Friday, 26 April 2013

Look once, look twice, look again: searching deeper to make research connections

My focus in the last week has been pulling together a proposal to take a research trip to England. At times writing it felt a bit like having my teeth extracted one by one without any anaesthetic but I think I've got it sorted out now. The interesting thing about writing the proposal, though, was following the trail of connections that led to to where I wanted to go.

It started about 8 weeks ago, when I saw a call for papers for a conference on research into speculative fiction being held at the University of Liverpool. It sounded like exactly my sort of thing, so I wrote an abstract and sent it off. The problem was, the conference was only for 1 day. And it takes 24 hours (minimum) to fly from Australia to England. So if I was going to go to the conference, I had to work out what else I would do while I was in the UK because there was no way I was going for less than 2 weeks.

One of the reasons the University of Liverpool is a great place for a conference on speculative fiction is that their library has a Science Fiction Special Collection. I was sure there had to be something in there for me but searching on the terms 'posthuman' and 'posthumanity' got me nowhere in their library catalogue. I kept searching around the Science Fiction Special Collection website looking for clues but I wasn't getting anywhere with skim searching. It was time to look deeper, and pay close attention to each page on the site.

Digging deeper

On the 'Scholarship' web page (which I'd previously ignored because I thought it related to getting a scholarship), was a list of links under various headings including 'Courses', 'Conferences and events', 'Themes & subjects' and 'Theses & dissertations'. Under the heading 'Themes and subjects' was a link 'posthumanity'. I clicked on it - it took me out of the library site to an unassuming (a bit dodgy looking, actually) page. On this page, under the heading 'Books' it listed fiction by just three authors, none of whom I was overly familiar with but one name jumped out at me: Olaf Stapledon. I knew I'd seen his name in my wanderings around the Science Fiction Special Collection site. I went back and double checked and bingo - the special collection has an extensive Stapledon archive.

So far in my research into posthumanity I've focused on recent theory and criticism, and each of the novels I've chosen for my case studies are from the late 20th/early 21st century. I hadn't really looked for where the beginnings of fictional posthumanity might be. Turns out, Olaf Stapledon is pretty much it - he is the forefather of posthuman science fiction. And now here was a whole archive of his writing, notes, correspondence, lectures and more staring me right in the face. This is what I'd (unknowingly) been searching for.

Lessons learned

There are a couple of lessons to learn from this exercise. The first is, if your instinct is telling you something you're searching for is somewhere on a site, keep searching. Look deeper and if you don't find it the first, second or third time go back and look differently. Secondly, don't assume the page title or even the visible headings are telling you everything you need to know. I'd dismissed the 'Scholarship' page several times because of its title and because the first two headings (courses and conferences) on the page confirmed what I thought the page was about. I'm not sure how many times I'd looked at that page before I finally scrolled down to see the 'posthumanity' link, but it was at least 2 or 3.

The Olaf Stapledon archive could turn out to hold the core ideas and concepts that will pull my PhD thesis into a cohesive whole. And although it was staring me in the face, I very nearly missed it. This is very unscientific of me but I believe it was my instincts telling me to keep going back and look again.

By the way, my abstract for the conference paper wasn't accepted. But to be honest, it doesn't really matter. I'll still go to the conference as a delegate, and it'll be a great networking experience, but in the end the conference was just a pathway to me finding what I really needed.

Friday, 19 April 2013

There's more than one way to become a posthuman

I've just finished re-reading Peter Dickinson's Eva, which I'll be using as one of my case studies for my PhD thesis. My thoughts about the book, which I wrote about in last week's post, haven't changed much from my initial reading. The way I see it,  Eva is not merely something other than human; she is posthuman because she finds a way to synthesise her human-ness and her chimp-ness into something new, and live a meaningful life in a future world. She is not merely rejecting humans and embracing chimpanzees, she is incorporating aspects of both and in doing so becomes a version of what it might mean to be posthuman.

Next on my reading list is Kevin Brooks' iBoy. iBoy offers a different perspective of the possibilities for posthumanity, one that is probably closer to the more popular perception of the posthuman because it incorporates technology. Despite the dissimilar ways in which Tom and Eva become 'other', however, they share the distinction of being 'one-off' posthumans. There will never be another Eva - subsequent attempts at human brain into chimp body transplants during the narrative fail, and result in the death of the patients. Similarly, Tom's transformation is the result of an assault; the iPhone fragments have not been strategically placed in his brain; and so the impacts of technology on his brain are random and could not be duplicated.

The basic plot of iBoy is that Tom, a teenager living in a rough London suburb, ends up in hospital after someone throws an iPhone at his head. The phone shatters and parts of it embed in his brain. These shards somehow transform Tom’s brain and, as he wakes from his coma and is then released from hospital, he realises he has become “connected”: 
“I could hear phone calls, I could read emails and texts, I could hack into databases…I could access everything. All from inside my head. I was connected.”. 
Through this event, Brooks explores the moral and ethical dilemmas of having an enhanced brain. Tom is faced with situations where he can use his 'powers' to exact revenge on those who assaulted him, as well as those who raped his friend. The consequences for his actions are beyond those he has imagined; however, and he must deal with the repercussions in the same way that any human would. That is, while Tom's altered brain gives him powers that other humans don't possess, they do not give him any extra insights or abilities to dealing with the ramifications of his decisions and actions. In this way, Tom's posthumanism is more based in physicality than Eva's. Whereas Eva is able to successfully synthesise the chimp and human aspects of herself to become something other, Tom struggles with the powers his altered brain functions give him. At one point towards the novel's conclusion he considers suicide as an escape from his permanently altered brain and the problems it brings him. Although he rejects suicide as a solution, the struggles he faces due to his "connected" brain highlight that the transition from human to posthuman is not an easy one. Furthermore, an 'enhanced' brain does not necessarily remove the need to address, or improve the ability to successfully navigate, moral and ethical choices.

Thus it could be argued that, by the end of the novels, Eva is more posthuman than Tom. However, the possibility exists for Tom to more fully integrate his 'powers' and thus evolve into something other than human in both a physical and psychological sense.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Peter Dickinson's Eva: a posthuman perspective

A couple of years ago I put a call out through blogs and social media asking people to give me examples of young adult fiction that dealt with neuroscience in some way. Someone recommended I read Eva, by Peter Dickinson. I can't discuss Eva without giving the plot away so if you want to go away and read the book first, look away now.

In a nutshell, Eva is the story of a young girl who was severely injured in a car accident; so severely that although her brain was undamaged, her body was beyond repair. The medical establishment's answer to this problem was to transplant her human brain into the body of a young female chimpanzee, Kelly.

There are several readings of this book that critique it from an environmental or animal ethics perspective. And the novel does raise many questions about consciousness and the rights of humans over animals as well as desecration of landscape (the book is set in a future where all animals, except for chimpanzees, only exist 'virtually' and cities have completely overtaken natural landscape except for a few isolated pockets). My interest in the novel, however, came firstly from a neuroscientific perspective, and now from a posthumanist perspective.

The neuroscience in the novel is based around the notion of 'neuron memory'. In the novel the character of Eva describes it as follows:
What you are is a pattern, an arrangement...all your thoughts and imaginings and dreams and memories make up that pattern, and are kept there by the neurons in your brain that have sent their wriggling axons and dendrites branching and joining and passing messages to one another through the incredible complex networks they have grown into...
However, right from the start of the novel, it becomes apparent that Eva has not only her own memories but those of Kelly, the chimp. Thus the novel moves beyond neuroscience as a tool to an exploration of consciousness being embedded in the body as well as the brain. One of the first questions that Eva asks herself after she discovers what has happened to her is: "...what had happened to Kelly, the real Kelly, the one who used to live in this furry skin. Where was she now?"

But now that my research interests have moved beyond neuroscience to its potential role in creating posthumans, the key question that Eva raises for me is not is Eva human or chimp (by the end of the book she has rejected humans and lives with chimps), but is she a posthuman? She definitely fits my definition of posthuman, in that her body has been altered to have skills and abilities she wasn't born with. She has a superior intellect to the chimps she decides in the end to share her life with; thus she is not an animal. And she has kept her human intelligence while gaining physical skills of the chimpanzee (although this means she has lost some human physical skills).

Much of the writing about posthumanism is focused on technology, on the changes to what it means to be a human brought about by mechanical, computing or neuropharmalogical means. There appears to be little focus on becoming posthuman through the transplantation of organic material or tissue. But it is, I think, an equally valid way to become posthuman.

Eva is clearly something other than human, and I believe that 'other' is posthuman; not just because of her chimp body but because she has found a way of living in the world that is not human and yet not animal either. She did not have a choice about whether or not she wanted to live in a chimp body; however she did make deliberate choices about how she would live once she was in that body. And what is a posthuman if not a person that is not only altered physically, but emotionally and psychologically, to adapt and live a satisfying life in a techno-centric world.

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Neuroscience versus the unknowable: revisiting Lovelock's The Revenge of Gaia

…if we fail to take care of the Earth, it surely will take care of itself by making us no longer welcome.
This quote from the introduction to climate scientist James Lovelock's The Revenge of Gaia was an important catalyst for the the plot of Dirt Circus League. I can't remember how I first came across this book - like many of the books/articles I find that end up being important to me I suppose it's just serendipity. But the idea of planet Earth as a living, breathing, self-regulating system, and the notion that it would kill off humans in order to save itself, fascinated me. It was the core idea I needed to bring my story idea to life.

This time around I read The Revenge of Gaia much more thoroughly from beginning to end and many of Lovelock's ideas and beliefs surprised me: the fact that he is a strong believer in nuclear energy as the solution to the world's energy problems, for example. He also poo-poohs organic farming, thinks pesticides have a bad name, and that we are more likely to get cancer from simply breathing oxygen than anything else (except cigarette smoking and excessive sunburn). He's not exactly the type of environmentalist I thought he was!

Knowing versus the unknowable

Environmentalism aside, it is the notion of the unexplainable that appeals to me, and Lovelock's particular view of it. I think this quote sums it up well:

The universe is a much more intricate place than we can imagine. I often think our conscious minds will never encompass more than a tiny fraction of it all and that our comprehension of the Earth is no better than an eel’s comprehension of the ocean in which it swims. Life, the universe, consciousness, and even simpler things like riding a bicycle, are inexplicable in words. We are only just beginning to tackle these emergent phenomena, and in Gaia they are as difficult as the near magic of the quantum physics of entanglement. But this does not deny their existence.
 And this:
[there is] an acceptance that Gaia is real to the extent that we have a self-regulating Earth but with a growing recognition that many natural phenomena are unknowable and can never be explained in classical reductionist terms – phenomena such as consciousness, life, the emergence of self-regulation and a growing list of happenings in the world of quantum physics. It is time, I think, that theologians shared with scientists their wonderful word, ‘ineffable’; a word that expresses the thought that God is immanent but unknowable.
Does this have anything to do with neuroscience?

Of course it does! Reporting of neuroscience (in the western world at least) is littered with articles that try to convince us that everything in the world can be explained by brain scans (if you don't believe me read Neuroaesthetics is killing your soul). I love neuroscience. It's an incredibly diverse and fascinating field of study that is discovering more and more about the human brain. But it will not and cannot explain everything about what it means to be a human (or posthuman for that matter).

When I embarked on my PhD my goal was to write a neuro-novel for teenagers. Now that I have an (almost final draft) manuscript the neuroscience aspects of the novel, although they exist, are quite minor. I have included some brief references to neuroscience to explain how Quarter's eye implants work, and one of the characters (Surgeon) is, among other things, a neurosurgeon. But the neuroscience is just one eye-catching pathway into the real guts of what the story is about: belonging, identity, power and interconnectedness.

Lovelock's book inspired me to write about an earth-based religious cult that worships Gaia, and has as a core belief Gaia's right to destroy human life in order to save herself. But his ideas flow through my manuscript in other ways too. The notion of a single, interconnected organism that needs balance to regulate itself, for example, is expressed through the relationship of the two main characters, Quarter and Ava. As the narrative unfolds, it becomes clear that neither will survive life in the Dirt Circus League without the other. They have a physical attraction but deeper than that is their connection that expresses itself through protection (Quarter of Ava) and healing (Ava of Quarter).

Lovelock is also keen on metaphor. He states: 'We have to use the crude tool of metaphor to translate conscious ideas into unconscious understanding.’. Perhaps Quarter and Ava's relationship may be seen as a metaphor for humanity's relationship with the Earth in its struggle to balance technology and the environment?

Or maybe I'm starting to over think it...

By the way, Lovelock does temper the notion that the Earth will kill off humans to save herself to some degree throughout the book, saying that most likely some humans will survive but that civilisation is in danger. So all is not lost. Yet.