Thursday, 30 May 2013

Countdown to research trip

In two weeks time I'll have landed in the UK for my research trip. I'll be spending most of the time in Liverpool, specifically at the University of Liverpool's Science Fiction Hub where I'll be searching my way through the Olaf Stapledon archive. I'll only have 3 and a half days at the library so I can't afford to muck around. I plan on being there when they open the doors and they'll have to find me at the end of each day to throw me out!

Luckily, the library has an online Finding Aid to the archive, which has been invaluable in helping me sort out what items I'd like to look at.  I've worked out a priority list of items I want to see but it's been hard culling down what I'd like to see (almost everything!) to what I really need to help me with my research. Maybe it's just the book nerd in me, but how can I not get just a little over-excited at the opportunity to see original letters to Stapledon from H.G. Wells and Virginia Woolf, among others? Hopefully I will have enough time to get to those but the main items of interest for me will be his lecture notes, where I'll be looking to glean insights into his philosophies on the future of the human race.

This morning I listened to a brief interview with author Mohsin Hamid, who spoke on BBC's Cultural Exchange program about Olaf Stapledon's Star Maker (which is next on my reading list) and also to a snippet from a 1979 interview with author Arthur C. Clarke on why Olaf Stapledon was his biggest literary influence. Stapeldon has been a major influence on science fiction in the twentieth century, and his influence continues today (whether writers are aware of it or not). I can see how ideas such as telepathy and genetic selection, in particular, play out in the novels I'm looking at for my case studies.

The aim is that once I get back from my research trip I'll be head down and bum up working on the first complete draft of my exegesis, which will be around 30,000 words. The plan is to have that first draft finished by the end of September. I figure that's around 2,500 words a week. I can manage that, no problems!

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Lovelock, Noe and Stapledon walk into a bar

James Lovelock, Alva Noe and Olaf Stapledon walk into a bar.
'We're all connected,' says Lovelock, the scientist and thinker.
'We are not our brains,' says Noe the philosopher.
'How do you know,' asks Stapledon the science fiction writer and philosopher, 'that we're not just connected brains?'

No, this is not a pitch for an obscure Big Bang Theory spin-off series. It represents some of the threads of thought I'm attempting to grapple with in the amorphous monster that my thesis is threatening to become. Yesterday I attempted to gather my thoughts about how Lovelock's Gaia Theory and my deep curiosity about neuroscience and its place in contemporary western culture link together. Into my head popped Stapledon's vision of the 'fourth men' from his novel Last and First Men.

This species of posthuman are indeed their brains, and nothing but their brains. Stapledon describes them as living in “a large circular brain turret…divided with many partitions, radiating from a central space, and covered everywhere with pigeon holes.”.  However, they are doomed to extinction because despite their incredible intelligence, their genius, and their telepathic communication, the superbrains are helpless. They cannot move and so are reliant on the more able bodied ‘third men’ to operate the complex machinery that keeps them alive.

Stapledon’s fictional example is an extreme one that takes the idea of ‘we are our brains’ to the point of ridiculousness, yet it also illustrates the illogicality of the assertion that humans are our brains. There are amazing discoveries being made in neuroscience, discoveries that can improve the quality of life for people with neurological diseases, people with spinal cord injuries, people who have lost limbs. I agree that our incredibly complex human brains can reveal much about what makes humans tick. Neuroscience is opening up to us more about who we are, and why we are. But I would argue that neuroscience can only ever be one small part of the story of human life on earth. It is one small window into humanity but can never provide a definitive answer about what it is to be a human because we are more than our brains.

Lovelock’s Gaia Theory gives me a way in to explore this argument - that we are not our brains - because he provides the ‘big picture’ about humans as an organism not merely living on the Earth but intimately connected to it through our flesh, our blood, our cells, from the micro organisms that live in our gut to the manner in which our bodies expel waste products. It is through Lovelock’s work that I can step back and understand that we are not just our brains. If we were we might well evolve into giant posthuman blobs of grey matter sitting in a pen like a factory-farmed animal. Even worse, we may become like the fourth men who, as Stapledon describes, "had a growing sense that though in a manner they knew almost everything, they really knew nothing."

And that would be no fun at all.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Stapledon's posthuman vision

I'm almost three-quarters of the way through Olaf Stapledon's exploration into our posthuman future, Last and First Men, which was first published in 1930. From a 21st century perspective, it can be viewed as both insightful and naive. But the overall sense I get from the novel so far is that of Stapledon's quest to understand why humans, in their constant quest for perfection, continue to make the same errors that lead to their own downfall.

Stapledon approaches the evolution of humankind through various phases of posthumanity from physical, social, psychological and spiritual perspectives. However, his work is not prophetic in the way of some early 20th century science fiction, which foreshadowed various scientific and technological advancements. His posthuman approach is more focused on the human species search for continual improvement, for meaning, and to some degree for immortality. There is a strong focus on a search for spiritual meaning, and so far, most of the various evolutions of humans he describes have followed religions ranging from the profound to the nonsensical. (The exception to that are the 'fourth men' who are static superbrains who communicate telepathically; their sole concern is the intellect.)

One theme common to the various species of human and posthuman that people First and Last Men is self-destruction. No matter how much progress is made in intelligence, spirituality, art, intellect or humanity there is always conflict or crisis which results in the species' downfall. Sometimes this is deliberate, sometimes not. The 'third men', for example, aimed to create a form of human perfection that was able to achieve immortality. They eventually succeeded in  creating the 'fourth men', who were essentially giant brains without bodies that communicated telepathically, and who eventually enslaved the 'third men'. Thus the 'third men' achieved their goal of creating an immortal species, but in doing so destroyed themselves. In contrast, the giant-brained fourth men, realising the pointlessness of a life lacking in a value system, created the giant-sized, super-intelligent and gifted race of 'fifth men' to replace their physically restricted selves.

I'm interested to find out if, by the end of the novel, Stapledon creates a posthuman species that no longer strives for perfection, and if so, how these 'last men' find meaning in their lives. For all his posthuman creations - from standard sized humans who fight clouds of hive-minded martians, to small, six-fingered and big-eared creatures with a religious devotion to music and a penchant for creating art out of living things, to immobile brains housed in large buildings fuelled by radiation, to 3 metre-tall intellectually, artistically and psychologically gifted beings - have one thing in common. They search for knowledge, for perfection, for immortality but ultimately for meaning in their lives. The question I'm hoping Stapledon may try to answer is, once you've attained perfection, what's next?

Friday, 3 May 2013

Posthuman, the grotesque and the pursuit of power

A PhD is about deep thinking. By the time you've been awarded your PhD you are considered to be an "expert" in your particular topic. To me this implies digging deeper and deeper, getting right into the guts of a topic and finding nuggets of knowledge no one else has discovered. Which is great, if you can stick to one topic. But I find so many different topics fascinating, it's hard to choose.

Over the past 6 to 8 months I've been on a path from neuroscience to the grotesque to the monstrous to the posthuman and back and around (and in and out). In the early part of my research my supervisor asked me over and over again: why neuroscience? what is it about neuroscience that fascinates you? why not something else? As a fiction writer, one of the most interesting things about neuroscience for me is not only its plethora of discoveries but also why particular lines of enquiry are pursued above others. Neuroscience provides a wide and deep pool of ideas I can draw from for my writing, which I can examine and explore within a range of fictional contexts.

My co-protagonist, Quarter, becomes what he is thanks to the wonders of (not quite yet invented) modern neuroscience. But it is what he has become, rather than the technical reasons behind his transformation, that hold the most potential for discovery. He's a weird looking guy: apart from the birds' eyes transplanted into the side of his head he has multiple grafts of animal skin on his body. This places him nicely in the grotesque, perhaps even the monstrous, in terms of his physical body. Quarter's grotesque body is designed. He needed he technical expertise of a gifted, if somewhat psychopathic, doctor (the character of Surgeon) to make the changes to his body. In this way he reflects the assertion of Paul Starr in his essay More Than Organic: Science Fiction and the Grotesque that:
The grotesque bodies of nuclear fiction and SF, which may include the mutant, the alien and the cyborg, directly demonstrate what the organicist grotesque often avoids or denies: that bodies are the products of technologies, that they are continually reformed by processes which are mixtures of the organic and inorganic.
The grotesque, and the monstrous, also hold fascination for me. I could choose to pursue the grotesque in my exegesis (the part of my thesis that supports the creative practice) and look deeply into the "mixtures of the organic and inorganic" in creating the grotesque. But then I ask myself: why did Quarter choose to change himself in this way? Although Surgeon performed the operations that gave Quarter his animal skin grafts and birds' eye transplants, he wanted, and asked for, those changes. Why did he want them? And what do they make him: grotesque; monstrous; posthuman; or all of these?

As a character operating within a narrative, Quarter does not reflect on any of these concepts. His choice to have the animal skin grafts and birds' eye implants are based on his desire for power: he wants others to fear him, and so obey him. To him, the grafts and implants signify his physical superiority, and thus his greater fitness for leadership. His goal is not to be a god or a monster or a posthuman but a powerful leader of the Dirt Circus League and beyond. However, in my search to discover why I write what I write, I have placed Quarter firmly within the realms of the posthuman. Does this mean I am positioning the move towards posthumanity as a search for power? Perhaps.

There are many ways to become posthuman. Some may pursue it to become more enlightened, more intelligent, more able or more creative. Through the character of Quarter, however, the striving for power, a power over others reinforced by the ability to engender fear, is what drives his pursuit of physical changes both on his skin and in his brain. In this way, his visually grotesque body and his posthumanism, brought about through the technological feats of surgery and neuroscience, are by-products of his pursuit of power.

Here's hoping, that in my circuitous meanderings, I'll be able to bring my research interests in neuroscience, the grotesque and posthumanism together in a way that, when I finally pull my PhD thesis together, will offer some deep insights into my creative practice.