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"Love and Sex With Robots: The Evolution of Human-Robot Relationships" by David Levy (HarperCollins, $24.95)

Matt McMullen quit his job at the Halloween mask factory to create Realdolls, synthetic women that put inflatable ones to shame -- er, further shame. Howard Stern became their biggest fan. And that was all in the '90s. While the sex-toy industry is undeniably booming, thrusting into the market dominated by the world's oldest profession, is it possible that humanoids will someday threaten the sanctity of human-human marriage?

Whether the idea of an intimate relationship with a robot disgusts or fascinates you, there's no denying that David Levy, a renowned expert in the realm of artificial intelligence and president of the International Computer Games Association, makes a shockingly convincing case that by 2050, regular interactions with humanoids will be the norm rather than the exception. And that doesn't mean you'll have a robot around to balance your checkbook.

While it is already "normal" for people to fall in love over the Internet — never seeing the object of their affection in the flesh — or to prefer interactions with personal computers to personal friends, Levy suggests that the rapid advances in anthropomorphic technology and computer personalities will make it possible to actually fall in love with a robot. Technophilia, sexbots and even teledildonics — the control of sexual devices via the Internet — are already a reality. But will loving robots like the Boy loved the Velveteen Rabbit make them real? Ask Feelix, a 70-centimeter robot made out of Legos who was programmed to "feel" anger, fear, happiness, sadness and surprise. He undoubtedly thinks so.

— Valley Haggard

"Moon Road: Poems 1986-2005" by Ron Smith (Louisiana State University, $16.95)

Ron Smith's newest poetry collection navigates territories both familiar and far-off. From the rich tangle of family life to the sometimes-disorienting revelations of travel, Smith's carefully crafted poems are intimate and readable. Among the finest poems in this collection are those dealing with the snarl of sadness and pleasure that loops through every family's history. Tellingly, the collection opens and closes on these themes.

In "Washington County Georgia, 1941," the poet imagines a family waiting at a country bus depot as one son, a Marine recruit, mounts the bus steps to go. Each one — brothers, father, sister, mother — faces this departure with raw and muted sorrow. But it's the mother's outrage and grief that are captured best in the poem's precise details:

… his tiny momma,

black hair up in a knot, face a fist, walks right up

to fresh creased knees and spits,

"You look like joining the Marine Corps"

in breath sweet with Buttercup snuff.

Smith translates these mysteries of inheritance and kinship through well-wrought images and resonant language.

Whether writing about complex human relationships or a surreal visit to modern-day Jerusalem, Smith's verse deftly employs the strategies of lyric poetry. "Moon Road" ends with "When I Was Eight," an elegiac poem about a canoe trip never taken by two brothers:

We never went, never

skimmed the brown water, leaning

on the river's weight as the gator

left his bank to pull the long tail

in behind like memory. …

Tender and accessible, "Moon Road" offers poetry grounded in experience and clear-eyed observation.

— Catherine MacDonald

"Five Skies" by Ron Carlson, (Viking, $23.95)

"Five Skies" is a story about three men — a foreman and two hired hands — who work together to build a structure over a remote river gorge, high in the Idaho mountains. Each man is of a different generation and each is haunted by the past. The boy, Ronnie, is a former thief running from a prison sentence. The oldest, Darwin, wrestles with God over the death of his wife.

But the novel focuses on the middle-aged Arthur Key, who blames himself for the death of his brother. Key engages in the high form of industrial and construction arts and uses his love for engineering the way most folks use religion: as a guide for daily living. All is discipline: every hammered nail and tightened bolt. Any obstacle encountered is addressed and met with fierce problem-solving. The same does not hold true for defects in their hearts, minds or histories. Still, the work and the science girding it help the men make some sense of their chaotic lives disfigured by unpredictable love and unabated loss. It enables them to confront and begin to reconcile their suffering.

The men rely on proper tool maintenance and repair, exact fits, the laws of physics and the principles of design — restoring themselves, along with a logic and ethos, to the vanishing American West. In so doing, it seems that if they don't complete their project, their argument for existence would fall away as well. "What do you think they're going to think about it in a thousand years?" one of the characters asks. "What do they think of it today?" another answers. The writing is gorgeous but not dripping, and it resembles the various, indifferent and dramatic landscapes it tries to capture. The final lessons of this novel are not discovered in the completed monument of their effort, but in these characters and their choices to struggle through life and to work together. Each task they perform represents an opportunity for a mastery of both skill and days.

— Darren Morris

"I Got Thunder: Black Women Songwriters on Their Craft" Edited by LaShonda Katrice Barnett (Thunder's Mouth Press, $15.99)

The title of acclaimed singer/songwriter Abbey Lincoln's song, "I Got Thunder (And It Rings)" sums up the strength, vivid sensitivity and intensity of the works produced by the prolific black female songwriters and composers of the 20th century. Like the song, LaShonda Katrice Barnett's read is a kaleidoscope of colorful interviews exploring the creative process of 20 legendary songwriters, including Chaka Khan, Lincoln and Nina Simone, among others.

A professor at Sarah Lawrence College, Barnett was inspired to delve into these artists' craft when she realized how little attention was paid to their artistic genius, the media focusing instead on drama-queen stereotypes. By revealing the singers' wide range of inspirations — Lincoln is inspired by "a holy muse"; Dianne Reeves by great books by black women — the interviews illustrate just how unique each artist's songwriting process is. "I Got Thunder" is a must-read for music scholars and casual listeners alike. -Maree Morris S

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