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Lavender In Love

| 30.1.03
'Lavender In Love', by Brian Plante

I'm a regular reader of Analog, but lately it seems that the stories that draw my interest are those that deal with the ever-blurring distinction between human and machine --between flesh-and-blood reality and virtual reality. Where 'Finding Myself' explored the issues of human beings entering the virtual world, 'Lavender In Love' is told from the point of view of the computer --an intelligent vending machine named Lavender who roams the corridors of a futuristic low-income housing project, risking robbery and vandalism to solicit customers, selling toiletries and candy bars to people in areas ordinary vending machines could not be placed.

Lavender is no ordinary vending machine, however --even by the futuristic standards set by the story. While all the other vending machines are controlled by 'ordinary' artificial intelligence, Lavender's AI is actually a simulation taken from the human brain of his owner, Dillon Westfield. Every week he receives a new download of Dillon's experiences for the last seven days. Lavender experiences himself as a human being in the body of the machine, a partner in business with Dillon. He also experiences himself as an extension of Dillon. What is good for Lavender is also good for Dillon.

Physical boundaries and clear cut definitions between man and machine blur when Lavender completes his transition into the human world by falling in love with Treena, a woman he regularly encounters on his rounds. Limited by his machine body, Lavender nonetheless consummates the relationship by playing matchmaker between Treena and Dillon, letting them fall in love and awaiting the next download to share in the experience.

While a short, seemingly simple story with a happy ending, 'Lavender in Love' imagines a world that is not so different from our own --a world where advertising has become more intrusive and people interact with machines in situations where people once served. Yet at the same time humans want human relationships, and (paradoxically) often seek them through technological means. With the web of human connections being constantly expanded through online interactivity, we are already letting computers serve as our agents through which we negotiate virtual reality. Does it really come as a surprise that our intelligent servants could act in their own interests, on our behalf?

PUBLISHER: Analog Science Fiction and Fact (Astounding); Dell Publishers; ISSN: 10592113 (February 2003)

The First Step Bible

| 20.1.03
The First Step Bible, by Mack Thomas (Illustrated by Joe Stites)

It was with some trepidation that I looked forward to reading the Bible for the first time to my two-and-a-half year old daughter. On the one hand, I wanted to make sure that she was steeped in the biblical narrative from a very early age, allowing it to unconsciously shape her attitudes and act as a spiritual touchstone throughout her life. But on the other hand, I was concerned about presenting God and the biblical stories in an age-appropriate manner that grounded my daughter in the image of God as Love. Anyone who has actually read the Bible knows that there are very troubling sections depicting violence, death, suffering --things hard enough for coddled and complacent 21st century American adults to understand, let alone children.

Enter The First Step Bible. Ambitious in its sweep, yet sensitive in its presentation, I found that Mack Thomas examines each story selected, mines it for its spiritual theme, and then presents that theme in a way young children can enjoy and understand. He is able to keep the stories simple, yet still teach remarkably profound spiritual lessons. Each page contains a few lines of text, richly illustrated by Joe Stites' watercolor paintings. Children learn the basic outlines of the Bible and some of the main spiritual themes as presented by kind-looking, expressive biblical characters of diverse ethnicity --all while having fun looking for the cute animals that seem to teem from each page.

A good example of this is The First Step Bible's approach to the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. Very young children don't understand death, so they won't understand the idea of raising someone from the dead. Instead of talking directly about death, the author draws upon the spiritual theme of Jesus calling us out of darkness into light as a lens to see Lazarus' raising. Children get the message that Jesus leads us into light, while skirting a direct discussion of death. Jesus' resurrection story is dealt with in a similar manner.

While it may seem a bit strange reading these oblique versions of the story as an adult, when looked at through a child's perspective things actually make more sense --leaving a foundation upon which to build at a later age. In the Lazarus example, when the child is older the darkness into light theme can serve as a useful way of describing death, and heaven. Or perhaps it could serve as an illustration for the Christian life of spiritual transformation.

On one negative note, The First Step Bible (like adult Bibles) is tilted towards stories about men and boys. I was surprised (and a little disappointed) not to see notable women such as Esther, Ruth, and others included. However, where stories with women were included (Sarah, Hannah, Miriam, Mary, Mary Magdalene), their depictions were affirming and showed sensitivity. In general, negative images are avoided entirely in The First Step Bible, included only when absolutely necessary to the story and then only described in very general terms ("some bad people" or "a bad king.") Misogynistic images of women are entirely absent.

Finally, The First Step Bible doesn't try to cover every detail of every story, which can actually provide a positive teaching opportunity for parents. Keeping things simple left me room to provide my own elaboration --I loved being the one to teach my young daughter that the food God provided the Israelites, according to the Exodus story, is called "manna." I enjoyed asking her to supply phrases at key points of repetition as she became more familiar with the stories and was able to supply names and actions depicted in the illustrations. The First Step Bible has become part of our bed-time ritual --a time looked forward to by both Dad and daughter.

PUBLISHER: Questar Publishers, Oregon. 1994.

The Man Who Folded Himself

| 17.1.03
The Man Who Folded Himself, by David Gerrold

I've been reviewing books for quite awhile --reading them for far longer-- but this is the first time I can actually say I've read a book based on a review. Someone else's blog recommended this book as the quintessential time-travel story, a classic in the genre that should be read even if you read no other. The Man Who Folded Himself did not disappoint. I think it goes beyond the genre of science fiction and speaks to both the existential angst of the modern age, as well as 1970s style sexual liberation and stereotypes.

The premise of The Man Who Folded Himself is simple. The main (and sole) character, Daniel Eakins, gets a time travel belt. What does he do with it? Well --pretty much what we've all fantasized about at one time or another if you're an avid reader of science fiction! Go back in time, bet on the horses, invest in the stock market, get rich, change history, be master of the universe and in control of all one sees!

But what starts as a simple premise soon becomes very complicated as the various time-travel paradoxes get introduced to the story. Anyone who's read a lot of time travel fiction has probably run into all of these already, but nowhere have I seen all of them treated so well in such a short space. Utilizing the metaphor of an artist painting over sections of an oil painting to describe the effects of changing one's own past, Gerrold explains that even when the past is changed through time travel, the original time-line is still preserved in the memory of the time traveler --like layers in an oil painting-- and is not really destroyed. Anticipating Fredrick Pohl's The Coming of the Quantum Cats by at least 10-15 years, Gerrold describes time travel as not moving linearly back and forth in a single time-line, but as jumping to alternative universes that are created by the act of trying to change the past.

The implications of meeting one's past and future selves are explored in detail. Daniel Eakins is portrayed as somewhat introverted and narcissistic --personality flaws that are amplified by his use of time travel. He'd rather talk with and travel with the various versions of himself than establish relationships or become part of a real community rooted in one time and place. Through the course of the novel Daniel discovers how much he actually is historically and culturally bound to the few thin centuries surrounding 1970s America, and how if he changes the past too much he will no longer be at home in the future that he has created. In one interesting example, Daniel kills Jesus of Nazareth only to find that the resulting future world is so altered in its language and culture that he no longer recognizes it. Little as he cares for Christianity, he has to go back and talk himself out of the idea.

While Daniel does feel the tug of culture and community, the general theme of the novel is one that holds the individual, or the self, as the highest value. Looking back on a life spread out through centuries, erasing history to suit himself, Daniel finds meaning in the knowledge that he's lived every possible combination of reality tailored to suit his fancy. His narcissism reaches its height, however, in his sexual relationships. Seeing it as a creative form of masturbation, Daniel eschews relationships with others, instead preferring trysts with versions of his past and future self. His juvenile and often sexist views of women often make Daniel seem like a shallow character, but it fits well with his character when you consider the way his time-traveling ability has isolated him from the rest of humanity.

Altogether, The Man Who Folded Himself was an easy read that raised some old questions in new and interesting ways, as well as raised a few new ones. Gerrold sums up the major paradoxes in a light and entertaining way, and his exploration of the sexual aspects of time travel opened up ground I had not seen covered before.

PUBLISHER: Aeonian Press, Inc. New York. 1973.

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