Friday, 18 September 2015

Review of 'A Little Life' by Hanya Yanagihara

Image result for a little life cover

The blurb says 'brace yourself' and this is good advice. I came close to giving up on A Little Life (now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2015) about a third of the way through, but I'm glad I persevered as it turned out to be a very rewarding read.

In brief, the novel is about a group of friends who meet in college and stay closely in touch, mainly living in New York, for many years to come. Jude, the main character, is intriguing and entrancing. I wanted to be his mother, his girlfriend, his wife and his lifelong friend. I wanted to belong in this book, to become one of the close and loyal group of friends who surround Jude because they love and admire him and want to help him learn to love and accept himself - which may well be an impossible task.

A Little Life ventures into the worlds of medicine, art, law, architecture and films, and the author has clearly done her research - there's a wealth of insight and information about them all. My one quibble is that almost all the characters are blindingly successful and wealthy. I'll forgive them that though, as I'll forgive Yanagihara for the occasional slippage into overwritten and laboured description. Most of the time you don't notice the writing at all, which, of course, is a sign that it's doing its intended job.

Some of the material from Jude's horrific childhood is very graphic and difficult to read. But you never have any sense of being a voyeur. It's as though you're being taken into the confidence of  these kind folk who befriend him in adulthood, with a gentle warning that this will hurt, but it's important that you hear it.

As a reader, I didn't want this book to end, knowing how much I would miss these characters. I suspect, though, that I won't be able to bring myself read it again and experience Jude's appalling childhood for a second time. As a writer, I feel inspired to do better, to look for characters as complex and challenging as Jude and listen to what they have to say. As a person, I am horrified yet again at the depths that my fellow human beings can sink to, while being inspired to try to be a better friend.

Ultimately, friendship is what this book is about. It's a treasure, but yes, brace yourself...

Title: A Little Life
Author: Hanya Yanagihara
Publisher: Doubleday Books
Date of publication: 10th March 2015
Price: Hardcover £18.38; Kindle £6.59

Happy reading,

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Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Today's the day 'Lena's Nest' hits the electronic shelves!

Yes, the long-awaited (well, by me at least) day of publication of Lena's Nest has arrived. I'll be anxiously watching my Amazon page for the magical change in rankings showing that some wonderful person has bought my book. It's only £1.99 by the way ($3.02 if you're ordering from If you feel in need of an exciting new read, please go to Amazon UK or Amazon USA to obtain your copy. (You can read this e-book version on your Kindle, tablet, phone or laptop. The paperback version will be coming soon.) One reviewer has already described Lena's Nest as 'terrifyingly exquisite'. See if you agree.

Lena's Nest is science fiction, which is a new genre for me as a writer, though I've been a fan for years. It's 'hard' scifi in that it's based on real science; real knowledge of computers and artificial intelligence (AI). But the science isn't blasted in your face; a lot of it's behind the scenes. And there aren't any warring planets or sophisticated weaponry. There are no aliens either - just different kinds of human beings.

The main story is Lena's. She's a roboticist and also a mother - and when she ends up 90 years ahead of her time, her main objective is to search for traces of her children. Are they still alive? Does she have grandchildren and great-grandchildren? Or have her descendants been wiped out in the conflict fifty years before? (OK, there is some conflict - in fact there's been a war - but we don't  witness it first hand.) Lena's own research - or the lack of it, in some areas - may have helped cause that war. She will have to face the consequences of her work, as well as coming to terms with a very different kind of life in 2104.

I have a background in AI and computer science, and this book reflects some of my concerns about developments in these fields - in particular the ethics of research. I'm pleased to see that such topics are beginning to make the news and even the drama slots - e.g. the recent Channel 4 series 'Humans' and the programme on BBC1 last night 'Could a Robot do my Job?' Radio 4 also has a lot of interesting stuff about computing and AI at the moment, including the reading of Ada Lovelace's letters (Ada was the first computer programmer and yay, she was a girl!)

One of the things that concerns me is that if we succeed in developing robots with thoughts and feelings, i.e. ones that are capable of happiness, sadness, pain and all the rest, will we treat them fairly and with consideration, kindness and respect? Some people fear what robots might do to us. My fear is what we might do to them. We don't have a great record as human beings for treating people we regard as 'different' or 'other' with kindness and respect (dreadful phrases like 'swarms of migrants' come to mind, but don't get me started on that).

These are some of the issues that Lena's Nest explores. Others include the vexed questions 'Who am I? Where exactly does my consciousness reside? What makes me me? If someone stored my brain in digital form, would that still be me? What if they copied it? What rights would that individual (or those individuals) have?' The lawyers will enjoy themselves, for sure - but these are issues that need to be thought about by all of us, ahead of time.

Some argue that a computer or a robot - something non-biological - can never be conscious. But the arguments are far from conclusive either way. I believe it could happen, and it may happen sooner than we expect. Ordinary people, not just scientists, need to start thinking about these things.

Just click here (UK purchasers) or here ( purchasers) to obtain your copy of Lena's Nest. If you have Amazon Unlimited, it's free!

Best wishes 

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Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Alan Turing, Marital Angst, Dutiful Daughters and Living Dolls... a review of 'Speak' by Louisa Hall

Image result for speak louisa hall
I have a deep interest in the ethics of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and am constantly on the lookout for fiction that addresses this topic. I was therefore very excited to discover a new novel by Louisa Hall that tackles the issue of what we do with artificially intelligent beings once we have created them.

Speak is a novel with a difference. It took me a while to get into, but after a few chapters I began to get the idea. It comprises a number of interwoven stories, the connections between them slowly being revealed. Mary is a young seventeenth century girl, newly married to a husband she doesn't much like, reluctantly accompanying him and her parents on a pilgrim voyage to America. On the way, Mary's beloved dog is washed overboard and she is overwhelmed by grief.

We hear the confessional thoughts of a scientist in a Texas prison in 2040. He has been convicted of creating intelligent dolls that have left their young owners over-dependent on them and incapable of forming true human relationships. The dolls have been removed to 'die' and their owners are left devastated and damaged.

Do you see the connection? Well, no, it's not obvious early on, except perhaps the common thread of loss. We are introduced to a couple in 1968 whose marriage is failing. We revisit the wife twenty years later and discover that she has been feeding the story of Mary the voyager, as well as her own story, into an AI program designed by her husband.

We also read the (fictional) letters of AI pioneer Alan Turing, written to Mrs Morcom, the mother of his dear friend Chris, who died when he and Alan were at school. Turing shares his thoughts on creating an artificial brain, while revealing his own complex emotions and the vicissitudes of his life as a gay man in the mid twentieth century.

The various strands slowly become woven together, in a way that left my mind stimulated both by the ideas and by the writing. This is science fiction of a special kind, perhaps appealing to readers of Margaret Atwood's more recent work. The writing is good, though a little flowery at times for my taste. The author appears to have done her research, pretty much, though the speed of development of some of the AI projects left me breathless. (And postcodes were not introduced to the UK until the early 1970s. Just a minor quibble...)

Chiefly, though, I will remember Speak for the challenge it poses. If we succeed in creating artificial intelligences that can truly think and feel (and how, ultimately, will we know - that's always the question), then how will we treat them? With kindness, respect and dignity, or not? Should AI be stopped (could it be stopped?) before we face this problem and many related ones (such as how they might treat us, their human creators)? These are not questions for the distant future; they are issues we need to start thinking about now, and it's good to see near-future sci-fi beginning to tackle them. (See also my own novel, Lena's Nest, to be released very soon, which tackles the same issue in a rather different way.)

If you like something a bit different, try Speak. Give it time and it may speak to you. It will certainly entertain, and perhaps challenge some of your cherished ideas about what it means to be human.
Title: Speak
Author: Louisa Hall
Publisher: Ecco Press
Publication Date: 7th July 2015
Price (UK): Hardback edition £13.05; Kindle edition £9.49
Happy reading!

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Thursday, 23 July 2015

Synths, Simulants, Robots, Androids, Bluds and Meks

Science fiction is full of them. Increasingly, some of them are making themselves felt in the real world. Robots of various kinds are increasingly common. Sadly, there was news a few weeks ago of a robot that accidentally killed a factory worker.

There seems to be something in human nature that fears the 'similar, but maybe not quite the same'. Perhaps the fear has genetic roots. It's frightening and it can lead to downright evil, when it makes us distrust people of a different skin colour or with different beliefs - or the tribe over the next hill who, after all, are not 'us'...

Science fiction plays on this fear in many ways. Combined with our deep fear of technology gone mad, it has led to some brilliant works of fiction by Isaac Asimov, Ursula le Guin, Philip K. Dick and Margaret Atwood, among many, many others.

Science fiction is regarded by some as a genre for men and boys. Perhaps it's the technology aspect - though there is absolutely no reason why women and girls should not be interested in science and technology - including computer programming, artificial intelligence (AI) and robot design (I am and I know many other females who are. I'd be the first to encourage them). But perhaps there's a deeper reason why much sci-fi does not appeal to women. In many (though by no means all) works of sci-fi, both books and film, there's an emphasis on war. On weapons. On struggles to the death, often between civilisations. OK, so women can be interested in war. But in my experience, they're not, or not so much, unless it's forced upon them. That's a generalisation and there are exceptions, of course.

I believe there is a need for more of the gentler variety of sci-fi that explores personalities, individual lives and, especially, the lives of women. Psychological suspense is a very popular genre with the female sex, and it combines beautifully, in my opinion, with speculative fiction and science fiction.  Consider the series 'Humans', currently showing on UK Channel 4 TV. This is a great example of informed scientific opinion meshed with the conflicts arising in an ordinary family. OK, the family has a 'synth' to make their meals and clean their house, but they're a pretty typical family, parents and three kids, with a good few secrets and lots of anxiety and stress. The presence of a synth (is she conscious? What does that actually mean?) is an added complication, and it combines beautifully with absent Mum, angsty teenagers and tempted Dad.

 I've just read a book called 'A Calculated Life' by Anne Charnock. It  was a finalist for the Philip K. Dick Award and the Kitschies Golden Tentacle (Debut Novel) Award, and a very worthy one in my opinion. It's set in the late twenty-first century, where big business is employing 'simulants' (artificially grown, genetically engineered individuals) to carry out advanced mathematical modelling and forecast economic trends. Jayna, the protagonist, is one of these super-intelligent synths, and the book is written from her perspective. Far from being an emotionless robot, she adores her stick insect pets and has warm feelings for her friends. But she and the other synths live a restricted life in a kind of institution which limits their social interaction and enforces early bedtimes and a controlled diet. When Jayna develops feelings for a biological human and begins to question her life and long for change, her troubles begin.

What I love about this book is its focus on a very appealing individual and the problems she encounters in her friendships and her work. This makes Jayna someone with whom I can emphathise (the stick insects help!). Her problems, although embodied in a different age, are not so far from my own experience. Just as in 'Humans', we have interesting (and important) social and scientific questions, explored from the perspective of a character we care about.

I have tried to do something similar in my own novel, shortly to be released, called 'Lena's Nest'. Lena is a scientist and a mum, who through a terrible accident ends up in the world of 2104. Like Jayna, she is human, but her ideas of what this means are very soon to be tested to the limit. The Meks she encounters are a new branch of humanity, distinct from the Bluds, who are the biologically-evolved humans. What's more, Lena's own work on AI is at least partly responsible for some of the problems of the Meks, through the failure (not  really Lena's fault) to establish sound ethical practice. Lena engages with the Meks, with a rather irritating Blud called Noah, with her own cognitive 'twin' and with the problem of finding out what happened to her children. I have tried to create an exciting and moving story while encouraging my readers to think about some of the relevant issues. I hope it works!

 I'm on the lookout for more sci-fi of this variety to read. If you have any suggestions, or would like to post a review on my blog of anything of this type, please get in touch. Films too, please, though my main focus is on books.

Happy reading,

PS More news of 'Lena's Nest' soon. You can read more about my novel and ask for a free pre-publication review copy here.