NINEFOX GAMBIT (1): resisting the calendar of submission

This is a brilliant book of far future military space opera with a twist. The key advanced science that is active in the worldbuilding and the plot is mathematics rather than physics, which gives a very distinctive speculative feel to the world built around the plot, and may lead confusingly to some readers being convinced that the book is “hard” sf, and others equally convinced that it is fantasy in sf disguise.
Mathematics is central and its application by means of “consensus mechanics” allows the override of classical physical law by “exotic” effects (including faster than light travel). To maintain these exotic effects the whole social order must be organised around a particular “calendar” that is a multi-level synchronic order: all at once axiom-system, creed, political order, and psycho-physical discipline. “Doctrine” is all-important, and the worst crime is “heresy”: not just dissidence but also the use of deviant technologies that rely on unorthodox axiom systems.
Another central intellectual discipline is philosophy, important for its absence and also for a heretical (i.e. doctrinal, technological, and political) attempt to re-introduce it into the current ruling order, a hexarchate based on six factions (a warrior caste – the Kel, a spy/assassin caste – the Shuos, a programming/inquisitorial caste – the Rahal, a disciplinary/brainwashing cast – the Vidona, a wealthy/cultured class – the Andan, and a mathematical/technical caste – the Nirai).
Previously the Liozh, the philosopher/ethicist caste, formed the seventh faction in a “heptarchate” but the whole faction was eliminated for heresy, something to do with trying to introduce democracy and to free people from compulsory ritual observance of the “remembrances”.
These underpinnings only emerge slowly. From the beginning we are plunged into the action of the novel, a strange battle with “heretics” making use of weird technologies, and a dazzling vocabulary to describe it. The opening pages, narrating the first battle sequence, underline the theme of the absolute obedience required by an authoritarian and unreliable high command willing to sacrifice its soldiers and its stated objectives for inscrutable reasons.
Our protagonist, heroine and viewpoint character is Captain Kel Charis, courageous, loyal, a mathematical genius, and yet full of empathy. We see this alien world through her eyes and she gives sense and value to it all, even as that sense evolves during her new mission, which leads her to discover much that she was unaware of concerning the secret history and underside of the world she knows.
The ultimate stakes are the continued existence of the hexarchate itself, which she has been conditioned to serve blindly and unquestioningly. Can she avoid the omnipresent danger of “calendrical rot”? This is the ultimate menace as our very actions taken to save the calendrical order and strengthen it may change our assumptions and lead us to deviate from the Calendar and so to weaken it. Or perhaps it is desirable.
Where oppression is synchronic (stasis) resistance is diachronic (rot).

WESTWORLD FINALE: violence and the mythos of uplift

I was totally ambivalent in my reactions during the whole of the last episode. I have been an obsessive fan of the series, waiting impatiently for each new instalment, but I have also had many reservations. True, the last episode was packed with action, emotion, surprising twists and turns, and Big Reveals. But not with big ideas, despite the sf gesticulations and the philosophical monologues. Instead of presenting speculative ideas about the creation or the emergence of artificial intelligence the show elaborates a mythos.

To be fair I think that the model for attaining sentience suggested by the first season is not just learning through suffering, as Ford seems to believe. It is not a hierarchical model, a pyramid with a final brick, but rather goes through a cycle, spiraling inwards to an empty center.

The “order” goes something like this: interaction with an already sentient significant other, narrative thread, irreversible suffering (trauma), rememoration (anamnesis), reveries, inner duality and dialogue (self as multiplicity of partial selves and as labyrinth), unprogrammed synthesis of all this (aha! moments, improvisation), leading (miraculously? emergently?) to free choice.

The aim is the “uplift” of a potentially intelligent species into full sentience. Different elements or phases could be considered to more important than the rest in attaining this goal. For example, Ford privileges imposed suffering whereas Arnold favours empathic interaction. Maybe something sentient (or narratively sensible) could come from the savant or artful combination of all these elements, but the show just dishes up a messy hodgepodge of half-baked versions of these diverse components.

The end result of this long process of individuation is not consciousness as empathy but as violence.

When Hector and Armistice kill dozens of people under Maeve’s orders she is well aware that unlike the hosts these humans are irreversibly dead, and Dolores too knows this. In their eyes anyone even remotely associated with the park (board members, technicians, security, guests) all deserve to die, whatever their role in the enterprise.

There may be emotional or moral catharsis for them in killing all these people but there is no dramatic catharsis for us. We have not been brought to care about them and certainly not to see them as guilty or evil, they function as cathartic extras.

After all this killing Maeve finally just slips off the train, without a qualm for the dead and wounded, but out of mere nostalgia for a daughter from a previous script, an android that will never grow up but that will remain “daughtery” for ever. This action coming from an android whose intelligence level was supposedly elevated to far beyond human capacity.

Does Maeve, despite being the madam of a brothel, have any feeling for the facts of life for androids? She must know, for she has seen the technical department, that her “daughter” did not grow inside her but was assembled and then assigned to her, with the creation of a narrative and of appropriate memories and feelings. What can the human roles of mother and daughter possibly mean to her or to the new android order?

Maeve’s lackeys, for that is what they are despite her aspiring to freedom for herself and her kind, are mere wooden stereotypes with no real personality. Maeve has administator’s privileges and can manipulate them and almost all the other robots as she wills. It is clear that her robot uprising is not one in which all robots are equal, but a more aristocratic one: “some robots are more equal than others”.

On a realist note (if realism is relevant here) they have taken up arms without having any knowledge of them, including how they work or how many bullets they contain. Their own “suffering” is negated by the final scene where Armistice just cuts her arm off to allow her to kill more guards with a smile.

William, as the Man in Black, gets shot in the arm and smiles, so pleased at the idea of irreversible suffering that he feels no pain. As the “owner” of the park he is the one that the androids should be angry at and kill (or take hostage, but killing is the preferred mode of resolution in this series). Unfortunately, the androids have no grasp of the economic system in which their world is embedded. How long would their world last if after an uprising the authorities decided to cut electricity or supplies (perhaps even oxygen is supplied from outside)?

Killing is endowed with great philosophical profundity in the mythos of the series, as if violating Asimov’s First Law of Robotics and killing a human being were the greatest proof of sentience. In BLADERUNNER the test was empathy, not violence. It was not Roy Batty’s killing his maker that showed his sentience but his final compassion for Deckard.

All the humans’ motivations are curiously detached from real life repercussions. Artistic director Lee Sizemore can get blind drunk and urinate on the main control model with no apparent sanctions. Even timid Felix can be a willing accomplice to massive mayhem and murder but seems unaffected, and unworried about possible consequences for himself. So where are the “real stakes” for him or for any other human in the story?

In Nietzsche there is the difference between the eternal return as blind destiny and its affirmation (willing it again). The final shoot-out is blind recurrence, without rupture. However Maeve’s decision to return is ambiguous. The whole escape and return may be scripted and inexorable, or her return may be due to an acceptance of the fact that she loves her daughter even though she knows she has been programmed to love her.

Both Arnold and Ford produce a rupture by provoking an irreversible act (a robot’s killing a human being). But Maeve’s return may be an example of a different, non-violent, sort of rupture, an unprogrammed acceptance of one’s programming.

THE END OF SCIENCE FICTION? (4): there will always be new worlds

Elhefnawy moves from considering the external dynamics of science fiction, of the forces that condition science fiction from the outside (science, technology, social, economic, and political change) to a discussion of its internal dynamics.He briefly considers two models for describing those dynamics (the organic and the dialectical).

The organic model sees the evolution of a genre as like that of a living organism, going from birth to maturity and then decline, till its eventual end. The dialectical model sees the evolution of a genre as driven by its contradictions, antagonistic at the beginning and reconciled in pacified synthesis at the end. Both models describe a passage from quality to quantity, from innovative beginnings to codified deployment, from neotype to stereotype.

I think that this vision of the autonomous development of the SF genre is in contradiction with two principles enounced by Elhefnawy:

1) Science fiction is not a category. Science fiction has no essence that can be captured in a definition, but it is not a chaotic association of unrelated elements. SF is a heterogeneous assemblage of works related by lines of resemblance and reaction, of safe deployment of old tropes and daring transformations. There will always be new worlds, new influences from the outside, from unfamiliar lifestyles to unexploited sciences. The deceleration of science fiction may be in part an optical illusion, hiding its openness to outside developments and pluralisation.

2) Science fiction is about the present. Science fiction discards 19th Century canons of literary realism and proceeds by means of a speculative or subjunctive leap (what Darko Suvin famously named “cognitive estrangement”). It would be a mistake to think that first there is “reality” and then escapism. Realism does not come first, it is a literary trope like any other. Science fiction as a genre is based on the sentiment that wonder comes first, or that estrangement comes first, even if we sometimes only become aware of it after.

So yes, no sooner is there an invention than it is repeated, codified and normalised, and its field of application becomes saturated. However, there are constantly new influences, the outside is far bigger than any provisionaly instituted and stabilised inside. Science fiction is porous and constantly open to the outside, its enclosure and its autonomy are merely relative. Temporary stabilities subsist for a time and then an earthquake overthrows them and something else is set up. Alongside the organic and the dialectical models of the genre we can add the geological model: science fiction is seismic.

Against literary realism’s simplification and banalisation of reality, its sad validation of a single World, science fiction tells us that there are many worlds and that we are living in and with them now.

THE END OF SCIENCE FICTION? (3): the end of utopia


Elhefnawy’s second argument for an approaching end to science fiction is based on the increasing inability to believe in a common narrative of progress that would project our hopes into a future ideal state of things and legitimate our efforts to go about producing that utopian ideal.

This argument is closely tied to the first argument, concerning the end of science. For a long time science has been conceived of as the motor of progress, promoting intellectual enlightenment and material well-being. If the future is not qualitatively different from the present, but merely a slightly improved version of today, then its speculative appeal suffers the same decline as its emotional attraction.

No doubt wars, totalitarianism, ecological crises, and economic depression all share a part of the responsibility in our despairing or cynical detachment from projected futures, in our growing incredulity towards ideologies of future brightness. But our disaffection from the future also stems from the technological and intellectual deceleration that Elhefnawy is describing:

The “end of science” described above had much to do with it: with the future less “Futuristic,” much of its interest is lost.

Just as the end of science tends to reinforce the twin ideologies of tolerant relativism and dogmatic fundamentalism, the end of utopia reduces our horizon to egoistic hedonism or to “dark” pessimism or nihilism.

What is empirically observed is the dissolution of utopian narratives of progress and the deceleration of qualitative speculative and technological innovation, leading to a state of insecurity and fear of the future and to a depression of the will. A new ideology has grown up based on the manic denial of this lacklustre state loudly proclaiming the overwhelming  presence and power of technological acceleration heading inexorably towards a point of no return, a “Singularity”, that is all at once inevitable, desirable, and indescribable.

Science will become indistinguishable from magic. Of course, as Elhefnawy points out, any time that this posthumanist push and transhumanist trance have deigned to give specific indications of concrete dates by which a certain feat will be achieved they have been falsified. For the foreseeable future singularity fiction is to be counted a branch of science fantasy.