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January 12th, 2012 - The Book of the Celestial Cow

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January 12th, 2012


11:39 pm - Paperless Books
Inspired by a Buffistas discussion about Isaac Asimov and his "serviceable" prose, I picked up I, Robot, read by Scott Brick. I had never read any Asimov, so I didn't know what to expect. I mean, I saw the movie, but I also knew the movie had nothing to do with anything. And I played a video murder mystery based on the book when I was a kid. But I had not read any actual Asimov.

I, Robot is a short story collection masquerading as a novel under the frame story of a man interviewing Dr. Susan Calvin, preeminent robopsychologist. She features in some, but not all of the stories, which are all about—you guessed it—robots. And, specifically, the famous Three Laws of Robotics. Surely, you know them; they're like Newton's Laws of Motion but for robots. A robot at rest tends to stay at rest—okay, no. A robot cannot harm a human or, through inaction, allow a human to come to harm. A robot must obey all orders unless they contradict the First Law. And a robot must preserve itself unless such action conflicts with the First or Second Law. These laws are hardcoded into their positronic brains, however the hell they work.

I, Robot is basically a series of thought experiments masquerading as short stories, and, to my surprise, I really liked it! Asimov has a hell of a lot of fun examining the ramifications of the Three Laws and how they govern robot behavior (handy to have a robopsychologist around), and I found it really fascinating, all the scenarios he comes up with. The characters aren't particularly three-dimensional, but I did enjoy Powell and Donovan, and I am impressed with the fact that Asimov created Dr. Susan Calvin, the greatest robopsychologist in the world and easily the smartest person in the book, given that sixty years later, we barely seem capable of acknowledging that girls can be interested in science.



I got a Kindle Touch as a holiday gift at work, and for my first ebook experience, I chose Little Brother, by Cory Doctorow, since I could download it for free and Custom Made is putting up a stage adaptation. I had heard mixed reviews of the book, but mostly positive.

Marcus is a teenage hacker in San Francisco. He is super l33t and loves playing ARGs with his friends. But then one day there's a terrorist attack, and he and his friends get taken in by Homeland Security for being suspected terrorists. Before he knows it, San Francisco is practically a police state, with people's privacy being sacrificed in the name of "security." So it's up to him to lead the revolution.

Little Brother is good. It's readable and entertaining. It's got a lot of interesting facts about technological topics. It's exciting, and there's lots of cool hacking. But, oh man, it hardly feels like a story. Cory Doctorow is not really telling a story about characters. He is condemning America's systematic chipping away at our civil rights and basic freedoms under the guise of protecting them, and also here are some teenagers. I exaggerate a bit; it's not as if the book reads like a polemic. But as things get worse and worse—from police brutality to torture—it's a paradoxical mix of ridiculously implausible and terrifyingly plausible. A lot of the book seems startlingly prescient, "reminiscent" of the Occupy movement years before it happened. There is a whole thing with pepper spray and everything.

This wouldn't matter so much if Doctorow were a more compelling writer. The book felt like Neal Stephenson-lite, but Doctorow is no Neal Stephenson. The prose is, oh, better than "serviceable," I suppose, given that it's the first-person POV of a teenage boy. And Marcus has a character arc and a romance and all that, and his voice is perfectly fine, but it's very matter-of-fact, with little subtext. Everything is right there on the surface. He tells the story, and that's it. Which is fine. But because the story seemed to be defined by the agenda of the book, I was left a little underwhelmed.

Little Brother wants to be 1984 for a new generation. A lofty goal that it doesn't really reach, but a good read nonetheless.



P.S. I am now on Goodreads! Be my friend and witness my useless ratings, which are 50% five-star and 33% four-star right now. Perhaps I need to recalibrate. Or stop liking things.
Current Mood: sicksick
Current Music: The Dragonflies - Radio Punk Star

(9 memoirs | Describe me as "inscrutable")


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