a full being of its own, but is discovered by American spook agencies and the military—who, ironically, are determined to destroy any entity with the potential for evil, regardless of actual intent or action. As the agencies close in, Webmind announces its existence and demonstrates its beneficence. Sawyer covers an astonishing breadth of concepts, but perhaps does so at the expense of depth; for instance, Webmind’s massive social engineering comes with surprisingly little cost. If Sawyer is a bit overly optimistic about the future of AI, his writing is still a welcome breath of fresh air after decades of machine intelligences portrayed as necessarily inimical to human existence. Webmind may never exist or may arise under vastly different circumstances, but Sawyer has given us a wonderful primer for our potential future.
Gene Wolfe has always written eloquently about the plasticity of identity and the subjectivity of the narrator—indeed, his last name is now an adjective describing such stories—but never has he so thoroughly entwined these two things as in The Sorcerer’s House. In a series of letters, the book’s narrator, Bax, tells us he is a recently released, exceptionally well-educated convict who has been given a house haunted by, among other creatures, a Japanese shape-shifter, a werewolf and twin brothers. But Wolfe being Wolfe, the story is not as obvious as it first appears. Bax is himself a twin whose brother George is the ‘good’ one—though with a short and violent temper—while Bax has always been the ‘bad seed.’ Such duality also exists in the brothers who haunt Bax’s house, but at one point the mysterious brothers’ behaviors make us wonder if George and Bax’s roles are perhaps reversed. Bax writes of the fantastic events only to his brother and his brother’s wife, while he mentions nothing of these odd occurrences to a friend from prison; the pedestrian tone in these letters is in sharp contrast to those written to George. Since everything Bax tells us must be viewed with suspicion, his apologetic and contrite narrative is almost certainly a fabulous invention intended to cover up real-estate fraud. Or is it? While The Sorcerer’s House is not the best of Wolfe’s stories, it is nevertheless an important addition to a giant’s oeuvre.
Pick of the month
An anthology of the best of the year is more a reflection of its editor’s vision of which stories are important than it is an objective collection. While there are a few traditional stories in Jonathan Strahan’s The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume Four involving first contact, time travel and so forth, it is the stories that directly address sexuality and gender that make this a must-have volume. The science fictional and fantastical aspects of Nicola Griffith’s “It Takes Two,” Andy Duncan’s “The Night Cache” and Ellen Klages’ “Echoes of Aurora” are less important than the three stunningly beautiful love stories between women that are depicted within. Besides a powerful exploration of identity, Kij Johnson’s graphically sexual story “Spar” is unlike any other first-contact story. Sara Genge’s “As Women Fight” extrapolates sex roles in a dichogamous species, while Kelly Link’s “The Cinderella Game” examines gender type in fairy tales. And Rachel Swirsky’s “Eros, Philia, Agape” combines parental roles, robotic free will, identity, sex and love into a bittersweet broken romance tale. It is a rare feat for one story to use genre tropes to radically rewrite Western assumptions; to have multiple such stories in one volume is a singular, priceless accomplishment. Quite frankly, this is a book that should top every science fiction and fantasy fan’s need-to-read list.
In alphabetical order, Sean Melican is a chemist, father, husband and writer.