Decades ago, I was invited to dinner at the house of Theodore and Wina Sturgeon in Los Angeles with Marvin Minsky, whose life work and passion was and still is the creation of Artificial Intelligence, and inevitably the table talk turned to the subject thereof.
Minsky was convinced that sooner or later he and his team at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory or others working in the field would succeed in producing a program running on a computer that would not only achieve intelligence, but eventually intelligence that would surpass that of homo sapiens. That yes, we could create an intelligence greater than our own that would supercede us as the crown of terrestrial creation.
“But Marvin,” I asked, “why would we want to do such a thing?”
“Because,” he said, “it’s consciousness that counts, not the physical matrix.”
Minsky would go on to develop a complex theory called the Society of Mind that may or may not be a convincing explanation of how the pattern of patterns we call the “mind” arises in the physical matrix of the brain. He even wrote a science fiction novel with Harry Harrison called The Turing Option about an “intelligent” robot.
And Vernor Vinge and his scientific and science fictional acolytes, following in Minsky’s footsteps, have championed the concept of the Singularity.
The idea being that we will inevitably create an Artificial Intelligence within the physical matrix of a computer that not only supercedes humanity’s level of intelligence and speed of thought processes but is capable of then creating a second generation Artificial Intelligence superceding its own with even faster thought processes. Which in turn does likewise in creating the next superceding generation, and the one after that, and so on, and so forth, faster, and faster, and faster along an upward asymptotic curve approaching infinity as a limit, until the so-called Singularity is reached, in which Artificial Intelligence transcends “physical” reality and exists in a hypereality that mere humans can neither enter nor comprehend, and we either go extinct or become the pets thereof in virtual realities created for the purpose.
But why would the human race, after the end result of starting such a process has been so puissantly explicated by the devotees of the Singularity, set it in motion in the first place?
The only answer they seem to have, when they have any answer at all, is more or less the same as that of Marvin Minsky—because it’s intelligence that counts, not the physical matrix.
Can an Artificial Intelligence existing as an immaterial energy pattern in a material matrix be a “being” or never anything more than an emulation thereof?
Is “intelligence” “sentience”? And is “sentience” “consciousness”? And is “consciousness” . . . “soul ”?
Well, the AI scientists and engineers are making some baby step progress in creating software that can learn and create decision-making processes from inputted raw data that in some respects are superior to our own, such as the stock and derivative trading programs that make trades and moola in nanoseconds.
Intelligence, all right.
But can such intelligent programs, no matter how intelligent, become sentient in the manner that a dog, or a cat, or even a lizard or a fish or a snail is sentient—that is, possessed, of sufficient sensory awareness of the environmental surround and sufficiently sophisticated tropisms to react to it “emotionally”?
And even if such sentient programs can exist, can they become “conscious,” “self-aware,” meaning aware that they have “selves” to be aware of ? And even if they are self-aware, can they be self-motivated, meaning making choices on the basis of emotional wants and/or moral judgments?
Meaning possessed of at least some degree of free will, rather than being deterministic machines of the bits and bytes.
Meaning “beings” with . . . “souls”?
What does all this have to do with science fiction?
Ask not what these questions have to do with science fiction, ask what science fiction has to do with these questions, and the answer becomes obvious. Such questions have always been central thematic material of science fiction, and more and more so as the literature evolved more and more sophistication in philosophical theological depth and the literary skill to tackle them, and as science and technology have progressed in bringing them more and more front and center in the current real world and the real world to come.
Aliens. Mutants. Robots. Androids. Monsters. Virtual intelligences of the bits and bytes. Surely nothing has been more central to the thematic heart of science fiction than the confrontation of the human consciousness with the Other, and the question of whether the Other is or can be a self-aware moral being like Us.
Dr. Frankenstein’s creation, Mary Shelley’s fictional character in Frankenstein, cobbled together from bits and pieces of dead humans and brought to life by science, is a physical monster in human eyes and even in his own. And yet in the novel, and even the better of the endless movies, he struggles to become a moral being, fitfully capable of love and wounded by rejection, possessed of sufficient self-awareness to be tormented by his own horrid ugliness in human eyes and the rejection as the Other it engenders, and ultimately driven into evil and self-hatred by it.
Brian Aldiss has made a good case for Frankenstein as the first true science fiction novel, and in those terms it is. However, dumbed down, stripped of its moral complexities and subtleties, its sympathy for the Other, its ultimate tragic theme, it has become a schlockmeister template for over a century’s worth of bug-eyed monster, tentacled alien, evil and/or deformed mutant stories, whose lack of its sympathy for the Other is the antithesis of what Mary Shelley’s original is about.
But toward the second half of the twentieth century, at least, the knee-jerk equation of the physically ugly Other with the morally and spiritually repugnant Other has pretty much gone the way of racism and sexism in anything but the most simple-minded schlock.
THE HUMAN BLEND
by Alan Dean Foster,
Del Rey $15.00
In works like the first two novels of Alan Dean Foster’s “Tipping Point Trilogy,” The Human Blend and Body, Inc., the physically alien are not the Others, they are entirely Us.
I must confess that prior to reading Sagramanda, which I reviewed enthusiastically in these pages, I overlooked Alan Dean Foster as a serious novelist. This was mainly because of the novelizations of media properties he had written and for which he was therefore most widely known, even as I am most widely known for writing the iconic classic Star Trek episode “The Doomsday Machine” in certain circles, twenty-five or so published novels or not.
But something about Sagramanda drew me into it. Reading it opened my eyes in regards to Foster’s literary and extrapolative skill when he got serious, so I read The Human Blend as soon as I received it, somehow overlooking the fact that it was the first novel in a trilogy until fairly close to the end, when it was too late.
Too late because I loathe being sucked into a story that I find engaging only to be left hanging in mid-air with a case of the literary blue balls, and having to wait months or even years for the next installment, and again for the conclusion, assuming there is ever going to be one.
by Alan Dean Foster,
Del Rey, $15.00
Nevertheless, The Human Blend hooked me. While in Sagramanda Foster had demonstrated his impressive ability to immerse a western reader in the extrapolated future of an “alien” civilization, that of India, in the relatively near future of The Human Blend, and even more so in the sequel, Body, Inc., he does much the same thing for the multicultural globalized world civilization.
In this relatively near future, global warming has transformed the climate, the geology of the seacoasts, and so forth, but not in an apocalyptic manner beyond the ability of human civilization to adapt. Foster, a seasoned world traveler, does a masterful job of creating local geography, physical environment, and street level culture, thereby cleverly evoking the complexity of the whole, in Savannah, USA, in various locales in Southern Africa, in who knows where in volume three.
This is a future not that much different from our present in most aspects; powerful multinational corporations and their machinations, big gaps between wealth and poverty that differ locale by locale, modestly advanced technology, popular cultures not disconnected from their ancestry in our present, and so forth.
A rather familiar and comfortable future for the contemporary reader of science fiction. Except for one technology not uncommon in the literature that usually makes the contemporary reader queasily uncomfortable and is usually meant to, namely extreme body modification, via which we have not only met the Other and they are Us, but we have made ourselves so.
Now this sort of thing has been a staple of science fiction for at least a decade or so, and you need only wander certain precincts in modern cities or the hotel halls of science fiction conventions to see that tattoos and piercings have become far more commonplace than they were before the final decade or so of the twentieth century—and, at least when it comes to piercings, a lot more extreme. So it would seem inevitable that science fiction, and particularly science fiction of the (anything) punk variety, would extrapolate from this to voluntary mods of the human phenotype itself for utility, fashion, and the hell of it, and that’s what Alan Dean Foster has done here.
In this not-too-far future, the human body itself can be modified almost limitlessly, given the organs, limbs, tentacles, skin, hair, fur, scales, dentition, whatever, of any animal, or the previously non-existent. And not by genetic engineering that would have to be done prior to birth, but to pre-existing adult bodies, and not once, but as many times as you wish, as long as you can afford the additional mods.
How this can be possible is pretty rubbery science, and Foster wisely doesn’t try to get too deeply into it. But this is, after all, science fiction, and there’s no real problem with taking it as a given.
The two protagonists and viewpoint characters of The Human Blend and Body, Inc., and no doubt of the third novel to come, are Dr. Ingrid Seastrom, a “Natural”—that is, one of the peculiarly conservative minority who eschew body mods even when they can easily afford them because they sort of find them icky—and Whispr, a street thug and very petty wheeler-dealer who has paid for extreme thinness and a tinkered metabolism, but would like to be able to afford more.
Through various schticks of story and fortune, Ingrid and Whispr come into mutual possession of a mysterious item purloined from SICK, a powerful and unprincipled transnational corporation. This item’s use is unknown and its quantum physical nature should not be possible. The quest for understanding of it motivates Ingrid, while the ruthless lethal means being used in attempts to retrieve it convinces Whispr that it must be worth mucho dinero.
So the first two novels of The Tipping Point trilogy—and by the cliff-hanger ending of Body, Inc. probably the third—are about fugitives on the road of flight, fleeing from those after what they are holding while seeking to find out just what that is, from Savannah to various venues in South Africa, wild, urban, and in transit. they are ultimately pursued by Napun Mole, the stone-cold hired hitman of SICK whose mission is to retrieve the item, upon which retrieval his pleasure will be to kill them.A series of teaser partial revelations, chases, and escapes has been the plot structure of two novels thus far, and their weakness. Particularly of Body, Inc. since The Human Blend benefits from the complexities of the set-up, whereas the second novel reads something like The Fugitive (the TV series, not the movie).
And story devolving into formula is one major generic weakness of the trilogy, let alone the open-ended novel series that trilogies tend to devolve into. The other major weakness of the novel series is a paradox that is impossible to avoid, nor does Alan Dean Foster avoid it here.
How can he? How can any writer? It’s a paradox as implacable as Napun Mole. The longer a novel series goes on, the more back story it accumulates, the more back story one has to shoehorn into the ongoing narrative in order to make it comprehensible to anyone who hasn’t read what has gone on before. Doing so not only bogs things down for those who have, but makes it harder and harder for the character-based aspect of the story to evolve.
So why is it, you may well ask, that despite all that, I found the reading of The Human Blend and Body, Inc. frustrating but enjoyable, and will no doubt read the third novel, too?
Because those are the flaws of the novels, but the strengths of the novels lie elsewhere and are considerable.
For one, Alan Dean Foster, the world traveler, is wonderfully inventive and wonderfully entertaining at rendering realistic and vivid the entirely three-dimensional futures of varying specific cultures, and their relation to their natural surrounds. And Foster the hardcore hard SF craftsman when he wants to be is quite formidable in making the tech, the architecture, and the gizmos surprising, but credible in retrospect.
World-building this is called, of course, and when the fictional world-builder is a seasoned world traveler like Alan Dean Foster, who is thoroughly and enthusiastically familiar with the cultural, ecological, and geographic multiplexities of the real world in realtime, the depth, detail, and emotional connection of his fictional one becomes something special.
And for another, Foster is doing something different, or at least quite rare, with the emotions and esthetic reactions evoked in the reader by all these extreme body mods. Science fiction presenting bodily modified humans in a positive light has not exactly been unknown, but it has usually been portrayed as done for practical adaptation—to zero gravity, to breathing water, to the surfaces of alien planets and moons, to hard vacuum, and so forth—and it usually results in homo sapiens branching out into a clade of different species, for better or for worse, and more often than not with alien consciousnesses and cultural agendas.
“We” become collections of “Others.”
But here, though body modified humans are more common than Naturals in Foster’s fictional terrestrial future, and the mods are often enough done for career, work, or other practical purposes, just as often body mods are done for reasons of style, personal obsession, or fashion, much as people in today’s real world choose their clothing, bling, tats, and piercings.
And by making them ubiquitous, Foster eventually shifts the bod mods into the background, makes them seem mundane and ordinary, makes Whispr and the various minor physically alien characters seem like just plain folks, Us, rather than Other.
Or rather, perhaps, the other way around? Perhaps by making these physically Other beings possessed of quite familiar brands of consciousness, and personalities, he is making a point, which may be a central thematic point of the trilogy.
Namely, a strictly protoplasmic version of Marvin Minsky’s declaration that it’s the consciousness that counts, not the physical matrix. That it is a monstrous consciousness, a moral monstrousness—an evil consciousness in plain blunt English, that makes a monstrous being monstrous, the soul, if you will, not the body.
Philip K. Dick told me that in the process of doing research for The Man in The High Castle, his alternate history novel in which the Japanese Empire and Nazi Germany won the Second World War, he came upon a letter a Nazi concentration camp guard had written home to his wife complaining that his sleep was being disturbed at night by the cries of children. Not emotionally or morally disturbed at all, but the sounds were quite a nuisance.
“There are creatures walking among us who look human, but are not human at all,” said Phil.
They look like us but they are really the Other.
If you actually ran across Whispr in the subway, or any number of the bit players, you would probably regard them as quite alien creatures, but actually their personalities and consciousnesses are generally ordinary and familiar.
But while Napun Mole, the relentless pursuing nemesis, is modified to the gills with internal weaponry and sensory equipment, his outward appearance is deliberately that of a somewhat doddery and harmless old man. And Foster has made this antagonist his third viewpoint character, so that the reader knows what all too many of the characters he encounters do not know until it is too late, that hidden within plain sight is a sadistic psychopath, a hideous moral monster.
Am I reading too much into the first two installments of Alan Dean Foster’s trilogy? Maybe on one level I am—something neither I nor any other reader can know until the story is completed. And let us hope that The Tipping Point will be a trilogy with a proper denouement, not an open-ended series.
But after all, on another level, you can’t be reading too much into a work of fiction if you might be getting more out of it than the writer may have intended. Au contraire. Speaking as a writer of fiction myself, that’s not a presumption on the part of the reader, that’s a success devoutly to be wished for on the part of the writer.
Maybe as a critic, I’m about to do it again, with The Games, a first novel by Ted Kosmatka. But speaking as a critic, is it really an insult to the writer to get something out of his novel that he just might not have intended or realized was there? Isn’t assuming that you know more about what he was about than he did a cardinal critical sin?
by Ted Kosmatka,
The Games opens with a short prologue from the point of view of Evan, a seemingly autistic-cum-dyslexic young boy with certain vague mental prowesses being tested and evaluated and eventually taken from his mother for specialized institutionalized upbringing. Then the novel proceeds to Part I, Chapter One, Distant Thunder: what appears to be, and in a certain sense is, the build-up to a fairly conventional monster movie in prose fictional clothing.
“They conceive trouble and give birth to evil; their wombs fashion deceit,” Kosmatka quotes from the Bible.
Yes, they do.
In this near future, a Gladiator competition has become the feature attraction of the Olympic Games. Nations use advanced recombinant genetic synthesis technology to create monsters as their champions. These things really are monsters and forthrightly intended as such, and the more powerful, bloodthirsty, vicious, and hideous, the better. The only rule is that no human DNA may be included in their genomes. They are quite literally evil incarnate, genetically programmed to have no other motivations but to feed and to kill.
The Gladiator Competition is literally a process of elimination, a protoplasmic demolition derby. Bout by bout, these National Monsters fight to the death until two of them reach the final and fight to the death for the Gold Medal, after which the winner is slaughtered.
The lead male viewpoint protagonist is Silas Williams, the scientist in charge of creating and preparing the American Gladiator for the latest Olympic Games. The lead female protagonist and viewpoint character is Vidonia Joao, the xenobiologist called in when the American Monster proves far more uncontrollably monstrous than bargained for. The heavy viewpoint nemesis is Stephen Baskov, the ruthless head of the US Olympic Commission.
The threadbare excuse for creating these monster Gladiators to battle to the death in a latter day Roman arena is that it advances the genetic technology needed to create them, which serves the cause of medical advances. Actually, of course, it’s really about national chauvinism, like World Cup soccer, and corporate greed.
But hey, these monsters are just mindless protoplasmic killing machines, unable to reproduce, the sole survivor done away with after winning the Gold Medal. So who gives a damn, no problem, right?
Well, of course, wrong. You pretty much know early on that Williams & Co. are going to create an uber-monster that’s going to be more than the best-laid plans of mice and men can handle, that it’s going to escape and do a Godzilla act, that Silas and Vidonia are going to become an item during their perilous quest to destroy it before it can destroy humanity, and so forth, and that doesn’t turn out to be exactly wrong.
However. . . .
While these bare bones of the plot line may be all too familiar, and while the characters may seem a bit generic, Ted Kosmatka is first-rate and quite sophisticated when it comes to the genetic engineering and science involved. And the science itself is not only central to the action of the story but also to its characterological aspects, and in the end to a surprising and suddenly much deeper moral and philosophical epiphany and turnaround at the denouement that I am going to find difficult to discuss without giving away too much.
But I’ll give it a try.
Gladiators are synthesized by copying genetic sequences from various savage beasties as computer data, resequencing the DNA to produce the desired monster, and then cranking out the genome that will produce the desired phenome on a chromosome synthesizer, a process not all that far advanced from real cutting edge technology today.
The American monsters have been winning the Gladiator Gold since the competition was added to the Olympics because they have been designed with the aid of the world’s most advanced supercomputer.
Evan Chandler, the boy from the prologue, now a grossly fat, socially isolated, geekily brilliant, but emotionally frustrated and depressed adult, is the human interface with this computer, via a virtual reality communion with it that is not exactly elucidated by Kosmatka with the admirable scientific and literary clarity of the genetics and biology.
Evan bears a hateful grudge against humanity in general, of which he does not quite believe himself a part, and lacks anything that might be deemed a moral sense. So he somehow creates a sort of alter ego—or rather alter id—virtual child within a virtual reality within the supercomputer who grows stepwise into a kind of god of the machine, in turn becoming the creator of the reality within it, all-powerful, but not all-knowing, omnipotent within its own realm, but not omniscient, and, like his human “father” only more so, lacking not only a moral sensibility, but the very concept of morality itself.
Evan, the pathetic moral monster, creates an all-powerful but amoral personality for the supercomputer. And the god in the machine when called upon to create the ultimate Gladiator pumps out a genome sequence that is not a recombination of any that have ever existed before, but an entirely synthetic sequence that when run through the chromosome synthesizer produces the ultimate Gladiator as a champion not only of the United States but of Evan’s inchoate vengeance against humanity.
This monster is overwhelmingly powerful physically, and of course it escapes. Against the Olympic rules, it is all too capable of reproduction. It is intelligent enough to speak. But it has only three motivations, or, better ,call them tropisms—kill, eat, reproduce.
So a morally crippled human creates an amoral virtual god that creates an ultimate monster possessed of intelligence and sufficient sentient awareness of its surround to plan an escape, execute it, hide its “eggs” in order to reproduce, but probably lacks self-aware consciousness and certainly the moral dimension of “soul.”
And this is where I had better leave the telling of his tale to Ted Kosmatka. Because he is going to spring two very major surprises on the reader who follows it to the end, one a piece of stone-cold literary bravery that ends the personal stories in a brutal but ruthlessly logical and realistic manner, and the other a contrastingly tender moral turnaround from a quite unexpected source that unexpectedly touches the heart.
It might not be going too far to say that Kosmatka is hard case enough not to be so enamored of pleasing expectant readers with the compulsory sappy happy ending for heroes and heroines as to shy away from dramatic tragedy, but not such a hard case as to be incapable of leaving them with the possibility of scorn for the Us and sympathetic understanding for the Other when that is where the story leads.
Ken MacLeod does something like the latter in The Night Sessions, and something like the former in both that novel and The Restoration Game, only even more so. MacLeod really is a hard case, and I mean that as a compliment.
He is also a fully matured major writer of politically sophisticated and hard-nosed science fiction, more politically sophisticated, educated, and non-ideologically hard-nosed than any other science fiction writer I can think of, uh, myself included. How I could have failed to learn this before now is either a question of my dereliction of duty or the uh, quiet way this Scotsman has been published in the United States, and probably both.
And I’m not committing political incorrectness by mentioning that he is a card-carrying Scotsman. Because MacLeod, in these two novels at least, makes no bones about being a localvore, since both these books are rooted one way or another in his home town of Edinburgh, though both of them range as far afield as New Zealand, the business end of a Space Elevator, and the former Soviet Empire, not to mention a virtual Roman Mars, and always with a kind of medium-boiled logical realism.
THE NIGHT SESSIONS
by Ken MacLeod,
The Night Sessions is a near future police procedural, at least in form, built around the investigation of the murder of a Catholic bishop in Edinburgh by Detective Inspector Adam Ferguson and his sidekick Skulk, both of whom are viewpoint characters, with Ferguson dominating most of the narrative.
But Skulk is a “leki,” a robot designed for police work; the Catholic Church, like all religions in this aggressively secular post-apocalyptic world, while not quite underground, is officially unrecognized; and there is a secondary narrative set in New Zealand in a kind of creationist theme park cum-rogue-robot sanctuary centered on another viewpoint character who preaches Biblical truth to only semi-legal conscious robots.
The Night Sessions is indeed a murder mystery, but the murder is the McGuffin around which exfoliates a complex deeply sophisticated political novel— a political thriller one might call it if that weren’t too superficial—involving a religiously motivated plot to destroy a Space Elevator spearheaded by an operative who may be a robot masquerading as a human or may be a human masquerading as a robot.
Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics do not apply here! Skulk, and lekis like him, are programmed to be self-aware and conscious, and have genuine “personalities”—to the point where Ferguson has what can only be called a real friendship with Skulk—but not necessarily a sense of self-preservation. Military robots are programmed to kill. Robots can lie when appropriate. Rogue robots, that is robots programmed to be fully self-aware conscious beings, arguably have souls, and indeed are proselytized by Christian sects. The “souls” or “personalities” or “consciousnesses” of robots exist on chips that can be transferred from one body to another, backed up, duplicated. Robots can and do sacrifice themselves, or iterations of their selves, for perceived higher goods.
The Night Sessions is ultimately a cool political novel at its core, more descriptive and analytical than politically committed. But it also applies the same evenness of approach to what otherwise would be deeply metaphysical disputation as to the ultimate nature of these varied levels of robotic entities, and indeed the world MacLeod creates more or less does the same.
Intelligent? Sentient? Conscious? Clever machines? Full beings with souls?
Any of the above, depending on the software. It’s the programming that determines the AI state of being here, and while it can get out of control, turn inimical or immoral, so can and do conscious humans. And so too can conscious souls, in protoplasmic or metallic matrices, also attain moral nobility.
THE RESTORATION GAME
What if it is virtual all the way down?
by Ken MacLeod,
The Restoration Game in form, in ambiance, and in rich detail, is a political espionage novel, also set partly in Edinburgh, this time in the near past, but dominantly in the post-Soviet so-called “Near Abroad” Eastern Europe in the fictional pocket republic Krassnia, which does and does not exactly exist, and in several more or less immediate pasts, not futures. And aside from a four-page prologue that seems to be a description of a video game set in an imaginary Mars where you play a twenty-third century Roman Centurion, it doesn’t turn into anything like a science fiction novel until revealed as such at the very end.
And now I find myself in much the same sort of quandary as I did with the denouement of The Games, only more so, unable to discuss the thematic epiphany of The Restoration Game without ruining the novel for the reader, but having to try to do it anyway. . . .
Lucy Stone, the first person narrator, grew up in Soviet Krassnia, where her mother, and her grandmother too, had been spooks, and maybe for more than one agency at the same time. Present tense, she works with a gaming company in Edinburgh, working on a video game called the Krassniad. She is recruited to go to Krassnia to uncover the secret atop a tabooed mountain there that, whatever it is, scared the living shit out of Joseph Stalin and Lavrenti Beria, and what she finds there is—
I should say no more, so I won’t.
Except that the novel comes full circle round, and in the end, does reveal the sense and nature of the prologue. For the rest of the novel this has seemed irrelevant, but in the end it is revealed as absolutely central, and demonstrates why this is indeed a science fiction novel—an excellent one concerned with Artificial Intelligence, the Singularity, and the nature of “our” reality itself.
Enough! Hopefully not more than enough.
I had better close by repeating a mantra I repeat any number of times in my own novel He Walked Among Us, if only to contradict it. Don’t worry, you won’t know why unless and until you read The Restoration Game for yourself.
“What is, is real.”
But what if it isn’t?
Copyright © 2012 Norman Spinrad