Robotic Puzzles, Android Narratives, Composing, 19/12/2013

This very late update was brought to you by having to move a bunch of my girlfriend's stuff from her mother's house in Scarborough to our place in Hamilton. While we did that, I thought I might give Paul Virilio a rest for a day, and publish some final thoughts on his work later Friday or Saturday. One advantage of Speed and Politics is that it's really rather short. He's certainly a fellow-traveller for the Utopias project, but I don't know that he'll be a focal point for my theoretical approach.

I instead had some ideas about what to do with my fiction, particular one character called Alice. You may remember that when I last discussed my idea for a serious version of Lost in Space, I only had two solid characters. One of these was Alice, a 4,000 year old android whose intelligence, perceptual abilities, communication powers, and ethics were far in advance of what humans could conceive. Last week, I got my fourth rejection notice from a magazine to which I had sent the short story where I first developed her character. So I thought I would at least discuss some of the interesting ideas and approaches to science-fiction that I wanted this character to explore.

First, if you're interested at all in the recent history of science-fiction and comics, you should read Phil Sandifer's Last War in Albion project, or you will inevitably regret it. Lately, he's been discussing the wider effect Star Wars, Michael Moorcock, and J. G. Ballard had on destroying the Golden Age model of sci-fi narrative. This was actually a radical innovation in storytelling, even though it ran out of steam fairly quickly.

The narrative is based on problem solving using technology with a clear grounding (even if it may have been extrapolated from current uses and forms) in the science of one's time, or at least according to rules for that technology that was set at the story's beginning. Characters are in a logistically tricky situation, and have to solve that problem within the established limits of their technology. Fiction in this form is less narrative, and more a puzzle.

An example of a massive species-
inferiority complex.
Isaac Asimov's robot stories are Phil's primary example, as well as the clearest and most famous example in science-fiction. A robot is in some sticky situation because of the Three Laws of Robotics, and some permutation or interpretation of the Laws allows our characters to wiggle out. I also think this Golden Age inherited tendency to write stories as problem solving events influences official Star Trek's drive to create a complex scientific background for its canon. Many episodes of Star Trek's renaissance* are written as practical problems to solve with high-stakes tension by technical means. The imaginary scientific setups and technological solutions are meticulously developed by technical consultants, with the input of working physicists. But even the best Star Trek episodes also included ethical and political themes, or deep philosophical issues.

* I consider this period to run from 1990, the third season of Next Generation when the show fully recovered from the late 1980s writer's strike, to 1996, when Voyager entered its inescapable downward spiral and Deep Space Nine fully converted to a continuing dramatic space opera. I think DS9 was at its best as a show over its last three seasons, but that it was no longer pure Star Trek. But that's another blog post.

Because the Golden Age model of narrative was remarkably limited. The critiques of the 1970s effectively killed that narrative style because the Golden Age couldn't answer them. The style was too sparse, with no focus on character development or philosophical engagement. Narratives with these aspects are simply better than the spare thought experiments of straight Golden Age fiction.

A slave and its master.
Alice fits into this exploration as an attempt to build an original approach to android narratives. So many approaches to androids have considered them in some way inferior to humanity, or more constrained than humanity. Their Golden Age paradigm was as immensely intelligent creatures deeply constrained by their moral software. Where machine-people exist in the current dominant traditions of science-fiction, they're comic relief (masking a terrifying slave status) as in Star Wars or Red Dwarf, they're loyal creatures yearning for a greater degree of humanity (defining them by their inferiority to humanity) like Star Trek's Data and the peaceful Cylons, or they're villainous usurpers of humanity (so enemies to be destroyed) like Star Trek's Lore and most of the other Cylons.

I wanted a depiction of androids that would portray them as something I had never seen before, except maybe a brief moment at the end of AI of all things. Iain M. Banks' Culture books come close, but androids there still seem to be a servant class, the tools of humans. I wanted an android race that would literally be the Overman. These creatures would surpass all that humanity can ever be without ourselves evolving into an entirely new species. Androids would be the intellectual, scientific, social, emotional, and ethical superiors to humanity. Alice would be the oldest and wisest among them.

More over the weekend, I think.


  1. You did know you would immediately get my attention with a character named "Alice", didn't you?

    And we're gonna have fuuuuuun once Vaka Rangi reaches the 1980s. I can just sense it :D

    1. I had a feeling it would. Though the way she works in my personal ideaspace is more of an answer to R Daneel Olivaw, particularly how Asimov depicted him in Foundation and Earth near the end of his life. There'll be more detail on Alice in my posts over the weekend and next week, but I basically designed the character in terms of the Nietzschean Overman: more noble than a human could possibly be. Essentially, she has no capacity for resentment.

    2. Well of course I noticed that, and I think that's a fantastic idea for an android, especially given the state of transhumanism these days.

      But, even then, I couldn't help thinking of this quote from Lewis Carroll:

      "What wert thou, dream-Alice in thy foster-father's eyes? How shall he picture thee? Loving first, loving and gentle: loving as a dog (forgive the prosaic simile, but I know no earthly love so pure and perfect) and gentle as a fawn: then courteous—courteous to all, high or low, grand or grotesque, King or Caterpillar, even as though she were herself a King's daughter, and her clothing wrought of gold: then trustful, ready to accept the wildest impossibilities with all that utter trust that only dreamers know; and lastly, curious—wildly curious, and with the eager enjoyment of Life that comes only in the happy hours of childhood, when all is new and fair, and when Sin and Sorrow are but names — empty words signifying nothing!"