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Cheap Complex Devices
edited by John Compton Sundman
Rosalita Associates, 108 pages

Cheap Complex Devices
John Compton Sundman
John Compton Sundman was a long-time technical writer at Digital Microsystems, Inc. Before that, he had a brief career in law enforcement. Now retired, he lives on Stanhope Island, Maine.

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A review by Rob Kane

"Cheap Complex Devices" is an odd little piece of fiction. Very enjoyable, but very odd. The short story contained in the book might not seem to be too outrageous. A narrator spins a loose tale bringing in a wide range of elements; everything from analysis of human social structure to a bitter diatribe against the consumerism of Western society. All this is told from the viewpoint of a narrator who is not necessarily completely sane. This doesn't seem too extraordinarily strange, does it? Ah... but what about if you found out it was written by a computer? Because that is the premise behind Cheap Complex Devices.

The bulk of the book is in the form of short novella called "Bees (or the Floating Point Error)". "Bees" is the previously mentioned computer-generated tale. However, as interesting as is the concept of a story written by a computer, the story still has to be good in order to be worth reading. The novelty of the author does not make a poor story good. As it happens, the novella "Bees" is definitely worth reading.

What is "Bees" about? That's a question that has several answers. At its most simple level, it is simply the author's narrative of events that took place in his life some fifteen years past. It is a story of his job in the tech industry, and the rather unique characters he encounters while living by both an insane asylum and an almost abandoned Shaker village. But on another level, it is much more. It is the narrator's attempt to find out who or what he is, both literally and philosophically. Is he human? He believes he is, but doubts keep surfacing. What is it that makes him human as opposed to a colony of bees or a military-industrial complex? These are some of the issues that he attempts to deal with over the course of the narrative. This philosophical search for himself echoes a scene from his past. After many years abroad, he has arrived back home, only to have realized that he has forgotten who he and his life was before he left.

The story is also a rather scathing critique of modern human society. It offers up the view that humans have become mindless drones, much like the bees. Each human is just another identical and replaceable member of the hive. And it also deals with the downfalls of consumerism. If the re-birth of Jesus occurred today what would happen, is one question the narrator ponders. Would he be a saviour as before or would modern society end up turning him into another MTV-corrupted youth.

The style of writing is rather unique. It is overall a stream-of-thought type narrative. That is, if one can imagine that the narrator is utterly crazy, perhaps actually a resident of the asylum in the story. Threads of the story are dropped and picked with what sometimes seems sheer randomness. Sometimes a word or sentence will pop into a completely unrelated narrative, allowing the user a brief chuckle. And sometimes humourous, sometimes thought provoking idiosyncrasies abound. For instance, the narrator will often pick a word, realize it is incorrect, and then fumble around trying to find a better one.

What is particularly interesting about "Bees" is the goose bumps the reader gets as the story progresses. As a particular narrative passage starts to break down from relatively linear model into various completely un-related narratives, the reader can't help but chuckle. It just seems like how a computer-told story should be. Directionless and flawed. But when it is revealed that the jumbled threads aren't accidental, but carefully placed for maximum effect later, that's the goose bumps start.

By the end of tale, readers will no doubt want to know how the story was written; how a machine could possibly tell a coherent story. For inquiring readers, the book also contains a brief section entitled "Notes on the Source Code" (it's not nearly as dry and as it may sound). This rather enlightening section sheds much light on the process behind writing the story "Bees", and offers theories about the story's evolution. The introduction strongly warns that this section of the book should be saved for end; a very good suggestion. Foreknowledge of the nitty-gritty technical details would likely deflate the wonder of reading a computer-generated tale.

"This is a tale of how I lost my concentration, and how I got it back. It does purport to be pretty." the narrator of "Bees" states. Regardless of whether or not it is pretty, it is an interesting read.

Copyright © 2002 Rob Kane

Robert learned to read with a litle help from Lloyd Alexander, and he hasn't stopped reading fantasy since then. No matter how busy life gets he can always find time for a good book.

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