Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Guest Post: AI Run Amok - The Five Worst Robots of All Time

Human beings invented the technology required to record moving images just in time to document the birth of another important product of our species: the intelligent machine. Years of cinematic history stretch out before us, illuminating the potential of a shared human/robot future. However, in that same canon are many terrifying examples of robots gone bad.

If the thinking robots are true “children” of humankind, then it is all the more disturbing when they turn against us and commit patricide and matricide. It worries us, because we know that the robots contain nothing more than what we have put in them. If this violence against their creators is within them, then it is only because it is within ourselves.

Therefore, from the very beginning, we have regarded our mechanical children with suspicion. Karel Capek's play R.U.R., the work that coined the word "robot," featured a human-like automaton who malfunctioned and eventually attacked its creators. Stories like these, and the hundreds of other written since the dawn of the robotic age, tell us a little bit about how we view our progeny as well as what we fear from ourselves.

HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey

Short for “Heuristically programmed Algorithmic Computer”, HAL 9000 is the ultimate killer AI - but not because "he" has nuclear bombs at his disposal. HAL's most deadly action is opening a door at the wrong time. HAL is not necessarily out to kill his hosts, as he lacks any malicious intent or motive. Rather, he is a new form of life, truly alive and self-aware, and he is only trying to protect himself. His “death” at the hands of the astronauts is disturbing to watch, as it brings into question our increasingly close relationship with other “smart” bots and examples of automated technology.

Mechagodzilla from Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla

Mechagodzilla incorporates the clash of metal into the ever-mutating Godzilla symbol structure. Godzilla's indelible connection to nuclear power and its relationship with the people of Japan has evolved over the decades, from a figure of fear to a sort of nature deity who tames the other harsh forces of life. Mechagodzilla shows what can happen when science runs amok, as most robots do. More importantly, Mechagodzilla represented a world without space for flesh. Godzilla naturally defeats, rationalizing the ethical complexities of automation into the overall order of nature and the hierarchy of the heavens.

The Gunslinger from Westworld

The Gunslinger hearkens back to earlier tropes about robots and robot behavior. He is a superficial ancestor to the Terminator, but he lacks the the intentionality of HAL 9000. He is not operating from principles of self-preservation or the perspective of a new form of life. He is simply man's sadistic urges gone haywire; power and violence and the need for revenge have eliminated any “rational” robotic thoughts. Of all the robots discussed, he is the only one to demonstrate pure malevolence. Yul Brynner does a magnificent job of portraying the gun-totin’ robo-cowboy gone bad.

The Terminators from the Terminator series

In their purest, original form, the “Terminators” were robot skeletons that hid inside dead flesh. They were obsolescence made real, the metal structure of the robot enduring after all human remains are torn away. The Terminator was a symbol of the future, envisioned as the death of all organic life. Nuclear fire was shown to be the refining fire that would reduce us to the grim sterility of Skynet. It is not a positive vision of robotics or humanity, but as concerns surrounding climate change and the quest for feasible alternative energy sources reach a fever pitch, it’s not completely preposterous.

Ultron may be the most famous character in recent years to present the dangers of artificial intelligence to mass audiences. The accidental creation of the self-aware, sapient defense system is an old story, as is the robotic child who harshly judges the parents. Just like Skynet and the Terminators, Ultron decides that humanity is a threat. However, Ultron is the first to perceive that humanity is not just dangerous to the new robotic life, but to the planet and to itself.

Artificial intelligence and humanity are inextricably linked. Although we have every reason to fear that someday our creations will turn against us, the truth is that most living things love those who gave them birth. No matter what their mistakes, we all tend to forgive our parents. If robots ever become truly sentient, cyborgs like those in Ultron and Chappie could easily appear from the labs of scientists and engineers. In that case, we can only wonder what they’ll be thinking about, and if they’ll decide to blow up the world once they hit puberty. 

Beth Kelly is a blogger based in Chicago, IL. A horror fan since day one, she also has a degree in Communications and Media from DePaul, University. In her free time you can find her training for a triathlon or watching awesomely-bad monster movies.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Scarlet Gospels

Harry D'Amour is an ex-cop turned private investigator for people with problems with the paranormal. He's seen a lot of weird stuff in his day and has destroyed a lot of demons until he meets Pinhead, the Cenobite Hell priest. Pinhead sics a minion on him and promises a reward if it's defeated. Harry survives and then dismisses the encounter. Pinhead returns to him after amassing tons of powerful magic and killing all of the others in his order and demands that Harry witness and eventually record his attempt to find Lucifer and change Hell forever. Harry predictably refuses, so Pinhead takes Norma, a blind woman who talks to the dead, as assurance that Harry will follow. Harry and his group of friends descend into Hell to rescue their friend. Pinhead has such sights to show them.

Hellraiser is one of my favorite horror films, so I was eager to read The Scarlet Gospels. Pinhead is such an weird, enigmatic character and it was awesome to read a book partly from his point of view. However, this Pinhead is much different than the film version. Film version Pinhead is distant and well spoken when he chooses to speak. He is violent, but he stands impassively as he causes the violence instead of inflicting it with his own hands. This Pinhead is a religious zealot who will beat, rape, and torture much more personally. I don't find this version to be as interesting and I found much of his actions to be out of character compared to his previous incarnations. I still liked the general story, but something was missing. The first scene of the book features Pinhead finding the last of a powerful circle of sorcerers while he steals the last of their power and graphically tortures them. The scene is lengthy and very descriptive, which I usually don't mind. However, this is really the only lovingly described disgusting scene in the whole novel and it doesn't even figure largely in the bigger story. It smacks of a Human Centipede type of mentality to gross out the viewer with no further goal.

On the other hand, I had no idea who Harry D'Amour was going into the novel. He is kind of a hard boiled detective who transitioned from regular police work to fighting demons and solving supernatural problems. He's likeable, but the story really would have happened if he weren't even there. The description touts the story as Pinhead vs. Harry, but in actuality, it's Pinhead wants Harry to record his conquests and strings him along. Harry is of no threat to Pinhead at all. The only reason he survived any of their encounters was because Pinhead simply wasn't interested in killing him. He could have been anyone or no one with his effectiveness on the story.

The action and settings of the story are what made me read it in only a couple of days. The story is very plot driven and doesn't do much character development at all. I enjoyed Harry's past adventures and his descent into Hell as he follows Pinhead around. Hell itself is the most interesting part of the story. The demons, the hellscape, the hierarchy, and the history all kept my interest. Then Pinhead came in and changed everything. I'm on his side for most of the book. Being immortal and constantly torturing hapless mortals gets boring, so why not shake things up? He succeeds in pissing off everyone in hell and the ensuing battles are quite exciting. I love where the story went and it's definitely left open for a sequel. I would read the next book, but would probably wait to check it out from the library.

My rating: 3/4 fishmuffins

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Red Queen

Mare Barrow is red blooded and the color of her blood will forever trap her in the lowest echelon of the society she lives in. The Silvers oppress and enslave her people, forcing them to take menial jobs or choose conscription. Mare resigns herself to conscription because she has no education, no trade, and no prospects. She provides what little she can for her family by picking pockets while the bulk of support comes from her sister's intricate sewing for rich Silvers. Tragedy strikes and all their prospects are gone until Mare meets a mysterious young man who gets her a job as a servant for Silvers. A bizarre accident reveals power she never knew she had. Now she must convincingly pretend to be Silver and navigate their elitist society or die.

Red Queen takes place in an interesting world that's a mix of new and old. It's set far in the future with advanced technology, but still keeps old fashioned court, clothing, and the poor are kept from the technological benefits. Mare's hometown is a slum where electricity is rationed and food is scarce. The Silvers enjoy every luxury. The highest of Silver society has special powers ranging from telekinesis to fire manipulation to superhuman speed. I like the general world. Mare is a fine protagonist that does the best she can with what she's given. She doesn't always make the best decisions and I sometimes wanted to shake her and yell at her, but she's trapped. No path is clearly the right one. I like how some of the characters seem like flat stock characters, but end up being something more as the book goes along. The story moves well and it only took a few days to read. Despite some misgivings I had, it was addicting and I had to know what happened.

I had quite a few problems with the book. The Red aspect is very close to Red Rising. The romance aspects with princes and weddings are like The Selection. The rich vs. poor and Mare as the poster child for the rebellion is like The Hunger Games. It's as if the author took all the successful tropes of the past few years and smashed them all into one book. The logic of the world does not always compute and it's too much to list here. Here are some highlights. How can they convince anyone that Mare is Silver? Are people supposed to believe that she's never seen her own blood? Reds are forced to fight for Silvers despite their physical inferiority and lack of supernatural powers. Why not just use Silver strength and badassery to end the war? Moving on, the romance takes up entirely too much of the book. There are 3 love interests and none of them are that great. Who cares who you like or who likes you when there are an infinite amount of things more important? Lives are at stake. Get over it.

Overall, I enjoyed Red Queen, but it's extremely derivative, lacks logic at times, and the romance plays too big of a role. I might read the second book of the series, but I don't have an intense need to. The world is interesting and I would like to see how the story progresses, but I fear the problems I have with the novel will only get worse.

My rating: 3/5 fishmuffins

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Vanishing Girls

Sisters Dara and Nick used to be the best of friends. They were born less than a year apart so they did and experienced everything together including their parents' divorce. Parker completed their trio and was also close with them since childhood. Then they got older and things got weird. Attractions formed; moments were awkward; and Parker ended up dating Dara, much to Nick's chagrin. Then the accident happened. The details are fuzzy, but Dara wasn't wearing a seatbelt while Nick lost control of her car. Dara is now scarred physically and emotionally while completely separating herself from her friends and family. Nick doesn't know how to mend their relationship and makes big plans for Dara's birthday, but Dara disappears. This is shortly after another girl disappeared and is still missing. Nick is convinced the two disappearances are related and she's determined to save her sister.

With every Lauren Oliver book, I can guarantee that I will read the book quickly and be sucked immediately into the story. She just writes interesting characters that I may not like, but I need to know what happens to them. I like and can relate to Nick. She's the more sensible of the two sisters and always feels the need to save Dara from herself. Nick is the one who is reliable, the "good" sister, and is hardly ever in trouble. Dara, on the other hand, is constantly going to parties, getting high or drunk, blacking out, and generally being irresponsible. Dara annoyed the crap out of me because she was so desperate for attention, but she still had my sympathy. No one deserves what happened to her and it's shame that she cut herself off from everyone. She seems to realize how destructive her behavior was and learned from her mistakes. Both girls envy each other, but create a front to protect themselves. They also have a toxic, codependent relationship where Nick constantly takes care of Dara and doesn't let her solve her own problems or learn from her own mistakes. The book alternates between Dara and Nick's point of view both before and after the accident with website articles with comments, diary entries, letters, and e-mails interspersed between them. I love when authors include writing outside of the main characters because it provides a more complete picture of what's going on and makes it feel real. The subplot with the missing girl and that associated craziness felt surprisingly Twin Peaks without the supernatural stuff.

Despite the well written characters and twists and turns in the plot, this is my least favorite Lauren Oliver book. There is game changing twist at the end. I don't have a problem with the twist itself, but it felt dishonest. I understand that narrators can be unreliable but I guessed at the twist early on and dismissed it. I felt deliberately misled and kind of cheated. I prefer The Sixth Sense style twist where everything is consistent and it totally blows your mind on subsequent viewings over the High Tension style twist that has a lot of inconsistencies. This was more like the latter. I still enjoy Lauren Oliver, but Vanishing Girls just didn't live up to my expectations.

My rating: 3/5 fishmuffins