GUEST POST: The diplomatic responsibilities of sci-fi authors by Scott Gray Meintjes

Scott Gray Meintjes is a South African author who has written a cyberpunky dystopian series called The Cybarium Chronicles. It kicks off with Steel Wind Risingan action-packed novel featuring androids, gene-hacked heroes, animal-human hybrids, and a world-dominating robotics company. He’s currently reworking it for traditional publication, and in the meantime I asked him to share his thoughts on sf and AI.

Welcome to Violin in a Void Scott!

The diplomatic responsibilities of sci-fi authors

As a boy, I was convinced that my birth into the 20th century had been some terrible cosmic mistake. As an ardent fan of fantasy writing, I wished that I’d been born into a period in history when battles were fought with swords and battle-axes, and the primary mode of travel was on horseback. Of course, I hadn’t taken into account the implications of a world without vaccines, toothpaste and toilet paper.

My desire to live in a fantasy-like past passed, which is just as well, because it was never a possibility. However, I could conceivably live to see a number of sci-fi mainstays become reality. In many cases the research is close, but are we mentally ready for these potentially paradigm changing technologies? Until now, speculating on the moral and social implications of matters such as human gene manipulation and sentient robots has been the province of science fiction writers, but the rate of  technological advancement could soon force everyone to take an ideological stance on these issues. If you think the media makes a fuss over GM food, just wait until they get a load of GM people.

The practically exponential rate at which new technologies are now being pioneered presents a potential challenge to both the originality and the longevity of sci-fi authors’ works. As Elon Musk works to perfect the hyperloop, and NASA experiments with warp drive designs, it’s becoming more and more difficult for authors to make a plausible offering in science fiction that isn’t already being worked on in one form or another. I, personally, don’t think it’s a problem. All it means is that the future of science fiction isn’t fictional science, but works of fiction that revolve around cutting edge science. After all, the appeal of the genre isn’t in imagined technologies, but the arcs that they allow and the effects that those technologies have on the imagined worlds.

But even when authors base a story around an existing technology, it’s all too easy to for advancing technology to ruin its longevity. In 2009, Eric Garcia released The Repossession Mambo. Given the leaps that the field of artificial organs (particularly hearts) had taken in recent years, the future that he imagined was highly viable. Just two years later, scientists at the university of Minnesota succeeded in using adult stem cells to grow a heart outside of the body. Two years on from that, we had artificially grown hearts that could beat alone outside the body. The future imagined by Garcia is looking less realistic, as we skip the mass production of artificial organs and move straight to purpose-grown organs or regenerative treatments that re-grow organ tissue inside the body, while you carry on with your day. Obviously, the proliferation of regenerative therapies wouldn’t invalidate Garcia’s work of fiction. The crux of the novel is the inherent amorality in the economics of medicine, and the themes would apply equally well to lab-grown organs. What it does highlight is the ever narrowing gap between science fiction and scientific reality. What sci-fi authors write about today may soon be relevant to the real world, and this could have far-reaching implications for the attitudes we cultivate.

Steel Wind RisingLiterature has always had an unparalleled power to influence people’s social and political views by offering readers the chance to experience conflicts personally and emotionally through a connection with literary characters. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, written 13 years before the abolition of slavery in the U.S., is often credited with changing attitudes in the North, which ultimately led to the Civil War. Where science fiction is concerned, authors have the unprecedented potential to inspire attitudes about issues that have not yet become reality. While human genetic manipulation could offer a whole new aspect to socio-economic separation, it is the questions relating to artificial intelligence that I find most provocative. What is it that makes us human: our biology or our intelligence? Should human rights extend to all sentient beings?

There is a divide on AI within science fiction, with one side portraying sentient robots as a threat to mankind, while the other portrays them as  being virtually human. In my own writing, I attempt to create sympathetic robot characters, capable of drawing readers onto the ‘robots are people too’ side of the argument. Part of the reason for adopting this position is simply that I think it’s more interesting. But I also think that when sentient robots become a reality, they will be whatever we expect them to be, in the same way that participants in the Stanford Prison Experiment took on the behaviours of the roles they were assigned (prisoner or guard). I suspect that the only chance that synthetic humans will have of finding their humanity is if the world treats them like people. I like to think that science fiction can shape the attitudes that will one day make this possible.

But how does a lifeless machine become a character capable of inspiring pathos, admiration and even love? In writing Steel Wind Rising, I envisioned the robot character, Andrew, as the avatar of his world. At least part of the appeal of robot protagonists must be that they fit into futuristic landscapes more readily than humans. That said, I think their appeal extends beyond a mere confluence of character and environment. Perhaps it’s precisely because we don’t expect to be able to relate to robot characters, that it’s such a heart-warming surprise when we do. The very core of android appeal is in contradiction. Who doesn’t love a good contradiction in a literary character: the flawed hero, the honourable thief, or the repentant sinner? When it comes to mechanical men (or women) the contrasts are that much sharper. The very image of the robot is one of hard steel and intractable logic, so when a robot character displays any fragility (physical or emotional), it gets our attention.

One of the most common themes amongst sentient robots has always been their longing to be treated as equals. The desire to be human hits at the heart of the robot experience. Since we are all human we shouldn’t relate to this either (unless you are, yourself, a sentient robot, reading this in the distant future), but there is something in it that speaks to us. Long before artificial intelligence was a within the reach of man, Carlo Collodi examined this theme in The Adventures of Pinocchio. Somehow the goal of becoming a ‘real boy’ was relatable and the character was a loveable, if mischievous, one. So, why does the quest for humanity appeal to us? Perhaps we are so used to taking it for granted that, when we encounter a character whose fondest wish it is to be human, we recognise the nobility of that desire. It moves us in the same way that seeing someone without drinking water would.

The question is, can we infer emotions and desires in robots if we believe they are only a simulation? The concept of artificial emotions is initially problematic, until we probe the nature of human consciousness. Robot minds are typically depicted as emerging from (sometimes contradictory) commands and programming, rather than coming from an intelligent ‘self’. In the past, we would have identified this as a key difference between robots and humans. Today, modern interpretations from cognitive science are more pervasive. We can more readily accept the concept of our intending, autonomous ‘selves’ emerging from basic (sometimes contradictory) mental impulses and processes, and creating a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. If our own emotions are anything, they are simulations created by our brains.

So, academically we can accept that a robot’s experience of the world could be identical to our own, and our experience of fictional characters show that our attitudes towards them could indeed be positive. But what about our unconscious actions that make up so much of human interaction? Well, personally, I’m certain that this is no impediment, because our reactions to social circumstances are incredibly automatic. This was beautifully demonstrated in the documentary: ‘How to build a bionic man’. The ‘man’, named Rex, was comprised of state-of-the-art prosthetics and artificial organs, but his body was only roughly human shaped and his speech was powered by an advanced internet chat-bot. The people interacting with Rex knew this, and yet, their behaviour towards him was remarkable. When Rex’s bionic arm failed, he spilled his drink and apologised. His companions rushed to reassure him and put him at ease, just as they would a human companion. It didn’t matter that Rex’s apology was a pre-programmed response. They projected an emotional state of mind onto this facsimile of a human and responded as if it was real. It is not difficult to imagine a future in which people and robots interact in a way that is indistinguishable from normal human exchanges.

Hopefully our ability to connect with robot literary characters bodes well for robo-human relations when artificial life is finally perfected. With any luck, they will learn compassion from our benevolent treatment of them, and will, in turn, treat us with kindness when they rise up and rule the world.


Scott MeintjesScott Meintjes was born in Durban, South Africa, where he grew up and lived until the age of 25. During this time, he attained his Master’s degree in Psychology and met his wife, Eleanor. In 2006, he moved to England to serve in the British Army.

Today he lives in the University city of Cambridge, with his wife and daughter. Scott has been an enthusiastic reader of fantasy and science fiction since childhood, and started writing to create a story that he would enjoy reading.
His aim is to write sci-fi that is as appealing to newcomers to the genre as it is to long-time fans.

Review of vN by Madeline Ashby

vN - The First Machine Dynast by Madeline Ashby

Title: vN
Series: The Machine Dynasty #1
Madeline Ashby
31 July 2012
Angry Robot
science fiction
own copy

Last month I reviewed Life of Pi and mentioned that it reaffirmed my philosophy of finishing books even if I don’t like them, because the ending might be redeeming. There are times when I just stop reading, but instead of abandoning the book altogether, I try to take the optimistic approach – perhaps I picked the wrong time to read it, and I should try again later. This has proven to be a good strategy in the past, and again with Madeline Ashby’s vN.

I first started reading it a few months ago, just before and during a trip to SA. I was distracted by travel stuff, and found the novel disappointing. It didn’t seem nearly as exciting or interesting as the many rave reviews suggested, and put it aside at the halfway point. I gave it another shot a few weeks ago, giving it my full attention this time, and was rewarded with an excellent, well-paced story about AI and all the issues surrounding their creation and existence in human society.

The story is mostly told from the perspective of 5-year-old Amy, a self-replicating von Neumann machine. Amy might be a cyborg, but her human father and vN mother are raising her to believe that she’s as much a ‘real’ girl as her human counterparts, and deserves all the same rights and privileges. Her father Jack also makes an effort to show his wife Charlotte that he loves her and takes her emotions seriously, seeing her as a person, not a robot. I particularly liked his description of her here, bringing together human attributes and vN physiology with a suggestion of something beyond that:

Charlotte was different. Charlotte was vN. She had no hormones to influence her decision-making, no feast-or-famine cycle driving dopamine or serotonin. She didn’t get cramps or headaches or nightmares or hangovers. She didn’t need retail therapy or any other kind. Her “childhood” was difficult – her mother abandoned her in a junkyard – but her spirit was as strong as the titanium sheathing her graphene coral bones, her personal integrity as impermeable as the silicone coating the polymer-doped memristors in her skin, her wit as quick as the aerogel currents wafting through the musculature of her body. Charlotte was a self-replicating humanoid. Charlotte didn’t do drama. Until now.

It sound idyllic, but Jack and society as a whole haven’t quite adjusted to the idea of machines as people. The solution is not simply for vN to be treated like humans – they’re not human, and their needs, abilities and weaknesses mean that co-existence requires something far more radical than mere acceptance. Amy’s story proves this, beginning with her parents’ (or her father’s?) decision to ‘keep her little’. In an imitation of human life, vNs start out as babies and grow into adults, but they can do this in a matter of weeks. Jack, being human, wants Amy to age slowly, enjoy her childhood and grow gradually into adulthood as a human would. To do this he has to starve her so that she doesn’t grow as rapidly as she’s designed to. She’s basically spent her whole life in a state of starvation that her father has imposed on her with his kind, loving intentions.

Amy’s hunger is the catalyst for the main story. Her grandmother – a terrifying rogue vN – pitches up at Amy’s nursery school graduation, murders a small child, and attacks Charlotte. Amy runs to her mother’s aid and involuntary eats her grandmother in the first full meal she’s ever had:

she’d only meant to bite her, but Amy’s diet left her so hungry all the time. When her jaws opened all the digestive fluid came up, a whole lifetime’s worth, hot and bitter as angry tears. It ate the flesh off her granny’s bones. By then, Amy couldn’t stop. The smoke was too sweet. The bone dust was too crunchy. And the sensation of being full, really full, of her processes finally having enough energy to clock at full speed, was spectacular. Being hungry meant being slow. It meant being stupid. It felt like watching each packet of information fly across her consciousness on the wings of a carrier pigeon. But her granny tasted like Moore’s Law made flesh.

It’s enough for little Amy’s body to grow into an adult’s, but the most important aspect of this incident (to the authorities at least) is that Amy’s failsafe malfunctioned. All vN are equipped with failsafes to prevent them from harming humans. They feel pain or can even shut down if they see a human being harmed, so Amy should have been killed or put in a coma from seeing her classmate murdered.

Amy is jailed, but escapes and goes on the run with another vN, an eco-friendly model named Javier who is younger than Amy but happens to be ‘pregnant’ with his thirteenth child. With Javier, Amy and the reader gradually get a better sense of what it means to be a vN, and what the vN mean to humans. The vN were created by a fundamentalist church, with the intention of providing slaves to serve the humans left behind after the Rapture. Their primary function was sex, so they were created with “all the right holes and such. So people can indulge themselves without sin”. Consequently vN are impeccably beautiful, they are self-replicating so that humanity will never run short on slaves, and their failsafes not only ensure that they can’t harm humans but that they love humans and want to please them even though they’re conscious of their pre-programmed enslavement.

The implications of these perverse origins and the failsafe are contemplated or played out throughout the novel, often juxtaposed with the ideal of egalitarian vN/human relationships. Jack worries about the possibility of a paedophile taking Amy, because her failsafe would make it impossible for her to resist. Amy actually later encounters a paedophile who has two vN children so that he’s not tempted to hurt ‘real’ children. At one point Javier is captured by bounty hunters because he lacks the power to fight them.

The authorities are after Amy, because a vN who can witness human pain is also a vN who can inflict it. Humans are terrified of what she represents – a powerful, autonomous machine who isn’t forced to adore them or incapable of hurting them. What I kept thinking as I read, was that Amy is a machine who is far too human for humans to handle. She is a creation who threatens to surpass her creator and break out of the slavery she was born into.

There is a robot revolution in the making, initiated not by Amy but by Portia, the grandmother she devoured. Portia argues that “Sentience is not freedom […] Real freedom is the ability to say no” and this is the core of her plans for the vN. Unfortunately for her, she now exists only as an entity in Amy’s head, gradually revealing the details of her plan to Amy and the reader. Most of the time she insults and badgers her granddaughter for being so naive, but she offers guidance too. At times Portia is able to take over Amy’s body, typically using it to get out of tough situations with extreme violence. In a series of flashbacks, we also get glimpses of the incredible cruelty – including murder and torture – that Portia has inflicted to achieve her goals

Despite being a clone of her grandmother, Amy is her complete opposite, proving that she is more than the sum of programming. Amy might look like an adult, but up until very recently, she’s been living the life of a 5-year-old child, and she’s still adapting to the transformation. She has childish habits (like playing in a sandbox) and asks odd questions that reveal her lack of knowledge about the world. She knows little about sex and has to adjust to having a mature, sexually attractive female body. Shortly after her prison escape, she changes into a child’s t-shirt and Javier politely averts his gaze and suggests that she put on a baggy jersey. Amy actually dislikes her large breasts, remarking that they’re “weird” and “stupidly inefficient” since they serve no purpose for vN. She tends to be too trusting, and while Portia resorts to violence too easily, Amy’s attempts to be kind and gentle sometimes cause just as much trouble. Her main goal is to find and help her parents, while Portia has much grander schemes, and Javier just wants to stay out of prison but finds himself inexplicably dedicated to Amy.

I remember thinking that this story was a bit flat the first time around, but I obviously wasn’t paying enough attention because there are so many nuances at play here – little details and debates about tech, gender, character, ethics, what it means to be human, what it means to be vN, what it means to be ‘real’. While I wasn’t completely blown away by the novel once I’d finished, the more I think about it, the more impressed I am with its story and ideas, and all the interesting questions it raises, both for the characters and as a serious consideration of the possibility of AI in human society. I’d happily launch into more discussions if I didn’t think it would make the review excessively long and rob you of the pleasure of seeing it all unfold yourself. However, I will say that everything about Amy’s journey and the vN in human society screams with the need for revolution. I have no idea where Ashby is going to take the Machine Dynasty series from here, and I can’t wait to find out.