Thursday, November 29, 2007

Three Novels by Cory Doctorow

I haven't restarted working on the novel yet. Too many ideas and choices are churning around. So I've been working on short fiction and doing a lot of reading.

I've been following Cory Doctorow's copyright discussions and blogs. The descent from high minded ideals down into personal attacks and mud slinging has been very entertaining. Once any group has defined its ideology as unequivocally right and the opposing viewpoint as wrong, reasoned debate is thrown out the window and vilification is embraced. Whether this is about global warming, liberal/right wing politics, Baptist preaching or copywrite is moot. But that's the subject of another time when I'll write about it with the freedom that only a complete absence of readership brings.

Following the discussion did make me curious about Cory Doctorow's actual writing, the subject of the debate. So I downloaded PDF's of several works. So far I've made it through Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town (SCTT), Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom (D&O), and After the Siege (ATS). In that order. I'll be working through the rest by an by.

The first thing that I found is that CD is an absolutely stunning prosist. The sheer physicality of the language is very impressive. I was reminded of Norman Mailer and, of course, Harlan Ellison. The comparison is more than skin deep but more on that in a moment.

However, I found SCTT largely inconsequential as most of the beginning of the novel involves a fairly smarmy individual trying to involve himself in the people around him. Since the depiction of what is going internally is fairly spare, beautiful prose notwithstanding, the reader is left to piece together the motivations of the main character by what he does: managing various fringe businesses, making the market area near where he lives interconnect wirelessly, determining the various states of mindfulness of his neighbors.

In the hands of a true master, like Mailer or Joyce Carol Oates, this would be riveting since we would actually be looking deep into the characters involved. But CD is not a master in this work. The characters are superficially drawn and there is a glaring false mystery veiling the true mystery of the main character's past: he's born of the union of a mountain and a washing machine. He fell in love with a normal human woman at a young age who was murdered by his unkillable younger brother. That was pretty interesting stuff-- except for the washing machine. You can't call it failure of nerve. But you can call it failure of metaphor.

Something similar happened in Down and Out. Now this was a book recommended to me by people whose opinion I value. But reading it was really, really difficult. Again, the beautiful prose. This time the metaphorical failure was not so glaring-- popularity replacing money as a token of worth in a world driven almost solely by entertainment and other forms of self-gratification plays pretty well in my book. I didn't completely buy the premise that in the absence of physical need only popularity remained. But I could live with it-- though calling the result the "Bitchun Society" and popularity "whuffie" seemed a failure of language more in tune with the token technoexcresence of Star Trek than anything else. But that's a small thing.

The big problem with D&O was the idiot plot. It only worked because the characters were idiots.

For example, we have the main character, Jules, get murdered and restored from backup early on in the novel. A mystery, right? Somebody has killed you and you've risen from the dead-- serious metaphorical meat. But, of course, this is so incredibly common that nobody really seems to give a damn. People are restored from the dead so often that it's become mundane. Everybody backs up regularly, right? Anybody that didn't would be considered pretty strange, right?

Well, no, actually. After he's been shot, Jules continues to work, do bad things, then worse things, knowing he might be shot again. He's cut off from the electronic world-- something so incredibly unknown that half his senses and his own physiological well being is affected. Does he go and get repaired? No. He shrugs it off. Does anyone else notice? No.

I've been working in software engineering for nearly all my adult life. If I lose email or web access, I get ripshit. I tear a new one in my provider until it's fixed. If I disappear off the net for a few days, people notice. So: the members of the Bitchun Society can't seem to match the savvy of PC's and the internet? It was like watching one of those really, really bad SF or horror movies where a character does something completely contrary to their own survival that you just know they're going to be chopped into hamburger in the next forty seconds.

One possible interpretation of the book is with the loss of personal stakes in the world life ultimately becomes trivial. Those that make the trivial the reason for their existence become idiots. Perhaps. But many times Jules would do something stupid, or the people around him would do something stupid, and I would put down the book. If it hadn't been so highly recommended I wouldn't have picked it back up.

D&O was such an unpleasant experience that I was reluctant to read After the Siege. I was glad I overcame it. Here was CD using his powers for Good rather than Evil.

ATS is the story of a post revolutionary society where the revolution was technological: cheap nanotech makes life better. There's a strong overtone of Euro-socialism in it which I liked. Cultural memes don't come to life without history. It makes perfect sense to me that a technological revolution would be reinterpreted by the culture that adopts it. In America, the same revolution might be interpreted as the triumph of the Free Market. In both cases, the culture interprets the revolution in its own terms.

But this is my interpretation of the style of the work. Unlike the SCTT and D&O, there is no rhetoric nor does there need to be. ATS is the story of Valentina beginning when she is a young girl in love with the new toys of the revolution. Her world comes apart when the revolution becomes a casualty of an ever escalating war. This is not a story for those who like the blare of the trumpet or the steely gaze of a muscular hero. This is a war more like siege of Stalingrad than anything else. Valentina's growth from child to young adult in wartime is beautifully constructed. There is no misstep of character or voice and the prose is controlled and sophisticated.

So: three works, two of which aren't so great but are extremely popular. One that I only found by chance without ever hearing about it at all. Is it me?

Well, yes. Probably. Clearly I'm out of step with the culture. So it goes.

Still, while I was reacting to these works I kept being haunted by the familiarity of these feelings. Then, I remembered Harlan Ellison.

I was a big fan of Ellison until I was about 30. Sometime around then, I just wandered away from him. I was no longer interested in his work or, for that matter, in him. A good friend of mine said it this way. A writer is supposed to walk up to the edge of the abyss and look over, then tell you what he sees. And what is in the abyss is not only the pain and suffering of the human condition-- Bhudda showed us that a couple of thousand years ago. The writer shows us the meaning of what he sees in the abyss. Ellison walks up to the edge of the abyss and then continues walking, on air, to the other side without ever looking down.

Ellison has also created a persona that cannot be separated from his work. He went from writing Ellison stories to writing Ellison stories.

Doctorow is not, I think, at the point of having his authorial persona subsume his body of work. But in D&O and SCTT, he's guilty of the same Ellisonian problem of being so in love with the metaphorical mechanics of the story that the deeper human meaning is lost. This is certainly true of D&O. The interesting arc of the novel lies in the relationships between the two male characters, Dan and Jules. Dan betrays Jules more than once but Jules has no deep reaction. Jules himself grows as he continues without backup or electronic enhancement. His previous persona grows ever more stale. As this happens, an interesting relationship develops between his current self (changing and growing older) and his younger, stored, backup self that begins to resemble a father's connection to an absent son. This is dynamite stuff but it is given short shrift. The clunky society and plot overwhelm the human connections.

As I said, it's possible the book itself is a comment on the trivialization of human experience when the goals become trivial. However, any discovery mitigating the problems that might support this point of view come too little and too late in the book to be useful.

What we can say about CD is that, as shown by ATS, he is certainly capable of more significant work. ATS does not suffer from cute ideas and tricky plot trivializing the character relationships. It has all of the heart and spirit that D&O and SCTT lack.

This discussion may be moot. Clearly, the marketplace has decided the issues I have with D&O and SCTT are not significant. Problems of character in current fiction in general and genre fiction in specific have been noted before. Lots of popular fiction is filled with cardboard cutouts in lieu of people-- the best seller list is filled with them.

But often when you look at the work of these successful authors over a few books, you can see that they have either made a deliberate choice to use stereotyped characters and character relationships or they are incapable of doing anything better.

This is precisely why these three novels of CD are so interesting. Both D&O and SCTT would have been much, much stronger with better characters. Did CD choose to thin his characters out? Certainly, as we can see in ATS, it's not a matter of capability.

And if he had, would the market have still embraced them?

Monday, November 12, 2007

Who Am Us, Anyway, Part Tres

I've been speaking of religion versus science for a bit now. Especially as it comes down to religion. Now it's time to speak of evolution specifically.

A quick definition of terms here. Evolution is descent with modification by means of selection-- Darwin's original thesis. Darwin postulated a means by which traits can be inherited. (Darwin did not have the benefit of Mendel's work at the time.) Selection is the mechanism by which organisms can compete against one another with reproductive success as the goal.

So: you have your mother's eyes and your father's hair. She was nearsighted so you're going to be at a disadvantage without spectacles. He lost his hair later in life but that's probably not going to mean much in fathering your children.

No problem yet.

Where Darwin grappled with demons was when he neglected to leave humans out of the equation."Man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin."

People didn't take kindly to that. Earth kicked out of the center of the universe. Solar system kicked out of the center of all things. Man kicked out of the special category in the creation of life.

In the human tradition of arrogance that demands that we be on center stage in the face of all evidence to the contrary, facts are dismissed, evidence discarded, tiny face saving definitions abound, women are stolen and cattle raped. It's enough for Mel Brooks to make a movie.

In this last article on the subject of human evolution, I'm going to make the following statements and back them up. Then, I will have said everything on the subject I care to save for what makes good stories:

Evolution is diametrically opposed to many religions but not in the way you think.
Denying the role of evolution in how animals, including ourselves, are built, how we behave, how life itself operates is nothing short of blasphemous.

I am an atheist-- a subject for another blog, I suppose. But even a blind man can smell hypocrisy when the wind blows. So, I'm putting my two cents in.

1. Evolution is diametrically opposed to many religions but not in the way you think.

Most religions have an element of fate and submission implicit in their construction. Christianity is based on submitting to the will of God. In western religions, chance is seen as the Hand of God. Eastern religions are more open to different ideas but even there, fate is something that must be accepted.

Evolution measures everything in terms of reproductive success. If you're the best playwright in London and have no kids, from the point of evolution you've wasted your time. If you're a doctor and saved thousands of children and had a single child, your genes now have to compete with all of those thousands of children you saved.

This is one view of evolution-- the "Nature, red in tooth and claw" approach. This presumes that only predator/prey relationships can be effective in evolution.

But what makes human beings human? I submit that our fundamental adaptation, the one mechanism that we do better than any other vertebrate is our ability to cooperate with one another. Speech is a means to this goal. Often, reproduction itself is used as a means to secure cooperation-- consider the way families married out to enhance the nobility. (See sexual selection.)

A more universal view of evolution is the success of any reproductive strategy-- cooperation included. Human society (including, I think, religion) is a product of evolution.

Well, it's been at least a hundred thousand years since food and survival skills solely drove human reproductive success. The proper competitive milieu for evolving cooperation is within the human group. Just because the basics of survival are taken care of didn't mean that competition for reproductive success goes away. It just meant that the tokens of reproductive success were different. The success of the group often means the results of the hunt or gathering must be shared. The status of the best hunter or gatherer might be enough to insure reproductive success but status could be accrued in other ways. The best singer, the best story teller, or other "less productive" accomplishments can also spell reproductive success.

Therefore, at some point in the human past, additional human skills beyond those that directly brought in food and protected the group became important. In recent years, they've transcended the original goals. We program computers to make a living instead of going out there and hunting it directly.

One universal truth of evolution is that the current organism is the result of many events, encounters and decisions of its parent organisms. We are what our parents made us.

Given human evolution has for a long time been driven by choices and decisions as much as by chance and circumstance. My parents met in Eastern New Mexico and had me in Southern California. Choice had a great deal to do with it. Evolution works with the organism as it is. Humans aren't flatworms and the selection pressures on humans are likely not the same as on flatworms.

Therefore, we are not the result of supernatural decisions and plans by the current incarnation of the hopes, dreams and aspirations of those who came before us. This is not rhetoric. Anybody reading Gilgamesh will understand that Sumerians were driven by the same needs and hopes we are driven by today. Gilgamesh was written by humans for humans. The ochre dyes and flowers left in Cro-Magnon graves were left by human beings. Not jellyfish or fruit flies.

Human beings are our ancestors, with all their foibles, idiosyncrasies, good and evil. Some reproductive success was achieved by rape and oppression and they are, therefore, still with us. Some reproductive success was achieved by kindness and song and they are, therefore, still with us.

We came from ourselves. Where we are going is defined by ourselves.

Now, contrast this with any religion you can name. The closest analogs are those religions driven by reincarnation and karma. Humans are born bearing the stamp of their previous lives and die creating the stamp of the next. But the Wheel of Creation was not created by human beings. It is a fact of creation-- we did not make the decisions that created the process but our decisions perpetuate it. It's an interesting metaphorical parallel to evolution but, I submit, by not allowing human beings a central role in creating the process by which it operates, it is submission in disguise.

Western religions are more explicit. You must submit to the Will of God. He is responsible for your creation. He is responsible for the events in your life. Devils are introduced to make the believer stray from the true path. Evolution says, simply, you're here because of the decisions made by your ancestors and random chance. Nothing more. It says, also, that you have the same capability as your ancestors for shaping your destiny and the destiny of your children. Further, it says that if you do so you will be granted better success with your offspring. God, Godhead or Karma need not apply.

2. Denying the role of evolution in how animals, including ourselves, are built, how we behave, how life itself operates is nothing short of blasphemous.

In religions, the supernatural power of God or Godhead is infinite and without compare. In western religions, God is beyond time and nothing is beyond God.

Therefore, the actual time of world creation is moot. It could have happened six thousand years ago, six billion years ago or six seconds ago. There's no proof that the universe, whole and entire, was not created the last moment I blinked. To suggest otherwise is to limit the power of God to our own understanding-- something we cannot do without presuming the knowledge of God for ourselves.

Regardless of when creation occurred, or if it occurred, what did occur results in the world that is before us. Ducks and dragonflies, whales and water spiders, volcanoes and vultures.

To deny the model of evolution as a representation of how life operates today is without merit. Even the most ardent creationists will admit that, dividing evolution into microevolution, the change of traits over time and macroevolution, the rise and fall of species. Microevolution occurs. Macroevolution didn't. Bacteria and fruit flies exhibit microevolution. Macroevolution implies human descent and is therefore forbidden.

However, there is also no mistaking what science tells us of our history. All mammals have essentially the same bone structures. Some bones in the mammal are embryologically derived from reptiles. The DNA homology studies have sure found relationships between animal and plant groups. By and large, these relationships are borne out by the fossil record. The relationships are real. It's the origin of those relationships that is in question.

Given God had a set of infinite choices about how he might have created the universe, he chose what we have. We don't know why. We don't know when. But we do know what because that's right in front of us.

Therefore, he chose these relationships. He might have chosen them for our instruction-- we don't know that. There's nothing in the holy books to suggest it. He might have chosen them because, for reasons we cannot know, they were the best choice.

Regardless, God built the world in the way He thought was best. And, embedded in that world, is a pattern of life that suggests evolution. That, in fact, in the absence of God, could not have occurred any other way. I submit that for the believer this is an important idea. If God created the world as if evolution had occurred he must have intended it. Therefore, for us to deny something that he created intentionally is to presume God-like knowledge for ourselves. Presuming God is, at least in Western religions, blasphemy.

Who Am Us, Anyway, Part Deux

The evolution debate is largely one of superstition versus science. For those of us who actually understand what science is, its limitations and strengths, it always seems an absurd discussion. Imagine standing in a heated room in the middle winter and having someone tell you in all serious that there is no such thing as winter. After all, it's warm, isn't it? It's hard to argue against such things. You have a tendency to stare at them and wonder if they're the same species.

Okay. Forget evolution for the moment. Let's first try to define what science is.

Science is the organized study of fact is coupled with human modeling of what those facts represent. Underlying this concept are a few assumptions and principles. Facts can't be discarded because they're inconvenient. The integrity of a scientist is not based on money or status but on the quality of his data and the consistency of his model. Models must be based on facts and must have provability and predictability. Provability means that new facts hitherto undiscovered will support the model. Predictability means that the model will guide the searching of new facts.

Einstein's model of space time and the behavior of light and gravity were elegant and beautiful concepts. But they remained unproved until the actual observation of the bending of light was observed. Einstein's model was disprovable-- if the light hadn't bent it would have disproved the model. It was predictable-- it prescribed a set of experiments that would have specified behavior. Often provability is extremely difficult while disprovability might be relatively easy. Therefore, defining the nature of disproof can be as important or even more important than defining the nature of proof. Einstein's model of space-time and gravity is a good example of this. It is still yet to be completely proven, despite the fact we use it all the time. But attempts to disprove it have failed. Therefore, the evidence currently falls on the probably true side rather than this is a stopgap until something better comes along.

Modern science, that is in the last century or so, has tended to believe in universality. That is, behavior observed locally or in one specific venue is presumed to be indicative that the same behavior will be observed in all similar localities. Physics is physics regardless of where you do it. That means that the speed of light is the same at the core of the galaxy as it is in New Jersey. There is no possible proof of this: we can't go everywhere. But the hope is that inconsistencies in the behavior of the observable universe will give evidence one way or the other. The evidence has landed heavily on the side of universality though some cosmological observations have been a tough challenge.

This is what science is. Not what science means emotionally. Science is a cultural mechanism for handling lack of knowledge. It is recognition of ignorance. It is a celebration of the unknown. It is a mechanism of finding out. Uncertainty is central to science. Good scientists must be comfortable (though not satisfied) with not knowing something. They spin models of what might be the underlying mechanism producing an observable fact. Then, they devise means to determine whether or not they can prove or disprove that model.

This is an interesting phenomenon. Human beings are not general comfortable with not knowing. Yet, here is a cultural process that requires not knowing. Scientists are also comfortable with a partial truth-- perhaps more so than a complete truth. A complete truth is essentially a fact and as such must therefore be proven. A partial truth can be viewed as an incomplete model. It answers some questions but not others, poses new questions that are interesting and fails in some area of the data. The failure can be as enlightening as a success in science.

A good example is Einstein's model of space-time, gravity and relativity. All well known phenomena. Einstein's model operates beautifully at large scales and fails miserably at small scales. The quantum model operates beautifully at the small scales but does not scale up. So we have two models of the same universe that do not agree. Do we throw up our hands and give up?

No. We accept the limitations of the models and use them where we have deemed them appropriate. The failures of both models have useful information. Both suggest the problems that must be overcome by a third model that must explain the behavior of the first two models. But this in no way detracts from the validity of the models in their respective domains. It just says where and when you can use those models. To use an analogy, if a model is a house and the toilet leaks in the basement, you don't throw away the house. You either fix the toilet or work around it.

Such partial truths are so important to science they have their own name: a theory. A theory is a partially proven model.

Given the toleration of uncertainty by science, it's not surprising that science often runs afoul of that other cultural institution that deals with uncertainty, religion.

The two institutions handle the same data differently. Science presumes the world is real, therefore unknown, and pursues knowledge. Religion declares the world supernatural, inserts an organizing principle (which may or may not be knowable by a human being), and declares certainty. What's surprising is not that they are in conflict. What's surprising is that the conflict is so muted.

What's not surprising is where the conflict arises today: evolution.

There are few theories that come as close to the area religion holds sacred as the theory of evolution. It falsifies all creation stories. It presumes the rise of human beings without the need of a creator at all. It, in fact, removes from religion the whole necessity of a creation myth-- a common underpinning of all religions. Every religion has a creation story. Evolution says none of them can be scientific fact. Ever. Period. End of story.

Creation myths are important stories. They tell human beings where they come from, describe why they are here and implies where they are going. Perhaps ancient people believed they came from a hold in the ground ascending through concentric worlds, or were born from a magic couple licked out of the ice by a mystical ox or were created from dust in a mysterious garden. Certainly these days many people believe their creation myths to be fact: Got up today. Had a cup of coffee. Read the paper. Got on the train to work. God created the world in six days.

Evolution puts religion in the unenviable place of ignoring a very important piece of science, trying to micromanage it or removing creation myths from the realm of fact entirely and place them squarely (and safely) in the realm of the metaphorical. It's not surprise there's resistance to the idea.

Religious adherents that try to restore creation stories to the realm of fact have to beat science at their own game by disproving evolution. But the home field advantage lies with science. Scientists can tolerate dissident thought and uncertain results. They get them all the time. When the evidence is short a fact or two, or three or four, the adherents claim victory. The scientists are bewildered by their conclusion. Missing a fact or two? That's not disproof any more than missing an observation of Mercury because of cloudy weather disproved Einstein's theory.

The only weapon in the adherent's arsenal is a general misunderstanding of science by the public and a willful misunderstanding by intelligent people who should know better.

It might be nice if humans were able to live completely in the scientific world or the religious world. But we can't. Even monks use electric lights and bricks. Science is an extension of technology and technology is as much a part of who we are as standing upright and speaking. Scientists, for their part, are always pursuing the human endeavor of creating meaning-- religion's chief asset.

My own feelings are based solidly in the work of Joseph Campbell. Religion and other myths give me potential meaning in life. But science defines the facts.

Who Am Us, Anyway, Part 1

I've been watching the religion/science debate for most of my life. The tide has gone both ways. When I was a child, every Wednesday a big semi-trailer came onto the parking lot of the school grounds. Inside the van was a chapel. We were marched out there at recess and preached to. I have no idea what denomination was being preached-- I was six at the time. I was familiar with Hell and Damnation preaching, however, since my Grandmother was a Baptist. This was in Southern California.

Later, the family moved to Huntsville. By this time, Madalyn Murray O'Hair had won her battle and prayers were not overtly allowed in school. The final expulsion of religion occurred later.

But there was still a preacher that lived next to the school and offered cookies to anyone who would come in listen to his sermons and sing his hymns. Free cookies? I was in. A big step up from the van.

Evolution was referred to by what it didn't do. Many of the same arguments that have been trotted out in front of the media in recent times were familiar discussions to me from back then. The watch/watchmaker argument. The missing links argument. The complexity argument. I heard them through Junior High, High School and into college.

What comes through continuously, once I learned to recognize it, was how all of these arguments derived from sheer human arrogance.

Not that religion is the only haven of arrogance. The claim of the Piltdown Man was that he was the earliest found man and he was English! The importance of the latter outweighed the former.

When I was studying invertebrate zoology in college, back just after the Cretaceous Extinction when we were still brushing the meteor ash off our textbooks, the Kingdom of Animalia was divided into two subkingdoms: Invertebrata and Vertebrata, as if by sanctifying one group with our presence we could deny the complexity and relationships of all groups not so sanctified. Some people still feel this way though it's been pretty much superseded by Bilateria and Radiata. (See the Taxonomicon).

I studied neurophysiology at the University of Missouri Veterinary School. We had to deal with the anatomy of many different vertebrates from snake to poultry, cow to cockatiel. The similarities were obvious. At that point, the anatomists there were in a state of simmering anger towards the human anatomists. The names of the different organs and vessels must be different when used for humans than for all other animals. Put a man in a box on all fours, and his superior vena cava became cephalic, inferior artery became caudal-- as it should be since all vertebrates bear the same stamp on our frame. But it could not be done. Again, arrogance that we did it in the first place and inertia that we do not change it.

This blind prejudice extended down into the cells. The term, "primitive", for example, means biologically only that an animal or feature has not changed much over the span of time being observed. It does not say anything about the quality of that animal or feature. Therefore, when we say a platypus is primitive, we mean that the animal has not changed much from when we presume it originated. Such lack of change must indicate that the animal has become sufficiently adapted to its niche that more change is of no selective advantage. Not that it is some misfit animal that only survived because it never had to compete with good Anglo stock.

The fact of the matter is that all existing lineages of metazoans have had pretty much the same span of existence on earth, about five hundred million years give or take. The single celled animals have been here considerably longer-- by some estimates nearly three billion years or about six times as long. What this means is that each organism has been selected against millions of times. There is no reason, for example, to suggest that the hoof of a horse is more or less advanced than the trunk of an elephant or the tentacle of an octopus or the brain of a human. In the case of mammals, many of the changes have been in the last fifty million years but the genetic lineage of mammals, fish, birds, amphibians and reptiles has been going on for much, much longer. Every organism is, in a very real sense, the sum of choices and consequences of its ancestors. It is folly and arrogance to think otherwise.

But such consideration puts human beings squarely adjacent to other animals. We become neither lords nor pawns of the animal kingdom but only colleagues. This clearly will not do.

So, humans change the meaning of evidence and understanding. Observed fact becomes suspect theory. The same people who are perfectly willing to look at the moon at night and turn on their electric heaters willfully deny the significance of the same rules, theories and laws when applied to something as close to their heart as evolution.

Let's make no mistake. Evolution is a threat to how some people view religion. Religion is a mechanism to determine a person's place in the world. It gives the dull power of sanctity to base desires. It places humans square at the top of creation. All religions do this whether it is reincarnation based religions (what defines a "lowly" animal after all?) to Christianity. A model of the universe where humans are not the center of creation, where humans are, in fact, almost incidental to creation, is anathema to religion.

Now, it turns out, that we actually are the center of the world-- the earth, anyway. Not by sacred contract but by right of force. We didn't start out being central to things but at this point, where we usurp as much as a quarter of the total biological output of the earth, we sure are now. No biota can possibly be safe without our sanction. No animal can survive for long without our determination that they be saved. Let's make no mistake about this: we run things. We are often thumb fingered, ignorant, idiots about it but by God we're in charge.

So, one might wonder, if we're so fully in charge, why do we need to justify it to ourselves? Why do we need any sort of supernatural blessing over what we do?

I think it's because deep down we realize that we're just upright monkeys. We need to feel like we're allowed to be in charge-- remember, it was not so very long ago that our ancestors went to sleep at night and were glad they didn't wake up just in time to know they were about to be leopard food. There were nasty things out there and we needed somebody on our side to keep them at bay.

We need permission to be arrogant.

Religion gives us the leave to think of ourselves as more than poncey little apes dancing around howling at the moon. We howl at Him instead. Or for Him, in time of war. Or in supplication to Him whenever we feel insecure.

But I think we've missed a bet here.

I think it is glaringly, scientifically true that we are more than our animal brethren. Not from some insight from the either. But from direct, scientific observation.

The same forces that made the hoof and the trunk also made our brain and like the hoof and the trunk it can be used for more than it was designed for. But brains work with the information of the world. They are the determining factor of understanding in the world. Because of this, the selective pressures that are applied to us are in fact different from many other animals.

We have developed an evolutionary system that is based not on the world as it is but the world how we imagine it to be. At some point in our evolution, evolutionary selection shifted away from pure survival, food and sex to intellectual games, social interaction, tool development-- which only became fixed in the population because reproductive success had grown beyond just food and survival. Now the same drives were used in other ways. Is this not the story of human existence? The way we use what we have in new and unexpected ways? That is, in fact, evolution. But at this point in our history, some indeterminate point in the past, we co-opted the clanking, hissing evolutionary machine to our own purposes.

At some point in the very recent past, we began to transcend our biology. Mechanisms we used to hunt food and have sex are now used to write blogs and type essays. The system has become self contained.

Personally, this is enough for me. I don't need some half-senile supernatural father figure to tell me I'm special in the world. I don't have to be arrogant to know that. I need no special sanction to make that distinction. Taking the train into work and watching television at night is sufficient.

But without the sanctified arrogance of religion, I must give secular meaning to that specialness. I must, in fact, come to terms with what I, as a human being, can do.

This is scary stuff. Without the buffered paternalism of religion, what we can do, what we have done, what we are still vulnerable to becomes very, very real. What is the meaning of the Indonesian tsunami if there is no God? What does it mean when generation after generation have left New Orleans ready to be raped by the rising water? If we have no one to blame but ourselves and random chance, how can we make sense of the world?

Recently, a study showed that humans co-opt close to a quarter of the productivity of the earth. Whether the world was built for man or not has become moot. It is built for man now.


I've been thinking a lot about Peter Watt's Blindsight since I last posted here. (See date.) The novel's issues I described before still remain. But the more I think about it, the more I think that the novel itself is a refutation to what I think is the novel's conclusion.

The conclusion of Blindsight, both my interpretation and the author's description in the afterword, is that consciousness is a burden on what could be a much more optimal system. Intelligent organisms without consciousness are more efficient and outcompete conscious organisms.

I don't attempt to refute the burden of consciousness nor do I claim that conscious organisms are faster, better or more intelligent in their niche than unconscious organisms. Cephalopods are intelligent and exploit their niche brilliantly. I'll venture a guess that they are not conscious. I suspect that "consciousness", they way we would define the term, is likely a product of social selection. Consciousness, as defined by Koch, is the ability to examine our own motivations.

Examining motivations of any sort don’t seem to have any viable Darwinian use outside a social context-- what's the point of figuring out the motivation of a female or a predator? She wants to pass on her genes and the predator wants to eat you. Who needs to figure out the motivation?

But in a social setting, where reproduction and feeding depend on rank and understanding, determining the motivation and needs of your competitors and those above and below you have significant advantages. When you get good enough at this, examining your own motivations and urges become possible. Whether or not self-examination is a selective advantage remains to be seen but it's not even possible until you can figure it out for others. Hence, my suspicion that cephalopods probably are not conscious-- not being social animals, they don't need to be.

In Blindsight, there are some very neat aliens that are intelligent without being conscious. They determine humans, cluttering up the radiosphere with social noise, must be dealt with. I'm not entirely sure I disagree with their assessment. After all, if I were being bombarded by Gilligan's Island reruns I might feel the same.

But these aren't just unconscious, intelligent animals. These are unconscious, intelligent, spacefaring beings. That requires understanding, planning, cooperative use of resources and denial of immediate advantage for long term gain. Why would anyone go into space for the first time? What the heck is out there to attract an intelligent being? Vacuum. Lots and lots of vacuum.

I'm coming to the conclusion that consciousness is not about intelligence. These are two orthogonal qualities. Intelligence is about determining optimum paths to a goal and consciousness is about setting the goal. Or, as Larry Niven said in Protector, intelligence is a tool and tools may not be used intelligently.

To restate this a little bit: Consciousness is about determining a set of possible choices. Intelligence is about choosing the right one.

Let's look at space again. I think there are a lot of reasons to go into space. Knowledge. Exploration. Dispersing humanity so we might actually survive somewhere if it all goes to crap. But none of these are intelligent motives. The aforesaid aliens already have understanding, planning, cooperative use of resources and denial of immediate advantage for long term gain-- they needed that to get into space to begin with. If they have all of that, then fixing up the planet is much less expensive and gets a much better return on investment. Why should they go into space?

But consciousness isn't about rationality or intelligence. Consciousness is about increasing the possibilities beyond what rationality or intelligence have to offer. It's about multiple motivations behind the same act. We don't just colonize Mexico because the natives have gold. We colonize them because we want to save their souls as well. You can't value gold or save souls without consciousness. Without consciousness, gold is a metal with nice conductive features and soul just aren't on the table.

Which brings us back to Blindsight. In Blindsight, the crew, with the possible exception of the ship itself and its vampire captain, are all conscious human beings. All of the possibilities (with the final exception of the unconscious aliens) are discovered by virtue of conscious understanding. That these possibilities fail is not an indictment of their pursuit. Consciousness has blind spots just like anything else. But the possibilities brought up are not ones that could have been conceived unconsciously. Hence, the book up to but not including its final conclusion is in fact a refutation of its underlying premise.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

What is Steven Reading?

I finished the first draft of my novel in July in order to print it out and drop it off in the workshop. A novel takes a while to workshop. This left me with not much writing to do until the novel was workshopped in October.

I don't mark out spoilers when I talk about works so if you're sensitive to that, better stop now.

So, I read Peter Watts' four novels: Starfish, Maelstrom and Behemoth-- collectively known as the Starfish novels. Then, Blindsight. It was pretty cool. I dropped them down on my pda as PDF files and read them whenever I had a chance. The PDF translater you can get from Adobe worked fairly well but every now and then had a glitch: paging forward actually paged back a few pages, occasional formatting issues. You can get the novels as PDFs here.

Watts is a very good writer in many ways. His SF tech is good, though baroque. You admire it's incredible coolness at the same time you're wondering if any business would ever actually invest that much. He plays in an interesting sandbox: damaged people in the workaday world are actually very functional in specific environments.

The Starfish books are a beginning, middle and end to a story of human beings (and all other recognizable terrestrial life forms) versus an earlier also-ran form of life that gets released on the world. It's an interesting premise though he has to do a fair amount of dancing to make it plausible. He has the organism living in eukaryotic cells but then isolates them at an undersea vent. The only reason they don't spread around is that they're isolated at the vent. The only flaw here is the vents themselves are geologically ephemeral. While the Juan de Fuca vents have been around a while, they weren't around back in the days of Pangaea. Still, I've seen much worse dances than that. On a scale of 10, 10 being, say Mark Twain's Huck Finn or John Dos Passos Manhattan Transfer, it gets a respectable 5. Not a towering work of literature but way above Judith Krantz.

Blindsight is in some ways both more and less interesting. The characters are better realized, the task is very clear (investigate an menacing alien intelligence), the reason they might used damaged people much better supported. However, beneath the whole book is an investigation into the nature of consciousness that I think is only marginally supported. The resulting premise is that consciousness is expensive and is an accidental fluke without much actual utility. It's slow. It costs a lot. What good is it anyway? The world is finally taken over by vampires who are much more intelligent but not conscious.

The first issue I had with this part of the book was the treatment of consciousness. Essentially, the implicit assumption was that consciousness was something that humans do. Other animals didn't do it and were therefore not conscious. This was the first road block for me. More and more we're finding what we most value in humans, whether it's language, tool use or empathy, are not the solely practiced by humans. It seems absurd to me that we can expect "consciousness" to be somehow unique to humans.

Among scientists studying primates there is something called the "mirror test". You take a monkey, paint a spot on its face where it can't see. Then you put a mirror next to the cage. If the monkey checks out the spot on its own face then it's made the connection between mirror image and self and is therefore "self-aware".

This test is interesting in primates that are closely related to man but what it really tests is visual self image recognition, something that humans find important. Would it mean the same to wolf? Not unless you presented that image in scent. An elephant? An armadillo? My point is that this test has built into it a concept of "I'm conscious. That's something I'd do. Therefore if the animal does it, it's like me. And therefore conscious. QED." Propose it as a logic diagram and any first year logic student would flag it erroneous.

My own feeling is that everything single thing about human beings, brains, feet, blood, liver, shares an enormous common ground with other birds, be they fish, fowl, frog or Frezian. It's silly that consciousness doesn't have its roots in our biology and is therefore subject to Darwinian selection.

However, even if I don't like the sandbox, Watts builds some pretty interesting castles. His discussion of vampires (see the presentation) is very interesting. Gets my Best Rubber Science Award for Q3 of 2007.

After that, I went back to my roots and re-read Vubre the Great. This novel in progress is written by Jon Burrowes, a friend of mine. It came out of the Future Boston project in my workshop, CSFW. There's a description of the project on the site so I won't go into it here. You can't describe Vubre. It's a wild ride. It's a hard read since it was never truly brought to the level of publication but I think it's worth the effort.

That's it for now.


Everybody has a first time

So even I have a blog.

I don't have enough to say to update this every day. But I'll do it as often as I can. After all, it's not how often you blog but whether you say anything interesting.

That said, I'll sign off.