Trans-Humanism Archive

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Book Review: Crux

My summer of sequels continues with the sublime Crux, Ramez Naam’s follow-up to last year’s near-future post-human techno-thriller, Nexus.

When I sat down to write my review of Nexus, I remember feeling overwhelmed at the prospect of having to package a complex novel within the confines of a short review. Crux has had much the same effect upon me. In the simplest possible terms, this book is speculative fiction at its finest. Full stop. Crux offers the sort of writing which literary wags could easily point to and declare, “Proper literature looks like this.”

Meanwhile genre readers will smile, knowing full well that their medium has always produced works of this caliber.

For anybody approaching Crux without having read the first novel, the book’s prologue provides a primer on Mr. Naam’s vision of our not-too-distant future. It is a world where a Ph.D. student named Kaden Lane creates Nexus 5, a designer “drug” – more on the danger quotes in a moment – which allows users to hack and subsequently network the human brain. Though Nexus continues in this novel as an allegorical critique on America’s war on drugs, it catalyzes Crux’s much deeper study into a post-human future. NB: post-human does not equal post-apocalyptic or any other sort of end-of-the-world cliché. Tempting as it may be to look at the novel’s union of cyberpunk motifs and climate change as a means of facilitating a dystopian label, the novel is very carefully balanced against such a framing.

I draw attention to this because it’s worth recognizing when a near-future science fiction novel doesn’t unfurl a big banner proudly declaring “We’re all screwed, and everyone is going to die.” Sure, it’s fun to watch writers like Paolo Bacigalupi and Margaret Atwood destroy the world. But it’s hard not to walk away from their novels without a palpable fear for the future outweighing any sense of wonder. By comparison, Crux rallying cry is that post-human problems require post-human solutions. The optimism for the future may be measured, pragmatic, and contingent upon change, but it is there none the less. And given a near-prescient plot point that saw a hurricane affecting political change, I think it is important to recognize the ability – and dare I say need? – for smart fiction to inspire readers to do better with our world.

Crux also sees the return of the Department of Homeland Security’s Emerging Risks Division. The ERD, and those who share its worldview, publically demonize Nexus as little more than a narcotic. In that light, the novel pulls no punches in showing how the ability to network a mind lends itself to the worst sort of abuses and affronts to human dignity. Alternatively, Nexus proves capable of awakening a capacity for learning and socialization in children with autism spectrum disorders while also facilitating next generation research between scientists. A think tank takes on a whole new meaning when a dozen scientists can collectively work on a problem at the speed of thought.

For the latter, and certainly individuals within the book’s target demographic, the ERD’s actions seem retrograde. What progressive nation bans a tool and further exploits a constitutional loophole to strip the users of said tool of their citizenship rights? But just as it was in Nexus, the debate in Crux is so much deeper than a simple binary between conservative and progressive ideologies. The proponents of The Chandler Act – imagine the Patriot Act, on anabolic steroids, targeting post-humans – can easily be read as a good piece of legislation designed to protect the rights of a majority who refuse to, or are incapable of, redefining humanity beyond natural selection. Think on that for a moment; the ERD waterboards and tortures Kade’s friends and Nexus co-developers on behalf of Americans who don’t want to be anything more than human. I’d be tempted to smirk at the idea of the government so effectively entrenching mediocrity through a clumsy law, but the strength of Mr. Naam’s ideas precludes such a simple reading. After all, what would happen if the next generation saw an open source technology that makes a person better than any natural born human?

Suppose I go into a job interview with a Nexus-esque neural computer feeding my brain every feel-good neurotransmitter in the book while reminding me of certain speaking points appropriate to each answer. It might not guarantee success, but certainly it grants an advantage otherwise absent to me. In this scenario a defacto ban on post-human technology would be necessary to protect the rights of a majority incapable of being anything more than they are. And once again, Ramez Naam has found a way to take my natural “damn the man” outlook on life and make me sympathize with the establishment.

Similarly, I’m not sure how much I should read into the Chandler Act’s ability to strip post-humans of citizenship as a parallel to North American immigration laws that redefine certain humans as “illegal.” A case could be made, but I’ll leave that to a critic better informed on the topic.

Moving beyond politics, which is hard to do in such a politically astute novel, Crux expands on Nexus’ exploration of post-human technology and religion. One such study focuses on Kade’s flight from justice through Southeast Asia via a series of Buddhist temples. The other looks at a character from the first book who has become the first true post-human after having her consciousness uploaded into a network of quantum computers. It’s standard enough fare to see science fiction writers using non-terrestrial actors as a lens for religious studies. Seeing similar discussions emerge out of scientific innovation is a delightful subversion of a standard trope. Would Buddhism adjust itself in the wake of technology that can allow novices to achieve an oneness with their fellows? Dare we invoke Descartes mind-body discourse in viewing a person of pure consciousness and computer code within her own digital realm? These questions further demonstrate the awe-inspiring extent to which Mr. Naam has considered the implications of post-human tech. My only regret therein is that there isn’t more room in the novel for probe for answers therein.

I’ll preclude any further rambling by closing on this point; if I don’t see some Nebula and/or Hugo buzz orbiting Crux within the next year I will be genuinely surprised. The novel is a poignant reflection on the sociological, economic, climate challenges of our changing world. Meanwhile, Mr. Naam masterfully mobilizes the zeitgeist of contemporary political and tech culture in his creation of a near-future which tempts readers with equal parts dread and optimism. This is not a book to be missed, and certainly one deserving much discussion in the months to come.

Crux by Ramez Naam

Published by Angry Robot Books



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Book Review: Nexus

Nexus by Ramez Naam is the second novel I’ve read from UK based publisher Angry Robot Books. Much like my first experience with this imprint, vN by Madeline Ashby, Nexus offers a narrative exploration of humanity’s relationship with advanced technology. In doing so, Naam mobilizes language orbiting contemporary debates on copyright in the digital world, net neutrality, and some good old fashioned Marxism. While the aforementioned concepts are essential to the story, the central conflict lives within the resoundingly grey area of trans/post-humanity. Put into a single question, Nexus asks at what point does our technology change us from what we are, into what we are not? And perhaps more important, who do we select as the arbiter of a decision that speaks to neurology, engineering, philosophy, and metaphysics?

Set some thirty years into the future, the plot focuses on Kaden Lane, a neuroscience PhD candidate at the University of California, San Francisco. Kade, his lab mate Rangan Shankari, and their friends are all practitioners of a designer drug called “Nexus 3”. However, Nexus isn’t so much a drug as it is a lattice of data relays which take up residence inside a person’s mind. The Nexus nodes allow users to experience the thoughts, memories, and consciousness of other users. Adept users, such as Kade and company, can even use Nexus to manipulate the motor cortex of another Nexus user.

Were that not enough, Kade and Rangan have found a way to evolve Nexus into something which takes up permanent residence in a person’s mind. In combining this wetware with an open source operating system Kade has turned himself into something new, a human capable of fully networking his mind with other Nexus users. This potential frontier in evolution, a technology which could unite vast swaths of individuals into a rapturous gestalt of collective understanding and empathy, or in the wrong hands be used for radical thought control, slavery, and domination, attracts the attention of the Department of Homeland Security’s Emerging Risks Division. In a world filled with Chinese clone soldiers, potentially emergent AI, bio-neural hacks to augment any mood or sensation, and human enhancement through nanotechnology, Kade’s discovery of “Nexus 5” leads to his arrest. Therein he must either work with the ERD to bring down another post-human or spend the rest of his life in prison.

Given its direction and philosophy, Nexus is reminiscent of other memorable “us versus them” narratives. Throughout Marvel Comics’ X-Men series readers witnessed the struggle between Homo Sapiens and Homo Sapiens Superior as the government sought to regulate and control those outside the normal definition of humanity. 2011’s Deus Ex: Human Revolution explored questions of state versus free market control with respect to human augmentation through cybernetics. Yet where those stories dealt with relatively small groups of individuals, superheroes and those with the money to afford implantation and regular gene therapy, Nexus expands the scope of potential transhumans to seemingly all of humanity. I mean if perpetually destitute graduate students (though maybe it was only us social science grads who lived on ramen and the scavenged leftovers of catered conference talks) can afford to permanently augment themselves with a neural architecture, which makes assimilating new data akin to Neo learning Ju Jitsu in The Matrix, why not everybody else?

Asking “Why?” and “Why not?” forms the basis for Nexus’ core philosophical inquires. Though always seamlessly woven into the narrative, Nexus revels in daring the reader to justify their thoughts on technology beyond the confines of a black and white paradigm. The Nexus drug is aptly named in that it is the focal point for every one of the book’s big questions, none of which are particularly easy to answer.

While the novel may be driven by near-future human augmentation technology, much to the delight of futurists, all of its attempts at parsing a grand design for humanity stem from current world issues. Through skillful narrative exposition and the odd bit of character dialogue that borders on a prose soliloquy we learn that the United States revokes citizenship from people who stray too far from the Supreme Court’s definition of humanity. Moreover, the DHS, FBI, and CIA make use of warrantless surveillance and networks of unmanned drones possessing rudimentary AI. Soldiers are augmented to be more than human, but left to their own devices when the enhancements lead to cancers. All of these examples should resonate with current issues of immigration, reproductive rights, state surveillance, veterans’ affairs, and America’s various wars on terror/drugs/crime. While Mr. Naam is ever the foresight specialist in his story telling, he artfully anchors the text’s speculative and heavily scientific building blocks to readily accessible sociological challenges.

At the same time, the novel is not a technocrat’s manifesto for nanotech augmented anarchism. Despite my instinct to take up a radical banner as Kade and Rangan were interrogated and tortured (sort of) in federal custody, Naam’s writing managed to evoke some genuine sympathy for the establishment. Despite their questionable methods, the ERD and their agents are trying to protect a great majority of people from an exponential growth in technology that exists outside of their functional world views. Though it can be hard to see benevolence in the ERD’s contemporary analogues, there is a certain resonance to the ideas at hand. Digital libertarians complain about the FBI meddling with the internet, yet said agency as well as many others offer a tangible benefit to people who use the internet without holding a personal stake in how it operates. Once again, Naam skillfully mines the present to draw out logical near-future extensions of today’s issues.

As a story told from the intersection of theoretical neuroscience and contemporary geopolitical issues, Nexus is a fascinating study into how technology might inform human evolution. At times it is also a scathing commentary on the United States’ “War on Drugs” and “War on Terror”. Perhaps equally so, the novel is a critique of how ivory tower approaches to scientific progress can necessitate invasive third party oversight. Though a many headed hydra of foresight, Nexus is always thoughtful and never particularly dense or heavy handed in its prose. Indeed, there’s a near poetic quality to the way in which Mr. Naam describes the otherwise cold linkages of Axons and Dendrites within the human mind. Bearing that in mind, I would not be surprised if Nexus becomes as influential within academic and scientific quarters as it is certain to be for a more general audience.

Nexus by Ramez Naam

Published by Angry Robot Books

Available as a print and eBook as of December 18th, 2012.


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Essential Genre Music Volume 2

That’s right, it’s time for “Essential Genre Music Volume 2”.

I’ve pulled together fifteen (mostly instrumental) selections from television, movies, games, and anime for this ultra nerdy “what if” CD.

So without further ado, let’s get right into some tunes.

The title track – Icarus – Deus Ex Human Revolution Soundtrack – Michael McCann – 2011

McCann’s work on the Deus Ex: HR soundtrack earned him “best in music” nominations in the Canadian Video Game Awards and the BAFTA’s Video Game Awards. It’s a haunting and powerful piece of music that serves as the perfect complement to Eidos Montreal’s recent post-human masterpiece.

Track 2 – Terran Suite #2 – Starcraft soundtrack – Derek Duke and Glen Stafford – 1998

Why this particular piece? Because every time I set out to build something from Ikea, this is the tune that starts playing through my head. More than iconic, the Terran Suite is a touchstone to the very roots of Starcraft’s success as a piece of contemporary mythology.

Track 3 – Tank – The Seatbelts – 1998

If I had to guess, “Tank” is probably second to the Space Battleship Yamato anthem as the most remixed/covered song to emerge from an anime series. It’s also the benchmark for any saxophone players who want to prove their musical chops while simultaneously establishing their nerd cred.

Track 4 – Blade Runner’s End Theme – Vangelis – 1982

I don’t know why I didn’t think to put this on the first volume of essential genre music. In the thirty years since the song was first heard by human ears, it has become the godfather of music to all things cyberpunk.

Track 5 – Inner Universe – Origa – 2002

Perhaps not as iconic as “Making of a Cyborg”, the title track to 1995’s Ghost in the Shell, Inner Universe, from the 2002′s Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, has always stood out in my mind as a fascinating song. Setting aside the fact that the lyrics are in Russian, Latin, and English, I’m told the range required to hit all the notes is quite challenging.

Track 6 – Doomsday – Murray Gold – 2006

Yes yes, the actual Doctor Who theme song is awesome. But there’s more to the musical history of the recent series than various takes on a fifty year old tune. As performed by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, “Doomsday” is tied with “Vale Decem” as the musical high point of David Tennant’s time in the TARDIS.

Track 7 – Audi Famam Illius – Nobuo Uematsu – 2006

Famed Final Fantasy composer Nobuo Uematsu lent his talents to “Audi Famam Illius”, the theme song to Super Smash Brothers Brawl. Too bad the game is nowhere near as epic (it’s actually very pointless) as the music.

Track 8 – Prelude to War – Bear McCreary – 2005

The rebooted Battlestar Galactica reached its zenith with the second season cliff-hanger “Pegasus”. There, I said it, and I don’t care how much fan rage it gets me. After Admiral Cain died it was all downhill, albeit at a gentle gradient. This song, which built to an epic crescendo during Adama and Cain’s camera-pan face off, accompanies not only the best moment of the series, but arguably one the finest moments in television this side of the 20th century.

Track 9 – Enterprising Young Men – Michael Giacchino – 2009

Giacchino made a bold decision when he abandoned Alexander Courage’s influence in crafting a new Star Trek theme. Though Courage’s score would be remixed into the ending credits, “Enterprising Young Men” became the headline refrain for Trek’s alternate timeline. Like it or not, it’s here now.

Track 10 – S’il Vous Plait – Fantastic Plastic Machine – 1997

You may not recognize the name, but fans of the British series Spaced will know the song. It’s a song to be played in moments of pure, unrivaled joy. Such moments include getting around giving notice at a job by telling your boss that Babylon 5 is shit (not actually true) so that he fires you.

Track 11 – Bishop’s Countdown – Aliens Soundtrack – James Horner – 1986

I don’t know if it’s fair to say that one track on this album is superior to another. Consider that I haven’t watched Aliens in a couple of years, but I could tell you exactly what scene accompanies each piece of music on this CD. If that’s not the mark of a brilliant piece of musical accompaniment, I don’t know what is.

What’s that? You want me to name the scene where this track plays? Fah, child’s play.

This starts playing as Ripley emerges from the service elevator in LV 426’s fusion plant. With Newt in tow she yells out, “God damn you, Bishop,” suspecting that the synthetic has taken the Sulaco’s remaining dropship and fled. Ripley turns around to see the other service elevator, presumably containing the xenomorph queen, rising up. Low on ammo, she tells Newt to “Close your eyes, baby.” At the last second Bishop flies the dropship into the frame, allowing Ripley and Newt to escape. As the ship tries to break atmo, a computerized voice counts down to zero before the fusion plant explodes.

Track 12 – The Elder Scrolls Themes – Jeremy Soule – 2002, 2006, 2011

Since 2002, Jeremy Soule has been the composer on the hugely popular Elder Scrolls series of video games (Morrowwind, Oblivion, and Skyrim). I suppose I could have just used the Morrowwind theme since the other two are built upon its back, but listening to the evolution of ten years worth of work is just too fantastic to pass up. Also, the Skyrim bit makes me want to drink a lot of mead and pick a fight with somebody weaker than me, preferably in the East coast of England.

Track 13 – Still Alive – Jonathan Coulton – 2007

Unlike the cake, this song is not a lie.

Track 14 – Il dolce suono/The Diva Dance – Gaetano Donizetti, Salvadore Cammarano, and Eric Serra – 1997

Fun fact: The voice of Albanian opera-singer Inva Mula was dubbed over that of the actress playing the Diva in The Fifth Element. Luc Besson’s movies might not be the smartest thing out there, but it takes a certain kind of something to integrate opera into beating the piss out of aliens.

I know I promised a fifteenth track for this piece, but the chances are good that I’ve missed something that you think is absolutely essential. Therefore, track 15 is up to the readers. Leave a comment and telling the world what you think is absolutely essential genre listening.


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The Daily Shaft: Seven Laws from Science Fiction

One of the most interesting parts of science fiction/speculative fiction is looking at how writers’ imagine we will govern ourselves in the future. Will innovations in technology create shining futures where government regulation is benign? Or will humanity drift into dystopia and the jack boots of totalitarian rule. Drawn from a variety of mediums, I offer seven examples of future law for your consideration.

1 – The Prime Directive – Star Trek


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A rule this big has to be either first or last in a post like this. I chose to get it out of the way early.

Meaning: In short, the prime directive forbids members of Star Fleet from mucking about in the development of pre-warp drive civilizations. Of course most Star Fleet captains tend to have a rather liberal approach to the PD.

Value of the law: In theory the Prime Directive protects Star Fleet officers from their own good intentions. It could also be seen as a lassie-faire means test for emergent civilizations. Rather using their resources to nudge a planet along a healthy development path, the Federation has codified inaction. This isn’t necessarily a good thing when the Prime Directive  oozes into real world politics – case in point, the world’s very slow reaction to Syria.

2 – Human Augmentation Regulation – Deus Ex / Deus Ex: Human Revolution


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Meaning: The near future world of Deus Ex answers the question of biological evolution through technological enhancement. No longer limited to the realm of limb/organ replacement, cybernetic/nanotech augmentation is about cosmetic appeal, performance enhancement, and a marker of economic status.

Value of the law: Though the mythos explores ‘human purity’ movements, the main purpose of the laws are to create oversight in an unregulated market. Essentially, it’s a way of putting government in control of post-human evolution, rather than leaving it in the hands of corporate interests. Not simply an allegory for contemporary socio-economics, Deus Ex’s Augmentation Regulations evoke timeless questions on what it means to be human.

3 – Superhero Registration Act – Marvel Civil War 2006-2007


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Meaning: After a group of amateur super heroes blew up a significant portion of Stamford, Connecticut, the federal government, upon the urging of Tony Stark and Reed Richards, passed a law that required any person with super powers residing within the United States to register as a living weapon of mass destruction. In doing so, their public identity would be a matter of record. Should they undertake any super heroics without the consent of SHIELD, they’d be treated as criminal vigilantes.

Value of the law: It wasn’t a particularly new concept within the Marvel universe. Anybody who follows X-Men knew that mutant registration was a regular theme, which drew inspiration from any number of 20th century atrocities. Yet the idea resonated with a post 9/11 audience that was particularly sensitive about issues concerning individual and civil liberties in the wake of Patriot Act abuses.

4 – Emotional Laws – Equilibrium


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Meaning: In the post world war three nation-state of Libria, the powers that be decided that human emotion was the cause of all suffering. Their answer to this problem was to rid people of all emotion through a culture war and widespread use of super Prozac. To feel was to commit a capital crime against the state.

Value of the law: It’s hard to ascribe value to a law that forbids emotion while promoting a poorly designed fascist state. As a film, Equilbrium owes much to George Lucas’ THX 1138, and, like most totalitarian dystopias, to the writing of George Orwell. So perhaps the worth in the sense laws is in understanding their narrative origins.

5 – The Butlerian Commandment – Dune

I know its a terminator, but I couldn't find a good Dune style thinking machine picture


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Meaning: “Thou shalt not make a machine in likeness of a man’s mind.” One of the cornerstones of Orange-Catholicism, the dominant religion within Frank Herbert’s Dune, is the prohibition into research that would create artificial intelligence.

Value of the law: The commandment works to thrust the Dune universe into a prolonged period of technological stagnation where even the most rudimentary computers are met with extreme suspicion and distrust. This lays much of the groundwork for the high fantasy motifs that permeate the novel.

6 – Psychic Registration and the Psi-Corps – Babylon 5


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Meaning: In Babylon 5’s vision of the 23rd century, human psychics have three choices in life: prison, drugs to suppress psychic abilities, or joining the Psi-Corps.

Value of the law: As the show reveals, the Psi-Corps is anything but a benevolent organization. It enacts breeding programs, carries out human experimentation, and executes its own political agenda independent of any concern for how their goals will affect non-psychics or “Mundanes”. Much like the Superhero/Mutant Registration Acts and the Human Augmentation Regulations, the Psi-Corps is a perfect example of how issues of evolution can get ugly when a small group of people think they are superior to the multitude.

7 – State Mandated Death – Logan’s Run


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Meaning: Within a near post-scarcity world, the state, as manifested by an aging and decaying computer, enforces a rule that people must die on their twenty-first birthday. (I’m going by the book not the movie on this one, so don’t talk to me about dying at thirty)

Value of the law: William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson asked two interesting questions within their novel: What happens when the state gets so powerful it can tell you when to die? Why should people respect their elders? The revolution that began the novel’s “death at twenty-one movement” was the result of a disproportionately young population in the wake of the baby boom. Rather than levelling off, the world reached a critical mass of young people by the year 2000. It’s easy then to see the law as the result of a majority seizing political agency from the entrenched authority. Yet it’s also a commentary maintaining a sustainable population through invasive social control.

Honourable mentions include: Futurama’s mutant laws, Blade Runner’s replicant laws, Ringworld’s reproduction lottery, the nanny state gone wrong in Demolition Man, and the no babies law from Zero Population Growth. My thanks to Rick Landon for his suggestion of Equilibrium’s Sense Laws.