What Could Be Worse Than The Undead?

The TL/DR Synopsis Synopsis: A new short story anthology called Raus! Untoten! will feature stories combining zombies and Nazis, including my story Les Poupeés Gris.
Includes links to: (a) the publisher, Fringeworks, (b) the Raus! Untoten! Facebook page, (c) the Scardiff horror festival, (d) author interviews.
Embedded video: (a) trailer for movie Shock Waves, (b) trailer for movie Dead Snow, (c) entire movie Night of the Living Dead (public domain).

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The New Fallen World Book by Nas Hedron

The New Fallen World Book by Nas Hedron

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What Could Be Worse Than The Undead? The Nazi Undead, Of Course.

In March of this year I saw a call for submissions for a new short story anthology from Fringeworks, a UK small press. The anthology was to be a genre mash-up, cross-pollinating zombies and Nazis, called Raus! Untoten! (German for Out! Undead!).

That particular crossover isn’t new of course. From older movies like 1977’s Shock Waves to newer ones like 2009’s Dead Snow to games like Call of Duty: World at War – Zombies, zombies and Nazis have crossed paths before, with decidedly mixed results (you’ll find trailers for both movies at the bottom of the page)

Shock Waves (left), Call of Duty World at War Zombies (center), and Dead Snow (right).

Shock Waves (left), Call of Duty World at War Zombies (center), and Dead Snow (right).

It seemed to me that, if we were lucky, the Raus! Untoten! project might result in a fun pulp-fictional romp with interesting ideas under the surface and, if we weren’t lucky, a disaster that I’d wish I’d never heard of, much less participated in. But clues from the publisher gave me hope that it would be the former rather than the latter. The announcement put it this way:

Raus! Untoten! is specifically geared to attracting Science Fiction (SF) stories between 2,500 and 6,000 words in length.

Stories can be Steampunk, Diesel Punk or straight alternative-history science fiction. They should involve Nazis and Undead, this is not specifically limited to Nazis or the classic undead ‘race’ of Zombies.

We are looking for new and original twists on this theme with surprising elements. Be fun but most of all be unique. We expect this anthology will appeal to writers of Science Fiction, Steampunk, Dieselpunk, alternative history and horror.

The idea stuck in my head. I thought about it while doing things around the house. I dreamed about it, and in my dreams the kernel of a story formed, and I decided to try my hand at it. On April 23 I officially tossed my hat into the ring, signing up via the Raus! Untoten! Facebook page.

The Raus! Untoten! call for submissions on the Fringeworks site.

The Raus! Untoten! call for submissions on the Fringeworks site.

I wrote a story called Les Poupeés Gris, introducing zombies as a complicating factor in the invasion at Normandy that leads to an alternate history of World War II and everything that came afterward.

I finished writing the story on June 6, 2013, the 69th anniversary of the landings at Normandy. The story itself ends on June 6, 2014, the 70th anniversary of the invasion, but in the alternate history of course.

Normandy meets NOTLD

The Walking Deadly meet the Walking Dead: Canadian D-Day troops encounter zombies in Normandy. (Both images in the public domain. Image on the left by Ken Bell. Image on the right by George A. Romero).

Les Poupeés Gris was accepted and will appear in the second volume of Raus! Untoten!, which will be released January 31, 2014.

The first volume, though, is almost upon us, with a Hallowe’en 2013 release date (there’s a pre-release party on October 27, but it would be quite a trip given that it’s being held at Scardiff, the first Horror Expo in Cardiff, UK and I am enjoying a southern hemisphere spring in Brazil–I probably won’t make it).

Anthology editor Matthew Sylvester is conducting interviews with the authors in advance of publication. To judge by the interviews, I think my assessment of the project as promising rather than headed for disaster is being borne out.

For New York Times bestselling author Graham McNeill, inspiration began long ago within his family history. He tells Sylvester:

“My folks went to Auschwitz, and some of the things they told me about that place lodged like splinters, and immediately suggested story hooks. But I’d not found an outlet for them until now, and the notion of combining a ghost story set in a concentration camp was one that strongly appealed to me.”

On the other hand, for his story author James Downs actually re-purposed research he was doing for an entirely different project about German film studios during the Third Reich. His tale features an undead actor during the making of a propaganda film. In his interview he says:

“The undead in my story is perhaps more to be pitied than feared; he may be a horrible creation, but in the context of concentration camps, mass killings on the eastern front, and the living nightmare of a totalitarian regime, he is only one horror out of many. Given the reality of what went on at this time, there’s no need to overdo graphic descriptions – I wanted to write something more subdued and personal.”

Sylvester’s editorial notes on my story were also encouraging. They were mercifully few, but more to the point they were perceptive and well judged–it was a pleasure rather than a chore to work with them.  So it seems that the project is in good hands.

My own interview hasn’t appeared yet. When it does I’ll reproduce it here, but for the moment here’s my answer to the first question Sylvester asked, namely what attracted me to the project:

There were a few things—I’ll briefly mention three.

First, the assignment had a kind of pulp appeal. I’m a fan of pulp magazines, including horror titles like Weird Tales, as well as stuff that isn’t really pulp but that has a similar lineage and ambiance, like EC horror comics. So from that point of view the story elements had a natural appeal for me.

Second, the combination of zombies and Nazis stuck in my head. That happens sometimes with some element of a story—a plot point, or a bit of dialogue, or whatever. My brain will start working on that element without me consciously doing anything, which happened here. I dreamed about it. Eventually the core of the story emerged naturally. Once that happened I was hooked.

Third, even though I enjoy horror fiction and also have a fascination with World War II, I’ve never written about zombies or Nazis—they were both virgin territory. That made writing Les Poupeés Gris an adventure and, at the same time, it was a palate cleanser between some other projects I was working on.

So go to the Raus! Untoten! Facebook page and “like” it immediately, then buy the books when they come out.

Do it or I’ll eat your brains.

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Trailer for Show Waves:

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Trailer for Dead Snow (with intro and English subtitles):

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Night of the Living Dead (full public domain movie):

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The Uncanny Valley and the ‘Flaw’ in the Turing Test

The TL/DR Synopsis Synopsis: The Turing Test was developed by computer pioneer Alan Turing, ostensibly to determine whether something artificial, like a computer, is actually engaged in thought. This post looks at an alleged flaw in the test to enquire about what the test really is and does.
Includes links to: (a) the Wired article alleging the flaw, (b) a PDF of Turing’s seminal paper “Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” (c) the site Homo Artificialis, and (d) Wikipedia entries for “uncanny valley” and Masahiro Mori, who coined the term, and to Mori’s paper in which he introduces the idea.
Embeded video: about the uncanny valley effect.

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The New Fallen World Book by Nas Hedron

The New Fallen World Book by Nas Hedron

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The Flaw in the Turing Test?

Late last year, as the International Alan Turing Year drew to a close, Terry Walby, the UK managing director at IPsoft, had a guest post on the Wired Science blog entitled Why the Turing Test Is a Flawed Benchmark.

The main thrust of Walby’s argument seems to be that Turing was misguided in recommending that we measure the ability of a machine to think by using human intelligence as a standard:

But Turing was wrong. A machine should not demonstrate intelligence by emulating a human. In fact, in some regards today’s expert systems are displaying intelligence far beyond the capability of a human. Should we mask such intellectual prowess in order for the machine to appear human, or allow it to run free to reach its full potential?

So is the Turing Test flawed and–as Walby later suggests–in need of replacing with a more satisfactory process?

cyborg on transparent + white

How the Turing Test Works

First, for those who are new to it, a quick review of how the Turing Test works.

The test, or the Imitation Game as Turing himself called it in his seminal paper “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” [pdf], requires three participants:

  1. a human judge
  2. a hidden human who communicates with the judge only in writing (basically by text message)
  3. a hidden artificial intelligence that similarly communicates with the judge only in writing

The judge knows that either participant 2 or participant 3 is a computer while the other is human, and 2 and 3 both have to try to convince the judge that they’re the human being. If the computer succeeds–if it can act human enough to fool a human judge–it has passed the Turing Test and has earned the right to be treated as intelligent without any consideration of the means by which it managed that persuasion.

Turing introduces the idea of the Imitation Game to the reader gradually by first having the hidden participants be a man and a woman, with the judge having to figure out which is which.  This is a parlor game version of the Imitation Game.

He then replaces the woman with a machine to turn the parlor game into a scientific enquiry and get at the question of machine intelligence. Remember that the paper was published in 1950 when Turing was in the process of inventing the discipline of artificial intelligence, so at the time this process would have eased readers into unfamiliar territory.

A copy of the issue of Mind in which Turing´s paper appeared

A copy of the issue of Mind in which Turing´s paper appeared (click to go to PDF)

Is the Flaw in the Turing Test Real?

So is Walby right?  This would be a boring post if I simply agreed with him, and overall I won’t (though his post is interesting and my critique is friendly and respectful).

But I want to start by agreeing on this point: machine intelligence should not be judged solely in comparison to human intelligence.

(One of my other blogs, Homo Artificialis, looks at disciplines that could eventually contribute to the creation of synthetic human bodies, artificial intelligence, or both–if you’ve seen it you know I’m at least notionally sympathetic to the idea of free range artificial intelligence developing on its own terms into its own most realized form.)

Homo Artificialis Site

Homo Artificialis Site

The trouble with Walby’s argument is that I don’t think Turing ever said that artificial intelligence should be judged by human standards–he simply never made the claim that Walby is disputing.

In his paper  “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” [pdf], in which he codifies the famous test, Turing directly addressed the possibility that machines might ultimately be possessed of some form of intelligence unique to them and distinguishable from that of human beings:

May not machines carry out something which ought to be described as thinking but which is very different from what a man does?

He then simply puts this issue to one side, not because he’s dismissing it–he explicitly doesn’t dismiss it–but because it’s not the topic he’s addressing:

This objection is a very strong one, but at least we can say that if, nevertheless, a machine can be constructed to play the imitation game satisfactorily, we need not be troubled by this objection.

In other words, Turing agrees that machine intelligence may comprise different types, including some that do resemble human intelligence and some that don’t. The fact that there may be types that don’t simply doesn’t affect the subject of his enquiry: the types that do.

Indeed, while Turing famously starts the paper by asking “can machines think?”, later he is at pains to carefully circumscribe the question he’s addressing and to distinguish it from that larger, initial question:

We now ask the question, “What will happen when a machine takes the part of A [participant 3, above] in this game?”

Will the interrogator decide wrongly as often when the game is played like this as he does when the game is played between a man and a woman?

These questions replace our original, “Can machines think?” [emphasis added]

What the Turing Test Does

The Turing Test is not an exhaustive test for any and all kinds of artificial intelligence and I think it’s apparent that it wasn’t constructed to be.

What it is, is a test for a particular kind of evidence of artificial intelligence and it was carefully created to find the kind of evidence that is most persuasive to even the most skeptical of doubters.

We human beings ascribe intelligence to each other all the time even though we have no direct experience of another person’s intellect in action (a fact that Turing explicitly acknowledges in his discussion of the Argument from Consciousness).

We witness other people’s actions and hear or read their words, but that’s not conclusive of their engaging in thought. Maybe they’re actually hallucinations without intellects of their own, conjured up by our own minds. Or perhaps they’re illusions without substance projected by manipulative alien creatures in a Star Trek episode.

We have no direct evidence that other people think, but there is nonetheless a logic to our assumption that they do.  If you compare the actions and words of other people with your own, and find a high degree of similarity, it’s logical to conclude that since you have intelligence and they behave like you do, then they must have intelligence as well.

(We don’t actually think this process through, it’s an assumption we make, but making the assumption that other things that behave like you are like you is useful from the point of view of survival. Other animals do this as well, like a cat treating a wiggling piece of string as though it were living prey or hissing defensively at a self-propelled toy.)

This is a process in which we all engage and the strength of the Turing Test is that it takes this pre-existing reaction that we universally share and applies it to the question of machine intelligence.  It says: if and when a machine can do the things that we ourselves do, then at that point we will make the same assumption about the machine that we do about other people, that is, that it is thinking.

Seeing our own reflection in others

Seeing our own reflection in others

The Turing Test Doesn’t Need Turing to Function

When the Turing Test is viewed in this light, it can be seen not as Turing’s invention, but as his recognition of a naturally-occuring process that would eventually be applied to artificial constructs (once they were sophisticated enough to engage it) just as it’s always been applied to natural creatures.

Arguing with it makes little sense because it’s simply what we have always done and will continue to do: react to other things based upon their resemblance to us.

And by now our artificial constructs have finally become sophisticated enough to engage this instinct. When we recognize the spooky near-humanity of some piece of  CGI that doesn’t quite fool us into thinking it’s a person, we’re giving it a failing grade in a kind of Turing Test that we automatically apply to the everything around us.

The tension and unease that arise when something almost passes the test, but doesn’t quite, was described in 1970 by Japanese robotics professor Masahiro Mori as the “uncanny valley,” [Wikipedia, Mori’s paper] and it’s well illustrated by the video below.

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Walby’s Argument for a New Turing Test

Terry Walby concludes that a new Turing Test is needed.  Given the arguments above, should we reject this conclusion?  I don’t think so.

If, as I’ve argued, Walby mistakes the Turing Test for something it isn’t, that doesn’t change the fact that the thing he’s calling for would be a damned useful thing to have.

Turing purposely sidestepped an exhaustive definition of “thinking” in order to get to a practical test for a particular kind of thinking–the kind that humans do.

But thinking is not a unitary thing.  At a minimum, each of us experiences different kinds of thinking at different moments in our lives.  “Thought” is not a point on a graph, it’s a blob that stretches along the X and Y axes (and possibly the Z as well), encompassing a variety of intellectual functions.

Any tool that helps us to explore, describe, and understand the territory that “thinking” maps on that graph is beneficial and worth working toward.

Posted in Facts in Fiction/Alan Turing | Leave a comment

The Desire for Enigma: The Mysterious Theft of the Code Machine

The TL/DR Synopsis Synopsis: The story of a curious episode in which one of the famous Enigma encryption machines was stolen from a museum, eventually being recovered from a mysterious figure who called himself The Master.  The Master’s messages to the police were thought to contain coded clues. 
Includes links to: (a) numerous news reports about the theft, investigation, and recovery of the Enigma, and (b) links regarding the Dali painting that inspired the title for the post.

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The New Fallen World Book by Nas Hedron

The New Fallen World Book by Nas Hedron

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In World War II, the Nazis used an ecnryption device called Enigma, whose codes they thought were unbreakable. A British team at Bletchley Park, led by Alan Turing, broke Enigma, which gave the Allies undiluted access to German orders and intelligence. The breakthrough has been estimated to have shortened the war by as much as two years and Churchill  said that Turing made the single biggest contribution of any individual to the Allied victory.

I’ve been interested in Turing for more than a decade, which is one of the reasons that he turned up in a fictional guise in my novel Luck and Death at the Edge of the World (or an artificial intelligence emulating him did).

Mine isn’t the only fictional tale in which Turing has guest starred.  Among others he’s appeared in Rudy Rucker’s Turing & Burroughs: A Beatnik SF Novel, in Christos Papadimitriou’s Turing, A Novel About Computation, and in Greg Bear’s award-winning short story “Tangents” (collected in the book of the same name).

One of my current projects is a review of Turing’s fictional appearances entitled Conjuring Turing: the Fictional Afterlife of Alan Turing–Rucker, Papadimitriou, and Bear have all agreed to participate.  Authors I haven’t signed up yet include Neal Stephenson for his novel Cryptonomicon and Janna Levin for A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines.

All of which is a way of introducing an entertaining little anecdote.  This is one of the stranger tales I’ve come across involving the famous Enigma code machine that occupied so much of Turing’s time.

On April 1, 2000 someone pulled an April Fool’s heist, stealing one of only three Enigma code machines in the world from the Bletchley Park Museum. The Abwehr Enigma G312 machine was valued at £100,000.

An Enigma machine

An Enigma machine

Police believed that the machine had simply been carried out of the historic site, but don’t blame Bletchley Park. The theft resembled a magic trick–the Enigma machine was secured in a glass cabinet which was not broken in the theft. An alarm system was in use and volunteers were watching over the site’s displays. Whoever carried out the theft was either very lucky or, more likely, very professional. And they may have had a man inside because the theft happened just a week before a new infrared security system was to be installed.

If that sounds like a movie, just wait.

What had happened to the machine was a mystery for several months. Then, in September 2000, police began receiving letters from a man who referred to himself as “the Master,” who claimed to be acting on behalf of a third party who had innocently purchased the machine, not knowing that it was stolen.

At one point, the police entertained the charmingly recursive theory that the letters from the Master contained coded clues as to the Enigma’s location and called in expert code breakers to decipher messages about a stolen encryption machine.  (Disappointingly, I haven’t found any information on where this trail led–if anyone out there knows, email me, and I’ll update this post.)

The Master’s letters demanded £25,000 for the machine’s return, to be paid by October 6, 2000. Bletchley Park announced that it would pay the ransom and had the money ready, but even as the deadline passed the Master failed to make contact to collect it.

Two weeks later Jeremy Paxman, a television presenter at the BBC, opened a parcel at his office and found the Enigma machine inside. It was missing a few parts, but these were later delivered as well.

Paxman and the purloined Enigma

Paxman and the purloined Enigma

Ultimately a dealer in World War Two memorabilia named Dennis Yates was charged with “handling” the stolen merchandise after admitting that he sent the letters and delivered the machine to Paxman. Yates was scheduled to stand trial at Aylesbury Crown Court, but decided at the last moment to plead guilty and was sentenced to ten months in jail.

In court, Yates said he had become involved in a scheme which soon passed out of his control and that his life had been threatened by persons involved in the theft. He never named the actual theives and they were never caught.

Note: The title of this post is an allusion to a painting by Salvador Dali called The Enigma of Desire — My Mother, My Mother, My Mother (1929). Details of its creation and underlying psychology can be found here.

Posted in Conjuring Turing: The Fictional Afterlife of Alan Turing, Facts in Fiction/Alan Turing, Luck + Death at the Edge of the World | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Nipping Skynet in the Bud? Killer Robots and Real Life Warfare.

The TL/DR Synopsis Synopsis: A look at the SF trope of uploading human minds to synthetic bodies and one of its current real-life precursors, autonomous robotics. Human Rights Watch warns about the use of such systems in war.  

Includes links to: (a) PDF of the report Losing Humanity, the Case Against Killer Robots, and (b) a news item.  

Includes embedded video: background video from Human Rights Watch about the report.

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The New Fallen World Book by Nas Hedron

The New Fallen World Book by Nas Hedron

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In a previous post I reported that four British professional and scientific bodies had issued a joint report voicing their concerns about the potential pitfalls of augmented humanity (British Academies Issue Joint Report Decrying “Souped-Up” Humanity).

I wrote that post as a way of  exploring real-life, current-day counterparts to a science fiction trope that I use in my fiction: the uploading of the human mind into an artificial body.

In my novella Los Angeles Honey a character refers to this union of a natural mind with a synthetic body as homo artificialis and I have a topical blog, also called Homo Artificialis, devoted solely to the idea.

There are researchers today working on making that aspect of science fiction into fact. And, whether they succeed or not, there are various precursors to homo artificialis that exist or are being developed now, including:

  • artificial limbs and organs
  • synthetic (biological) organs
  • sensory augmentation
  • regenerative medicine
  • whole brain mapping and computer brain emulations
  • tissue engineering
  • brain-computer interfaces
  • increasingly sophisticated and autonomous robots, and
  • wearable robotic exoskeletons.
Natural heart, artificial heart in situ, artificial heart alone (CardioWest™ temporary total artificial heart).

Natural heart, artificial heart in situ, artificial heart alone (CardioWest™ temporary total artificial heart, image from here).

Following the joint report discussed in the last post, Human Rights Watch issued a 50-page report of its own on another homo artificialis precursor. The report urged national and international legislation pre-emptively banning “killer robots,” by which they mean weapons of war that are able to autonomously make life-and-death decisions with no input from a human being.

Now, when I say killer robots are a precursor to homo artificialis I don’t mean that they, in themselves, are an essential step in the development of a functional artificial human body, but highly sophisticated and adaptable autonomous systems are, and the fastest and surest way to get them to the advanced level needed for the uploading project is to allow them to be free range–let them develop without constraint.  If we’re not going to do that, if we’re going to limit how those systems are developed and in what applications their use is acceptable–which might well be wise–then those limits are germane to the evolution of homo artificialis.

Why are autonomous systems important? The natural human body includes systems that are either completely or normally outside of  conscious control–like heartbeat and respiration–and which are regulated by the autonomic nervous system. To have a viable instantiation of a human consciousness in a synthetic body, we’re going to need a comparable artificial system so that we don’t have to consciously control every bodily function. That kind of coordination is going to require sophisticated autonomous systems.

A section of lab-grown trachea, as used in the world's first synthetic organ transplant (details here)

A section of lab-grown trachea, as used in the world’s first synthetic organ transplant (details here).

As with the report on human augmentation, I’ve made the Killer Robots report available as a free, downloadable PDF in the Homo Artificialis Library (on my topical blog Homo Artificials), filed under Ethics and Homo Artificialis.

As Raw Story reports in its news item on the report, the weapons in question aren’t yet deployed, but they are in development:

Such weapons do not yet exist, and major powers, including the US, have not decided to deploy them. But precursors are already being developed. The US, China, Germany, Israel, South Korea, Russia, and Britain are engaged in researching and developing such weapons.

The HRW Report, wisely, not only proposes legislative solutions, which can sometimes reflect the realities of the political landscape more than the issue at hand, but also a grassroots approach rooted in professional ethics, urging roboticists themselves to generate a code of conduct, tasking them to:

Establish a professional code of conduct governing the research and development of autonomous robotic weapons, especially those capable of becoming fully autonomous, in order to ensure that legal and ethical concerns about their use in armed conflict are adequately considered at all stages of technological development.

Military applications of advanced technology are inevitable–indeed, much advanced technology begins life as a military project, for instance within the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). This has several consequences, among them:

  • as with any technology, there is the potential for error or abuse, but because of the military context this can result in serious injury or death,
  • there is likely to continue to be a trickle-down effect in which military applications migrate to civilian applications, like law enforcement and civil security, that also have the potential for error or abuse resulting in serious injury or death, and
  • the first two issues raise the possibility for an alarmist backlash that ends up limiting the positive, beneficial effects such technology can have (and, as we know from laws ostensibly intended to curb the pirating of intellectual property, we are sometimes likely to get all the bad consequences of such a measure without it actually accomplishing its stated goal).

On balance I’m an optimist regarding the life-enhancing potential of technology. Clearly, though, recognizing the immense benefits that have come from technology and that will continue to flow from it isn’t an excuse to be naive about possible negative consequences. If those consequences are going to be minimized (along with the potential anti-technological backlash) then we have to engage with these issues in a constructive way.

I haven’t yet read the report, so I haven’t decided if it’s sensible and constructive, alarmist and over-reaching, or a bit of both, but if we’re going to act constructively then killer robots isn’t a bad place to start.

You can watch the Human Rights Watch video on the topic, below.

Click image to go to the Homo Artificialis Library (HAL)

Click image to go to the Homo Artificialis Library (HAL)

Posted in Facts in Fiction/Synthetic Persons, Los Angeles Honey | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

British Academies Issue Joint Report Decrying “Souped-Up” Humanity

The TL/DR Synopsis Synopsis: A look at the real-life side of the SF trope of uploading, in this case serious, organized concern from British academicians about human enhancement.Includes links to (a) the report Human Enhancement and the Future of Work, and (b) news items.

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The New Fallen World Book by Nas Hedron

The New Fallen World Book by Nas Hedron

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In my novella Los Angeles Honey, one of the characters refers to people who’ve had their consciousness uploaded into an artificial body (but who are otherwise unchanged) as specimens of homo artificialis–artificial or synthetic humanity.

Previous Fallen World books have included the uploading element without really exploring it.  In Los Angeles Honey, I try to at least begin a process of opening up the trope to see what can be found inside.

Meanwhile, though, back in the real world, the precursors to homo artificialis are disturbing the peace.

For people with a special interest in this area, I write about the science and culture of synthetic humanity on my topical blog HomoArtificialis.com, but I  will cross-post here, or adapt a post for this blog, when it’s particularly important or interesting.

Like now.

If we ever develop fully artificial human bodies like the ones in fiction, it will be an incremental process that begins with repairing and augmenting our natural bodies.

Now, four British professional and scientific bodies–the Academy of Medical Sciences, the British Academy, the Royal Academy of Engineering, and the Royal Society–have gone public with their alarm over the potential pitfalls of augmented humanity in a joint report entitled Human Enhancement and the Future of Work. (BBC news item, Telegraph news item)

Illustration of augmentation attributed to the fictional company Serif Industries in the game Deus Ex: Human Revolution

Illustration of augmentation attributed to the fictional company Sarif Industries in the game Deus Ex: Human Revolution

Whether you see the report as a blow for authentic humanity, an alarmist obstruction to scientific progress, or something in between, it does underscore a genuine issue: technologies that enhance natural human beings and create artificial ones are advancing far more rapidly than the practical framework that most of us have for thinking about them.

I don’t mean technological thought, I mean social, political, and philosophical thought. We need–very quickly–to create a far more developed outlook on how these technical advances will affect other aspects of our lives.

Even if we look solely at the issue of longevity, just to take an example, the issues proliferate quickly:

  • What will happen to actuarial science and the insurance industry when human lifespan advances far more dramatically than it’s done in the past, and over a relatively short period of time?
  • What happens to the time scales of other social instituations, such a prison sentences, when human lifespan is significantly increased? Does five years in prison have the same meaning if I live twice as long? Does doubling it to ten years actually achieve anything or is that just excessive literalism?
  • What happens to human attitudes toward risk-taking–in recreation, in exploration, in the conduct of daily life–in a world of drastically extended lives? Will I be less willing to engage in risky activity if I know that what I stand to lose isn’t another twenty years of life but another hundred, or five hundred?
  • How will increased lifespan affect our patterns of work, training, and retirement over the span of our lives?  What kind of career path can a radically long-lived person expect?
  • How might it change the shape of the family when grandparents–and even great-grandparents and beyond–are youthful, healthy, and capable of working or caring for children? Will our ability to conceive and bear children also be extended, and if so, how will that affect the structure of the family?  What happens to the thinking of our children if, say, my ten-year-old has a mother under thirty and your ten-year-old has a mother over a century old?
  • And how will increased lifespan interact with changes arising from other quarters? The traditional family structure may change as lifespan and vitality are extended, but it’s already changing for other reasons, for instance as attitudes toward gay and lesbian marriage and parenthood evolve. Changes in longevity might well blend with changes that spring from other sources in ways that are difficult to predict until both changes are in effect and have a chance to affect one another.

If you want to see exactly what the academicians have to say, I’ve made the report available in the Homo Artificialis Library (HAL) under the subheading Homo Artificialis at Work.

Human Enhancement and the Future of Work - click image to go to the Homo Artificialis Library (HAL)

Click image to go to the Homo Artificialis Library (HAL)

Posted in Facts in Fiction/Synthetic Persons, Los Angeles Honey | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

International SF: The Double Identity of the Movie 2033 (Mexico, 2009)

The TL/DR Synopsis Synopsis: international speculative fiction–review of the Mexican movie 2033, both on its own terms and in its social context.Includes links to numerous points of reference in science fiction and in Latin American history.

Includes embedded video (a) trailer for 2033, (b) trailers for movies to which 2033 is compared, (c) news items and background material regarding social context.

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The New Fallen World Book by Nas Hedron

The New Fallen World Book by Nas Hedron

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I love speculative fiction and I’m a dedicated internationalist, which makes it no surprise that I’m one of the editors at a magazine called International Speculative Fiction.

I have a particular interest in the SF of Mexico. In part that’s because I love the country, but it’s also partly due to the fact that I created a science fictional future Mexico as one of the settings for my novel Luck + Death at the Edge of the World.  After inventing a future for the country, it’s become impossible for me not to check out other people’s fictional futures for the same country.

So even though I don’t speak Spanish, I occasionally check out Mexican SF, mostly through film (because novels don’t generally come with subtitles).

2033, The Movie

A while back I watched the film, 2033, directed by Francisco Laresgoiti from a screenplay by Jordi Mariscal.

I’ll let Cinema Liberated summarize the plot for you:

In the future Mexico City is renamed Villeparisio. The country has become a totalitarian regime. It pacifies it’s citizens with mind control drugs, mixed into the drink everyone consumes. In it lives Pablo (Claudio Lafarga), a well to do young man with a mother who is about to marry the government’s head of security. He has everything handed to him, yet he numbs himself with drugs and alcohol. Upon his grandfather’s death, he’s told his birth father is alive. His search for answers lead him to a religious movement working to overthrow the government.

I have affection for this film as a latter day example of the kind of well-meant dystopian science fiction I grew up on, like Logan’s Run and Silent Running (trailers below). In common with those films, 2033 is simultaneously well-intended and damned pretty–the effects and the cinematography are, if not spectacular, very well executed. But overall the film is far more interesting than it is good.

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Logan’s Run Trailer

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Silen Running Trailer

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The Not-So-Good Stuff About 2033 — Warning, Spoilers Ahead

I’ll get to the interesting part in a moment–first let’s talk about the not-so-good stuff.

The story is more a mixed bag of scifi tropes than it is a story. It includes:

  • an evil oppressive regime
  • plucky rebels
  • a drug that makes people complacent
  • Blade Runner-style futuristic billboards projected onto things
  • Children of Men type video news reports for exposition
  • a Star Wars-style attack on a virtually impregnable fortress of evil
  • Star Trek style doors that open in illogical ways in order to indicate that this is the future
  • a Star Wars-style shootout in a hallway where the bad soldiers inexplicably can’t kill the good guys despite the close range and all their training (although they do manage to wound the old guy in the leg, thus showing that their markmanship is better than that of Imperial Storm Troopers)
  • a Star-Wars-style escape down a convenient chute into what appears to be a convenient garbage container until it’s revealed to be an even-more-convenient garbage truck that leaves the evil facility without being inspected for stowaways
  • repression of religion
  • a tacked-on, unnecessary romance that begins suddenly, without explanation, and proceeds immediately to sexual consummation
  • a John Woo-style I-point-my-gun-at-you-while-you-point-yours-at-me confrontation that is badly executed (and whose outcome is supposed to surprise you but doesn’t)
  • a reverse Star Wars “I am your father” in which the son of one of the bad oppressors finds out his real dad was a leader of the rebels

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The acting is not very good and the lead, Claudio Lafarga, may be the worst of the lot, which doesn’t exactly help give the film a dramatic centre. Many of the characters are stereotypes, especially the cackling villains.

The plot has difficulties too numerous to list, such as the moment when an undercover member of the rebels first reveals his true sympathies to the main character–a wealthy but metaphysically dissatisfied young man–ultimately enlisting his help. He does this without any indication that the young man will do anything other than immediately turn him in.

The religious theme is pretty heavy handed. The Catholic church is portrayed as an unqualified good and as the only force that can successfully oppose the evil empire rather than as the more nuanced, ambivalent force that it tends to be in real life. Because of this, the repression of religion represented in the film ends up coming across as an attack by the filmmakers on secularism and the separation of church and state, which will make some members of the audience squirm.

The religious issue also involves some symbolism and word-play that hits you over the head pretty hard. The young man just wants to find his father, but then he finds that the man who converts him (a priest) is referred to as father, and this man is the road to his ultimate Father. Get it, get it, huh, did you get it?

The spiritual triumphalism culminates in a speech by the rebel leader/priest who bellows “their god PEC [the evil leader] will die and our God will live forever!” It’s meant to be uplifting, but it just comes across as bellicose.

The Interesting Stuff About 2033

So, after all that, what about this film is interesting? Actually, quite a bit.

Largely what I found engaging was watching it as a gringo living in Latin America (Brazil). My gringo reactions and my reactions as someone living in a region of the world that has very recently seen more than its share of repressive dictatorships, were different in some ways, and those differences held my attention more than the movie’s weak plot and bland acting did.

Thing One: The Reality of Totalitarianism

First of all there is the simple fact that the movie turns on the existence of a totalitarian state. It’s one thing to speculate about such things when you’re watching Equilibrium in Canada or reading 1984 in England. It’s another thing entirely to watch 2033 in a country where, within living memory, the government used torture and “disappearance” to quell its critics.

Despite all its creakiness, 2033 is able to elicit an emotional reaction here that it never could if I were back in Toronto because stuff analogous to the repression in the movie happened right here, in this country, in this very city, and in all likelihood in my very neighbourhood.

This fact doesn’t make 2033 any better a film objectively speaking, but it does bring up an interesting thought: Latin America has a history that should allow it to make a significant and unique contribution to the literature and cinema of dystopianism. 2033 is not the movie to do it, but it alerted me to the fact in a visceral way that hadn’t happened before.

Thing Two: Good Church, Bad Church

Second, the role of the church in 2033 may be heavy-handed and shallow, but it also has a believability here that wouldn’t be the case in places that more frequently produce science fiction films, like the U.S.A. and the U.K.

It’s true that the church has had a role on the side of various oppressive regimes in this part of the world, frequently supporting the status quo even when the status quo was brutal, but it has also mitigated their effects and sometimes offered one of the only viable centres for opposition to state violence. The liberation theology that originated in Latin America in the 50s and 60s has had its ups and downs, but it’s a real force that has had a real effect.

Death squads in El Savdador didn’t murder Archbishop Óscar Romero for the heck of it, for instance. He was supposed to be another status quo-supporting clergyman. His appointment bitterly disappointed the left, because of his reputation as deeply conservative. But he experienced a transformation when a progressive priest, who was a friend of his, was murdered simply for working with the poor.

Romero was radicalized, and he was assassinated one day after giving a sermon in which he called upon Salvadoran soldiers, as Christians, to obey God’s orders — which trumped those of their commanders — and to stop carrying out the government’s repression and violations of basic human rights.

Christianity, at certain times and in certain places, has been a genuine force against oppression in Latin America, which should add some nuance to our reading of 2033 and the role of the rebel priest.

In addition, the entire plot of the movie is built on the history of the Cristero War in Mexico (1926-1929), an uprising against a new secularism that had arisen and that had imposed severe legal limits on the power of the church. Protests against this change began peacefully, but eventually escalated into military confrontation.

Proponants of the separation of church and state (one the one hand) and adherents to the church (on the other) may have different views of the Cristero War even today, but it represents the actual working out of the relationship between religion and the state in Mexico and in that sense 2033 addresses an issue that viewers elsewhere might miss entirely.

Thing Three: Child of the Rebels

Finally, there is the fact that the main character is the child of a rebel who has been raised as a member of the ruling class. In the U.S. or Germany this might just seem like a plot device, and not a terribly credible or imaginative one. In Latin America, this aspect of the movie has a whole different meaning.

In Argentina, for instance, it is well known that children orphaned by political repression were then adopted by members of the ruling class. Laura Oren’s paper “Righting Child Custody Wrongs: the Children of the ‘Disappeared’ in Argentina” (14 Harvard Human Rights Journal 123-195 (2001)) documents the horrific facts in some detail. The abstract is below, but you can download the entire paper here: Righting Child Custody Wrongs, the Children of the Disappeared in Argentina [pdf].

Abstract: Between 1976 and 1983, the Argentine military dictatorship “disappeared” as many as 30,000 of their own people whom they perceived as subversive. At the same time, it is estimated that more than 450 young children of these disappeared were kidnapped by the regime and given or sold to childless military or police families, or otherwise wrongfully adopted by families whose knowledge of their origins ranged from innocence to willful ignorance, to guilt. An organization called Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo (Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo) organized to identify, locate, and demand the restoration of these children to their biological relatives. More than 20 years later, most of the children have never been located. But the clash of claims over the fate of these children in Argentine courts and politics has a lot to say to us about the difficulties inherent in righting child custody wrongs. In Argentina there were both legal and extra-legal resolutions of these “child custody wrongs.” Examination of particular cases that had contrasting outcomes illuminates the meaning of “the best interest of the child” within a full political context, with reference to substantive and procedural Argentine and international law, and by comparison to United States constitutional doctrine.

This phenomenon was also the subject of an Oscar-winning film, The Official Story, which won Best Foreign Language Film in 1985.

Nor is this an issue of merely historical interest. Even now, while families continue to look for the children of missing parents, the children of wealthy families are driven to DNA testing to establish whether their parents were among the disappeared (also see this excellent article in the International Journal of Epidemiology). By 2002, genetic tests proved the identities of 59 children who had been kidnapped and adopted during the military rule (and 31 of the children were returned to their biological families).

In one famous 2010 case, the parentage issue has become a political football between a current administration and one of its media detractors and the children are the subject of an application for a court order that would force them to be tested.

And on July 5, 2012, this particular element of Latin American reality reached a new stage as former Argentinean dictator Jorge Rafael Videla was convicted (with others) and sentenced to 50 years in prison for executing a systematic program of stealing children from people his government “disappeared” during his time in power.

As The Guardian newspaper reported:

Argentina took a giant leap forward in its struggle to come to terms with its bloody past during the 1976-83 dictatorship by condemning former dictator Jorge Videla to 50 years in prison for masterminding a plan for stealing the newborn children of political opponents and handing the babies over to be raised by “good” military families after killing their mothers.

The verdict on Thursday evening capped a 16-year trial during which hundreds of hours of testimony were heard proving that the kidnappings were not just collateral damage in the “civil war” between the military and leftwing guerrillas, as supporters of the dictatorship have claimed, but rather a deliberate policy put in place by the top leaders of the regime.

“The kidnapping of newly born babies is the last crime that former members of the military regime are willing to admit,” says British journalist Robert Cox, who was one of the main witnesses at the trial last year. As editor of the small English-community daily Buenos Aires Herald in the late 1970s, Cox was one of the only journalists in Argentina who dared report on the crimes committed by the military as they happened, including their kidnapping of infants. “It’s like the Nazis, what they did was so terrible they could never admit it,” Cox said in Buenos Aires upon hearing the verdict that his testimony helped bring about.

The reading of the verdict was followed by a huge crowd outside the Buenos Aires court who viewed the proceedings on giant video screens set up on the street in a carnival-like atmosphere organised by human rights groups with some of Argentina’s top rock bands playing to the assembled crowd after the verdict was heard.

A television report on the conviction is embedded below.

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So, to return to 2033, what might seem to one viewer as a contrived plot twist that simply reverses the Darth Vader/Luke Skywalker “I am your father” plot point, may well carry real emotional heft for a viewer from the part of the world where I now live.

So 2033 has something of a double identity — it’s not a terribly good film, but it’s an interesting prism through which to look at the world.

If what you really want is a good dystopian future, watch The Matrix again (just the first one, obviously). Or if you want to stick to dystopian movies with cryptic titles made up of strings of characters rather than words, try THX1138, an excellent 1971 film from a pre-Star Wars George Lucas.

On the other hand, if you want to see the world through a different set of eyes, take what I’ve said into account and watch 2033. You can still laugh at the silly parts, but there may be more in it than you notice at first glance.

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Sunshine, Sleaze, & Cyborg Bugs… the Future is Noir.

The TL/DR Synopsis Synopsis: New book in the Fallen World series now available. Includes links to (a) home page for the book with bonus content, (b) amazon and kobo purchase pages, (c) Amazon.com links for previous books in the series.Includes embedded video (a) video trailer for book.

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Gat Burroughs made his debut last year with a novel (Luck + Death at the Edge of the World) and a novelette (Felon + the Judas Kiss).  Since then a few folks have had some very kind things to say about him.

“A Great science fiction detective story” – Ian Watson, author of The Universal Machine

Cutting edge speculative fiction” – Ernest Hogan, author of Cortez on Jupiter

Sharply erudite, with the vicious tang of cordite” – Paul Morris, author of Time Traveller Danny and the Codebreaker

Earlier this year, the novel got its own soundtrack, Luck + Death: the Soundtrack for the Movie in Your Head.  It consists of 14 tracks by artists in 8 countries–including a film composer, a classical music composer, independent musicians, and your humble narrator–and it’s entirely free to download.  The album hasn’t passed entirely unnoticed either.

Simply outstanding… download it now, and buy the novel, too!” — Minister Faust, author of The Coyote Kings of the Space-Age Bachelor Pad

Now, on Gat’s first anniversary, he’s back with a new novella: Los Angeles Honey.

Gat Burroughs doesn’t take domestic cases–they’re messy and people with broken marriages sometimes have more pressing things to think about than paying the investigator. But when Brian Forget’s wife shows up at his office, he makes an exception.

Gat and LAPD Officer Dave Fellows–known informally as Felon for his cheerful sadism–gave Forget a hard time during a previous case even though he hadn’t done anything wrong.

There wasn’t really a choice if Gat wanted to save his client’s life–and his own. Now, though, he feels just a little bit guilty.

The problem is that in this case almost nothing is what it seems and rather than making up for old sins, Gat’s involvement may end up getting Brian Forget killed.

The only way to stop that from happening is by solving the big, bad, very dangerous case that lurks behind the simple domestic one.

As with the other books in the series, Los Angeles Honey includes a Facts in the Fiction section, a look at the factual background to the ficitonal story.  In this case it includes:

  • real-world cyborg insects, how they’re built and used
  • the belief in luck and the case of the maneki neko
  • a twist on the science fiction trope of uploading human consciousness into an artificial body and its roots in the real world
  • a look at state surveillance technology

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You can find out more at the Los Angeles Honey home page.

The site includes a Sample Chapters page and a sample section from Facts in the Fiction, but it also features additional material that’s not in the book.

The Extras page includes a number of videos on cyborg insects, human consciousness, and the art of illusion.

The Free Library page has more than twenty articles on topics and themes from the book, as well as the full text of one of the first science fiction stories to deal with the uploading of human consciousness (now no longer in copyright), “The Tunnel Under the World” by Frederick Pohl.

The Los Angeles Honey home page

The Los Angeles Honey home page (click to go there)

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