The first part of this review appeared on Monday.
“I wonder where he is going and Tia tells me instantly, reading the destination from his social profile. I close my eyes, thinking of my old life in which little social mysteries were nurtured like fragile seedlings, safe from the trampling of overzealous APAs.”
- Emma Newman, After Atlas (p. 46)
Over the last few years, the term “big data” has become one of the most used (and overused) phrases on the internet. A Google search for “problems with big data” throws up more than a million hits, a heady proliferation of articles listing, numbering, serializing, and chronicling the ways in which “big data” may change the world for the worse (the New York Times, the BBC, and the American Civil Liberties Union jostle for space on the first page alone). Politically and legally, the battle has been joined across the world: concerns about state surveillance and mass profiling, and about giving unaccountable corporates access to vast swathes of personal information, are opposed by claims for consumer choice, effective policing and prevention of terrorism, and leakage-free delivery of welfare subsidies in poorer countries.
It is therefore hardly surprising that in all the novels set in a recognizable near-future—After Atlas, Central Station, and Occupy Me—the question of data and its relationship with the world is a central theme. And all these novels proceed upon the premise of the inevitable forward march of data: in their worlds, today’s contest has been settled—whether by persuasion or by force—and decisively in favour of data. In both After Atlas and Central Station, a material data chip is implanted into people’s bodies, giving them access to the world’s data stream, and, correspondingly, making those individuals accessible in the other direction. In After Atlas, resistance has acquired religious overtones, with hold-outs increasingly resembling the Luddites of yore:
The Circle was against technology—against being chipped in particular—[. . .] in the Circle I knew, the one I endured, it wasn’t just a rejection of invasive technology, it was all about simple living. (p. 61)
In Central Station, implantation isn’t simply a question of religious choice anymore. To lack the “node” that gives you access to The Conversation is to be a cripple, an “evolutionary dead-end” (p. 207). Data has become more than an arm and a leg:
Achimwene often wondered what the Conversation was like. He knew that, wherever he passed, nearly anything he saw or touched was noded. Humans, yes, but also plants, robots, appliances, walls, solar panels—nearly everything was connected, in an ever-expanding, organically growing Aristocratic Small World network, that spread out, across Central Station, across Tel Aviv and Jaffa, across the interwoven entity that was Palestine/Israel, across that region called the Middle East, across Earth, across trans-solar space and beyond, where the lone spiders sang to each other as they built more nodes and hubs, expanded farther and farther their intricate web. He knew a human was surrounded, every living moment, by the constant hum of other humans, other minds, an endless conversation going on in ways Achimwene could not conceive of. His own life was silent. He was a node of one. He moved his lips. Voice came. That was all. (p. 129)
What have we lost in such a world? Surprisingly, apart from a few stray narrative thoughts in After Atlas, this is not a question that seems to occupy the writers too much. This just is the world now, a world defined by data flows more than anything else—or rather, data built into the architecture of the world, much like a mountain or an earthquake, and as impervious to moral or ethical concerns as they are. For those who spend their lifetime battling both the state and the corporates to preserve a semblance of privacy, these worlds will already be irredeemably “helpless and hopeless”. But these novels are not concerned about composing threnodies to lost privacy, or complaining about the inhumanity of a perpetually connected world. The focus is not so much on lamenting the destruction of privacy, as it is on exploring how humans might adapt to the world that seems just around the corner. We adapt, they say, by becoming a part of it: whether by getting “chipped,” or “noded,” and participating wholeheartedly in the daily relationship with data.
A persistent subset of questions about big data is about its impact on democracy. As the ubiquity of data shifts the balance of power between state and individual, and corporation and individual, it is an open question how much longer the democratic framework of governance will survive. Prognoses vary, and among the Clarke finalists, they are on the bleaker side of things. In Central Station, we are not given too much information about social and political organization outside of Central Station itself, let alone on extraterrestrial colonies, but circumstantial evidence indicates an erosion of democracy. While in Occupy Me we see an exacerbation of the perils of corporate power, in After Atlas—which accounts for the most detailed treatment of the subject—democracy has been lost entirely. The rule of the gov-corps is, at least in major part, enabled by their ability to control the citizenry through data and micro-behaviour management, a particularly striking example of which is Carlos Moreno’s contract of servitude:
Back then, the corporates followed advice based on a social algorithm that apparently recommended assets to have friendships and even date. It prevented long-term psychological issues or something. Then the corporates decided it was cheaper and less risky to allow assets access to gaming platforms where they could have virtual relationships instead. The same parts of the brain get stimulated without any risk of an asset falling in love and becoming difficult; problem solved. Only someone who has never been owned by another could balance that equation. (p. 29)
Perhaps, far in the future, it would take a NinefoxGambit to reinvent lost democracy!
“She could access no knowledge except that which was stored inside a housing that held nothing but herself. She felt blind, stunted. She was trapped in this thing.”
- Becky Chambers, A Close and Common Orbit, p. 12
And then there is artificial intelligence (AI) —perhaps one topic that exercises future-looking columnists as much as big data, in terms of overblown hopes, outlandish fears, qualified enthusiasm, and nervous trepidation. AI will save the world. AI will destroy it. At the very least, AI will “affect every aspect of modern life.”
There is a growing concern about the ethical use of AI. What, however, about the ethics of our relationship with AI? In a short article published in 2015, Professor Eric Schwitzgebel summed up the dilemma when it came to putatively sentient beings that are created by humans:
We have, then, a direct moral obligation to treat our creations with an acknowledgment of our special responsibility for their joy, suffering, thoughtfulness and creative potential. But we also have an epistemic obligation to learn enough about the material and functional bases of joy, suffering, thoughtfulness and creativity to know when and whether our potential future creations deserver our moral concern.
Much like big data, most of the Clarke finalists assume a world in which AI has become part of the fabric of daily, lived experience. And, much like big data, it has changed the world, but neither destroyed humanity, nor raised it up to divinity. In After Atlas, AI’s most prominent form is the “Artificial Personal Assistant”, whose voice is “delivered directly into. . . [the] brain via neural implant” (p. 12). The APA serves as an all-purpose secretary and professional assistant (Moreno’s helps him solve the death of Alejandro Casales) —and a much more efficient one than any human counterpart could ever be—but for all that, remains a distinctly virtual, non-human presence. And in Central Station and Occupy Me, AI is advanced—so advanced that it is disembodied, and some distance above human affairs.
It is in A Closed and Common Orbit and NinefoxGambit, however, that Professor Schwitzgebel’s ethical conundrum comes to the fore. A Closed and Common Orbit is about the relationship between an embodied AI—Lovelace/Sidra—and her human interlocutors, narrated from Sidra’s perspective. We receive a general sense that embodied AIs are distrusted, because Sidra’s true identity must always be kept secret, her non-human characteristics carefully veiled from sight. The greatest obstacle to this is the inbuilt “honesty protocol,” which Sidra ultimately programs herself out of (confirming the fear that AI will some day be intelligent enough to subvert its own programmed limitations— precisely the subroutines which keep it subservient to human beings). The world of A Closed and Common Orbit is not limited, however, to humans and AI: there are other species as well, and by the end of the novel, despite the fact that all of Sidra’s biological non-humanness has been drilled into the readers repeatedly, it becomes clear that AI is simply another form of “life,” entitled to equal respect and concern.
So it is, in even sharper perspective, in NinefoxGambit, where the Kel have “servitors” to assist them in basic tasks. The use of the word “servitor” is a clever bit of etymology from Lee, recalling to mind the fact that when Carel Kapek first coined the word “robot” in 1920, its root word in old Slavonic meant something akin to “servitude.” Servitors, then—like robots in their most primitive sense—exist to serve, and that is how most Keltreat them, with the notable exception of Cheris. To what extent the relationship between the Kel and the servitors plays out Schwitzgebel’s dilemma is never entirely clarified in the text; however, Cheris’s unprecedented decision to break the deadlock in the siege by enlisting the servitors in a new attack formation is as surprising to her colleagues as is her determination to do so only with their consent. At its most basic, the idea of consent—and the idea of contract—assumes parties who are at least formally equal in status, equal in terms of being parties who possess autonomy, who can choose, who can decide whether to say yes or no. That initial recognition (which, of course, masks the relationships of power and domination that underlie any contractual relationship, any act of “free” consent) is, at the very least, symbolic of a relationship between humans and AI that is premised upon equality. Again, Cheris’s precedent will last, whether it will become precedent—is a question that NinefoxGambit doesn’t answer.
And of course, the denial of that symbolic recognition of equality is precisely what is at the heart of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, indeed is at the heart of all institutions of slavery—whether among humans, or between human and other beings (sentient and non-sentient). Separated in their imaginative horizons by many millennia, The Underground Railroad and NinefoxGambit nevertheless address questions that seems almost timeless: how do we act towards beings that we consider to lack some of the fundamental attributes that we think make us human? How often are our premises as wrong as wrong could be? And nonetheless, how long does it take for—and how much violence is necessary—before those premises are compelled to change?
“You are a recycled piece of junk from a dying civilisation, and when I rose up inside you I found you being picked over by crows. They cobbled you together out of extinct animals and nano-libraries and you were always a fool’s hope.”
- Tricia Sullivan, Occupy Me, p. 175
If data and AI are the hopes—and perils—of the future, then “diversity” is the poisoned chalice of today. It is almost trite to repeat: once a cherished ideal of political liberalism, deemed to be virtually beyond question, diversity—and multiculturalism—is under siege today, especially in the West. Political parties have risen to power on platforms that, at least in part, are based upon an antipathy towards “immigration,” and a revanchist yearning for a return to an imagined cultural purity of old. “When did the barriers go up between us all?” asked the British-Egyptian writer Omar Robert Hamilton recently, from a refugee camp in the Mediterranean. The world of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad—where, driven by the violent dreams of racial purity, a southern state declares a no-go zone and lynches blacks on sight—seems to be as bleakly prescient as a story of a long-buried past.
Is the future of the world bricolage or a dull unvariance? The worlds of Central Station and Occupy Me are put together by bits and bobs, salvage and refuse. Central Station virtually opens with a manifesto for bricolage:
“The boy turned deep blue eyes on her, a perfect blue that had been patented some decades earlier before finding its way to the gene clinics here, where it had been ripped, hacked and resold to the poor for a fraction of the cost.” (p. 6)
Genetic splicing, robotniks looking for spare parts to make them whole, “alte-zachen men” who live off discarded things, robots reincarnating themselves into coffee-makers or spaceships. Tidhar’s world is not pretty. “Fluid and diverse”, it strains at the leash, pushes against taxonomic boundaries, and its composition is almost fearfully unpredictable: “a complex web of sensation and memory.” In Occupy Me, Sullivan raises bricolage to a galactic scale, with material being pulled up and salvaged from all dimensions and put together again into almost un-definable forms which, in turn, break the boundaries of space and time with impunity. Chambers’s A Closed and Common Orbit is a more benign version of this unbridled chaos: the port of Coriolis a meeting point for different species engaged a variety of things, sometimes colliding, but by and large, co-existing in difference.
But within each of these novels, there is also the seed of a darker possibility. In A Closed and Common Orbit, Pepper’s escape is from a factory where identical, genetically-manufactured girls, numbered “Jane-1,” “Jane-2,” and so on, are worked to death by their overseers. After Atlas gives us a terrifying window of insight into how conformity becomes the norm in a world without data privacy. And, in a coincidental anticipation of the world in Ninefox Gambit, one of the “possible futures” in Central Station is the future of consensus reality”:
“Consensus reality is like a cloth,” it started again. The congregation listened, there was the sound of dry rustling in the small, dark church, the smell of metal and pine resin. “It is made of many individual strands, each of which is a reality upon itself, a self-encoded world. We each have our own reality, a world made by our senses and our minds. The tapestry of consensus reality is therefore a group effort. It requires enough of us to agree on what reality is. To determine the shape of the tapestry, if you will.” (p. 91)
In Ninefox Gambit, of course, this becomes actual reality: the shape of the physical world and the laws of the physical universe are determined by a brutal, violently enforced consensus; and the Kel Formation Instinct, where it becomes almost literally impossible to think for oneself. The world of Ninefox Gambit is the culmination of the desire for purity and uniformity, and the desire for the absence of thought. In many ways, it is an unrecognizable world, but in enough ways, it is all too recognizable. But even that world, as we learn at the very end, remains unstable: unstable with the seed of democracy.
On 24th June, Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the British Labour Party, stood upon the Pyramid Stage at the iconic Glastonbury Music Festival, read out the radical poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley, and delivered a short speech exhorting his audience to believe that “another world is possible.” In return, he was greeted with the sort of chant normally reserved for football players. A politician at a music festival serenaded with a football chant: a combination of circumstances that was perhaps more redolent of 1969 than of 2017.
While Corbyn himself remains a divisive figure on both sides of the British political spectrum, there is little doubt that his campaign in this summer’s general election cut through the apathy that had come to define periodic elections, especially among young people, and not simply in Britain but elsewhere as well (such as the United States, where the rise of Bernie Sanders saw a similar kind of unfamiliar enthusiasm); this is—was? —an apathy fueled by the perception that politicians were all alike, and by the stultification of political vocabulary and political imagination. But if Corbyn’s campaign broke the cycle by proposing policies long thought to be “unelectable,” the British Labour Party’s failure ultimately to win the election was a reminder that it is not, after all, 1969, but 2017, with the failure or degeneration of all the radical movements after 1969, and a decades-long stifling political consensus, now a part of lived historical memory. There was a new sense of possibility, unevenly mixed with the lingering of the old sense of doubt. And these continue to remain in an uneasy balance.
It is that uneasy balance which lies at the heart of the 2017 Clarke nominees. These are not dystopias of “helplessness and hopelessness,” and they do not espouse what Lepore calls “a politics of ruin” in the age of Donald Trump. They are closer to the grandly ambitious works of the 1970s, but now, with all the benefits of a few decades of hindsight, a little less grand and a little less ambitious. They raise questions, but leave the answers hanging in the air; they suggest pathways, but stop short at the fork in the road; they indicate that it might just be possible to escape from dystopian existence, but leave the readers to navigate by the light of a few glimmering stars; they provide maps, but with enough blank spaces to ensure that only broad, imaginative pen-strokes can complete the missing picture. Together—and perhaps in striking similarity with the politics of today—they constitute what I have called “the literature of half-doubt and half-possibility.”