artificial intelligence

Earth Swarm: A Hal Strider Adventure by Tim Hall

earth swarmDrones over airports, artificial intelligence making human work obsolete, new kinds of warfare. Whatever it is that keeps you awake at night, bear in mind that Tim Hall probably suffers from the same insomnia. Although he’s put his to good use in a new book for children aged about 10+ years.

A Terminator-style battle of humans versus machines is the premise of this new novel, and yet it is distinctive for Hall’s canny take on the science-fiction/dystopian tech aspect.

Hal Strider’s father owns a biomimetics company, designing drones and other airborne machines. He works hard, and is often away from home, leaving Hal and his sister Jess alone. When drones start to attack London, and Hal’s father is nowhere to be found, Hal and Jess must battle to figure out what the drones have to do with their father, and in the end try to save their country.

The drones are cleverly designed to mimic certain features of insects – and the different types of drones are like different types of bugs. There are hornets – mean angry buzzing fliers; and burrowers working like ants with highly damaging proboscises. Others are beetle-like, their mandibles adapted with metal saws. There’s even a pheromone-copier, the insects leaving a green dust on their victims to better seek them out and destroy them. Hall neatly uses insect vocabulary throughout to enhance this – cocoons, scavengers, infestation. Of course, with added dangerous explosives, metal components, added artificial intelligence and computer technology, they can adapt and evolve to suit the environment and their new circumstances, and they can do this at pace.

Which the book is all about – the action unfolds at extraordinary pace, just like watching an action or disaster movie – the different perspectives feel like a camera (or drone-mounted camera) zooming in and out, unfolding before the eyes, so that the reader sees the action from the air, below ground, street level etc. Inspiration must stem from 9/11 or similar real-time disasters and news incidents played out on the television, because the scenes presented in the novel are frightening and dystopic, but not so much removed from our own reality – tower blocks in London fold in on themselves just as the twin towers did, others topple, tube stations implode, people swarm away from disaster zones; Hall is great at the visual immersion of destruction.

But to capture the reader’s emotions, the characters need to have dynamism just as much as the drones, and Hall throws in a frisson of attraction between Hal and Sky, a daughter of another engineer at the biomimetics company, as well as the genuine sibling loyalty and protectionism between Hal and Jess. The teens all speak in snappy, urgent dialogue, which is both disaster-movie filmic (all action and command), but also with some realism in their interactions.

Unfortunately, the adult villains are somewhat two-dimensional, ruthlessly motivated by money, but it is the drones who incite the tension and danger, and feel like the real enemy.

Occasionally Hall dips into the drones’ minds/databases too, a fascinating style that lends itself more to computer code than novel-writing, but works well here in short bursts.

The novel is tightly structured, the essence simple, but the execution gripping, dynamic and unbelievably visual. Want to draw your child away from the video game – chuck this book at them – they’ll never look at a drone or insect in the same way again.

You can buy the book here. With thanks to David Fickling for the review copy.

Has Your Memory Stored Your Old Tech?

bootWhen I was younger I had a Spectrum ZX. And I can’t imagine how many hours I spent playing a game called ‘Jet Set Willy’. The idea of the game was that the player was Willy, a figure who had to tidy up all the items in his house after a party – and he had a lot of rooms in this house, ranging from the cold store with dangling rope, to the wine cellar with its many black holes, to the forgotten abbey where moving platforms and skulls dominate the room.

I don’t play ‘Jet Set Willy’ any more, but I do spend a great many hours tidying up the items in my house (I don’t have a wine cellar, cold store or forgotten abbey),  not after a party, but after the children have gone to school.

I mention this because the publishers of Shane Hegarty’s latest book, Boot, suggested that I revisit a piece of technology that holds special memories for me, in order that I can tie it to the themes of memories, objects, and technology that permeate Hegarty’s novel.

Boot is about a toy robot, called Boot, who wakes up in a scrapyard, and finds his hard drive mainly wiped of memory, except for 2 and a half images and an idea that it was once loved by its owner, Beth. Boot is determined to find its way back to Beth, and with a group of other abandoned, half-working robots, it struggles across the city to find her. Except that, of course, discarded pieces of technology are usually thrust aside for a reason.

I think I abandoned ‘Jet Set Willy’ because of GCSEs (at least my parents would probably like to think so). However, it does hold a soft spot in my heart, and if you gave me a spectrum ZX with Jet Set Willy downloaded now, I’d while away a few hours exploring.

Children would do well to while away a few hours reading Boot. Although in the science fiction genre and with a robot protagonist, the book pulses with emotion. Hegarty executes this with ease because Boot is a toy robot – made specifically to be a child’s companion, and thus its ‘set’ emotions are written all over its face/screen. When sad, the orange smile on its face turns blue and upside down. Moreover, Boot has suffered some damage, so some of its ‘set’ feelings are slightly off, leaving Boot with rather more emotion than a robot usually has, and the weird consequence that not all its emotions inside show correctly on the outside. But more than this, Boot is programmed to decipher emotions in others – it sees that one adult is angry by way of ‘teeth clenching’ and ‘jabbing finger’. In this way, as in real artificial intelligence, robots are being programmed and learning just as toddlers do – from being fed experiences.

As well as using emotion, Hegarty manipulates his readers – making them feel profoundly for, what is, after all, an object. In fact, in a Toy Story reminiscent scene, Boot discovers it’s not unique – there are lots of robots identical to it. Just like Buzz Lightyear, it makes readers think about our own identity. What is it that makes each of us unique, why are we, and how can we use that as a positive, and recognise it as positive in others.

Because Boot befriends so many robots, all discarded or cast aside for some reason, the reader is constantly reminded that they are just machines in this fictional future landscape, and yet by bringing them to life with human characteristics, Hegarty asks the reader to think about them as ‘disposed’ objects. Should we dispose of things so quickly – can we not repair and mend, reuse and recycle? And should we?

In the end, Boot does find Beth, but the ending is more complicated than that. Hegarty builds on his theory of disposability, extending it to humans too. For this is a story about growing old, being discarded, and the value of memory.

Illustrated in black and white throughout by Ben Mantle, with a keen eye on the idea that the robots in the novel seem more friendly than many of the humans, this is a heartwarming, funny, neat little novel with some big ideas, an extending vocabulary and light modern prose, for children aged 6+ .

I don’t know what purpose my memories of ‘Jet Set Willy’ serve, but they definitely make me smile. And if memories make the person in the present happy, then that’s about the best reason of all.

To buy Boot, click here. With thanks to Hodder Children’s Books for the review copy and for sparking an idea for the blog.

Runaway Robot by Frank Cottrell-Boyce: the humanity in artificial intelligence

runaway robotIan McKewan caused a bit of a stir the other week over claims that his new novel, Machines Like Me, about artificial intelligence (ie robots) was not science fiction, remaining firmly in the genre of literary fiction. He also claimed that future writers might look at the ‘human dilemmas’ posed by artificial intelligence.

As readers know, writers have long-looked at robots or artificial intelligence as a way of examining our own humanity, starting perhaps with Frankenstein by Mary Shelley…and spinning onwards through HG Wells to Margaret Atwood and beyond. But the snootiness over whether something is sci-fi just because it contains robots luckily doesn’t infiltrate children’s fiction. What’s always rather startling, and somewhat refreshing, is that despite holding a market-share of about a third of print books, the children’s book shelves are still arranged by age rather than genre. Thus Enid Blyton’s adventure capers sit neatly next to Tony Bradman’s historical fiction, Holly Smale’s contemporary fiction sits next to SF Said’s science fiction, David Walliam’s comic mass market books sit adjacent to Robert Westall’s fiction.

Frank Cottrell-Boyce, shelved under C for those in doubt, is a master of comic fiction, and his latest adventure for children, Runaway Robot, definitely speaks to the humanity in us all.

Alfie, very much human, but with a bionic hand, discovers a robot with a missing leg in his local Airport Lost Property. The robot happens to be a giant robot called Eric, with manners as good as a butler, and a demeanour as chivalrous as a knight. The only problem is that he takes instructions quite literally, and is rather large. Alfie and Eric have much in common. Alfie is boyishly charming, Eric is gallant almost to a fault. Both have a missing body part, and both are missing the memory of how they lost their missing parts. Together, they try to solve the clues without leaving too much destruction in their wake.

Cottrell-Boyce writes with confidence and flair, spilling his story into the reader’s head with artistry and comedy, so that readers are equally amused and enthralled, but also touched with a large brush of heart. He has a keen eye for human quirks, and seeing them play out both robotically as well as in humans, is rather fun. And Steven Lenton’s illustrations create that extra dimension of humour.

It is Alfie’s distinctive voice that propels the fiction forwards – written in first person it is as if Alfie himself is telling the reader the story, perhaps sitting next to you or by your bedside, with modern phrases slung in, such as ‘oh my days,’ and the specific brand of truisms that children see when adults don’t – such as the scene in which Alfie is surrounded by his old schoolmates wanting to look at his new bionic hand, and he describes one of them as ‘one of those people who thought the news always understated things so you had to exaggerate to get the truth’. There is also a spectacular twist on how Alfie is telling the story towards the end, which took even this experienced reader by surprise.

What’s more, Alfie is surrounded by a super cast of characters, both in the Limb Lab, where other children with missing limbs are helped by a super scientist and a 3-D printer, including in particular, Shatila, a girl who suffered the loss of her foot by stepping on a mine in Bosnia, and who speaks with extra punctuation. She’s a fantastic character, clearly thought-out, and an attribute to the human feel of the book.

There’s a specific passage in the book about the different ways of walking, which is clever as it speaks to how a good writer depicts character: everything from a person’s walk to their speech and mannerisms forms their character, and the more detail there is, the more authentic the character.

The adults are well drawn too, maybe because Cottrell-Boyce has a knack of depicting adults from a child’s perspective. Alfie sees his Mum through the prism of comfort – food, routine, boundaries and unconditional support. He sees the woman who runs Lost Property through her badge and demeanour – ‘Happy to Help’ – a complete misnomer judging by her expression.

The only flaw I found in the entire book was the profession of Alfie’s mother – in this automated world they live in, it came as a surprise that they still have postwomen.

For although the world Cottrell-Boyce has created will be familiar to readers, with schools and buses and airports, there is a sense that automation has taken over many jobs – the buses are self-driven, there are robot street cleaners and robot pizza delivery ovens, but the most comedic fun for me was Alfie’s house itself, which greets him upon arrival, tells him if he has a high heart rate (‘have you been running?’), and turns all lights and devices off at 10pm.

As with all good fiction, it is the way it makes us look within ourselves that sets this novel apart. Setting a novel in an imagined future where things can be slightly uncomfortable causes us to look at our own present and see the direction we want to go in. Do we want everything to be automated? When there’s an accident, is human error more or less acceptable than machine error?

Although Cottrell-Boyce writes with a deft touch and a comic heart, there are themes pushing up against the reader all the time – with artificial body parts, and thinking chivalrous robots, what makes us human? What possibilities are there for a machine-led future, and how much do we want it? What do we project onto the machine that tells us more about ourselves than it does about the machine?

This is a confidently written, pacey novel with a beating heart in the middle of it. Warm, funny, enjoyable – a great children’s book, whichever genre you think it is.

For age 8+ years. You can buy the book here. And I have one copy to give away. Just comment on my Facebook page below the review.

What’s the Big Idea?

Christopher Edge has written many great children’s books over the years, but his latest series of science-related fiction has been phenomenal in its ability to tell an engrossing story whilst encapsulating some of the big scientific ideas. His latest, The Infinite Lives of Maisie Day, was a MinervaReads book of the week in early April, and here he explores writing the science into the story:

A few years ago, when I started writing my novel The Many Worlds of Albie Bright, I remember a friend asking me what it was about. “It’s kind of like the film It’s A Wonderful Life,” I replied, “but with quantum physics.” A frown furrowed my friend’s face. “Quantum physics?” he said. “And it’s a children’s book?”

I don’t think I write children’s books. I think I write stories. And stories are for everyone. But from the moment The Many Worlds of Albie Bright was first published, young readers have demonstrated to me their appetite for the big ideas of science.

At school and literary festival events I’ve carried out live-action demonstrations of Schrödinger’s cat and now as I get ready to start talking about my new novel The Infinite Lives of Maisie Day I’m busy working out the logistics of building the biggest-ever Möbius strip in the world!

Science explores the big questions about life, the universe and everything – the same questions that can underpin the very best stories. Why are we here? What makes us human? How do we know we really exist? Young readers are eager to grapple with these questions and children’s literature can provide the medium to help them to do this.

As YA has grown as a genre in recent years, there’s been increasing discussion about what the difference between children’s and YA fiction actually is. Some talk about the age of the protagonist, whilst others point to the themes and issues tackled, but for me I think of children’s fiction as looking outward at the world, whilst YA books look inward. I’m aware that there are lots of examples that contradict this distinction and I think the best books do both, but this sense of inquisitiveness is what fuels my fiction.

maisie dayMy latest novel The Infinite Lives of Maisie Day is about a girl called Maisie who’s a bit of a science whiz. She passed her GCSE Maths and Science exams at the age of seven, her A Levels when she was nine, and, as the story starts on her tenth birthday, is now studying for a degree in Mathematics and Physics at the Open University. But when Maisie wakes up in an empty house with no sign of her mum, dad or elder sister, Lily, and then opens the front door to see a dense, terrifying blackness outside, Maisie quickly realises that her birthday isn’t going to be any ordinary day.  Trapped in an ever-shifting reality, she has to use the laws of the universe and the love of her family to survive. And as Maisie pieces together the puzzle of what’s really happening, she discovers that reality is not what it seems…

Science and stories both help us to make sense of the world and I hope The Infinite Lives of Maisie Day can feed the insatiable curiosity I find in the children that I meet at school and literary festival events. Through fiction we can inspire the next generation of scientists, engineers and astronauts, and use science to hook a new generation of children on reading too.

With thanks to Christopher Edge. You can buy The Infinite Lives of Maisie Day here

 

Tin by Padraig Kenny

Tin by Padraig Kenny“Without a knowledge of history to give him [a student] a context for present events, he is at the mercy of every social misdiagnosis handed to him.” So said Hilary Mantel about history. And whilst Tin isn’t a historical novel, it is set in a distorted past, providing an opportunity to open the reader’s mind to thoughts about an alternative future. For this is a book about Artificial Intelligence, cleverly disguised as a Pinocchio style adventure.

Christopher works for an engineer, making ‘mechanicals’: children-shaped metallic figures with magical glyphs, like computer code, which empower them to act like humans. These mechanicals become some of his closest friends and family. But a devastating accident reveals a secret about Christopher’s past, and leads him down a path of self-discovery, and also a glimpse of what mechanicals could really do.

Not only is this an extraordinarily clever novel, but it is also a gripping children’s read, and a social commentary at the same time. The mechanicals are wonderfully written – Kenny showcases them with varying degrees of intelligence, knowledge and sentience – not unlike humans it must be said, but manages to portray each with its own particular personality, as well as consistently showing them to be not quite human. There’s Rob, simple, naïve, excessively loyal and caring. Manda, the small girl with her teddy bear, Gripper – the oversize muscle robot. Each has its own role, and part in the plot, but Kenny cleverly writes them ‘reading’ human interaction by studying humans’ body language and imitating it, not unlike how babies’ read their parents, but this is more stated, more blatant. The mechanicals also spell out how they are deciphering the meaning of words – especially when a word has more than one meaning. In this way, the mechanicals seem slightly less nuanced, simpler in their emotional intelligence, more childlike. And yet, they pulsate with emotion and the reader has endless empathy for them. It’s a clever manipulation of the reader, and by doing this Kenny is also showing how artificial intelligence could indeed manipulate humans.

In fact, Kenny’s point throughout this is to provoke the reader into thinking about what makes us human. With allusions to Pinocchio, who wanted to be a real boy, and was introduced to the concepts of responsibility and shunning frivolity and temptation in order to become real, and also The Wizard of Oz, in which Scarecrow, Lion and Tin Man all want various human assets in order to be real, Kenny probes the essence of humanity:

“Rob turned to look in the direction of the sound. If he had a heart it would have skipped a beat -”

But in Tin, the mechanicals discover things about themselves through their interactions with others – both fellow mechanicals and humans. They realise that what makes somebody human is familial ties – the ability to love and mourn. The mechanicals experience loss, and then love to a certain degree, but they are still not completely human – they remain mechanical because they don’t have a soul, some essence of something that can’t be defined. They remain simple without ‘real’ memories.

They also remain mechanical because they can’t experience ‘malice’ or aggression. This is where Kenny steps up the pace of his book, as he explores the idea of mechanicals ensouled in order to work as soldiers. Here, Kenny nods towards The Terminator, and explores the idea of artificial intelligence used for mal-intent. What makes us human, he implies, is not just the ability to love deeply, but the ability to harm deeply too. Humans are all about power. And, most apt, in these times, a human’s ability to distinguish between lies and truth.

By setting the novel in a distorted past (a revised 1930s), in which the Great War has happened with appalling loss of life, and cars are on the increase, although there are still horses and carts, Kenny has inserted mechanicals/robots in a small way – they are chauffeurs and work in retail – although they haven’t completely dominated the landscape – there isn’t an implication of robots taking on all elements of industrialisation, yet.

But what the robots have done, in a roundabout way, is to crush the women’s movement. In Tin, females are vastly absent. There is only Estelle, who works for the engineer Absolom, albeit in an illegal way, as women are forbidden from being engineers/craftsmen. In this way, the reader can assume that if robots are working at certain tasks, the number of jobs available to humans is diminished.

Despite some horrors within the story, this is a positive book, with much humour and many more allusions to other great works. Toy Story yes, but also Willy Wonka – who ran a factory of Oompa Loompas, and was revered as the greatest chocolate maker, just as Cormier in Tin is revered as the greatest mechanical creator:

“He’s in there, behind that gate,” said Sam, pointing in the opposite direction. “No one ever comes out, and no one ever goes in.”

The outcome of the book is vastly upbeat. This is a children’s book after all, and they tend to end in a more uplifting way. But what the reader takes away is a thoughtfulness about humanity – who we are, how we treat others, and what the future may hold. As well as how humans can be better people, how we can overcome malice and aggression and the seeking of power, and look instead to focusing on love and family and connections:

“You don’t have a soul. You don’t need one. You’re not proper. You’re better than proper.” You can buy it here.