The Age of Em – Robin Hanson

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Ever wondered what a world inhabited almost entirely by intelligent machines might look like? Or even, what smart robots might look like and what their uses, design, attitudes, strengths and weaknesses could be? If any or all of these questions are in the back of your mind, then The Age of Em could be just the book you are looking for. In this revolutionary new publication, economist Robin Hanson combines existing theories in physics, computer science and economics to create a realistic vision of a world dominated by robots.

Each day, advanced reports emerge of experiments in how artificial intelligence and robotics is revolutionising the way we live our lives, but the realisation of a truly intelligent machine still seems far over the horizon. What kind of robots could equal the actions of a human being? Hanson looks to the robotic brain emulation, or ‘em’ as a solution for a truly intelligent machine. The premise is simple enough; take a detailed scan of a human brain and then build a computer model that processes signals in accordance with the same characteristics as the brain. The result is a robotic brain, which can be trained to carry out tasks in the same way as a human baby.

A single brain emulation can be copied thousands of times, creating a literal army of robotic workers with human-like intelligence. The Age of Em serves as an in-depth portrayal of a future where this has become a reality –  ems are the norm and cities, streets, transport and leisure are all designed around these new inhabitants. The era of the em is as different from our own today, as we are from the lives of the farmers and foragers who came before us. Progress has changed once again, with further steps towards efficiency, rendering previous assumptions about life more or less redundant. Moral progress no longer holds such an important position at the forefront of society, with ems, the new master race, rejecting many of the values we hold dear.

It’s a strange world and one which many of you may find unsettling, but is no different than our present lives are from the eras that came before us. To most of us, our lives today may feel preferable to the work-intensive existence of our ancestors, we may even enjoy living as we do today. The em era is no different; it feels good to be an em.

Hanson’s work is revolutionary, not in what it says, but how it attempts to say it. While the majority of previous literary presentations of a world ruled by machines are firmly rooted in the realms of fiction, this text is hard-core theory, attempting to create a realistic image of what a world inhabited by future technology would look like.

Let’s not attempt to flatter the author or reassure the reader by saying that The Age of Em is an easy book to read. It most certainly is not. Those with little experience of economics, physics or computer science may well feel as though they are traversing a figurative Everest of text, but once over the peak, the expedition feels more than worthwhile.

This review was first published on WordPress for E&T magazine


Some of my favourite fictional ladies, created by ladies

“Being a woman is a terribly difficult task, since it consists principally in dealing with men.” ― Joseph Conrad

Over the weekend #womeninfiction emerged on Twitter, so in running with the theme I’m here to share with you a few of my favourite fictional ladies.

Renée Michel

The Elegance of the Hedgehog – Muriel Barbery.

Elegance of the HedgehogRenée Michel is possibly my favourite literary lady of all time. She is a concierge, and self-confessed member of the lower class. Despite how she outwardly appears, she is in fact fantastically intelligent, but she knows her place, and sticks to it, stating that to be “poor, ugly and, moreover, intelligent condemns one, in our society, to a dark and disillusioned life, a condition one ought to accept at an early age”. Madame Michel prefers to lives a secret life, reading Russian literature in the privacy of her lodge while donning the air of a simpleton when speaking with the inhabitants of the apartment complex where she works.

In Renée, Barbery has created a fantastic female heroine for lovers of literature. I challenge anyone to read The Elegance of the Hedgehog and not feel themselves brimming over with admiration for the soft soul nestled within the prickly exterior of Madame Michel.

Petronella Brandt née Oortman

The Miniaturist – Jessie Burton

18498569Petronella is an 18-year-old Dutch girl whose family have fallen on hard times since the death of her father. She is married off to a wealthy merchant from Amsterdam, Johannes Brandt, but has a difficult time fitting into her new life. Petronella, who prefers to go by the name of Nella, attempts to be a good wife to her new husband, but is forever at the mercy of her stern sister-in-law Marin Brandt. Nella begins as a child, before all too quickly becoming a woman, when the crushing weight of her new family’s secrets is placed on her shoulders.

What is there to not love about Nella? In each stage of her growth she is simply delightful: innocent and charming, determined and strong, and finally, reliable and level-headed.

Jerusha Abbot

Daddy long legs – Jean Webster

9780141331119Jerusha Abbott, or Judy as she likes to be called, was brought up at the John Grier Home, an old-fashioned orphanage. At the age of 17, she find herself at a loose end, she has finished her education, and is no longer young enough to live in the orphanage without paying her way. Imagine her surprise when one of the John Grier Home’s trustees offers to pay for her to go to university. He will pay her tuition and also give her a generous monthly allowance; in exchange Judy must write him a monthly letter. Judy is told she will never know his true identity and must address the letters to Mr. John Smith, and he will never reply. Judy warms quickly to the trustee, gifting him the persona ‘Daddy Long Legs’, and writing warm, detailed letters each month. Judy dotes on her Daddy Long Legs, and, it appears, he on her.

Judy is an amazing character, gifted with the unique opportunity to turn her rags to riches. Read Daddy Long Legs and I’m sure you will find, too, that you fall in love with the little orphan girl and her extraordinary tale.

Geogianna Lennox

Dead and Buryd – Chele Cooke

dfw-cc-dab-cover-mid (2)Georgianna Lennox is a local medic on a foreign planet ruled by alien invaders, the Adveni. The native people, the Veniche, to whom Georgianna belongs, have become slaves in their own home. Georgianna is somewhat unique among the Veniche as her work allows her to tread within the realms of the Adveni forces, treating the sick and injured within the walls of the infamous Lyndbury prison. For Georgianna this is a way of treating her lost people, but it is not enough. When Georgianna’s friendship with a group of rebels risks putting her own freedom at stake, she is faced with a difficult decision – what will she choose to put first, her family or the freedom of her people?

Georgianna is a strong, determined character, but one I felt extremely comfortable getting to know. Cooke has created a character that is admirable, but also wonderfully human. I found her to be amazingly likeable and funny, despite her hard exterior.


Now the Day is Over – Marion Husband

9781908381811-frontcover (2)Are you sick of me talking about Edwina yet? If you are, shame on you, you clearly haven’t taken the time to read the book.

Edwina is the spirit of a young woman trapped between the  early 20th Century, and modern day Britain. Since her death she has lurked the shadows of her former home, critically analysing those who take residence within the walls. In Now the Day is Over she takes the form of super-omniscient narrator, haunting the house which was once hers, commenting on the lives of the adulterous couple who reside within her domain, comparing their existence to the life that was once hers.

I love Edwina because she is so all encompassing. She is deliciously genuine, admirable, maddening, terrifying and somewhat detestable all rolled into one.

Intrigued by any of my lady loves? You know what to do.

“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.” ― Charlotte Brontë

Which side is the ‘right’ side?

Clara  Suzanna Linton


Suzanna Linton was born in South Carolina and grew up in Orangeburg County. After graduating high school, she attended Francis Marion University, where she majored in English. Linton tells of how she began writing as a child, after feeling as though she was brimming over with ideas and needed to ‘share them before they poured out of my eyes and ears’. An initial penchant for experimenting with poetry grew into a love of writing fiction. Linton currently lives in South Carolina with her husband and pet dogs. As well as writing fiction, she works in the local library. Her debut novel, Clara, was published in 2013.

Linton’s book follows the journey of Clara, a seemingly ordinary child to whom life has been anything but kind. Having being sold into slavery, Clara loses the ability to talk, her voice forced deep inside of her by the horrors she suffered at the hands of the slavers. Bought by a wealthy master, Clara falls into a dreary life working in the castle kitchens, never venturing further than the kitchen garden. She is known by no name and those around her see her as nothing more than a mute slave girl who is possibly a little slow. But, unbeknownst to those around her, Clara holds the unique ability to see into the future, a gift she has kept secret for years through fear of persecution. When a vision prompts her to prevent a murder, she finds herself catapulted into the lives of the nobility, and the centre of civil war that threatens to destroy the country. In a journey that takes her from her humble roots to the capital city itself, Clara discovers that the future of the nation depends on her and her alone.

Before I started reading Clara I knew nothing about the story other than the title. I think I expected a Jane Austen-style coming-of-age romance more than anything, so I was surprised by the way the story progressed. I like the way Linton gradually introduced the reader to the supernatural side of the novel, starting with Clara’s visions and gradually bringing in further aspects. The book is written in the style of a medieval fantasy and the world in which Clara lives is similar to that of our own with elements of fantasy thrown in. On the whole, Linton keeps the language of the characters fairly simple, drawing on medieval English and introducing new words occasionally to describe, for example, measures of time. I liked this aspect of the book, which added to feeling of it being a fantasy novel without becoming too confusing. I also enjoyed the setting that Linton created; the descriptions used were vivid, allowing the book to come to life. I particularly liked Linton’s description of the wealthy capital, Candor:

‘Every bit of trade going south to Bertrand went through Candor. Every bit of trade coming up from Bertrand went through Candor. It sat like a giant purse on a rich man’s desk, begging to be stolen.’

At its heart, Clara is indeed a coming-of-age novel, although perhaps not in the classic sense. Through the three hundred pages of the book, the reader forms a relationship with the heroine and follows her through an incredible transformation. From the very beginning, Clara’s life is hard on her; we are first introduced to the girl as a skinny child, sent to work and unable to play with the other children:

‘Clara trudged home, the sack of pots banging and clattering against her thin legs. The wind blew against her back, bringing with it the laughter and music of a festival she couldn’t attend.’

From this point, the reader follows her as she is sold into the slave trade, before becoming the pet ‘mouse’ of the lady of the castle in which she was so recently enslaved. Seldom throughout the novel does Clara seem genuinely happy, although one such moment that particularly spoke to me occurs shortly after Clara has escaped from slavery and is travelling with Emmerich and Gavin:

‘Mud and dust stained her dark red riding dress and her hair fell loose from her braid. A little dirt smudged her cheek. Fatigue slumped her shoulders but a small smile curved her face as the horses bent to eat the hay she sprinkled before them.’

Later in the book she is given many more luxuries and presented with beautiful clothing, ladies in waiting and guards to protect her, but it is never enough to make her happy. In some ways, Clara can appear as an unlikable character: she is angry and untrusting, miserable most of the time, and does not appreciate the things she is given. However, I think this makes her character all the more genuine; it is natural and very human for Clara to behave the way she does. Regardless of the gifts and luxuries Clara is given, she has within her always the desire to break free of the slave’s collar, which remains symbolically strapped round her neck until the end of the book.

As Clara becomes more and more entwined within the politics of the civil war she faces situations that challenge her allegiance, often leading her to wonder which the ‘right’ side is. Clara’s abilities render her invaluable to both armies and, as such, she is vulnerable to manipulation. Both sides hide the truth from her in one way or another, and it is left to Clara to decide for herself who she should put her trust in. Sometimes, doing what is ‘right’ can have unforeseen repercussions.

As Clara’s character develops, so too does her beauty. As a slave, it is easy to forget that Clara was once described as ‘beautiful’ by a friend of her parents; she becomes the dirty, mute slave girl with matted hair. As the mouse, she is described as ‘elfish’, before moving on to ‘pretty for a slave’. It is not until Clara begins to break free of these shackles that it becomes apparent just how beautiful she really is in the eyes of those who love her:

‘She looked up and formed a question with her large eyes and sweet mouth.’

Clara’s confusion towards the love she receives is a central theme throughout the novel. She finds it difficult to know how to feel about any of those who flatter her: can they really be trusted? Her nature makes her guarded towards any advances.

I thought it was inevitable that Clara should fall for one of the men in the book, but was very pleased that, ultimately, there is not a fairy-tale ending. Too often heroines give up on their dreams because they fall in love. Most prominently within Clara is the desire to escape, to be free, and to discover herself, and she makes the choice to put these dreams first, and perhaps to come back to love once she has discovered herself.

As with many of the books I review, I do have a couple of small gripes to add before I round off. Firstly, I feel the text could do with a professional edit as there are quite a few mistakes in the text. However, I do feel this is inevitable with a lot of self-published work, and I don’t feel that the mistakes overly detract from the story. Secondly, I feel that at some point events are perhaps drawn out a bit too far, and what could be described in a few pages takes up substantially more. I personally like to keep things concise. That said, I feel these are fairly minor details.

On the whole, I found Clara to be an enjoyable read. The storyline is entertaining and keeps you wanting to read on at the end of each chapter. I would be interested to see where the story goes next and in finding out the answers to some of the questions left hanging at the end of the book. I feel Clara would best suit a young adult audience, and fans of medieval fantasy.

All due thanks go to Suzanna Linton for providing me with a free review copy of the book.


“Your worst enemy, he reflected, was your nervous system. At any moment the tension inside you was liable to translate itself into some visible symptom.” ― George Orwell

Don’t get caught.

Dead and Buryd – Chele Cooke

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Chele Cooke recalls always having books around her while growing up, but she truly realised her love of reading as a teenager, when she discovered the Harry Potter books. Her taste in books is varied, having grown from her initial interest in fantasy – ‘I’ll give anything a try at least once,’ she tells me. Cooke began writing through play-by-post role plays, which she says was akin to ‘learning to walk before I ran’, and being able to submerge herself in another world helped with her own writing. This, coupled with a degree in creative writing, was the catalyst that launched her career as an author. Dead and Buryd, was released in 2013.

Dead and Buryd takes place on an alien planet plagued by harsh seasons; searing hot summers that give way to inhospitable, freezing winters. The planet’s natives, the Veniche have found themselves the effective slaves of their technologically advanced invaders, the Adveni. Any Veniche who steps out of line is liable for incarceration within the walls of the Adveni’s impenetrable prison, Lyndbury.

Cooke introduces the reader to Georgianna Lennox, a local medic, who works alongside the Adveni forces, treating those injured within the walls of the prison as a way of serving her lost people. When Georgianna’s friendship with a group of rebels – the Belsa – risks putting her own freedom at stake, she is faced with a difficult decision – what will she choose to put first, her family or the freedom of her people?

The first two chapters of the book form a sort of prologue to the story, setting the scene and introducing us to characters that come into play later on in the novel. This introduction to the novel works really well, serving to spark questions in the reader’s mind and piquing their curiosity. The history of the planet and the natives is quickly skimmed over in these opening chapters, and is elaborated upon at points throughout the novel. Through this gradual method of unravelling, Cooke lets the history of her world develop in the reader’s imagination, revealing little snippets of the story piece by piece.

The novel’s setting, an unfamiliar planet occupied by inhuman, almost robotic invaders, really appealed to me. Not only was the way in which Cooke portrays the setting particularly masterful – her descriptions allow your mind’s eye to create an almost perfect picture – but the harsh summers and harsher winters made me think of an exaggerated version of our own world. It almost seemed plausible to me that Cooke’s dystopia could be a future version of Earth, a world where the natural environment has been irreversibly damaged to such an extent that people are forced to live in tunnels to escape the searing heat, unable to spend even a short amount of time in the sun, in the heat of the day without fear of burning. Needless to say I was intrigued enough by the book from the onset that I didn’t want to put it down.

There are several central themes running through the novel, the most important of which is love. Love emerges in Cooke’s work in many different ways, but ultimately, there is a love which is central to the Veniche’s existence that the Adveni seem incapable of feeling. The Veniche are described as a very sentimental people – they have a strong allegiance to their kind, their tribes and ultimately their family. Georgianna herself works alongside the Adveni so that she can treat those of her people who are trapped away from the ones they love. Above and beyond this allegiance, is the love the Veniche develop for the one person they choose to ‘join’ themselves with. Being joined is described as something very final, which you can never distance yourself from. The topic is first approached in reference to a relationship between Georgianna’s brother and the man to whom he was joined. Georgianna first learns what it means to love by witnessing the love the two men share:

‘Watching her brother with Nequiel, However, she quickly learned that it wasn’t about finding someone suitable to join with, someone you could live with. It was about joining with the person you couldn’t live without.’

It is as though each Veniche is only one half of a person, and there is another half without which they cannot become whole. This is evident in the way loss is described:

‘Her brother was no longer the same person she had grown up with. He was quieter, more reserved, and less willing to talk about anything important.’

The Adveni, on the other hand, are clinical in the very sense of the word. Cooke creates an army of invaders akin to the Nazi’s Master Race. The allegiance that the Adveni have to their group goes beyond the heartfelt commitment of the Veniche; they have an ingrained herd mentality, going about their lives in favour of the greater good.

‘Unlike the Veniche, who paired most commonly for love, the Adveni were put to numerous tests. If their tletonise – the Adveni way of referring to what the Veniche people knew to be the aspects of a person passed on to their children – did not pass these tests, they were forbidden from creating offspring.’

The Adveni mating ritual is an example of survival of the fittest at its most horrifying – a greater force deliberately manipulating breeding patterns to create an indestructible army. Tactics frighteningly similar to those used by the Nazi’s during World War II. The Adveni do not have that one person who they feel they cannot live without; rather, they are matched up with the person best suited to their genetic makeup. For the Adveni, love exists only for the greater collective good.

A lack of love for one another is just a slight crack in the hard exterior that is the Adveni forces. They are feared and hated by the Veniche. The title of the novel alludes to this; the Veniche used the phrase ‘buryd alive’ to describe those taken captive by the Adveni, alive in almost every sense of the word, but unable to escape: ‘Though your life was over and there was no escape, your body remained alive.’

I love the way Cooke expresses Georgianna’s fear of the prison and the Adveni guards. While she tries to keep on the good side of the guards, she is always terrified of what may happen when the doors of the compound close behind her. Her fear is, understandably, multiplied when she has reason to be afraid:

‘If she showed up acting suspiciously, they’d know for certain that something was going on. The problem was, the harder she tried to think about other things, the more the plan filtered into her mind. As she walked, her only salvation became that the Adveni had no mind-reading technology, at least not that she knew of.’

This passage really stood out to me as a perfect portrayal of the reasoning everyone goes through when trying to behave casually in a risky situation. It’s a feeling so many people will be familiar with, as though your mind is playing tricks on you, feeding you morsels of hope before making you doubt yourself.

I found Georgianna to be, on the whole, an incredibly genuine and relatable character. In Georgianna, Cooke has created a fantastically well-rounded vessel to convey her story. The reader learns about the planet, the people, and the struggle almost exclusively through Georgianna, but they also get to know the heroine on a very personal level. In time it becomes apparent just how normal Georgianna is. Despite her situation, her allegiance with the rebels, the things that she does, and even the fact that she is from another world, there is an aspect of her personality that a lot of people can relate to.

The most obvious demonstration of Georgianna’s real character comes out in her feelings about Keiran. Georgianna has fallen foul to one of those complicated casual relationships, which I’m sure many people are familiar with. The way that she justifies the relationship to herself is so transparent. She begins by suggesting that she is fine with the way things are, but she always comes back to mentioning that she knows Keiran is with other women, and that she’s fine with it [I’m fine! Who else is fine?]. As time goes on, and Keiran’s comings and goings continue to plague Georgianna’s thoughts, it becomes apparent that she is not so cool with it after all:

‘Weird was hardly the word she’d give to it. She’d maybe been a little more emotional, but seeing as Keiran has his wonderful reputation with women, surely this wasn’t the first time a girl had realised she wasn’t happy keeping their relationship at just sex.’

When Georgianna realises she might want more from the relationship, she cannot keep the sarcasm out of her thoughts – Keiran has a wonderful reputation with women. However, she still attempts to appear reserved, as though she does not want to show her true self for fear of being hurt:

‘Finally looking up at him, she shrugged a little. Clasping her hands tightly in her lap, trying to stop herself from fidgeting, she found herself drumming her fingers nervously against the backs of her hands.’

Georgianna really is just so likeable and funny, despite her hard exterior. Forming a relationship with the heroine of the story like this really added to my enjoyment of the novel.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed reading Cooke’s work. The story has some fantastic plot twists and enough unanswered questions to have me eagerly anticipating the next in the series. Cooke’s writing style is smooth and fluid, maintaining a unity throughout the flow of the story. I am not an enormous Sci-Fi reader, and I can be easily put off by the random and incessant introduction of unnecessarily complicated devices, but I found Cooke to be very accessible. While new terminology is introduced to the reader, it is done so easily, and with explanation, so as to avoid over complication. Dead and Buryd gets a resounding ‘would recommend’ from me.

I am thankful to Chele Cooke for providing me with a free review copy of her work, and introducing me to the Out of Orbit series.

“Europe is overpopulated, the world will soon be in the same condition, and if the self-reproduction of man is not rationalized… we shall have war.” ― Henri Bergson

Terrifyingly brilliant (Soylent green is PEOPLE!)

Make Room! Make Room! ― Harry Harrison


I bought this book while I was at university for a class I was taking on utopias and dystopias, but I was somewhat ambitious with the amount I expected to read, and invariably this one was left untouched, until now.

Written in 1966, and set in 1999 Make Room Make Room is a dystopian science fiction novel, set in New York City, which follows the lives of several characters, exploring the potential repercussions that unchecked population growth could have on humanity. Set in a future where New York has a population of 35 Million, the earth itself has a population of 7 million, and humanity is more or less on the brink of collapse. The city is overcome by overcrowding, resource shortages, crumbling infrastructure, disease, crime and poverty. The welfare state is no longer able to support the growing population, fresh food is a distant memory, water is rationed, social housing has been extended to include sewers and in times of crisis only the young are given medical care. Despite all this, the population of New York city is divided over the issue of birth control.

Harrison wrote ‘Make Room Make Room’ as a social commentary, with the underlying theme of the novel being the importance of sustainable development and population control. The bleak world Harrison portrays, is that of future generations left to deal with the wasteland left behind once all the natural resources are used up, and the earth is no longer able to sustain itself. The book opens with a dedication to Harrison’s two children Todd and Moira – ‘For your sakes, children, I hope this proves to be a work of fiction’. With the Earth’s current population having just reached 7 billion the book has proved to be a work of fiction – so far. ‘Make Room Make Room’ is a terrifying reminder of what could be waiting for our children real efforts are not made to move towards sustainable growth, and population control.

The Book really is truly excellent. Harrison is able to paint a bleak, desperate and depressing view of New York City, but without going off into long tiresome descriptions. Through the eyes of the characters that Harrison creates the reader is able to view the city, and get a real feel for atmosphere of this dismal future, which may not be too far away. The reader is transported into a place where the streets are lined with filth, the poor huddle together in stairwells and burnt out cars, and riots caused by food and water shortages are quickly becoming the norm.

Through his choice of characters Harrison was able to portray the problems faced by the wretched citizens of New York through several different perspectives, while ultimately keeping the underlying issues same: Billy Chung, the poverty stricken boy who is so desperate to escape he will do anything; Shirl, a girl whose only hope of escaping reality is her body; Andy, a police officer who works his fingers to the bone for literally nothing; and Sol, the pensioner who remembers the time before, but can do nothing to change the course of history. All the characters are helpless, helpless to undo the damage caused by those who came before.

‘Make Room Make Room’ really is an excellent, thought provoking book. I have explored a few dystopian novels and this is the first one which really hit home for me. Despite having written this book almost 50 years ago, the issues Harrison explores are incredibly topical, and while the world Harrison painted did not come to light at the turn of the century, there is every possibility that it could still be waiting just out of sight.