Exegesis, by Astro Teller



Three stars, read in January 2016.

It’s surprisingly difficult to pin down what I think of this book, which I found as part of the Reader’s Room Winter Scavenger Hunt (for the library excursion, item 12). I read it in about two hours, which sort of gave me the impression of loving it, but it’s really just because emails are so easy to read. There were some interesting philosophical discussions, and I particularly liked Edgar’s ultimate choice, but also there were some really meandering thoughts that felt slippery, like they never quite touched ground on their logical base.

Alice was . . . strange. I appreciate both that she was written by the real-life version of herself (a grad student studying artificial intelligence) and that he chose to make her a woman of color—a choice that, annoyingly, would still be notable now, and this book was published in 1997. Yet somehow, she felt more like she’d been written by someone who didn’t know the field, and was just doing their best guess based on research. She was inexplicably rude to Edgar in the beginning—rude doesn’t seem like the right word but I can’t quite find a better one, dismissive maybe? impolite?—oddly petulant throughout, and unnervingly dramatic toward the end. I know her despair is supposed to be explained by the involvement of the FBI and NSA, which obviously would be incredibly stressful; maybe it’s the lack of context outside the emails, which provide such a limited perspective, but I just never felt the gravity of the situation sufficiently for her responses to make total sense. Also: she used the “l” word. Really?

It was interesting, though, and such a fast read can hardly be a waste of time. If nothing else, it’s an intriguing thought exercise about the double standard required when “safety” is your highest goal. It was written almost twenty years ago, but its questions are even more applicable now.

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