Children of the Slime on Darwin’s Radio

“[W]e may simply be spaceships for bacteria” –Greg Bear, “A Short Biological Primer”

Greg Bear’s novel Darwin’s Radio (1999) exemplifies the capacity of hard sf to use rigorous gobbledygook to invite speculation Darwin's Radio Covertangential to the main narrative arc. In the fine tradition of Jules Verne’s Professor Pierre Aronnax, Bear’s pedestrian genius geneticist Kaye Lang, rogue archeologist Mitch Rafelson, and the proliferating, conference attending multitude of corporate and government scientists seem to locate us in the heart of current research. There is even a short biological primer and glossary at the end with terms like Lysogenic phage, HERV or human endogenous retrovirus, and Trisomy. As a reader, I pick and choose from this cornucopia of jargon, filtering out the heavier, headache-inducing stuff: “less than 80,000 nucleotides of single-stranded RNA…associated with an unidentified 12,000+ kilodalton protein complex Retrovirus imagein the host cell nucleus” (119). On the other hand, I can’t get enough of Lang’s work on phages, viruses that use bacteria as hosts, and horizontal gene transfer. For several decades, these ideas have disturbed the view of the world I inherited as a child, suggesting that fantastic range of ancient and invisible forces we sometimes associate with the supernatural—events and powers such as the plague of Justinian in the sixth century CE, which killed something like one in every four people, or mutualism, the reciprocal adaptation of species.

Not surprisingly, Bear deploys bacteria metaphorically to figure the novel’s central message of biological purposiveness. If Lang’s initial visit to the Republic of Georgia invokes current fears about superbugs and the failure of human science to constrain bacterial disease, the real problem in Georgia is a social response to the unknown, massacres betrayed by the discovery of mass graves. The real problem in the Unites States is a government predicated by reaction and a bureaucracy of dogmatic scientists who put profit and fear before truth.  One of the most compelling aspects of the story is the descent of the Unites States into pseudo-fascism driven by the complicit interests of biotech companies and  institutions of government security, especially the Centre for Disease Control.  Bear is fascinated by the positive roles played by bacteria: “Bacteria are extremely important and though some cause disease, many others are necessary to our existence. Some biologists believe that bacteria lie at the root of all life-forms, and that eukaryotic cells—our own cells, for example—derive from ancient colonies of bacteria” (528). I like this. It pushes the Darwinian insistence on origins into the biofilm cities we associate with rot and decay. It pushes the envelope of humility to say that we are children of the slime.

And yet, this emphasis on the sociality of bacteria and our mutual dependence is belied by the main narrative arc which ends up imagining an idealized post-human. This homo sapiens novum is familiar to the fantasies of baby Einstein popular in child rearing. (Albeit some of the “getting there,” such as the horrifyingly malformed miscarried fetuses and the Lone-Ranger facial masks, isn’t as familiar.) If only our child could be the beautiful post-human genius that heralds the new age. In the face of the world’s crises, its information density and multiple stressors, is it time for homo sapiens sapiens to “evolve”? To take that next step and become, well…better?  As you can tell, I find this fundamentally distasteful. As much as I appreciate little Stella whistling dual variations of a Mozart piano trio, I can’t help but think that Bear has missed something about reciprocal adaptation. Lang’s metaphor—Darwin’s radio—reverts to a centralized and hierarchical model of organization that forgets the lessons of mutualism and horizontal gene transfer. The gradual working out and randomness that allows reciprocal adaptation can’t be reconciled with a centralized gene computer or “wizard” (Lang’s word for it) that figures it all out for everyone.

Not to mention that such biological provocation—and this is rendered brilliantly by Bear—subverts itself from the outset.  What sort of “wizard” would produce such radical change that the society of organisms it is reprogramming resorts to massacres and mass abortion? It doesn’t seem like an effective selection strategy. At the very least, if I was the “wizard,” I’d let go a few more of those deadly retroviruses buried in the genome to clear the ground, as it were.

I’m interested in the “romantic” dimension of genre sf, and especially here in hard sf where we might think it wouldn’t be as important. I want to distinguish between two senses of romantic: on the one hand, the humanist, subjective apprehension and imagination of the world; on the other hand, the tendency to romanticize in the sense of idealizing or participating in dissociative fantasies that obscure material practices. The first type resists cynicism and abstraction–especially the propensity of abstraction to rationalize the status quo or injustices. In the late eighteenth century, romantic writers participated in abolition and rejected the economic imperatives of the slave trade. Blake critiqued abstractions when they became substitutions for reality, and one variation of the “fall” in his minor prophecies occurs when the character Urizen thinks that the mind can explain and control the whole body. Kaye Lang, in Darwin’s Radio, has a similar insight when she realizes that the separateness of mind is illusion, that she is her body.

On the one hand, Darwin’s Radio insists on the body as the site of knowledge and practice while moving from paranoia to acceptance. Weena and the Time Traveller (1960)This is one of those rare books in which a birth is the climax. It asserts the central role of women in evolution and knowledge making. And it invites genuine reflection and speculation about both our bodies and society. It is also a heavy romance, reminding us yet again of the literal love making that is so important to genre sf. Like the time traveller and Weena in H. G. Wells’ 1895 novel, this romance is central to the plot, and it marks the shift of knowledge from professional to personal.

On the other hand, it also participates in romanticized notions of evolution and perfection. Rather than following the curve of Lang’s insight into the presence and function of retroviruses in the human genome and keeping the children in the slime, as it were, Bear flirts with intelligent design and allows a wizard into the genome.

© Daniel Burgoyne 2012

Critical Inversions: Rationality and the Reenchantment of the World

“An inversion is produced”  (de Certeau, 1984,  179)

My use of the word “inversions” derives from the Scottish writer Iain M. Banks, whose 1998 science fiction novel Inversions followed what was ostensibly the last in his “Culture” series, Excession (1996). (I’ll discuss later Culture novels another time.)

Excession bends the conceptual limits of genre sf by deploying the literary topoi of sublimity in a literal and scientific manner. Excession coverBanks’ use of the verb “to sublime” denotes a voluntary civilization-based choice by so called “elder” species to—simply put—up and vanish. The problem posed by sublimity is that those elder civilizations that do sublime don’t seem to pay attention to what continues to happen in the galaxy under their superlative lintels: for instance, they don’t interfere with apparent evil, such as genocide, and they don’t bother to communicate anything of their state post-sublimation (82). Banks’ emphatic reiteration of the problem of sublimity makes it an insistent preoccupation of the novel, marking the antithetical limit and other of the quasi-utopic “Culture,” which is the epitome of  secular and scientific progressive rationalism. The fact that sublimed species don’t even bother to communicate their discoveries from the great beyond is an anathema to the Culture’s insistent progressive science.

If the sublime marks the antithetical limit of progress represented by the Culture, the excession proper of the title marks the limit of science itself.  In the Culture series, Banks  reinvents space opera by pushing the plausibility of science fiction to its hyperbolic but sincere limits on pretty well every possible scientific front. The Culture builds orbitals, habitats on a planetary scale. Its plate class General Service Vehicles (GSV) are the size of small moons, housing millions of people, and moving between the stars through hyperspace at speeds approximating 100 000 times light. Artificial intelligence is ubiquitous, in ships, drones, suits, and even weapons, and the Minds of the ships are certainly godlike in scope. And the list of excesses runs on: the Culture represents almost total scientific and technical mastery.  Against this backdrop, the Excession intrudes exhibiting technology “outside all known parameters and precedents” (114) alongside impossible data, namely the ember of a trillion-year old star (65), literally marking an intrusion from another universe.

If the sublime and the Excession intimate the  limits of a scientific worldview, the novel’s extension of the Culture’s technological capacity achieves a sort of apotheosis of science in its realization of almost total control over the body. The extreme modification and control over the body is a staple of the Culture series: one merely focuses on one’s internal body image to set changes in motion, whether these be body-mass in relation to gravity or one’s sex. Alteration of face or any body part is routine. In Excession, one character has grown wings, while another alters her face to resemble another person.  Neural laces afford telepathic communication, not to mention assisted intelligence. Average lifespans routinely exceed four centuries. The key development in the novel involves what is called a mind-state abstract, a sort of record or print of a psyche that allows a person to be reconstituted virtually, say for the purpose of communicating with someone far away, or to be reborn, as in the case of accidental death.  Banks engages in a pervasive examination of mind-state abstracts that blurs the line between machine and human, self and other, and soul and simulacra.  For example, Genar-Hofoen’s uncle Tishlin’s mind-state abstract is used to create a holographic version of him that has a conversation with the nephew (61-73). Later Tishlin ponders the morality of disposing of mind-state abstracts and notes that he refused to have his reincorporated afterwards: “What if it had changed a lot while it was away?” (234). Genar-Hofoen is sent to “steal the soul of a dead woman” (54), meaning that her mind-state abstract has been stored long after her death and the destruction of her body. Yet another character is reborn into a new body (with the same genetic properties) after his violent death. The spiritual implications emerge most forcefully when the sentient module Scopell-Afranqui contemplates death before committing suicide: “There was a certain continued existence, of course. He had faith in that; the assurances of the priests that his soul was recorded in a great book, somewhere, capable of resurrection” (298). In the climactic scene of the novel, characters faced with imminent death are offered the opportunity to have their mind-state abstracts broadcast and their bodies reconstituted elsewhere so they can continue the conversation. By exploiting the conceptual limits of science and technology underlying the radically progressive galactic culture of the series, Banks plausibly erases dichotomies between natural and supernatural, science and magic. In a literal sense, he reinvents the soul and imagines a scientifically viable immortality. Upon reaching a certain old-age, many people choose to be stored and revived at a later point. Many choose to be revived when and if the Culture ever chooses to sublime.

Before turning to Inversions proper, I want to note that the tendency seen in Excession is one that occurs in a number of works of genre Veve of Papa Legbafiction between the 1980’s and the early 21st century. In general, I characterize this tendency as a genre inversion in which science fiction and fantasy reinvent themselves by reconstituting basic genre premises and effects. An early glimpse of this inversion can be seen in William Gibson’s flirtation with voodoo spirits in the matrix in Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive.  A couple years after Inversions, China Mieville’s brilliant production of artifical intelligence based on steam technology in Perdido Street Station (2000) signals the reinvention of fantasy as a genre. And there is a pervasive tendency in genre sf, seen in Karl Schroeder’s Ventus (2001) and Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon (2002) and Broken Angels (2003).

Inversions coverIn Inversions, Banks draws on genre innovations found in steam punk (e.g., Gibson and Sterlings’ Difference Engine) and techno-slip fiction, which involves discordant or anachronistic technologies that occur simultaneously. In this novel, Banks appears to drop the Culture series and take up a post-medieval world, albeit the two stars and three moons subtly signal a world other than Earth. The novel consists of two interleaved stories about  a kingdom and a protectorate. The key characters in each story are foreigners: a woman doctor who practices unorthodox but remarkably effective medicine attends to the king in a society in which only males are doctors; and an obsessive bodyguard to a Protector, who dawdles over the Protector’s only son. The stories occur within the bounds of a nascent renaissance society: torture is still employed to force confessions, but crude firearms are changing rules of warfare, especially when calvary is involved, and so on. The key to the novel is the point-of-view of the narrators, who are both indigenous to the adopted societies of the foreign doctor and the bodyguard. As a result of the narration, inexplicable events and curious details remain unexplained, relying on a reader familiar with Banks’ Culture series to infer the identity and roles of the doctor and bodyguard.

The arranger of Inversions’  two stories (also as the narrator of the Prologue and Epilogue) is a more mature Oelph, the spy who tells the story of the Doctor. This is a time when belief in the old gods has given way to a more unifying understanding of Providence, which the younger Oelph tells the doctor is “the rule of laws” (126). The older arranger Oelph, speculating on “progress,” puts it somewhat differently: “Providence is the name of the mystical, divinely inhuman Court before which we wish our actions to be judged, and which we hope will agree with us in our estimation both of our own worth and the culpability or otherwise of our behaviour” (2). Oelph, appealing to the reader of  his “chronicle,” acknowledges that “the Reader” is “a sort of partial providence” (3). And as the second narrator emphasizes, such “partial providence” includes the granting or withholding of belief from the story: her motive, she tells us, is “to present the reader with a chance to choose whether  to believe or to disbelieve what I have to say about the events of that time” (22).

Oelph’s emphasis on judgement is juxtaposed by attention to belief by the narrator of the second story, “The Bodyguard.” This narrator, we find out much later, is Perrund, one of the Protector’s concubines, who eventually murders the Protector and tries to kill his son because the Protector raped and slaughtered her family when she was young.

What to believe eventually becomes a matter of genre as readerly belief is played against appearances constrained by limited narration. That is, it is by way of genre conventions developed through the Culture series that a reader invests the details of these stories with alternate accounts that are impossible from the cultural reference of the story tellers.

Readers of the Culture series identify the good doctor and the devoted bodyguard as sorts of alien Cultural (big C) anthropologists visiting this proto-renaissance world from the transgalactic Culture, and so read certain inexplicable events as underwritten by a superlative science and technology. In this way the novel inverts conventional representations of magic and miracles. But Banks goes beyond these showy demonstrations to touch on narrative and philosophy. The bodyguard tries his hand at telling what amount to fairly poor children’s stories about Lavishia, a country in the “land of make-believe” (107), a land where there are “wizards” and “enchanted swords,” where “everybody is able to fly” (145-147). We might ask whether a wizard is an appropriate name for a Culture Mind, but we probably would be forced to admit  that a knife missile, a sort of sentient nuclear capable short sword featured in The State of the Art, falls aptly into that fantasy category of enchanted swords. As to everybody flying, well, we know that is only possible in the quasi-socialist delusions of Banks’ utopian science fiction. The re-enchantment of the world comes by way of science and technology, or almost, but not quite, because re-enchantment or dis-enchantment occurs by perspective and investment of belief (or the lack thereof).

“The investment of belief passes from one myth to another, from one ideology to another, or from one statement to another. Thus belief withdraws from a myth and leaves it almost intact, but without any role, transformed into a document.”  (de Certeau, 1984,  181)

© Daniel Burgoyne 2012

Dream of Waking

Albion awakes

Plate 8 of William Blake’s America: A Prophecy

“Fiery the Angels rose, & as they rose deep thunder roll’d
Around their shores: indignant burning with the fires of Orc…”

–William Blake, America: A Prophecy

My epigram from William Blake gets at my purpose here. This, of course, is the passage that Roy Batty misquotes in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (Hampton Fancher and David Peoples wrote the screenplay), the 1982 film based on Philip K. Dick’s 1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Batty says, “Fiery the angels fell; deep thunder rolled around their shores; burning with the fires of Orc.” The reversal of rising to falling is everywhere in Blake (and Edgar Allan Poe, for that matter) and is already happening again. It performs a change in perception rooted in the critical apprehension of world view. In America, the thirteen angels governing the American colonies recognize their moral hypocrisy and “rend” the symbols of their office, rejecting oppression and empire. The fall of John Milton’s angels into the fires of hell is appropriated by Blake to symbolize the angels embrace of their own desire and autonomy.

Plate 5 of Blake’s America

Batty’s quotation begins to get at the arc I’ll trace here: romanticism to science fiction. More generally, I want to ponder  historical genres and modes that break with realism, but my focus is on the revival of medieval romance in the guises of the Gothic, scientific romance and science fiction (genre sf), and fantasy. Speculative Romance, as a term, tries to capture the odd tensions I encounter as I shuttle back and forth between romantic writing at the end of the eighteenth and through the nineteenth century and how this leads to the emergence of the modern genres and modes of science fiction and fantasy. Part of these tensions involve the blurring of genres–perhaps the commonalities between them–especially the re-convergence of sf and fantasy in the past few decades, the apparent shift in sf from science fiction to speculative fiction, and an emerging insistence (already witnessed in the post-colonial imperatives of Magical Realism) on the importance of fantasy.

Roy Batty

Roy Batty in the rain