Friday, March 27, 2015

Chi-SF: Distress

It's always a bit of a mystery to me why Greg Egan isn't more known to SF enthusiasts. He's consistently written work that combines the massive scope and radical reimagining of the very hardest science fiction, the technology-drenched energy and occasional body-horror of the cyberpunks, and a sometimes brutal incorporation of modern cognitive science. Despite the brilliance of his writing, his work has been sometimes hard to find. That situation might be improving, as Night Shade Books is reprinting them for US audiences (see Patrick Lohier's Boing Boing article for more on that deal, and more on how Egan is awesome).

So, it was with some delight that I heard that the Chicago Speculative Fiction Community had selected Egan's 1995 novel "Distress". "Distress" is a near-future story, told from the perspective of a journalist--a kind of science documentarian, really. Burnt out from a project covering some horrific weirdness, Andrew Worth opts to report on a physics conference--which rapidly turns into a story about the Theory of Everything and the fate of all humanity/the universe. The main plot idea is big, heady, and maybe ultimately pretty silly, but it's packed into a world rich in other fascinating ideas--particularly on gender, neurodiversity, and rationality/belief.  There may be SPOILERS BELOW:

As always at Chi-SF, we started by going around the circle and giving some impressions and digressions. We talked for a long time on this one, so I'm going to try to roughly group our main topics:

Technology- we generally loved the worldbuilding here. The book starts with a major bang: a very Frankensteinian interview with a police-revived murder victim. While some of us found the tech unbelievable as a near-future prediction, I actually find most of it pretty plausible--a lot of not-terribly-flashy hardware and software developments, some interesting genetic engineering, some really terrifying military robots.

Gender- it's surprisingly non-central to the novel, but there's a lot of interesting sexual stuff going on here. Asexuality as a valid social choice (an umbrella term covering a lot of variation) is explored a bit, and a variety of other shades of sex and gender are apparently commonplace, with emphasis on both genetic/surgical modification and the performative, social aspects.

Egan employs a series of "v" pronouns for his asex characters, alternating "ver" and "vis", for instance. I'm kind of fascinated by the experiment; it's not as seamless as using "they" as a gender-neutral singular & plural (which seems increasingly clear as the preferred word in current real-world discussions), but maybe the point isn't to be invisible.

We had a brief weird side-digression about Worth's attraction to an asexual character and what to make of that, with a connected discussion of how that relates to children's supposed asexuality--the implication that this is equivalent to a pedophilic urge. I personally have to disagree pretty strongly with this reading on a few different levels.
  • Many people find androgyny attractive.
  • There are levels of intimacy (even physically intimacy) that are not directly related to sex, and that we might expect to find even in fully asexual individuals.
  • Furthermore, attraction being reinforced by a lack of return signalling (we pursue that which retreats from us) can sometimes occur; Akili (one of the main characters in the novel, who is asex) indicates that sexual humans being attracted to asex is a known phenomena. (If you know any folks who are asexual/androgynous/ambiguous, they can probably share a few stories).
  • Finally and on a totally separate level, the idea of children's asexuality is more of a social construction/wish than actual reality. Which is again totally separate from the question of pathological pedophilia; all I'm saying is that Worth's attraction to Akili doesn't seem indicative of nor equivalent to pedophilia.
  • I'm also really fascinated by their relationship, because our culture and literature right now seem so phenomenally BAD at talking about non-sexual (but vital) friendship relations.
Neurodiversity & Theories of Mind- talked about this a lot! Our narrator seems to be somewhere on the autism/Asperger's spectrum, although this is never overtly stated. But he clearly processes information a little different than many others, particularly in terms of how he interprets others. I was really fascinated by his unspoken rules that facilitate his relationship, as well as his interview with the fictional "Voluntary Autism" movement, who surgically modify themselves to induce more complete or functional versions of their selected processing model.

We talked for a long time about the ethics and possibilities of these kinds of elective procedures, as well as what to make of existing neurodiversities. I think resistance to embracing neurodiversity (either as a valid natural category, or as something to perhaps be created/enhanced technologically) comes from two main sources:
  1. The perception of neurodiversity such as autism as being primarily a dysfunction, and (so far fictional) modification of the brain in certain ways as "crippling" oneself. And not to deny that these conditions or states can be a serious issue depending on their severity & context; but assumption that deviation from the cognitive norm is automatically a problem ignores the many arenas in which different types of mind do better. We talked about high rates of folks along the autism spectrum in the maths and sciences, possibility of sociopathy as a major advantage in certain career paths, and the advantage of having different mental perspectives on a problem, as in the case of Temple Grandin.
  2. On a larger and (to me at least) more interesting level, the extent to which baseline conceptions about the mind ("folk psychology") are considered both factual and normative. I think this is a collection of dearly-held illusions that some folks get very defensive about when threatened by modern cognitive science. Or not even that modern, really--plenty of thinkers and traditions have been discussing the impossibility of free will, or the self, for ages--but modern science is cutting away more and more of our illusions about how our minds (and all they contain) are generated by our brains, fantastic bits of naturally-selected neuro-meat that they are.
That last point is one I really dig. Worth has more than my sympathy for his use of a rational rule-set to interact with people, even his intimate partners--he has my admiration. Egan is reconciling/repudiating a couple really interesting, important movements here.

Dualism, or the idea that we are composed of two different kinds of stuff--physical body-&-world stuff, and immaterial magical mind-stuff. Dualism is bunk, let's just say that and get it out of the way, but its inherent attraction coupled with its agreement with naive perceptions of the world has allowed it to flourish to this day. Belief in dualism allows institutions crucially relying on magic (spirits/souls/etc. for starters) to continue to unduly influence human affairs long after scientific advances should have consigned them to the ol' dustbin; belief in rationality or intelligence somehow separate from the body has led to all kinds of weirdness in our culture (including providing some underpinnings to sexism and racism).

Yet in a weird way, belief in dualism--a mind/rationality that is separate from emotion/body--has led to a weird kind of anti-intellectualism.

In "Distress", Worth puts forward the idea that "Freud had saddled Western culture with the bizarre notion that the least considered utterances were always, magically, the truest--that reflection added nothing, and the ego merely censored or lied." (p 82). Truth--and part of that odd anti-intellectualism. That moment when Worth realizes that he is seen as "less than human" because he hasn't reacted with visible, destructive emotion to a breakup--that really resonated with me.

Cyberpunk has often embraced a specific type of dualism, with Gibsonian cowboys and their many imitators full of disdain for "the meat", the physical body and its needs, as opposed to the disembodied perfection of the virtual world.

So here we have a protagonist who both employs the smartest strategies he can in a relationship that's important to him, explicitly challenging the anti-intellectual idea that unconsidered emotions and reactions are more "real" (they're definitely more truthy)--and who, in the nearly-fatal grip of a weaponized cholera infection, embraces his own physicality: "This diseased body was my whole self. It was not a temporary shelter for some tiny, indestructible man-god living in the safe warm dark behind my eyes" (p255). Particularly in a novel that seems to resonate with a lot of cyberpunk (we brought up Stephenson's "Snow Crash", for example, for both the technology and libertarian/anarchist vibe), it's a fascinating rejection of dualism and embrace of an embodied theory of mind.

We compared "Distress" to Peter Watts' 2006 "Blindsight" along a number of points, particularly these issues of theories about mind and their specific intersections with human relationships. Egan and Watts have a number of similarities in both style and philosophy, and "Blindsight" protagonist Siri Keaton has a lot of parallels to Andrew Worth in "Distress".

By the way, a lot of these issues will be touched on at the upcoming Wiscon panel "Ideas in Different Blood: Cognitive Diversity in SF/F". Chi-SF founding member and "Distress" discussion-promoter Jason will be discussing Egan and "Blindsight" among others, and I'll be discussing some of these dualist ideas (among other things).

Physics- the inescapable big idea in the novel revolves around a "TOE" (theory of everything), the simplest possible equations that would explain all phenomena in the universe. That in and of itself isn't controversial, given reductive materialism (which apparently everyone at group isn't? Well, there's a highly specific thing I assume about people until proven otherwise, I guess, LOL), but Egan here couples it to that whole giant cluttered family of "weird interpretations of quantum physics" that tie consciousness to quantum effects (and vice versa). Look up David Bohm or Roger Penrose for some of those ideas. TL;DR: they're very probably wrong, consciousness not having magic wave-collapsing or otherwise world-affecting powers.

In "Distress", however, something of the kind is assumed to be true, so much so that the first person to really hold a correct "TOE" in their mind will radically alter the universe. Weird stuff, kinda fun idea, based out of physics but moves the book more in a magic direction.

By the way some aspects of that put me in mind of Greg Bear's "Blood Music" (1985), where nano-scale intelligences being adjusting reality just by how closely they observe it. "Blood Music" itself calls back to Arthur C. Clarke's 1953 "Childhood's End" in some ways.

We also compared this to Clarke's "The Nine Billion Names of God" (also 1953) and Asimov's "The Last Question" (1956). And you know really, the stars going out in Clarke's story brings to mind the stars coming rather gloriously on in Asimov's "Nightfall" (1941, pdf link)...which, on re-reading, has some striking thematic parallels to "Distress".

Final physics note--I'd be remiss if a discussion of the four fundamental forces didn't lead me to share Randal Munroe's XKCD comic on that topic.
"Of these four forces, there's one we don't really understand." "Is it the weak force or the strong--" "It's gravity."
Anarchy- Most of the action in "Distress" takes place on an artificial island called "Stateless"; grown from modified corals, lacking government or corporate control, it's a kind of anarchy with strong ties to hacker and "technoliberation" ideas.

I really dig "Stateless", because it explicitly challenges a lot of problems with "anarchy will never work" arguments. Not to say that, ultimately, anarchic societies will work, but a lot of the arguments against turn out to be species of strawmen. At group we talked about the "Tragedy of the Commons", which is actually a gross miss-framing of the issue: actual commons shared by locals tend NOT to be overexploited due to social dynamics and less hapless greed than the thought experiment assumes.

We also talked about the former Kowloon Walled City outside of Hong Kong, and Freetown Christiana in Copenhagen; Stateless makes me think of science fictional anarchies like those in Le Guin's "The Dispossessed" (1974), KSR's "2312" (2012), Mieville's "Iron Council" (2004), and Piercy's "Woman on the Edge of Time" (1976).

Rationality & Belief- Lots of fun stuff going on here. Of course, the craziest idea of all turns out to be (basically) true here, but nonetheless Egan is clearly having fun tearing down both conspiracy theorists and "ignorance cults". Which unfortunately don't sound nearly as far-fetched to me as they should, what with major political power in this country today being heavily predicated on flat-out denying empirical facts. WEIRD TIMES, friends.

Other random little things that were interesting-
  • I really liked a lot of the little language notes and neologisms here--"murdochs" as slang for large news/entertainment conglomerates is particularly good.
  • We talked about the "abandoned downtown city" idea in the book, which some found unbelievable. Given that we've seen it before, I find it quite plausible for a given situation.
  • I LOVED the rent-a-bikes: "light, elegant, and nearly indestructible...essentially it was a human-powered electric motorbike. Superconducting current loops buried in the chassis acted as a short-term energy store, smoothing out demands on the rider, and taking full advantage of the energy-reclaiming brakes" (p55). We're getting there. Put me in mind of Bruce Sterlings' "Bicycle Repairman" (1996), which, now that I think about it, also has some asexual & anarchy & urban decay stuff going on it. Huh. Found a version online (PDF).
  • The almost off-hand assumption of ethical vegetarianism: "the sight of dead animals offered for human consumption still left me reeling" (p97). Right on.
  • Handwavium! In many ways, more elusive than unobtainium.
  • Worth pulling his implants out, whether that tech is realistic, how crazy a re-birthing metaphor it is (cutting his technological umbilicus), the whole desperate, awkward, painful, slightly sexual ordeal on the boat. And then of course finding out that his crude surgery wasn't necessary, as there were manual switches there all along. I really like Egan's ONLY OCCASIONAL swerves into black comedy territory.
  • We also talked about the definition and usage of deus ex machina, which I always remember by "whenever the eagles show up in Tolkien". No deus ex in "Distress", but something very similar, and also Tolkienian-- the "eucatastrophe", sudden and unexpected turn in a happy direction. Tolkien himself coined that term in "On Fairy Stories" (1939, find that bit pp 22-24 in this pdf at least).
Delightful book, delightful conversation! Jason had also contacted Mr. Egan to talk about the book (and presumably Jason's upcoming presentation), and Egan summarized the novel as "Autism Conquers Solipsism", which, well, I'm not sure I buy, but fascinating. Avoiding long digression on solipsism here (an aspect of one of my main philosophical/science-fictional interests). That's interesting.

Anyway! Next Chi-SF meeting is actually not decided, as we are awaiting Bill's report back from Minicon once the 2015 Hugo nominees are announced. I'm thinking there's a good chance we'll be reading Jeff Vandermeer's gobsmackingly wonderful "Annihilation" (2014); check out some other likely nominees over here on Brandon Kempner's "Chaos Horizon" site.

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