Thursday, August 11, 2016

Re-reading The Left Hand of Darkness

I used to assign SF works to one of the two broad categories, loosely labeled "fun reading" and "food for thought".

"Fun reading", for me, includes many of the space operas, a.k.a SF fairy tales: quick page-turners, full of awesome glitter and breath-taking adventures, but once you are beyond the last page and yet another impossible world begins to fade in your imagination, the details of the story get quickly forgotten.

"Food for thought" might be quite a hard reading, not done overnight. But these stories tend to stick around, often for years. They tackle issues which don't get easily solved, or for which the solutions appear to be quite unsatisfactory, and / or these issues look plausible enough to make a permanent dint in the reader's mind. One well-known example: dystopias. One more is when the depicted worlds are only slightly different from the world we are used to, but the nature of the difference touches the very fundament which we have always assumed intact.

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin, to me, is one of the rare books that manages to combine an easy-to-follow narrative with a deep story behind it.

It rethinks one of the most basic phenomena in the human civilization: the gender, by showing a world where "static" gender, in our definition, does not exist: its inhabitants periodically become either male or female, depending on the subtle circumstances normally beyond their control. For the most part of their lives though, they are neutral and neither engaged nor interested in one of the most profound drives of our own civilization: sex.

Other than that, Gethen, the world described by Le Guin, is not at all dissimilar from ours. It has a traditional empire-like state and a more modern ("efficient", as they say) totalitarian regime. There are several religions, which aren't completely unlike the ones we have. They have creation myths and the legends about love and vendetta. People could love or hate each other, get rich, get poor, take revenge, be an adventurer or a home-sitter. Everything is the same, only the gender-related issues - family, attitude to relationships, child-rearing - are quite different. No gender dualism, no weaker or stronger sex, no sticker to put on a newly born child. Also, the Ice Age on Gethen hasn't ended yet, and the inhabitants had to deal with it for millennia.

The book follows a story of the first envoy of the interplanetary society, the Ekumen, who tries to include this strange world into the broader community of other human worlds. Half of the narrative is from his perspective, another half is from the perspective of the local person that happened to be closely involved, so there is a discovery process going on from two sides.

The premise is that all the human worlds were once created by some proto-demiurg civilization, and that civilization also took the liberty to tamper with human genetics in a number of different ways. Gethen, though, is unique in their gender curiosity. From their own perspective, the inhabitants of all the other worlds seem to be perverts: forever stuck in one gender, like animals on their own planet, by the way.

(Which also made me wonder, what if the tables were turned? What if it was the human society which was unique in their "gender rigidness" as an experiment? Did Le Guin considered such possibility?)

I am not going to retell the whole story here, it deserves to be read and re-read. What amazes me is that the book, even though it was written quite some time ago, doesn't feel outdated (which is an achievement in SF land). Also, the level of detail is quite high. And most importantly, the characters behave in such a way that it's possible to empathize with them. Strange as it is, that world seems to work. And then it's easy to ask oneself, what would be changed in our world under such conditions? How much of our history, philosophy and whole culture would've been changed beyond recognition? How should people feel when they are oscillating between two extremities at a whim of a chance?

I do wonder if anyone would soon dare to make a movie out of it. Showing the whole society of not-quite-men-or-women without making it either a caricature or an abstract concept is a big challenge. But hey, isn't it what the SF is (or should be) about: imagining something that is improbable, but not impossible?

Friday, June 03, 2016

Scary future, cool future, or both - on Firefall and Jean le Flambeur

Recently, I have read Blindsight + Echopraxia (a.k.a. Firefall) by Peter Watts, on one side, and The Quantum Thief + The Fractal Prince (a.k.a Jean le Flambeur) by Hashi Rajanemi, on another. (Not that I had both books on different sides simultaneously, of course - I wish I could!)

That was an interesting experience. Both authors mentioned that their books did not come out lightly. Both authors have put a lot of effort into their creations, providing many impressive details for their stories, and appear to be qualified to describe what they chose to. But the impression left by their work is quite different. From my, very personal and possibly biased, point of view, Peter Watts' books create one of the gloomiest near-future visions I've got acquainted with recently (which does not make these books less interesting to read, but they do describe the world quite dreary to live in). Hannu Rajanemi, on the other side, paints the picture of the world which seems to be quite fascinating (some parts of it, at least). Where his books might lack in depth, they try to compensate it by describing what could be defined as "poetry of existence". From that point of view, it's a space opera all right.

Rajanemi attempts to describe postsingularity/post human world by trying to imagine how much of the humanity would remain in it. I would list Roger Zelazny and Charles Stross as predecessors for (some aspects of) his style. I thought about Rajanemi first as Alastair Reynolds Lite, too. And perhaps Anthony Burgess, because Rajanemi also uses a few Russian words as labels for some of the concepts, and it makes a lot of sense from the native Russian speaker point of view. For example, he calls the gigantic agglomerates of conjoined minds Sobornost, which is a very special word, up to date used mostly in the religious context, to describe the concept of "togetherness" ("sobor" is a congregation of many Orthodox entities which becomes a legislative power for and because of those who joined in). Using this term in the new context of post-singularity feels like adding a bit of unexpected depth to the narrative. Calling the computronium superbrains gubernyas is a bit funny ("gubernya" is the old word for province), but it helps a bit to keep things consistent. I am not sure about the etymology of the term gogol, which he uses to describe the mind-copies. It can be associated either with a name of one particular company or with Nikolay Gogol, the Russian/Ukrainian writer who gave birth to a tale about a guy buying "the dead souls" (essentially passports of the peasants who have died but weren't yet reported as such, so not the souls themselves, but very shallow copies of them). I haven't researched what Rajanemi himself says about his terminology but I wouldn't be surprised if he chose this word as a homage to that story. A biggest grumble which I could have for Jean le Flambeur series is that the protagonists don't always seem convincingly real to care much for - they appear to be more like characters in a colorful cartoon or 3D-rendered scene rather than the creations of flesh and blood - though as post-singular beings, they are supposed to be anything but, except perhaps the Earth inhabitants (the book doesn't dwell much on the gory details). Nevertheless, the narrative is still elaborate enough to hold the readers' attention during the span of the book, and leave them willing for more.

Going back to Watts, I'd mention Stanislav Lem as his possible predecessor (The Invincible feels like a close call). I could imagine that some movie director would be able to do to Watts' works what Tarkovsky has done to Lem's Solaris, but that would have been a tough ordeal. Watts debunks most of the assumptions both about what being a human could be like and about the importance of humanity and human knowledge per se. Rajanemi builds his intricately colored sand castles in the rarely used, but well-kept sandbox, or perhaps, on the quiet seashore; Watts tries to build a fortress while the roaring ocean keeps throwing lumps of white foam and splashes of brine at his work, eventually gives up, stays to watch how his creation melts, overcome by some barely understood eerie forces of nature and invites the reader to appreciate the view. It is quite disheartening: concepts like friendship, love, conscience and ultimately the self-awareness itself appear to not be necessary to move forward there. More to say, they happen to be getting in the way of progress, which is all about getting more knowledge over the world and being able to change it at will. There come super-efficient humanoid predators, super-adaptive and super-intelligent grey mold and people who become zombies, cyborgs, uploaded pot plants or something that no longer has human reactions at all. Who said that the ultimate goal of the evolution was creating a human being? No one. We might stay behind as "baseline humans" while the further progress takes off without us. We might temporarily surge to certain heights, build efficient energy sources and create what we'd think represents a post-scarcity society, only to see it destroyed as by the first unexpected knocking from the outside world, which - surprise, surprise - neither plays by our rules nor cares much for them.

I wonder if the actually existing humanity gets much say in what its future should look like, but it's not unreasonable to start enumerating and reviewing the options. Which is why good SF makes a lot of sense to read. Even if some books seem to say "Look how scary, but cool the future could be" while the others go in the direction of "Look how cool, but scary the future could be". We need both fears and hopes in order to have a meaningful life, don't we?

Saturday, May 14, 2016

On Blindsight (contains spoilers)

One of the many ways you can classify the books is whether they distract you from thinking or encourage you to think about something. Blindsight by Peter Watts, to me, falls in the second category.

There is that old discussion of what is intelligence about. Peter Watts tries to imagine intelligence without sentience - a thinking entity without an I that does the thinking. Blindsight, among other things, refers to that concept of an I which could be seen as an illusion distracting the individual from efficient acting. This reminded me of I am a Strange Loop by Douglas Hofstadter which I've read recently. It has a different claim: that the possession of an I concept, even though it doesn't physically relate to anything, is the prerequisite of calling a being intelligent in the first place. I have to admit that it's pretty difficult to imagine intelligence without sentience, and such existence appears pretty dull to whatever I call "me". Nevertheless, it's an interesting possibility, and not being able to imagine something properly doesn't mean that it could never be true.

But that is not how the book begins. It begins with a story of a human who doesn't have empathy, due to an operation he endured as a child. He isn't even sure whether he can truly understand anything or whether he is just a human version of Chinese room - the construct which can provide correct answers to the outside queries without being able to explain what those answers could mean. The protagonist's disability became a blessing in disguise, turning him into an ideal "translator" between narrow specialists and the ordinary humans. He does it by tuning to the body language of those he translates from. Almost everything is seen through his eyes and told through his voice.

The protagonist has a dramatic past, including botched relationship and sad childhood memories. He sails back and forth between now and then during the narrative. Somehow, it made me think that perhaps our unhappiness is partially responsible for defining what we are. ("If we are not in pain, then we are not alive" - that's how the story begins). One side remark: notable that the author goes for describing a "traditional" relationship, while claiming that this kind of relationships already became old-style; I guess making a different choice here would be immensely more daunting task - after all, we, the readers, are still merely humans mostly living in the "real" world.

The world described by Watts - sometime in the future - doesn't feel warm and cuddly. For once, it has vampires, which are the product of genetic (re-)engineering, are said to be way more intelligent than any human but get a seizure whenever they see anything resembling a cross. (That last part doesn't make much sense from the rational point of view, but we have to take it as a given). They are held on drugs which both restrain them from their natural tendency to hunt warm-blooded human beings and help to overcome the cross impediment. The reason they exist is because people want problem-solvers smarter than them who would still not be machines. One of those vampires is heading the mission the protagonist is part of.

Also, there is a technocratic version of Paradise called "Heaven", where people can dream off the rest of their lives in the self-designed VR worlds. It's not uploading into the cloud: destroying the body also destroys the Heaven inhabitant. The protagonist's mother, whom he always calls by her first name, has left for that world. The protagonist's father is one of the few people on Earth who still do work (he is busy with planetary security). Those who choose "to not be a parasite" often become cyborgs, changing their minds and bodies. (Examples present in the mission crew). There is a bit of sad irony to realize that those who chooses to work do nothing else but benefit those parasites, but who wouldn't care, as long as it boosts their dopamine and serotonin levels. (Speaking about happiness).

The storyline is exponential: it starts slowly and then accelerates. An idea falls into the gravity field of the narrative, gets enshrouded by flesh and blood on the way, and eventually explodes due to overheating, leaving some charred remains in the aftermath. The non-sentient and superintelligent aliens, an advanced version of cosmic ants, are inhabiting a scary-looking artifact, devoid of any sense of beauty, but capable of almost anything. They cannot communicate with humans because there is nothing to communicate about. They can conjure "a collective I", but it's nothing but Chinese room to us. There isn't any individual on the other side. Every alien being is nothing but an efficient autonomous agent / data storage unit. The little crew of the human spaceship goes through lot of pain to get to that truth. The vampire storyline also has a resolving point, a bit rough if you ask me. Many questions are answered in the end, but not all of them, and the end itself feels rather a prolonged pause than a real conclusion. (There is a second book by Watts which seems to be playing in the same world, but I am not yet sure whether it's a sequel, a prequel or an alternate reality).

Unwelcome as that world appears, the book is worth reading, not only for that question about the nature of intelligence that it poses, but also for the insights into psychology of human interaction (the little isolated crew in stressful conditions being a suitable playground for that). I would rather not to provide more plot details, it's better to read the story.

But if human conscience, and culture with it, is a mere blindsight, and it would be possible to have a civilization of selfless intelligent beings, what would be their drive to move forward? The survival instinct alone? How did the ants arrive at the designs for their homes and are they ever going to improve them? I guess humanity needs a couple million years of sentience to answer these questions.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

It could've been interesting to create a language learning program that would determine one's active vocabulary (e.g. based on one's contributions to the social networks and/or public chat transcripts - suppose for simplicity that privacy issues could be solved here somehow), compile more or less close analog in the target language and craft the study path based on that. Of course, such approach might have missed the point of expanding one's horizons with learning a new language. But it might also encourage the learners to use the new language sooner and more efficiently if they could do so without deviating too much from their original identity.

On the other hand, getting the proper feel for the language without living in the country where that language is spoken might be too challenging for a human being. How many languages would it be even possible to learn properly and what is the price for that? I don't know about any strictly scientific studies in this area.

Personally, I often feel that my English is either dry as winter leaves or rough like a cartoon drawing (or both), and my Dutch dwells on the pre-teen level, which results in a personality switch every time I switch the language.

I wonder how many other seasoned ESL speakers have similar experiences? It might only be the thing for those who, like me, started actively using another language relatively late.

It is great that the modern tools (like online translation) help to reduce language barriers, but could these barriers one day disappear completely? So many misunderstandings, from personal to country level, might go away then. (One hopes...) Would it be possible for a human both preserve their own identity and easily "map" it into any other language / culture?

Of course, there is more to the game than just language (Le Ton Beau de Marot by Hofstadter is explaining that much better than I ever could), but one has to start somewhere.

Friday, July 03, 2015


No, Eurydice did not turn away.
She followed Orpheus, and the path
Was quivering with light, and flickering
With the motifs that crave to take the wing
When time looks back, as if it wants to stay.

But Cerberus, the stubborn Hades' guard,
Three ugly heads, each darker than the night,
He met that gaze and grinned, and trode behind.

The singer rose into the blazing day,
Where sun was painting the horizon blue.
(They say, that word was not invented yet,
And thus, all days were either white or grey.)
He glanced once more into the gaping cave,
To see her coming near, if all was true.

Like an obsidian trident could've fled,
The hound darted in between instead.
The song was over. Neither his cittern
Nor hazy form of Eurydice could
Have time to move, so quickly all was set 
When Cerberus retreated, dragging back
The quivering, but now voiceless rag -
The payment was complete, he was content.

She cried, but who was there to take that call?
The wailing cry of madness sans relief,
Of happiness, pulled from behind the feet,
Of everything, that makes the soul bleed.
And till this day, we think that was a slave
Of Dionysus, scared by the deed,
And blame the wine and lust that take their toll
Of bards and poets from this dusty ball.

She lives till now, a Muse of suicide.
The finest poets would not see her glide,
The door appears, the dog with triple smile,
It's over quickly, barely in time
To throw the latest gaze and leave behind 
A name, another stone to sing and shine

For nonchalant mankind.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Reading about crypto made me think that we might store the reality in our memory using one-way hashing, which is why it's easy to recognise the usual surroundings, but difficult to remember them in details.

A side thought: if someone or something doesn't fit the patterns we already have for the similar objects, and didn't happen to grab our attention specifically, then there is a big chance that this person or object won't get registered in the memory at all, simply because it would be too expensive to apply the hashing to the new object. This might explain why people don't notice the little changes around them, too.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Not sure about the hardware, but for the modern software (be it an application or a website) that has been around for more than five years or so, it feels absolutely true:
"As well as any human beings could, they knew what lay behind the cold, clicking, flashing face — miles and miles of face — of that giant computer. They had at least a vague notion of the general plan of relays and circuits that had long since grown past the point where any single human could possibly have a firm grasp of the whole."
(C) Isaac Asimov, The Last Question.