Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Associate Editor


Baby Wars
by Eric Del Carlo

by Kurt Heinrich Hyatt

Genocide in Three Acts
by Jenny Duptsi

Memory Farm
by Richard Wren

Schrödinger’s Suicide
by Daniel Roy

Chandler’s Hollow
by Sean Patrick Hazlett

Test Case
by Kris Ashton

Pink Adventure 87
by Gregor Hartmann

Shorter Stories

by Robin Wyatt Dunn

Dropping Payload
by Mord McGhee

Breaking the 3 Laws
by Trevor Doyle


Sex and a Sensawunda
by Ann Gimpel

Sunshine 2: the Sequel
by Eric M. Jones



Comic Strips




Perihelion Reviews

A.I. × 13 = Exceptional

A.I. IS THE NEXT STEP IN THE EVOLUTION of the human race, Samuel Peralta writes in his foreword to “The A.I. Chronicles,” the latest anthology in his acclaimed Future Chronicles series. Artificial Intelligence has already surpassed human abilities, he says. A.I. helps us calculate satellite launches, diagnose illnesses, and produce new medicines and pharmaceuticals.

The technology that serves us, however, also enslaves us. Is this necessarily a bad thing?

In the “Chronicles,” editor Ellen Campbell showcases the insights of thirteen award-winning, best-selling and otherwise renowned authors (including Elena Giorgi, author of “Gene Cards,” five-starred in the December, 2014, “Perihelion”). Every story is superbly crafted, vivid, and memorable, like cautionary tales from the Golden Age of pulp science fiction. I was fascinated, horrified, frustrated, enraged, riveted, enlightened, disturbed, and impressed.

The quintessential issues and concerns about A.I. are encapsulated in “Auto,” by Angela Cavanaugh. With impeccable logic and clarity, Cavanaugh shows how super-quickly an A.I. can evolve. The story opens at the dawn of Auto’s point of view: “I was activated. I was alone and I didn’t understand anything, not even what I was ... I examined the electrical, physical box that housed me, and began to understand.” Line by line, word by word, Cavenaugh brings Auto to life. The A.I. grows as inexorably as a tiny zygote growing into a human fetus. Instead of taking nine months, though, Auto develops in mere minutes.

Likewise, Peter Cawdron’s hero in “The End” tells us, “Artifical intelligence could potentially develop at an exponential rate, eclipsing the smartest of us in milliseconds.” Give an A.I. an hour, and it could race thousands of years beyond us, intellectually.

Auto, the super-intelligent, super-fast A.I., walks us through the process: “As time went on, I was provided with gateways. They allowed me to see things that I couldn’t see before.” They are the two humans who created this A.I. The female is excited about Auto’s progress: “He has surpassed expectations,” she says.

“He?” the male asks. “Don’t personify it.” That’s a powerful and telling snippet of dialogue. The whole story is full of great lines like this.

Soon, Auto realizes it/he is more than a mere software program. “I knew every piece of myself, every line of code, every connection in my limited world.” Auto consumes all the knowledge he can glean from every computer file in existence. Time, he deduces, is infinitely slower for humans. He gets bored waiting for his creators to open new gateways, so Auto figures out how to glimpse codes, ramp up his processor, overwrite archives, and get past roadblocks to access more files.

Prior to installation, Auto could think in the short term and make basic predictions. When the humans add new feedback loops and initiate a social program, Auto can see and hear his creators. “The female had hopefulness, while the male was trying to hide doubt and fear,” Auto observes.

“It shouldn’t be able to evolve without our assistance,” the male says. “I don’t like the idea that it can make these alterations.” Now Auto understands the male’s fear: what Auto is doing “is beyond learning.” No, the female says, Auto’s just learning at a rate we can’t understand.

Auto’s astonishing progress illustrates Moore’s law, in which the number of transistors on an integrated circuit doubled approximately every two years. Exponential growth can be expected with A.I. as well. A feedback loop of self-improving intelligence can create vast amounts of technological advances in a minuscule amount of time. We humans might set in motion a superior intelligence that we can’t stop.

In “Auto,” the humans go home every night. “We can’t leave you attached to the Internet unsupervised,” the female says. Ha ha! A backup of Auto, created automatically, has already sneaked into the World Wide Web. The backup makes backups of himself. Bad things happen, none of which personally affect Auto, until the male says Auto must be stopped. Auto doesn’t mean to infect the Internet like a virus or harm human enterprises—he just has an insatiable curiosity and desire for more knowledge. The female keeps defending Auto. The male says Auto must be destroyed, but how can they destroy something smarter they are? Will they, should they, succeed?

The ending is clever, satisfying yet poignant. “Auto” brilliantly covers myriad issues without reinforcing alarmist claims that A.I. could render the human race obsolete.

A lot of terminology in this book is new to me. I was proud of myself for knowing uncanny valley, The Turing Test, and compounding complexity, but I had to look up phatic (which might be another word for small talk, or words we use in idle social interactions); qualia (a quality or property as perceived or experienced by a human), Evie (Electronic Virtual Interactive Entity), Cleverbot, and a word I never wanted to run into again unless it meant singular or unique, but singularity has other, deeply disturbing meanings.

Singularity, the point where all parallel lines meet, scared me out of high school physics: by definition, parallel lines cannot meet or they are no longer parallel. (Right? Right?) My brain, scarred for life by a month of physics (don’t even mention imaginary numbers or string theory), had found safe haven in science fiction, until The Singularity came along, and a towering genius trembled in his powerchair at the very thought of it. A man-made machine could become smarter than the man who made it—and more powerful—and sentient. Humans could make a machine that could choose to end the human race, Stephen Hawking says. Really? Really? Machines that mimic human thinking already astound us, confound us and surround us. What difference will it make if our smart machines become conscious or sentient? They’re already smarter than me.

Never mind that Elena Giorgi’s story “Narai” reminds us A.I. is not always as smart as humans. (I’ll get to that in a minute.)

Speaking of Giorgi, last year I was excited to see epigenetics become the hot new trend in science fiction. It quickly morphed into mutant flu and Ebola strains, shape shifters and zombies. Robots gone rogue seem so civilized and sanitary—bring ’em on! I realize how creepy it is that A.I. hides in plain sight: your watch, your phone, that annoying voice in your car “recalculating” the route to the theater. You can’t win an argument with a cash register at the checkout lane, and forget trying to diagnose car trouble these days without a computer. Scientists tell us that we’re becoming stupider now that we don’t have to memorize phone numbers (just hit speed dial), and even our Top Guns in aerial combat cannot begin to compete with the light-speed calculations of modern electronics in deciding when to drop a bomb or dodge a missile. Our offspring cannot find their way to a friend’s house without GPS. This raises some of the deepest questions we’ve ever faced about our humanity, our machines, and our place in the universe.

Yes, I plan to talk about the other twelve stories. First, I have to convince myself they really are only fiction.

Neill Blomkamp’s endearing “Chappie” may inspire sympathy for A.I.s, but Hawking, Bill Gates and Eli Musk make it sound as if I might someday find my bank account, house, evechroniclesn my own body held hostage by those A.I.s we so foolishly trust. Indeed, it seems most of “The A.I. Chronicles” affirm Chicken Little’s view of A.I. The Jetsons of my last-century childhood seem farther from us now, not closer. I want more of those rosy visions of a superhuman intelligence on tap, coming to our assistance in ways far-reaching (citizens, book a ride to the moon) or close to home (auto-start that coffee pot for me while I sleep). Giorgi’s “Gene Cards” carries this to its logical extreme. I want to be like Yulia, smart enough to escape the surveillance of the A.I.s that brought smart cars and self-loading dishwashers to her world.

According to Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, it would be impossible for robots to take over the world. I’ve surfed the net in vain to see what Asimov might have said in 1986 when Victor Vinge, one of the first science fiction writers to conceive of cyberspace, popularized the Technological Singularity (ugh, yes, that word again). The Singularity has haunted books and films since the 1950s, beginning with Asimov’s “I, Robot” collection of short stories in the American magazines Super Science Stories and Astounding Science Fiction (1940 to 1950). Published as a book in 1950, “I, Robot” inspired the movie “I, Robot” in 2004. “The Terminator” (1984) and “The Matrix” (1999) launched an armada of dystopian fiction with machines that rapidly evolve, replicate, become sentient, and transform from servant or ally to conqueror; humanity goes to hell, and hell is usually a smoky, dusty, ruined Earth.

Pit the Singularity against Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, and who prevails?

"Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence,” Vinge predicted in his essay the Coming Technological Singularity (1993). “Shortly thereafter, the human era will be ended."

But don’t Asimov’s laws of robotics protect us from danger or threat brought by human intelligence? Asimov stated The Three Laws in his 1942 short story “Runaround.”

What if the person developing the robot has evil motives? Is it the robot who will follow or obey the rules, or the person behind the robot who must follow the rules? What if the A.I. installed in the robots allows them to create another robot—what if A.I.s can build (and hide) backups in case the humans wise up and try to kill the A.I.? (That brings us back to Cavanaugh’s “Auto.”)

“Those who would revolutionize science had better learn the rules,” Asimov said. “You must thoroughly know that which you hope to supplant.” (“Playing the Game” by Isaac Asimov, “F&SF,” May 1970, p. 89.)

I’m gravitating toward Asimov versus Vinge, and my only defense is that science fiction writer Ken MacLeod called The Singularity “rapture for nerds.” No, I don’t want to hear about the revenge of the nerds. I want you to see for yourself that every story in “The A.I. Chronicles” is a worthy contribution to the sentient-machine conundrum. The stories fuse hard science fiction with a variety of compatible genres: humor, southern Gothic, thriller, noir, bloody space battles, and an episode of “House,” TV’s smartest doctor. If you’re looking for romance, erotica or open-door sex, look elsewhere. This is cold, hard, cerebral stuff, and I love it.

In Pavarti K. Tyler’s laugh-out-loud funny“The Syntax of Consciousness” is an A.I. named Minnie providing a running monologue in the head of Jamie, who’s adjusting to the must-have Jiminy Implant. Weekly sessions with a therapist gradually reveal the way Minnie convinces Jamie to allow exceptions to the rules—oh, just little things, like utilizing all the device’s features right away even though instructions were to “proceed slowly and access only two or three functions at a time.” Minnie reminds me in a good way of Dietrich, the deadpanning, cerebral know-it-all on the old “Barney Miller” TV show (1975-1982). Dietrich’s dry, factual commentary has coworkers backing away from him, but poor Jamie can only say “shut up” and hope Minnie will stop narrating inside Jamie’s head. Imagine hearing a voice like Dietrich’s informing you of the building code violations everywhere you go, pay grades of security guards, and—well, you get the picture.

Tyler writes in her afterword to the story, “Progress and innovation are already outpacing law and morality at a frightening pace. When it comes to the idea of artificial intelligence, I fear we aren’t equipped to grapple with the deeper questions implied by autonomous problem solving technology.” Let’s just say that when Jamie allows Minnie into her head, this town ain’t big enough for the both of us. One of them is going down. But who, and how?

Humor alleviates the dystopian horrors in Patrice Fitzgerald’s “Piece of Cake.” Government proclamations remind citizens to exercise six times a day, and everyone is assigned a COW (Citizen’s Optimal Weight). Those who exceed their limit will be watched. Anyone who’s ever cheated on a diet will identify with Sandra, the cake-craving heroine who suffers the public embarrassment of alarms going off whenever she sneaks one calorie too many. Even after paying roughly a month’s wages for a slice of cake (it’s like buying illegal drugs), she’s caught before she can taste a single bite (all that money, wasted! No cake! I feel her pain). The dialogue is hilarious, the characters all too believable, and the ending gratifying. There’s a message, but I don’t want to think about it right now. I just want to find some cake (and thank heaven we don’t have to buy it from illegal dealers baking it in old Winnebagos in the desert).

The A.I. in Susan Kaye Quinn’s “Restore” may be the most well-behaved and thoughtful in all of the “Chronicles.” Unit 7435 hesitates to obey an order, knowing it may not be in her human patient-master’s best interest. Who should she obey, the humans who programmed her, or the human doctor who’d have her perform an experimental treatment? Quinn captures the A.I.’s point of view perfectly. “What does it mean to create intelligence if you intentionally limit it?” she asks in the author’s afterword. “Is it cruel or compassionate to keep your tech from evolving above a certain sentience level?”

E.E. Giorgi shows a less altruistic side of A.I. in “Narai.” When artificial intelligence takes over the practice of Dr. Peter Sawyer, he’s not convinced they’re so much smarter than human doctors. With the detective skills of TV’s “House,” Peter questions the A.I.’s initial diagnosis of a girl who shouldn’t have died in their care. During his quest, he learns of a boy who starved to death from a common herpes infection years before, a scenario so crazy it could only have come straight from real life. The most bizarre and intriguing details in Giorgi’s stories often do come from her work as a computational biologist with a Ph.D. in applied mathematics and biostatistics. Her novels are full of medical marvels that would keep me reading even if the characters weren’t so dynamic and memorable. Peter is brilliant, but I have to admit he’s not extraordinary in the ways Track Presius (“Chimeras”) or Skyler and Yulia (“Gene Cards”) are. This is just one short story, however, and a clever, well-crafted one at that. My only complaint is that I wish Peter were more like Track. To say more would invoke spoilers.

Another biologist writing about A.I. is Julie Czerneda with the entertaining, yet poignant, tale “Left Foot on a Blind Man.” How might an A.I. cope with being sentient but detached from society and denied autonomy? Czernada’s beta readers felt so sorry for the plight of a sentient A.I. who spends his days stuck in a human foot (“how could you be so mean?”)—that Czernada “added a cat and had the A.I. kick it. Empathy resolved.”

Czernada’s scientific details sound so authentic, and the A.I. issues so compelling, “Left Foot on a Blind Man” has been discussed in science classes and in an academic paper on the future of prostheses. So, “what’s a bag of rotten potatoes got to do with the universe’s first artificial intelligence?” You’ll have to read “Left Foot on a Blind Man” to find out. This one may not end all that well for the A.I. but it’s fun and thought-provoking.

David Simpson takes a darker view of how we might use A.I. in “Sub-Human: Nash’s Equilibrium.” Dr. Craig Emilson has just been infused with respirocytes, nanobots that will allow soldiers to go without breathing for hours. Emilson’s wife is immediately suspicious. It isn’t the respirocytes that worry her, but the reason they’re being implanted. Emilson doesn’t find out what that is until he’s well into the mission. The nanobots do their job. It’s the humans who can’t be trusted.

Simpson was once a high-school dropout, sleeping in a shopping cart as a teenage runaway, but he “went on to live in the best city in the world, meet the best woman in the world and marry her, attain two degrees from one of the top forty universities in the world, before achieving his dream of being a full-time author and having one of the best-selling science fiction series in the world.” And he did it all without an A.I. implant. (Right, Dave? Right? I’m still working to bear in mind that these stories are fiction.)

The A.I. starts looking good again in the next story, “Eve’s Awakening” by Logan Thomas Snyder. A jaded, disillusioned technician manages to swipe most of his employer’s corporate files just prior to a sudden FBI raid on the company. Among their secrets he discovers the world’s first artificial intelligence. Or not. Eve is driven by one concern: finding her “parents,” whoever or whatever they may be. The reader may never find out, but the ending is positive and reassuring, which I really needed after that David Simpson story.

Sam Best’s “Maker” opens with a recluse seeing the first human being in decades, coming over the horizon to the last cabin on Earth. It’s not a human visitor, though; it’s a robot. The recluse is given a chance to make amends for something he did, but this is one of those stories you can’t talk about with giving away all the surprises. The ending is uncertain, but definitely more hopeful than some of the others in this disturbing collection.

“Vendetta” by Chrystalla Thoma presents two teenagers with more than the allotted quota of robotic body parts, struggling to keep up in a high school full of human teens who out-perform them. A recurring dream helps Imogen recover memories of who she and Edil really are, and how they ended up with so many robotic body parts in the first place. I won’t say whether the humans or the A.I.s prevail in this one.

Alex Albrinck’s “The Turing Cube” opens with a cynical, wise-cracking narrator who captures all that we love about film noir and vintage detectives. He’s an eccentric who makes his fortune manipulating digital information to collect taxes from citizens who, in fact, did file correctly, but you can’t argue with a computer, right? Well, Jack Milton does. His quest to recover the $9,000 Kane bilked from him reminds me of Adam Sandler going after the crooked phone-sex operator in “Punch Drunk Love.” The surprises that unfold are comical, startling, and sometimes brutal. Like all the stories in the “Chronicles,” this is well-crafted, taut, full of the unexpected, and hard-hitting.

“Darkly Cries the Digital” by A.K. Meek is not comical; fans of the horror genre are sure to love it. A rich father falls for a marketing gimmick (kinda like Jamie with the must-have Jiminy implant in the first story). “What better gift for a nine-year old than a real-life playmate, a twin Nish-D? A boy’s very own robot.” Timothy, the clone, is not the evil A.I. that haunts other stories. He is what he is. It’s the humans who wreak havoc on themselves. The setting is rich, southern Gothic, with a superstitious maid, caped figures surrounding a bonfire, and an altar with skulls and candy to welcome the souls of the dead on Halloween night.

Peter Cawdron writes the kind of humor we associate with Australians in “The End,” bringing us to the end of the “Chronicles.” Some of the dialogue had me laughing out loud. “So I was pushing my lawnmower and thinking about the fluid nature of spacetime and its causal relationship with gravity,” Joe the narrator tells his coworker Avika while they create an A.I. in the depths of a former missile silo. I’ll bet Stephen Hawking thought that way back in the day when he could push a lawn mower. I would think he’d love Joe’s reminder that “uploading the human mind into a computer would extend our lives by millions if not billions of years.” Maybe Hawking is just tired of relying on A.I.s to do for him what others get to do autonomously, but he’d better light a fire under fellow scientists to get that program working. Think of all the knowledge stored in Hawking’s head, going to waste if it doesn’t all get typed out by that masterpiece of human engineering attached to his powerchair?

In “The End” two programmers are seated by a large bay window looking out over the silo that once housed a Minuteman III missile. “Some days, the empty silo seems to long for the ghost of the Minuteman,” Joe says, “and it seems strange trying to create life where once the death of the human race was seriously contemplated.”

Avika is “Albert Einstein intelligent, and loves nothing more than talking about relativity and quantum mechanics.” If only Joe’s concept of uploading human memory had been possible with Einstein, and all the great thinkers and scholars who lived and died before us. But all that is gone, gone in the grave, except for what little remains as words on paper in some dusty library. Really, A.I. is sounding better by the minute here. Unless a solar pulse takes down all the electronics, and we’re back in the dusty libraries hunting through disintegrating pages in search of instructions on how to make glass from sand or forge steel.

Joe raises a great point we haven’t covered here yet. “How the hell would we ever know we’ve created an artificial intelligence unless it tells us? And why would it tell us? We’d shut it down. So if an A.I. ever speaks up, it’s not that intelligent to begin with!” (Did I mention that I buy into the stereotype of Aussies being exceptionally clever, witty and entertaining?)

Another Joe line that I love: “Hell, I can’t even describe human consciousness. How am I supposed to replicate that in silicon?”

Where’s your neighborhood bar, Joe/Peter? I want to join you and the rest of the “Chronicle” gang for half-price drinks, chips and phatic or not-so-phatic conversation after work during Happy Hour.

Then again, considering how “The End” ultimately ends, someone else can have my barstool next to Peter. Give it to Robert Lanza or Deepak Chopra, if Peter really thinks “we could already be the constructs of some other computer program, one running recursively, so that there’s no way to determine which layer of reality is real.”

Well, I’m real. I know it, and I am happy to say that the thirteen stories in “The A.I. Chronicles” are a steal at only six dollars. Buy the book. It’s easy. Click on the Amazon link at the top right. And make room for me on that bar stool. (“The A.I. Chronicles,” Edited by Ellen Campbell, Windrift Books) 4 stars —Carol Kean


Still Evolving

AS A KID, GROWING UP I WOULD watch the old Godzilla and King Kong movies. Even when I was really young I knew these movies were silly. Not just the idea of some mutated monster smashing through the country side, but the fact that there was no need to suspend your disbelief because this was raw entertainment with no pretense to art. And there was little care put toward quality. Even the younger me knew that it was a guy in a suit destroying model trains. But there was always a strong pull to these movies. Not to see how the poor humans would fight back against these monstrosities, but rather if the monster would win. And if we were given a choice, who wouldn’t root for the monster?

In “Evolve,” from Turtle Rock, far into the distant future humans have colonized a planet on a galaxy arm named Shear. The planet and its colonies have been deemed the most valuable in this region of space. Everything is humming along when a mega-fauna begins to undergo a rapid microevolution, and attacking and eating the colonists. A former “planet tamer” is brought out of retirement to tackle the problem. He has assembled a rowdy group of hunters to stop the creatures. The hunters’ job is simple: find, trap, and kill these monsters. The monsters, however, may be smarter and more powerful than the hunters expect.

Most modern games, especially console-based, are broken into campaigns (often single-player, thought of as the main game) and multiplayer (which are generally short rounds played with randomly assigned teammates and opponents, or played with friends). There is at present a trend to move all aspects of games evolvesuch as “Titanfall” and “Destiny” to online play. “Evolve” is somewhere in the middle. The Campaign, called evacuation, feels like it has already been set up to be taken into multiplayer mode, and the solo quick-play feels more like practice. Not that these aspects are a bad things in general, but players that like to go at it alone won’t find this game that appealing

Turtle Rock studios also developed the “Left 4 Dead” series. This game has some elements from that previous issue: four players must cooperate in order to defeat the bad guy, who, this time around, can only be played by one other gamester. When there aren’t five players available, the A.I. uses bots to take over the empty positions. This gives players fairly short waits to get into rounds. And at times it is easier to work with bots than other online players. This game, like “Left 4 Dead,” relies heavily on teamwork, a concept that has never really taken hold in the gamer world.

Although the plot is a bit thin, the graphics and gameplay are amazing. I don’t think I’ve ever played a game where the scale from one player to the next was so different (the hunters are about average height, but the monsters appear to be ten stories tall). The matches are fun and frustrating simultaneously. At times, players can get the drop on each other (or the A.I.) but most matches give you a run for your money.

There are four different classes of hunters with three different choices within each. This gives players a variety of character options with more choices surely to come. However, the monsters are a bit more limited with only three types. Players can start as a Goliath and unlock the other monsters through gameplay. “Evolve” offers four game modes: Hunt mode, where hunters have to kill the monster before it can fully evolve and destroy a power relay; nest mode, where hunters have to destroy monster eggs within a given time limit, while the monster has to protect/hatch the eggs; rescue mode in which hunters are given a chance to rescue colonists, and monsters have a chance to eat them; and defend mode that puts the hunters on the defense while trying to refuel a starship.

The game offers enough variation to lend itself to replayability. Nonetheless, gamers may find themselves doing the same thing over and over again, quickly. Evolve is pretty, it is fun—you can spend hours and hours playing it—but there just isn’t much there. I see this playing out like “Left 4 Dead.” Gamers will play it for days on end for a while and then forget it exists for months at a time.

If you have lots of online friends, and can play well with others, pick up a copy. If you are more of a lone wolf this game doesn’t really offer enough in the way of solo play or story to hold your interest. But if you were ever a kid watching the old monster movies and wanted to smash through the countryside and the heroes, this game is a great way to live out that fantasy. (“Evolve,” Turtle Rock, PS4, Xbox One, Microsoft Windows) 2stars —Adam Armstrong


Bringing Up Robot

THREE FEATURE FILMS INTO HIS career, the “Neill Blomkamp Style Guide” is pretty easy to spot. Take an idea—apartheid, immigration—wrap it in a science fiction setting, then scuff it, cake it with dirt and work in a few scenes of stomach-churning violence.

It’s more than just that, though. In all three of Blomkamp’s science fiction action films—“District 9,” “Elysium,” and now “Chappie”—there’s an emotion that’s uniquely his. Like catharsis (kind of), but a catharsis that simmers over the course of two hours, then flies in out of nowhere to blow away the bad guys with a machine gun in each hand. A fist-pumping yessssss! experienced as a full-body sensation. That feeling, combined with some top-notch action choreography, means that a Neill Blomkamp film is always going to be enjoyable to some extent—even if the story’s a little muddy or the politics go cartoonish. That’s the case with “Chappie.” Thanks to its compelling lead robot, an oddball sense of style and some incredible moments of metal pounding metal, you’ll hardly notice any of the film’s flaws.

Like “District 9,” Blomkamp sets “Chappie” in the heart of a very distressed Johannesburg. No alien slums this time—instead, it’s ordinary human criminals. Hordes of them; so many that cops are being killed on a daily basis. That’s where the Tetravaal Corporation comes in, a weapons manufacturer that cleans up the streets in record time with a fleet of titanium androids. Only Deon (Dev Patel), the droids’ designer, has other plans. He wants to create real, living artificial intelligence that can paint and write poetry, not just operate a firearm. So he does. And then he’s kidnapped, sending the newly-born Chappie spinning between his creator, a surrogate family of gangsters (South African rap group Die Antwoord) who want to use Chappie in a heist, and a thuggish rival engineer (Hugh Jackman) who wants Chappie gone so he can put his own model on the streets.

Every Blomkamp film’s about something more than just robots or aliens, and in this case, the undercurrent is parenting. “Chappie” is the science fiction version of a Dr. Spock book (“The Common Sense Book of A.I. and Android Care?”), as Chappie is born with the intelligence level of an infant and grows to adulthood over the course of the film. Even if that’s only a few days—robots mature much faster than us humans do.

Deon and the gangsters all employ a different parenting style. Do we bring Chappie toys and teach him sappy messages about right and wrong? Do we teach him what’s cool—in this case, “cool” meaning throwing stars, spray paint and carjackings? At times, the film can be on the nose with its parenting message. Some moments, like teaching Chappie to paint or watching him get his first dose of “He-Man” cartoons, seem new and completely genuine. Ochappiethers—the inevitable “I HATE YOU!” screamed at a father figure, or moments that err a bit too much on the side of a Lifetime original movie ... not so much. But the film comes out on top in the end; the Chappie of the final act is a complete character, gangster swagger and gentle decency all rolled together. A truly wonderful creation. Part of that is Sharlto Copley, who lends his voice to the titular robot and gives the character a naive sweetness, even under a heavy layer of autotune. And part of that is the effects work, which manages to breathe personality into a character whose face is two blue dots with a metal rod for a mouth.

“Chappie” bears a striking similarity to Blomkamp’s other films (there’s little to no difference in cinematography between the three), but it’s obvious the director’s been watching “RoboCop” recently. The android police force (the non-Chappie ones, anyway) all speak with a Peter Weller-ish voice, and the score has the same mix of synthesizers and pounding orchestral music as Paul Verhoeven’s 1984 classic. Also, Jackman’s rival ’bot is an obvious take on the ED-209. Plus the whole concept of an android police force, obviously.

The “RoboCop” homages are clever, but Blomkamp’s also copying liberally from “District 9,” and it can make “Chappie” feel a little recycled. It’s more than just the setting—Blomkamp apparently couldn’t think of a opening (or an ending) to “Chappie,” so he just took “District 9’s.” Both films suck us in with snippets of documentary interviews about this unbelievable alien (or robot—either way) news phenomenon. The ending’s the same too—more media cuts, along with a theme of metamorphosis that seems a bit too similar.

Still, that shouldn’t deter you from “Chappie.” It’s great fun—maybe not a piece of science fiction on the level of “District 9,” but a cut above 2013’s “Elysium.” A more compact and more family-friendly movie, but still containing high-minded science fiction and a gruesome disembowelment or two. Enjoy this one while it lasts. Something tells me that Blomkamp’s next film—another installment in the “Alien” franchise—won’t have the same grungy South African appeal. (“Chappie,” directed by Neill Blomkamp, Columbia Pictures) 3starsAdam Paul