Science Fiction, Speculation, and Living Machines

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that I’m a huge science fiction nut (and that this has been the case for practically as long as I can remember). I grew up being exposed to Star Trek (both the original series and the Next Generation series when that came out), Star Wars (which I became utterly obsessed with at the age of eight), and other miscellaneous media.

Still, I don’t watch a lot of television. I don’t have cable in my apartment, and the only channels we do get here come in fuzzily at best (and I have zero interest in having a zillion channels to flip through — it actually drives me nuts when people do that, so I’m certainly not going to enable it in my apartment!). Much of my science-fictional education (if you can call it that) has been through books. As a kid I started off reading whatever books my father happened to have lying around (a favorite was Roger Zelazny’s Amber series), and I’d have slept in the library if I’d been allowed to.

But I do like a good movie now and then, and I am always pleased to find a fun series to watch episodes of on DVD with my dinner. And since I managed to exhaust the available Joss Whedoncatalog last year, recently I went in a slightly different direction and started watching the science fiction series Farscape on DVD.

So far, what I’ve seen of Farscape has been delightful. The first few episodes were a bit rough (in terms of both dialogue and special effects), but the show rapidly picked up momentum and is definitely carving out a special niche in my brain as I move into the latter half of the second season. Nobody could argue that Farscape is exactly hard SF (there’s a ridiculous amount of hand-waving at times with regard to how particular technologies and manifestations of alien biology work), but it doesn’t need to be in order to be very good at being what it is: a fun space-fantasy that is equal parts imaginative romp and comfortable, familiar territory.

There are some aspects of Farscape that remind me of Trek, some that bring Firefly to mind, some that invoke visions of The Fifth Element, and some shades of Stargate SG-1, but the show certainly has plenty of distinguishing elements in its own right.

One of the more intriguing elements of Farscape is the ship the main characters fly around on — a “biomechanoid” creature known as a leviathan. “Living ships” are nothing new as far as science fiction goes, but I haven’t seen very many of them on television outside various animeseries, where there often isn’t any clear line between meat-based life and metal-based life at all.

Now, of course the definition of “life” varies a lot depending on who you ask, but in the context of Farscape, the leviathan (named Moya) is sentient, capable of experiencing emotion, capable of reproduction, and able to self-repair to some extent. She can also communicate fairly directly with her Pilot (who is, quite literally, bonded to her through a network of neural and other physical connections), though non-Pilot crew members must communicate with the ship through the Pilot since their connection to her isn’t as direct.

I realize that “living ships” are most certainly confined to the realm of science fiction as far as the world as we know it goes. But as a character in Farscape pointed out early on in the series, humans have long had functional/”contractual” relationships with other animals, such as horses (albeit with some complicating ethical problems; I personally don’t like the way humans often assume that animals are here for our “use”, but at the same time, I do believe humans and nonhuman animals can reach states of mutual understanding and friendship).

The idea of a “living ship” to traverse space with might be fantastic now, but it’s still fascinating to think about in terms of what the various implications might be of this arrangement.

In Farscape, the leviathans are “created beings” — their race was brought into existence by another alien species who intended them to act as “emissaries of peace”. They are not equipped with weapons, they develop symbiotic bonds with their Pilots, and they grow to better accommodate their crew over time. They can feel happy and sad, they can experience loyalty and disappointment, and they possess a survival instinct and a drive to protect their young. They seem to enjoy providing passage to those aboard, but they also have minds of their own — they don’t so much “take orders” as go along with what the crew wants (since it allows the leviathan the opportunity to continually explore), unless the crew’s wants conflict with the leviathan’s own desires, agenda, and sense of self-preservation.

Now in looking at the ethics surrounding leviathan-crew relationships, two models are presented in Farscape. One model sees the leviathan as something that is simultaneously a tool and a friend (i.e., another conscious being to be treasured and related to on his/her own terms). Here, the leviathan is given the opportunity to bond with a Pilot and carry a crew and explore, while fully conscious and autonomous. In this model, the relationship between the leviathan and everyone aboard is basically symbiotic; the leviathan provides life support and transportation for the crew, and their whims and goals provide the leviathan with new experiences and the opportunity to help others and (hopefully) advocate for peace and other positive notions.

The second model, however, is one in which the leviathan is “captured” and rendered either unconscious or semiconscious, and fitted with a “control collar” which allows the crew to direct him/her at their whim. Pilots in this second model are still present, but instead of being allowed to undergo the bonding process (which can take a rather long time, but which ultimately results in a painless and more effective communicative link), they are painfully and forcibly grafted to the living ships — and then subjugated by the crew, which leads to their being threatened with everything up to and including death as penalty for not following orders.

As I’ve watched Farscape, though of course I fully understand that I’m watching fiction, I’ve found myself feeling very sympathetic toward the leviathan. The second model described above pretty much enrages me, and whenever Moya sustains damage on the show, it makes me flinch a little bit. Call it silly if you like, but that’s just the way it is for me.

When I was little, my overall view of the world vaguely resembled panpsychism — that is, I didn’t really distinguish between “people” and “objects” in my environment, and consequently I saw everything as potentially “alive”.

I’ve read some studies that interpret this tendency in autistics as indicating that we view peopleas essentially inanimate, but I’m really curious as to whether my experience could actually be the more common one. Basically, I didn’t prioritize people over books or trees or cats in the sense I was expected to (I was often lectured for reading — or wandering around looking at things — in group settings rather than “socializing”).

However, this does not mean that I ever saw people as hollow or empty; as far as I was concerned, nothing was hollow or empty; everything, from the smallest piece of broken crayon to the largest lichen-crusted rock, was suffused with a kind of unique character. People just didn’t always stand out as the most interesting things in the immediate environment.

One reason I suspect I’ve always been drawn to science fiction and fantasy to some extent is because these genres often present worlds in which nonhuman forms and intellects are more accepted as a matter of course. When I imagine what it might be like to fly around on a living ship, the thought is strangely comforting.

That aside, I’ve been aware of for a long that while many people think of conscious awareness as one of the most “advanced” attributes an entity might possess, there really isn’t any push to make all the machines humans use conscious. Certainly, there’s plenty of motivation to create more “intelligent” systems (i.e., self-navigating cars), but when it comes to things being designed primarily as tools, I’m not sure most people would welcome self-awareness as an attribute of those tools.

Historically, humans have tended to create things (or enable/nurture their existence) for two major reasons: because we need a new tool to help us accomplish a task (the tool, in that case, is basically a means to an end), or because we want to bring something into existence for its own sake. Of course one could argue that everything humans do is a means to some fundamental end (like “replication” or “happiness”), but this kind of argument seems to me a bit arid and limiting. Regardless of what our dopamine levels are doing, the experience of making or acquiring a tool to accomplish a specific task is a qualitatively different one than the experience of making or acquiring something that is going to be treasured as opposed to merely used.

Now, some people do actually treasure their tools (I and my dad are both extremely averse to throwing things away!), but even those of us who will keep the broken remnants of a favorite piece of hardware usually have a list of items we do consider “disposable” and/or interchangeable with other similar items. These items are things we expect to fulfill a specific purpose reliably, with minimal demands on our time and attention. People don’t necessarily want their obsolete computer hardware to “know” they plan to replace it once it wears out, and they don’t want their dying device batteries to demand Christian burials. In short, many prefer the tools they use to be tools, not friends or pets.

Your mileage may vary, of course. But I wouldn’t call it entirely premature or ridiculous to suggest that people start thinking about what increasing levels of computational complexity in their tools might imply, philosophically speaking. I’m not suggesting that our toasters and calculators are on the verge of “waking up”, merging with Google, and initiating an Appliance Revolution, but rather that it can’t hurt to at least imagine what nonhuman or even atypical-human consciousnesses might look like. At the very least, you might get a good science fiction story out of it!