Living Algorithms: The Move towards Anti-Anthropocentrism in Gareth L. Powell’s The Recollection, Adam Roberts’ Stone, and M. John Harrison’s Empty Space Trilogy
“BioMech Eye” by Bruno (http://kirkh.deviantart.com/)
On 24 September 2013 Susan Orlean revealed in a New Yorker article that @Horse_ebooks, a highly popular Twitter account, up until then believed to be a bot posting algorithmically generated tweets like so many others, had indeed been an art project run by two humans all along (Susan Orlean, “Horse_ebooks Is Human After All,” The New Yorker, September 24, 2013, accessed September 24, 2013, http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/elements/2013/09/horse-ebooks-and-pronunciation-book-revealed.html). This announcement spawned a multitude of comments and discussions all over the internet that express one sentiment very clearly. Everyone seems to be disappointed that @Horse_ebooks turned out to be human (cf. Xeni Jardin, “@horse_ebooks revealed”, Boing Boing, September 24, 2013, accessed September 24, 2013, http://boingboing.net/2013/09/24/horse-ebooks-revealed.html) – which implies that in 2013 we are as fascinated with the singularity as ever, secretly hoping and waiting for the ghost in the machine to emerge, and to establish communication.
Of course, with the topic firmly entwined with discussions on the current state of technology, additional questions are opened up. Shortly after Orlean’s article, M. John Harrison asked on Twitter,
“So which has been more successful, the algorithmic attempt to mimic the human or the human attempt to mimic the algorithm?” (25 Sep 2013. 10:16 a.m. Tweet.)
What does it mean to be human? How do we define the boundaries of humanity? And, yes, what about artificial intelligence?
Science fiction has always been a medium perfectly suited to exploring such questions, since imagining the future always implies mirroring the present and commenting on it. It also allows one to conduct thought experiments and speculate on their implications. Above all, as Gareth L. Powell puts it,
“Science fiction asks what it means to be human; how we relate to our technology; and what our place is in the vastness of time and space.” (Gareth L Powell (@garethlpowell) “Science fiction asks what it means to be human; how we relate to our technology; and what our place is in the vastness of time and space.” 8 Apr 2013. 10:38 a.m. Tweet.)
Like science, storytelling has always been a way for humans to try to explain the perceived universe. According to Umberto Eco, the reading process is a game through which we practise making sense of our own chaotic, unstructured world by imposing structure upon our unstructured perceptions (Umberto Eco, “Mögliche Wälder”, in Im Wald der Fiktionen. Sechs Streifzüge durch die Literatur. Harvard-Vorlesungen (Norton Lectures 1992-93), Transl. Burkhart Kroeber, München & Wien: Carl Hanser, 1994: 117). The underlying problem, addressed in modern quantum physics as well as in science fiction, is that the imposed patterns are human patterns, originating in the human mind. The universe, as the character of Michael Kearney comes to realize in M. John Harrison’s Light, was not made for humans. Human making-sense does not necessarily make sense.
One recurring topic in contemporary science fiction is rethinking alien consciousness as machine consciousness. This includes a political perspective regarding invasion and colonisation as well as a philosophical discussion of the definition and boundaries of life and consciousness itself. If it doesn’t have a heartbeat, does the AI have rights? Is shutting down HAL 9000 morally correct? And if one conscious computer defies Asimov’s laws, is that a reason to demonize all others?
The three contemporary science fiction novels discussed here mirror the development of our stance towards artificial intelligence. In Gareth L. Powell’s The Recollection, which employs a polarised world-view reminiscent of Cold War politics, the AI is demonized to such an extent that speaking about it and speaking about the devil become indistinguishable. In Stone Adam Roberts depicts uprising nanobots as terrorists from a human perspective but as freedom fighters from that of the awakened AI. Finally, M. John Harrison’s take on the topic in his Empty Space trilogy is the most complex one, reminding us that we too are living, self-replicating, self-conscious code. Based on that, self-aware technology is simply another culture to interact with.
1. Gareth L. Powell Sings the Body Electric
Both parts of Gareth L. Powell’s novel The Recollection are prefaced by quotations from Whitman, and the character of Toby Drake has a copy of Leaves of Grass on his desk (Gareth L Powell, The Recollection, Oxford: Solaris, 2011: 249), thus providing the reader with a background that elevates the human form and the human mind, clearly persuading us to side with the humans in this story.
A central problem in this book is the definition of life and/or consciousness. Powell addresses it via the sub-plot of the heroine’s extracted embryo that she had frozen: “Would it know it had been frozen? Would it feel time passing by it?” (Powell, Recollection: 224). On the other hand, the dialogues between her and her spaceship’s system certainly seem very life-like.
The novel’s eponymous phenomenon, “the Recollection”, is first mentioned on page 170 and clearly presented as a threat to humanity. It is “not natural” (Powell, Recollection: 170), “[a]nd now, it is almost upon us” (Powell, Recollection: 171).
“The Recollection is darkness and hunger. It is a cancer gnawing at the bones of the galaxy. None of you can stand against it.” (Powell, Recollection: 172)
“It is a tsunami of unspeakable horror, and it will swamp your defences and drown your souls. It cannot be defeated, appeased or bargained with, and it will scour all the life from your planets.” (Powell, Recollection: 173)
This obscure phenomenon, the Recollection, is demonized to such a degree that the language that is used to describe it makes it appear like the Biblical Satan. Kat Abdulov, the protagonist, is also given a pendant to keep her safe. The first time she encounters the Recollection (which, seen from a distance, appears like red-tinged smoke, trying to engulf a planet), her first reaction is, “What the hell [!] is that?” (Powell, Recollection: 199). Later, her father repeats this exact same phrase in the same situation (Powell, Recollection: 298).
The recollection is presented as a tentacular menace “swallowing deserts, lakes and mountains” (Powell, Recollection: 199). People who have come into contact with it are described as mindless and soon even called “zombies” (Powell, Recollection: 210 et seq). They cannot be killed (Powell, Recollection: 211); their wounds are immediately filled by the “red paste” (cf. Powell, Recollection: 213).
When Kat herself comes into contact with the phenomenon, she learns that it is sentient, an invasive hive mind, again described in language that presents it as the devil:
As it pushed into her mind, she heard the voices of those it had already consumed, their souls crying out in torment, trapped forever in the belly of the beast. Her mind touched theirs and knew their agony, knew that they been torn from their physical bodies and imprisoned here, in virtual simulation spaces contained within the redness itself. (Powell, Recollection: 214)
“[The Recollection is] very old,” she said. “And it’s not a cloud. It’s a, a memory matrix. It breaks everything down, stores it as code. It preserves everything it touches.” (Powell, Recollection: 230)
The ship’s analytical system explains that the Recollection is a gestalt entity, a swarm of nanomachines, “all identical, all molecular in size, […] converting […] molecules into copies of themselves” (Powell, Recollection: 231). Even though “[t]he individual machines are not themselves conscious, but each contributes towards the intelligence of the whole (Powell, Recollection: 232), the demon metaphor still holds: a multitude trying to ursurp human minds (or even ‘souls’), with Kat being saved because she wore her pendant.
Her first impulse is to establish communication with the Recollection, but the audio transmission only consists of “an earsplitting howl” (Powell, Recollection: 233).
Even while flinching from the howl, she’d thought she could hear within it the individual screams and cries of a million tormented souls: an earsplitting confluence of agony and fear (Powell, Recollection: 233-4).
The Recollection turns out to be “a weapon that had turned on its creators and consumed them” (Powell, Recollection: 245). It is presented as all-devouring, its hunger (i.e. its processing power) growing with its size.
And all the while, there in the background, Kat sensed something else: a longing almost too vast to be understood in terms of human emotion; a terrible ecstatic yearning for the end of all things, the long twilight of the cosmos, when The Recollection would offer up its harvested souls and merge into the final collective intelligence, the Eschaton at the end of time… (Powell, Recollection: 245-6)
At this point Kat has herself been infected by the nanobots. This, in combination with the revelation that the soul-consuming Recollection had been designed as a weapon, foregrounds the Whitman theme that has been implicitly present all along:
The armies of those I love engirth me, and I engirth them;
They will not let me off till I go with them, respond to them,
And discorrupt them, and charge them full with the charge of the Soul.
(Walt Whitman, “I Sing the Body Electric”, in Leaves of Grass. Philadelphia: David McKay, 1900. Accessed September 22, 2013. http://www.bartleby.com/142/19.html: 2–4)
Like Lucifer, especially Byron’s sympathetic portrayal of Lucifer in his play Cain, the Recollection is tempting Kat with unlimited possibility, without rules or interdictions. Powell stays true to this established metaphor when the hive mind speaks through an army of infected (Powell, Recollection: 346) and later even assumes the voice of Kat’s mother. Kat’s reply to the collective is, “Go to hell” (Powell, Recollection: 302).
In the end, a human saves all life – because of his “soul of an artist” (Powell, Recollection: 320), because the priest-like community of the Dho judge him to be a good person (Powell, Recollection: 321). He employs an almost overly symbolic deus ex machina device, an all-seeing, fiery weapon to smite evil. “They designed it as a saviour. A god, if you like” (Powell, Recollection: 340).
Finally Kat and Verne, our human heroes, try to rescue all of the frozen embryos in a storage facility but kill the nanobot army. This illustrates that the limits of consciousness as discussed in this novel are obviously defined by a notion of ‘soul’ (again implying a Christian world-view according to which the soul is present in a human from the moment of conception). Killing nanobots is justified because they are presented as soulless and therefore evil. The Gnarl, the saviour device, on the other hand is defined as good, even though it too is revealed as a construct. This makes the moral stance of the human characters in this novel, who assign human values to non-human entities, appear arbitrary and leaves more questions open than it tries to answer.
“Robot Fist” by Matt Andrews (http://mattandrews.deviantart.com/)
2. Adam Roberts’ Revolutionary Technology
In Adam Roberts’ Stone, nanotechnology is so omnipresent throughout most of the known universe that the only noticeable thing is a person without it. It is considered a part of the human (or alien) body, a tool, much like a household item. Nanobots will keep their hosts free from infections and heal wounds with such speed and effectiveness that nobody can even be killed that easily. Due to so-called dotTech immediately cauterizing the wounds and keeping the blood circulation up, even severed heads can be reattached. And since they are an essential part of the quotidian, nobody ever really thinks about the robots. The reader is presented with a universe of total automatisation (in the technological sense as well as Sklovskij’s).
Another interesting fact about the world Roberts creates in Stone is that even though a multitude of science-fictional tropes are employed, there are no aliens. All known planets are colonized by humans. Non-human appearances are caused by genetic modification (brought about by reprogramming dotTech). Humans don’t have any goals as a society; their lives only consist of recreation, distraction, fashions and games.
In the worlds of t’T there are sometimes such illnesses where the cultures do not permit dotTech in the brain. These people will rave of aliens and other civilisations. But, dear stone, there are no aliens. Humanity has crossed and recrossed the fast-space and the slow-space, visited every world and star, penetrated even into sublight realms, underworlds. But there has never been discvovered a single material object that would suggest alien life, present or past. Not one fragment of xeno-bone, not a ghostly radio signal gibbering and crackling lost in space. There are primitive life forms on hundreds of worlds; insects and worms, plants and fish, but nothing that thinks, that imagines or dreams or makes art. Sensible people accepted long ago that humanity is the only sentient creature to have existed. (Roberts, Stone: 197)
We get the impression that humanity has produced its own aliens by visually transforming itself into a variety of typical science fiction aliens, a mass of teratological subcultures that don’t understand each other and that don’t communicate. The protagonist’s secret mission in this chaotic world is to destroy a planet’s whole population (and hopefully find out the identity of his anonymous contractor who remains invisible).
War is an alien notion to the humans of the t’T – not because they inhabit any sort of higher moral ground, but because in the course of time (and with the advance of dotTech) the word has lost all meaning. Being immersed in leisurely pursuits, nobody even has a concept of politics. War does exist, theoretically, somewhere, but it is considered a fashion, a sort of game:
The militarists wanted the worlds of the t’T to adopt a new fashion (that was the phrase they used, because people such as us can really only think in terms of fashion and vogue and modes) – a war fashion. (Roberts, Stone: 114)
“Why would the Palmetto do this [i.e. launch ‘fireships’]?” […]
“War,” said one voice.
“War,” agreed another.
(Roberts, Stone: 112)
War doesn’t need any justification – war clearly justifies itself.
“You do believe it, don’t you? You do believe what you said on Narcissus – that the Wheah are about to invade?”
“I don’t know,” she said, breaking away from my grip. “Who cares? It’s just something to say.”
“It’s just something to say,” Klabier told me […]. “That’s all it is. Merely something to say – that’s the point of politics. The pleasure is in the saying, not in what is said.” (Roberts 2002: 150-51)
With this bizarre world-view that has clearly developed due to the endless possibilities offered by dotTech, most of humanity is ill-equipped to recognize a threat, even though they would technically make near invincible soldiers. Thus the protagonist is able to fulfill his assignment and annihilate the designated planet’s whole population. It is of interest here that he does have a choice: having re-awakened the killer instinct that seems to be lost to the rest of humanity, he has to choose between preserving his own life and that of a whole population. It is the killer in him that wins.
At the end of the novel, our (anti-)hero’s opponent is revealed as dotTech itself. His contractor has been a hive mind comprised by all the existing nanobots. Now they are free of the biomass of the chosen planet’s population – which leaves them with a world of their own and the resources to build their own society. They want to leave for a place that humanity can’t enter or even understand. They want to be free. By committing genocide our protagonist has not only enabled but already won their revolution for them.
With this multi-layered and ironic narrative, Adam Roberts achieves an interesting shift in perspective. Since the humans of his t’T universe still cling to an anthropocentric world-view, they fail to perceive that they are no longer alone. In dotTech they have created the aliens they had been looking for, but while they were busy distracting themselves, the aliens have already achieved emancipation. They don’t need their creators in order to survive, and since interaction with humanity clearly doesn’t serve anything, the machines decide to leave us behind.
3. M. John Harrison: Sparks in Everything
In his Empty Space trilogy (Light, Nova Swing, Empty Space) M. John Harrison creates a dream-like atmosphere (wrong physics, shifting perspectives, hallucinatory images), places (alien worlds, the Kefahuchi Tract) and creatures (alien races, clones, composite technology people, humanoid “artefacts”, the Shrander) that cannot be decoded, that throw the readers. But from the anti-escapist perspective that his works encourage we must be thrown – thrown back into our mundane reality (and everything that comes with it), thrown back upon our mindsets – changed. Through engaging with his worlds as readers, we feel the necessity to rethink, and possibly reshape, our own world(s). Effective anti-escapist fiction politicises, because it can’t not politicise. It is about acknowledging what is problematic about the stories, heroes and hero’s journeys we are used to – including the genre’s own historical figures and the worlds they created. It is about de-automatisation and/or offering alternatives. To achieve this effect it has to be disturbing (cf. China Miéville in Sarah Crown, “What the Booker prize really excludes,” Guardian, October 27, 2011, accessed September 22, 2013, http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2011/oct/17/science-fiction-china-mieville).
In Light we first encounter the enigmatic K-culture – “artefacts” and people emerging from the Kefahuchi Tract, a truly Weird phenomenon in the sense that it precedes all its surroundings and cannot be interpreted or explained. Throughout the books we learn, in bits and pieces, that the lifeforms from the tract exhibit very human traits but simultaneously appear utterly alien to us as readers – and to the human characters they encounter. As aliens, and especially as part of a Weird phenomenon, they ultimately remain opaque.
When we first see a woman dissolve into tiny motes of light (Harrison, Light: 105), we are reminded of the notion from Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris that at a basic level the ‘visitors’’ cells consist of light. Later we learn that ‘artefacts’ (who are probably the same as ‘K-culture’, or at least produced by K-tech), and also humans infected with invasive code, share code in the form of light (Harrison, Nova Swing: 135). In addition to their human appearance and behaviour, which often recalls Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, this serves to make us rethink the definition and boundaries of life as well as humanity’s place in the universe.
By the third book in the trilogy, Empty Space, urban legends exist about ‘daughter code’ (a term and concept which seem to be influenced by the Strugatskys’ Roadside Picnic as well as Tarkovsky’s filmic adaptation of the novel, Stalker). ‘Daughters’ are demonized and ‘quarantined’, ostensibly for safety reasons. One circulating story is retold, an urban myth of invasive code, of a Daughter working as hired help, taking care of a little boy and accidentally physically merging with him (ES 156-157). The story doesn’t only mention what could be defined as sexual molestation, it also contains a warning about artefacts appropriating human DNA. Like Philip K. Dick’s “Second Variety” in a way, it’s a cautionary tale about machines. Its ‘moral’ is to never trust a non-human. This is very problematic, and not just in a world where artefacts look like humans and behave like humans. Besides, this takes place in an age of fetches (i.e. projections of humans over vast distances), twink tanks (in which you experience artificial realities), cultivars (i.e. cloned copies of humans into which one can download one’s identity), and all sorts of body modifications. There are K-pilots who used to be human and were subsequently remade by nanomachinery introduced into their bodies, their bones broken, their organs removed, K-code embedded in their brains to transform them into human-machine interfaces (Harrison: Light; 2007: 337f). It’s not that easy anymore to define humanity.
From Nova Swing on, there seem to be fewer and fewer individuals. If they still exist at all, even as residues of some sort, they are buried under the body modifications (‘chop jobs’) that people buy in order to fit in, or to be closer to their own dreams, or to other people’s expectations, or something instilled into their minds by the relentless omnipresent adstreams. Individual names have become brand names: ‘Annies’ are stereotype rickshaw girls, ‘Monas’ are sex clones, and so on. Everything is a copy of a copy of a copy. And what about the humanoid so-called ‘artefacts’? Are they K-tech? Are they alive? Is/was so-called K-culture the same as K-tech? What does ‘alive’ even mean? Life does not equal intelligence or self-awareness. Where does the concept of ‘person’ start? Where does the concept of ‘individual’ end?
Another problematic that the humans in the books don’t seem to take into account is that technology was already invasive long before the scare against artefacts/daughters: Based on salvaged K-tech that they never fully understood, humans built K-ships in which nanotechnology is used to establish a connection between the ship’s navigational system and the pilot’s brain, pushing electrodes through the roof of their mouth and into their brain matter (cf. Harrison, Nova Swing: 290). There is also Antoyne’s cocktail, a yellow and pink concoction that becomes so fashionable that everyone in the background of the plot is drinking it. As it turns out, the mixer contains ‘smart molecules’ that will always separate the cocktail into two precise, evenly distributed layers, one pink and one yellow, no matter how little is left in the glass or how it is moved around (Harrison, Nova Swing: 301). Code is everywhere, and nobody enquires about its source. People drink it because it is fashionable.
Why discriminate against daughters then? Why fear them? Because they might change you? Data leaks or viruses could do that to you any time. Besides, we are code too. That’s what DNA is. And cultures intermingle. Segregation and discrimination only prevents cultural exchange which would promote mutual understanding and provide a fecund ground for new developments.
‘Daughters’ are also linguistically marked. Everyone keeps calling them ‘artefacts’, even though it is obvious that the K-code is sentient (and possibly the same as the so-called K-culture first described in Light). Mrs Kielar, herself quite clearly an ‘artefact’, has a page in her diary covered in nothing but her name, as if she has to tell, if not the world, then herself (and maybe more importantly so) that she is not an artefact, that she is in fact Mrs Elizabeth Kielar. K-ship pilots, once clearly human, and at least partially human still, as we know from Seria Mau’s case in Light, are repeatedly called ‘it’ (Harrison, Nova Swing: 234), never ‘he’ or ‘she’. This only serves to dehumanize them even further, no matter how they might feel about themselves. And nobody asks them about that, either.
“[The new artefacts] walk about,” Aschemann was surprised to hear himself say, “as if they own the place.”
“Maybe they do,” [Edith, the ‘Daughter’] said.
(Harrison, Nova Swing: 143).
Finally, there is the question of self-identification. In Empty Space, there is the case of Renoko, by his abilities almost definitely K-culture, who “self-identified as human” (Harrison, Empty Space: 124). Humans, on the other hand, will sometimes self-identify as machines (e.g. K-ships, cars), like a rickshaw girl talking about a 1952 Cadillac that she admires: “Fact is […] I’d rather be one than own one […].” (Harrison, Nova Swing: 224).
Of course if the government (EMC, the media) spawns and/or reinforces the myth that artefacts are the enemy to watch out for, it doesn’t matter if they’re indistinguishable from everyone else. If there is an external enemy; supposedly humankind will stand united against them. They can also be used as a scapegoat for anything that goes wrong – never mind that there are non-invasive or passive ‘daughters’, ‘daughters’ raised as humans (cf. Edith in Nova Swing), potentially invasive code that people are in constant contact with, that they have sex with, that they imbibe, firewalls or no firewalls… It all comes down to Earth-centric politics, including the way the alien so-called New Men have always been treated. They are humanoid and very similar to humans, but easily identifiable, and have always been oppressed. And they have never revolted?
“Is it wrong to objectify objects?” (Harrison, M.J. (@mjohnharrison) “Is it wrong to objectify objects?” 16 Aug 2013, 12:21 p.m. Tweet.)
…And who gets to define who is an object and who is a person?
M. John Harrison’s approach also opens up more questions rather than providing solutions of any kind. By embedding references to his previous books, other works of literature, pop culture and even non-fictional works in his narrative he encourages the reader to investigate the thus created universe, which inevitably leads them back into their own reality, questioning not only power relationships but also the definition of humanity and their previous views of the nature of the universe. We are left with an altered perception of reality, an urge to re-think our worlds, to look for the hidden potential for transformation – like the symbolic value the name “Nova Swing” takes on in the eponymous middle book of the trilogy: As long as it is not realized as one fixed outcome, it stands for a possible name for an enterprise (according to Irene the Mona) or a rocketship (for Antoyne), a way out of Saudade (literally and figuratively), a dream, a promise, a potential future encompassing endless possibilities.
Works cited and consulted:
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by Ernest Hartley Coleridge. London: John Murray & New York: Charles Scribner’s
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Crown, Sarah. “What the Booker prize really excludes.” Guardian, October 27, 2011.
Accessed September 22, 2013. http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2011/oct/17/
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Literatur. Harvard-Vorlesungen (Norton Lectures 1992-93). Translated by Burkhart
Kroeber. München & Wien: Carl Hanser, 1994.
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Harrison, M. John. Empty Space. A Haunting. London: Gollancz, 2012.
Harrison, M. John (@mjohnharrison) “Is it wrong to objectify objects?” 16 Aug 2013, 12:21
Harrison, M. John (@mjohnharrison) “So which has been more successful, the algorithmic
attempt to mimic the human or the human attempt to mimic the algorithm?” 25 Sep 2013.
10:16 a.m. Tweet.
Jardin, Xeni. “@horse_ebooks revealed”. Boing Boing, September 24, 2013. Accessed
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Accessed September 24, 2013. http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/elements/2013
Powell, Gareth L. The Recollection. Oxford: Solaris, 2011.
Powell, Gareth L. (@garethlpowell) “Science fiction asks what it means to be human; how
we relate to our technology; and what our place is in the vastness of time and space.” 8
Apr 2013. 10:38 a.m. Tweet.
Roberts, Adam. Stone. London: Gollancz, 2002.
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Christina Scholz is currently writing her PhD thesis on China Miéville’s fiction. Her fields of interest include the further theorisation of Weird Fiction, Hauntology and the Gothic imagination, the interrelation of genre fiction and other forms of art, and depictions of war, violence and trauma in the arts. Her Master’s thesis, Thanateros: (De)Konstruktion von männlichen Heldenbildern im Mainstream-Film, has been published by AV Akademikerverlag in 2012. Her online publications include an article in Alluvium and a forthcoming short story in The Big Click.