Astrogator's Logs

New Words, New Worlds
Rest
Artist, Heather Oliver             

Archive for August, 2011

Safe Exoticism, Part 1: Science

Wednesday, August 31st, 2011

Note: This 2-part article is an expanded version of the talk I gave at Readercon 2011.

I originally planned to discuss how writers of SF need to balance knowledge of the scientific process, as well as some concrete knowledge of science, with writing engaging plots and vivid characters. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that this discussion runs a parallel course with another; namely, depiction of non-Anglo cultures in Anglophone SF/F.

Though the two topics appear totally disparate, science in SF and non-Anglo cultures in SF/F often share the core characteristic of safe exoticism; that is, something which passes as daring but in fact reinforces common stereotypes and/or is chosen so as to avoid discomfort or deeper examination. A perfect example of both paradigms operating in the same frame and undergoing mutual reinforcement is Frank Herbert’s Dune. This is why we get sciency or outright lousy science in SF and why Russians, Brazilians, Thais, Indians and Turks written by armchair internationalists are digestible for Anglophone readers whereas stories by real “natives” get routinely rejected as too alien. This is also why farang films that attain popularity in the US are instantly remade by Hollywood in tapioca versions of the originals.

Before I go further, let me make a few things clear. I am staunchly against the worn workshop dictum of “Write only what you know.” I think it is inevitable for cultures (and I use that term loosely and broadly) to cross-interact, cross-pollinate, cross-fertilize. I myself have seesawed between two very different cultures all my adult life. I enjoy depictions of cultures and characters that are truly outside the box, emphasis on truly. At the same time, I guarantee you that if I wrote a story embedded in New Orleans of any era and published it under my own culturally very identifiable name, its reception would be problematic. Ditto if I wrote a story using real cutting-edge biology.

These caveats do not apply to secondary worlds, which give writers more leeway. Such work is judged by how original and three-dimensional it is.  So if a writer succeeds in making thinly disguised historical material duller than it was in reality, that’s a problem. That’s one reason why Jacqueline Carey’s Renaissance Minoan Crete enthralled me, whereas Guy Gavriel Kay’s Byzantium annoyed me. I will also leave aside stories in which science is essentially cool-gizmos window dressing. However, use of a particular culture is in itself a framing device and science is rarely there solely for the magical outs it gives the author: it’s often used to promote a world view. And when we have active politics against evolution and in favor of several kinds of essentialism, this is something we must keep not too far back in our mind.

So let me riff on science first. I’ll restrict myself to biology, since I don’t think that knowledge of one scientific domain automatically confers knowledge in all the rest. Here are a few hoary chestnuts that are still in routine use (the list is by no means exhaustive):

Genes determining high-order behavior, so that you can instill virtue or Mozartian composing ability with simple, neat, trouble-free cut-n-pastes (ETA: this trope includes clones, who are rarely shown to be influenced by their many unique contexts). It runs parallel with optimizing for a function, which usually breaks down to women bred for sex and men bred for slaughter. However, evolution being what it is, all organisms are jury-rigged and all optimizations of this sort result in instant dead-ending. Octavia Butler tackled this well in The Evening and the Morning and the Night.

— The reductionist, incorrect concept of selfish genes. This is often coupled with the “women are from Venus, men are from Mars” evo-psycho nonsense, with concepts like “alpha male rape genes” and “female wired-for-coyness brains”. Not surprisingly, these play well with the libertarian cyberpunk contingent as well as the Viagra-powered epic fantasy cohort.

— Lamarckian evolution, aka instant effortless morphing, which includes acquiring stigmata from VR; this of course is endemic in film and TV SF, with X-Men and The Matrix leading the pack – though Star Trek was equally guilty.

— Its cousin, fast speciation (Greg Bear’s cringeworthy Darwin’s Radio springs to mind; two decent portrayals, despite their age, are Poul Anderson’s The Man Who Counts and The Winter of the World).  Next to this is rapid adaptation, though some SF standouts managed to finesse this (Joan Slonczewski’s A Door into Ocean, Donald Kingsbury’s Courtship Rite).

— The related domain of single-note, un-integrated ecosystems (what I call “pulling a Cameron”). As I mentioned before, Dune is a perfect exemplar though it’s one of too many; an interesting if flawed one is Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow. Not surprisingly, those that portray enclosed human-generated systems come closest to successful complexity (Morgan Locke’s Up Against It, Alex Jablokov’s River of Dust).

— Quantum consciousness and quantum entanglement past the particle scale. The former, Roger Penrose’s support notwithstanding, is too silly to enlarge upon, though I have to give Elizabeth Bear props for creative chuzpah in Undertow.

— Immortality by uploading, which might as well be called by its real name: soul and/or design-by-god – as Battlestar Galumphica at least had the courage to do. As I discussed elsewhere, this is dualism of the hoariest sort and boring in the bargain.

— Uplifted animals and intelligent robots/AIs that are not only functional but also think/feel/act like humans. This paradigm, perhaps forgivable given our need for companionship, was once again brought to the forefront by the Planet of the Apes reboot, but rogue id stand-ins have run rampant across the SF landscape ever since it came into existence.

These concepts are as wrong as the geocentric universe, but the core problems lie elsewhere. For one, SF is way behind the curve on much of biology, which means that stories could be far more interesting if they were au courant. Nanobots already exist; they’re called enzymes. Our genes are multi-cooperative networks that are “read” at several levels; our neurons, ditto. I have yet to encounter a single SF story that takes advantage of the plasticity (and potential for error) of alternative splicing or epigenetics, of the left/right brain hemisphere asymmetries, or of the different processing of languages acquired in different developmental windows.

For another, many of the concepts I listed are tailor-made for current versions of triumphalism and false hierarchies that are subtler than their Leaden Age predecessors but just as pernicious. For example, they advance the notion that bodies are passive, empty chassis which it is all right to abuse and mutilate and in which it’s possible to custom-drop brains (Richard Morgan’s otherwise interesting Takeshi Kovacs trilogy is a prime example). Perhaps taking their cue from real-life US phenomena (the Teabaggers, the IMF and its minions, Peter Thiel…) many contemporary SF stories take place in neo-feudal, atomized universes run amuck, in which there seems to be no common weal: no neighborhoods, no schools, no people getting together to form a chamber music ensemble, play soccer in an alley, build a telescope. In their more benign manifestations, like Iain Banks’ Culture, they attempt to equalize disparities by positing infinite resources. But they hew to disproved paradigms and routinely conflate biological with social Darwinism, to the detriment of SF.

Mindsets informed by these holdovers won’t help us understand aliens of any kind or launch self-enclosed sustainable starships, let alone manage to stay humane and high-tech at the same time. Because, let’s face it: the long generation ships will get us past LEO. FTLs, wormholes, warp drives… none of these will carry us across the sea of stars. It will be the slow boats to Tau Ceti, like the Polynesian catamarans across the Pacific.

You may have noticed that many of the examples that I used as good science have additional out-of-the-box characteristics. Which brings us to safe exoticism on the humanist side.

Part 2: Culture

Images: 1st, Bunsen and his hapless assistant, Beaker (The Muppet Show); 2nd, the distilled quintessence of safe exoticism: Yul Brynner in The King and I.

Related entries:

SF Goes McDonald’s: Less Taste, More Gristle

To the Hard Members of the Truthy SF Club

Miranda Wrongs: Reading too Much into the Genome

Ghost in the Shell: Why Our Brains Will Never Live in the Matrix

“Are We Not (as Good as) Men?”

Tuesday, August 23rd, 2011

– paraphrasing The Sayer of the Law from H. G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau

When franchises get stale, Hollywood does reboots — invariably a prequel that tells an origin story retrofitted to segue into already-made sequels either straight up (Batman, X-Men) or in multi-universe alternatives (Star Trek). Given the iconic status of the Planet of the Apes original, a similar effort was a matter of time and CGI.

In The Rise of the Planet of the Apes, we get the origin story with nods to the original: throwaway references to the loss of crewed starship Icarus on its way to Mars; a glimpse of Charlton Heston; the future ape liberator playing with a Lego Statue of Liberty. As Hollywood “science” goes, it’s almost thoughtful, even borderline believable. The idea that the virus that uplifts apes is lethal to humans is of course way too pat, but it lends plausibility to the eventual ape dominion without resorting to the idiotic Ewok-slings-overcome-Stormtrooper-missiles mode. On the other hand, the instant rise to human-level feats of sophistication is ridiculous (more of which anon), to say nothing of being able to sail through thick glass panes unscathed.

The director pulled all the stops to make us root for the cousins we oppress: the humans are so bland they blend with the background, the bad guys mistreat the apes with callous glee… and the hero, the cognitively enhanced chimpanzee Caesar (brought to disquieting verisimilitude of life by Andy Serkis), not only fights solely in defense of his chosen family… but to underline his messianic purity he has neither sex drive nor genitals. This kink underlines the high tolerance of US culture for violence compared to its instant vapors over any kind of sex; however, since Project Nim partly foundered on this particular shoal, perhaps it was a wise decision.

As it transpires, Ceasar is exposed to little temptation to distract him from his pilgrimage: there are no female hominids in the film, except for the maternal vessel who undergoes the obligatory death as soon as she produces the hero and a cardboard cutout helpmate there to mouth the variants of “There are some things we weren’t meant to do” — and as assurance that the human protagonist is not gay, despite his nurturing proclivities. Mind you, the lack of a mother and her female alliances would make Caesar (augmented cortex notwithstanding) a permanent outcast among his fellows, who determine status matrilinearly given the lack of defined paternity.

Loyal to human tropes, Caesar goes from Charly to Che through the stations-of-the-cross character development arc so beloved of Campbel/lites. Nevertheless, we care what happens to him because Serkis made him compelling and literally soulful. Plus, of course, Caesar’s cause is patently just. The film is half Spartacus turning his unruly gladiators into a disciplined army, half Moses taking his people home — decorated with the usual swirls of hubris, unintended consequences, justice, equality, compassion, identity and empathy for the Other.

Needless to say, this reboot revived the topic of animal uplift, a perennial favorite of SF (and transhumanist “science” which is really a branch of SF, if not fantasy). Human interactions with animals have been integral to all cultures. Myths are strewn with talking animal allies, from Puss in Boots to A Boy and His Dog. Beyond their obvious practical and symbolic uses, mammals in particular are the nexus of both our notions of exceptionalism and our ardent wish for companionship. Our fraught relationship with animals also mirrors preoccupations of respective eras. In Wells’ Victorian England, The Island of Dr. Moreau struggled with vivisection whereas Linebarger’s Instrumentality Underpeople and the original Planet of the Apes focused on racism (plus, in the latter, the specter of nuclear annihilation). Today’s discussions of animal uplift are really a discussion over whether our terrible stewardship can turn benign — or at least neutral — before our inexorable spread damages the planet’s biosphere past recovery.

When SF posits sentient mammal-like aliens, it usually opts for predators high in human totem poles (Anderson’s eagle-like Ythrians, Cherryh’s leonine Hani). On the other hand, SF’s foremost uplift candidates are elephants, cetaceans – and, of course, bonobos and chimpanzees. All four species share attributes that make them theoretically plausible future companions: social living, so they need to use complex communication; relative longevity, so they can transmit knowledge down the generations; tool use; and unmistakable signs of self-awareness.

Uplift essentially means giving animals human capabilities – primary among them high executive functions and language. One common misconception seems to be that if we give language to near-cousins, they will end up becoming hairy humans. Along those lines, in Rise chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans are instantly compatible linguistically, emotionally, mentally and socially. In fact, chimpanzees are far closer to us than they are to the other two ape species (with orangutans being the most distant). So although this pan-panism serves the plot and prefigures the species-specific occupations shown in the Ape pre/sequels, real-life chances of such coordination, even with augmentation, are frankly nil.

There is, however, a larger obstacle. Even if a “smart bomb” could give instant language processing capability, it would still not confer the ability to enunciate clearly, which is determined by the configuration of the various mouth/jaw/throat parts. Ditto for bipedal locomotion. Uplift caused by intervention at whatever level (gene therapy, brain wiring, grafts) cannot bring about coordinated changes across the organism unless we enter the fantasy domain of shapeshifting. This means that a Lamarckian shift in brain wiring will almost certainly result in a seriously suboptimal configuration unlikely to thrive individually or collectively. This could be addressed by singlet custom generation, as is shown for reynards in Crowley’s Beasts, but it would make such specimens hothouse flowers unlikely to propagate unaided, much less become dominant.

In this connection, choosing to give Caesar speech was an erosion of his uniqueness. Of course, if bereft of our kind of speech he would not be able to give gruff Hestonian commands to his army: they would be reliant on line of sight and semaphoring equivalents. However, sticking to complex signed language (which bonobos at least appear capable of, if they acquire it within the same developmental time window as human infants) would keep Caesar and his people uncanny and alien, underlining the irreducible fact of their non-human sentience.

Which brings us to the second fundamental issue of uplift. Even if we succeed in giving animals speech and higher executive functions, they will not be like us. They won’t think, feel, react as we do. They will be true aliens. There is nothing wrong with that, and such congress might give us a preview of aliens beyond earth, should SETI ever receive a signal. However, given how humans treat even other humans (and possibly how Cro-Magnons treated Neanderthals), it is unlikely we’ll let uplifted animals go very far past pet, slave or trophy status. In this, at least, Caesar’s orangutan councillor is right: “Human no like smart ape,” no matter how piously we discuss the ethics of animal treatment and our responsibilities as technology wielders.

Images: top, Caesar; bottom, Neanderthal reconstruction (Kennis & Kennis, National Geographic). What gazes out of those eyes is — was — human.

The Unknown Archmage of Magic Realism

Thursday, August 11th, 2011

Between long hours at the lab and a bout of lingering illness, I have let the blog go quiet for a while.

However, I haven’t been totally inactive. A year ago, I wrote an essay about the fact that writers feel free to use Hellenic contexts (myths, history, location), blithely assuming they know my culture well enough to do so convincingly. In that essay, I also stated that Hellás may be home to the best magic realist alive right now: Evgenía Fakínou. As a follow-up, I wrote a brief introduction to her work, which appeared today at the SFF Portal helmed by Val Grimm. Here is the conclusion:

“Fakínou’s books are full of vision quests, awakenings, boundary crossings. All have open endings, with their protagonists poised at thresholds on the last page. At the same time, they make their readers whole by reclaiming a past that might have led to an alternative future. Fakínou is a windwalker, a weaver of spider silk. I’m sorry she is not world-famous, but even sorrier for the dreamers who will never get a chance to lose – and find – themselves in her work.”

Image: Astradhení (Starbinder), Evgenía Fakínou’s first novel.