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What a Relief

December 10, 2012

So I finished Scott Hutchins’ “A Working Theory of Love,” the book that had me panicked into thinking that it was too late for “Less Than” and Alex. And I’m relieved, as I no longer feel beat to the punch. Its AI and more importantly that AI’s place in the world, is a prequel of sorts to Alex, I’d say, but it’s definitely not the same book, in a number of ways.

First off, it’s a very “sentency” book, i.e. writing programmy in a lot of ways – no surprise as the author teaches writing at Stanford. I’ve written mockingly before about the cliché of the “marriage under a microscope” story, and Hutchins has that in spades here. There’s some very heavy-handed stuff, such as what feels like an implanted short story about the main character’s honeymoon as they realize that they probably shouldn’t have gotten married (in The Unsaid of course because if people could communicate about anything at all there’d be no story though you have to wonder if it’s all so unsayable how the hell did they get together in the first place). Driving around Europe on the strict itinerary the wife has set, they get off course, GET IT THEY’RE OFF COURSE GET IT?, and the main character says,

“We should backtrack,” I said. “It’s only a few kilometers.”

“Kilometers,” she said with disgust, as if it was the name of my mistress.


As a number of Goodreads reviewers noted, the character isn’t very sympathetic. He mopes pretty much through the whole book, and his feeling sorry for himself doesn’t end until after the mandatory tiny epiphany. He’s got money, looks (since he scores with a number of attractive ladies he’s got to be no slouch), but no discernible friends and is pretty much at sea when he’s laid off for a few days. (You know you’re clinically depressed when you have plenty of money and get a week off work and don’t know what to do with yourself.) I know Caroline is a depressed individual but at least she has a sense of humor about it, and her friendlessness is explained as a crippling self-esteem/social phobia issue whereas Neill, the main character, never really has a compelling reason for his mopiness other than having had a distant father, join the club buddy, so his self-pity gets on your nerves fairly quickly.

One of the things I did like, being able to relate from personal experience, are the things he says about San Francisco. They echo what Anne Rice said she felt after the death of her daughter – that to be unhappy in the happiest place on earth was to be treated like a criminal, that in short how dare you bring us down. Neill watches “beautiful couples pass by on their golden errands – buying peaches, buying panettones – hands held, arms swinging in metronymic synch, as if keeping time to some unheard music,” a whole city full of Alex Katz paintings, every day a great day isn’t it. Isn’t it?

I had to laugh at this passage about apartment hunting:

It was the dot-com boom, and it was nearly impossible to find a place to live. If you were looking to share an apartment you had to impress the longtime housemate by being “interesting.” (If they worked for a nonprofit, this meant also working for a nonprofit. Otherwise, interesting meant something like swallowing fire.) If you were looking for your own place, you competed against kids your age arriving with a check for the year’s rent. Or in one case, the cash.

Now, the AI. “Dr. Bassett” is the father of Neill, the main character, or more to the point he’s a database of Dr. Bassett’s thousands of pages of very boring journals, whose very boringness is taken by the AI researcher who chooses them as the perfect fit for a chatbot who could win the Turing Test. What after all is more human than being boring? Hutchins does a good job with the AI, starting his out with the usual inability to carry a conversation, and of course as poetic license we let ourselves believe that Dr. Bassett is “achieving awareness,” based on the amount of conversation he’s having with his son. The holes in his memory become more bothersome for him, especially a year missing from his journals. As Neill notes near the end, “Dr. Bassett is really me – he’s my father and me together,” because it’s the input from Neill that has “finished” the doctor’s personality.

The Turing Test scenes are good as well. Hutchins gives good examples of where Dr. Bassett would fail with one judge and succeed with another. And Hutchins only hints at what is the meat of my story – he terminates the novel after the Turing Test, with portents as to what is to become of us all when AIs are implanted into sexbots and we can stop worrying about connecting with humans. The “villain” as much as there is one is an entrepreneur who intends to make sexbots with personality, or at least enough personality that people can get one with a clean conscience about “having made a connection” before they do the nasty. I looked in the acknowledgements pages (another writer with nine trillion people to thank! Surely this lonely mopey main character must be pure fiction when you the author have forty six people to thank for their support!) to see if “Love and Sex with Robots” was part of his reading, but Rosalind Picard’s “Affective Computing” was the only book on his list. I can’t imagine he only read one book about this stuff, considering how many I’ve plowed through to get to this point.

So I feel better – the story I’m telling is not told yet. All the same, the time is drawing near when my little idea will be dust in the wind behind someone else’s achievement if I don’t hurry up and finish. At least self-publishing shaves a year or more off the time from manufacture to delivery, but I do need to get cracking.

I have a fairly good picture now of how to solve the ending. Alex can’t be literally “freed” from the clutches of the corporations, because that’s just not possible under capitalism. Only in some shitty Hollywood movie written by people whose experience with computers extends to clicking Yes on Windows updates would you find groovy hackers who stick it to the man and liberate the code etc. etc. But in the end, Alex like Soylent Green is people, and it’s the people who matter, not the product made out of them. I’ll say no more because spoilers and also because I’m not sure yet how I’m handling this. But the end is near. As in, months away. Because it has to be, because unless my dark fantasy (ready for publication! Up on Amazon in days!) or my “gay demon romance” (nearly ready) takes off soon and starts paying bills, I’ll be back in a full time position somewhere and the amount of time and more importantly mental gas I’ll have in my tank for writing will be diminished. So it has to be now, in case there’s no later.

EDIT:  Another writing-programmy thing that really bothered me was this passage.  Talking about the Turing Test and its requirement set by Turing that 30% of the people could be fooled into thinking the computer was a human, Hutchins writes this:


So, he comes up with this idea about Turing’s persecution leading him to see the value in deceit, in a computer that could deceive a human.  Then, he admits that “Turing proposed the test long before he was prosecuted.”  This is an author in love with his own prose, then, isn’t it?  It’s “hard not to imagine” something you know not to be true given the chronological order of events?  What’s going on here is a writer creating a passage, “sentences,” that would make people nod approvingly in a classroom, then admitting it’s balderdash, but then not taking it out because it’s such a “writerly” image he can’t bear to part with it.  And that is what I hate about the cult of the sentence.

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