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In Association with Amazon.com
Becoming Human
Gene Brewer
Xlibris paperback £14.99

review by Mike Philbin

In his new novel Becoming Human, Gene Brewer (author of the K-Pax series) explores the mountains and pitfalls of a 'burgeoning mechanical brain' named Oscar exploring what it means to be alive as it takes its first tentative steps towards 'becoming human'.

This concept of an 'encroaching artificial consciousness' has been done to death (HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey, David in A.I. - Artificial Intelligence, Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation, Sonny in I, Robot, Andrew in The Bicentennial Man, Proteus IV in Demon Seed, or David 8 in Prometheus), but Brewer manages to cast his Oscar in a brand new light, giving him an intellect and preoccupations that are both humorous and horrific.

That Bewer is able to offer new insight is testament to his (obvious) skills as a storyteller. This delightful 210-page novel took less than a few hours to read. Not because it was short, it was the perfect length considering the narrative arc. It was just an un-put-down-able trinket: literally mesmerising, alluring, striking at the heart of what it might mean to be human.

And it didn't lose its initial promise; it refused to fall upon the sword of such fictional legacy. But what is Brewer's 'artificial person' Oscar like and what makes this book so worthwhile to the general reader? Would it be fair to suggest that Brewer's endearing creation is an accurate illustration of how a real artificial person might one day try to understand this world we all occupy, willing or not? Well, this isn't a classic 'fertilised zygote is born, learns about people and gets clever' story.

In fact, it's the exact opposite of such a natural order of child development scenario, a reversed-growth process. Due to the 'intellectual environment' supplied to it in-vitro, i.e. ramping up the pre-socialisation phase, in the form of text files and e-books, subtitled films and musical scores, Brewer's child starts life as a precocious philosopher, an accumulation of other people's questions, not a result of its own needs. Oscar is literally 'emerging from a debilitating coma of academic expectation', but you'll have to read the novel to understand how such a weighty conundrum is resolved.

This front-loading of the Oscar personality had the potential to ruin the flow of the experimental neurone-by-neurone built narrative, but it doesn't. It just offers a unique vision of one 'intelligent-ised machine' trying to make sense of a world he's been presented with: that what we call RealityTM can have some objective substance to it, some 'fundamental truth'. That life's not just some arbitrary hodgepodge of recorded moments we have to 'deal with' or incorporate into our psyches somehow.

If you've ever had the chance to read Bernard Werber's Empire Of The Ants, you'll understand why this sort of stripped back, real world, 'what if' science fiction narrative is often more appealing to the mainstream reader than some amorphous space opera stretched across a vast number of galactic volumes.

So, with such an amazing writer as Gene Brewer has proven himself to be, and with potential sales for such a talent guided by a professional literary agent and supported by a major publishing house, "Who abandoned whom?" I asked Gene Brewer whether he was abandoned by the mainstream or whether he chose to abandon the mainstream by publishing his last few books via the self-publishing facility Xlibris.

I never really abandoned the publishing houses, but it has become difficult to even get a hearing at one of them. The rejections I get are all the same: "Too difficult to market." (Translation: your last book wasn't a bestseller and this one won't be either.) Think of all the wonderfully original novels that will never see the light of a reading lamp! - Gene Brewer, February 2013.

"Human beings accumulate," would be a fitting epitaph to the inherent difficulties of growing such a mechanical intellect, in a world where we understand so little of our importance, or role within what is effectively a massive electrical field generator (the Earth) within a massive electrical field generator (the Solar system), within a massive electrical field generator (the galaxy... and onward, out to infinity). We just don't know, maybe we never will.

Becoming Human by Gene Brewer



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