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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6 thoughts on “AURORA vs MANIFEST DESTINY

  1. You state “For me this is a meaningless techno-scientific phantasm,” which is quite interesting considering at one point in the novel Robinson writes “That a starship could be built, that it could be propelled by laser beams, that humanity could reach the stars; this idea appeared to have been an intoxicant.” I don’t think “intoxicant” is so far off from “phantasm” in this context – almost as if the writer of the post you link to missed the point of Robinson’s novel, or, has failed to second guess the “coming wonders” of mind technology. We haven’t cured the common cold, let alone plumbed the depths of the human psyche enough to even think about uploading minds. As much as the silver spaceship was a symbol for Modernists, I’m not unconvinced the uploaded mind is the symbol for Singularists (or whatever you want to call the people influenced by the idea).

    With regards to your own argument about Robinson’s pessimism/optimism regarding space travel, I’m not sure Robinson’s point was that human life is only possible within the own solar system. His characters voice such an opinion in the novel, but perhaps this was just the exploration of both sides of an idea, not his own voice. Looking at the Three Californias and Science in the Capital trilogies and the upcoming Green Earth, I remain more convinced Robinson would prefer humanity solved its problems on Earth before thinking about star travel. In other words, human life beyond sol is possible, but we first should get our ducks in a row. There is, however, only slight evidence in Aurora to back this up…

    Anyway, interesting post.

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    • Thanks for your comment. I think you are right that many of the ideas appearing in the book involve empirical research, and cannot be settled yet, and that KSR is quite aware of this and accepts it. The Singularity hypothesis is just that, a hypothesis, but one that I find wildly implausible in the short run of a century or two. I have no idea of what will be really possible in the long run, but I reject the naive “optimism” (really a form of dogmatism) that presumes the Singularity is just around the corner, and that they are being hard-headed in doing so. As you suggest they are indulging in symbolic thought expressed as if it were factual.

      Also the question of voice is quite important, and in this novel we have a very unreliable narrator indeed. “Ship” is not even human, and unsure of its own sentience. Mostly it has a positivist view of humans, which in the terms of the novel is an incomplete perspective.

      On the question of perspective, I think that what Robinson refuses is the perspective of transcendence, which pushes people to believe and to attempt unreasonable things. The immanent perspective puts the emphasis on transforming the here and now, as you say “getting our ducks in a row”, rather than projecting a transcendent goal which “must” be attained, or which is pre-ordained. The immanent satori at the end, on the beach, contains scientific vision and concepts (“delta v”) within a larger vision. Aram and Badim combine science and poetry quite well, and the final translation of the Cavafy poem bears out the idea that where Robinson seems to be talking about renunciation he is really talking about immanence. Piecemeal transformation is less impressive than a transcendent leap, but it could eventually get us to the stars, so its more about a change in attitude, an emphasis on priorities, than an assertion of impossibilities.

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      • Have you listened to the Aurora discussion on the Coode Street Podcast with Robinson? It’s quite interesting.

        http://jonathanstrahan.podbean.com/e/episode-238-kim-stanley-robinson-and-aurora-1435391798/

        Also, have you read Arthur C. Clarke’s The City & the Stars? It posits that in any state humanity might exist (in the novel’s case utopian) it will inevitably seek the stars, which makes for an interesting discussion point in the context of Robinson’s novel.

        Seeking the stars and achieving them, well, those are two different fish… ūüôā Glad to have found your blog. Look forward to looking through the older posts…

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  2. Yes, the Coode Street podcast interview is very interesting. I will have to re-read The City and the Stars as I read it over 40 years ago. I do not believe in any “inevitability”, which is usually based on simplistic ideas of history or on very dubious sociobiology.

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  3. Pingback: Review of the film THE MARTIAN: the community of geeks versus the cold equations | Xeno Swarm

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