Reflections on Aurora

Reflections on Aurora

I concede, I may have been a bit over-zealous in my recommendation of Robinson’s Aurora in weeks previous. I think I ought to get a pass due to the dazed, sleep-deprived state I was in, though.

I actually first heard about the book via a review over on BoingBoing, one that I didn’t finish reading until I was through the book itself (I noticed it at my library, and picked it up on name recognition). They, BoingBoing, actually hosted a bit of commentary by Robinson, where he details some of the thought processes and research that went into Aurora, further developing on the major theme of the book.

Generally, unlike most places on the ‘net, BoingBoing is pretty good when it comes to their comment threads – people are generally civil and on-topic. It helps that they have a Don’t-Press-Your-Luck Dragon that swallows anyone who strays too far from the acceptable. As of writing this, the thread for Robinson’s article is clocking in at 203 comments. I read through them a couple days back, so I’m not sure exactly where the tenor of the conversation has gone since then. The parts I did see went about as anticipated – plenty of folks coming out to denounce Robinson for being a Luddite and a downer, someone who has fallen into Deep Ecology and won’t pull himself out again. Quite a few of the comments seem to be misreading the gist of the argument completely, focussing on the hard problems of physics which Robinson explicitly says are really the easier set of issues. Not unexpected, as there is a large portion of SciFi fans who are that way inclined, all crunch and no fluff.

Does this look like a man who *hates science*?

Does this look like a man who *hates Science*?

Two of the points in particular gave me pause for thought. There were valid criticisms spliced in amongst the hand-wringing – the reliance on bog-standard agriculture when there are other, well-advanced technologies available, especially that this becomes a major issue in the narrative, seemed a bit weird. Also that we’d not apply a skill-set acquired from generations of space-life within the Solar System to interstellar travel – the idea that we’d be coming at this operation with an Earth-centric perspective – seems like a justifiable criticism. Again and again, though, people harped on about how tech was going to save us in every way. They generally accepted that Faster-than-Light travel is not an option, in that, you know, everything we know says it’s impossible, but then proposed folding space as an alternative. While not precluded by our current models, the amount of energy need to do that is literally astronomical. Larger than the amount in the Solar System. So that seems to me to be impracticable. Another response was that we can stick to sub-relativistic speeds, but we’ll just turn ourselves into robots.

I know the sums involved here are so small as to be microscopic, but there is that adage regarding amount of anger as inverse to relative pay-out, so, I’ll stick with venting my frustration. This whole “we’ll upload ourselves to computers and live forever” thing – ain’t gonna happen. Any – honest – person working in cognitive science, that unlikely combination of neuroscience, comp-sci, philosophy and anthro, would tell you straight up that we barely have an understanding of the human mind, let alone any way of replicating it. Sure, we have our models and approximations, we have neuroscience doing a good job at categorising, and fiddling with, the wetware – but an understanding of how it all hangs together? What motivates and energises it? No clue. We’re as far away from that as was Descartes with his pineal gland-theory.

Furthermore, if we haven’t got it by now, with all the wealth we’ve amassed and the relative stability we’ve enjoyed these past 70 years, we’re not going to get it any time soon. Future’s not looking especially conducive to long-term, multi-national research projects. Unless something major changes up, our societies are about to fragment, and we’re all about to be living in a much more austere place. You can already see it playing out – the response to migrants and refugees in the wake of the recent attacks in Paris, the referendum on EU membership here in England set for 2017, the nativist, xenophobic government recently elected in Poland (and not so recently in Hungary). We’ve needed the cooperation of almost every “leading” country to keep the ISS running, and that’s child’s play to something like setting up a colony on Mars, or, more to the point, figuring out how that three-pound block of soap we all carry in our heads actually works. Despite what some Americans would like to tell you, scientific research has always been a multi-national effort. Even during the Cold War, there were cross-bloc exchanges. If this liberal social-order breaks down amidst mutual recrimination and suspicion, you can kiss that goodbye.

Stop trying to make AI happen. It’s not going to happen.

Aside from those considerations, would we even want to call like that, a conscious machine, human? Even if that consciousness was original housed in a meat-suit? Assuming that the thought processes of a person could be replicated by machine – and there are absolutely no reasons to do so, mind – what we define as human goes beyond the mere intelligence or personality. Every society I know of, throughout all of history, has defined humanity in terms of its excellence, its bodily perfection. We are inextricably embodied individuals. We exist in the world embodied, our minds are (as best we can tell) emergent properties of that body – there is no person without the body. Not by definition, not by material fact. So, no, you transhumanist dorks, there’s never going to be a Singularity. Also, for you ‘Effective Altruists’ out there, take off the blinders and cut it out with the self-congratulatory, STEM focussed wank. Stop trying to make AI happen. It’s not going to happen.

Anyways, enough tilting at windmills. I mentioned above that there were two concepts that got under my skin. The second, more an off-hand number than the above, was that Robinson set up the elements of his story to arrive at a pre-determined result, and that this was in someway reprehensible. Already, this is pretty rich, given that, even with the above detailed faults, Aurora is a much more comprehensively “hard” SciFi than the usual fare. But, really, what the hell is that even supposed to mean? Of course the author set the premise up to arrive at a pre-determined result! What the hell else was he supposed to do? What does every author do? How else do you tell a story? What a ridiculous position to take.

Sure, the fiction is meant to be speculative in character – it’s in the name, after all. But the very nature of the work is seeing where things go from pre-set circumstances. A sub-set of that, welcome and acceptable, is seeing what particular spread of circumstances get us to particular results. Why would it ever be different? Sure, Aurora is a set-up. But, as Corey Doctorow’s review states,

…what Robinson’s furtive scenery-arranging points out is that the easy times all our other science fiction stories have given to their colonists were every bit as contrived.

All our stories are contrived. They have to be. Robinson makes no claim that his story is the way things must run, even in the supporting article. What he does do, however, is present a plausible tale within the parameters of what we know to be hard fact. That’s the goal of speculative fiction – to get people to look at, to think, about the options and choices in front of us. Part of that is showing what happens when things go wrong. If that means you can’t have your interstellar empire and your sex ‘bots, soz.


Posted on November 22, 2015, in Maunderings and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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