By Chris 73 / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1758516
You probably remember me objecting to ‘Star Wars’ on the grounds that its plot didn’t depend on the setting. That is, it asserts universals which in the setting are seen as applying as much as they would in any other. This means of course that in fact the plot of ‘Star Wars’ does depend on the setting, so I later added “non-trivially”. Hence my definition of science fiction as fiction whose plots depend non-trivially upon the setting. I hope I’ve done this with ‘Replicas’, but I also hope that it’s a story which feels like everyday life to the reader. That is, I want it to be emotionally realistic as well as scientifically plausible.
There are ideas in the novel which work because of technological and cultural change, and this story couldn’t be told in 2017 or before, although advances in gene editing mean that it might not be too long before certain elements of it become facts of life. We are, however, probably a lot further from having human-like robots than we are from the transgenic scenario, although breakthroughs and rapid progress are impossible to anticipate in detail so maybe we aren’t. However, just as nowadays, though not necessarily in the near future, most people in the developed world might have taken antibiotics for an infection which could in the past have disabled or killed them and taken that for granted and forgotten about it for the rest of their lives, the genetic modification which has occurred early on in Melissa’s life she also takes for granted.
It’s a narrow path to tread between the boring and the excessively bizarre. Nonetheless to believe in a story I have to make it convincing in both scientific and emotional terms. Both forms of realism have to be in play and since you have to write about what you know, at least some of it, even in the 24th century, needs to be drawn from personal experience. This is why, for instance, Melissa is a linguist and botanist, and has two children. It also brings up the problem of using personal experiences with others as a resource, which risks crossing certain personal lines. To take a fictitious example, an argument one may have had with one’s partner about sex could theoretically end up being included in a story. I have of course tried to be discreet but that’s something of a luxury if I want to write something credible. Two of the dialogues are from other sources. One is a role play with my son and another is with the computer “therapist” ELIZA, a program witten in the 1960s. I’ll leave it up to you to find them.
<By Retro-Computing Society of Rhode Island – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5168552>
ELIZA is relevant in more than one way. The initial intention of the programmer was to demonstrate the superficiality of human-computer interaction, but what was in fact demonstrated was that users tend to attribute human intentions and motives to computer programs. Whereas these are clearly not going to be there in the circuits of the DEC System 10 running it, the same could be true of humans themselves. The externalist philosophical position holds that the basis for knowledge is outside the person whereas the internalist view is that it is in some sense within them. I have generalised this to the idea of mental states and dispositions of certain kinds being external to the mind. Just as a brain-dead person still has a next of kin because she is their mother, so are there certain states of mind, as it were, which can be read into a supposed person without those states being literally part of their conscious mind. This is in fact partly what Barak/24601 is having to wrestle with, and has come down on the side of being extremely externalist in that it even denies it’s conscious at all. This reflects the Cotard delusion, a state in which a depressed person believes themselves to be decomposing, dead or non-existent, which oddly can swing round into the belief that they’re immortal. Barak/24601 believes itself not to exist, or rather that it’s a mere mindless machine.
One Change Is Not Enough
(This is from here and will of course be removed on request)
J G Ballard once observed that science fiction stories set in the future are usually really about the present. They can sometimes serve as allegories or satire about something which is bugging the author at the time of writing. Another tendency has been for a single change to be made without also assuming a vast number of other changes and their interplay. The aforementioned author claims that his ‘Vermilion Sands’ stories were really supposed to be about the future. To me, they actually strike me as exercises in creating a surreal atmosphere and are none the worse for it, but that’s not what he claims. By contrast, stories written a few decades ago are often plagued by anachronism which can pull the reader out of suspension of disbelief. Notoriously, Heinlein’s ‘Have Space Suit – Will Travel’ includes the line “Dad says that anyone who can’t use a slide rule is a cultural illiterate and should not be allowed to vote. Mine is a beauty! A K&E 20″ Log-log Duplex Decitrig. Dad surprised me with it after I mastered a ten-inch polyphase.”. Somehow hyperspace travel co-exists with them.
Datedness is hard to avoid, and the risk may be multiplied by introducing and extrapolating from a number of changes. There’s also a feeling of inelegance to it, which I’ve chosen to tolerate for the sake of constructing a convincing world. In the real world, many changes occur and interact. Much of the changes in the past three decades can be attributed to Tim Berners-Lee’s invention of the World Wide Web but there has also been a trend of economic liberalism, growth of religious fundamentalism and advances in biotechnology, and although all of these do influence each other, they are relatively independent developments.
Arthur C Clarke observed in ‘Rocket To The Renaissance’ that just as European exploration of the planet enormously stimulated the West culturally and scientifically, so could human exploration and settlement of space be expected to surpass that by far. I would contend that some of that fallout is already evident, for instance in the form of research into the Martian atmosphere revealing the prospect of nuclear winter here and also via the Spaceship Earth concept and the idea of this planet being a tiny oasis of hospitability. I feel confident that the lack of human space exploration beyond low Earth orbit since 1972 has done a lot of damage to our species and blighted our prospects, which is an unpopular view. Consequently, ‘Replicas’ depicts an earthly society constantly replenished and stimulated by space exploration, something which can be seen in the likes of Melissa’s career and in the materials science developments resulting from the study of silicon-based life. I passionately believe that humanity needs a physical growing point to thrive, and only since 1972 has this been effectively absent in the whole history of hominin genera. Hence I have chosen to illustrate how this might work both in Melissa’s own life and the life of humanity on this planet.
Up Wing Politics
It’s no secret that on the whole my politics are quite left wing, though also anarchistic and libertarian, whereas the world of the Galactic Association’s 24th century is largely capitalistic with a couple of exceptions. However, this is not difficult for me. Three hundred and sixty years ago, the issues in English politics differed hugely from today’s. It was around the time of the Restoration when parliamentary democracy as we know it today was practically non-existent and the kind of concerns expressed by the political class covered such matters as the tolerance of Roman Catholicism, the Stuart succession and Parliamentarianism versus the monarchy. It might be expected that any current debate in politics would be as outmoded as one between Cavaliers and Roundheads. I don’t think this is entirely true although I have attempted to imagine what other issues might have arisen in the meantime, such as the fight for robot rights, the political unification of Earth and of course LGBT concerns. It would be difficult also to let go of one’s own current political views because of course one wants one’s hopes for the future to come about.
Heinlein has often been seen as fascistic, partly because of the ideas expressed in ‘Starship Troopers’ that only people who have served in the military should be given the vote since they have demonstrated the willingness to defend it with their lives. Whereas I don’t agree with it, it is a viable position and a fairly respectable argument, but simply because he happens to have depicted a setting where that is the political order doesn’t imply the views are his. For all I know they are, but the book is a thought experiment which could’ve been written by a pacifist anarchist.
It’s also important to be open to other viewpoints and respect them rather than adhering to the dogma that only one’s own views are correct and everyone else is simply wrong because they haven’t thought them through. Also, there’s a strong tendency, which in fact I feel even in myself, to draw a line around one’s opinions and relegate others to an outer darkness where they aren’t worth considering. I have tried not to do this here.
Like most English-speaking people alive today, I grew up and continue to live in a society where the economic system is capitalist and the political system is a liberal democracy, or at least this is how it describes itself. Whereas this can be argued with, the economic and political system prevailing over most of human space in the late 24th century is also of this nature. This therefore also counts as me writing about what I know. I have taken at least one foray in the book into a different political system and not portrayed it sympathetically, largely because my experience with people who have lived under what seems to me to be a similar system has been that it’s screwed them up. You could certainly do worse than live under such a system and it’s by no means a dystopia. Trying to imagine a utopia would in any case probably be boring and unconvincing. Also, both utopias and dystopias would probably come across as unconvincing portrayals of a more nuanced future.
There’s also the question of what has been called “Up Wing” rather than left or right wing, and if I’m completely honest with myself I have to admit that the “Up Wing” view is pretty close to my own. I really want this species to survive, and if not by any means necessary, by a very wide potential variety of means, and as such I’m happy to ally myself with whatever gives us a future among the stars. Such a future, since it would probably be longer by far than one on this planet alone, and I hope consisting of many more lives lived through many times the recorded history of this species, and given time a better political order may emerge and prevail. Vision is, however, needed for this.
Up wing politics is also referred to as democratic transhumanism and technoprogressivism. Transhumanism and singularitarianism are often seen as problematic by the Left and the Greens because they focus on technical solutions to political problems. They also tend to be dominated by free-market ideas. To me, this strongly suggests a future dystopia where the poor are disposable and the rich are immortal, more intelligent and healthier. With truly cognitively enhancing drugs, technological extensions of healthy lifespan and modification of the genome to confer much greater longevity, but without an NHS-style system, comprehensive education and the like, I can only really see the species developing into two castes or even subspecies, the poor and the rich. I would of course like to be wrong, and maybe it’s my hyperbole, and clearly we no longer have to pay three thousand quid for a PC like in 1981, so maybe I am. Nonetheless, there are some issues which transcend the left/right divide, and for me one of these is the long term survival of the human race. Clearly I would like a fair world where everyone gets fed and sheltered adequately, but in the absence of that, and of course I shouldn’t be pessimistic because that could decrease the chances of a better world coming about, I would like there still to be people in 350 years time, on the whole. Up Wing politics to me means the kind of politics which promotes the human settlement of space, by whatever means. At the same time, to me it seems feasible that a combination of technological and social progress would occur.
Many Western countries have questionable histories, and there’s a sense in which people living today, though they may benefit or suffer from the history of their native countries, cultures or ethnicities, shouldn’t be held responsible for the actions of others in the historical past. That’s easy for a relatively privileged Westerner to say of course. Nonetheless, the circumstances in which someone born in 2326 are givens in a similar way to my own givens. My first language is English, for example, which is advantageous in the world today but also has the legacy of being spread by colonialism. Likewise, someone born in 2326 might have similar inherited advantages but they shouldn’t be held responsible for them or, really, even be apologetic about them. The standard of living of the whole Earth is in any case assumed to be very high.
An Invitation To Visit Your Great-
In conclusion then, I have tried to write a story which inspires, feels realistic both emotionally and scientifically, addresses LGBT issues, is optimistic and addresses various philosophical points. I hope I’ve done so smoothly and unobtrusively, and also entertainingly. I also hope this novel is the first of many.