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Getting to Know You by David Marusek

The order in which I read books is not always linear. Sometimes a book can lurk unread on the shelves, waiting for serendipity to strike or an excuse to arise. Other times, a book is consumed the moment I tear off the bubble wrap that keeps it safe as it wings its way across the skies to me. This is an example of the former, having been sitting with its shrinkwrap intacta for a couple of years. Now I penetrate its covers, I find eleven short stories in this collection from Subterranean Press, four of which are sketches that grew into Counting Heads, the first of the two novels by David Marusek.

One of the more interesting of the philosophical issues one might kick around after a pint or two at the local pub is in two parts:

(i) at what point, if at all, would a machine exhibit intelligence in the human sense of the word; and

(ii) if a machine does become intelligent, is it slavery to keep the machine working for us and murder if we switch it off?

The critical step to transform a machine from mere programming to something more human is a natural language ability — the power to use words and understand their meaning. As Alan Turing postulated way back in 1950, intelligence is potentially proved by the ability to hold an “ordinary” conversation. So it is that those who write science fiction get ahead of themselves and give machines the ability to learn how to be us. One such mechanism might depend on giving someone a bud that can grow into a fully-formed artificial personality. Except first it must learn from the human it will serve. There is a pleasing irony in most of the stories in Getting to Know You because you might always end up with the machine-based personality you deserve. A saint may beget a saint, a monster . . . Yet, presumably, if this did happen, not only would you have a completely trustworthy confidant who knew all your secrets and could advise on how best to solve problems, but also you would have someone completely disposable — a personality that could be deleted at will if it threatened to go public with your secrets.

Let’s assume for a moment that you could make holographic duplicates of yourself and send them out into the world as you. Think of it as akin to having a photograph taken of your personality that could then say all the things you would say if you had the time to go everywhere and do everything. That would mean all these proxies would be sentient, would understand the instruction to go to a particular place for a particular purpose and know that, when this task was complete, you would delete them. That would be really motivating for a sentient piece of software. Curiously, it would also be liberating for the owner who need never actually take responsibility for saying anything in public but could always send out proxies to do the talking for him. It makes you wonder what the owner might say if given no choice but to speak his own mind. As the duplicate, you can only think of the horror you might feel, knowing that you were trapped in the moment, always the blushing bride’s maid, never the blushing bride. How you might long for electronic death, to be freed from that photographic moment of happiness or despair. How you might fear deletion as the end of consciousness — Publilius Syrus offered the opinion that, “The fear of death is more to be dreaded than death itself.”

There is a hard-nosed reality running through most of these stories. Marusek understands how cruel and selfish we can all be, particularly when our minds or our world are touched by fear. In such cases, the reaction may either be violence with a bullet the socially accepted way in which to solve the problem, or apply the myth that the ostrich buries its head in the sand when danger threatens. How easy it would be for a society to have its news media filter out all the unpleasantness so that it could live in peaceful ignorance.

This is a powerful collection of stories with only two lightweight entries — one a joke that is stretched too far. It is sad that someone with so much talent should be so parsimonious with his written words. This volume collects all but one of his stories published since 1993. This leads me to a slightly unexpected conclusion. One way in which one might pass a year or so in writing one short story would be to overwrite, endlessly embellishing and burnishing the descriptive passages. Yet, for the most part, the actual writing here is economical. For all that two of the entries are novella length, i.e. for Nebula Award purposes, more than 17,500 words, it would be difficult to find a more stripped down text. All the stories are simple, elegant and, for the most part, a joy to read. This book is long ago out of print. Subterranean Press had a winner on its hands with this. But there was a paperback edition in 2008. If you have not already tried Marusek, this is a terrific introduction.

Here is a review of another novel by David Marusek, Mind over Ship.

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