Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Sun, Not Rising

Great science fiction asks us to think about the very concept of being human, of the human experience. Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, and Robert Heinlein all took their readers on investigations of what being human really meant, by asking unsettling questions of the type "What if (insert basic assumption about life here) were no longer true?" Asimov's Robot stories ask us to consider if our biology is central to our humanity. Clarke's amazing Childhood's End challenges us to imagine a humanity no longer limited by our need to live on this planet.

Karl Schroeder's remarkable "Virga" novels are asking some very unsettling questions, and providing very few settly-type answers.

His latest book, The Sunless Countries, his fourth set in the bizarre landscape of Virga, pretty much asks the question, "What if animals could use physics simulators? What if a dog or a wildebeest could provide itself with artificial augmentations? What the heck would THAT look like?"

Which is just a pretty nutty question to even ASK in the first place. I mean, what?

So there's characters appearing in this story who can talk, who can make use of completely over-the-top technology, but who aren't sentient. It's a bizarre conceit, made possible only by Schroeder's vision of where technology is leading us: towards the capacity to perfectly model natural processes. When this capacity is trivial to provide, argues Schroeder, we no longer need reasoning to provide us with advancements -- we can simply model natural selection, accelerate it even, and the improvements we desire will be made apparent to us. Once this technology becomes all-pervasive, then any entity capable of desire becomes capable of transforming itself, of developing whole new forms of technological marvels. Entities do not need to realise this is what they're doing. They don't need to possess awareness, just desire. Just hunger. Science itself becomes obsolete when the model's predictive power is faster, more reliable and more available to all.

(that'll really piss off Glenn -- I hope he reads this)

Except of course that reasoning, coupled with imagination (and perhaps given structure via constraints) can always envision solutions BEYOND what the model is capable of predicting, of making leaps the model cannot make. And it's becoming clear that the story of Virga is the story of the last enclave of life that is directed by scientific reasoning and human imagination. Everywhere else, we are learning, has been overtaken by this "artificial nature" that provides everything to everyone according to their desires. Only in Virga do people still puzzle out solutions to their problems. And because of this, Virga is both desired and suspected. How this will all play out is yet to be learned, but Schroeder is telling a fast, compelling story that only reveals its secrets in small doses. Just enough to keep you dying for more.

Perhaps Schroeder is preparing an elegy for science, or a last desperate plea for a beleaguered mode of thought. It's been forty years since the Moon missions. Creationism gets argued for in international media. And science fiction has been struggling without a great visionary voice for decades.

Now it seems we have writers like Charles Stross and Cory Doctorow championing a new, positive vision of the world ahead, something at last tearing down the cyberpunk dystopia that overtook everything in the 80's and erecting in its place a bizarre new world, crazier than the craziest Amazing Stories cover from the days of Hugo Gernsback. Karl Schroeder is staking out bold new territory in this space with giant bubbles of wine, flying icebergs and balloons orbiting distant stars.

And a creepy yet compelling discussion of what "human" means -- even more, what does "sentience" mean and why should we worry about it?