Monday, November 26, 2012

Where's Booker? Digging Into A Working Theory of Love

Settled back into the San Francisco singles scene following the implosion of his young marriage just months after the honeymoon, Neill Bassett is going through the motions. His carefully modulated routine, however, is soon disrupted in ways he can’t dismiss with his usual nonchalance.

When Neill’s father committed suicide ten years ago, he left behind thousands of pages of secret journals, journals that are stunning in their detail, and, it must be said, their complete banality. But their spectacularly quotidian details, were exactly what artificial intelligence company Amiante Systems was looking for, and Neill was able to parlay them into a job, despite a useless degree in business marketing and absolutely no experience in computer science. He has spent the last two years inputting the diaries into what everyone hopes will become the world’s first sentient computer. Essentially, he has been giving it language—using his father’s words. Alarming to Neill—if not to the other employees of Amiante—the experiment seems to be working. The computer actually appears to be gaining awareness and, most disconcerting of all, has started asking questions about Neill’s childhood.

Amid this psychological turmoil, Neill meets Rachel. She was meant to be a one-night stand, but Neill is unexpectedly taken with her and the possibilities she holds. At the same time, he remains preoccupied by unresolved feelings for his ex-wife, who has a talent for appearing at the most unlikely and unfortunate times.

When Neill discovers a missing year in the diaries—a year that must hold some secret to his parents’ marriage and perhaps even his father’s suicide—everything Neill thought he knew about his past comes into question, and every move forward feels impossible to make.

With a lightness of touch that belies pitch-perfect emotional control, Scott Hutchins takes us on an odyssey of love, grief, and reconciliation that shows us how, once we let go of the idea that we’re trapped by our own sad histories—our childhoods, our bad decisions, our miscommunications with those we love—we have the chance to truly be free. A Working Theory of Love marks the electrifying debut of a prodigious new talent.

Edward says:
"Neill Bassett, Jr.,  the main character of A Working Theory of Love by Scott Hutchins, lives in San Francisco and works at a three person tech company trying to develop the first Artificial Intelligence computer based on Alan Turing's test (for an interesting read on Turing, check out Turing's Cathedral: the Origins of the Digital Universe by George Dyson.)  The computer that fools humans thirty percent of the time into thinking that it is actually human would be considered the first intelligent computer.  The working model is based on his inputting his deceased father's journals  into the computer which also bears his name, Dr. Bassett.   Neill, Jr's first marriage has dissolved and his inability to connect with both his father, his still living mother, Libby, and his new love interest, Rachel,  a much younger, spiritually experimental, barista, results in an obsession with the project and work. 

His seeking to develop a program to connect with the inanimate manifestation of his father in the computer also keeps him at a distance from his boss, Henry Livorno, who is looking for his last hurrah in the tech world and the young, programming whiz kid from Indonesia, Laham.  Their company is in competition with Adam Toler, the creator of the website that brings marriage to the loveless.  Their company is in desperate need of the funding Toler can provide, while Toler seeks to steal the intellectual property and advances they have made toward solving the Turing problem. 

Neill, Jr, bounces between feelings for his ex-wife, Erin, now dating a much more stable proposition in a lawyer, his new, very young and sprightly, Rachel, and Jenn, an engineer from the rival tech company.  Eventually, the two computers center around the different working theories of love as the missing ingredient to solving Turing, Neill, Jr's theory and Toler's. 

The reader has been exposed to Neill's developing theory throughout the novel as he works through his father's suicide, understanding  Libby's and Dr. Bassett's relationship, his own failed marriage, and his new relationships with Rachel and Jenn. 

As he is visiting Rick and Stevie, Rachel's aunt and uncle, he summarizes the pervading idea of California, "...just because anything can happen doesn't mean it will happen.  It just means it won't won't happen.  This is a small room in the Palace of Optimism, but maybe it's space enough."

While continuing to have conversations with his deceased father through the computer, Neill tries not to  reveal that his dad is dead or that he is his son.  Bits and pieces are revealed throughout, making Dr. Bennett more aware, to its/his benefit and demise. Neill starts to ask for relationship help and Dr. Bassett gives very honest, fatherly advice.  Or, is it merely programmed answers based on the extensive data inputted.  Is it a result of the programming or that he is learning? 

Neill, Dr. Bassett, Libby, Rachel, Jenn, Livorno, and Toler play their part in this working theory of love in the real life and the artificial one.  In question are the ideas of seeming and being, saying and doing, a life of moderation or vice versa.   Livorno and Toler continue to develop their computer toward the competitive showdown where the different working theories of love, Neill, Jr's theory and Toler's, are considered the missing ingredient to solving Turing.

Scott Hutchins' thought provoking novel is the perfect read for those interested in how the world and our relationships are evolving as we become more connected virtually, but less connected physically and,  how those two worlds collide with surprising, unpredictable results.   As diverse as these authors and works may seem, I think Hutchins' A Working Theory of Love would appeal to those who connected with the classic Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes, Mark Haddon's Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and Elizabeth Moon's Speed of Dark.

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