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Stories offer human look at technology

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This collection of short stories presents interesting, sometimes disturbing, perspectives on the interactions of technology and human behaviour.

It is much more than its subtitle, Stories of the Machine Age, implies. It is a quick read that has the potential to affect how we think about human/machine interactions.

It is difficult to place this book into any specific genre. It relates to history, it speaks to technology, it refers to science, it contains fictionalized stories and it addresses the impact of both social and political conditions on all these genres.

The author, Gilles Messier, is a young Winnipeg-born engineer who recently completed his aerospace engineering studies at Carleton University in Ottawa.

Like most engineers, he has a fascination with machines and machine systems. Like most engineers, he views things in an analytical manner.

However, his obvious concern for the ways in which technology and science have been used, with both positive and negative intent, separates him from the stereotypical image of engineers.

Messier organizes the collection around three pivotal events in the mid-20th century: the Second World War, nuclear power and space exploration.

Each event is presented in a separate section. Each section contains a foreword and three stories. The stories are fictionalized history, but they are founded on facts that are either known or widely accepted urban legends.

A recurring theme in all of the stories is the use and misuse of both science and technology.

The story entitled Hypothermia presents a particularly disturbing link between the positive use of knowledge and the inhumane experiments in Nazi Germany that provided the scientific base for that knowledge.

A Is for Atom speaks to differing views on atomic energy based on a focus of specific applications and incidents.

In the Ocean of Storms addresses the influence of political decisions on the sometimes disastrous outcome of experimentation.

Although there are human characters in all the stories, they seem to be less important than the themes.

For example, The Girl at Panel 857 is just 13 pages long. It begins with Vera, a 1942 high school graduate starting her job at Oak Ridge Laboratories. It shifts to 1961 in Nashville, then back to Oak Ridge in 1945, Nashville in 1949, Oak Ridge in 1945, Oak Ridge again in 2004, and ends in Nashville in 1962. Vera is in all parts of the story, but the story is not about her.

At its base, this book is about human values and how circumstances affect those values. Messier has not attempted to hide his own values.

He has documented, and cited, the factual background upon which his stories are based.

Readers will have a set of values and beliefs that they will use to judge Messier's stories. The strength of the book is that it should remind each of us of our personal values and how they affected our views of history, science, technology and human interaction.

It does clearly show that technology, and the knowledge that technology is based on, is much more that science, mathematics and disinterested calculations.

Ron Britton is a professor emeritus in the faculty of Engineering at the University of Manitoba who is attempting to find a new life in retirement.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 31, 2013 A1

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