SIX WAKES ON THE DORMIRE: space clone murder mystery

This is the perfect crime fiction with clones in space. Told with an economy of means at a galloping pace, it is impossible to put down. There is just enough world-building to get on with the story, and the diverse details we learn on the fly, from surprising turns of events and multiple flashbacks, all converge on the character-driven dénouement.

The novel constitutes a very interesting thought experiment concerning all the variations that cloning plus hacking (both genetic and psychic) can generate. The metaphysical theme of identity is cleverly inter-twined with the ethical theme of our responsibility for our unowned or unconscious past.

The style is flatly narrative rather than literary, but the intrigue and the suspense are very skilfully handled.

All in all not a ground-breaking work, but a quick and enjoyable read.

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LADY ASTRONAUT OF MARS: A Retro-Futurist Love Story

A bitter-sweet tale focused on the conflicting demands of conjugal love and of passionate vocation. Love is not only an emotion but also a set of life choices together. To be faithful to love is to be faithful to those choices, not always to be faithful to our image of love.

Mary Robinette Kowal manages to convey a lot of emotional complexity in such a short space. Elma, an aging astronaut, in fact the first lady astronaut on Mars, lives in a human settlement on Mars with her elderly husband, pining to get back into space. Miraculously, she is offered a new mission, her last chance to live her passion.

Elma longs to accept, as she has no ties, except her husband, as they chose to have no children. Unfortunately her husband is sick and getting progressively helpless, dying slowly. She does not want to leave him.

It’s a hard thing to look at something you want and to know that the right choice is to turn it down.

These are the cold equations of life, wherever you may live. But where is the sense of wonder? For Elma it was in the voyage out, in space. The wonder of being on another planet is diminished by having to live in a dome on Mars:

The natural night sky on Mars is spectacular, because the atmosphere is so thin. But where humans live, under the dome, all you can see are the lights of the town reflecting against the dark curve.

Wonder is relative, and even migrating to another planet may come to seem a limiting experience, instead of a limit-experience.

I couldn’t stop thinking about the mission. “He knows it’s the only way I’ll get back into space.” Garrett Biggs frowned like I’d said the sky was green, instead of the pale Martian amber. “You’re in space.” “I’m on Mars. It’s still a planet.”

I found this a quite enjoyable story, but the more I think about it the richer it seems. It is about how we may devote ourselves to an absolute, despite the sometimes disappointing nitty gritty details of its effectuation. Elma gets to be an astronaut, but she is selected also as a pretty smiling face to advertise the mission. She is selected decades later for the new mission for both practical and PR reasons. Her love too is absolute, despite being mired in difficult materiality. The contradictions between the ideal and its realisations are well handled.

This story explores the impossible reconciliation of these contradictions and conflicting desires. The end provides us with a lop-sided synthesis, half motivated by the rest of the story, half tacked on.

SEQUEL AS REVENANT: Yoon Ha Lee’s Revenant Gun

REVENANT GUN is the third volume in Yoon Ha Lee’s THE MACHINERIES OF EMPIRE sf trilogy. It is a fitting final episode in the military space opera that began so impressively with NINEFOX GAMBIT, and continued in the less impressive but still engrossing second volume RAVEN STRATAGEM.

The story arc comes to a strong end, and the reading experience is full of the poetry, the sense of wonder, the humour, the sexual attraction, the political and strategic complexity that we have come to expect from the series. This signature stylistic formula is back once again for the third episode, so it is the true “revenant”.

We learn more about our heroes and about the difficulties they must face and overcome to succeed in their plans. However, the universe and its inhabitants beyond the confines of the empire are not explored.

The key word to describe this volume is “more”. We learn more about the world that was set up in the first volume, and that was filled in and expanded in the second volume. We learn more about the calendar and its remembrances, more about Hexarch Nirai Kujen’s plans for immortality, more about the robot servitors, more about the “moth” spaceships.

The new novel is more pedagogical, and more descriptive. Perhaps this is in response to complaints about the difficulty of the opening scenes, the unvisualisability, and the lack of essential explanations that characterised the first book.

Indeed, some of the things we learn here would have been better placed in the first book, such as the nature of the mothships and the torture and human sacrifices that alimented the High Calendar. It is possible that the author had no idea of the explanations behind some of his verbal fireworks, and only came to give determinate content to the evocative neologisms much later.

The pedagogical approach to filling in the missing information is mirrored in the plot by the familiar trope of bringing up to speed an ignorant character.

At the beginning of the novel Jedao is amnesiac, having regressed to the mental age of a seventeen year old first year cadet in Shuos Academy. He has no memories or knowledge of his own life or of political developments since that time, over four hundred years ago.
A second character, Hemiola, is a robot servitor serving on an isolated planet at the edge of the Empire It has no idea of the downfall of the Hexarchate nor of the current political situation.

Both Jedao and Hemiola are brought up to date on the fly, in the course of a fragmented series of conversations, as are we.

This volume was slow-going during the first half, because of the different threads of the intrigue playing out in different times and places. The pay-off was a convergent plot-line that became quite gripping in the second half. The narrative culminated in a satisfying, but predictable climax, and then went downhill into a less predictable, unsatisfying, anti-climax.

Resolution and provisional stability is achieved by the end of the book, but there are enough loose threads to allow a fourth volume, or a further set of short stories, if ever Yoon Ha Lee wants to return to this universe.

AVENGERS INFINITY WAR: Calculation, Manipulation, Montage, Nihilism

I really enjoyed the new Avengers film, although I couldn’t understand why I did. I felt manipulated by the technical perfection of the movie despite its absolute lack of ideas and of real stakes.

I used to like the comic book version because Thanos was unique among super-villains in having an explicit philosophical position: Nihilism. Further, he was no cold calculating rationalist psychopath: he was passionately in love with Death. This gave a craziness to the comic book saga that is missing in the film.

The hubris in the comic is in the desire to win Death’s love, not in the means to do this by gaining Infinite power and killing off half the universe. With the film, the passion, the craziness and the hubris are all flattened out into the film-makers’ calculative desire to make such a film featuring as many super-heroes and escalating powers as possible.

Thanos the Nihilist in love with Death has been replaced by Thanos the Calculator, who provides a good symbol for those who calculate the film (how many actors, who must be included and excluded, how many special effects, space and time limitations, budgetary considerations).

This replacement of the passionate lover of Death by the cold Calculator is a movement that takes place inside nihilism, from nihilism as content (comic book Thanos) to nihilism as form (film-makers of Thanos). Many thinkers (Heidegger and after) have argued that the hegemony of calculation is the fulfilment of nihilism, its ultimate form.

My attention was effectively captured by a continual, and calculated, series of breaks in space and time, in setting and characters, in tone and mood, in demonstrations of power.

Hence my feeling of being manipulated. Not so much by the pathos of Gamora’s tears at the prospect of killing her adoptive father or by the Scarlet Witch’s despair at having to kill the love of her life to destroy the Mind Stone (plot points in which the characters are as manipulated as we are) as by the calculated cinematic montage.

A MATERIALIST READING OF P.K. DICK: Evan Lampe and the world we live in

For those interested in Philip K Dick Evan Lampe’s “Philip K. Dick Book Club” (a rubric on his American Writers podcast) is an amazing resource, together with his blog Philip K. Dick Review, and his book PHILIP K DICK AND THE WORLD WE LIVE IN.

The title of Lampe’s book on P. K. DICK expresses the essence of his approach. He does not indulge in starry-eyed adulation of an oracle or in pseudo-mystical escapism. For Evan Lampe Dick’s stories and novels are about our world of global capitalism and our lives within it.

Of course, this is a one-sided reading, for example Lampe does not give much shrift to Dick’s Gnosticism or to his ontological speculations, but I do not think that Lampe rejects other approaches, such as epistemological, ontological, religious, or meta-linguistic readings of P. K. Dick. Lampe simply pursues with tenacity his own interpretative hypothesis, reading Dick in materialist and sociological terms.

This is a difference of approach that I have with Evan Lampe. I find that the Gnosticism can often illuminate even the earlier pre-gnostic works. Lampe sticks to his materialist hypothesis and offers us the completest interpretation to date. Lampe’s readings are very often illuminating, even if one-sided. I do not think he is being reductive or exclusionary of other approaches.

I myself read P.K. Dick through Deleuze (and Laruelle, Stiegler, Latour, and many others). These are all materialists, but they give us the means to take Dick’s gnosticism seriously. I see no incompatibility. No one person can do everything, but Evan Lampe’s readings are very useful.

I use Evan Lampe’s book, blog, and podcast not as a definitive summa of P.K. Dick’s thought, but as a rich source of hermeneutic catalysts for reading Dick. If ever I feel stuck or stumped, with no (or incomplete) insight into a story, I can turn to these resources and generally find a useful approach.

For those interested in Philip K. Dick’s work I can recommend they read Evan Lampe”s blog or book, and listen to his podcast. If you have another reading of Dick you cannot decide in advance that a materialist reading is all no good.

Lampe’s approach is comprehensive but inevitably one-sided. It compensates for other readings that are themselves one-sided, but in the opposite direction. His approach is no doubt incomplete, but I always draw insight from it.

Note: I am indebted to a twitter discussion with Burton Fisher for helping me clarify my ideas.

ELYSIUM FIRE: wonder vs catharsis

Review of ELYSIUM FIRE by Alastair Reynolds.

Before reading ELYSIUM FIRE I first read the short story “Open and Shut” and then the novel THE PREFECT to prepare for this new book. It is billed as a standalone novel but our understanding and enjoyment is greatly enriched by reading these two prequels. In fact, I think that the attempt to make ELYSIUM FIRE a standalone novel by incorporating numerous infodumps to explain to the first-time reader material that was acquired more contextually in THE PREFECT actually weakened it.

ELYSIUM FIRE (Prefect Dreyfus Emergency 2) is a worthy sequel to THE PREFECT, which is now retitled AURORA RISING. It presents us once again with a gripping story, full of impatience-provoking suspense and surprising reversals.

However, most of the necessary world building was done in THE PREFECT, so the sense of wonder, so ably conveyed by Reynolds, is diminished if one has read the first volume, which managed to combine harmoniously both wonder and intrigue. The sequel is much more explanatory than THE PREFECT. If the stylistic ideal for fiction is show, don’t tell, in this second volume we have more telling, less showing, and the harmonious balance is lost.

New elements include duplicitous sub-plot concerning two morally ambiguous brothers who are brought up in a vast mansion full of dark secrets within secrets and strange technology, that recalls Gene Wolfe’s novella “The Fifth Head of Cerberus”. There is a similar exploration of the complex relations between identity, doubles, and memory.

(The SFFaudio Podcast episode #439  contains a very interesting discussion of the Gene Wolfe novella).

The theme of doubles is repeated in the ethical and legal concerns over the ontological status and the rights of digital copies of people, and the potential blurring of the notions of sentience, responsibility, and culpability.

There is also a shift of emphasis in the analysis of democracy. Whereas THE PREFECT expanded on the potentiality of a technology-assisted democracy to produce extreme living choices, ELYSIUM FIRE focuses more on the loopholes and failings such as the power of demagogy, the identitarian will to secession, and the manipulation of information.

One of the sub-plots that was foregrounded in the the first volume, that of the battle between two vast distributed artificial intelligences (Aurora and the Clockmaker), is carried over into this volume but remains mostly in the background. Its continued but unresolved presence suggests a formulaic plot device capable of generating at least a third “Prefect Dreyfus Emergency” novel, or even more.

This develoment promises to reinforce the primacy of intrigue over cosmo-technical invention that characterises this second volume, and so perhaps to a further decline in science-fictional wonderment in favour of police procedural excitement and catharsis.

In short ELYSIUM FIRE is an enthralling novel that makes one want to race through the book and to finish it in as few sittings as possible. It comes close to, but does not fully match, the balance of speculative invention and suspense-filled intrigue that made the first book such a successful fusion of sf and detective genres.

BLADE RUNNER 2049 (4): the strange void of subjectivity

“There is no subject without an incomplete Big Other” Slavoj Zizek

The original version of BLADE RUNNER had neither the voice over by Harrison Ford nor the happy end showing the escape in the car. Supposedly this was felt to be too confusing for the ordinary viewer and the contextualising narration was added, along with the traditional Hollywood happy end, to give coherence to the montage. A visual summary of the different versions can be found here. Ambiguity and incompleteness are an essential part of the mode of enunciation of Ridley Scott’s film.

Denis Villeneuve’s sequel re-inscribes this ambiguity and incompleteness at the level of content. The replicants’ inserted memories are incomplete fragments, ambiguous and unreliable, yet, as we have seen, this messy aspect makes them real even though they are not authentic.

K’s inquiry-cum-quest for closure reveals him to be even emptier than he thought. He is not only officially programmed for obedience and equipped with false memories, but his entire “secret”, unofficial history that he uncovers is itself a fabrication

The revelation that his previous “revelation” (he was the first replicant born, not made) was false leaves him in a state of subjective destitution even more thoroughgoing than that of Rachael in the first film.This subjectivity as unprogrammed void is what there is in replicants that is “more human than human”.

Deckard declares, to justify his abandoment of his and Rachael’s child “Sometimes to love someone, you gotta be a stranger”. This statement has more far-reaching import than he realises, as behind our familiar roles and cherished memories there is the strange void of our subjectivity. To be human is to be a stranger.

The true anamnesis is not the recollection of facts and anecdotes about one’s past life, but the discovery of this pure subjectivity void of content and the retroactive perception that it was present all along.

BLADE RUNNER 2049 (3): a faithful sequel does not replicate

Those who know my work on my philosophy blog AGENT SWARM will be aware that I have been giving a Badiousian reading of this sequel to BLADE RUNNER, taking my guide from the statement at the beginning by the replicant Sapper Morton that a replicant can become human by being faithful to a “miracle”.

I concluded my last post on BLADE RUNNER 2049 by calling it a story of soul-making or of becoming-subject, the transformation of K into Joe.There is a greater sense of process in the film, as compared to the original.

This process is envisioned by the main characters in diverse ways, each according to one of the four truth procedures that Badiou describes as necessary conditions to philosophy and to true life: science, politics, art, and love.

Wallace sees the birth of a replicant baby as a scientific miracle whose secret he urgently searches, Fraysa welcomes it as a catalyst to political revolution, Stelline draws on it as a source of inspiration for her artistry, and K hopes that it will be an opening to love. Each of these conditions developed apart from the others can lead to a reductive world view: scientism, politicism, aestheticism, romanticism.

The film is “thoughtful” in that it attempts to maintain a balance between all four ways of seeing and acting.

BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2): a pedagogical sequel

As explained in my last post, I greatly enjoyed BLADE RUNNER 2049 but I do not share the opinion that it is somehow “surpasses” the original film. My impression is that the new film is much more explicit about some of the issues raised by the first film, and even about its enigmas, which are no longer simply suggested but explicitly discussed.

ATTENTION SPOILERS BEYOND THIS POINT

Unlike some commentators I do not wish to see a sequel recounting the ascension of the replicant “messiah” to the head of an uprise, in the disastrous manner of the planet of the apes franchise. THE RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE REPLICANTS would be a soulless film indeed.

The film poses the question of whether an artificial intelligence can have a soul, and of how this could come about. The film gives several answers to this.

The protagonist, K, gives one answer near the beginning of the film, endorsing the thesis that to have a soul one must be born, not made. This is the official doxa and forms part of the ideology that justifies the world order. It contains the presupposition that replicants cannot reproduce, but must always be made. This implicit hypothesis will be falsified by the discovery that the replicant Rachael from the original BLADE RUNNER gave birth to a child, presumably by that fact both replicant and ensouled.

This discovery threatens to “break the world”, as Robin Wright’s character Joshi phrases it, as the world in place is based on a Cartesian (and Christian) dualism separating made replicants from born humans. This ruling ideology is spelled out again and again in the film, with its pedagogy of explicitation and repetition.

Another response is suggested even before this ideological doctrine is stated, by Sapper Morton, the replicant that K “retires” in the incipit to the film. He declares that K and his line, the re-asimoved obedient nexus-9 series, have no compunction about killing their own kind because they “have never witnessed a miracle”. It takes a miracle to break the world, but it also requires a subject who is faithful to that miracle.

Antagonists like Joshi and Wallace (the mad hubristic creator of the nexus-9s) do not see the possibility of a miracle, but see the potentially world-changing event reductively in terms of political management or technological innovation.

Political uprising is another mode of becoming ensouled, and Freysa’s army of replicants waiting for their miracle-born messiah are already revolting against their programming (unlike her, who is presumably one of the free nexus-8s). K obeys, until he understands that disobedience is an option.

K later seems to get indoctrinated into acting on the Freysa’s that giving one’s life for a good cause is the most human thing they can do. However, the risk is that this simple inversion of the dominant political ideology maintains its dualism without subverting it. Something more is needed.

The political miracle may already have taken place. Freysa tells K that many others took themselves for the chosen one. This implies that they had memories that were emotional and messy. The nexus-9s were re-asimoved into obedience and into inability to harm a human being (see this short prequel to the sequel) but they were also equipped with real, messy memories. They thus contained an inherent flaw, an inner tension or dialectical contradiction, permitting re-subjectivation under the right circumstances.

These memories may need to be dwelled on, not just alone in solipsistic isolation or in “interlinked” subservience, but in loving exchange. Love is another mode of ensouling or of subjectivation proposed by the film. K  has only de-humanising relations with humans, his police colleagues insult him or shun him as a “skinjob”, his superior manipulates him. It is only with his AI companion JOI that he divulges his memories and aspirations.

For me the most striking comparison is not so much with Pinnochio wanting to be a real boy as with the Tin Man in THE WIZARD OF OZ, who wants a heart, little realising that he already had one. Joi glistens, gives him a name, borrows a body to make love to him, accepts mortality to accompany him, tells him in her last words she loves him. All this seems to confirm that by sharing feelings each has come to subjectivise the other.

A counterpoint to this “miracle of love” hypothesis is foreshadowed in the buggy Elvis hologram, when he sings “I can’t help falling in love with you”. Later, in the creepy dialogue between Deckard and Wallace, this idea of programmed love comes up again. Wallace tells Deckard that he may have been designed to fall in love with Rachael and to run off and procreate with her. This is a heavy-handed moment when the possibility that Deckard himself is a replicant is not only suggested, as in the original film, but explicitly discussed.

Memory and anamnesis are not enough to induce soul, the memories have to be worked on and their sense extracted and incarnated in actions. Joe, at this stage he is no longer simply K, declares that all the good memories belong to Stelline. However, his memory of hiding the wooden horse from the older children who ganged up on him to take it is not a particularly happy memory. Initially K thinks that the date carved on it is his birth date and that his memory is proof that he was born, and thus has a soul.

The transition from K to Joe is accomplished when he understands that this meaning is not only false, but too superficial. The deeper meaning comes from owning the memory and appropriating its sense of battling the bullies and hiding the treasure, which is what he does at the end in saving Deckard and faking his death. This act steps out of the little Oedipal drama he had concocted with Rachael and Deckard as his lost parents. He can now live his subjectivity as both separate and interlinked, and abandon Deckard to his daughter. This deed echoes Deckard actions, who to justify his abandonment of his and Rachael’s child, tells Joe:

“Sometimes, in order to love someone, you have to be a stranger”

There is no real reason why the mystery of the replicant baby should be tied to Rachael and Deckard from the original BLADE RUNNER. The pat Oedipal conclusion could have been avoided while still giving closure. Stelline, the replicant Messiah, despite all her work on memory and attention to detail (getting the beetles movements just right) seems rather insipid. Yet she is a fitting counter-power to the creepy Wallace, demiurge and Antichrist. Wallace is a memory of the creepy, and crappy, mad hubristic creators that Ridley Scott is so fond of in his Alien franchise. Perhaps we shall not be spared a sequel PANDORA, on the analogy with PROMETHEUS, where it is made even more explicit that it was “hope” that emerged from the box of bones at the beginning of the film.

This film “remembers” its original in almost every shot and plot point. It is not so much an action film, the story of the origins of a robot rebellion, but of one person’s struggle with soul-making in a de-humanising world. It is a thoughtful sequel that comprehends and transforms its original, extracting its sense from a memory of someone else’s film, just as Joe does from his memory. The new film creativelyexplicates and re-expresses the old, giving one possible interpretation and prolongation amongst many.

BLADE RUNNER 2049 (1): can a sequel have a soul?

I was looking forward to this film for a long time, with impatience and suspicion, eager to enter the Blade Runner universe and fearing that it would be ruined. To my delight, I found the sequel to be an engrossing story, visually impressive and thoughtfully told.

A quick search online revealed a repeatedly expressed view that the second film is even better than the first, just as the replicant is supposedly “better” than the original baseline human.

The question that resonates throughout both films, in different ways, is: can a fabricated sentient being have a soul, or is it merely a made object of heightened complexity, but as soulless as a zombie?

This is a question that comes up today with increasing force in discussions over genetic engineering. A designer baby or a clone may have no parents and may even be produced for a particular function (super soldier, organ farm). The “does AI have a soul?” question is both valid in itself, a useful metaphor for exploring the engineering approach to the reproduction and/or replication of human beings.

Can a copy be as good as, or even better than, the original? If not a copy, then a creative repetition? Can the successor species to humanity, or the sequel to a film, have a soul?