Review: Uncanny Valley

5 of 5 stars.

The title draws from the graph charting acceptance of something that looks human. The level of acceptance climbs until the resemblance is very close. Then it plummets until absolute mimicry is achieved. This plunge on the graph is called the uncanny valley. Usually the chart refers to physical resemblance, but Gray takes it a step further. She explores the unsettling feelings we get from something that thinks, feels, and acts almost, but not quite, human. The author’s medical background comes through and she does get pretty technical. Fortunately she spread it out enough that the story didn’t get bogged down.

The story is told, first person singular by a young female. I was surprised that the protagonist came off needy. She does have strength and comes through when it counts, but she spend a lot of time obsessing over what other people think, and is entirely too consumed by her crush on Andy. This is the first in a series, and I assume we will watch her grow in the next books.

There is enough action and suspense to keep the reader interested, and hints at romance make a good side element. But this is directed at a thoughtful audience, willing to consider the evidence and see where it takes us. I also picked up on some allegorical references to modern day events. I suspect these may also be given more time in future books.

I’m glad I got in at the start of this series and will seen be on to the next book..

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Immortality, an Interesting Dilemma.

In the third book of my “Given” series, I have my protagonist take her daughter’s body back to her home-town to be buried next to her parents. The pastor’s remarks, and the words to a hymn cause her to think about an afterlife. The accident that took her daughter injured her and she has lost all of her memories. At the interment, she again accepts the concept that she may again see her daughter and parents. Once she regains her memories, she regains her faith and again believes in God and Heaven.

This is a Sci-fi book, and the procedure that brought her back offers virtual immortality. She falls in love and in subsequent books and has another daughter. The series ends in the fifth book when she faces the possibility of her second daughter and husband joining her as an immortals. She contemplates the coming millennia in which the human race may leave the planet and become an interstellar race. She wonders if her and her husband might one day go visit their daughter on another planet.

But one of the characters declined the enhancements that grant immortality. “I’ve got too many friends waiting for me on the other side,” he told them. That’s when it occurred to me that the characters choosing enhancement, were giving up on friends and family who had gone on before them. With immortality came the loss of any hope of seeing departed loved ones again. My main character had chosen her second daughter and her husband at the cost of ever seeing her first daughter and parents again.

I didn’t explore this thread very well, only really recognizing it as I came to the end of the series. I don’t have any specific plans to go back to this theme, but I can’t seem to get it out of my head either. I keep wondering when it occurred to my character, and if she ever acknowledged to herself that she had made a decision. She has the option of giving up her immortality, but that would mean leaving her husband and second daughter. She is going to have to choose which family members she will stay with. I seem to have left her in an interesting dilemma.

The Day I was a God

One of the summers during college, my best friend and I ran the municipal swimming pool for the city of DeWitt Arkansas. We had several life guards working for us. There were three lifeguard stations around the pool and we manned them an hour each, rotating in a clock wise direction. We also maned the entrance gate and concession stand.

Most of the swimmers were school kids, out for the summer. A few parents (usually mothers) would sun themselves as their kids swam, but we were largely a baby sitting service for teens and pre-teens. As you might expect, the boys were competing with each other for the attention of the girls and were most often the ones we had to whistle down.

Of course young egos demanded pushback and often it was a contest of wills. I don’t remember my exact age at the time but if I was in my twenties, it was early twenties. We’d usually get a lot of sass. They pretty well knew how far they could push us before we’d toss their butts out and they’d push right to that point.

The procedure was to leave the whistle on the guard station so that everybody didn’t have to keep up with a whistle. When you left one station you’d hang the whistle on the chair and go to the next station where a whistle would be waiting for you.

One day as I took the station on the east side of the pool I noticed there was no whistle. I looked over my shoulder where Ken was just climbing onto the station on the west side of the pool. Sure enough, there was the whistle, hanging around his neck. Annoyed, I hollered at him that he’d taken the whistle.

I don’t know what came over him, but as he hung from the tower the chair sat atop, he spun the whistle on it’s string and let it fly like Thor’s hammer. It flew across the pool, right over to me where I was also hanging from the tower. I casually snagged it with one hand, then climbed into the chair and put it around my neck. We could have done that a thousand times without me catching it, but at that moment the stars lined up and it happened.

I could hear “WOOAAAA,” from a dozen adolescent male mouths. “Did you see that?” also made it’s way around the pool. In that second, Ken and I had become Adonises. From their prospective, we’d just shown them the difference in themselves and the two college men running the show.

For the rest of the day we got very little sass. For at least one afternoon, we were Gods.

It didn’t last of course and we had to toss a couple of the little trouble makes out the next day. But for one afternoon, the lifeguard towers had become Mount Olympus with Ken and I residences deities.

Wasps

During the summers between college I worked at a grain storage facility. We called them grain elevators, or just elevators. When grain is brought to the elevator, it’s dumped in a pit. At the bottom of the pit is a hopper that feeds the “elevator,” from which the site draws its name. This is just a belt with buckets attached that lift the grain to a turn-head almost 200 feet high. The turn-head is a swiveling pipe that can direct the grain falling from the top of the elevator into one of several pipes that lead to either a storage bin, a dryer or another turn-head somewhere beneath the elevator turn-head. A lot of the movement of grain is done by gravity, feeding the falling product into different pipes leading off a turn-head.

The Big-4 , named after the company that manufactured it, was an elevated grain bin that stood atop 30-foot legs. It had a slide gate at the bottom. A truck could drive under this gate and be loaded with grain by simply opening the gate and allowing the grain to fall in. When grain was sold, it would be dumped into the Big-4, ready to be loaded onto the customer’s truck.

Usually I’d be out of school for the summer and start work just as oat harvest began. We’d run 12-hour days, seven days per week for about four weeks. Then things would begin to slow down and we’d start cleanup, maintenance and waiting for rice harvest. We learned to stay busy, or at least out of sight, during the lull between harvests. And during this time, you never completed a job in an hour if you could drag it out for six hours.

One day the boss called us over the intercom to, “get rid of the wasp nest on the Big-4.” The little rascals had decided that the slide gate handle was just the place for a big nest. One can imagine that certain territorial disputes would arise when the time came to open the gate to dispense grain. We were being called upon to resolve the issue by diplomatic, or other, means. The usual procedure here involved chemical warfare. We’d climb up the legs and out onto the bracing of the bin to get within the range of a can of bug spray. Thus I found myself hanging upside down from a piece of angle iron 30 feet above the concrete as my co-worker prepared to anger a couple hundred wasps.

I watched Slick, nobody used proper names in those days, take careful aim with the spray can, then hesitate. I foolishly thought for a minute that Slick was getting nervous. I’d known him long enough to know better, but that was still my first thought. It disappeared quickly when I heard him say, “This is too easy.”

Slick had strange ideas about what was easy. I personally didn’t find the prospect of fighting off a couple of hundred angry, poisoned wasps with one hand while clinging to an inch-wide piece of angle iron 30 feet above a concrete floor particularly easy. But then I wasn’t Slick.

“I’ll be back,” Slick said as he slid down one of the legs to the ground, then disappeared into the main storage building.

True to his word, he was back barely a minute later caring two yard sticks. He shinnied up the leg opposite from me and approached the wasp nest from the other side. Reaching around it, he handed me one of the yardsticks. Before I could ask just what in Hades I’m supposed to do with it, he began to poke at a single wasp with his stick. He eventually angered the insect to the point that it jumped on the end of the stick and began to furiously stab at it with it’s stinger. Slick then extended the wasp-laden end of the stick toward me.

“Smack it!” he answered my questioning look. I smacked the end of his stick with mine catching the wasp in between. We both watch the tiny body spiral to the ground below. By the time I looked back at Slick, he was already tormenting our second victim.

You know, this really was fun. You’ve got to be careful about poking at the wasps. Occasionally one of the smarter ones will jump off the nest and attack the stick holder rather than the stick. Try hitting an attacking wasp with a yardstick, hanging upside down, etc., etc. We took home a few whelps as souvenirs. And things could get real interesting if you messed around and hit the nest while wildly swinging at an attacking wasp. But even this was too easy for Slick, so he cut our yard sticks in half length ways making them even more narrow. It became a point of pride to have the narrowest stick. One at at time, wasps soon became an endangered species at the elevator.

Just a few days before I would return to school that summer, another one of the crew came running up as I was unloading a truck and excitedly said, “Slick found a wasp nest!” Frankie never found the thrill that Slick and I did from participating in these hunts, but he seemed to enjoy watching us do it.

Even though rice harvest had started and I didn’t really have time for this, I hurriedly gave the customer his ticket and a bum’s rush out the door. We hadn’t seen any wasps in weeks, and this would undoubtedly be my last chance this summer. Following Frankie across the yard to a different building I spotted Slick among the tangle of angle iron bracing almost 200 feet up at a turn-head.

“Hang on ’til I get there!” I admonished Slick. He was known to go solo by smacking the wasp on a wall or brace as it rode his stick. He’d have the rest of the summer and fall to wasp hunt. This would be my last shot this year, and he could darn well wait for me.

I breathlessly arrived at the battle ground. In this flat rice country, we seemed to be at the pinnacle of creation. The turn-head was 5 feet above us, above that is only sky. I could see our competition, DeWitt Grain and Storage, in the city of DeWitt 14 miles to the north. It was here, at the edge of space that this last ragtag band of six-legged refugees made their stand. And a sad little affair it was. The little wad of perforated paper was smaller than a golf ball with 4 wasps clinging to it. Something stirred in me and I looked to Slick to see if he also felt the urge to grant amnesty to this last colony.

Nope. He’s already handing me the first wasp. Oh well. Smack, smack smack smack, and it’s done.

That was my last summer at the elevator. Slick’s dad and the other partners sold it that winter. The new owners had their own crew, so I found a job on a tow boat the next summer. That was many summers ago. But to this day, I never see a wasp nest or yard stick without thinking of Slick, and the fun we had that summer. It’s an oft-repeated truth that you don’t recognize the best days of your life while living them. It’s only now, looking back across the years, that I realize what treasures they were.

Parking War

I’ve noticed a lot of motorcyclists parking in the striped area at the end of a parking line or next to a handicap parking spot. In Texarkana this is a common practice, and I have yet to see or hear about anybody being ticketed for it. I’ve indulged in this myself several times, always being sure that I wasn’t blocking somebody. I was especially careful if it was next to a handicap space, being sure that any vehicle in that spot had ample room to load or disembark wheelchairs.

But even with everybody else doing it, and despite my efforts to be considerate, it still didn’t feel right. For one thing, I’m sure it’s against the law. For another, I may have trouble with my insurance company if I’m ever hit by another vehicle while parked, illegally, in a stripped spot.

The point was really brought home to me about a month ago when I headed to a local big chain store. As I parked in a stripped area at the end of a line and headed for the store, I noticed a vehicle parked in the stripped area next to a handicap spot. But this wasn’t a motorcycle. It was a minivan. It looked so funny sitting there, I grabbed my cell phone and took a photo. That’s when I heard an angry, “Hey!” I hadn’t noticed the driver still sitting in the van.

I am handicapped,” I heard him assert. I just waved and went on into the store. My purchases complete I left by the same door headed for my bike, only to discover the driver now standing outside the van waiting for me to emerge. As he pointed an accusing finger in my direction, I heard him tell a passerby, “That (expletive deleted) took my picture!”

Very little of what followed is printable in this, or any family oriented, publication. The gist of it was he believed, by taking the photo, I was accusing him of wrongdoing, and that his disability justified his actions.

Without stopping, I assured him that I was not with law enforcement and had only taken the photo because it was an amusing sight. Unfortunately this didn’t satisfy him and as I loaded up and put on my helmet, he grabbed a shopping cart with one hand and his cane with the other and headed my way. His slow and unsteady progress gave both tribute to the severity of his disability, and hope to me of making an escape before his arrival. Alas, recalcitrant buckles on my saddlebags and helmet delayed my departure just long enough for the aggrieved party to arrive.

Through a blizzard of profanity, it was explained to me I was a narrow minded bigot, and he was actually doing me a favor. It was also suggested I do things with parts of my anatomy that I don’t believe were actually physically possible.

Keeping an eye on the cane to be sure it continued to be used as a tool of locomotion, and not a weapon, I tried to again explain that I had no legal authority, and had only snapped the photo because it was an unusual and amusing sight. As before, this did nothing to assuage his anger.

To avoid the necessity of explaining to friends how I’d been beaten up by a crippled guy, I decided to practice the better part of valor. I cranked up the bike and hauled my narrow-minded, bigoted tuckus out of there. I watched my mirrors to see if he’d try to get back to his van and give chase. He didn’t. The last time I saw him, he was still standing where I left him, making gestures in my direction that I would not describe as conciliatory.

I park in the regular spaces now. It’s less dangerous.

The Most Indie of Indies.

JRR Tolkien was a linguist, not an author. He wrote a story for his daughter about a “Hobbit” who lived in a hole in the ground. As an amateur, he made mistakes and did some things wrong. But his errors were so spectacularly successful. Sometimes a gifted amateur can make a significant contribution that the pros can’t.

Proper prose and spelling is important, but not to the exclusion of talent. Publishing has gotten to the point that spelling, grammar, and punctuation has trumped content. Shakespeare wouldn’t be able to find a publisher today. What a loss to the world that would be. How many Shakespeares have been turned away due to the placement of a comma?

The answer to that problem is independent authors, people who write and publish their own works without the help of a traditional publishing company. Like any human endeavor, some are more successful than others and the products are of varying quality. Fortunately gifted story tellers with less than stellar spelling and prose, can reach a willing audience. Unfortunately, the financial reward for Indie authors is seldom as good as for traditional publishing. But many of these people write for the love of writing. And often it shows.

I’ve recently run across the most Indie of Indie authors. He hasn’t even published his work as a book. He has no hope of any financial renumeration. He is simply posting the story, a few paragraphs at a time on a forum. Tumbleweeds

You will run across the occasional misspelled word or misplaced comma. The pacing is sometimes difficult for me. But oh what a story. How sad it would be to have missed the blessing of this adventure over an arrogant conviction that I’m too good to read past a misspelled word.

The Grass is Browner

I remember a fantasy story about a hero who fights to find a mythical place where there is freedom from oppression and no starvation or disease. Along the way, he finds a beautiful princess he must save, and a wizard. At the end of his quest, he wakes up in an apartment with no memory of his previous life. He’s laying next to his trophy wife, who he is certain is cheating on him. He is disgruntled about his 9 to 5 job. On top of that, he has to take care of an elderly uncle with no other family. (Obviously him, the princess, and wizard.)

The story was cleverly written so that I didn’t expect the Utopia he was searching for to be the real world. I thought it funny, and clever, that having attained his goal, he was board with his life, and would probably jump at the chance to live the adventurous fantasy life he’d just escaped.

It appears to me that post apocalypse and dystopian themes are much more popular in recent years. Sci-fi gives us alien invasions or viruses, horror zombies, and fantasy demons. Dystopia itself is a genre. I have to wonder at the increasing fascination with it. I wonder if dystopian futures may be a wish for simpler times, or a sign of dissatisfaction of modern times. I find it interesting that the most wealthy and luxurious civilization in all of human history seems to long so for the adventure of dystopia and apocalypse. I seriously doubt the reality would be anywhere near as romantic as books, movies, and television depict.

It says something about us that as we become more wealthy and care free, our minds turn to such dark themes. I’m not sure exactly what is says though.