Tag Archives: Science Fiction

Single Serving Readings, Both Near and Far


When it comes to books, size does matter….

281For those of you out there who love big, meaty books, with immersive details, deep, complex characters, and long journeys that allow those characters to develop within that scenic world…I have some good news.  A recent study (by a group called Vervesearch on behalf of an interactive publisher called Flipsnack) analyzed the page counts of recent best-sellers and discovered that print books are getting bigger.  In a fairly significant way, at that, with the average best-seller growing from 320 pages in 1999 to 400 in 2014.  This implications of this are not clear at all; few studies of the present are.  But, as we approach the “beach reading” season, those of you who want a good, sturdy book to take with you, I celebrate this news on your behalf.

There are those of us (and I definitely count myself in this group more often than not) who can’t always handle the commitment of a big book.  As a self-professed adulterous reader, I often have three or four books going at once…for a number of reasons, which we can discuss later….but anyway, the point is that sometimes, for some of us, big books can be a real turn-off.

But there is good news!  E-books have forced the publishing market to diversify their products in ways that haven’t been seen since the evolution of the paperback in  1935.  And that means that new genres, new characters, and new types of books continue to emerge with startling speed.  Just one of these options is the novella.

a mini book on hand over faded background

Novellas, by definition, are works of fiction that are longer than a short story, but shorter than a novel.  The word itself derives from the Italian work “novella”, which means “new”.  In reality, novellas are delightful, delicious, single-serving works of fiction that can be read in a single sitting…a train ride…a workout….whatever time or space you have to unwind for a bit is the perfect place for a novella.  And, thanks to the revolution  within the publishing market, novellas are becoming increasingly diverse, wider in scope, and increasingly more refined as an art form in and of themselves.   Even better, they are becoming increasingly easier to find in print form, as well as electronic form.

And, to heap goodness on top of all this goodness, any resident of Massachusetts has access to the Boston Public Library databases….and the Boston Public Library has a phenomenal and growing collection of novellas (as well as a completely insane collection of other works and resources).   Patrons can get a BPL library card online as well to have instant access to databases (including Overdrive!).  To find these great resources, head to the “e-Library” option on our home page:

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Then, click on “Articles/Databases”.  It’s the sixth option on the list.  Clicking that will take you to this screen:

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The highlighted option in the screen capture above (the fourth option on the page) is the link to the Boston Public Library database, where you can get your BPL card and begin going hog-wild:

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You can use the BPL’s catalog–and ours, as well–to find whatever reading material makes your heart skip a beat.  You can pick these books up where they live, at the BPL’s numerous branches and central library, or use ComCat to have it delivered to your home library–give us a call for more information!  For the sake of this particular post, let’s have a look at some of the novellas on offer–both through us, and via the BPL!

indexThe Ballad of Black Tom: It’s no secret that I have a thing for weird fiction, so as soon as I heard about Victor La Valle’s novel of Lovecraftian horror set in Jazz Age New York, there was nothing that was going to get between me and this 151 page thrill ride.  La Valle is a superb author, who works very complex and difficult real-world issues in to his intensely imagined, unsettling, and completely compelling fiction, and this book is a perfect sample of his talents.  Charles Thomas Tester may not be the best musician in Brooklyn, but he knows enough to put food on the table for him and his father, and knows the magic tricks to surviving in a deeply racist world.  But when he is hired by a reclusive, fiendishly powerful man from Queens, Tommy’s entire life changes.  Faced with unspeakable bigotry on one side and unimaginably dark powers on the other, only one thing is sure…Tommy will never be the same.  And neither will you after reading this haunting little book.

index (1)Chase MeTessa Bailey is a superb contemporary romance novelist all around, and I’ve never met a book of hers I didn’t love.  Though most of her works were published in e-book format only, her Broke and Beautiful series was released both electronically and in print, so you can savor these delightful stories in any way you wish.  Roxy Cumberland dropped out of college in order to follow her dreams of becoming an actress…but reality quickly stepped in, and now Roxy finds herself performing singing telegrams to make ends meet.  To add insult to injury, her very first client is a drop-dead handsome trust-fund Manhattanite in a giant pink bunny costume.  Louis McNally II has no plans to humor the absurd spectacle at his door, but the voice–and the face–of his singing visitor intrigues him, even if Roxy appears to want nothing to do with him, or his entitled lifestyle.  This opposites-attracting story is steamy, touching, and genuinely good fun from start to finish, and the perfect antidote for a gloomy day.

index (2)The Awakening: Melville House is a phenomenal publishing company (who also maintains a delightful website!), and their Art of the Novella series has really helped established the novella as a crucial genre in and of itself.  Among those works is Kate Chopin’s classic feminist novel about a woman trapped by marriage and her social situation.  At the time of its publication in 1899, the book was considered an irredeemable scandal that ended Chopin’s career.  Since then, thankfully, Chopin’s powerful prose and enduring message has become a classic, and readily available, thanks to Melville House and the BPL.  Check out all of the Art of the Novella books on offer, as well, in order to get a real sense of all the potential these books have to offer!

Moving Past Lovecraft

For more delightful drawings, visit: http://johnkenn.blogspot.com/
For more delightful drawings, visit: http://johnkenn.blogspot.com/

As we discussed last time, H.P. Lovecraft was a pretty reprehensible human being, but his writing forms the roots of modern weird fiction, a genre that is near and dear to many hearts, including my own.

Thankfully, we read in an  enlightened age, and there are a number of authors at work today whose work builds off, rescues, and redeems Lovecraft’s ideas, giving us tales of imagination, speculation, unsettling truths and wild fictions that are mercifully divorced from the unsavory shadow of their creator.  These authors–and many, many others–have explored the worlds that Lovecraft only hinted at in his books, stared into the eyes of the beasts he described, and did it in a way that allowed all of us the chance to feel a part of these stories.  So come in soon and check out these super, weird, and wonderful authors today!

2760524Octavia Butler: When Daniel José Older submitted his petition to have Lovecraft’s visage removed from the World Fantasy Awards, he requested that Octavia Butler‘s face be used instead, saying her “novels, essays and short stories changed the entire genre of speculative fiction by complicating our notions of power, race and gender.”  While we still have yet to see what the WFA chooses for their new award, there is no denying the incredible impact and importance of Butler’s work.  Though she stated in a speech that one of her first rules for writing was that “I couldn’t write about anything that couldn’t actually happen”, she still used science fiction and speculative fiction to talk about the very real issues of racism, intolerance, and the horror of human’s behavior towards other humans.  While all of Bulter’s works stretched and re-defined the genres of science and speculative fiction–not only for their wildly imaginative premises, but because they featured women as heroines–there are some that are more immediately accessible than others.   For those looking for a good place to begin, I’d suggest Kindred, which features a heroine who journeys through time from her home in 1976 to the pre-Civil War South.  For those looking for a somewhat wilder voyage, go for Dawn, the first book in her Xenogenesis series, which tells the story of Lilith, one of the few survivors of a nuclear holocaust, kidnapped by truly frightful aliens.  For all its strangeness, this book is beautifully human, and simply unforgettable.

2934990China Miéville: Anytime a patron comes in and asks for Miéville book, I break into a little happy dance on my way to the shelves.  His work is so weird, and yet so beautiful that I kind of want to live in the worlds he creates (as long as an escape hatch is provided…just in case).  My first introduction to Miéville’s work was Kraken, which places Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos in the present-day, as scientist Billy Harlow realizes that he holds the key to finding–and awakening–a giant squid who holds the power to destroy not only this world, but all worlds that may ever be.  The story begins with a school trip to an aquarium, and, faster than you can blink, launches into something wonderfully outlandish, and genuinely unsettling, particularly as the humans involve realize just how powerless they are to control the events they have set in motion.  Miéville has always been open about how much Lovecraft inspired his own work, but has also never shied away from the real horrors of his personal outlook–and this is a man who knows of what his speaks.  This essay, examining the roots and the power of “The Weird” in literature is a sensational view into the mind of truly conscious and conscientious writer (my personal favorite part is his discussion of Victor Hugo and the Octopus)–and be sure to read his Introduction to Lovecraft’s At The Mountains of Madness.  It offers a fascinating (and chilling) insight into how Lovecraft reflected his own world view into his fiction.  Mieville’s love of the genre shines through in each of his works, playing with various branches of science, and various elements of the psychology of fear, to make stories that are as exciting as they are unsettling.

2709181 Jonathan L. Howard: It wasn’t long after Johannes Cabal, the infamous necromancer and notorious curmudgeon, first strolled through the gates of Hell that he strolled straight into my heart.  We’ve sung the praises of Howard’s work here before, but for the Lovecraft fan, there are delights aplenty to be had here.  Johannes Cabal himself exists in a world where belief in Lovecraft’s elder gods is real–though generally only amongst inmates at the local asylum.  Nevertheless, the Cthulu song that appears in the first book, Johannes Cabal the Necromancer, is one of my favorite behind-the-circulation-desk songs to hum…which probably says volumes about me.  Additionally, Howard is also the author of Carter and Lovecraft, the first book to feature P.I. Dan Carter, who inherits an old bookstore run by one Emily Lovecraft, the niece of H.P. himself.  Emily is a sensational character in her own right, her strength and her wisdom offering hope for the Lovecraft name.  Meanwhile, Dan’s investigation of a seemingly impossible murder case captures all the element of HP’s work that is worth remembering–that sense of skin-crawling dread in the face of the inexplicable, and the sense that you are nothing more than a dust-speck in some infinitely larger, and more nefarious plan–while still confronting the nasty bits with frank, appreciable honesty.  I have a pretty strong constitution for such things, and I’ll admit, I couldn’t finish this book at night.

Happy Birthday, Jules Verne!


In his introduction to the reprint of ‘Salem’s Lot, Stephen King explains that he was, and remains a “writer of the moment”, which means that his characters, and the themes in his books, often reflects the ages in which they were written, even though their themes may be timeless.  In a recent report from UNESCO, Stephen King was the 9th most-translated author worldwide.  The man who occupies the #2 spot on that list is a writer much like King…his writing reflects his world, yet imagines a world altogether new.  That man is today’s celebrant: Jules Gabriel Verne, born this day in 1828.

Verne was always an adventurer, and ever the dreamer.  Family legend has it that when he was eleven, Jules got himself hired as a cabin boy on a ship bound for the West Indies, so that he could procure a coral necklace for his cousin, Caroline.  His father made it to the docks in time to catch his son, and made him promise that, thereafter, he would travel “only in his imagination”.

alexandre_dumas___jules_verne_by_baleineau-d5qxqfbVerne always loved storytelling, but, as the oldest son of the family, it was expected that we would take a position in the family law firm, rather than try to make a living through his writing.  And Jules was truly dedicated to his work, writing furiously only after finishing his studies.  But in 1849, he met with Alexander Dumas, and together, the two young men wrote and produced a play called Les Pailles rompues (The Broken Straws), which debuted at the Théâtre Historique in Paris, on June 12, 1850.  As his literary successes continued on the stage and in popular magazines, Jules quickly realized that he would only make an indifferent lawyer, at best. Though he would later get a job in a brokerage in order to win favor with his fiancee’s family, Verne’s lifelong passion would be for writing.

BNFOne of Jules’ favorite places to work was the Bibliothèque nationale de France (yay libraries!), where he kept up-to-date on the latest scientific and geographical discoveries that were being produced by French cartographers and explorers.   This research got him thinking of writing a new kind of novel–a Roman de la Science (novel of science)–that would allow him to incorporate the wealth of facts he was collecting, while still allowing to put his prodigious imagination to good use.

Those novels came to life following Verne’s meeting with Pierre-Jules Hetzel, who was intending to publish a family magazine that would combine scientific information with fun adventure stories.  Verne’s “novels of science” were a perfect addition, and Hetzel presented Verne with a contract stating that he would pay a yearly flat fee, and, in return, Verne would produce three novels a year for his magazine.  Verne was delighted to find a steady outlet for his writings, and his first novel of science, now known as Five Weeks in a Balloon was published in January, 1863.

Though his work was enormously popular during his life, Verne’s work has always been the focus of a debate that still rages today…can science fiction be considered “literature”, or must it always be relegated to “genre fiction”?  For years, Verne’s work was discounted, but a number of scholarly works published in France around the 1960’s and 1970’s brought his work back into the forefront of French literature.

A still from the 1902 A Trip To The Moon, one of the first films ever, inspired by Verne’s writing

In English, though, Verne hasn’t made the same kind of triumphant return.  This is largely due to the fact that traditional translations of his work have been, generally speaking, pretty lousy.  During Verne’s lifetime, British and American publisher decided to market his work to young audiences, and thus scaled down a lot of his ideas,  and edited out a good deal of the words, as well.  As Michael Crichton pointed out in an introduction to Verne’s work, in the publication of Journey to the Center of the Earth, “Griffith & Farran…blithely altered the text, giving Verne’s characters new names, and adding whole pages of their own invention, thus effectively obliterating the meaning and tone of Verne’s original.”

So perhaps today is as good a day as any to rediscover Jules Verne is all his true, wise, and insightful glory.  Recently, several publishing houses have begun to reassess Jules Verne and his work, giving Anglophones a new taste of his work.  Here are a few that have been widely hailed as rather good translations that will allow you to access all the weird and wild wonder of his work:

2709277Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the SeaOxford World’s Classics are an excellent way to get to know some of the planet’s greatest works of literature, and these new translations by William Butcher actually go back to the original manuscript in order to get at the heart of Verne’s work, rather than relying on previous tradition.  Here, Captain Nero and his submarine the Nautilus appear as wild and colorful as they first did in 1870.

41ZIirNpKML._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_From the Earth to the Moon: Walter James Miller translated and annotated this 1865 novel set in Maryland just after the American Civil War, when the Baltimore Gun Club decides to build a massive gun, pointing to the sky, in order to shoot the club’s president and a French poet to the moon.  This work was an enormous influence on H.G. Wells, and now, you can discover it, as well, with excellent annotations, to boot!  Miller also translated and annotated 20,000 Leagues Under the Seaas well.

51+PhBMru7L._SX313_BO1,204,203,200_Paris in the Twentieth Century: This novel was discovered by Verne’s great-grandson in 1989.  It had originally been turned down by Hetzel as being too pessimistic, as well and, comparatively, unimaginative.  Today, however, it is recognized by Verne scholars as a massively important work, and by science fiction aficionados as a marvel–none of Verne’s other works went so far as to prophesy the future of an entire civilization so comprehensively, or to include so many ideas about how science would change human society.

Oh, and just in case you were wondering, here’s a fun piece from National Geographic discussing eight inventions that Jules Verne accurately predicted in his writings.  Enjoy!

If I could save time in a bottle….


I think it’s because I study history when not at the library, but I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of time travel.  Partly, I’d love the chance to see what “the good old days” were really like.*  What was it about Lord Byron that made him so compelling?  What stories did those prospectors tell while panhandling for gold in the Klondike?  I would give a great deal to be able to watch the Wright Brother’s first flight (and jump up and down in giddy delight, obviously); I’d love to hear Queen Elizabeth’s speech before the battle with the Spanish Armada.  Maybe you could even hang out with Amelia Earhart, and be able to record what really happened on that fateful final flight…

But that brings us to the moral dilemma of time travel.  Can we really affect any change–positive or negative?  Do we really know that saving the Titanic from hitting that iceberg, we could prevent World War I?  How do we know it wouldn’t lead to some catastrophic alternate possibility that we never foresaw?  Or that we would discover it is all predestined, and the fates found a way for war to break out in 1914 regardless of our meddling?  Do we have the right to say what should and shouldn’t happen?  And what if we bump into ourselves whilst wandering around?  Would time literally implode, as some writers have theorized?  Or could I be able to catch my 10-year-old self before she falls off her roller skates and fractures her wrist?

84e7a931-39b5-4ad3-939c-30612f6d5207This, dear readers, is the precious gold of which fiction is made…maybe not me fracturing my wrist, but the deep, moral complexities of our power in the world, and our agency within time and space.  Television shows have reveled in these issues…Doctor Who, for example, which is a delightfully entertaining series, often dances with the serious and dangerous aspects of time-travel, giving the show its suspense and daring.  Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander has shown us the soul-changing power of time travel, blending the fantastic and the romantic in a way that has captured two generations of fans.

And books have been showing us the way for even longer.  For those brave enough to tackle the uncertainties of time travel, the results can be wildly entertaining, relentlessly inventive, powerful, and often challenging.  These books offer us the chance to escape into a kind of alternate, “what-if” universe, but still tie us to our present, or our pasts, in a way that lingers once the final pages have turned.  Those are some of my favorite kinds of literary adventures–and if they are yours, as well, then check out these selections on time travel and adventure from our shelves!

If you need me, I’ll be hanging out with Wilbur…

*…and partly, I’d like to know that I could escape those “good old days” and, you know…take a shower.  And wear zippers.  And vote.  But since I didn’t win Powerball, I won’t be building a time machine.  Which leaves more time for reading, at least….

51Z3WahX33L._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_The Smithsonian Institute: A world-renown historian, Vidal’s insight into time travel and change is also a heartfelt study of American history, and a tribute to its most iconic museum.  In this book, ‘T’, a young man, arrives at the Smithsonian Museum at the beginning of World War II, having been hired to work on a secret part of the Manhattan Project.  But what he discovers is that, when no outsiders are watching, the exhibits come to life.  And while such a setup lends itself to comparisons with the Night at the Museum films, the journey that T takes within the walls of the Smithsonian is a wholly unique–and a deeply moving one.  My favorite scene, bar none, occurs the night after the attack on Pearl Harbor, but you’ll have to read it to find out why.  *A note: some editions of this book have a really wacky bodice-rippery cover.  There is no bodice-ripping in this book.  At least nothing that would require a cover that kitschy…

1161903Making History:  Stephen Fry has one of the best minds, and one of the most inventive imaginations at world today, and all of his books have a charm, wackiness, and brashness all their own…but this book is something special.   Cambridge graduate student Michael Young has recently finished his dissertation on the early life of Adolf Hitler when he meets a German physicist who believes he has figured out how to travel in time.  Both men decide to ignore the horrendous danger of changing history, and ensure that Hitler was never born–but can they live with the results.  This is a marvelously well-constructed plot that shifts time, place, and viewpoints with lightning-quick ease (at one point, it is also told like a film script), but, as a whole, it functions beautifully, providing readers with a tragically human story that is ultimately, surprising hopeful.

3508308The Shining GirlsLauren Beukes is a remarkably inventive, ruthlessly creative author who doesn’t pull punches in coming up with deeply unsettling, but irresistibly engaging stories.  This story features a serial killer with the ability to travel through time, the very opposite of the kind of hero we’ve been discussing up to now.  Harper Curtis found a key that allowed him to escape the hell of  Depression-era Chicago, and gave him the opportunity to enact some of his most fearsome desires.  However, one of his victims, Kirby Mazrachi from 1989, discovers his secret, and begins hunting Harper across time, with only her wits, and a single detective to help her.  Though bleak and genuinely scary at times, this book is also a brilliant re-invention of  the time-travel genre that should not be missed.

Staff (and Patron!) Recommendations!


I’m not sure if you’ve noticed this by now, but I really like books.  A great deal.  I wouldn’t say I like them more than most people…especially not in a crowded room….but that is what is great about working in a library.  Not only am I surrounded by books (very friendly books, by the way), but I get to work with people who love books (and who are also very friendly), and I get to talk with patrons who love books, as well!
When you have a group of people who are all gathered in the same place for the same general purpose, magic happens.  In this case, we all share what we’ve been reading, what we enjoyed, what we didn’t, and what we plan to read next (when, magically, we start getting 30-hour days, or no longer need to sleep or something…).  And since, as Oscar Wilde said, “The only thing to do with good advice is to pass it on”.  Thus, here is another round-up of staff recommendations, with some additions from our Beloved Patrons!
Just as a side note here, patron recommendations are my favorite thing ever, besides chocolate-chili cupcakes and Jonathan Strange.
From the Archives:
Real_frank_zappa_book_frontThe Real Frank Zappa Bookby Frank Zappa, with Peter Occhiogrosso: There aren’t a great many star/rocker autobiographies that survive the test of time, but Zappa’s is not only of these.  Upon it’s publication, Vanity Fair raved that it was an “autobiography of mostly hilarious stories…fireside war tales from the big bad days of the rockin’ sixties”, and the New York Post stated that a copy of the book “belonged in every home”.  Nearly 26 years after its initial publication, this book is still delighting readers and music fans alike with its humor, wild stories, and frank discussions of the musical avant-garde scene in which Zappa reveled.
From Our Patrons!
2089106Bloody Jack : being an account of the curious adventures of Mary “Jacky” Faber: L.A. Meyer’s swashbuckling series has plenty to offer–a fierce heroine who manages to survive not only life as a beggar on the streets of London, but life on the high seas aboard a British man-o-war.  Jacky’s adventures have stretched into twelve books, each full of derring-do, romance, adventure–and some fun historical details.  Our patron was particularly taken with the song lyrics that are included in the text, which not only bring the culture of Jacky’s world to life, but offer a neat soundtrack for the series, as well.

91zvp7FGSkL._SL1500_Copper: Fans of gritty British dramas like Ripper Street (be still, my heart!) will adore Copper, another original scripted police procedural, this time set on the streets of New York in the 1860’s.  At the center of the drama is Kevin Corcoran, a driven, intense Irish immigrant who refuses to give in to the corruption that stains the law enforcement of his city.  This leads Kevin into some dangerous confrontations, but also allows him into places where other policemen are never allowed, leading to a show that is continuously gripping and surprising.  Our patron was heartbroken that there were only two seasons, but assures us all that they are each phenomenal!

From the Director’s Desk:
2121333Cry the Beloved Country: Alan Paton’s seminal novel of South Africa, and the social structures and prejudices that would lead to apartheid is not only our Director’s favorite book of all time–it was also a huge hit with our Classic Books Group.  Beautiful and sympathetic, this book is drenched in atmosphere, drawing the reader into the heart of this world, and making the characters feel blisteringly real, especially as the fear that drives them all leads to tragedy.  Indeed, the title is echoed in this stunning quote about fear from Chapter 12: “Cry, the beloved country, for the unborn child that is the inheritor of our fear.  Let him not love the earth too deeply.  Let him not laugh too gladly when the water runs through his fingers…nor give too much of his heart to a mountain or a valley. For fear will rob him of all if he gives too much.” 
From the Circulation Desk:
3679651Carter and Lovecraft: All of Jonathan L. Howard’s books are so wonderful and original and funny and moving that it’s impossible to pick just one, but since this book has just been released, it seems timely to sing its praises.  Howard is a connoisseur of H.P. Lovecraft, and all of his books not only reference them, but reshape and reimagine them (check out the Cthulu Song in Johannes Cabal the Necomancer for a perfect example).  This book deals with Lovecraft a bit more directly, as Private Eye Daniel Carter inherits a bookstore–and a cheeky bookseller named Emily Lovecraft, the great H.P.’s niece.  As the bodies begin to pile up around them, Carter and Lovecraft have to grapple with the realization that Emily’s uncle wasn’t making this stuff up….Talk about a perfect Halloween read!

Robots can be pretty scary, and other things many readers find unremarkable…

So, in case the world wasn’t big and scary enough for you today, here is an article that made the rounds of my grad school department this week….essentially, some lovely robotics people, who are clearly very smart and terribly good at their jobs, have created a robot that bears an uncanny (and intentional) resemblance to Philip K. Dick, author of the seminal novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?uploaded 20 of his novels, interviews and recordings, and then filmed a conversation with Android Dick.

In and of itself, this story is unsettling for several reasons.  The most scientific of these reasons is that Android Dick exists in “the uncanny valley“.  This term refers to the point where non-human replications of human (3D-animation, robots, etc.,) become so human-like that the human brain gets all creeped-out and wants to crawl in the corner and cry quietly.  The term “valley” itself refers to the dip on a graph that shows people’s comfort levels while looking at various humanoid creations, which you can see below:




Not only does Android Dick’s face look eerily human, but facial recognition software built into that face means that he can analyze your emotions, and react accordingly, blurring the line even further between man and machine.

Android Dick
Android Dick

The second reason this story is unsettling is because of the fact that it became the subject of a copyright kerfluffle, in which people argued that the robotic head of Android Dick spouting phrases and thought inspired from the works of Philip K. Dick was an infringement on the rights of the human (and deceased) Philip K. Dick.  Which implies that Android Dick is making a conscious decision about his words and phrases…which means he has passed the Turing Test–essentially the benchmark for determining if a machine has human intelligence (check out The Imitation Game for more information).

zooThe third reason this story gives me hives is because of the way that Android Dick manipulated the language and rationale that had been programmed into his circuit-board-brain.  In an interview on PBS Nova (which you can watch in its entirety here), Android Dick responded to a question about robots evolving to take over the world thusly:

“Jeez, dude. You all have the big questions cooking today. But you’re my friend, and I’ll remember my friends, and I’ll be good to you. So don’t worry, even if I evolve into Terminator, I’ll still be nice to you. I’ll keep you warm and safe in my people zoo, where I can watch you for ol’ times sake.”

People Zoo.

1136004A number of people with whom I’ve discussed this phrase were horrified.  Horrified.  But, as a fairly regular reader of science fiction, most of which I found at my local library (shameless plug there), I really can’t admit to being that surprised.  After all, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, by Philip K. Dick (the real Philip K. Dick…the one with a pulse…) tells the story of a not-too-distant future (originally 1992, later revised to 2021) where robots–who look precisely like humans–threaten the very fabric of their post-apocalyptic society.  When a down-and-out bounty hunter is sent to track the robots down, they simply blend in with the humans, forcing every character to question who and what they truly know to be ‘real’…you might also recognize this story as the inspiration for the film Blade runner.

But the point is that robots are scary…something which science fiction has been telling us for generations now.  No other species has been so actively engaged in creating their own replacements, in aiding evolution towards their our own inevitable redundancy.   And science fiction has certainly taught us that our grip on the top of the food chain is precarious at best.  H.G. Wells claimed that we would be outdone by ants, while Max Brooks taught us it would be zombie viruses.  The point is less what will kill us, but that we as a species are clearly not that talented at avoiding these ubiquitous threats.  So, rather than acting like my grad school colleagues and weep that the sky is falling, sit back and enjoy the trip with some well-crafted, beautiful, and downright creepy tales of the devices that are coming to get us.  Because I don’t know if Android Dick is going to allow books in the people zoos….

So, IF you want to learn more about the advent of our robot overlords, Then be sure to check out…

2261769I, Robot: No, not the little self-propelled vacuum thingy…which, incidentally, took some inspiration from Isaac Asimov’s classic collection of short stories published in the 1950’s.  These stories are united in the character of Dr. Susan Calvin, who relates each tale as part of an interview on her life and work in the field of robotics to a reporter living at some point in the 21st century after 2058.  Each story can be read alone, but together, they form a fascinating study of human/robot interactions, and the threat that robot ‘psychology’ poses to human civilization.  Also featured in these stories are Asimov’s three Three Laws of Robotics, foundations around which his robot population was constructed, and rules which have been referenced in numerous works since.

2667638R.U.R. (Rossum’s universal robots): Because sometimes, the most disturbing robots are the ones that teach us the most about our own humanity.  This Czech play by Karl Capek, first published in 1920, actually introduced the word “robot” into the English language, features artificial humans much like Dick’s, that were designed to be servants to the humans-with-pulses.  But as their numbers grow, these robots begin to realize that they, in truth, wield the power, and successfully wipe out the human race.  But Capek’s tale is more than imagination–like the best science fiction, it also makes some fascinating observations about the state of humanity after the First World War, and comments directly on the effects of the Fordist assembly lines on workers.

3019420Robopocalypse: Daniel H. Wilson has a PhD in robotics from Carnegie Mellon, so his tale about computer scientists unleashing a supremely-powerful android named Archos is full of real technological details which make it even more chilling.  The post-apocalyptic fight for survival that ensues is gory and far bleaker than Capek’s version of events, but a wonderfully compelling, highly intelligent read (with the lights on, of course.  And away from your computer….), and it’s sequel, Robogenesis.  

21038202001: A Space Odyssey : We’ve all heard about HAL, the diabolically clever computer in charge of Discovery One, the first ship bound for Jupiter, but Stanley Kubrick’s film (based on several short stories from Arthur C. Clarke, which you should also definitely read) has stood the test of time, and is just as haunting, mind-bending, and epic today as when it was released in 1968.  The incredible intelligence of HAL, and the idea that a machine could have such an overarching, complex ulterior motive makes for a story that doesn’t skimp on tension, right up to the final, curious, unsettling scene.  For a somewhat updated expansion on this theme, check out the film Ex Machinaas well!