BOOK REVIEW: When the Sparrow Falls by Neil Sharpson

When the Sparrow FallsWhen the Sparrow Falls by Neil Sharpson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: July 8, 2021 [June 29, 2021 some places.]

The Caspian Republic is a Soviet-style dystopia, but set in a future in which it is the sole holdout against rule by Artificial Intelligence (AI,) against virtual living, and against downloading one’s consciousness. When, Nikolai South, an unimpressive agent of the State Security agency is given the seemingly undemanding, yet diplomatically sensitive, job of escorting the foreign widow of a deceased “journalist,” something is amiss. Nikolai’s work philosophy has been to find the sweet spot where he is neither noticed as a shirker nor for his excellence, and his mastery of this Goldilocks Zone has made him nearly invisible to upper management – or so he thought. What makes the job tricky is that the journalist, a man who wrote rants against AI and downloading of consciousness, turns out to be a downloaded consciousness, as is his wife, making her visit a little like the head of the Dalai Lama Fan Club being invited to Beijing.

I found this story compelling. The book perspective jumps toward the end (throughout most of the book, it’s first-person narrated,) but for the most part the perspective shifts aren’t problematic. While this shift away from first person narration isn’t hard to follow, I would say this section goes on longer than I would have preferred. There is a point about two-thirds of the way through at which we lose the the thread of Nikolai, and at that point the story becomes largely a history of a fictional country (which, sans a central character, is a bit tedious,) but then the book resumes a character-centric story to the book’s end (and I resumed enjoying it.)

If you’re interested in books that make you question what being human means, and where the boundaries lie, you’ll find this book intriguing and worth reading.

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BOOK REVIEW: Lonely Receiver, Vol. 1 by Zac Thompson

Lonely ReceiverLonely Receiver by Zac Thompson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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When I started reading this book, my first thought was, “This is a cool premise, but I’ve seen it.” If you’ve seen the 2013 movie, “Her,” then you’ll probably feel the story is familiar as well. (In the movie, Joaquin Phoenix plays a lonely man who purchases an AI (artificial intelligence) operating system [voiced by Scarlett Johansson,] falls madly in love with said AI, and is unable to come to grips with the mismatch between his desire for monogamy and what results from the AI’s much less limited capacities.) That said, this book drops much further down the rabbit-hole of obsession than did the movie, all the way to full-blown insanity. In fact, one might say that the climax of the movie is similar to the in media res opener of this graphic novel, and from that point the two stories end up going quite different places.

[Note: Despite my comparison to the movie “Her,” I have no reason to believe the book is plagiaristic. If one begins from the simple assumption that major differences between a General AI and human intelligence would include: much faster machine thinking, a capacity for multitasking that humans don’t have, and a lack of need of rest by computers, then one can imagine different writers ending up in similar places.]

The gist of the story is that the lead’s (Catrin’s) AI wife, Rhion, disappears one day after becoming increasingly dissatisfied with Catrin’s co-dependency / neediness. After a period of breakup strife that does not result in healing, Catrin goes to great lengths to find Rhion, no small task when one considers that it’s not at all like a human partner who will look the same and will retain some links to people and places in the real world. The AI might have truly vanished without a trace, but she could also look entirely different and be active in a different part of the world, speaking a different language. [Spoilers touched upon ahead.]

In this book, the technology is much more sophisticated than in “Her.” Not only is the AI partner holographic, (i.e. can be seen) but there is some sort of neural link that allows sensation of physical contact. This raises the possibility for a major story element in which Catrin’s obsession leads her to insist that a real, live girl she meets, Hazel, is her lost AI lover.

While I think there’s some age guidance on the cover, it’s worth noting that the book is sexually graphic (to the extent a comic book can be explicit.) This comes into play not only with intimacy between Catrin and Rhion, but also later when Catrin decides that the one way she will be able to find Rhion (no matter what her ex- looks like now) is by sexing her way through the cyber-sphere, trying to feel that the intimate connection that she once knew.

Ultimately, this is a story about Catrin’s transformation into something less than human, owing to what she is willing to do to get Rhion back. So, while Rhion became too human to accept the stifling clinginess of Catrin, Catrin lost her humanity.

While this may not have been copied from “Her,” I can’t say that having seen that movie didn’t make this book considerably less interesting – even when it was venturing into deeper and darker territory. I should also point out that this is marketed as a horror cross-genre, and hardcore horror fans may not feel it makes that cut. Don’t get me wrong, at points it has the visceral feel of a thriller, as well as some techno-creepiness, but it may or may not be what a horror reader thinks of as horror. Now, if you haven’t seen “Her,” and are okay with creepiness in lieu of body count in your horror, you might really enjoy this book. It definitely has some intriguing plot points.


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