Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Duplicate Lives

The Punch Escrow 

The Punch Escrow“Imagine looking in the mirror and not knowing who you are. An empty face staring back. No one. We rarely think about how much air is around us until we can’t breathe. We always imagine what it would be like to be someone else, but when we do so, it’s with the guise that beneath it all, we know who we really are. Take that away, and who are we?”   ― Tal M. Klein, The Punch Escrow

Would you trust a machine to teleport you from New York to Costa Rica? Set in the not too distant future, The Punch Escrow is a novel that depends on you and a lot of other people saying yes to that question. It is the story of Joel Byram, a self-described smart-ass who works as a man-made intelligence "salter" who helps practice AIs to grasp the artwork of human interplay by way of using jokes and language puzzles. He is a super AI interface hacker; consequently, he has the talents required to linguistically trick AIs into elevating his privileges and performing duties they would be unlikely to do otherwise. Along with his winning personality this is one of the best aspects of the novel.

The actual bread-winner within the Byram family is his spouse, Sylvia. She's a workaholic senior analyst at IT: Worldwide Transport, the corporation that controls the worldwide teleportation market. In order to reboot their shaky marriage they book a second honeymoon in Costa Rica. Joel is about to teleport to satisfy his spouse, ready for the flash that often accompanies the journey, when a suicide bomber makes the leap ahead of him and blows up the Costa Rica teleportation level. The explosion interrupts the community and his transport, and, because of the security system utilized by IT, Joel is left standing confused in Greenwich Village. However the error reports him having transported. Believing him lifeless, his spouse restores Joel from an experimental backup system. Now there are two Joels—and the original Joel loses his digital id when the second is created (in this future world losing your digital id is a personal disaster).

This precipitates a massive company problem for IT, one of the most powerful corporations in a future where the management of the world has been given over to corporations after the demise of nation-states. Joel's twin existence is proof of the elemental lie behind their patented "Punch Escrow," the key ingredient of the security system constructed to make certain protection for human transport.

Named for the 17th century Irish thinker and theologian John Punch (the person credited with formulating the classical definition of Occam's Razor), the "escrow" is not actually a know-how, but rather a sort of algorithm used to make sure there is a protected supply of individuals. The system "prints" copies of them on the vacation spot, then murders the unique with nanobots. From there on out, Joel is on the run for his life—or lives, as each of him and his spouse are awfully inconvenient to some and a possible prize to others.

Klein applies serious science to his future-world hypothesis (he consulted a medical physicist and other sources). And he provides footnotes—asides from Joel explaining the science and historical past of his future world, in his personal smart-ass method—to keep away from overburdening the core narrative with exposition, in a method that comes off as an irreverent model of the gadget utilized by Susanna Clarke in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.

This reader took pleasure in the novel based on the original Joel as the narrator. The story is informed solely from Joel's (and his copy's) perspective, there is not an entire lot of character improvement past the confines of his wisecracking thoughts. It also helps to avoid trying to analyze the plot too closely for there are a few too many fortuitous moments for Joel. The saving grace is that the author is able to create situations that can sometimes be very humorous from Joel's engagement with the ubiquitous computerization of everyday objects. This was an enjoyable read and should become an entertaining movie (the film version is already in production).

Friday, January 26, 2018

Going Where He has to Go


“- Why me?

- That is a very Earthling question to ask, Mr. Pilgrim. Why you? Why us for that matter? Why anything? Because this moment simply is. Have you ever seen bugs trapped in amber?
- Yes.

- Well, here we are, Mr. Pilgrim, trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no why.”  ― Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five

Slaughterhouse-Five is a time-travelling paradox of a novel. It is written in a simple prose style narrative in which the jerking forward and backward in time somehow becomes mesmerizing. While originally an  experimental work it still seems new fifty years later. Vonnegut is a character in scenes with Pilgrim; he is watching Pilgrim, like the reader is watching them both. Buried in the narrative of Billy Pilgrim is the story of the Dresden holocaust, that the allied forces managed to keep mostly unknown to Americans. The events of Pilgrim's life are often remarkably funny and moving. Yet, through it all Pilgrim is helpless before the larger powers of the universe.

Vonnegut has the ability to implant suggestions in the mind of the reader and then work those suggestions into tangible forms in the text. For example, in the first chapter, Vonnegut says that when he is drinking he listens to talk-radio shows, then, as the novel proceeds, Pilgrim stumbles onto a radio program in which the topic is whether or not the novel, as a literary form, is dead. Also, after the firebombing of Dresden, innkeepers on the outskirts of town offer the soldiers their stable, as a place to sleep. Twenty pages later, Vonnegut reminds the reader of the book’s epigraph, “The cattle are lowing,/ The Baby awakes./ But the little Lord Jesus/ No crying He makes.” Biblical situations are considered more and more often as the book draws to a close. These include discussion of the following: the friends who take Jesus down from the cross; the possibility that Jesus and his father, as carpenters, make crosses on which other people would be executed; and a time traveler who is the first to check on Jesus at the cross to make sure he is really dead before he is taken down. A new gospel is written in which Jesus is not made the Son of God until the very end, when he is on the cross. Until then he is a nobody. Vonnegut implies that if Jesus was the “wrong” person to kill, then there are necessarily “right” persons to kill, and this is inherently a bad idea.

What also impressed me was the way Vonnegut integrated symbolism, imagery and allegory throughout the novel. For example Slaughterhouse-Five uses many elements from the fictional part of the novel, and specifically from Billy's experiences on the planet Tralfamadore, to structure the book as a whole. Not only do the stars in the Tralfamadorian novel appear throughout Slaughterhouse-Five, but the fact that the book is not told in chronological order fits the Tralfamadorian concept of time. Billy Pilgrim says there is no free will, an assertion confirmed by a Tralfamadorian, who says, "I've visited thirty-one inhabited planets in the universe . . . Only on Earth is there any talk of free will." The story's central concept: most of humanity is insignificant; they do what they do, because they must. A great example of how we use humor to deal with hardship, and the conflict between the way heroism is conveyed through stories for actions in situations that perhaps could have been avoided altogether.

In the first chapter, Vonnegut calls this novel “short and jumbled and jangled . . . because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre.” His critics have found fault in him and this novel for not taking serious matters more seriously, and for that reason his work was not highly acclaimed or accepted into the academic canon for many years (it has even been banned in many places over the years). Vonnegut is categorized in the genre of science fiction, though he believes his work holds more depth than work in that genre usually has (IMHO he is wrong). With the eventual acceptance of Slaughterhouse-Five, he became classified as a satirist who seeks to make readers laugh, as did Mark Twain and Jonathan Swift before him. The opening sentence of the book reminded me of the opening lines of Huckleberry Finn.

Monday, January 08, 2018

Six Years in Mexico

Stones for Ibarra 

Stones for Ibarra
"how did any of us get here, she almost asked, and she looked at the people around her. What eruptions had shaken them loose from earlier patterns of living, lifted them to the fearful brink of choice , only to deposit them at crossroads so poorly marked?" (p 162)

Stones for Ibarra originated as a group of short stories about an American couple in a small Mexican village. The vignettes that constitute the eighteen chapters of the novel are set in the 1960's and chronicle episodes that focus on the interactions of the couple with the denizens of Ibarra, connected by the passage of time between the arrival of Richard and Sara Everton and Sara’s departure six years later. The author claimed that only a small part of Stones for Ibarra was autobiographical, but the framework of the novel recalls the Doerr family’s forays to Mexico.

In the first chapter, “The Evertons Out of Their Minds,” the couple go to Mexico from San Francisco, California, to reclaim their family estate and reopen a copper mine abandoned since the Mexican Revolution of 1910. Not long after their arrival at the unexpectedly dilapidated house, which fails to match the faded family photos or the Evertons’s dreams, Richard is diagnosed with leukemia and given six years to live. Despite the brevity of the second chapter, “A Clear Understanding,” several months pass in which the Evertons are observed by the townspeople, who find the Americans peculiar. Interestingly the Evertons never really shed their outsider status in spite of their interest in the culture of the small community.

Richard seems emboldened by his medical diagnosis and works hard to make the mine operable, hiring many locals and becoming something of hero in a strange way. The stories that comprise the short chapters drift backward and forward in time, though when a native is asked about specifics of an incident he replies: "Senora, it is as difficult to recapture the past as it is to prefigure the future." The author meanwhile is successful in portraying the landscape, and gradually providing evidence of the kind of culture that exists in this out of the way place.

The town priest is a frequent visitor to the Everton home, and he figures in many of the vignettes of the novel. He has a variety of assistant priests, who build basketball courts, are beloved of dogs, and impregnate a woman from a neighboring village. He sponsors a town picnic and solicits donations from the nonbelieving Evertons. Other vignettes relate the sad tale of brother killing brother, the use of native remedies to protect the Everton house, Sara’s Spanish lessons with Madre Petra, and the visit of a Canadian geologist and his Lebanese engineer.

The novel is written in a thoroughly crafted prose in which each sentence is pared down and polished until only the essential remains. As a consequence, the reader seems to somehow create the text while reading it, to discover in Doerr’s spare phrases the meaning and emotion the characters themselves hesitate to reveal. The novel reveals as much about the “lost” American expatriates as it does about the Mexican natives, by shifting perspectives and allowing the reader to see each group or individual through the eyes of the other.

Tuesday, January 02, 2018

Poem for Today

There is no Frigate like a Book (1286)


There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away
Nor any Coursers like a Page
Of prancing Poetry –
This Traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of Toll –
How frugal is the Chariot
That bears the Human Soul –

This, of course, is the poem that inspired the title for my literary blog; but it is much more, for it expresses my heartfelt feeling for books, poetry, and reading.  

Emily Dickinson, "There is no Frigate like a Book" from (02138: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, )