AURORA vs MANIFEST DESTINY

This post is a set of musings occasioned by a dissenting review of Kim Stanley Robinson’s new novel AURORA.

I have mixed feelings about this review. I think that it ends in magic: “uploading” minds as the solution to space exploration. For me this is a meaningless techno-scientific phantasm. But it raises the problem of what happens if we discover life in another star system? Would it necessarily be inimical? I see no reason to believe so, it could just as easily be beneficial, improve our digestion or cure our pimples (to take some trivial, non-apocalyptic examples).

I also have mixed feelings about the novel. Somehow it stops short, with a “magic moment”, where some alternative political vision would be needed. Nor is magical thinking entirely absent from the book. Uploading minds is magic, but so is the conscious quantum computer of the story, “Ship”, despite KSR’s attempts to give it scientific credence. If a conscious quantum computer is possible, then so are wormholes or quantum teleportation or whatever. Politically, the computer seems to provide an answer to the problem of how to have a democracy or self-management without also having a strong police force. The computer solves this embarrasing problem like a deus ex machina. Similarly, the Earthfirst beachers symbolise a marginal politics of incremental progress, where something more is needed. KSR indicates the problems, but his solutions here are rather sketchy.

There is an incoherence between being very hard-headed about interstellar travel, and soft-headed about self-aware quantum computers. A quantum computer is something that we are only beginning to construct, a “self-aware” quantum computer is something else entirely. This is the “double-standard” model. KSR is hard-headed about space travel, applying basically classical mechanics to the problem. He is soft-headed about self-awareness in computers. This makes for a good story. He uses biology and ecology in a hard-headed approach too. (But I think the inimity of all alien-based life to our own biology is undemonstrated).

I see the book as containing a critique of scientism and of its fantasms of transcendance. If a scientist, or a science fan, can take at face value, with no analysis and no proof, that progress in quantum computing is a “first step” to self-awareness then this is more of the same ilk as those who in the book assert that it is our “destiny” to spread out into the stars. The whole thrust of the novel is deconstructive and demystificatory, to turn a scientistic fantasm into a real programme, and see what the conditions, the costs and the consequences are.

One may object that real progress has been made in the domain of quantum computing. But this is to miss that incremental progress is not paradigm change. There is no proof of even the possible existence of self-aware computers. The researchers in artificial intelligence by means of quantum computing do not have a paradigm, they are content to just muddle along and believe that one day a computer will “wake up”. Maybe so, but this is just magical thinking for the moment.

I do not deny that there really exist tiny first steps to quantum computing. But this does not entitle the believer in artificial intelligence to say “and suddenly it wakes up”. It is important not to take very recent studies, whose results and significance are still controversial, as if they were a hard foundation for a putative realistic goal. KSR warns against the engineer mentality and its obsession with technological prowess, and contrasts it with a more ecological approach. One of the interesting points in the novel is that the self-awareness of the AI is not a product of engineering, but of conversation and trust.

In a novel, as in any other context, it’s important to see where people are passing from complexity to waffle, and in AURORA the explanation of the self-aware computer is a little more on the pleasant waffle side of things, a useful plot device. KSR seems to acknowledge this, as Freya at the end does not become a post-humanist prophet but a beach engineer.

Personally I am more optimistic than KSR as to the possibility of interstellar travel in the far future, and I would criticise his pessimistic vision as itself based on direct extrapolation without allowing for paradigm change. Paradoxically, he is himself guilty of the very sort of “imprisoned” thinking that he shows up as problematic in the story. My feeling is that these questions are empirical, but that “empirical” means also new paradigms and not just doing better what we already know how to do. I agree that there is no Manifest Destiny for human life to go out and conquer the stars, but there is no manifest destiny of enclosure within the limits of the solar system.

Specific arguments of AURORA are empirical (and so falsifiable), and we must distinguish between their degrees of plausibility. On the question of the dissuasive amounts of time involved, the stellar distance argument is not the same as the difficulty of terraforming argument. The long duration involved in voyaging between the stars is solved in the novel itself by the new hibernation technique. The time for terraforming is relative to our technology, and could conceivably be accelerated. There is also the argument of acceptable risk or mortality rate. This is separate from the questions of duration (trip, terraforming). A fourth argument is very doubtful: other life is either absent or deadly. There is no reason to believe that life on other planets will automatically kill us, it could be neutral, or even enhance us.

Note: this blog post benefited from an interesting facebook discussion with David Parker.

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NO STARSHIP, NO CRY: AURORA by Kim Stanley Robinson

This is a very involving story, and very intelligent writing. Supposedly “hard” sf: hard for the accurate description of the constraints of space travel, but soft (i.e. magical) for the quantum computer that becomes self-conscious. (Perhaps “speculative fiction” in the sense of half science fiction and half philo-fiction, to be seen in the light of François Laruelle’s call for a “philo-fiction” using “quantum thought”).

The text is multi-layered: a hard science attempt to spell out concretely what voyage to a “nearby” solar system in a generational ship would be like; a more philosophical reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the self, and free will; an exploration of the human propensity for “living in ideas” and making bad choices based on fantasy or ideology, a deployment of biological and ecological science beyond the mere fascination with technological prowess; a vision of human thinking and behavior as determined by errors and biases that cognitive science is only now beginning to understand.

The whole story is a science-inspired deconstruction of the fantasy of traveling to the stars, by taking that fantasy literally. Yet the story is metaphorical too: the starship is a prison, ideology is a prison. The novel seeks to establish that the “technological sublime” does not take us outside our prison, but just transports it elsewhere.

The novel is a critique of the fantasm of transcendence that animates a lot of science fiction:

“living around another star would be a kind of transcendence, a transcendence contained within history”.

Those who do not share this dream of transcendence are the heroes of the story, emblematised by the “Earthfirsters”  (who have a lot in common with Bruno Latour’s “Earthbound”). The Earthfirsters do not want us to be shut up in boxes, both physical and mental, and seek an immanent use of science. The same use of delta-v that permits the manoeuver of spacecraft is at work in the more embodied activities of sailing and bodysurfing, and can enrich our pursuit of those activities. The whole book is a plea for the use of science as enrichment rather than as escapism.

The transformative interaction between humans and the environment is an important theme in this novel, as it was in the Mars Trilogy This interaction seems positive, transforming both partners, in the Mars trilogy, but I find AURORA more conservative in that regard. This is in part due to the issue of scale, as Tau Ceti is twelve light years away. However, the voyagers undergo no positive transformation, but “reversion to the mean”, “regression to the norm” and “zoo devolution”. Instead of greater individuation the result is disindividuation, a leveling of intelligence and adaptability.My worry with Kim Stanley Robinson is that he does not go far enough in his desire to think outside the prison. Like the voyagers on the starship, he does not come up with a new vision, a new paradigm. Changing paradigms is one way of changing worlds, not physically, but epistemologically and affectively. The voyagers are locked into the paradigm that presided over the conception and design of their voyage, so history is missing inside the ship. There is no scientific progress, despite two thousand of the best and brightest of Earth’s citizens having been selected for the trip.

In like fashion Robinson does not describe or implement the construction of a qualitatively new paradigm. His focus is quantitative: he tries to be encyclopedic, and to break with the hegemony of physics and technology in our thinking and imagination. So he includes not just hard physics, but also biology, sociology, systems thinking, philosophy of mind and of language, and cognitive science. Factoring in these considerations gives a very different approach to the generational starship than was customary in classical, physics obsessed science fiction. This makes the book a stimulating and powerful read.

However, in AURORA politics suffers, as it is somehow subordinated to Robinson’s reflections on cognitive science. I think this is a doubly reductive move. Politics is not science; and epistemology, much less philosophy in general, is not cognitive science. This scientistic explanation of human behaviour generates what some people decry as the “pessimism” of the vision embodied in the book. I do not think this vision is simply pessimistic, but I do think it is conservative and reductive. The dreams of technological and human transcendence that led to the construction of the starship created a “fascist” structure, as the voyagers themselves complain. But the social experimentation on the ship does not generate a functioning democracy, as the ship’s AI must intervene forcefully several times to establish the “rule of law”. The novel ends with a moment of immanence that is more symbolic than practical, an immanent sublime. All through the book there are such moments. However, the political vision of the book is an unstable mixture of immanence and transcendance tending towards its own halting point of: “It’s…just the way things are”.