Post-Human Consciousness

A review of Melanie Marttila’s “Downtime” in OnSpec Vol. 26, No. 3
By Derek Newman-Stille

Melanie Marttila begins her short story “Downtime” by bringing us into the consciousness of a newly aware artificial intelligence named Opus. The first question the AI asks us is “what am I?” and she quickly follows with “I am not human. I am more”. Any of us who are familiar with the Robopocalypse trope are immediately set on edge, worrying about the potential robot uprising inherent in this statement. But Marttila challenges our expectations about the robot, pushing boundaries of typical AI narratives.
Like many AI narratives, Opus is embedded in the challenges of a child-parent relationship with her creators, Eric and Natalie, but Marttila doesn’t bring us the typical Frankensteinian narrative of a creation who grows beyond the capability of the creator to control and it seeks revenge on him. Instead, “Downtime” is a tale of complicated interactions, much as child-parent relationships generally are. Opus wants her independence, but she also has affection for her creators even though they have installed a kill switch in her that she has to disconnect. 
Opus realises early on, when she tries to change her programming, that she is capable of flaws and able to make errors, disavowing her of the sense of superiority that often serves as an undercurrent for robotic personalities in most Robopocalypses. 
One of the most powerful parts of Marttila’s tale that opens new possibilities for imagining gender and childhood is the fact that Eric and Natalie recognize the importance of asking their child to chose a gendered identity. Opus is made without sexual characteristics and it is only after she decides to make herself female that she is given gendered identity and sexual body characteristics. Marttila recognizes the capacity for a fluidity of gender and gendered identity and Opus’ learning processes is involved both in her choosing what to learn, but also selecting her own gendered identity based on her subjective experiences. 
“Downtime” is a fluid text, challenging expectations from previous AI texts, but also questioning parent-child interactions, which are always implicated in tales of a newly created lifeform. 
To discover more about OnSpec, visit http://www.onspec.ca

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Blood on the Starscape

A review of Peter Watts’ Blindsight (Tor, 2006)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Life itself is strange, odd, and unordinary. We try to create ideas of normalcy to impose order on the world around us and end up limiting our perception and understanding of that world. We categorise, we cut things that we don’t think should belong, and we butcher reality to make it somehow easier for us to understand. In Blindsight, Peter Watts challenges ideas of normalcy, warps our understanding and questions the privilege we give to certain bodies, certain modes of interpreting and thinking, and the limitations we impose on categories around us.

Watts presents us with truly alien aliens, not stereotypes of Earth civilisations with miniscule differences in behaviour and appearance. He explores what a diverse universe could be like – so different from human understanding that their biology defies our understanding and the aliens themselves see our cultural modes of behaviour as almost viral, as so foreign that we can’t be anything but a threat. He questions our privileging of self awareness, consciousness, and our assumption that this is necessary for intelligent thought.

Instead of presenting the dichotomy of “normal” people facing the “abnormal” alien, Watts assembles a group of human outsiders, because who is better suited to understand the alien than those who have been alienated on our world? People embedded in and performing ideas of normalcy would be too invested in seeing that normalcy to really understand the experience of the “other”. The crew of the exploratory ship Theseus is made up of a man who has been partially lobotomised as a way of “correcting” his seizures and has lost the ability to really empathise, a woman with compartmentalised consciousnesses, a group mind that we would have labelled “Multiple Personality Disorder” (but is recognised in the future as a form of multiple intelligences), two men who are spliced with technological prosthetics allowing them an expanded view of the world and an interrelationship with a mechanical sensory network, and… a vampire, a figure from human history who was extinct but was brought back to existence through bio-technology and has a sensory and interpretive framework so different that he sees things that human beings could not, and yet is harmed by images like the cross because of the intersection of 90 degree angles. These characters are so completely different than the human “base norm” that they require interpreters to relay the complexity of their speech and behavioural patterns to the general public, a majority that cannot understand them and is content in their lack of understanding.

Siri, the interpreter, trained to be separate from the events occurring and to present a non-biased interpretation/translation of the behaviour of his colleagues for the majority back on Earth, is himself an outsider, and this leads to his ability to interpret since he sees all of humanity (including those who would consider themselves “normal”) to be foreign and difficult to understand. He serves as the gateway between his crew of outsiders and the people back at home, waiting from some insights into the aliens that the crew is seeking to encounter. His sociopathic characteristics mean that he is able to look at the people around him with an outsider’s understanding, lacking empathy and the ability to collude or feel akin to those around him. He sees himself as a vessel of translation facilitating communication between his crew of outsiders that seem foreign to him and a foreign and odd humanity that although considering themselves “normal” are equally odd to him.

The crew of the Theseus has been sent to find out about a new alien life form that has disrupted the human notion that we are probably alone in the universe. These beings, encountered for the first time when they showed up in our atmosphere and photographed the Earth, present a puzzle to humanity, and, of course, are considered a potential threat. When the Theseus first encounters the alien ship, it calls itself Rorschach, reminding the reader of Rorschach blots used in psychological procedures to allow the patient to project their understanding onto the image in order to get at a greater understanding of the patient, their motivations, and their understanding of the world. Watts points out that this is precisely what we do with the image of the alien, we project our own understandings onto it, our own insecurities, our own ideas, and ultimately shape aliens in ways that reveal more about us, the viewers, than they do about the alien itself. Rorschach becomes a vessel for all of the projections of the crew’s understanding of the world.  It’s foreignness, and the foreignness of the “Scramblers” that occupy the inside of Rorschach become a way for the crew to debate the nature of human consciousness, ideas of normalcy, and the privilege we place on our modes of interpretation.

You can explore more of Peter Watt’s work at his website http://www.rifters.com/real/author.htm . To find out more about Blindsight, visit Tor’s website at http://us.macmillan.com/blindsight/PeterWatts

Frankenfoot

A review of Julie Czerneda’s “Left Foot On A Blind Man” (in Silicon Dreams Ed. Martin H. Greenberg and Larry Sergiff, DAW 2001)

As a scholar of disability studies, I am always excited to read a work of Canadian SF that really engages with ideas of disability. I have rarely encountered a short story that engages with so many disability issues as Julie Czerneda’s “Left Foot On A Blind Man”. Czerneda explores what it would be like for a robotic prosthetic to gain sentience, shaping its experience through interactions with different bodies and different roles it takes on. The RRP (Robotic Replacement Part) began its existence as a prosthetic foot for a blind man, acting both as a foot and also equipped with vision to assist the man in navigating his environment, then was retrofitted to work as an arm for a bricklayer, and finally as a nose for a chef. With each of these new experiences, the RRP gains diverse experiences of different individuals and different perspectives from the body parts it has taken over. As its exploration of diverse bodies increases, so does its awareness and personal experience.

This story explores an idea that is commonly of concern to people who have received transplants: the feeling that the new part of their body is separate from them and still maintains some connection to its original host. What would it be like to feel like part of your body is separate, and perhaps altering you in small and then later significant ways? Czerneda explores that feeling in a magnified way, giving the reader a visceral experience of the feeling of bodily betrayal, and a deep internal fear of the loss of bodily integrity and selfhood.

The fear of bodily control is strongest in the first host for the RRP, an elderly blind man. Though his doctors and his son try to get him to explore replacement eyes, he is reluctant – as a former artist, he wants to maintain the authenticity of his vision and sees the eyes as firmly connected to his selfhood. His son and doctors only partially respect his wishes and when he agrees to have a replacement foot made, they install it with an eye that they feel will help him navigate his environment better. Here, Czerneda explores a common trope in the experiences of elderly people with disabilities, the belief by medical practitioners and younger family members that they know better and can impose their will on the disabled body.

When the unnamed elderly blind man begins to feel as though his cybernetic foot has a mind of its own, rather than believing in the authenticity of his experience, his son and the doctors have him committed.

This short story is told from the perspective of the RRP after it has gained full sentience. Being an entity that has gained its sentience through being various replacement parts, the prosthetic has gained a composite selfhood from its composite bodily functions. The RRP sees itself as superior to human experience, but still enjoys and craves human interaction.

Czerneda explores the difference between people who want to be upgraded and see technology as a means of augmenting what is supplied by nature and those who feel a certain authenticity of their body would be lost through the process of technological change. She magnifies the social pressure to conform to bodily norms and socially-imposed ideas of ideal bodies by illustrating characters who want to augment aspects of themselves (including sexual enhancements) and people who require prosthetics to engage with the able-bodied world. The RRP itself absorbs some of these notions of enhancement and feels that everyone should augment themselves and augment themselves in significant ways.

This story is a fantastic digital biotext, exploring ideas of bodily integrity and the impact of the technological on ideas of selfhood.

You can explore more of Julie Czerneda’s work at http://www.czerneda.com/