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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Raphaela Edelbauer

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To purchase DAVE

Title: DAVE
Author: Raphaela Edelbauer
Genre: Novel
Written: 2021
Length: 432 pages
Original in: German
Availability: DAVE - Deutschland
  • DAVE has not yet been translated into English

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Our Assessment:

B : a solid, engaging read; fine take and twist on Artificial Intelligence

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Die ZeitA 23/1/2021 Carsten Otte

  From the Reviews:
  • "Raphaela Edelbauer löst dieses Möbiusband der Erinnerung in einem windungsreichen Plot auf. Aus der dystopischen Grundsituation entwickelt sich einen Endzeit-Thriller, der mit zahlreichen, auch cineastischen Mitteln arbeitet: schroffe Schnitte in kontrastreiche Szenen, mysteriöse Überblendungen, mal erhellende und mal bewusst verwirrende Zitate, Propagandamaterial, Collagen von wissenschaftlichen und quasi philosophischen Theorien. Dieser Roman ist nicht nur inhaltlich, sondern eben auch formal unheimlich clever." - Carsten Otte, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

[Note: DAVE has not yet been translated into English; this review is based on the German original; all translations are mine.]

       DAVE begins by introducing a group of computer programmers, obsessed with their work to stereotypical extreme; when, early on, the twenty-eight-year-old narrator, called Syz, meets a woman who is new to the workplace, Khatun Hosh, and she tells him that she is a doctor, he reacts with a sense of wonder in realizing she does the almost unimaginable here: 'You work with people ?' The novel is set in an indeterminate future, in a locale whose contours only slowly come into (somewhat) sharper focus: like his fellow-programmers, Syz lives in the here and now -- but even more so, his life revolves entirely around the task at hand. At first, the workplace seems like it could be a large-scale contemporary research facility dedicating an enormous amount of resources to a single, huge project -- the development of an Artificial Intelligence (an AI; in this case the 'DAVE' of the title) -- but it soon becomes clear that, beyond that, this is a different, stranger world.
       It appears that there was some sort of catastrophe in the world at large, devastating the planet -- though, typically, Syz has little actual sense of what actually happened (it was apparently before his time), and never really wonders too much about it. The outside world is apparently essentially uninhabitable, and the research facility is an enormous bubble-world of its own, 118,998 souls living, sealed off, dedicated to building 'DAVE'. Less than a tenth of the inhabitants are programmers -- 11,654 of them, working day and night in three shifts -- while an enormous support staff sees to the smooth functioning of the structure and all its facilities -- a small city, with pretty much all the creature comforts one could hope for. There is a clear hierarchy, social and professional, throughout the structure, too, with levels to it that Syz has little reason to visit; as he later comes to learn, there's also more to it, a behind the visible scenes that only a select few are privy to.
       The general vagueness about the when and where is effective. Edelbauer's world here is distinctly dystopian, but she doesn't begin with that; it only slowly dawns on readers just how strange this alter- or future-world is -- with its inhabitant largely simply taking it for granted that this is the way things are, and with barely any curiosity about the outside or former, larger world coming up. Some clues about what seems to have gone wrong in history are offered, but they don't add up to much of a picture, though an explosion of over-population is repeatedly brought up, and the issue of over-reproduction continues to crop up -- ultimately even described in ridiculous proportions with the claim that a veritable Niagara-waterfall flood of children were being born in a world where girls reached childbearing-age at four. Only well into the story does it even occur to Syz: 'What if there was no catastrophe ?' -- noting that no one ever really specified what its consequences were -- and realizing: 'Even worse, I had never asked'.
       The big project everyone is working on, one way or another, the whole purpose of the place, is DAVE, a true AI, of unlimited intelligence and capacity. Cleverly, Edelbauer leaves quite open what they're actually hoping to accomplish with DAVE: many of those involved even in the programming are unclear about what the ultimate goal is: sure, DAVE will be able to solve any problem -- but what problems are supposed to get solved ? Among the ideas that do get mentioned is that it will be charged with: 'finding a way to make the world inhabitable again after the great catastrophe' -- though, as noted, no one actually seems to be all too clear about what that catastrophe was or involved, and what the outside conditions might be ..... Also in the mix -- increasingly prominently -- is a transhumanist ambition, at its most extreme, the actual melding of the individual with DAVE, the possibility of uploading the self digitally into the computer: it certainly offers a solution to the reproduction-problem: instead of passing on one's genes to new generations, people can upload themselves and survive, digitally, for all eternity.
       Syz is one of the programmers toiling with coming up with the little chunks of code that are supposed to add up to making DAVE a true, complete AI -- a near-endless number of SCRIPTs they're churning out. Though he's good at what he does, he's lagged behind in landing the usual promotions -- somewhat to his and his friends' surprise. When the powers -- and the lead scientists -- that be then do suddenly take an interest in Syz, his life is upended.
       For all the programming that's been put into it, DAVE has made less progress than hoped for. So the scientists decide on a(n apparently) new approach: Syz is to be: 'Subject Zero, the model', recounting personal experiences to provide a foundation for DAVE to understand what it is to be human and to adapt itself and its programme accordingly. The idea is that by having him tell stories from his life, the missing dimension that might allow DAVE to achieve a human-type consciousness can be achieved. A big pay raise, the opportunity to work, in a manner of speaking, in the innermost sanctum, and assorted other privileges alone would make it an offer too tempting to refuse -- but of course Syz, like all of them, is convinced of the project and would thus presumably play along regardless.
       While the scientists maintain that Syz was selected via an algorithm that determined he was the most suitable candidate for this undertaking, he does seem rather an odd choice. He reveals some of his background as the story progresses -- so also in the DAVE-sessions, when he presents his memory- and experience-pieces for the scientists and the AI -- and clearly, in parts, it wasn't the healthiest upbringing. He was raised just by a father who rigorously and single-mindedly pushed his mathematical talents, a punishing lifestyle that led Syz to completely cut himself off from his father as soon as he could, when he started university. He basically abandoned his old identity, becoming as it were, a new person (hmmm ....), changing his name ('The changing of my surname completed the metamorphosis: my identity was expunged') and cutting off all connections to the past so completely that it would be impossible for his father ever to find, much less connect with him again.
       Syz also comes to learn that he was, in fact, not the first such test-subject: they've done this before. His predecessor was one Arthur Witteg, a computing prodigy as a child who had gotten in trouble for some of his activities at a very early age. Witteg apparently turned against the experiment he was involved in with DAVE, and disappeared -- and Syz comes to worry that he too will be disappeared when he's served his purpose and finished with his story-telling sessions. The fact that, as he learns, Witteg bears more than a just a passing physical resemblance to him is also among the disconcerting discoveries he makes .....
       Unsurprisingly, DAVE considers much of the thinking on and theories about AI, the scientists discussing and explaining various ideas of what they think AI can be and how it can be achieved. The question of whether an AI can attain (human-like) consciousness is, of course, the central one, but Edelbauer also presents various theories behind AI: how the AI is 'taught' to think and what its capabilities might be. Language is one of the hurdles -- (how) can a computer 'understand' human language ? -- but in particular what the scientists come to work on is having DAVE organize experience, for which they rely on Syz's accounts and the concept of loci -- the mind-(as it were ...)-building of a 'memory-palace'. At the start of the DAVE-sessions the scientists even give Syz Frances Yates' The Art of Memory -- still the classic text on the subject -- to give him a better understanding of the concept; it is one that then also continues to come into play throughout the story.
       Mysterious notes that appear to him, prodding and instructing him, and then a variety of encounters lead Syz to increasing doubts about the DAVE-project -- and concerns about his own welfare. Meanwhile, in the huge facility, everything seems to be moving inexorably to, essentially, the switch being flicked and DAVE achieving -- and revealing -- his potential -- and humanity being (willingly) sucked into it. The community takes on an increasingly fanatical streak -- down to the terrifying rallying cry that: 'To become human, we must eliminate humans, dear children. Now DAVE, now DAVE now DAVE' -- and Syz races -- half-blindly -- to do what he can to stop the seemingly inevitable.
       DAVE is a solid (if largely layman-level) exploration of AI -- what it might involve, what its potential might be -- and Edelbauer does a decent job of presenting some of the central philosophical issues surrounding the subject. A particularly good point she raises is the question of purpose -- of whether the cart is being put before the horse, as it can seem the scientists are building DAVE because they can, without asking themselves: to what end ? (Others, on the other hand, seem to have very clear ideas as to what end -- a no less problematic issue.) The story she frames all this in is also fairly clever, though relying on Syz's perspective, and his own occasional mental confusions and blanks (he goes into -- and is allowed to stay -- in some surprisingly deep funks), can at times be awkward: as often happens in this kind of story, the author gives herself arguably too free a hand. If the conclusion -- the denouement/big reveal -- is hardly particularly surprising, it's certainly nicely turned, with an entirely satisfying conclusion. Along the way, the story is quite consistently engaging.
       There's not really any new ground here, as far as the AI-genre goes, but it's a decent spin on the familiar territory, and certainly a good enough read.

- M.A.Orthofer, 27 January 2021

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DAVE: Reviews: Raphaela Edelbauer: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Austrian author Raphaela Edelbauer was born in 1990.

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© 2021 the complete review

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