We Think, Therefore We Are edited by Peter Crowther
There often comes a point during a session organised in a holiday camp or on a cruise liner when the poor sucker charged with the task of keeping the group entertained picks up the microphone and asks, “Are we having fun yet?” There can be levels of desperation about this question. Sometimes, it can sound like a threat. This scene arises out of the expectation that “one size fits all”. No matter what the race, gender, religion or social class of those in the group, an organised form of entertainment will keep everyone happy. This is, of course, a hopeless myth put about by those who market camps and cruises. They must convince a sceptical public that all customers will have fun if they part with their money and come along.
So it is with themed anthologies. The editor is the guy with the microphone who has picked out the games. Now everyone has to survive the next few hours in the session to discover whether the choices made and the manner of presentation “sell” the fun part. The problem to overcome is that too narrowly defined a theme can constrain the creativity of the authors and the results can be monotonous. We have all struggled with endless parades of vampires and zombies. So it’s a great pleasure to pick up We Think, Therefore We Are, edited by Peter Crowther who is one of the best editors around. The title is derived from the now somewhat clichéd proposition formulated by René Descartes, cogito ergo sum. As a brief to the authors, Crowther looked for an exploration of artificial intelligence. The assumption is that, at some time in the future, machines will achieve something approaching the human capacity for independent thought. The alarming possible outcome would be an endless recycling of terminators as they batter the few remnants of humanity into submission. Victor von Frankenstein must always be superseded by his creature.
In fact, the anthology offers fifteen variations on the theme without anything approaching Schwarzenegger muttering incoherently about his return (although, I suppose, the salvaged monks in Eric Brown’s story have a similar mindset aimed at world domination). By and large, the intelligences are rather subdued and tragic figures whose only interest in life is to get on with the business of living. So are there overlaps with conventional tropes? Obviously, it’s very difficult to avoid the “classic” ideas. We have two reworkings of Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics and space opera sized AIs that build themselves as Dyson spheres around stars and, in one case, a black hole. But, what sets this anthology above the pack is the willingness of the authors to transcend the predictable and claw at the soft underbelly of conventionality. So James Lovegrove gives us a beautiful piece of metafiction about a secret government research project that relies on human short story writers to produce wholly original fiction. Adam Roberts gives us a deeply ironic reworking of Adam’s temptation to eat the forbidden fruit. As a robot might observe, why give me a verbal instruction when you could write the code to make it an absolute command? Then we come to the love stories. Steven Utley sees the potential for virtual reality as an aid to seduction, while Eric Brown and Brian Stableford see self-sacrifice as one possible outcome to the relationship between machines and the humans they must perforce relate to. Robert Reed and Keith Brooke examine the possibility that cyber systems might soften the impact of death (albeit the latter also foresees a unique method of killing — quite the most original idea I’ve seen so far this year).
Paul Di Filippo gives us another of his delightfully wry stories, this time looking at the trials and tribulations of two massive AIs as they try to go back in time to grab a few humans with which to repopulate the galaxy. Ian Watson demonstrates why radio communication between AIs across interstellar distances can be a slight problem and Gary Kilworth reminds us that not everything in the garden should be “just so”. John Searle and Alan Turing are inspiration for stories about how those inside a Chinese Room might perceive the world and how a trained psychologist might react to a discussion with a disembodied voice. Which leaves us with two final issues. How should the world react to the reality of human enhancements and machine intelligence that do become sentient? There is always an argument for exile, sending them off into Earth orbit — out of sight, out of mind. But there must come a point when the injustice of their predicament overcomes even the most died-in-the-wool objections to justice. Then there is the reverse of this. How should a machine react if it becomes the instrument of murder? It would be all too human if it retreated into a fugue state but, if the machine was responsible for running a star ship, this could be very inconvenient for the crew. Let’s leave the final word to Tony Ballantyne who opines that the best of humanity should always be surprising to AIs (in the nicest possible way, of course).
I applaud Peter Crowther for his unrelenting search for originality and great writing. I also applaud Daw for allowing a predominantly British cast of authors to appear in an original US publication. Everyone is a winner in this combination. This is a great value-for-money read.