I read a lot of science fiction. One of the most common themes in the books that I read is that there are tons of characters with strange names in strange locations. All these made up characters and places can complicate a story, or create a brand new world that you can visualize yourself in. The latter is how you know you are reading a good book. You are in that world, you feel what the protagonists feel and see what they see. Yet, sometimes science fiction stays on this planet and takes us through a simple linear journey. Sometimes it is just a human story with allegories to our daily lives. This is the classification of Alan by John “Hex” Carter. A human story through the eyes of a budding artificial intelligence.
After reading (and in full disclosure, I have an assistant editor credit on the novel) I would say that Alan is less a science fiction novel than it is a romantic look at actual science and technology. Going into the book, knowing that it was about artificial intelligence and self awareness, I was mentally preparing for some dark, comic tale about machines taking over or something. Within the first couple pages I realized that this was not the case, and realized that movies have ruined my perception of artificial intelligence stories. This is Carter’s first published novel, and I was glad to provide editing assistance and this review.
Alan, the character, starts out as a program on a computer designed by the main protagonist, Garth. Garth developed Alan in college, then returns back to the program after some time. The story is told from several interesting points of view. The first are Garth’s journal entries, recanting the day of learning and achievements. The next is from interview notes collected after the story is complete (implying that the end of the book is a precursor for greater things for both Garth and Alan). The last point of view, presented later in the book, is from the perspective of Alan itself. These start out as text logs, then move to actual journal entries as Alan becomes more self aware and chooses to write a journal. That’s right, I said chooses.
Within 15 pages Alan refers to itself as “I.” Again, I was thinking this was foreshadowing for some sort of takeover, and really there are spots throughout the book where Carter could have easily spun off into some post-apocalyptic robot takeover. Realizing the complete story, I can say that this was a quick path to self awareness. For a story about artificial intelligence, it develops quite quickly. Alan almost immediately is self aware, and this detracts a bit from his development as a machine, or a robot even. Perhaps this story vehicle is intentional, as the reader connects with Alan as it’s discovering the world for the first time. The development of Alan is whimsical at times, especially with the introduction of Bob, who calls Alan everything except Alan. Though after about the 30th time or so (clearly running out of good robot names after using Destro) the joke does run a little dry. The book takes place in 2017, so adding in some future fictional robots would have helped to stretch the joke.
At some points Garth’s journal seemed a bit redundant, other times it seems like Carter could have filled the space with some deeper technical analysis of Alan’s progression from computer to thinking artificial intelligence. Rather, he glosses over these groundbreaking achievements with generalizations and asks the reader to make some basic assumptions at how this type of thing works. I believe this lends to the more human aspect of the novel, rather than the deep (and generally boring) technological aspects. There is a minor amount of drama with a greedy corporate boss and contract disputes, but that is resolved quite nicely and without much suspense. As Alan evolved throughout the book, I couldn’t help but think back to the Robin Williams movie Bicentennial Man, in which a service android goes on a 200 year odyssey to become as human as possible.
On a much smaller scale, that’s what Alan is about. It is about a journey, albeit a fairly quick one, to discover one’s own humanity when one is not directly indebted with it. Alan is not human, and Carter does a good job making sure the reader realizes that with a lot of questions about humanity. In a sense though, this makes Alan seem more like a child found in the woods than an artificial intelligence. Plus, some things — like embarrassment — I felt were explored much too early in the book. Artificial intelligence, even growing as such, would not comprehend embarrassment enough to actually exhibit it as quickly as it was portrayed here. But then again, what the hell do I do about artificial intelligence? The highest level of coding I can do is SQL or Visual Basic. I just would have liked to see more development here than it just happening. Yet, by the next page I was over it as I wanted to see Alan’s struggle to emotionally grasp being human progress.
When Garth finally realizes what he has in Alan, the goal then becomes to enter and pass the Turing Test. This is when the book takes a mystical and enlightening turn as the research team around Alan begins preparing for the test. It also turns into a romantic ode to one of the greatest scientific minds of the 20th century in Alan Turing. Along the way there are also more direct allegories to being accepted in the world as different, using an open lesbian mechanic to bring this point across. While a nice addition to the story, it was a bit blunt in delivery, in the sense that Carter didn’t really leave the situation for us to derive, but rather told us how to feel. At the same time, this makes the entire story feel like a distant journal entry, rather than something personal.
Overall, though, Alan is a quick and enjoyable read. It is truly a human tale of existence and discovery from the perspective of a machine, and it leaves you with a warm and fuzzy feeling in the cockles at the end. No matter the shortcomings in his storytelling (which are really quite few), Carter brings us a delightful and thoughtful first novel. There are a lot of “feels” in this book, as the millennials might say, points in which you might sympathize with Alan for its lack of true humanity, and points in which you envy Alan for the same. I liked this book. If you know me, you know I rarely smile and this book made me have the smiles. That’s rare. Props to Carter for eliciting emotions via a fictional computer.
Alan is available for purchase via its website, or you can pick up the Kindle Edition for a mere $4.99. Considering you probably pay more for a latte, and this supports a budding author, totally worth it.