Astrogator's Logs

New Words, New Worlds
Artist, Heather Oliver             

Archive for August, 2012

The Charlatan-Haunted World

Sunday, August 26th, 2012

In the larger context of how sciency blather shapes culture, including speculative literature, it’s interesting to juxtapose two movement gurus, Ray Kurzweil and Deepak Chopra. Many consider them very different but in fact they’re extremely similar. Essentially, both are prophet-wannabes who are attempting to gain legitimacy by distorting science to fit a cynically self-aggrandizing agenda.

Chopra goes the faux grand unification route; Kurzweil belongs to the millenarian camp, including his habit of setting goals that ever recede: the year we become optimized by nanobots… the year we upload our minds to silicon frames… the year we welcome our AI overlords. The Singularity and the complete reverse-engineering of the human brain were slated for 2010; now the magic year is 2045. Sound familiar?

Both men are embodiments of Maslow’s dictum that if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Chopra’s hammer is power of mind over matter; Kurzweil’s, Moore’s Law with “exponential” as its abracadabra. It’s easy to laugh at Chopra’s blatant misuse of quantum mechanics and his idea that we can destroy tumors with sheer thought power. Most of the biocentrist vaporings of Chopra, Lanza et al can be dealt with by one word: decoherence. Conversely, Kurzweil’s ignorance of basics is so obvious to a biologist that seeing him being taken seriously makes you feel you’re in a parallel universe. For the rest of this article, I will focus on transhumanism (TH) and just briefly linger on salient points many of which I’ve covered before in detail.

I’ve often said that cyberpunk is the fiction arm of TH, but upon reflection I think it would be more accurate to say TH is a branch of cyberpunk SF if not fantasy – and not a particularly original one, at that. At the same time, even its own adherents are starting to publicly admit that TH is a religion. After all, its wish list consists of the same things humans have wanted since time immemorial: immortality and eternal youth. Eternally perky breasts and even perkier penises. Those lucky enough to attain these attributes will frolic in Elysium Fields of silicon or in gated communities like today’s Dubai or tomorrow’s seasteads. Followers of other religions have to wait patiently for paradise; transhumanists can gain instant bliss by thronging to Second Life. Or as that famous Sad Children cartoon says, “In the future, being rich and white will be even more awesome.”

Transhumanists posit several items as articles of faith. All these items require technology indistinguishable from magic – and in some cases, technology that will never come to pass because of intrinsic limitations. Transhumanists call unbelievers Luddites — funny, given that many who object to the cult approach are working scientists or engineers. Among the TH tenets:

1. Perfectibility: “optimization” of humans is not only possible but also desirable.

1a. Genes determine high-order behavior: intelligence, musical talent, niceness. This has gone so far that there is a formal TH proposal by Mark Walker to implement a Genetic Virtue Program; in cyberpunk SF you see it in such laughable items as Emiko having “dog loyalty genes” in the inexplicably lauded Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi. Basing a genetic program on the concept that genes determine high-order behavior is like planning an expedition to Mars based on the Ptolemaic system. Genomes act as highly networked ensembles and organisms are jury-rigged. Furthermore, optimization for one function in biological systems (across scales) makes for suboptimality at all else.

1b. There’s one-to-one mapping between hormones or evolutionary specifics and behavior. Most of these generalizations  come from research on non-humans (mice for hormones; various primates for evolution) and lead to conclusions like: people can become lovesome by judicious applications of oxytocin or murderous by extra helpings of testosterone; and to the evopsycho nonsense of “alpha male rape genes” and “female wired-for-coyness brains”. This is equally endemic in what I call grittygrotty fantasy, but it seems to be at odds with TH’s willingness to entertain the concepts of gender fluidity and sculpting-at-will.

1c. Designer genetic engineering will come to pass, including nanotech that will patrol us internally. Genetic engineering is already with us, but it will take time to fine-tune it for routine “vanity” use. Of course, we already have nanites – they’re called enzymes. However, cells are not this amorphous soup into which nanoships can sail at whim. They’re highly organized semi-solid assemblages with very specific compartments and boundaries.  The danger for cell and organ damage shown in the cheesy but oddly prescient Fantastic Voyage is in fact quite real.

2. Dualism: biological processes can be uncoupled from their physical substrates.

2a. Emotions are distinct from thoughts (and the former are often equated with the non-cortical Four Fs). This aligns with such items as the TH obsession with sexbots and proxy relationships through various avatars — and the movement’s general fear and dislike of the body. Of course, our bodies are not passive appendages but an integral part of our sensor feedback network and our sense of identity.

2b. It is possible to achieve immortality and continuity of consciousness by uploading, which might as well be called by its real name: soul – as Battlestar Galumphica at least had the courage to do. It should go without saying that uploading, even if a non-destructive implementation ever became possible, would create an autonomous copy.  I still boggle at Stross’ pronouncement that “Uploading … is not obviously impossible unless you are a crude mind/body dualist. // Uploading refutes the doctrine of the existence of an immortal soul.”

3. Dogma: invalid equivalences and models for complexity.

3a. The brain is a computer. This leads to fantasies that “expansion of capabilities” (however defined) and such things as uploading or “stigmata” (that is, leakage between VR and reality) are possible. The fundamental point is that the brain is not a computer in any way that is useful to either biology or computer science, starting with the fact that a brain is never a blank chassis that passively accepts software. Also, it’s one thing to observe that the cerebellum contains four types of neurons, another to talk of stacks. The black noise on this has reached such a level that I cringe whenever I hear people discuss the brain using terms like “Kolmogorov complexity”.

3b. Sentient AI and animal uplift will not only come to pass, but will also produce entities that are remarkably similar to us. Connected to this are the messianic ravings of the extropians, who envision themselves as essentially overseers in plantations, as well as David Pearce’s “imperative” that any issues will be ironed out with such things as contraceptives for sentient rabbits and aversion therapy for sentient cats that will turn them into happy vegans. However, cat intestines are formed in such a way that they need meat to survive. If they must be medicated non-stop (let alone mangy from malnutrition), much better to design a species de novo. Crowley’s Leos and Linebarger’s Underpeople were both more realistic and more humane than the equivalent TH constructs.

Like all religions, TH has its sects and rifts, its evangelicals and reformists. Overall, however, the shiny if mostly pie-in-the-sky tech covers a regressive interior: TH hews to triumphalism, determinism and hierarchies. Interestingly, several SF authors (most notably Iain Banks) see TH applications as positive feedback loops for a terminal era of plenty: infinite resources courtesy of nanites, infinite flexibility in identities and lifestyles. However, I think that we’re likelier to see some of this technology become real in two contexts: an earth running out of resources… and people in long-generation starships and quasi-terrestrial exoplanets.

In both cases, we may have to implement radical changes not for some nebulous arbitrary perfection, or as a game of trust/hedge fund playboys, but when we’re in extremis and/or for a specific context. For example, the need to hibernate on an ice-bound planet or survive on toxic foodstuffs. Because TH is essentially a futuristic version of Manifest Destiny, it’s an unsuitable framework for exploring low-key sustainability alternatives. But TH does itself even fewer favors by harnessing stale pseudoscience to its chariots of the gods.  People like Kurzweil have the education and intelligence to know better, which makes them far more culpable than brain-dead ignorant haters like Akin.

Note: This article is an adaptation of the talk I gave to Readercon 2012 this July.  A panel discussion followed the talk; the other participants were John Edward Lawson, Anil Menon, Luc Reid and Alison Sinclair.

Related articles:

Equalizer or Terminator?
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?”
Won’t Anyone Think of the Sexbots?!
That Shy, Elusive Rape Particle

Images: 1st, Mike Myers as Maurice Pitka in The Love Guru; 2nd, flowchart from The Talking Squid, who adapted an original by Wellington Grey; 3rd, The Transhumanist by movement member Sandberg — appropriately enough, part of a Tarot card set.

Fresh Breezes from Unexpected Quarters

Tuesday, August 14th, 2012

As I get older, it’s harder to find books or films that surprise me – pleasantly, that is. I went to see The Dark Knight Rises (TDKR) and The Bourne Legacy (TBL) more as a means to avoid the New England summer humidity and give my cortex a chance to cool down between edits of my SF anthology. Both films had the expected scads of sound and fury, yet one of them managed to surprise me. To be clear, I’ve read neither the Miller comics nor the Ludlum or Lustbader books; so those who plan to use arguments of the type “But this is explained on page 4 of issue 13!” can save their breath.

I detest Christopher Nolan’s ponderous dourness. The only film of his I found remotely intriguing was The Prestige. Auteur pretensions aside, the closest relatives of Nolan’s Batman opus are the abysmal Star Wars prequels. The two trilogies share pretty much everything: the wooden dialogue, the cardboard characters, the manipulative sentimentality, the leaden exposition, the cultural parochialism, the nonsensical plot, the worshipping of messiahs and unaccountable privileged elites, the contempt for “mundanes” and democratic structures, the dislike of women and non-hierarchical relationships. To be sure, Nolan’s second Batman film boasted the unforgettable performance of Heath Ledger’s Joker. But TDKR should have been called Bat Guano or Darth Vader Meets the Transformers.

The reactionary politics (Billionaires and police know best! People left unherded devolve instantly to mob rampaging and kangaroo courts!) are bad enough. So are the obvious telegraphings and pious ersatz-mythic strains (“Rise! Rise! Rise!” — and of course, sob, the orphan boys). But the film is dull, unfocused, lumbering and messy even within its own frame: why the elaborate (and totally fallow) Wall Street takeover if Bane intends to blow the city up anyway? The protracted mano-a-mano between Batman and Bane is frankly dumb. All Batman has to do is rip out Bane’s breathing muzzle – incidentally, a lousy way to deliver pain meds. The reversals of the two women (antagonist becomes ally and vice versa… and the villain, naturally, is the one who removes her clothes) are so much by the numbers that I felt literally itchy. The hero rejoins the living twice, once as Bruce, once as Batman, for zero reasons of either plot or emotional logic.

The two male protagonists are boring one-note ciphers. Batman doesn’t earn his increasingly stale angst; even less so the unquestioning loyalty of his long-suffering allies (as laid bare in a great analysis of Gary Stuism). Christian Bale isn’t capable of more than one facial expression anyway – in Terminator Salvation he was more wooden than Sam Worthington, which is a real achievement. Needless to add, he has zero chemistry with either of the romantic interests put on Bruce Wayne’s silver spoon. Nolan criminally wastes Tom Hardy, who can really act: he made a feral, magnetic Ricki Tarr in the remake of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and the one glimpse of his face when he’s about to be swallowed by the raging crowd in TDKR shows what he’s capable of. The Bane/Vader parallel is obvious: the raging slave of great ability who dares to love above his station and heroically serves a cause intrinsically hostile to him – yet is demonized because he doesn’t fit the Messiah profile, first due to his “wrong” pedigree, later due to severe mutilations that limit his potential. The equivalence is made plain by several touches beyond the breathing mask, including the camera lingering on the frantically kicking feet of someone in his grip.

Oddly enough, both principal women fare fractionally better as characters, despite (or because of?) Nolan’s palpable disinterest in them. Anne Hathaway’s Selina Kyle owes more to Charlise Theron’s slinky yet formidable Aeon Flux than to past Catwomen, which is to the good. On the other hand, the obsessive zooming on her ass while she’s maneuvering the Batbike is emetic (when Batman does it, his nether cheeks are decorously covered by his cape — which finally gives a reason for its existence). There is also a hint that she’s bisexual, which makes her truly intriguing. But for my money, Marion Cotillard’s Talia al Ghul is hands down the most arresting presence in the entire Batman film parade. I’d be happy to see a whole film with her as the protagonist. Hell, a trilogy. Although I’d have preferred that she had gone after her mother’s killers rather than her father’s – especially taking into account her father’s shabby treatment of her savior, to say nothing of his daffy agenda (“cleansing the earth of humanity” using nuclear weapons: unassailable logic, if you’re five years old).

Despite its superficial similarity to TDKR, TBL is a very different beast; I agree with MaryAnn Johanson that it’s high-quality fanfic – specifically, AU fanfic with OCs (in English: alternative universe with original characters). Don’t misunderstand me, it’s far from perfect. It’s uneven, lumpy and ends on a blatant “To Be Continued” note. Nevertheless, it has four great assets besides its intricate interweaving of the Bourne prequel threads: the two principals, Jeremy Renner as Aaron Cross and Rachel Weisz as Dr. Marta Shearing, come across as complex persons – even setting aside the lagniappe of Oscar Isaac as Aaron’s fellow enhanced killing machine; Aaron’s plight is more relevant, interesting and wrenching than that of Jason Bourne; the dialogue is snappy, non-generic, character-specific; and it gets its science as right as Hollywood possibly can. As is often the case with me, I’m in the minority. TBL’s Rotten Tomatoes rating is significantly lower than TDKR’s, in part because many reviewers (like orthodox fanfic readers) want canon, not AU; some have also opined that Jeremy Renner lacks Matt Damon’s charisma.

To each his own. To me at least, Damon has the charisma of a particle board plank. Renner, on the other hand, with his lived-in pug/cherub face, comes across as truly dangerous: you’re never sure if he will kiss or kick, yet you trust him when his smile reaches his eyes – a volatility he engaged to stunning effect in The Hurt Locker and to single-handedly elevate The Town into something eminently watchable. Weisz, on her part, radiates intelligence and competence in whatever role she appears, from The Mummy to Agora to The Constant Gardener. She is one of the very few actors who’s entirely believable as a working scientist.

What makes Aaron’s plight closer to my heart and to real life is that he’s in a Flowers for Algernon situation: he got brain damage during his tour of duty, which made him ripe for the poisoned apple of the top secret augmentation program; for him, stopping the medications that leash him to his handlers is equivalent to a sentence of living death. This pegs the jeopardy meter far harder than Jason Bourne’s thriller-cliché amnesia. When Aaron decides to renounce his newly won freedom for the sake of keeping Marta safe, we feel that real stakes are involved. Aaron and Marta are true partners with equally instrumental overlapping skills. Marta does not spend any length of time impersonating quivering jello, nor does she get relegated to the helpmate slot – though knowing Hollywood’s stance on fully human women, I tremble for her fate in the inevitable sequel.

The science is stunningly accurate for a Hollywood film. That’s a real lab in the chilling massacre scene; when Marta injects Aaron with the viral stock that might cut his indenture bonds, she withdraws it from a real cryovial. When she described the delivery problems of viral vectors, I didn’t wince once and the enhancement route she outlined (mitochondrial ratcheting) is in the domain of the possible. She made one error when she segued into brain function: it’s plasticity, not elasticity… but I’ll take it over ANY other Hollywood science in my memory banks. Nor are the slippery slopes ignored: Marta knows that she let her fervent wish to do cutting-edge science override her moral judgment, choosing to close her eyes to the applications of her work.

In the end, Aaron is kin not to Jason Bourne but to the fascinating loners that we glimpse all too briefly in the Bourne franchise: the Professor (Clive Owen), Jarda (Marton Csokas), Outcome 5 (Oscar Isaac). It occurs to me, of course, that these guys fall in my snacho category… which may be one more reason why I liked TBL far more than TDKR.

Images: Tom Hardy as Ricki Tarr (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy); Marion Cotillard as Édith Piaf (La Vie en Rose); Jeremy Renner as William James (The Hurt Locker); Rachel Weisz as Kathryn Bolkovaç (The Whistleblower).