C.D. Tavenor: The Mind, Synthetic Intelligence, and Morality.

Let’s talk about the mind.

As humans, we assume the way we think is the only way people can think. We see this over and over again, even in intraspecies relationships. When someone perceives the world differently, we view them as “weird” or “abnormal” or “different.” In extreme cases, we take our pitchforks and chase them out of town . . . or we engage in even worse violence.

Yet the arrogance of our brains to believe the way we think is the only way to think. Just consider the diversity of people across the planet, and the millions of ways a person might answer the question, “what is good?” Even within the American culture, that question doesn’t have an answer. When we explore the perspectives of the thousands of religions, cultures, and ethos of the world . . . the possibilities are endless.

So humans have millions of ways to view the world. Millions of ways to approach problems. Yet those approaches are fundamentally constrained by the way the brain works. We’re products of evolution; we can only see the world with two eyes, hear sounds with two ears, taste with one tongue. Imagine how evolution could have produced a different mind.

Then what would happen if we developed a different mind. An artificial one, inspired by the way we think, yet fundamentally its own creature.

In First of Their Kind, I explore what it would mean for humanity to create a conscious,first of their kind thinking, non-programmed mind. I call it synthetic intelligence, because it is distinctly different from what we traditionally consider “artificial” intelligence. Whether in literature or our cultural zeitgeist, we always think of A.I. as a computer program, designed for sapience and capable of thought on levels unimaginable. You see it in Terminator, I, Robot, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and countless other films.

Often, these A.I. are terrifying beings; when they reach their moment of omniscience, they transform into a monster that the human protagonist must defeat.

I propose an alternative take on intelligence. On consciousness. Instead of a program, what if we could create a synthetic brain, a construct capable of producing thought similar to that of a human? Modern AI research is exploring this type of mind, so it’s not too far-fetched.

In First of Their Kind, I call the “synthetic brain” a “Synthetic Neural Framework.” Composed of materials capable of mimicking neurons, the molecules connect and form pathways naturally through perceptions attained through sensory inputs, just like an animal. The Synthetic Neural Framework is the backbone of Synthetic Intelligence, and it forms the mind of my main character: “Test Forty-Three.” You’ll need to read the book to find out what name they choose for themself!

I challenge you to consider, when reading First of Their Kind—what thoughts, what perceptions, what conceptions about the world could this Framework have that humans could not? At the core, I’m endeavoring to answer that question in First of Their Kind and its sequels.

Some readers will empathize with “Test Forty-Three,” others will not. But I challenge everyone to consider why they do or do not connect with a mind fundamentally different from their own. Is a Synthetic Intelligence’s vision of morality really that different than a human who lives halfway across the globe, when compared to your own?

Test Forty-Three just wants a place within humanity too, just like the rest of us. They want friends. They want family. They might think differently, but they deserve love just like the people who created them.

C.D. Tavenor

__________________

First of Their Kind released April 30, 2019, in paperback and digital formats! You can find it on Amazon, or check out its book trailer on Youtube!

and you can read my review here.

Book Review: Dear Comrade Novák, by Silvia Hildebrandt, with an introduction by the author.

I asked Silvia Hildebrandt to write an introductory piece to Dear Comrade Novak, her second novel, published in 2018. In it, she explains how she came to write the book, and its effect on her personal identity.

We fled Romania for Germany in 1990, after the revolution and the civil war between Silvia HildebrandtHungarians and Romanians. For the most part, we were looked down upon as poor, illiterate gypsies. So I denied I was born and raised in Romania, in an attempt to assimilate with German culture. Over the years, my teachers recognized my talent for writing. Somehow, I always wrote stories set in the USA. But my 6th grade literature teacher encouraged me to write something about Romania. ”You have so many unique stories to tell,” she said. But at that time, I’d buried my identity deep within me. No, never. Never would I write a novel set in Romania.

Twenty years later, after my first published novel – A Century Divided, set in New York City – I needed a new idea for a second. By happenstance, I landed back in Romania. I wanted a story set in Eastern Europe because I loved Russian novelists like Tolstoy and Pasternak and their very own strong, melancholic narrative. And because I’m a lazy bitch and didn’t want to do research on Russia, I decided to set my next piece in Western Romania, where I was born. As the plot developed over the weeks, I was stuck in the middle and in order to finish a novel, I need to know the end in an early stage of writing. But I didn’t know where it should lead, so I reached out for the writer’s best friend. Google.

“Romanian History 1980s” was my search query. And if an old agent of the Securitate monitored me, he would’ve thrown up his hands in despair as to my ignorance. “Romanian Revolution 1989” was the first answer and I nearly fainted. Of course! I had totally forgotten. Like a black hole in my memories and my brain, this event no longer existed in my life. Slowly, from an author’s point of view, I dug into the Romanian history and into my own. While writing, I had to remind myself that I was there; in that scene, with my characters walking around in Timișoara and in that Romanian village they call their hometown; this wasn’t just their story, but my own as well.

It’s borderline crazy describing such a feeling. Like living in two alternate universes, I re-discovered my own heritage. Near the end of writing Dear Comrade Novák, I watched Ceaușescu’s last speech conserved on youtube. The piece of footage every Romanian knows and love-hates to this day. The footage my beta readers and editors still remember, shown on US and British TV. But for me, it was the first time I witnessed that confused old man become lost in the sudden uprising of the people he oppressed for so many years. To this day, the turning point of my own childhood had always been the opening of the Berlin Wall. I didn’t know anything about the events in December 1989 in Romania. But with every documentary I watched while writing Dear Comrade Novák, I felt like reclaiming my own identity. No, not the Berlin people dancing on the ruins of the Wall had shaped me, but the December events of 1989. Ceaușescu, the last bastion of communism in Europe, fleeing in his helicopter. The Romanian flag with the cutout communist sigil in the middle. The people in Timișoara lighting a thousand candles for the murdered masses, shot on 17th December. There: forty kilometers from my hometown, the bloodiest, most epic of the 1989 revolutions began.

“Why wander into the distance, when the good is so close?” is a popular German saying. And it’s true. I’m excited what future ideas I’ll have in my writing career. But I know one thing: Romania will continue to play a big part in it.

silviahildebrandt.wordpress.com

My Review

Dear Comrade Novák is one of the most devastatingly honest and brutal books I have Dear Comrade Novakever read, yet I could not put it down. I read the last 65% of it in one sitting.

Set in Romania in the 1980s, Dear Comrade Novák follows three school friends: the ethnic Hungarian Attila; the Romanian Tiberius, and the Roma Viorica, through the last decade of Nicolae Ceaușescu’s despotic rule, culminating in the Revolution of 1989.

Hildebrandt is unsparing in her descriptions of the functioning of the country under the eye of the Securitate (the secret police). Who is a friend? Can family members be trusted? Can lovers? And when a man carries a secret – that he is gay – something that is not just forbidden in Romania, but denied completely – what does he do?

Weaving major events of the 80s – Chernobyl, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the devastating rise of AIDS – into the narrative, Hildebrandt paints a bleak and unwavering picture of people trying to find a way forward in a corrupt and cruel society, a society layered by ethnicity and political allegiance. Some may stay true to their inner selves; others cannot; heroism is easy to imagine, but personal survival is a strong imperative, even when the violence and fear of everyday life overwhelms happiness.

Dear Comrade Novák is not escapist fiction. It is an uncomfortable book, one that should leave you shaken. I will remember it long after I have forgotten many other books I have read or will read. Five stars.

Amazon.com link.

 

Of Dreams and Thorns, by J.C. Salazar: an interview and review

Salazar author photoJ.C Salazar, the author of Of Dreams and Thorns, grew up as the child of immigrant parents in Houston, Texas. With a B.A. in English, a MS in Linguistics and another MA in Literature, plus some  doctoral courses in English, Salazar values language and writing. Of Dreams and Thorns is his first novel. He is also the author a book of poetry, states of unitedness.

I spoke to Salazar recently about what inspired Of Dreams and Thorns, and the process of writing the book. Following the interview is my review of his novel.

The book reads very much like memoir. How much of it is based on your own experience?

I wanted to write a novel that would capture the essence of my ancestors and their immigrant experience. I decided to center the story in a biography of my father and the things and folks that most influenced his life. I purposely avoided trying to recapture events or scenes exactly, so much of the biography is fictionalized. I considered writing a straight biography of my family, but there was too much opposition because they are quite private and far from understanding literary stuff.

Is there one character that is basically you?

The narrator is some version of me, and my doppelgänger is the boy Carlos.

How much of the settings and events are thing you actually remember, and how much comes from stories your family told you?

My rough estimate about settings and events is that about 35% I experienced or witnessed, about 40% was told me by some elder in the family or a sibling. The remainder are made up by my imagination.

Did you look for a traditional publisher and/or agent, or was indie your first choice?

When I began to write for publication in earnest, I was spending half a day writing and half a day learning all about agents, publishers, self-publishing options, etc.. I began sending out agent queries when I finished my first draft. I sent out about thirty queries to agents and a few publishers. My queries went out in batches of 7-10, and I waited six to ten weeks to hear back. Some rejections were quick, some took six weeks to much longer. Among them, I received a couple with much encouragement, but maybe they were just polite. I soon realized that the time involved to secure an agent and then get a publisher would average three years or longer. That’s when I shifted to self publishing. Just as I was about to begin that process, an editor asked for my full MS. I waited six months and never heard back. I wrote them that I was withdrawing my MS and I then went full steam ahead with independent publishing.

How long did the novel take, and how many iterations of it were there before you finalized it?

It took me six months to write the complete first draft and another year to get through all the editing. I had been doing editing all the while as per beta reader feedback. On my own, I had edited each chapter some four times also. Then I hired a professional editor for structure and another editor for proofreading. Of course, I hired a cover designer, and fell in love with designing covers. I would say that my novel never lost its initial essence, but the final version is easily a fourth iteration.

Anything else you’d like to tell readers?

I published the novel on February 2018. In April, I had an extremely successful book signing at Houston’s River Oaks Bookstore. That was just about as close to the version of a dream come true. Writing this book has become the single most rewarding experience of my life. I do not regret for one minute having published it on my own. My writing skills, not to mention my publishing knowledge, have grown considerably since the publication of Of Dreams & Thorns. I now have no qualms about or hesitancy calling myself a writer/author/novelist.

My Review

Those of us born to parents who grew to adulthood in another country, but gave birth toof dreams and thorns us or brought us as babies to North America share some experiences, regardless of our parents’ native languages, religion, or the shade of our skin. Among our common experiences is the clash between the adults’ wish to maintain traditions, and the children’s wish to assimilate.

Of Dreams and Thorns, J.C. Salazar’s fictionalized memoir of his family’s migration to the United States from Mexico in the late 50’s and early 60’s, is an account of the life of a young husband and father who chooses separation from his family in order to earn money to fund his dream: a small farm in his home village. The story of the brief fulfilment of that dream, the factors that lead him to abandon it, and to move his family to Houston – with the inevitable collision of cultural expectations – is told in immersive detail.

The story is told in third person omniscient, so while we know the intentions and motivations and emotions of Ramiro, the central character of the book, we also know what other characters are thinking and feeling. But the omniscience is sometimes tentative, as if the narrator is deducing what these emotions are, increasing the strong sense I had that the narrator is one of Ramiro’s children looking back on his family’s life.

As a memoir, even a fictionalized one, Of Dreams and Thorns is a comprehensive look at a hard-working, ambitious, flawed man building a life for his family, and doing his best to maintain the traditions of his home culture and country in a new and confusing land. Within the small farming community I grew up in, many of the schoolmates of myself and my siblings were first-generation children, their parents searching for a better life than what Hungary and Germany, Italy and Portugal, Yugoslavia and Poland could offer. I saw the dichotomies and conflicts played out in my friends’ houses; I knew a few myself, because even England and Canada were not the same in all values and expected behaviour. Salazar’s book resonated with my experiences, one or two lived, many observed.

For anyone looking to understand the economic and social forces of that era that made people reach for a perceived better life in a new country, or to glimpse the price that was paid by adults uprooted from their communities and cultures, Of Dreams and Thorns serves well. It is a story told with deep love and respect, and, I believe, with clarity. As a novel, though, narrative choices undermine its effectiveness.

The immersive detail that is a strength if this book is considered as a fictionalized memoir overwhelms the plot in parts of the book. While the purpose of most scenes in either building character or motivation can be deduced, the degree of detail detracts from the building tension. As well, because of the scope of the story, taking place over more than 40 years, much is told to the reader. While this can be, and is, necessary, Salazar tends to warn when a significant occurrence is about to happen, e.g., “What happened next was the unthinkable for Eliza and a doom for Ramiro.” For me, this device reduces the rising tension, instead of increasing it. Action and reaction would be enough to show the significance of the event. In a similar way, unneeded explanations are added to actions: “But (the children) did not rush to their father as might be expected.”

In his best passages, Salazar lets his characters show us their thoughts, and conveys their emotions through their actions. There is strong dialogue in parts, and effective description. But Of Dreams and Thorns will remain with me as memoir, not as a novel; its characters and setting never quite became real to me as a novel’s should, but were perceived as the author’s memories of people and places dear to him.

Of Dreams and Thorns and states of unitedness are available from Amazon.

J.C. Salazar’s website: https://www.jcsalazarwriter.com/

 

 

 

First of Their Kind, by C.D. Tavenor: A Review

Cogito, ego sum, Rene Descartes wrote in 1644. Is it the ability to think that make us44569168 human? And if so, what is a synthetic intelligence that learns, reasons, extrapolates, infers, and doubts?

That question is at the heart of C.D. Tavenor’s debut novel First of Their Kind. Centred on the birth of the first true synthetic intelligence, Theren – their self-chosen name – faces both acceptance and hatred as they become known to the world and takes on a role in its future. Within this context, Tavenor asks hard questions about exactly what constitute personhood and identity, echoing human rights debates from the 18th to the 21st centuries – who is human? who is a person? who decides identity?

But First of Their Kind is more than an allegory of human rights history. Reflections of creation stories and spiritual belief systems resound. Even Theren’s choice of pronouns – they – can be construed differently as they learn to interact with the world around them – both the physical and virtual worlds – with multiple, simultaneous consciousnesses: the omniscience of a god. Other examples could be given from throughout the book, and perhaps particularly the ending, but I won’t go further into this analysis, to avoid spoilers.

Tavenor has woven these ideas seamlessly into a literate and well-plotted story. Character development, voice, pacing, world-building: all are done with skill, and his projection of the world 30 years in the future is completely believable. First of Their Kind kept my interest from the moment I began reading it, and I am impatient for its continuation. Five stars.

Storytellers, by Bjørn Larssen: A Release-Day Review

Set against Iceland’s harsh but beautiful landscape in the late 19th and  early 20thStorytellers-cover century, Bjørn Larssen’s debut novel Storytellers explores the multi-generational effect of the evasions, embellishments and outright lies told in a small village. The book begins slowly, almost lyrically, pulling the reader into what seems like situation borrowed from folktale: a reclusive blacksmith, Gunnar, rescues an injured stranger, Sigurd. In exchange for his care, Sigurd offers Gunnar a lot of money, and a story.

But as Sigurd’s story progresses, and the book moves between the past and the present, darker elements begin to appear. Gunnar’s reclusiveness hides his own secrets, and the unresolved stories of his past. As other characters are introduced and their lives interweave, it becomes clear that at the heart of this small village there are things untold, things left out of the stories, purposely re-imagined. Both individual and collective histories – and memories – cannot be trusted.

The book was reminiscent of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant, in both theme and mood. Both books deal with the unreliability of memory; both are largely melancholy books. And perhaps there is allegory in them both, too. Storytellers is a book to be read when there is time for contemplation, maybe of an evening with a glass of wine. It isn’t always the easiest read, but it’s not a book I’m going to forget easily, either.

Now, for details:

Cover: definitely pulled me in. Some may see a disconnect between the cover font and the mood of the story, but I did not.

Production (e-book): Excellent. If there were any errors, I didn’t catch them.

Writing: Very good. English is not the author’s first language, but I wouldn’t have known.

Story Structure: you need to be paying attention as it jumps between times and characters…but this is a book that needs attention paying to it, not a light beach read.

I’ll post this review to Amazon & Goodreads, where I will assign a star rating. But I am no longer rating books on my blog, just giving you my opinion. I recommend Storytellers to readers willing to give time and thought and focus to a book, and who are comfortable with being challenged by what they read.

 

Crystal and Flint: Book 1 of the Journey Missions, by Holly Ash: A mini-review

A fast-paced sci-fi adventure with competitive, clashing female leads. The story isCrystal and Flint well-crafted and delivers all the tension expected of this genre, moving both the main plot and subplots along nicely to the explosive climax and a denouement that leads into the next book in the series

So why not five stars? The setting is an earth colony, 300 years in the future, where humans have interbred with the local hominid species. Why, oh why, does almost everyone have a British-derived name? Grady. Flint. Thompson. Stiner. Cummings.Wolf.  I’m happy to suspend disbelief to accept alien abilities to exchange oxygen through skin underwater like frogs, or to blend almost invisibly with surroundings like octopus. I’m not able to accept that all the settlers, scientists, engineers and military personnel in the future don’t have names from all over the world. The cultural homogenization may have changed the expression of ethnic background, but I can’t believe everyone’s adopted Anglo names.

I see this as a failure of not just imagination, but of not extrapolating current reality into future world-building, and one that is not restricted to this book but has been apparent in other books of this genre. It doesn’t reflect either the world I live in, or the one I project for the future.

Kingsguard: Freya Snow Book IX: A Mini-Review

Kingsguard is another solid addition to the Snowverse and its cast of diverse, original characters.

Both Freya and L.C. Mawson’s writing have matured in Kingsguard, the latest installment Kingsguardin the Snowverse series.  The writing is more direct and the plot structure clearer than in some earlier instalments, although it is still a complex and convoluted universe the author has created.

In Kingsguard, an earlier episode in Freya’s life is central to the story: an episode the series reader will remember but of which Freya has very edited memories.  This adds an element of almost amusement and anticipation for the reader:  when will Freya realize?

Kingsguard is another solid addition to the Snowverse and its cast of diverse, original characters.

Trident, A Snowverse Novel, by L.C. Mawson: A Release-Day Review

Trident follows Freya as she accompanies her friends Mel and Sarah to the underwater realm of Atlantis

I think I’ve lost track of how many Snowverse books there are now, but they keep gettingTrident better and better; more focused, the writing tighter, the characters more developed.  Trident, the latest in the series, follows Freya as she accompanies her friends Mel and Sarah to the underwater realm of Atlantis.  Mel is challenging the head of her Mer house for the right for Atlantean citizenship, and the quest she must undergo to gain that right needs all of Freya’s varied and multiple magical abilities to even give them a chance of succeeding.

Along with this fast-paced adventure, developments in both Freya’s personal life and in her existence in the Shadow Realm are entwined in the story, further framing Freya’s growth in her earthly life and in her life beyond Earth’s bounds. A fairly short novel at about 180 pages on my Kindle app, Trident kept me reading…I only put it down to watch the second-last episode of Doctor Who.  Speaking of which, I think there’s a bit of an homage to the Tenth Doctor in Trident – if not, then ‘great minds think alike’ (or write alike!).  Five stars.

I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

The Cult of Unicorns, by Chrys Cymri: A Review

When dead bodies and unicorns begin to appear in the English midlands, Penny White, Church of England vicar , has work to do. 

When characters from a story begin to inhabit your dreams, you know the story has Cult of Unicornsreally taken hold of your imagination.  In my case, it was a snail shark, a creature of Chrys Cymri’s mythical, magical land of Lloegyr, a mere thin-space transport away from our own world, that began to crawl through my nightly fantasies.

When dead bodies and unicorns begin to appear in the English midlands, Penny White, Church of England vicar and official Church liaison with Lloegyr, has work to do.  With the help of Peter, the local detective, her brother, the devil-may-care dragon Raven, and her gryphon companion, Penny must navigate the glamour of unicorns and the deep pockets of a multi-national corporation to find the truth.  Interspersed with realistic examples of the difficulties of running a parish in an increasingly secular world and glimpses into Penny’s personal struggles, The Cult of Unicorns is a satisfying read set in an easily-believable world just a little skewed from ours (or is it?)

An appreciation of Doctor Who and good whiskey likely add to the reader’s delight in Penny’s world (I qualify for both) but aren’t necessary.  But you do need to accept a beer-loving snail shark named Clyde that loves the Teletubbies and can sing…and clearly my subconscious was quite happy to suspend that piece of disbelief, because Clyde comes to visit every so often, sliding his way into otherwise normal dreams.  He’s delightful…as is The Cult of Unicorns.  Five stars.

Reaper: A Snowverse Novel, by L.C. Mawson: A Release-day Review

I found Reaper more satisfying than some of the longer books. It’s tighter, more focused on the immediate issues.

Reaper is the seventh book in the Snowverse series, continuing Freya’s adventuresReaper almost immediately after Enhanced.  With Alex, Freya is travelling in Europe, dealing with car-sickness and more: the diversity of supernatural genes she carries result in upheavals she cannot fully control, and her past experiences are adding to the volatility.

Freya’s difficulties in controlling her emerging powers, and in tapping into the ones she needs to access, reminded me (not in a plagaristic manner, but in a thematic way) of the “Threshold Sickness” of the psi-enhanced characters in Marion Zimmer Bradley ground-breaking Darkover series.  The disruption that uncontrolled psi powers can wreak, when an untrained individual accesses them, can have far-reaching and dramatic effects: a great subject matter for a book,  and I was pleased to see the issue addressed in Reaper. (By the way, if you’re a fan of the Snowverse, then I’m guessing you’re a fan of diversity in science fiction and fantasy – and if you haven’t read the Darkover series, give it a try. Yes, it was written in the 1960’s, but for early introduction and acceptance of LGBTQ characters, it was truly a ground-breaker.)

Lucy Mawson’s skills as a writer have blossomed over this series, and her depiction of Freya’s internal conflict about Alex, and her realization of how to access her Angel powers, are some of the author’s best writing. Freya is learning, too, to make the distinction between how her autism directly affects her relationships, separate from how her (unrecognized?) emotional reactions to past events affects both herself and how she relates to others.  I’m treading carefully here, because I’m allistic, or as my husband prefers, a neurotyp, but certainly Alex’s attempts to help Freya handle her reactions and understand them rang very true to me, after thirty-eight years of living with a man with ASD.

Reaper is short – 139 pages in my e-book edition – but it doesn’t suffer from that; in fact, I found it more satisfying than some of the longer books. It’s tighter, more focused on the immediate issues. Five stars.

I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.