Thursday, May 19, 2011

Robopocalypse!

"You humans are biological machines designed to create ever more intelligent tools. You have reached the pinnacle of your species. All your ancestors' lives, the rise and fall of your nations, every pink and squirming baby - they have all led you here, to this moment where you have fulfilled the destiny of humankind and created your successor. You have expired. You have accomplished what you were designed to do."
The words of Archos, the most powerful artificial intelligence ever created, set the terrifying tone for the first true summer blockbuster of 2011 - Robopocalypsea novel by Daniel H. Wilson, on sale June 7th. You're gonna have to trust me on this one.

This debut novel by Wilson, robotics engineer and author of the satire/nonfiction How to Survive a Robot Uprising, is written with a blistering pace that forces the reader to give up all preconceived notions, airs, and snooty proto-literary ideas, and just hang the hell on for the ride. Optioned for film by Steven Spielberg before the book was ever published - Dreamworks is thanked in the acknowledgments of the advance copy I read - Robopocalypse reads like a finely tuned film script and hits like a punch in the face from a robot arm right from the get go.

Set in a near future of ours where humanity has mastered the art of robotic machinery - from the smart chips in our cars to simple, scurrying Death Star droids and domestic bipedal robots, there are engineered helpers all around us. In the presumed safety of a secure lab, one scientist finally creates the ultimate thinking machine, Archos, whose intelligence reaches unfathomable levels in 15 minutes of existence. Much to the fatal dismay of its physicist/father, Archos quickly figures a way out of its secure environment and starts in motion its plan to remove humanity from the equation. 
"What will I do? I will cultivate life. I will protect the knowledge locked inside living things. I will save the world from you."
Oh shit.

Daniel Wilson, robot leader
After Archos manipulates some humans into providing it with a secure location, it begins to spread its message of world domination to all the electronic devices around the world capable of being manipulated. (Your TV won't kill you, but your "Big Happy" domestic robot just might.) At first, isolated incidents are reported: a nonviolent, "humanoid safety and pacification robot" stationed in Afghanistan starts killing people; a domestic bipedal robot rips the face off a Frogurt employee; a "Baby-Comes-Alive" doll does just that, spouting robot propaganda at a Senator's daughter; the onboard computers of two domestic airliners chart a collision course before being overridden at the last second. Then all hell breaks loose. It's mostly the cars - any automobile with an "intra-vehicle communication chip" either runs humans down on the street or drives the ones on board to their deaths. Imagine the chaos in the cities...  Bipedal robots go door-to-door, "removing" human occupants - definitely not safe to stay inside. So what do you do?! After much death and madness, humanity regroups a bit, in the first incidence of true global solidarity, and tries to salvage what's left of our societies in an attempt  to stop whatever the F is happening on the planet. 

The story is told through reviewed dispatches and personal accounts compiled by Cormac "Bright Boy" Wallace, a soldier and apparent survivor of the war against the machines. This narrative device is my one true complaint with Robopocalypse - Cormac's italicized recaps at the end of every chapter/dispatch don't leave much room for doubt as to how the war will end. (In fact, the opening sentence of the novel begins with "Twenty minutes after the war ends, I...") Yet despite the perceived inevitability of how things will go for human/robot relations, the journey is so spectacular you end up not caring one whit about the quirks of delivery.

Wilson proves stunningly expert at pacing the story out - leaving just enough fear and doubt in the narrative to keep you quickly turning pages. Thankfully, the dialogue is kept to a relative minimum and remains sharp and believable throughout - speaking parts in books like this can quickly go awry when the robots sound more human than the humans. Not so here. The actions of both machines and humans drive the narrative completely, leaving us constantly wondering what the next ensuing horror will be before humanity can react. Part of this is due to the shocking near-reality of it all - the recognizable element of the horror. Who among us can't see this "robopocalypse" being part of our own future? We already rely too much on our technological comforts as it is, so who's to say we won't be inventing bipedal home aides in the next 50 years? (We could, of course be headed toward Gary Shteyngart's version of the future too.) We just might be so shortsighted to allow ourselves to get taken in by the ease of tech and end up overrun by our robot slaves. (Kindles are mind-control devices, by the way.)

Anyway, I was skeptical of this, to say the least, when I first saw it. Being a complete book snob, as you know, I thought it odd that my Random House sales rep was pushing this robot book so hard. Then I talked to his wife - a very sensible woman and a great, unbiased reader - who loved it. WTF? And after reading 5 pages I realized how wrong I was in my rash judgment - fine, there I said it. Read this book as soon as you can - it's well-written, different, escapist, a lot of fun and you'll forget all about the boring, mundane, tedious shit in your life. And besides, even the jaded reader won't see exactly how things will shake out in the end - trust me.

**For future reference, you can "like" Archos the evil AI on Facebook: www.facebook.com/ArchosR.14, which offers some pretty hilarious robot posts. (Wilson and the book itself are also on FB.) Also, http://www.danielhwilson.com/ of course.

And, once again, I implore you - if you read this blog, do me a solid if you are looking to purchase books (including eBooks, mind you) and please check to see if there is at least an independent bookstore near you where you could buy your books, such as Robopocalypse

Shop Indie Bookstores Most indies have websites that are just as easy to use as Amazon.com, so try to keep your dollars in your own communities!

Friday, May 13, 2011

Cloud Atlas Burst

This isn't exactly breaking news anymore, what with Tom Hanks crashing the party last month, but things seem to be moving forward - for reals - on the film version of David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas. This week, it was announced that Halle Berry, Susan Sarandon, and Jim Broadbent would be joining Hanks and Hugo Weaving (and perhaps Natalie Portman?) in the film, crushing any fading hopes that it would remain as well-wrought and ground-breaking as the novel. That's right, I don't like it.

I can kinda get on board with Tom Hanks - he's a classy guy - and Susan Sarandon is great (except for the whole maybe-cheating-on-Tim Robbins-thing) but Halle Berry? The rumor has gone further in that she may play "Meronym" from the "Sloosha's Crossin'" section - a post-apocalyptic future where people speak a garbled, pidgin English that I imagine her delivering like Ben Stiller's "Simple Jack," if you know what I m-m-m-mean. But I digress. Some stupid part of me had always hoped that the necessary ensemble cast for the film - even with the Wachowskis attached to it - would be comprised of unknown actors, or at least not Big-Timers like Hanks & Portman. Now there're way too many A-listers (or B, I guess) attached to it for my taste.

I have further problems, really, with the production team of the Wachowskis. (Formerly known as the "Wachowski brothers" until Larry became "Lana" a few years back. Seriously.) They have created one original, notable work - the original Matrix film - and have utterly failed to deliver on everything else they've gotten their hands on since then. The other two Matrix movies, Speed Racer, V For Vendetta... uh... did I mention Larry's now a girl? 'Cause that's all they got. It scares me that these uninspired, bloated-budget, high-gloss clowns are making what is perhaps my favorite book of the 21st century into a film. More rumors have the film's budget ballooning up over $140 million already - which could be good or bad, depending on whether that cash is going to production value or cast salaries. (Speed Racer cost $120 mil & the 2 shitty Matrix sequels, $237. FYI.) The one saving grace here may actually be director Tom Tykwer, who wrote Run Lola Run & the film adaptation of Patrick Süskind's Perfume, which wasn't half bad. Can he overpower the brother/sister combo of crap, though?

One last thing: Natalie Portman told Entertainment Weekly a few months ago that she read Cloud Atlas while she "was doing V For Vendetta and (then) gave it to the Wachowskis and to Tom Tykwer." So, obviously, she's dead to me. 

Ah shit, I'm sorry, I should keep an open mind on this. It's not like I won't be there on opening night. I mean, c'mon.

Hey, don't be a jerk - if you want to buy a book, do it right: Shop Indie Bookstores

Monday, May 02, 2011

Happy JPattaversary!

Friday, April 29th marked the one year anniversary of the completely one-sided friendship between myself and James Patterson. To celebrate, JPatt is publishing the sequel to The 9th Judgment on Monday, (sort of) appropriately entitled Tenth Anniversary. I like to think that he threw that title in just for me. 

I love you too, Jim, but I'm not doin' that shit again.

Go ahead, revisit the 117 Days, it's okay.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Not Your Father's eBook

Barnes & Noble and Sandra Boynton Join Together to Present the World's First E-Book App Signing
New York, New York – On Monday, May 2, renowned writer and illustrator Sandra Boynton will become the world’s first author to sign an eBook app for the general public. This historic signing will take place at 7:00 PM at Barnes & Noble’s Upper East Side store, located at 150 E 86th Street at Lexington Avenue, in New York City.

It's gonna be so awesome to look back over my purchased apps in 20 years and see my signed ebook version of Moo Baa La La La.

Is this the future we want?  I get that authors and publishers are proud of the interactivity of children's books in the electronic format, but what kind of future generation are we creating as a result? We are already so plugged in - look at yourself right now - are we not going to read to our children in 10 years? Will we let our iPads & Nooks do the reading and interacting with the kids, while we check our Facebook pages?

Below is Loud Crow's version of The Tale of Peter Rabbit. (They're also responsible for Boynton's app.)  It's very cool looking, I must admit - until I remember that this will be used by tiny children in lieu of a parent reading them the story on their own.



Maybe I'm looking at this the wrong way - perhaps this isn't to be viewed as an "improvement" on the book, but more of a supplement....

Ah, screw that, we all know where this is heading. There's no way that a parent who invests in something like Boynton's app is going to be reading aloud to little Billy when he goes to bed. "Here, son, watch this video reenactment of storytime and I'll see you in the morning." Dramatic, sure, but is it untrue?

Again, this leads to the debate over books & eBooks - a subject we've all been discussing to death, I know. Yes, the argument can be made that paperbound books are just another technology, waiting to be replaced by the next one - in this case a musical, speaking electronic version. (My old pal, Jeff Bezos from Amazon has said as much on numerous occasions.) And there's a certain degree of truth to that argument, I suppose. I know that many readers of this blog, even, are eBook readers. I get it. I know it's not going anywhere. But where is it taking us? To me there's an intangible, personal element to holding an actual book in your hands and turning the pages that is lacking in the soulless, plastic and glass electronic tablet. An autographed eBook? Are you kidding me? What the f**k am I going to do with that? What does that even mean? 

Look, I get that there's a certain degree of irony to all this, as I only have a voice as loud as I do because of technology, but I think this is leading us down a slippery slope. Hearing the sound of both of my parents' voices reading to me (not simultaneously) was an integral part of who I became as a person - can the same be said for a generation who has a computer doing the reading? Amazing technological advancements aside, it all just strikes me as a little sad.