> Science Fiction: “Fiasco” – Audio Book

Fiasco” was the last novel written by Stanislaw Lem. He wrote more before his passing, but no more novels. I have read “Fiasco” before, in Polish and in English, and this time I listened to the audio book version.  As I observed before, listening to a book exposes more details of the writing and and for this book it showcased the incredible imagination Lem possessed.

On the surface, “Fiasco” is a book about first contact between humans and another civilization – as you can imagine from the title, things do not turn out well. Under the surface the book is a platform for Lem’s philosophical musings on subjects of contact between civilizations, space travel and artificial intelligence.

The book also includes some fantastically imagined alien environments. In fact the chapter begins with an incident that takes place on Titan, a moon of Saturn. I found the detailed description of the landscape there breathtaking – how could Lem imagine such things?

Rather than delve too much into the plot (you can follow the link above to see a very good summary), I wanted to include a quote from the book which expresses Lem’s views on Artificial Intelligence, here presented as a historical description. Here is what he said:

   ” The first inventors of machines that augmented not the power of muscle but the power of thought fell victim to a delusion that attracted some and frightened others: that they were entering upon a path of such amplification of intelligence in nonliving automata that the automata would then become similar to man and then, still in a human way, surpass him. About a hundred and fifty years were needed for their successors to realize that the fathers of information science and cybernetics had been misled by anthropocentric fiction – because the human brain was the ghost in a machine that was no machine.

Creating an inseparable system with the body, the brain both served the body and was served by it. If, then, someone were to humanize an automaton to the degree that it would be in no way different, mentally, from a man, that accomplishment would – in its very perfection – turn out to be an absurdity. The successive prototypes, as the necessary alteration and improvements were made, would become more and more human, but at the same time would be of less and less use – compared with the gigabit-terabit computers of the higher generations.

 

[.....]

 

As one of the historians of science observed, it would be like finally building, after colossal expenditures and theoretical work, a factory for making spinach or artichokes that were capable of photosynthesis – like any plant – and which in no way differed from real spinach and artichokes except that they were inedible.”

 

If the above passage intrigues you and you like a good science fiction story, by all means go ahead and read “Fiasco” – you will enjoy it.

 

 

 

Old Speakers

So, I had a set of nice Infinity speakers sitting in the basement from the days of having big stereo systems. They were collecting dust. Until recently I discovered Amphony audio amplifiers. The are tiny stereo audio amplifiers, that use bluetooth input. I got one from Amazon and now I can play music from my phone, iPod or tablet through my nice speakers again.

IMG_20140902_212531012_HDR IMG_20140902_213151113 IMG_20140902_212603323_HDR

>Science Fiction: “Blindness”

The book “Blindness”, by Jose Saramago,  is a novel about  an epidemic of “white” blindness that hits inhabitants of a city. The blindness is called “white” – because the affected person “sees” a wall of white, as though inside a cloud, and the intensity of the whiteness is not affected by night or daylight.  The story examines the effect such a disease has on everyday existence of individuals and  the society.

The very first thing I noticed when I started to read this book is that the writer did not use the usual punctuation conventions when writing dialog. He did not separate what people said on the page, nor did he use quotation marks. The only typographical indication that someone started speaking was a capitol letter. Although odd at first, throughout the book I had no problems knowing who was speaking. Here is a small excerpt:

They arrived at the entrance to the building, two women from the neighborhood looked on inquisitively at the sight of their neighbor being led by the arm but neither of the thought of asking, Have you go something in your eye, it never occurred to them nor would he have been able to reply, Yes, a milky sea. Once inside the building, the blind man said, Many thanks, I’m sorry for all the trouble I’ve caused you, I can manage on my own now, No need to apologize, I’ll come up with you, I wouldn’t be easy in my mind if I were to leave you here. They got into the narrow elevator with some difficulty, What floor do you live on, On the third, you cannot imagine how grateful I am, Don’t thank me, today it’s you. Yes, you’re right, tomorrow it might be you.

What I noticed next about the story, that it was told in very personal way. The author writes about how the sudden blindness affected few people and how they had tried to deal with it.  The story was told from the point of view of few characters, without any other explanations as to what else have been going on and without any explanation why. In some ways this approach made the book quite scary, because it was easy to put yourself in the characters place and that was terrifying. Imagine suddenly going blind!

Perhaps the book felt more personal because the author did not give his characters names. They were just: the doctor, the first blind man, or the girl in the dark glasses. As result the reader can more easily place himself (herself) into a given character.

The story proceeded in several sections. When the first few blind people appeared they are quarantined by the authorities in an abandoned mental hospital. As more blind arrived there, the story proceed with the descriptions of their life at the hospital. At times this got very intense, as the author does not shy away from dealing with how your everyday bodily functions can be managed, when you are in a hospital full of blind people.

The interment gets much worse when a gang of blind crooks commands the distribution of food the other inmates. This was the section of the book that I found the hardest to read. There were just some awful things that happened and that were described by the author.

The next section of  the story could be described as a  “zombie apocalypse”.  The society has come undone. Basic utilities, water, electricity, food distribution are no longer working. In the city small bands of blind people wander about looking for food and drink.  The blind people move from shelter to shelter, as once they leave a place they are not likely be able to find it again – there are no guides.

Unlike other science fiction books in this vein, there are no explanations or causes given. Just a story how people try to deal with this personal and at the same global disaster.

I found the book terrifying yet fascinating, disgusting yet hopeful, and  somehow brilliant.  After all the tension built up during the blindness epidemic, there is great relief when the epidemic ends.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Recent Science Fiction Readings

Here are three SF books I have read in the past few months. They are:

  • The Rapture of the Nerds” by Cory Doctrow and Charles Stross. This is a book about the “post-singularity” world, where a person is able to transfer his consciousness into a computer cloud, which in this story resides in outer space. The book has two major parts – the first takes place in “meat” space and the other in the “cloud” space.  The main character of the story is a person named Huw. For parts of the book he is a “he” and for other parts Huw is a “she”. It’s a complicated universe where technology allows for a lot of things to happen. There are parts of the story that are quite funny, but it is hard to describe what actually happens. Except that in the end Huw saves the world. But don’t take my word for it. You can read the book yourself – is was released for free by the authors (just follow the link above). I happen to own the physical book and I even have an autographed copy.
  • The Big Aha by Rudy Rucker.  I have read many books by Rudy Rucker before, both SF and non-fiction, so I was happy to contribute to his Kickstarter project to get this book out. The “The Big Aha” is a story of a world in which bio-tech has gone wild. The main character is a guy who is an artist that makes pictures with living paint. The world created by Rucker in this book is a bit wacky and bizarre, with smart rats and other strange artifacts. However, I got bogged down and lost interest half way through the book. Perhaps I will go back and try again in the future.
  • Dimension of Miracles” by Robert Sheckley.  This book was written back in the late 60s, but it has little bit of the zaniness of silliness that you would expect of Douglas Adams.  The hero of the book, named Carmody, is randomly picked earthling to be the winner of the Galactic Prize, and so he is transported to the center of the Galaxy to receive the prize. Once he gets there an collects his winnings, he discovers that the trip back to Earth is up to him. This turns out to be more complicated as the Earth does not stand still. Several different beings assist him in his trek and he meets number of interesting characters. For example, he meets engineers who construct worlds on order and they tell him about the old guy with beard who hired them to construct Earth. It took them six days, as they recalled. In the end I did not find the book as funny as “Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy”, but it was still enjoyable to read.
  • The Man In High Castle” by Philip K. Dick.  I have read this book few times before. This time I listened to the audio version to see if there was something I missed on during my previous reads. Unlike some other audio books I listened to recently, nothing particularly stood out. The story is the same, one of the alternate world in which Japan and Germany won the war. Some of the scenes stood out little more in the audio version. For example, the scene where the Japanese diplomat shoots several thugs/secret agents in his office. Or the scene at the end of the book, where one of the characters shifts into a parallel universe – which is our universe.

Programming in Go

When I start learning a new programming language I often write the program to play the “Guess the Animal” game to get a feel for the language. Below is a simple version of this game written in Go.  The program starts “knowing” only about two animals, but as you play it it “learns” more, by asking you to provide new animals and new questions.

Here is the code. Enjoy!


package main

import (
	"bufio"
	"fmt"
	"os"
)

type Question struct {
	text      string
	yesAnswer *Question
	noAnswer  *Question
}

func yesOrNo(prompt string) (answer string) {
	fmt.Printf("%s [y/n]? ", prompt)
	fmt.Scanln(&answer)
	return answer
}

func (q *Question) isLeaf() bool {
	return q.yesAnswer == nil && q.noAnswer == nil
}

func (q *Question) ask() (result *Question, answer string) {
	answer = yesOrNo(q.text)
	if answer == "y" {
		result = q.yesAnswer
	} else {
		result = q.noAnswer
	}
	return result, answer
}

var root *Question

func initialize() *Question {
	shark := Question{"shark", nil, nil}
	cat := Question{"cat", nil, nil}
	return &Question{"Is it a mamal", &cat, &shark}
}

func addAnimal(q *Question) {
	var animal, question string
	fmt.Printf("Ok. I give up. What animal is it? ")
	fmt.Scanln(&animal)
	fmt.Printf(
		"Enter a question to tell a difference between %s and %s: ",
		animal, q.text)
	reader := bufio.NewReader(os.Stdin)
	line, _, _ := reader.ReadLine()
	question = string(line)
	answer := yesOrNo(fmt.Sprintf("And for %s the answer is", 
		animal))
	oldAnimal := Question{q.text, nil, nil}
	q.text = question
	newAnimal := Question{animal, nil, nil}
	if answer == "y" {
		q.yesAnswer = &newAnimal
		q.noAnswer = &oldAnimal
	} else {
		q.yesAnswer = &oldAnimal
		q.noAnswer = &newAnimal
	}
}

func play() {
	var answer string
	currentQuestion := root
	for !currentQuestion.isLeaf() {
		currentQuestion, answer = currentQuestion.ask()
	}
	answer = yesOrNo(fmt.Sprintf("Is it a %s", 
		currentQuestion.text))
	if answer == "y" {
		fmt.Printf("OK!!! Got it!!\n")
	} else {
		addAnimal(currentQuestion)
	}
}

func main() {
	root = initialize()
	quit := "n"
	for quit == "n" {
		play()
		quit = yesOrNo("Quit ")
	}
}

Defective God – reflections on two audio books

Recently I started listening to audio books. What I like to do is to listen to books I have already read, as I have discovered that while listening to a book I notice a lot more details. This is because I tend to rush through books, especially when the story is interesting. In addition, and somewhat surprisingly, some scenes stand out much more when they are read aloud.

In the past two months I listened to two books: “Solaris” by Stanislaw Lem and “The Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad. I have read both of these books few times before – in fact I wrote about “Solaris” in this blog.

While listening to “Solaris” I noticed one scene that really stood out when read aloud. It was a conversation between two characters, in which Kelvin – the main character in “Solaris” – asks if there was ever a faith that believed in  “a defective God”. Here is what he said:

“I mean a God whose deficiencies don’t arise from the simple mindedness of his human creators, but constitute his most essential, immanent character. This would be a God limited in his omniscience and omnipotence, one who can mistakes in foreseeing the future of his works, who can find himself horrified by the set of events he has set in motion. This is… a cripple God, who always desires more than he’s able to have, and doesn’t always realize this to begin with.”

This theme occurs in other works by Lem – perhaps most explicitly in a story called “Non Serviam” – but also in “Star Diaries” and related stories.

But surprisingly I found the idea a “defective God” resonating when I listened to “The Heart Of Darkness”, as it applied to the character of Mr. Kurtz. As we find out though Marlowe, the narrtor of the story, Mr. Kurtz was highly educated, cultured and idealistic man – who not only went into Africa to act as an agent bringing ivory from the depths of the Congo, but also to exert a civilized influence on the native population.

However, when he went into the wilderness things went wrong. Kurtz found himself among peoples who took him for a god – who could strike people dead with thunder (his firearm). He was seduced by the power he held over the primitive tribes and proceeded to exploit it – an action at one time he would have considered immoral.

Here is how Marlow described the last moments of Kurtz’s life:

(…) It was as though a veil had been rent. I saw on that ivory face the expression of sombre pride, of ruthless power, of craven terror — of intense and hopeless despair. Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge? He cried in a whisper at some image, some vision – he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath: “The horror! The horror!”

Kurtz became a defective god, horrified by events he had set in motion.