Books – A rogue SecUnit is one of the most terrifying things imaginable: a part-living, mostly-machine entity designed for security applications, without a working governor module, free to kill and destroy at will, and unstoppable by human agency.
The narrator of All Systems Red is technically a rogue SecUnit. It hacked its governor module, but instead of going on a murderous rampage, mostly it keeps doing its job and watches media in its downtime. (It particularly enjoys Sanctuary Moon.) That is, until a neighboring science mission goes dark and the humans SecUnit has been assigned to protect are threatened. SecUnit (who also calls itself Murderbot, although never out loud) doesn’t particularly like interacting with humans, but it doesn’t want them to die. After all, if all the humans died, who would make the media?
The Murderbot Diaries are short science-fiction thrillers, full of corporate espionage and underhanded dealings, but the real joy of them is watching Murderbot try to figure out how to be a person – because despite its continued insistence that it’s a bot, it’s one of the most intensely relateable characters I’ve ever met. (After all, who doesn’t want to spend long, boring shifts at work watching TV?) It struggles with human interaction, interactions with other bots, and how to handle personal responsibility, all while staying far enough under the radar to avoid being captured and reprogrammed. Artificial Condition follows Murderbot’s attempt to understand it’s own past (and its reluctant friendship with a science research transport). The series continues with Rogue Protocol in August and Exit Strategy in October.
Movie – Caleb works for Bluebook, the world’s largest search engine, and he’s just won a contest whose prize is to spend a week living with the company’s founder, Nathan. When he arrives at Nathan’s isolated, ultra-modern estate, though, Caleb signs a nondisclosure agreement and learns that he’s been hand-picked to test Nathan’s most audacious new project: an artificial intelligence. Her name is Ava.
Ex Machina starts off as a beautifully realized science fiction story – one of the rare ones that make it all the way to film with all their complex ideas intact underneath the special effects. This is a small movie, resting on the shoulders of the actors and the characters rather than the effects (although the special effects on Ava’s transparent android body are so good you forget they’re special effects). Nathan embodies the modern brogrammer, and Oscar Isaac is note-perfect throughout. Caleb, played by Domhnall Gleeson (son of award-winning actor Brendan Gleeson), is the more stereotypical computer nerd. But neither of them are as compelling as Alicia Vikander’s Ava. Caleb is supposed to be testing whether or not Ava is really conscious, but as an audience who’s already seen plenty of movies where Robots Are People, Too, we’re waiting to see what he’ll do when he decides that she is.
And that’s where Ex Machina turns into a horror movie – a quiet one, nearly bloodless, but no less bloodcurdling for that. Why, after all, did Nathan put his AI into a female body?
And what are they all going to do with it?
Book – I don’t make a lot of universal recommendations, but I’ll make one now: if you like science fiction, read Ted Chiang. Short stories can be a difficult form for SF, because SF is all about ideas, and how many ideas can you cram into ten pages? The answer appears to be a lot, if you’re good enough. And Chiang is really good. In twenty-four years he’s produced only fourteen stories, but each one of those is a polished gem.
“Tower of Babylon” follows one man’s ascent through the celestial spheres and into heaven. The multiple-award-winning “Hell is the Absence of God” describes a universe where miracles, angelic visitations, and proof of hell are daily occurrences. “Seventy-Two Letters” combines science, biology, and the legend of the golem in unexpected ways. Each single story is incredible, and incredibly different from the others. And lucky for us, Chiang has continued writing since the publication of his only collection to date. The Lifecycle of Software Objects won both the Hugo and Nebula awards in 2010, and his latest story, “The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling,” is available online from Subterranean Press.