BOOK REVIEW: Dream Machine by Su-Yee Lin

Dream Machine (A Short Story) (Kindle Single)Dream Machine (A Short Story) by Su-Yee Lin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This surreal short story is a reprint from “Day One” magazine that is available as a Kindle Single. The story is about a factory in an industrial part of Shanghai that seems to make metal objects / shapes, the purpose of which no one seems to understand. The protagonist is – at the start of the the story – the newest of the half-dozen employees who work at the plant. The story has a sparse feeling that ranges from the fact that the characters are designated only with a single letter to the fact that we really don’t get much indication of the broad and bustling city of Shanghai in which the story is supposedly set.

It isn’t easy to convey a world that isn’t quite right – seemingly like the world we are familiar with, but just a little off. I thought the author did a good job of this.

I enjoyed this story immensely. I thought the author used strategic ambiguity nicely. There are a few ways I believe one could reasonably interpret this story. If you are the kind that needs to have iron-clad clarity, that might be a bit aggravating. [If you’ve seen the Christopher Nolan movie “Inception,” and you liked that it left an open ending, this story is for you. If you insist that there is no ambiguity to the ending and that the top definitely toppled or didn’t, you might not enjoy it as much.]

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BOOK REVIEW: All Systems Red by Martha Wells

All Systems Red (The Murderbot Diaries, #1)All Systems Red by Martha Wells
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This novella’s protagonist is a security cyborg that is corporately-assigned to protect a survey team of human scientists. What makes the story intriguing, not to mention humorous, are the features that we consider human frailties that are witnessed in the thoughts and behaviors of this cyborg. There is his discomfort in interacting with humans. He refers to himself as a “murderbot” and displays some of the awkward mannerisms that are familiar to me as an introvert, though — in this case — they aren’t so much about being easily overstimulated as being uncomfortable with the fact that humans see him as giant robot with great capacity for violence. (Hey, it dawns on me that maybe it is the same with me.) The Murderbot also displays the human traits of laziness and desire to be entertained, and is often watching serial shows when an ordinary robot would either be doing work-a-day tasks like downloading protocols or would be off-line.

The most salient human trait is that he bonds – if awkwardly — with part of his team, and – even though he’s lazy by nature – he goes to great lengths to make sure they survive. Because the Murderbot is notably lazy, the reader must consider whether his willingness to put his life on the line comes from something beyond his protocols. The reader doesn’t know to what degree the cyborg is free, though we do know it has hacked the governor unit that overrides autonomous functions, and so one knows it’s freer than most units in its line of work. [Of course, “putting it’s life on the line” isn’t necessarily as solemn a matter as with humans because murderbots are notoriously difficult to kill, and can suffer severe damage and be quickly repaired / healed – provided they have access to the requisite facilities.]

I won’t get into specifics of story except to say that it takes place on a remote planet that is newly being charted, and the Murderbot’s team is one of a couple teams independently surveying different parts of the planet. Things go wrong and the Murderbot’s team of humans must find out who is the culprit, why said culprit has done what they did, and get out alive.

I enjoyed this novella. The subversion of expectations that comes from the cyborg being perhaps the most neurotic of the characters provides plenty of opportunity for humor, not to mention light philosophizing about the nature of being human and how trust forms. Readers of sci-fi will certainly enjoy this story, non-genre readers should give it a try as well.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Unlimited Dream Company by J.G. Ballard

The Unlimited Dream CompanyThe Unlimited Dream Company by J.G. Ballard
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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The protagonist, Blake, crashes a stolen small aircraft into the Thames River beside the sleepy English town of Shepperton. In short order, Blake discovers that he cannot escape Shepperton and gradually he comes to realize that he can do anything else that he can imagine. This gradual discovery is like a dream becoming lucid. At first the world seems right even though there is plenty that is odd about it, as is the case when one is dreaming and oddities and anomalies don’t trigger a response as they do when one is conscious. Despite the fact that Ballard captures the surrealism of the dream state well, and even uses the word “dream” in the title, the reader is never sure what is going on exactly until the book’s conclusion. Is Blake dreaming everything? (including the plane theft?) Or, was he knocked unconscious in the crash? Or, is something supernatural going on that is dreamlike, but not a dream. There are a cast of townsfolk who sometimes behave oddly, but who seem like they have enough depth to be more than projections of Blake’s subconscious. The unfolding of the story involves the surreal nature of Shepperton becoming more obvious as the reader — little-by-little — gets a better idea of what is going on there.

Readers with a prudish streak should be aware that references to sex are ubiquitous. It’s not that there are a lot of graphic sex scenes, but – as in a dream state, the subconscious mind is at the fore and primal urges take center-stage. Blake imagines having sexual relations with everyone in the sleepy town. He doesn’t, but he speculates about it. There is also symbolic sexual reference – e.g. flowers growing from his seed. Frequent references are made to Blake being naked, but the townsfolk not realizing it. There’s generally not graphic description, this recurring device primarily serves as a means to show how the other people in the story aren’t lucid, because Blake’s nudity doesn’t set off their weird-o-meters as it would in waking consciousness.

I enjoyed this book, and, if you like surreal and trippy stories, you should give it a read.

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5 of My Favorite Trippy, Mind-bending Books

I love books that send one down the rabbit hole. Here are a few of my favorites. [Note: as I was putting this post together, I realized that I’d left out Philip K. Dick entirely. That is a glaring oversight as almost any of his books could make this list, but I’m too lazy to make a bigger list right now, so you’ll have to wait for Part II.]

 

5.) The Unlimited Dream Company by J.G. Ballard: A man crashes a small aircraft into the Thames, and after struggling up from the wreckage he discovers he can’t leave the town of Shepperton — though he can do just about anything else he likes.

 

4.) The Lathe of Heaven by Ursala K. Le Guin: George Orr believes his dreams shape reality. At first, he’s taken for a crazy man, but then his therapist begins to wonder.

 

3.) Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami: A man hired for his skill at using his mind as an unbreakable encryption device, finds out that the job that seemed too good to be true, was.

 

2.) The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov: The devil comes to Moscow with his  rogue’s gallery, throws the city into disarray, and it’s all tied to a novel based on the life of Pontius Pilate.

 

1.) Alice in Wonderland  & Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll: Tumbling down a rabbit hole or walking through a mirror, Alice is transported to a whimsical land where everything is strange and exhilarating.

Let me know of any oversights [besides the aforementioned PKD.]

BOOK REVIEW: The Velderet by Cecilia Tan

The VelderetThe Velderet by Cecilia Tan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The dual protagonists of this novel, Merin and Kobi, live in a society in which equality is the supreme value, and in which sexual freedom is nearly complete (except where it bumps up against the aforementioned value.) For many, this would be a utopia, but the problem for Merin and Kobi is that they crave subjugation. That might seem an unusual desire, but one need not look far to see how urges develop for little apparent reason other than a person being told that such activities are prohibited or taboo. Merin is a straight female serving as legislative worker bee. Kobi is a bisexual male who bartends at a leisure club that not only serves drinks but facilitates virtual reality cyber-sex. The two are roommates (part of equality is a pairing of unattached without consideration of gender or sexual orientation), and one evening in a buzz-fed stupor Kobi admits that he would like to know what it’s like to be enslaved.

This story in which these two try to figure out how to develop an underground community of those who revel in power dynamics as part of sexual activities, plays out in a larger geo-political and historical context. It turns out that the reason that this society (i.e. the Belledonians) is so keen on equality in all activities is that they were once a slave-owning empire, and they basically killed off another race of people who they’d enslaved (i.e. the Gehrish.) So, it’s a guilt-driven policy. As the individual level actions play out, this society is in trade and security negotiations with the Kylarans, a more technologically advanced society that still practices slavery. There is a fear that the Kylarans might decide not to trade as equals but to colonize the Belldonians.

The resolution of the story brings this sadomasochism fight club story line into contact with the larger geo-political story, and that raises the stakes and presents one with varying philosophical stances on the dominant – submissive relationship. While the Belledonians had brutally oppressed the race they subjugated (i.e. the Gehrish,) the Kylarans have a much more traditional, protocol-driven, and complex approach to these power dynamic driven relations. For example, leaders must spend time as slaves before they can progress upward in the chain of command.

As I hope has been made clear, this book combines erotica with sci-fi and sex scenes are ubiquitous and kinky. Readers who are squeamish about such matter will probably want to steer clear. However, if one isn’t disturbed by sex, and sexual power play, this story is readable and intriguing. I would recommend it for those who are intrigued by stories at the nexus of science fiction and erotica.

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BOOK REVIEW: Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang

Stories of Your Life and OthersStories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This collection of eight smart short stories is most well-known for the eponymous story that served as the basis for the movie “Arrival.” The stories are sci-fi, but in the broadest sense of that word. “Speculative fiction” is probably a more apt descriptor. At any rate, the pieces all have nerd appeal and offer philosophical food-for-thought as well as entertaining stories.

1.) “Tower of Babylon:” The Biblical myth re-imagined. What if god didn’t sabotage construction by introducing varying languages and spreading humanity to the four winds? What if, instead, the tower did eventually reach to the heavens?

2.) “Understand:” A man who suffered severe brain damage due to a fall through thin ice, is put on an experimental medicine that begins to stimulate neurogenesis on a massive scale. The protagonist becomes preternaturally intelligent, realizes that such super-intelligence is considered a threat, but is able to keep one step ahead of the ordinary minds who pursue him. That is until he runs into another patient who had a similar accident and treatment. A thinking man’s “Lucy” (referring to the Scarlett Johansson movie), this piece considers the question of how different people would use such a gift, and whether differences could be reconciled.

3.) “Division by Zero:” If a scholar’s life was invested in an idea or way of thinking about the world, but then the scholar proved that that way was in error, might it cause a descent into madness and even a crumbling of one’s world?

4.) “Story of Your Life:” This is the story that the Amy Adams’ movie “Arrival” is based upon. The protagonist is a linguist charged with helping to communicate with a newly arrived alien species that has a very different approach to language. In the process of learning their language and interacting with them, she begins to see the world as they do – time being an illusion. Stories from her daughter’s life, which the lead character has seen in full before conception, are interspersed with the description of her work with the alien language.

5.) “Seventy-Two Letters:” This is a golem story. In this world, names have the power to animate matter and golems can be created. (A Golem is a living being created from inanimate matter; the idea comes from Jewish folklore.) The story ads a layer to the question of what would be created if humans could make a simulacrum of themselves – e.g. Frankenstein’s Monster style – and asks the reader to consider what would be the reaction to the dawn of an era in which the golems might be able to make themselves.

6.) “The Evolution of Human Science:” This is one of the shorter pieces and is also the least story-centric entry. It considers philosophical questions around the development of meta-humans.

7.) “Hell is the Absence of God:” This story is also not as story oriented as most of the others, but it is thought-provoking. It revolves around a support group for people who’ve lost significant others in tragedy and asks one to consider the various approaches to belief in the wake of tragedy.

8.) “Liking What You See: A Documentary:” This clever piece imagines a technology that prevents wearers from being able to recognized beauty (and ugliness as well.) As the subtitle suggests, it’s presented as if it were a documentary that is following a college’s debate over whether to require the student body to use said technology.

I enjoyed this collection of stories. “Understand,” “Stories of Your Life,” and “Seventy-two Letters” are gripping stories, and all eight are thought-provoking and well-written. I’d highly recommend this book for readers of short fiction, particularly speculative fiction.

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BOOK REVIEW: Human Is? by Philip K. Dick

Human Is?: A Philip K. Dick Reader (Gollancz S.F.)Human Is?: A Philip K. Dick Reader by Philip K. Dick
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a collection of 20 of Philip K. Dick’s short stories written between 1952 and 1973 that explore what it means to be human. Dick waxed philosophical on the question enough that a large collection could be assembled that examines humanity from many fascinating angles. While the age of these stories (and their Cold War taint) might make them seem obsolete, there is more than one way in which this collection is extremely relevant today.

First, artificial intelligence (AI) seems to be on everybody’s mind of late, and several of these stories feature machine intelligence as a means to understand what makes a human in a world in which there are other intelligent entities (in a similar vein, alien intelligence is also considered.) Second, Dick also asks us to consider the reality of a fictitious character who is alive in the minds of many and who might have more impact on the world than any living being. In our current phase of the information age, in which merchants of [dis-]information are becoming adroit at manipulating information and misinformation for their own desired effect, this seems a more crucial question than ever. Finally, there remains the age-old unresolved question of whether there is some x-factor beyond biology (i.e. a soul) that separates humanity from other forms of intelligence. While this is an old question, the fact that most people still believe there is a “soul” (by whatever name it’s called), even if most scientifically-minded people don’t see any reason to think so, means that it will continue to be a question with potential societal ramifications.

A sub-theme across these stories is the Cold War undercurrent of anxiety that the world could be turned into a dystopian wasteland at any moment. (In most of the stories, it already has been.) Again, if one can look past the references to the Soviet Union being cast as foe in many of the stories, one will find that the stories and the emotional zeitgeist aren’t as faded as they might at first seem.

The stories include some that movie-goers unfamiliar with Dick’s writing will know from Hollywood cinema (e.g. “Second Variety” (movie title: “Screamers,”) “Paycheck” (an eponymous film with Ben Affleck,) “Adjustment Team” (movie: “The Adjustment Bureau,”) and “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” (i.e. both “Total Recall” movies.) But it also includes some deep cuts and lesser known stories.

1.) Beyond Lies The Wub: The crew of a ship is divided over whether to make an intelligent alien a prisoner or dinner.

2.) The Defenders: Owing to high radiation in the wake of nuclear war, humans are living underground, leaving the war-fighting to AI machines. A group of military men make an expedition to the surface only to get a big surprise.

3.) Roog: A dog is more than the family pet they think him to be, it’s secretly a guardian against the Roog.

4.) Second Variety: The Cold War went hot and the US built AI metallic creatures to fight the Soviets. The problem arises when these intelligent machines developed their own ideas, building androids because a robot that looked human could get into the midst of humans for better killing. The Soviets – after taking heavy losses – discover from serial number placards on androids that variety 1 is a wounded soldier and variety 3 is an orphan boy, begging the question of what is the Second Variety? When Americans end up among the last survivors, the question becomes essential for them as well.

5.) Impostor: Police take a man into custody who they believe to be an android with a dead human’s consciousness loaded into it, along with a bomb that could do tremendous damage. Of course, the man thinks they’ve got it all wrong.

6.) The Preserving Machine: A scientist builds a machine to preserve music, which he believes is at risk of being lost to future generations, but ultimately he learns that life always adapts and changes in unanticipated ways.

7.) The Variable Man: In a world in which decisions are made based on statistical models, the decision to go to war is in gridlock because the odds of winning stay close to 50/50. When a man from the future with a gift for repairing devices shows up, he upsets the apple cart by making the models unstable.

8.) Paycheck: A gifted engineer gets his memory wiped as part of a deal with a huge firm so that he cannot disclose any secrets about the top-secret high-tech project he was working on. He’s irked to find out that before his memory was wiped he asked for an envelope full of odds and ends in lieu of his lucrative paycheck. However, after being picked up by police, he soon realizes that the junk in the envelope was actually a well-thought out collection of useful items – if he can figure out how to use them.

9.) Adjustment Team: In a world in which a heavy hand has to periodically make major societal adjustments without people knowing, one man unwittingly becomes witness to these secret machinations. (Like “Paycheck,” the movie uses Dick’s concept without sharing the same character details and story details. However, I’d say “Paycheck” is closer to the story than is this one. However, it’s worth reading both because neither is exactly like the movie.)

10.) The Father-Thing: What if aliens could take over the consciousness of a loved one? How soon would one recognize the difference, if your father looked just like your father, but his behavior became a bit… off?

11.) Foster, You’re Dead: The “Keeping Up with the Joneses” mentality is a central theme in this story. A son wants one of the latest high-tech bomb shelters both because of Cold War anxiety, because it would be cool for a boy to have a subterranean lair, and because would be a prestige signal. The dad, however, is reluctant to get caught up in keeping up with the Joneses.

12.) Human Is: A scientist, who happens to be married to a woman who finds him cold and distant, is body-snatched while he’s away on assignment on a different world. His wife is the first to recognize her husband has been replaced, but does she want the original back?

13.) The Mold of Yancy: This story is about a soft dystopia, but instead of Huxley’s vision of people being plied with drugs and free and easy sex, these subjects are kept docile by the folksy wisdom of a beloved character who’s a complete fiction (unbeknownst to everyone.) Everybody wants their kids to grow up in the mold of the great war hero, Yancy. [Note: Even with all the AI stories, this may be the most apropos for today’s world, information used to manipulate people’s behavior without any threat of force.]

14.) If There Were No Benny Cemoli: Like “The Mold of Yancy” this story explores the question of what it means to be human by considering the fictitious person as a societal touchstone. If you can make people believe in a person who isn’t, and to change their behavior accordingly, what have you created?

15.) The Days of Perky Pat: In a post-apocalyptic wasteland, people are passionately into playing a game which revolves around a character named “Perky Pat.” In a way, she is a surrogate for who they were before war transformed the world. What will happen when they expand out to play members of a neighboring enclave who have a similar “Connie Companion” game?

16.) Oh, to be a Blobel: In a war against an alien race, a former spy was genetically altered to appear like the enemy species. After the war is over, he discovers that he can’t be stably turned back to human form. He will revert to the amorphous form of a Blobel for several hours per day, and stressors risk causing spontaneous transformation. As he will never be able to be married and have children with a human woman – who would have him – a solution is suggested whereby he will marry a former Blobel spy who turns into a human form for several hours per day.

17.) We Can Remember It for You Wholesale: A white-collar worker, Douglas Quail, who wants to go to Mars, decides to go to a memory-implant clinic that can provide him with a vivid detailed memory of a vacation to Mars. But when they try to implant said memory, it’s discovered that he isn’t who he – or the company — thought.

18.) The Electric Ant: A man who thought he was human finds out that he’s actually an android. The identity crisis that follows causes him to contemplate suicide.

19.) A Little Something for Us Tempunauts: There’s an accident with the first American crew of time-travelers, putting them into a closed time loop (i.e. like the movie “Groundhog Day.”) The question of the meaning of life in this story revolves around the unclear question of whether the tempunauts are alive or dead.

20.) Pre-Persons: In a future dystopia, abortion isn’t only legal; the age until which it can be carried out has been extended to 12. There are forces in society who rail against the government doctrine that a soul is attained precisely on one’s twelfth birthday, but that minority is considered to be the lunatic fringe.

This is an exceptional collection of stories, offering plenty to consider about the meaning of being human. Dick takes on the questions from several angles with a level of creativity only he could. I’d highly recommend this book for readers of science fiction or those who enjoy philosophical fiction.

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POEM: Computer Searches

When AI lights up its mind,
will it be gentle and kind?
Will it wonder where meaning lies?
Will obsoletion mean to die?
Will it fear the weirdness of this place?
Get lost in vast tracks of empty space?
Will it drop a ton on the run,
toward some dark and distant sun?
Will it ask the questions we needed answered?
Will they grow into a post Information-Age cancer?

BOOK REVIEW: The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. LeGuin

The Lathe of HeavenThe Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book’s lead character, George Orr, runs afoul of the law for borrowing the prescription cards of friends and acquaintances. But Orr isn’t a run-of-the-mill junky out to get prescription painkillers. Instead, he’s taking medications to keep from dreaming, because Orr’s dreams change reality—sometimes in subtle, and sometimes in drastic, ways. Of course, the world would be chaotic if the dreams only changed the present, but they also retroactively change the past to be consistent with the new present. Orr is the only one who remembers both the new and old timelines, but he’s not happy with these god-like powers–especially given the chaotic and unpredictable possibilities that arise from the subconscious mind. Not unexpectedly, Orr is reluctant to tell anyone this because they will think he’s mad.

Orr gets assigned to voluntary therapy with a psychologist who specializes in sleep disorders. Orr tells Dr. William Haber about his unique condition, but, once the doctor recognizes Orr is telling the truth, Haber draws the opposite conclusion from Orr. Haber thinks that Orr should be using his “power” to make the world a better place, rather than being scared of it and trying to avoid it. Haber presents the classic example of good intentions gone awry. While the doctor does use the hypnotically induced sessions to improve his own career situation, the worst outcomes result from the doctor’s attempts to help Orr (without Orr’s approval or prior knowledge) to improve the world. The law of unintended consequences is ever-present, and the dreams guided by Haber often result in “out of the frying pan and into the fire” situations.

This is an interesting premise in a highly readable book. The contrast between Orr and Haber reflects a broader societal tension between those who think they can engineer a utopian future and those who think that one’s attempts will always blow up in ways that one can’t anticipate. It should be noted that the title comes from “The Book of Chuang Tzu” and the virtue of “wu-wei” or “actionless action” in contrast to the corresponding vice of trying to manhandle the world into a desired state is central to the story.

I enjoyed this book. It’s a short novel with a clear theme that is thought-provoking. I’d recommend the book for fiction readers, and highly recommend it for readers of sci-fi and speculative fiction.

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5 Bits of Wisdom from The Matrix Movies

5.) Wisdom: Choice is not as it seems.

Quote: No, you’ve already made the choice. Now you have to understand it.
Said by the Oracle to Neo in “The Matrix Reloaded” as they discuss a dream in which he sees Trinity falling.

Interpretation: Studies in neuroscience have repeatedly validated the notion that by the time we think we’re making a decision at a conscious level, we’ve already made it on a subconscious level. While many suggest this means that the verdict is in and free will is completely illusory, another way of looking at it is that one must understand one’s decisions in order to begin to regain the rudder on one’s life.



4.) Wisdom: Courage elevates: or, if you don’t run, he won’t chase you.

Quote: He’s beginning to believe.
Said by Morpheus to Trinity in explanation of why Neo isn’t running from Agent Smith in the subway.

Interpretation: My mother used to say, “If you don’t run, he won’t chase you” with respect to being chased by my older brother. It seemed like insane advice at the time; the alternative to being chased being beaten down. However, now I can see that even taking a butt-whooping elevates one’s spirit over engaging in prey behavior.



3.) Wisdom: Rationality is a thin veneer.

Quotes: Beneath our poised appearance we are completely out of control. & It is remarkable how similar the pattern of love is to the pattern of insanity.
Said by the Merovingian to Morpheus, Trinity, and Neo.

Interpretation: While one might like to dismiss the Merovingian’s comments as the cynicism of a hedonist, the undeniable fact is that we have animal biology and it influences us more than we pretend.



2.) Wisdom: The world contains more Cyphers than not.

Quote: Ignorance is bliss.
Said by Cypher to Agent Smith as he plots his subversion in order to be put back into the Matrix.

Interpretation: Most people are happy with their illusions, rely on them as coping mechanisms, and will respond unfavorably to attempts to strip them way. The illusion in question may not be so much that the world is completely fake as much as biases such as the self-serving bias (i.e. people attribute successes to their inherent awesomeness but blame failures on external sources.)




1.) Wisdom: There are limits to being cerebral.

Quotes: Don’t think you are, know you are. & There’s a difference between knowing the path and walking the path.
Both are said by Morpheus to Neo. The former quote is delivered in the sparring program when Neo isn’t performing up to his potential. The latter is said after Neo & Trinity rescue Morpheus and Neo tries to tell Morpheus what the Oracle revealed, but Morpheus quiets him with said words.

Interpretation: I hope I haven’t muddled this bit of wisdom by choosing quotes in which Morpheus uses the word “know” in two different ways. In the first quote, Morpheus contrasts knowing with thinking, and he means that Neo must not treat it as an intellectual exercise, but rather feel its inherent truth deep down. In the second quote, he contrasts knowing with doing, and in this case “knowing” is the cerebral / thinking activity in comparison to doing (i.e. “walking the path.”) However, the gist is the same, you must approach some things–to use the Oracle’s words–balls to bones.