Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Character Tour--Libby interviews ME! :)

Hey friends,
Libby and I got a chance to be part of Ralene Burke's Character Tour. Go check it out! To switch things up, Libby interviewed me about writing--though it turned more into smart-alecky banter than an interview! ;)

Monday, July 25, 2011

Thoughts on Artificial Intelligence


An article my friend Mary posted on her blog a few weeks ago, my review of Alpha Redemption, plus beta-reading a fellow author's manuscript, and I've got artificial intelligence on the brain (pun intended). ;) Here are a few of my (albeit slightly scattered) thoughts.

The biggest questions in my mind since reading Alpha Redemption are, could artificial intelligence come to believe in God? And, once that being believed in God, could it have a personal relationship with God and gain a soul?

I think that any being capable of thought and reason could decide to believe in God. In Alpha Redemption, Jay does it in his own way--he reads, researches, and finally concludes that it is quite reasonable to believe in God.

What I'm not sure about is whether or not Jay could have had a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and. As for gaining a soul, I think only God-created creatures could have a soul. But a personal relationship? My gut says probably not, though I'm still reasoning it out. That doesn't mean that I'm going to run from books that portray that. Such fiction often raises interesting questions and I enjoy the chance to ponder them. After all, isn't that what my favorite genre is all about--speculation?

Another question is one that Mary raised in her blog post. Can AI machines develop emotions?

As I pointed out on that comment thread, as long as it doesn't turn into an evolution thing, I think it's fine. In Star Trek, an AI named Data eventually gets an emotion chip that makes him about as emotional as a girl going through puberty. It's hysterical! And I think it's perfectly fine, if not exactly plausible (I mean, really, how in the world would anyone get emotions on a computer chip?) because he was built with the capabiltiy of developing emotions. The same for Jay in Alpha Redemption.

Where it gets problematic for me (though again, it still wouldn't make me run from a story) is when the AI evolves into something it wasn't programmed for--like Sonny from I, Robot, who developed emotions without aid from his programming.

So there you have it--disjointed and not-so-deep thoughts on AI. What do you think about the questions I raised?

Monday, July 18, 2011

Meet the Author: P. A. Baines

Hey everyone! Last week I reviewed a great science fiction book, Alpha Redemption, and today, I'm pleased to share an interview with the author, P. A. Baines!

How do you get ideas for stories? Specifically, how did you get the idea for Alpha Redemption?

It's hard to say where my ideas come from. I tend to daydream quite a lot, especially during my daily commute. I cycle to work, which means I'm doing nothing constructive for almost two hours each day. I've taken to listening to audio-books while I cycle, which means I actually do most of my reading during my commute. I listen to the Bible on the way in and a novel or something else on the way out. The only problem with listening to novels is I find my mind tends to wander more than if I were reading a physical book. Sometimes, just the act of listening to a story will set my mind off on a tangent and I will start thinking of a story of my own. The idea for Alpha Redemption came while I was following a debate between a group of atheists and Christians. Someone suggested that belief in God is illogical. That got me thinking about what a purely logical creature (such as a sentient computer) would make of God. Would such a creature see belief in God as illogical? I then saw a computer and a man debating the existence of God but, instead of having the man trying to convince the machine, I saw it unfolding the other way around. The next step was to think of a scenario in which a man and a sentient machine could be stuck together for a long time with plenty of opportunity to talk. What better place than a spaceship on a long-distance voyage?

When did you start writing? Do you feel like it's something God called you to do, or just something that personally challenged you?

I discovered the pleasure of writing fiction while at school. Instead of writing the serious essays we were given, I would often go off on some wild tangent and write my own story. Of course, then I would have to go back and write the original essay later on. As for writing with any purpose, this started a long time ago when I asked God what I could do for Him. I imagined a ministry of some sort. Over the next couple of weeks I found I had this story rattling around in my head that I had the urge to write down. It was a sci-fi story with a Christian world-view. So, yes, I definitely feel a calling to write.

Do any of your characters take over the story, or do they generally stay well-behaved?

I don't mind them getting out of hand if it helps make them more real. So long as they don't completely destroy the plot, I'm quite happy for my characters to take over a little bit. I usually work out the premise and main character at the same time. Then I build the plot. Once this is done, I flesh out my characters. There is always some room for the characters to misbehave a little if they need to.

Why did you decide to write science fiction?

I love the big questions raised by science fiction. I work in the computer industry, so already have an interest in technology. When I compare my first computer bought in 1989 to the machine I built just last year, my mind boggles at how far technology has advanced in a relatively short period of time. For me, writing science fiction is about taking the technology of today and letting your imagination decide what the world will be like ten or twenty or a hundred years from now. The challenge when writing sci-fi from an obviously Christian world-view is to make sure your story is not just interesting but also theologically sound.

Some Christians might have problems with your AI computer, Jay, becoming sentient (objections could be something like, "A computer could never be sentient" or "That shows an evolutionary mindset"). How would you address those concerns?

It may happen that we will never create a machine capable of sentience, but part of the fun of sci-fi is asking: what if? Moore's Law has been pretty accurate over the past half century, predicting a doubling of the number of transistors on an integrated circuit every two years. The exponential growth of advances in technology suggests that anything is possible. We now have robots that can climb stairs and even run so, for me, it seems only a matter of time before we have machines that can learn. And when that happens, it is not a huge leap to imagine sentience. When I came up with Jay, I saw him as being like a small child with enormous potential and access to a huge amount of information. I didn't see him evolving so much as developing the way a gifted child might. The big question for me is not, did Jay (or his technology) evolve, but rather, would a man-made sentient being such as Jay have an eternal soul? The Bible says that God gives us the breath of life, so what about a man-made being? Hopefully, we will never have to answer that question but, scientists often rush ahead without thinking of the consequences. They are so keen to see if something can be done that they don't stop to ask if something should be done. One of my aims in writing Christian science-fiction is to get people to think about these things and, in doing so, reflect on their own relationship with God.

Who is your favourite character that you've read about? That you've created?

My favourite character is Rincewind in the Discworld series of books written by Terry Pratchett. He is a gentle anti-hero whose main goal in life is to avoid trouble, yet he always finds himself neck deep in it. My favourite character in Alpha Redemption is Jay. He stole the show for me with his naive innocence and his desire to understand human emotion.

How do you start when beginning a new story?

I try to think of an interesting opening scene that sets the tone for the story while (hopefully) raising questions in the reader's mind. I then try to work out the plot in my head until I have a good idea how the story will run. Before I start writing, I like to be able to think of the story as if it were a film I can remember watching a long time ago. I don't recall the exact details but I remember how it made me feel. I remember certain scenes, but not everything. Once I have this, then I start writing, filling in the gaps as I go.

What do you do if you have a severe case of writer's block?

I usually read something from one of my favourite authors. Most times this is enough to get my own mind ticking over. Sometimes I take breaks from writing to give my batteries a chance to recharge. If that doesn't work, then I just dive in and start writing. So it's a combination of reading, resting, and writing that gets me through any blockages.

Do you have a favourite funny writing quote?

My favourite is from Samuel Johnson:

"Read over your compositions, and when you meet a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out."

Thanks for taking the time to visit on Magical Ink! Take a minute to visit P. A. Baines at his website and check out Alpha Redemption on the Splashdown Books website!

Monday, July 11, 2011

Book Review: Alpha Redemption by P. A. Baines

The Synopsis:

From despair he fled, through tragedy he lived on, and journeyed to innocence.

His trajectory: the stars. His companion: a computer poised at the brink of sentience.

An unlikely friendship on a prototype spaceship at lightspeed towards Alpha Centauri, and redemption.

When Brett loses everything in a tragic accident, he gladly accepts an invitation to take part in a prototype speed-of-light trip to Alpha Centauri, knowing that he may not survive. His only companion is the ship's on-board computer, Jay. At first he finds Jay an annoyance but, as time passes, the two become friends. With the voyage drawing to a close, Jay develops a sense of self-awareness and a belief in God. When it becomes clear that they cannot both survive the return trip, one of them must make the ultimate sacrifice.

My Thoughts:

Alpha Redemption is a slow book. Fortunately, in this case, that's a compliment! There's a bit of tension about two-thirds of the way through, as well as at the end, but for the most part, it's about a guy in a spaceship who hangs out, teaches the computer about emotions, and...

Ah, if I told you what else happens, that'd be a major spoiler. Can't do that, now can I? Let's just say that in the beginning of the book, we know nothing about Brett's backstory--who he is, why he's important, or why he volunteered to take such a dangerous job. But the further along the story progresses, the more backstory we get. And the way the backstory ties in with the main plot is sheer genius.

Another neat thing about Alpha Redemption is how it raises questions about life, God, and even--to me, at least--about artificial intelligence developing emotions and self-awareness (more on that in an upcoming post). It's definitely a book you want to hand to friend and family and say, "Hey, read this--I want to talk about it with someone. What do you think?"

The writing is quite good for a first-time book and the content is family-friendly, which as always, is awesome! Alpha Redemption is a definite must-read for fans of science fiction!

Rating: five stars

Next week (7/18) I'll welcome author P. A. Baines in a Meet the Author interview--and the week after that (7/25), I'll post my thoughts and ideas about artificial intelligence and emotions in science fiction. Also, I'm starting something new--Exploring New Worlds on my FB page, where anyone is welcome to join in as we talk about the featured book of the month.

*Disclaimer: I received this book for free from Splashdown Books in exchange for writing an honest review.*

Monday, July 4, 2011

*Snarky Rant Alert!* Where are the Heroes?

I just finished reading the novel I Am Number Four. An interesting premise--a young alien on the run with his mentor--quickly turned blah by over-the-top green references (whaddaya know? The bad guys are trying to take over earth because they poisoned their own planet by turning it into urban sprawl), waaaay too much angst (butting heads over the same girl--please, we've seen enough love triangles with Edward, Bella and wolf-boy-what's-his-name) and...

I disliked the "hero". Actually, I don't think I could even call him a "hero". He was just the main character.

Sorry. Four just wasn't a hero. He openly disobeyed his mentor's rules. He threw at least one hissy fit. He wasted his time on the trivial instead of realizing the big picture wasn't getting his way but saving the remnants of his people AND everyone on earth. And as for the love story...well, I didn't buy it. Maybe if he was older than fifteen...

I know, I know--all this could happen in a good book where the main character actually turns out to be the hero. Heroes are human (or...whatever. I suppose the best term to use in this case is "fallible"). They have to learn that the world doesn't revolve around them. But the difference between a real hero and Four is this--heroes grow. Four did not.

I'm finding this a trend--a young adult book with a good premise that I end up not liking as much because the hero doesn't learn. Foremost in my mind is the Artimus Fowl series. (Although, I must admit, those books were funny and original.) Artimus is a sketchy character anyway because he's an anti-hero, but maybe if he learned once in a while--if he stopped his schemes or even realized they had a greater price than he really wanted to pay--it would be better. I'd even say that the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series is a partial example of this--despite everything, Percy just doesn't learn sometimes. (And yes, I unabashedly enjoyed that series. Yay for the new series to come!) Don't even get me started on the Kane Chronicles or Eragon.

And we're feeding this to our young adults...why?

I'm not advocating that every YA novel contain a hero who is perfect or even grows to be perfect. No WAY do I want to go back to the days of Little Lord Fauntleroy or the Elsie books. I'm not advocating that every YA have a "message". I'm not even advocating that we do away with all these books...I just admitted to enjoying some of them!

What I'd like to see would be more YA books with a good hero. A teen who, though he may be selfish and angsty, gradually learns to be a real hero. He doesn't have to be perfect, he just needs to try to grow. He needs to strive for that ultimate heroism. Teens don't need characters who just continue to act like a teen--they need characters who grow up. Like...Billy Bannister. Pippin and Merry. Peter and Edmund and Lucy and Caspian, etc.

OK, I'm done ranting now. What do you think about books (YA in particular) needing better heroes?

Friday, July 1, 2011

The rapping on her desk pulled Libby from a deep sleep. She squinted her eyes as Toddy—she recognized the tattered hem of his overlarge frock coat—kept tapping his knuckles against the wood.

Chapter 4 of Falls the Shadow is up today--please drop by and tell us what you think! :0)
And happy 4th of July weekend to everyone!

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