Posted by Paul Samael on Friday, September 21, 2012 Under: Book reviews
This story/novella from the extremely profilic Tom Lichtenberg is well written, entertaining and thought-provoking – and well worth a read, even if sci-fi is not usually your thing:
Zoey Bridges makes her living testing gadgets – but on this occasion, the portable device she’s been sent doesn’t seem to do anything. She sends it back, only to discover (to her horror) that it’s got lost in transit. She and the gizmo’s obsessively secretive designers then try to track it down - but it seems to have developed a mind of its own.
Aside from the gadget (and one or two other details), the world of the story is recognisably our own – people are still travelling around in cars or planes, they still ship packages using services like Fed-Ex or UPS and some have well-paid, professional jobs whilst others have menial, low-paid ones. There is some enjoyable satire of high-powered corporate types and their more lowly minions - I particularly liked the contrast between the office politics at the device’s manufacturers and the couldn’t-care-less attitude of the workers at the storage depot (Ledman Storage of the title), where the device initially gets mislaid.
But there are also a few differences between our world and the world of the story. One is that handheld personal devices (rather like today’s smartphones) are a bit more advanced. Without wanting to reveal too much, let’s just say that the human-machine interface has moved on a bit (although things are not yet at the stage where the technology has become so ubiquitous that everyone has one).
This was the most thought-provoking aspect of the story for me, because it raises the question “how personal is too personal?” when it comes to personal devices like smartphones (the number of which is already close to exceeding the world's population - see this article). For example, would the line start to blur between the device and its owner? The story illustrates how such technology could be both extremely useful whilst also having some more disturbing effects, such as allowing people to be manipulated without them being aware of it. But this is not a cautionary tale of corporate greed/conspiracy, putting profits before humanity’s best interests. Instead, we have a tale which is more based on cock-up than conspiracy – which for me came across as more true-to-life.
Another feature of the world of the story which is slightly different from our world is that there is a war on, which sounds as if it has become rather more widespread than say, current US military involvement in Afghanistan and the Middle East. At first, this detail rather leapt out at me and I couldn’t see why it was in the story. The answer (I think) is partly plot-based, because it explains the development of a national surveillance network, which is used by the designers of the device to try to track it down. But what also struck me was the characters’ attitude to both the war and the surveillance – they just accept it as a fact of life, in the same way that they simply accept the kind of technology in the device at the centre of the story.
Anyway, by the end, I was left with two somewhat contradictory thoughts (which is not a criticism of the story – I much prefer stories that don’t wrap everything up neatly). The first thought was that we need to be careful not to sleep-walk into a future that isn’t what we’d have chosen for ourselves, had we stopped to think about it for a moment. The second thought (hot on the heels of the first) was that this is a lot easier said than done, because as the story illustrates, in the real world things tend to happen as much by accident as by design. So maybe we just need to accept that, if we are going to create intelligent devices, it is very likely that at some point they will effectively develop “a life of their own”. Whether that turns out to be good, bad or neutral in the scheme of things probably depends as much on our attitude to them as their attitude to us – so it may actually be better for us to just accept that, whether we like it or not, we’re probably going to have to learn to coexist.
For more reviews, see the book's Smashwords page – although for downloading to my Kindle, I found the feedbooks version was better in terms of formatting (but since it's all free, who's complaining?).
I also enjoyed “Renegade Robot”, which is stylistically a rather different animal and more in a traditional sci-fi vein (it reminded me of a cross between a Philip K Dick short story and Kurt Vonnegut satire) – but there is a similar theme of technology having unintended and unpredictable results. That’s also got positive reviews from other readers on Smashwords.
In : Book reviews
Tags: "tom lichtenberg" "ledman pickup" "science fiction" technology satire
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