Great Weekend Reads
This week: a tiger, old man, and young doctor intertwine in superb debut; one journalist tries to take on a computer to find what makes us human; and a new thriller author talks about her cult past.
A Perfect Debut
I was beginning to think I was allergic to literary hype. Every time I opened a rapturously praised debut novel, whether for pleasure or pay, it seemed that within a hundred pages I would find myself bored, irritated, or faintly incredulous. Téa Obreht's The Tiger's Wife, although it comes as rapturously praised as a novel can, is a welcome relief.
Obreht, at age 25, was the youngest writer on the New Yorker's prestigious "20 Under 40" list last year, despite being almost completely unknown at the time the list was published. No longer. The Tiger's Wife distinguishes her as an extraordinarily talented novelist, one with wisdom and powers of observation that escape most writers twice (and three times) her age.
The novel hinges on the relationship between Natalia, a young Balkan doctor, and her recently deceased grandfather, who took her to see the tigers ("awake and livid, bright with rancor") when she was young, before the war forced the zoo to close and the animals started to eat themselves.
In the present day, we follow with Natalia as she travels through the war-blighted countryside bringing medicines to an orphanage, encountering local superstitions along the way, and trying to learn the circumstances behind her grandfather's death. This story is interwoven with others—most notably, the story of a lost tiger that menaced her grandfather's village when he was a boy, and the tale of her grandfather's encounters as a young doctor with a "deathless man" who claims that his uncle, Death, has denied him his mortality.
Obreht is a master of selecting details. Every description of action or environment feels unimpeachable. When a tiger attacks a zookeeper, it is "making a noise like a locomotive." When Natalia, as a girl, sees an elephant loose from the zoo one night, she writes that it, "passed, slow, graceful, enchanted by the food in the young man's hand. The moon threw a tangle of light into the long, soft hairs sticking up out of his trunk and under his chin. The mouth was open, and the tongue lay in it like a wet arm." Like a wet arm.
The novel's only weakness—and I hesitate somewhat to say this, because its other elements are strong enough to compensate—is that narrative momentum fails to build as the fable-like stories progressively interrupt each other. The book's length feels unjustified when, on a basic story level, it doesn't compel the reader onward. That said, each of the novel's stories is fascinating and beautiful in its own right. You are always confident that the next page will contain something remarkable.
Obreht also has a flair for the gorgeously grotesque, as we see when a biology teacher brings to school "two enormous pairs of lungs, pink, wet, soft as satin." And she excels at finding that one specific strangeness that seems to simultaneously clarify and broaden the reality of a scene. Upon entering a house where she'll be boarding, Natalia observes: "Someone in the house was a painter: an easel, with an unfinished canvas of what looked like a hound, had been set up by the window, and paint-splattered newspapers were crowded around it on the floor. Framed watercolors were spaced carefully along the walls, and it took me a moment to realize that they were all of the same hound, that beautifully stupid black-headed dog from outside."
The Tiger's Wife seems intended as a story about stories, an examination of the way that truth is warped and histories revised to accommodate the present. It mostly succeeds, but Obreht's greater triumph is in her effortless and humbling ability to create what only the finest fiction writers can—an evocation of reality so vivid that it invites us to see the familiar with fresh eyes.
— Nick Antosca, Contributor
How to Out Human a Computer
When it comes to measuring the progress of artificial intelligence, we seem to take our cues from John Henry, pitting humans against machines in a test of some skill—chess, trivia, track-tie laying. The Turing test is the decathlon in these competitions. Proposed by computer scientist Alan Turing sixty years ago, the test takes the fluid and open-ended activity of conversation and fits it into the framework of a game. A test-passing machine might have to draw on science, philosophy, art, politics, or pop culture, but if it passes for human more than a third of the time, it wins. Exactly what it wins is less clear, Turing said only that when it happens "general educated opinion will have altered so much that one will be able to speak of machines thinking without expecting to be contradicted."
In The Most Human Human, Brian Christian embraces the test's competitive framing. If computers can converse like humans, he reasons, then humanity has to step up its game. So he signs up to be a human "confederate" in the Loebner Prize competition, an annual Turing test event that gives an award to both the most convincingly human computer and to the most convincingly human human, and sets out to study how to give the most human performance he can. It's a playful approach and a refreshingly human-centered one. Philosophers have spent sixty years debating whether the test is a useful measure of intelligence and what it would mean for a machine pass it; it's discussed less often what the test might mean for us.
It means, for Christian, nothing less than a chance to reevaluate what it means to be human. Since Plato and Aristotle, the West has considered humans' ability to reason to be what separates them from other animals; in the seventeenth century, Descartes restricted reason to logic and called that the essential human activity. Then in the 20th century, computers came along and soundly beat us at logic, throwing us for what Christian sees as a much-needed existential loop. Comparing the gradually more restrictive definitions of what it means to be human to a retreat from the castle to the keep, he writes: "The ramparts we built to keep other species and other mechanisms out also kept us in. In breaking down that last door, computers have let us out. And back into the light."
But Christian doesn't quite make it out of that castle. His whole Turing test strategy consists of finding things computers can't mimic and then playing them up. Bots have trouble making sense of new words or figurative language, so Christian tries to show the judges he can make sense of words unconventional turns of phrase. Programs like Cleverbot draw on a massive stash of past human dialogue, much like Google Translate does with U.N. minutes, but the content of their answers and style of their speech create a "hilarious cacophony in the way of identity," so Christian volunteers non-contradictory information about himself and writes in a unified style. Other bots have a cohesive identity written in, but can't talk about anything they haven't been programmed for, so Christian flits from topic to topic.
Of course, this is partly the fault of the test. Christian wouldn't be doing his job if he didn't try to convince the judges of his humanity. But because he's using the test as an opportunity to make larger points about what it means to be human, he ends up making the same move he criticizes Aristotle, Descartes, Douglas Hofstadter, and others of making: Finding something animals or machines can't mimic and then elevating it.
Not that this approach doesn't yield intriguing results. In one nicely nuanced section, Christian points out that jobs become stultifyingly robotic just before actual robots take them over. Computers excel at applying methods consistently and inflexibly, and in order for them to do a human's work, humans must first start behaving in a way computers can mimic. "We are replacing people not with machines, nor with computers," concludes Christian, "so much as with method." As for the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, also a critic of Plato-Descartes' emphasis on logic, technology for Christian isn't the machine, it's a way of thinking.
If computers are masters of method, then the most-human behavior is something Christian calls "site specificity," a term he borrows from architecture to describe responsiveness to the uniqueness of a situation. Computers aren't good at this. We prize them for their consistency; the same input yields the same output, but they have trouble processing input they're not programmed for. But humans, says Christian, are at their best when confronted with the new and unexpected. On an opera singer: "the fine attention to and perception of the tiny uniquenesses from night to night, the cracks in technique where we get involved, get taken by surprise, gulp, feel things freshly again—these are the signs we're alive. And our means of staying so." As is usually the case in The Most Human Human, a good Turing strategy is also a good approach to life.
That he arrives at this approach to life the same reactionary way he accuses Aristotle and others of arriving at theirs—by elevating the thing other animals or machines can't mimic over the things they can—isn't really addressed. Nor is the question of how this view would change if someone developed a bot that could coin new phrases or respond to anomalies in novel ways, except to say that humans can keep working at being better humans, keep coming back to the Turing test as "better friends, artists, teachers, parents, lovers." It's enough for Christian that artificial intelligence, in its fledgling state, fails to mimic certain human behaviors, and that this shows us how complex and impressive those behaviors are.
It's partly to Christian's credit that he's able to handle questions as hefty as these and then move on. Addressing any one of them directly would take a book unto itself, and he's more interested in what our new mechanical Others reveal about us than he is in drawing clear lines across which they shall not pass, more interested in musing and raising questions than he is in arguing and giving answers. So he moves from topic to topic, riffing on a huge array of material—chess, pick up artists, text message autocorrect, poetry, chat roulette. Sometimes it feels like he's following his Turing strategy a little too well, chasing heavily footnoted digressions while leaving other topics untouched (Where are the transcripts!). Mostly, though, it feels like you're hanging out with an erudite, thoughtful guy who's really good at conversation. Or, in other hands, a real human.
— Josh Dzieza, Editorial Assistant, The Daily Beast
A Cult Author
In the next few months, you'll probably hear more about Taylor Stevens' personal life than you will about her debut novel, The Informationist. Like the nine shots that didn't kill 50 Cent, the upbringing of author Taylor Stevens in an apocalyptic cult is swiftly becoming the preface to an auspicious career. So let's get that stuff out of the way first. By the time she was born, her parents were already members of the Children of God, whose founder David Berg believed that incest and pedophilia were not only permissible but beneficial. Because the cult valued spiritual ties more than blood relations, Taylor was often separated from her parents and siblings and shuttled around from city to city, begging for change on the streets to support the group. What's remarkable is that Stevens didn't merely survive circumstances that would send most people to insanity or an early death, but rather, she harnessed the madness around her, learned from the missteps of others, and used her life experience to inform her art. But none of it would matter if Stevens' writing wasn't extraordinary. And make no mistake, no one has written a more exhilarating, adroit, and stylish debut for a suspense series since Raymond Chandler introduced Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep back in 1939.
When Stevens escaped from the cult at age 29, she had two small children to raise, little formal education and no clue as to how to make a living. After reading a Robert Ludlum book she came across at a yard sale, she decided to become an author. "I knew that it wouldn't be easy, but nothing I was going to do would be easy." A few years later, she has a three-book deal with Random House's Crown imprint. Her editor at Crown, John Glusman says his staff is "enormously energized" by Taylor's "fresh voice and fascinating back story" and they've already sold her book to ten foreign markets. The book's first printing in the U.S. is 25,0000, more than double the number of books usually printed for a first-time fiction writer. Her literary agent Anne Hawkins believes Taylor has the potential to be "as successful as the most successful."
The film studios have already begun calling, and a profile of Stevens in this month's Vogue suggests Angelina Jolie as the perfect star to play The Informationist's protagonist, Vanessa Michael Munroe, the kind of wounded but self-sufficient heroine of whom Stieg Larsson would have approved. Munroe makes a living doing research in developing countries for venture capitalists, and is hired by a Texas oilman to search for his stepdaughter who disappeared on a trip to Africa. The book's setting has drawn some comparisons to Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible. But Stevens has never read any Kingsolver or Larsson or much of anything else for that matter. "I am still poorly read," admits Taylor, which is understandable given that her reading list in the Family of God didn't include much more than the Bible and materials produced by cult members.
The fact that Stevens is an autodidact, lends freshness and originality to her prose, and according to agent Anne Hawk, Stevens completed The Informationist without any guidance and only required minimal changes to ready it for publication. Stevens biggest challenge was in determining how to present her protagonist's back story, which bears some conspicuous similarities to her own life. Like the author, the character Vanessa Michael Munroe is the child of missionaries and spent a considerable chunk of her young life in Texas and the lawless expanses of West Africa. But Munroe is clearly a fictional character, and her ability to communicate in 22 languages and dialects, her deadly dexterity with sharp blades and her propensity for speeding around Walker County, Texas on a pimped-up Ducati have no connection whatsoever to Stevens' own habits.
One of the most compelling complexities of the Vanessa Michael Munroe character is the severe physical and sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of the mentor who taught her to spar with knives when she was a teenager living in Equatorial Guinea. Given the Family of God's sexual doctrine, it's unavoidable to wonder whether she based this aspect of the character on her own experience. Stevens declines to comment on any sexual aspects of her Family of God upbringing, but she understands why people are so fascinated by her background. "Did people ask Stephen King if he was really Carrie?" she asks with a good-natured laugh. In any case, Vanessa Michael Munroe's physical and emotional scars help create enormous empathy for a character whose prowess as an investigator and survivalist might make her otherwise intimidating. "I am not Vanessa Michael Munroe," says Stevens. "But if I could pick an alter ego, Munroe would be it." And like Munroe, Stevens personal tale of survival makes it impossible to not root for her success and admire the skills she acquired through sheer force of will.
— Karen Fragala Smith, Associate Editor