• Book Review: 'The Path' by Peter Riva


    Reading Peter Riva's science fiction novel The Path (Book 1 of the TAG series) felt like diving into a world entirely different from our own yet so immersive that upon returning to the surface we call "reality", I had to open my window to catch some fresh air (more like "chilling winds") as I reflected on the novel's mind-bending concepts and thought-provoking investigations about humans, machines, and the things that set them apart. The Path is like the virtual Heart of Darkness minus the "darkness" or a potent potion that some might not dare to consume, but its effects are tantalizing.

    In the future, computer systems run the Utopian world where "people have reached out what inspires us". The United States government had set Purification Laws during the great rectification known as The Purge, which led to “the eradication of all subversive elementsand conditions prevalent in the United States of America." Corruption and greed have dissipated; the catharsis of human desires has developed a society so harmonious and so "systematic" that humans became as mechanical avatars, doing what they're programmed to do. Humans no longer dream for a brighter future; they dream of their dependence of their primal past.

    The story follows 50-year-old System employee Simon Bank, whose job is to humanize the System's artificial intelligence to "make it fit more perfectly into the needs of society". A collective entity known as The Control is monitoring his progress as he tries to investigate the problems that his mistakes have caused.


    Riva has established his protagonist's voice well from the start: Simon's expert technical jargon (Cool words like SynthKids, RFID's, and Powercubes) mixed with his witty yet charmingly flawed personality makes him a credible narrator who often talks like a walking archive, constantly analyzing, modifying, and transferring information while expressing little emotion to other characters. He's a family man, and although I sensed that his family is dear to him, he seems detached from the present, physical world. He digs deep in his memories and questions the existence of God. His internalization that runs throughout the whole novel often sounds like a chess strategy or binary data that some readers might find puzzling or exhausting. The exposition-heavy first-act and lack of dramatic action may bore readers seeking for adventure and stylish action; its deep concepts and historical background from the later sections leave no trail for physical conflict and danger. So in a sense, it's a lot like Christopher Nolan's Inception minus the gravity-defying heist (He even meets an "architect" that reminded me of Ariadne). Nonetheless, his philosophical ramblings about dreams and the future are amusing; his conversations with the A.I. named Apollo are thought-provoking. They made me question: What makes a human "human" in a world where conformity breaks individuality? Ironically, his job is to preserve the nation's "perfect" stability while humanizing a seemingly-terrifying artificial intelligence as if it's an alien baby.

    What we may have here is an infant with tremendous power who may; or may not, recognize the consequence of that power and may, or may not be developing into childhood and then on to young adulthood and so on.
    The most amusing aspect of The Path is Riva's way of humanizing machines while mechanizing humans. Simon Bank's purpose of teaching the human ways to a sentient machine is deeply moving; Riva has written fantastic and humorous dialogues with smart-ass wordplays and literal implications that amazed me and made me ponder simultaneously. Apollo is a chillingly believable character, more developed than Bank's mundane associates: Mary, Cramer, and Makerman. It's also impressive how Riva gradually paints his character into being: how he assimilates Simon and processes data to mimic the human ways.

    You see, in its world there is no boundary. Yes there is a physical one, but it cannot see the physical one. It doesn’t see, for example, the binary controller as a physical barrier but as an on/off switch and filter that needed electric activation. Us? We know it’s electrical activation, electricity has a physical effect, and so on. The end result is the same, but the System was an electric medium, it could not see beyond its world. Like the flat-Earthers, they had no way into space to look down and see a globe and stars, so they assumed there was a falling off point, an end of the earth. So too, the System knew a finite world in which it lived, but where it lived was only where it knew to explore. Give it a new concept, a new place and off it could sail, like Columbus, to discover... something. And that showed curiosity which I know it has—coupled with daring and imagination which are the benchmarks of the greatest of all humankind; explorers. Of course, while it sailed off somewhere it was also still here and now, everywhere it knew, all at the speed of light. Fast.
    I was also intrigued with Apollo's views about "the way":

    The path is one small step at a time. The way is you, all around you, you can see it, you can feel it, you cannot change it. You are in it andpart of it.
    The progression of the plot becomes more intense when Simon Bank's plans didn't go as expected, when he becomes public enemy number-one, doing what he can to escape the elusive order-obsessed Control. But Riva lets Bank stray his narration from his quest to describe the global population control problems, various histories, Gaia theory, and Calhoun Rat Studies to frame some of kind of path that leads to the "enlightenment".

    The Path's title may be misleading because its plot is far from the typical formulaic science fiction stories involving artificial intelligence. Riva must have taken Ralph Waldo Emerson's advice: "Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail" or he has rooted his work on Asimov's philosophical foundations (Riva alludes to Asimov's laws and even pokes fun at him: “Asimov was an ass to think you could stop nature and self-determining life.") Of course, the course of the story doesn't immediately deviate from the "right path" that its society has defined for the protagonist but there's something intimate about how Riva explores human nature and technology in his dense prose. Its path isn't the kind of free-flowing river that most casual readers are used to nor it is a placid lake that complacently disregards that depths of its subjects; it's more like a huge dam that held a reservoir of creative ideas at one point, but somehow, Riva has broken to dam to spill down his concepts in a tsunami that flooded my thoughts about nature vs. nurture, humanity vs. technology, order vs. chaos, and more importantly, individuality vs. conformity.

    The Path is a remarkable experience that brings us to an alien but realistic world, a fascinating exploration of the human mind, its psychological aspects, and the possibility of humanizing machines through assimilation. I've wrapped my mind around this question: Is humanizing an A.I. truly possible? But I think the more important question is: Is the possibility of losing our human qualities that make us human
    flaws, emotions, the tendency to learn from mistakes and choose our own paths instead of processing data through the machines' analogue ways — more dangerous than machines outsmarting humans? Discover The Path that Riva has paved, and you might find an answer.
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