Posts Tagged ‘cognition’

Blue Remembered Earth by Alastair Reynolds

Blue Remembered Earth by Alastair Reynolds (Gollancz, 2012) is the first in the Poseidon’s Children trilogy and, on the face of it, offers answers to the now relatively familiar question of what would happen to humanity if we wrecked the planet through global warming, then slowly remade the Earth and expanded into the solar system. For this purpose, we assume significant technological advancement with genetic engineering extending life span and producing a new aquatic civilisation in the seas, while computers augment the lives of those who have survived and provide the ultimate Big Brother system for keeping order. In theory, this is a utopian society. Apart from the Descrutinised Zone on the Moon and other places where the surveillance technology cannot reach, the majority of conventional humans have little chance to misbehave. Yet, of course, a certain rebelliousness does remain. You can’t conveniently program minds to be conventional. But apart from the usual imperative to maximise earnings, there seems very little incentive for humanity to progress in any meaningful way. For the “ordinary” people, it’s a relatively quiet life.

Before looking beyond this simple assessment, we need to think about the author. Alastair Reynolds is currently carrying the Olympic torch for “new” space opera or perhaps this is an example of postmodernist space opera. Whatever label you want to apply, we’re introduced to the dangers of old military hardware still dotting the landscape in Africa. Then we visit the Moon and have a run-in with the Chinese who continue to think they should hide behind a Wall and have nothing to do with the rest of us. Then it’s off to Mars and, by the time we’re finished, we’ve had a whistle-stop tour of the highlights of the solar system (not forgetting those folk under the sea, of course). Except the tone of the book lacks that breathless sense of wonder underlying brainless action that characterised “old” space opera. You probably remember those early books used to plunge into the first meeting with hostile forces, showing immediately how they were a real threat. Then the forces of good gathered, mustered and confronted the threat. Those were the days! Yet this book deliberately avoids older plotting conventions.

Things are looking up for Alastair Reynolds

At its heart, Blue Remembered Earth is a remarkably gentle meditation on cognition. It considers both the process through which information is gathered and processed so that it’s understood and may form the basis of voluntary acts and omissions, and the process of accountability where people take responsibility for what they think and, therefore, how they act. Alastair Reynolds addresses the theme at three different levels. Starting with human beings, we have the ultimate panopticon with the “thought police” allowed a window into everyone’s head. Immediately the monitor detects the decision to bash the living daylights out of another sentient being, it zaps the brain of the offender in motion before the blow can land. This instant sanction has a chilling effect on violent impulses. Except it’s less than foolproof. To achieve their desired results, those who aspire to badness are simply devious, never appearing to be doing anything terrible but actually achieving the result indirectly. All the technology does is turn down the heat and pace of anything potentially operatic. Instead of some great villain coming onstage and blasting out an aria to shake the chandeliers, it must all be whispered conspiracies in physical places where the surveillance is weak or nonexistent. Those who have violent tendencies have machines fight each other — the experience of violence delivers a kind of vicarious catharsis. As a world, this is more dystopian than utopian. Although the environment is physically recovering after humanity’s collective failure to act, the price to be paid is a kind of enforced passivity. If we were not rational enough to prevent ecological disaster, then we must be controlled until we demonstrate enough maturity to be allowed to live freely again. Except who decides on the definition of maturity and how is it to be measured?

The second strand of this debate is found in the work of Geoffrey. He’s an obsessive autodidact scientist who studies elephants in the wild. Well that needs a little qualification. These elephants are a form of walking experiment with enough electronics implanted in their heads to power very high levels of communication. Indeed, Geoffrey is slowly building up a cognitive bridge which will enable him to experience the world as an elephant and, because bridges can carry traffic in both directions, allow the elephant to sample human thought. This is a slightly different version of the system monitoring human impulses because the intention is to allow full sensory identification between the human and host elephant. A more interesting question will be how the elephant will react to thoughts from the human mind. Although Geoffrey is studying the behaviour of the animals both as individuals and within the herd structure, this is both a simple model of human society, and it opens the door to the possibility of improving on the elephant’s level of cognition, i.e. achieving some degree of intellectual uplift.

The third strand of the theme lies in machine-based intelligence. Because both humans and animals have interfaces with advanced technology, there are rules about the extent to which machines may develop their own artificial intelligence and so become independent beings, and the extent to which machines may actually control human or animal behaviour. At this point, we touch on technological singularity. Throughout the book we are shown how technology can augment the human mind, but there’s a strong resistance against any move to allow machines to develop a level of intelligence greater than humanity. With the exception of the use of technology to suppress violence, Alastair Reynolds assumes the mass of humanity prefer to dawdle along rather passively. Having just survived what could have been an extinction event, leaders prefer not to take too many risks until everyone has grown up a little and can take responsibility for their own actions again.

So that’s the set-up in a longish book which quietly explains what has been happening and then shows how the death of a grandmother can suddenly destabilise the lives of her grandchildren and force them to take decisions about what kind of people they want to be. Yes, there are the occasional trappings of space opera as we try to break into a space station that prefers not to be disturbed and meet a few homicidal robots living wild and evolving into who knows what. But the real strength of the book lies in the conversations as we watch people react to the changing circumstances. It’s not gripping, wow-factor space opera, but rather a meticulously constructed adventure story in the quest mode as our two main characters try to follow the clues left behind by their grandmother. This makes Blue Earth Remembered a fascinating read and it should be picked up by anyone with an interest in thoughtful science fiction in which the future of the solar system hangs in the balance — I guess that makes it space opera.

For a review of an excellent collection by Alastair Reynolds, see Deep Navigation, and two impressive novellas: The Six Directions of Space and Troika.

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