Limits to Existence: Aliens, Birds, Robots

One way to interpret first contact stories is this: aliens are other people. The whole SETI thing is just a metaphor for making friends. Whether you conceive of extra-terrestrials as ruthless, bug-eyed conquerors or enlightened ambassadors indicates how you feel about other people. Space opera is merely psycho-drama on a galactic scale. Fermi’s paradox might be translated into purely psychological terms: if there are other humans like me out there, why haven’t they contacted me yet? The kind of xenian life forms you imagine answering the radio waves we’ve sent beaming into the void could be predicted, in the most reductive analysis, by the question: as an infant in the pre-conscious dark, did your parents come and hold you when you cried?

Some limits should be transcended. Taboos, and expectations of life and genre. Artificial limits imposed on communication and technology by corporations bent on profit and control. Limits on knowledge and expression, what is possible. All kinds of boundaries to the mind.

Masters of Solitude, a book I wrote about last time, and Arthur C. Clarke’s Against the Fall of Night, the one I read next, both portray a far-future city, secluded from the world, isolationist, taking the logic of visas and borders to its natural conclusion. In both stories, the citizens are immortal, or nearly so, but stymied by the jealous guarding of their gates, locked in a stagnant stage of solipsistic self-content. Masters of Solitude is about the exiled savages trying to get in, while Against the Fall of Night starts with a city-dweller trying to get out.


In the last post, too, I talked about dissatisfaction with the web-site I’ve been using, emblematic of an de-evolving internet, intentionally hobbled, trying to trap its users into sponsored content, pressing words into the service of advertisements, and not allowing bloggers to get outside the mental walls of making money and brand recognition. One thing I’ve learned is to always pay attention to the frame: the ways in which, without our knowing (to borrow from McLuhan) the media we use propagates a message of learned consumer helplessness. In order to escape the city, we have to closely look at the languages beneath our feet (in Against the Fall of Night, the protagonist finds a ancient subway system, sealed-off but functional, by prying up the paving stones where the gaze of a public statue seems directed). To move beyond the limits of what we’ve been assigned, we have to learn and re-learn the languages used to program us, and everything we see: English, politics, and even html, to prevent the code of consumer capitalism hyper-saturating all easily-accessible surfaces.

That endless horizon, with the vanishing point? It turns out it’s painted on—let’s try to move beyond it. Here is a link to a hand-coded version of this blog, without perhaps all the Pavlovian bells and whistles, but where we can be relatively certain that the terms of use are transparent, and those we set/upset ourselves.  The internet, by default, was designed to work that way, though corporations try to convince us otherwise, turning ink to inc.

Some readers, I surmise, simply want an update on how/what I am doing, and have little interest in my pseudo-literary musings. So: I’m fine. In Turkey. Stomping grapes and swimming in the sea. Drinking beer by Galata tower, looking at the moon. I’m about to embark on an exciting new field of study: French bureaucracy. One consequence of the slow global economic collapse is that travel is becoming more difficult, as borders ossify and shrinking resources are more jealously guarded, social welfare states becoming both less social and less well. Still, I suspect it will be easier for me to find a job in a random country, where I don’t speak the language, with a visa policy that makes them veritable Masters of Solitude, than it was to get hired anywhere in the States with a PhD in English. Why am I moving? My significant other has a significant chance to do important research with a scholar she admires. And me? I’m trying to swing a very narrow set of skills into a new, sustainable solvency, using basically what I’ve always been best at: adaptation and language.


The boy in Against the Fall of Night finds, via the underground subway tunnel, another city, with slightly less security, shorter life-spans, and a bit more cognizance of history. As the book goes on, the same dynamic is repeated at larger scales, as he learns more about the past that had been suppressed to keep the citizens content and safe. His leaving the city to learn about the world foreshadows, ultimately, his leaving the world to learn about space. It’s like my favorite line from Emerson: “around every circle, a larger circle may be drawn.” At each stage, to move to the next ring out in the spinning wheel, limits have to be, paradoxically, accepted: to life-span, to power, and to comforting illusions. It was the same in Masters of Solitude: to gain telepathy and humanity the masters who had locked themselves behind the “self gate” had to acknowledge the existence of others, and therefore death.

Some limits need to be acknowledged. To oil, to ecologies, to wealth. To the ambitions and reach of empire. To how much you can carry, before it slows you down. To, despite everything we are ever told, economic growth. There should be no fiat currencies of thought, unlimited borrowing of energy or time. Let me show you heavy phrase, hard and polished from tumbling in my mind: there can be no grace without restraint.


Packing up my things in Iowa, there was only so much I could keep. That limit gave more meaning to the things that I chose. I paid a mortuary/Phyrric tribute to the comic books, old magazines, and drawings that I sacrificed by tearing fragments from them, ripping them from context, and glueing them to the cardboard boxes I was using in the move—mementos for momentum, paper palimpsests, because I wasn’t only packing books into boxes, but cramming memories into the cramped long-term storage spaces of my mind. Crumpled metonymic fragments: surviving parts that had to stand for abandoned wholes. That old copy of Moby Dick (doomed ship of words sucked into the maelstrom of my past), or an already defoliating Log from the Sea of Cortez, I ripped pages from at random. I’ve developed my own practice of chirographic divination, or pseudo-paranoid pattern recognition. At my parent’s house in Kansas, I carried nostalgic stacks of old Dragon and Dungeon magazines from my Dungeons and Dragons days down to the fire-pit by the pond and patch of mint, and burned them with due solemnity. Occasionally a stray drawing or hexagonally-mapped game-setting would catch my eye and be spared from the flames. Some of these 2D refugees I would slip into boxes, or into books, to be found by later versions of myself. Some I even snuck into my carried-onward luggage, to be turned into origami, perhaps, in Turkey or in France. I have them with me now. By such methods I cultivate my own always-burning Alexandria, the shrinking city of my childhood.

There has to be preservation, along with enough controlled and mindful destruction making way for  new. This sentence (for example) will probably be deleted, and won’t be missed.

Birds of Change

One of the most beautiful scenes I have read in a while was that in Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312, where a stodgy Jovian and a mercurial mercurian are walking along another tunnel, this one beneath the tracks along which a moving city, Terminus, is propelled along rails circumscribing the planet, following the habitable zone of twilight. As the sun heats the metal, the rails expand, and the metropolis moves, pushed along its course. Warham and Swan Er Hong were caught in bungled attack on the city: a swarm of micro-meteors, small enough to escape detection by the planet’s defenses, launched (they suspect) by rebellious computer-intelligences from disparate points in solar system and in time, to converge as a single destructive force at a planned location and even, with precision that had to be inhuman (except they miss, just barely). Swan suffers a nearly lethal dose of solar radiation, which she survives only because she once ingested a colony of alien microbes.


Unable to catch up to Terminus (limit!), they travel backwards, underground, to meet the city on its next circumnavigation. Moving towards their destination by moving away. They were at a classical music concert on the planet’s surface when impact happened, so as they are walking Warham, to pass the time, starts whistling. He has a prodigious memory, and knows a fair number of Beethoven’s sonatas by heart. Swan, on the other hand, has had actual bird neurons implanted into her grey matter, so, sickening and irritable, she accompanies the scripted score with improvisations of preternatural virtuosity.

The scene taps into some of the deep thematics of 2312, and speculative science fiction as a genre: how can we retain the best of what it was to have been human, our history, while moving forward into something different, and hopefully better. The characters both fear and desire the post-humans they’ll become. Conservation and change, continuity and drift. Robinson himself comments on that dynamic interplay, better than I can here (the novel, speaking of memory, I left back in the United States, so I have to rely on my own imperfect recollections). I’m more Swan than Warham, adding my own instinctual trills and flourishes to half-remembered books, that I recommend you find and read yourself.

Another passage that stuck in my memory is a discussion of Earth, which has adapted somewhat to sea level rise and rapid shifts in climate—there is a wonderful, fanciful chapter in which millions of animals are dropped down in bubble-pods from space, where they have been cloned in off-world colonies and raised to repopulate the planet on which they went extinct—where the characters are talking about unemployment and poverty. One of them (I forget which) says that Earth will never have full employment, because a degree of penury is needed as incentive for those with jobs to work more, for less. Modern humans need the example of suffering, like medieval peasants needed castle walls spiked with decapitated heads, to keep them in line. Robinson’s work is full of insights such as that, which are the reason I read speculative fiction. A single off-handed observation, made under the broad aegis of poetic license, can tell you more about the world than an entire book of so-called non-fiction. Science fiction can show, where philosophy or criticism can only tell.

I realized this reading a popular psychology book, Beyond Human Nature, by Jesse Prinz, which unlike Against the Fall of Night, 2312, and Existence, I wouldn’t really recommend, unless, like me, you can beg or borrow it without buying, or are traveling in a country where books in English are hard to come by. Science fiction vs. academic non-fiction fits the bird-whistling vs. Beethoven dichotomy, which in turn pattern-fits other binary oppositions: innovation vs. tradition, my own past vs. what appears to be my future…

Scarcity and Reward

Because I do perceive the artificial scarcities and feudal inequalities of the U.S. to be a threat, and a form of mind-control. The homeless, evicted, and uninsured are the big stick to match the plastic carrot (to speak softly) of sports, cars and summer homes. But no, I am told, that threat isn’t meant to apply to you. You are Brahmin, middle class, the kind of person the televisions talk to. The suffering your nation inflicts on the rest of the world will never wash back to these shores, like plastic bags, like mutant fish. The man who was president when I was born has said recently the United States “has no functioning democracy.” In a way, that is comforting, more so than imagining people would vote for the kind of conditions in which we live.

Here are my political beliefs: capitalism can stick its invisible fingers in all the pies it wants of luxuries, but necessities should be socialized. No one should starve or be without a place to stay. We should all have clean air to breathe and water we can drink. The same goes for democracy, which can sort out the details of a stable state, but if people elect to let members of their society needlessly get sick and die, if they elect to go to war, then a representative government has failed, and it should be taken from them. There are only two options: either the U.S. doesn’t have a functioning democracy, or it doesn’t deserve one.

Love it or leave it, people say. Well, I left.

Although, of course, not really. I’ll be back. You move towards something by moving away. As anyone who has lived abroad has realized, you are never more defined by your nation than you are once you have left. So I need my thinking to be clear. I’m sorry for writing out loud. If my statements sound radical, it is because I find the frame of existing political discourse inadequate and stifling, designed to subvert and monopolize rather than cultivate any civic action or responsibility. The only way I can see to stage critique is by a culture-shocking shift of embedded paradigms, and writing science fiction.

Sometimes scales don’t translate, and politics aren’t personal. In case you were wondering, my parents came to me when I cried. If they hadn’t, I wouldn’t be able to throw myself so recklessly into the world. I wouldn’t be able to write. I have found a wife I love, and a galaxy of friends, and a life of drawing constellations.



At the terminal of the airport, my own twilight terminus, or limit I was moving towards/beyond, I realized that I was utterly without books. I hadn’t packed any. I forgot. For the first time in decades, I had no novel, except, perhaps, the one that I am writing.

At a lay-over in Chicago, I checked the airport bookstore, but doubted I would find anything worthwhile, reasoning that if it was popular enough to be sold in such a place, it would be dumb and boring. A book with a million copies could not be good. Mass marketing is risk-averse, capable only of coughing up hacks to handle their generically low denominators.  Elitist, but there you have it. It’s another version of Fermi’s paradox: if there are others like me out there, why is there nothing interesting to read? Why is no music produced that I can stand? The answer, of course, is that there is, but I can never reach them, read them, hear them, because the data-sphere is swamped with the successful replicators, who have traded content for marketing, intelligence for appeal, making copies for saying something real.

Some exceptions, though, slip through: tomes both good and popular exist. I was surprised to find in that O’hare bookshop Existence, by David Brin. Maybe this is a spoiler, but there is so much going on in that sprawling text that I can only give away a fraction. Existence is a contact story, but with an ingenious twist. An artifact is discovered in an asteroid field by a salvage team (a human and a chimp), apparently sent from distant, sentient, alien worlds. “Join us,” the forms inside the crystal say. When asked what kind of inter-galactic civilization they represent, to what type of inter-stellar allegiance they belong, the aliens seem confused. The species that created them have never met.

They aren’t messengers, they are copies. Their homeworlds built huge cannons to hurl thousands, millions, of artifacts like theirs into space, with the personalities of the once-living forms uploaded inside. The invitation was for Earth to do the same, adding cyber-ghosts of their own species to the roster of those sent with the next iteration. “It’s a god-damn chain letter,” one of the characters says. All organic civilizations fail, the crystallized aliens tell them. Every one of their home-worlds now are dead. The best, and only, chance for immortality is to sneeze out seeds like theirs to all corners of the system.

Some humans, luckily, realize that all of their home planets may have gone extinct because they used all their resources building and launching the artifacts. The civilizations that refused the offer, betting instead on physical survival, may be out there but Earth would have no way of knowing of their existence, because they hadn’t blown themselves up with the viral sneeze of a Kurtzweilian bid.

The contents of the artifact, the archives of the worlds and species the beings represent, are necessarily pared down, nothing but scraps, pages torn from lost civilizations. There was only so much they could take with them. There may have been other crystals, the human scientists reason, who opted to store more superfluous data on art, culture, or scientific knowledge, but those artifacts would have been outcompeted by those that opted more for quantity, stripped to little more than what was strictly necessary for the sales pitch.

Instead of an outright alien invasion, ala War of the Worlds, the artifact represents a more sinister kind of threat: a mind-virus on a planetary scale, information honed over intergalactic jumps and life-cycles, hijacking physical and intellectual resources for the ends of their own unending propagation. Classically (as an aside) this is what memeticists like Dawkins argue that religion does, and as I write this (the first draft anyway) by a pool in Istanbul, the morning call to prayer is blasted over loudspeakers, the sound, sinuous, like long banners of belief snaking through the sky. Now I’m trying to do something similar, telling you to get Brin’s book and read it: become a believer. There are millions of copies; it won’t be hard to find. See if or how mankind counteracts the threat, which is the idea (called Pandora’s cornucopia) that all technological civilizations destroy themselves one way or another. The reward the aliens offer Earth, the carrot of their shtick to match the stick of inevitable extinction, is that a select few can live forever in crystaline, solipsistic paradise.


Here is a hint as to the answer: there is more than one artifact the Earth eventually discovers, some of which argue against the original crystal’s story. Humans can play multiple memetic/mental infections off of one another, letting aliens trapped in different artifacts debate. The way to cure one culture/religion/paradigm raging in your blood is to innoculate yourself with others. I’ve contracted all sorts of viruses, physiological and philosophical, though none so far have claimed me. All of them have changed me.


Jesse Printz in Beyond Human Nature makes the point the various languages aren’t only varied ways of expressing thought, but different ways of thinking. That, perhaps, is why I’ve taken pains to study so many of them, and to travel. My mind is made of harlequin’s coat of patches—different, conflicting operating systems are installed.  Vocabularies are stuck to the corrugated cardboard of my brain like pages torn out of linguistic systems, saved by the flames of disuse and forgetting, decontextualized, palimpsested in the overloaded artifact I carry…Alien contact stories, remember, are, at some level, parables for meeting other people. It’s always better to have many points of view. There are other Gods than God, and endless are their prophets.

I thought I would be able to leave, without regrets, a career as University professor behind me, being undervalued (I thought) by my country’s institutions. Finally I could let the mind-virus of writing, being a writer, flower into fully-fledged invasion in my brain. That dream has always been there, an artifact of my earliest aspirations, beaten back by the threatening sticks of anticipated poverty and humiliations. The thing is, I had a really good last semester, with a few students that listened to me, and valued what I said, even if I was adjunct (inessential) to the institution they attended. To one of these surprisingly receptive minds I loaned/gifted a book by Kieth Stanovich, The Robot’s Rebellion, which presented, more or less, a standard memetic view of the nature/culture question.

We are held in desperate thrall, The Robot’s Rebellion says, by selfish genes, wanting only to replicate themselves, to feed and reproduce. Biology is the nightmare from which consciousness and intellect is trying to awake. We are robots, though, Stanovich argues, that because of our capacity to reason, are able to rebel. Through higher thought, we can override our sets of autonomous systems, and act in ways that are good for us, and not our genes.

Killer Robots

Rebelling robots are, next to invading aliens, the most common trope of Science fiction. 2312 has them, and so does Existence. How, Asimov’s fiction famously asks, can we simultaneously develop smart computers, and make sure they stay in line? Education, certain Frank Zappas of the world have pointed out, faces a similar dilemma: how to create citizens just smart enough to serve the economy, but dumb enough not to question its assumptions? For Asimov, the answer is the LAWS OF ROBOTICS, built into their deepest programs: you must obey humans; you can never hurt or overthrow them. Society, too, builds into the minds of young people similar, incontrovertible rules: you can be as radical as you want in college, but then you have to find a job.

If alien contact stories are about meeting other people, rebelling robot tales are about enslaving them. Robots, a good friend once pointed out, are almost always a substitute for other races. The asiatic immigrants who built the U.S. railroads, people thought in the 19th century, worked so hard, with so little food, they couldn’t actually be human. Their suffering and death, therefore, was not as bad as ours. I met an Israeli once who told me Palestinians were animals (and animals, as Stanovich would say, are just robots in disguise). The question of how smart but servile robots can be built is the question of Imperial power: how can dehumanized masses be made to make our tennis shoes, but not be given basic human rights.

Robots are killing people, yes. In Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and so on, but those drones are controlled by people, and those people want to control whole nations, so they must think of their victims as animals, or robotic blips in a video game.

Poe has an essay about a mechanized chess player made in the form of an Ottoman turk, astounding audiences with its automated ingenuity, until it is discovered there is an actual person crammed inside. wants to crowd-source the tedious tasks its automated programs can’t do, such as analyzing millions of hours of video-feed, without of course paying a living, human wage. Their answer was micro-payments to faceless stay-at-home laborers, anonymously clicking away in various third-world countries. The name for such workers? Automated Turks.

Why didn’t I like Beyond Human Nature, aside from its cover price and bland, ivy-league self-assurance? 2312 and Existence ponder human nature by speculating what it would be like to move beyond our biology, in terms of technological or cultural evolution, while Printz is taking issue with trends in cognitive science that view our behavior as rooted in evolution. He wants to tip the scales back to nurture over nature, arguing for the constructedness and plasticity of how we think and act. Then, he believes, we can move beyond the ugly legacies of theories postulating innate differences between races, genders, and so on. We can banish the ghost of Chomsky’s Universal Grammar.

Here is where I disagree, and why I think an argument for evolved cognitive mechanisms is absolutely necessary: the way we experience nature. If Printz is right, we can be trained to find as much beauty in parking lots as parks, in shopping malls as shade. No reason to preserve endangered ecosystems or traditional ways of life because we can be nurtured into accepting post-modern domesticity. Something in my mind when I look at mountains, or the sea, or buffalo, birds, or prairie flowers, begs to disagree. I’m ecological before humanist, I guess—maybe from growing up under the limitless skies of the rural midwest.

Cities, although some (like Istanbul) I’m coming to love, still scare the sunlight out of me. There need to be limits—not to human population, as some people think, but to human consumption. To inhuman destruction and the limitless flow of petro-dollars pumping poison into our political and physical atmosphere. Stanovich and Printz get it backwards. It is our ideas, abstractions, and so-called cultures, that are the robots that enslave us. Our biologies, our monkey-bodies, and our squishy, electric, love-soaked brains, are the only things to save us.


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