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Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Pandora's Brain - A Sci-fi novel from Calum Chace

I will admit that I'm a bitter man, though not about life in general, but rather in one very particular sense - and no, it's not because Helena Bonham-Carter has yet to succumb to my undoubted charms and finally relent into accepting my dinner invitation (and hopefully in the process removing the remaining retraining orders on me). Instead my bitterness is due to the fact that I feel somewhat cheated by the promises made to me in my childhood.

You see, ever since I can remember, there have been promises after promises and predictions after predictions about what life would be like for us all by this point in the 21st Century. You all know the things that I'm talking about; personal jet packs, hover boards, hover cars, human colonies on Mars & beyond and our own personal highly intelligent robot - to name but a few. Now don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that I'm completely disappointed with the leaps in technology that have taken place in my lifetime - the world wide web, the Internet and smart phones have taken information gathering and sharing to unbelievable heights of complexity. So don't believe a word of those who say that life was better, less complicated before the Internet, because it wasn't. It was crap. I love this technological world that we live in nowadays with the seemingly limitless possibilities that it offers us. Compare that to the 1970's when I was a child and we had three TV stations, and, well, erm....that was about it. People say it was a happier simpler time. I say Bullshit.

However, I would still quite like my jet pack and hover board. I also still have a hankering to visit the outer reaches of the solar system with my special weekend family spaceship voucher that came as a prize in the Intergalactic online web series. But most of all I want my artificially intelligent robot that will attend to my every need. Alas, they all still seem very far away...or do they?

Well if the debut novel from Calum Chace, Pandora's Brain is anything to go by and has at least a bare modicum of truth & fact behind it's premise, then the world of a genuine AI creation may not be as far away as first thought. 

"Set in the near future. This science thriller features Matt, a shy but engaging and resourceful student who becomes involved in a project to create the world's first conscious machine. 

Matt's enquiries lead to him being kidnapped as he is fought in the crossfire between two groups pursuing that goal - one lead by a Russian Billionaire, and another backed by the US military.

As he is drawn deeper into his adventure, he becomes both the symbol and the victim of a global struggle over the approach to be taken towards this powerful new technology."

Before I talk (some would prefer the term, ramble) any further, I want to go on record as saying that Pandora's Brain is a thoroughly enjoyable and captivating tale that will have you thinking far after you've turned over that final page. It is quite simply the best book I've read in some time. Yes, it's that good.

So what makes this debut novel about the possible technological developments in Artificial Intelligence so good? Well, for start the book deals with a variety of interesting and relevant philosophical themes that surround the key questions of not only whether we can successfully create a genuine self-aware artificial intelligence, but whether or not we actually should continue (if indeed we could actually stop) trying to find that illusive breakthrough. Now before some of you start to roll your eyes and wince at such terms as 'Philosophy' and 'technology ' just stop right there. You don't need to be concerned that this book is another self-satisfied diatribe from an author who likes simply to use lots of long technical words, with the end result being a dry lifeless tone. I have no problem in an author who hits me with numerous technological themes and philosophical viewpoints - as long as I don't feel patronised and on the edge of some secret club full of elusive passwords. Chase lets us in to to this strange and complex world of AI and makes us feel like we are in a sense part of it all.

Whenever the theme of the creation of AI is dealt with by novels or Hollywood the results tend to be absolute - we have either a Nirvana of endless positive possibilities, or AI simply results in the end of humanity. There is often little time for any middle ground. One of Pandora's Brain's main strengths is the intelligent way that it deals with questions and themes that are far more complex than many treatments of the subject. Indeed, the title itself borrows from Greek mythology where that naughty old playful god Zeus decided to have a little fun with we mortal men by creating the first woman (Pandora) to teach us guys a lesson we wouldn't forget. Our crime had been to accept from Prometheus the strictly forbidden gift of fire, a fact that meant Zeus wasn't happy, nope he wasn't happy at all. So much so that he tricked Pandora into opening a container that held within it all the world's evil and pain. Zeus knew that even though she had been told never to open the container, the insatiable curiosity of humans meant that she would do exactly that. As a result, evil and all its interesting associations entered our world. However, as luck would have it, the container continued something else - Hope.

In other words, once we create AI, there is no going back, and the challenges we face will be beyond our current comprehension and perhaps the biggest challenge of all will be addressing the ultimate idea of what is to be be conscious, to have a soul - to be human.

However, please don't think that Pandora's Brain is simply a technology-rich piece on the philosophical aspects of the AI breakthroughs that may happen, because it's not. This is also a story that fairly rockets along, alternating back and forth from it's other guise as a good old fashioned Science fiction adventure thriller. The plot is well written and crafted in a way that one is constantly questioning not only the philosophical aspects, but also just who we should or shouldn't be trusting in what appears to be a familiar scenario but quickly turns events on their heads as preconceptions are constantly challenged.

The characters too are confidently written and well-rounded, particularly the main character of Matt, with whom the reader immediately identifies and connects with as we share his journey of shocking discovery. Authors such as Asimov, Bradbury and Philip K. Dick were masters of incorporating ideas of technological advancement in their work without ever losing what should be the main element of any sci-fi adventure story, strong characterisation in order to fully explore the human condition. I'm not being all hyperbolic and saying that Calum Chase is ready yet to join such pantheons of the genre, but if this book is anything to go by, well he's well on the way. The great skill of an author is not to let the themes within a story overwhelm our ability to connect it's characters and this is achieved very nicely here.

According to at least 50% of experts working in the field of Artificial intelligence, we are but 35 years away from creating the first human level of AI intelligence. Pandora's box has well and truly been opened and the subsequent explosion of development could mean a future for humankind that few of us dare imagine. Pandora's Brain suggests that how we deal with the decisions that this advancement will bring are more complex than we dare imagine. But above all, this is a confidant and enjoyable debut novel that will keep the reader enthralled from beginning to end.

As the number 15 review cliche in the Dummies guide to writing a review suggests......'It's a real page turner!'

About the author........

" Calum retired from full-time work in 2012 to focus on writing after a 30-year career as a journalist, a marketer, a strategy consultant and a CEO. He serves as chairman and coach for a handful of growing companies. 

Having started his career as a trainee journalist with the BBC, he has always combined business with writing. He has contributed articles to several newspapers, and was a columnist at the FT. He has published several non-fiction books, including The Internet Startup Bible, a business best-seller published by Random House in 2000. He is now publishing his first novel, a science thriller called Pandora's Brain.

Calum studied philosophy at Oxford University, where he discovered that the science fiction he had been reading since boyhood is actually philosophy in fancy dress. He is intrigued by the idea of conscious machines being created this century. He is a regular speaker on artificial intelligence and related technologies and runs a blog on the subject at

He lives with his partner and their daughter in London and Sussex."

Calum Chase's Amazon page can be found at

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