Monday, July 23, 2007

Duuude, it's all connected

Science fiction can open some doors to exploration that the typical stuff leaves closed. It's easy enough to the remove parameters of known physics to avoid honesty, to jam in more gods than the machine can bear (and to be fair, this is a reputation SF has often earned), but when it's done well, it can create conditions to laser in on deep human constructs that are hard to see by conventual illumination. Branding can be tough on the critical praise I suppose, but then authors tend to segregate themselves by market too, even if the lines are finer than the distance between the shelves would indicate. When J. M. Coatzee dug into a bizarre fantastic afterlife to note on the human condition, he was treading established ground (hell, that one's been established for as long as people have talked about death). When Richard Powers made up a disease as a tool to peer into the way we connect to each other, he made a scientific extrapolation too. The science fiction genre expects some ballsier risks than these, but on the other hand, you can sometimes get a bigger payoff.

When Raphael Carter came out with The Fortunate Fall ten years ago, it hit the fanboy circles pretty hard. Carter finally accomplished what writers like William Gibson promised to: she used the interconnectedness of computer networks as a tool to get into people's heads. This author lost the cyberpunk attitude and found some of the tender spots hidden deeply in there. Fun as it may be to imagine inhabiting machine bodies and machine minds, the more interesting questions get at the essence of who we already are and how we already relate. The Fortunate Fall is a lot of things--it's too many damn things actually--but stripped down, it's the life story of a woman who has lived through a technological revolution that brought wireless into the cranium. The story is brought out through confusing flashbacks, through plot exposition, through returning conversations between the protagonist and the world's villain, the complex architect of much of it, a war criminal, a visionary. Mankind is presented as animal that aspires to reason, riffing heavily on the Biblical tragedy of that idea, but Carter has the figurative balls to put us talking apes in a continuum of thinking beasts. What is animal intelligence like? What are bigger intelligences like? What are we together, and together with whom? The ending dramatically breaks open all three queries.

This business with dogfighting in the news brings into focus our relationships with minds more similar to ours than we usually like to acknowledge. Why are dogs and cats special? Why do we treat pigs and rats so badly? I'm not talking unnecessary cruelty here, I'm just saying that it takes a little cognitive dissonance to eat a ham sandwich while cat-blogging. Archaeopteryx makes a point that there is a physiological similarity we have with the animals we bond with, and IOZ (the bastard beat me to tying Coatzee into this one) takes the similar approach, but stressing a conceptual similarity rather than an anatomical one(that is, we bond with dogs because they trust us; we don't like hurting chimps because they look like us). Hipparchia (in the first conversation) pointed to years of domestication as a cause. Arch is a biologist, IOZ is informed by philosophy, and I think hipparchia has a little farm-girl in her.

I find that last argument the most intriguing though. It's not what animals are exactly, but how the old and slowly changing habits of how we treat them have defined them. Coatzee, another philosophically minded writer, has suggested that eating animals is a crime on par with genocide, enabled by the way we're collectively accustomed to seeing them as inferior. He spends all of Elizabeth Costello exploring that moral gray space between perceptions of the self and the greater culture. Even though we're breeding selectively, people and domestic animals aren't evolving into new species anytime soon. If anything, it's the cultural catalogue of information that is changing and growing, the expectations of cow nature slowly morphing, of horse nature, dog nature, human nature. I remember a conversation on the old Slate Fray, someone had an ancestor who was a member of the Klan (maybe someone can remind me of who this was). Horrible yes, but different times, different times. There's a century of evolution of concepts of justice, of growing awareness (and a growing body) of philosophical knowledge that makes hate groups a much harder apology in today's society. To beat another tired old horse, it's a nurture argument, but on a cultural scale. Does technology spread it better and more evenly? You bet.

At birth, every creature is plopped down into the world feral and dumb, an empty little vessel knowing nothing but hunger, contentment, and the satisfaction of a bowel movement, oblivious of the finer distinctions that civilization requires. With no improvements in the hardware, the softer rules of the interactions have still mutated and changed. For every individual, the system has to be learned, our parents' faults and hopes passed down by decree and by emulation, and we incorporate and share our mental models of individuals in order to map ourselves and our relationships. So long as the frameworks exist in a lot of people, the information can be shared as in a six billion person game of telephone, and it appears this contributes to the formation of societies as sloppily stable groups. Maybe an optimal indoctrination program could even work itself out from this, some least-bad mode of mutual existence, at least until we start drilling our skulls or (more likely) miss a couple meals and go back to forming tribes and killin' pigs. It's almost enough to give me an ounce of hope for our filthy species. Certainly enough motivation to keep on writing.


[Edited a whole bunch for clarity. And yes, I'm the guy who called "memes" ridiculous six months ago. I'll sort that out eventually.]

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twiffer said...

i like the new header. [grin]

Keifus said...

...brought to you by a four hour layover in dallas. I hope it doesn't lose me readers. (My daughter insisted I dot the i & I'm glad she did. Most of it, I obviously stole.)

Back sometime later...