Sunday, January 31, 2010

Can Humanity be Replaced by Machinery: A Discussion Raised by Robin Wasserman's Skinned

Can a computerized duplicate--even exact duplicate of a human brain in an artificial body ever replace a human? If it walks like a human, talks like a human, reacts like not only a human, but the human it claims to be, and seems to emote like a human, is it human?

In a society where so many functions previously associated with man power are being performed by machinery and the line of whom creates life continuously seems to be blurred, maybe even crossed by advances in science technology, it seems to be a fair question to ask.
In Robin Wasserman's Skinned, this question is explored through the eyes--well artificial eyes, of Lia Khan.

Lia Khan dies in an unlikely car accident (in this futuristic world car accidents are outdated by technology that programs cars to go where they are told, while keeping a safe buffer from impending danger). The novel opens with the aftermath of the car wreck and it's attention grabbing from page one.

There is no way to save her burnt body from the accident, but her brain is not dead. Her parents have it replicated and placed in an artificial body. The duplicate brain is completely programmed with her likes, dislikes, memories and personality. But does this mean it's really Lia?
Her friends don't think so. Her boyfriend is repulsed by her, and that ends the relationship. Her parents regret having her brain "downloaded" and Lia doesn't feel human. In fact, Lia doesn't feel anything. She merely has a conscious awareness of sensations as they happen. She doesn't feel cold, warmth or pain. She knows that she is cold, warm or hurt.

Wasserman created a realistic character in Lia Khan. She's horrible, for lack of a better word. Prior to the car accident she was the most the popular girl in school and a rich spoiled brat. She remains the second. She's just rejected by everyone--almost, there is one exception. For a decent human being, (most of the population at large) it's hard to read the things that are said and done to her, because it's hard to see someone treated that way. I'm impressed by the character, mainly because I hated her. She is the most self-absorbed person I've ever been aware of, but I was still able to empathize with her.

The faithers, the religious party in an otherwise Godless world, claim she is soulless. She's not human. She's been programmed to think she is. Lia wonders if they are right--so do we.
The exception who treats her like a human being is Auden Heller. It's obvious from his first interaction with her that he is romantically interested in her, but she is oblivious to this. Most likely because if she still had her own skin she would be oblivious to his existence. While Auden seems to be legitimately interested in Lia, he is also obsessed with her being a "skinner" or "mech-head" as the downloaded brains in artificial bodies are referred to. Auden is unique in his own way. Not just because he's the only person who cares about the poor living in the remains of cities destroyed by nuclear war, or towns ran by corporations where people sold their voting rights and agreed to work for food and medical supplies. But because Auden is a "natural." His religious mother refused to genetically engineer him. He doesn't have the exceptional features of his school-mates.

The awkwardness between Lia and Auden as they attempt to develop a friendship, in spite of his romantic interest and her lack of interest is real. The world they live in has been called a "dystopia" by other readers and Wasserman herself. I didn't see it as that. With the exceptions of the cities all being leveled to ruins by nuclear wars, and severe climate, all the social issues exist in our world: the ethical question of keeping someone alive who by all reason and scientific definitions of life should be, classism and racism.

The plot thickens as Lia is encouraged by Auden to spend time with wreckless mech-heads, all of whom have interesting backgrounds of their own, adding to the social questions raised. Some say that Lia is presented with a choice. That Auden, the last natural, represents one choice and that the mech-heads who dance with danger at every opportunity, since machines can't die represent the other choice. I don't see it this way. I don't want to give the ending away, but I see Lia as optionless. She can only be what she is.

In the society we reside (which doesn't have to be a dystopia, but we usually allow that), we can create life artificially, end it unnaturally, or sustain it when reason and moral would tell us for all intents and purposes it's already gone. That doesn't mean we should. Just like being able to replicate your child indefinitely doesn't make it the right choice. The classism and racism (the first experimental mech-heads were taken from samples of the poor living in the ruined cities and minorities) already exists. The crucial issues raised in Skinned are issues we should talk about, but don't.

The writing is strong. Many things about this novel are better than good, but the issues aren't fully explored, just piled on one after the other. It's a good book club book, or for a class. It's definitely something that should raise discussion--something to be discussed. There are two sequels which I won't be reading, because I felt that Lia's journey had concluded with the book. But I recommend this book for anyone ready to contemplate the ills of society. I wish this book would be used for high-school English classes.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Queen and I

From the throne to the dole (commonly referred to by Americans as a welfare check), that's what this book should be called. Sue Townsend sets up a world where the British Parliament has been taken over by a socialist party, who abolishes the monarchy and puts the royal family on a pension in government housing.

The queen and her family members are given a short list of belongings they will be allowed to take with them. They are forbidden from selling any heirlooms and must survive on the government pension that the British underclass live on.

Watching the royal family's attempt at normalcy is not as comical as one might think. It's true that some scenes Townsend paints are out right funny, but those are few and far between.

The Queen has never realized how hard life is on the poor until she and her family are forced to go live among them. She realizes that the pension provided for the impoverished is not enough for them to buy food, or live on. Their heat comes from a gas meter that must be fed coins. Very few in the neighborhood of Hellebore Close, affectionately referred to by residents as Hell's Close, have a phone.

The Queen is a survivor. She comes to terms with the life of Hell's Close and learns to live it, almost as well as her neighbors. She's able to stand up to the government employees in charge of the pension intervenes on another person's behalf. She even manages to have a semi-state like funeral for her mother who dies of old age.

As the queen learns to live a life of poverty and Charles is imprisoned for inciting a riot (really for being just another Hell's Close hooligan), Jack Barker's (head of the socialist party that has overtaken Parliament) plans to make life better for the British working class have begin to take their toll on the economy. The British government is forced to borrow money from he Japanese in an effort to stay afloat after Mr. Barker has increased social programs.

The royal prison allows Charles to attend his grandmother's funeral. He makes a run for it at the reception. Most of the royal family has come to terms with their new life, and Charles is living on the run, when the queen gets a letter from Lebonia Tremain, the wife of the founder of B.O.M.B. (bring our monarchy back), that Edward is missing complete with a news report of it. One day later, Barker announces that the nation of Britain is now part of the empire of Japan, because the loan couldn't be repaid any other way. Edward has been forced to marry Sayako, daughter of the Japanese Emperor. Harris, the royal dog, has been given to the couple.

The queen wakes up from a horrible nightmare to her barking, Harris. The assumption is that it was a dream.

I'm a typical American. I made my way out of the country for the first time ever this September, at the age of 25. I have no clue what life is like for the poor in Britain, but from what I've seen life usually sucks for the poor everywhere. Townsend's assertions, not only about the lives of the poor, but also, about the government's indifference and absolute cluelessness to the fact that society and life are both very hard on the poor are most likely heart breakingly accurate.

The approach of this commentary, is moderate and paints a complete picture. Barker's social improvements cause the nation to go bankrupt forcing them into the Japanese Empire. This is also accurate. Social programs (no matter how needed) cost money. Money has to come from somewhere. When the expense isn't well calculated into the budget and the cash leaves the account haphazardly, it does create havoc. Think about your personal checking account. If you spent money, without knowing where to take it from and accounting for it, you would be overdrawn. The balance the book strikes is: These programs are needed. There is no way to fund these programs. Which in almost every country, at any given time, is the true argument.

The political commentary is great. If you enjoy politics or want to learn about British society, by all means read The Queen and I. The writing is flat.

It's funny in places, but not so interesting in more places! It was a struggle, just to keep my attention through it and more than once I thought of just quitting.

The biggest problem is the point of view is all over the place! In fairness, I've seen worse. But we're in every character's head at some point or another and in more than one character's head on almost every page.

Townsend makes the members of the royal family real people. People we can relate to, and even sympathize with--not people we can empathize with. Sticking with a few point of views and being more fluent in the transitions, would have created characters we could empathize with, and maybe, just maybe, if we did have a character that we could empathize with would make the book more compelling.

I chose this book for Project 52, because I attempted to read it a couple of times in the past and never finished. I knew, having obligated myself to a review of it, I would be forced to finish it this time. It wasn't a total waste. It was informative. But I recommend going to the library, because this is a renter not a buyer.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Project 52

As I lead a relatively dull existence, I have been looking for a project. It is true that I have recently completed a manuscript for a young adult fiction novel, and will continue editing this and hopefully writing new manuscripts in the future, one of which, with luck, will find it's way on to a Barnes and Nobles shelf. But since there is no indication of when I might begin a new manuscript I set out on Project 52. Fifty-two new books in the 52 weeks of 2010. This month, I have made my way through Her Fearful Symmetry (hated it), Beautiful Creatures (loved it), and Wicked Lovely (a good concept, though it could have been developed more and I would shy away from involving a harem that depended on the lust of a king for survival in a book aimed at young girls). Of course, I re-read the Twilight Saga this month, but that can't count for this project. I am currently working on The Queen and I, and starting with this novel, I will give a weekly review. It seems for January, Project 52 and I are exactly where we should be. ;)

(Please note, this post was actually published in The Life and Times of a Struggling Writer last week).