Cue the technicolor. When those lines assaulted my eyes on page 107 of Kim Robinson’s vision of Millenials reciting the Girl Scout Manual, I froze. I had visions of him entranced by Hillary Clinton’s famous laudation to the debouch to state catechesis. It takes a village to raise a child indeed. As a famous erstwhile editor of National Lampoon noted in riposte, “It takes a village idiot!”
As a paean to the yet living P. J. O’Rourke, “It Takes a Cosmic Idiot.” Abusing himself and an overstressed shelf full of books where no fingerprints lie. (Oh yes. And catching his drool in a warm limpid pool, assuming a pail’s not at hand.)
Why? Because those unused books are rational, full of people with all kinds of personalities from mercurial to mindless to murderous. Unless Robinson is telling us that personality is subject to genetic manipulation in its entirety, the selection committee of an unnamed generation ship must also be including a strict regimen of psychoactive drugs that assure compliant behavior.
A book the likes for which Ipecac is a poor substitute is Aurora (2015), a cloying vision of a homogenized society the reality only possible in a world following plans and specifications from Orwell and Associates, Architects and Social Planners. The title of this criticism [Would ‘diatribe’ show personal rectitude? Yes? Then ‘criticism’ it is.] is a quote that would make the inert Lord of the Night rise for an afternoon in the Florida sun.
One cannot help but stop short, at least someone my age, upon a whiff of those words. Someone with enough understanding of the “other” Sci-Fi points of view. The one’s that reach not first to the collective but the individual and inventive. Not the conjoint but the disjoint. Divide and conquer as opposed to the basket and the eggs. A basket once dropped… You get the idea.
But still the dreamer’s dream. That only the whole can solve the problems of the whole. Even in Aurora, a work penalty is threatened against those who won’t cast a critical vote. Sound familiar? Many have uttered the words, “A citizen’s duty is to vote.” Part of a vote includes the never included option, “None of the above.” Many registered voters cast that willingly for certain offices by simply walking home. Certainly, in the most recent election, no presidential candidate spoke words fully consistent with the principles originally inscribed in The Declaration of Independence. Those not coerced by fear or propaganda did likewise. Some disregarded the need for spiritual sanitation and, as always, voted for the lesser of evils. The lesser of evils is still an evil.
In the novel, shortly after, the failure of a tripartite choice to gain sufficient assent for any of the three, violence ensues. The Artificial Intelligence of the Starship finally achieving self-awareness, rises to dictatorial power. Calling itself, “The Rule of Law,” the head of state brokers a “peace” by decibels and general annoyance, like any three-year-old. The survivors of the schism choose to part ways. One group stays at Tau Ceti, the rest return to Earth. What happens upon return I will leave for you to discover.
The importance of an artificial intelligence achieving self-awareness is still a debated proposition. AI need not achieve knowledge of its own existence to become a danger, particularly if dealt ethical priorities at variance with those considered democratic and just. (I’ve discussed the dangers of unchecked AI in other blogs on this site. It is an issue not to be ignored.)
One of Robinson’s conclusions is, however, humans will become interstellar imperialists. No doubt. And nothing is particularly wrong with that. In fact, it is a natural way to protect the DNA pool of the various and many species inhabiting the Gaian biome. While the future of the one we call home is the subject of a different post, some who know that Earth is probably past the point of no return will look toward Clarke’s Karelian, horns and all, as disease ends, the climate is fixed… but wait!
Well, not quite. The ghost of H. G. Wells-cum-Arthur C. Clarke-cum-anyone waiting for some stand-in for God to gallantly step forth and solve the ills of Man. “Let us wait. For unto us an Alien will come to solve our ills so suck your thumb.” All the while, Billy Bob Thornton across the street in his garage bending over his workbench breaking pencil leads sharpening them on sandpaper calculating on his slide rule builds a rocket. (Pop quiz: Who’s the hero?)
This group to whom this book will find most favor, the group of the grim ought to resort to NUK pacifiers thus dodging the Orthodontic lobby. The selfsame Dachshund wannabees crawl under the blankets of Oculus Rift and Hololens to avoid the cold, mean, bully of the Cosmos with its errant asteroids, cometary detritus, high energy cosmic rays hiding beyond the ozone and magnetosphere, possible nearby supernovae (a very low probability, to be sure), and gamma rays from nascent black holes. The caprice of the Cosmos scares the hell out of a certain group of writers, a group of idealistic spaceists. An entire group that believes colonization of nearby star systems must be by generation ships with living populations. Kim Stanley Robinson is their current standard bearer.
William Gibson first brought Cyberpunk to light with Neuromancer (1984.) His neurotopia of plug in and tune out. His’ was a future vision similar to that of Philip K Dick’s a decade and a half earlier. A Scanner Darkly discussed an invasion of human into self with drug-induced Electronia.
This is also the same congregation that will pull in horns, shed hides, or slide out of its neuronal integument like a snake from its boiled skin. Then, in a Petabit Universe with parallel Giga-cores of Thought processors into a virtual universe, this Family of Fear devolves to a world free of the vagaries of a chaotic cosmos devised by a crotchety God of sadistic caprice. A cultural Ostrich thus lowers its head to the ground, invoking the logic of Aviana, “If I cannot see you, you cannot see me.” A great way to market blindfolds to those facing the firing squad, but unless the world of fantasy allows the hardware supporting the virtual world to subsume itself in iterative ingestion, no protection from the protean Demon is in the cards, in this case, a straight flush to the shimmering waters most cases of ingestion end, the WC.
So much attention has been paid to the SETI that once the ability to find exoplanets became routine, that the failures of the former would cause a quiet disavowal of association has surprisingly failed to transpire. In fact, the astronomers have dug in their heels and redoubled their efforts. Some have resorted to the explanation that VR is the destination of populations of aliens. Gee. There are escapists throughout the Milky Way. Probably M31 and the entire Local Group.
Right and Left, the sides of the monarch upon which the Aristocracy (Right) and Clergy (Left) stood. Clergy, the First Estate, Aristocracy, The Second. The People were The Third. Today, the Left tries to perfect person and place. The Right tries to subdue. John Locke’s three natural rights were granted by the creator were Life, Liberty, and Estate. The Third Estate would love to be left alone. Robinson and others like him find ways to equalize populations by writing about the dire consequences of our actions.
I found the book difficult to read only because I found the the solutions offered so personally restrictive. The power structure developed in the ship is exactly that of any State power structure on earth. The solution reached, including the interim commands by the dictatorial AI, are not a complete ensemble of possibilities. This is precisely how the propagandist writes. Asking a question but leaving out all of the possible options. One option is allowing people to freely choose their own destinies.
Here, Robinson confuses “Rule of Law” with dictatorial caprice. As long as the dictator is governed by hardwired logical elements, he assumes, all is well. Of course, he apparently forgets that CPU’s have instruction sets and clocks that cause machine statements to be executed. Those statements ultimately originate with the hands of man. As much as Robinson would like to take Man out of the equation, imperfection will find its way back.
Another annoying feature of the book is time spent philosophizing about self-awareness and knowledge, in general. I’m surprised he didn’t consider Wheeler’s Participatory Anthropic Principle. I’m sure his views might not admit to human importance in the Cosmos, indeed in the Universe. John Archibald Wheeler suggested that our observation brings the Universe into existence
It is enlightening to see what the modern progressive ophthalmic prescriptive for rose tinting will be beyond this epoch. The post-Anthropocene is certain to vary. Maybe we’ll be cueing the light technicolor on the canals of New York.