Category: Fiction

The Comets of Literary Cohesion

Every few years, with the hyperbolic regularity of Kahoutek’s orbit, I return to B.R. Myers’ 2001 Atlantic essay, A Reader’s Manifesto, where he plays the enfant terrible against the titans of serious literature. With savagery Myers tears out the elliptical heart of Annie Proulx and then beats regular holes in Cormac McCarthy and Don DeLillo in a conscious mockery of the strained repetitiveness of their sentences.

I return to Myers because I currently have four novels in process. I return because I hope to be saved from the delirium of the postmodern novel that wants to be written merely because there is nothing really left to write about, at least not without a self-conscious wink:

But today’s Serious Writers fail even on their own postmodern terms. They urge us to move beyond our old-fashioned preoccupation with content and plot, to focus on form instead—and then they subject us to the least-expressive form, the least-expressive sentences, in the history of the American novel. Time wasted on these books is time that could be spent reading something fun.

Myers’ essay hints at what he sees as good writing, quoting Nabakov, referencing T.S. Eliot, and analyzing the controlled lyricism of Saul Bellow. Evaporating the boundaries between the various “brows” and accepting that action, plot, and invention are acceptable literary conceits also marks Myers’ approach to literary analysis.

It is largely an atheoretic analysis but there is a hint at something more beneath the surface when Myers describes the disdain of European peasants for the transition away from the inscrutable Latin masses and benedictions and into the language of the common man: “Our parson…is a plain honest man… But…he is no Latiner.” Myers counts the fascination with arabesque prose, with labeling it as great even when it lacks content, as derived from the same fascination that gripped the peasants: majesty is inherent in obscurity. Anyone who has struggled with trying to translate foreign prose or tried to transcribe music from one instrument to another rapidly understands why the problems are unassailable cliffs to the outsider. So it is with literary prose. The less I understand, the more I feel it.

But what more is there to this? We break now away from literary criticism and to the psychology of text comprehension itself, bobbing and weaving a bit to avoid falling into the cliché of the postmodern novel. First, we know that reading comprehension is affected by two obvious factors: (a) our background knowledge of the topic, and (b) the cohesion of the text. We intuitively understand (a) when it comes to scientific texts. If we have a degree in the topic we have more background knowledge than if we don’t, for instance. (b) requires defining “cohesion” a bit. Cohesion can be measured by looking at repeated nouns and bridging concepts from one paragraph to another. Highly cohesive texts tie concepts together across sentences and paragraphs, reinforcing the relationships that are expressed in one sentence with those in others, forming semantic bridges to enhance the text. Less cohesive texts are more scatter-shot, leaving the reader to infer the relevant bridging principles.

The interaction between (a) and (b) could hardly be more interesting. When (a) is high, readers learn better and retain more when (b) is low. Repeat: low coherence texts are better for high knowledge learners. If one knows a lot, one gets easily bored by all the carefully chained concepts of high cohesion texts. Or, as a friend once said about software and hardware manuals, “They are for the weak of mind.” The opposite is obviously true. If you know little about a subject, the semantic bridges help get you from knowledge Midgard to Asgard, but they are just road noise for the knowledgeable.

It is aspirational, then, when obscurantist language and metaphors pile up like proton parts in the Large Hadron Collider. The authors are asking their readers to search for the God Participle. They want to be Latiners. They want Cormac McCarthy to transform the bloody mess of westward expansion into Exodus. They want it because they want low cohesion texts and the feeling of sailing through the vaulted ceilings of ancient cathedrals, like Leary on acid, like penitentes against the whip, like gurus stinking of enlightenment. Then the gentle readers can finally bask among the deconstructed mists after the dream has faded, waiting for the next cycle of literary critics to anoint the next round of elaborated prose and, as Kahoutek returns, so the gentle rush of spring will come again to the countryside.

Teleology, Chapter 5

Harry spent most of that summer involved in the Santa Fe Sangre de Cristo Church, first with the church summer camp, then with the youth group. He seemed happy and spent the evenings text messaging with his new friends. I was jealous in a way, but refused to let it show too much. Thursdays he was picked up by the church van and went to watch movies in a recreation center somewhere. I looked out one afternoon as the van arrived and could see Sarah’s bright hair shining through the high back window of the van.

Mom explained that they seemed to be evangelical, meaning that they liked to bring as many new worshippers into the religion as possible through outreach and activities. Harry didn’t talk much about his experiences. He was too much in the thick of things to be concerned with my opinions, I think, and snide comments were brushed aside with a beaming smile and a wave. “You just don’t understand,” Harry would dismissively tell me.

I was reading so much that Mom would often demand that I get out of the house on weekend evenings after she had encountered me splayed on the couch straight through lunch and into the shifting evening sunlight passing through the high windows of our thick-walled adobe. I would walk then, often for hours, snaking up the arroyos towards the mountains, then wend my way back down, traipsing through the thick sand until it was past dinner time.

It was during this time period that I read cyberpunk authors and became intrigued with the idea that someday, one day, perhaps computing machines would “wake up” and start to think on their own. I knew enough about computers that I could not even conceive of how that could possibly come about. My father had once described for me a simple guessing game that learned. If the system couldn’t guess your choice of animal, it would concede and use the correct answer to expand its repertoire. I had called it “learning by asking” at the time but only saw it as a simple game and never connected it to the problem of human learning.

Yet now the concept made some sense as an example of how an intelligent machine could escape from the confines of just producing the outputs that it was programmed to produce. Yet there were still confines; the system could never just reconfigure the rules system or decide to randomly guess when it got bored (or even get bored). There was something profound missing from our understanding of human intelligence.

Purposefulness seemed to be the missing attribute that we had and that machines did not. We were capable of making choices by a mechanism of purposefulness that transcended simple programmable rules systems, I hypothesized, and also traced that purpose back to more elementary programming that was part of our instinctive, animal core. There was a philosophical problem with this scheme, though, that I recognized early on; if our daily systems of learning and thought were just elaborations of logical games like that animal learning game, and the purpose was embedded more deeply, what natural rules governed that deeper thing, and how could it be fundamentally different than the higher-order rules?

I wanted to call this core “instinct” and even hypothesized that if it could be codified it would bridge the gap between truly thinking and merely programmed machines. But the alternative to instinct being a logical system seemed to be assigning it supernatural status and that wasn’t right for several reasons.

First, the commonsense notion of instinct associated with doing primitive things like eating, mating and surviving seemed far removed from the effervescent and transcendent ideas about souls that were preached by religions. I wanted to understand the animating principle behind simple ideas like wanting to eat and strategizing about how to do it—hardly the core that ascends to heaven in Christianity and other religions I was familiar with. It was also shared across all animals and even down to the level of truly freaky things like viruses and prions.

The other problem was that any answer of supernaturalism struck me as leading smack into an intellectual brick wall because we could explain and explain until we get to the core of our beings and then just find this billiard ball of God-light. Somehow, though, that billiard ball had to emanate energy or little logical arms to affect the rules systems by which we made decisions; after all, purposefulness can’t just be captive in the billiard ball but has to influence the real world, and at that point we must be able to characterize those interactions and guess a bit at the structure of the billiard ball.

So the simplest explanation seemed to be that the core, instinct, was a logically describable system shaped by natural processes and equipped with rules that governed how to proceed. Those rules didn’t need to be simple or even easily explainable, but they needed to be capable of explanation. Any other scheme I could imagine involved a problem of recursion, with little homunculi trapped inside other homunculi and ultimately powered by a billiard ball of cosmic energy.

I tried to imagine what the religious thought about this scheme of explanation but found what I had heard from Harry to be largely incompatible with any sort of explanation. Instead, the discussion was devoid of any sort of detailed analysis or arguments concerning human intelligence. There was a passion play between good and evil forces, the notion of betraying or denying the creator god, and an unexplained transmigration of souls, being something like our personalities or identities. If we wanted to ask a question about why someone had, say, committed a crime, it was due to supernatural influences that acted through their personalities. More fundamental questions like how somehow learned to speak a language, which I thought was pretty amazing, were not apparently subject to the same supernatural processes, but might be explained with a simple recognition of the eminence of God’s creation. So moral decisions were subject to evil while basic cognition was just an example of supernatural good in this scheme of things, with the latter perhaps subject to the arbitrary motivations of the creator being.

Supernaturalism was an appeal to non-explanation driven by a conscious desire to not look for answers. “God’s Will” was the refrain for this sort of reasoning and it was counterproductive to understanding how intelligence worked or had come about.

God was the end of all thought. The terminus of bland emptiness. A void.

But if natural processes were responsible, then the source of instinct was evolutionary in character. Evolution led to purpose, but in a kind of secondhand way. The desire to reproduce did not directly result in complex brains or those elaborate plumes on birds that showed up in biology textbooks. It was a distal effect built on a basic platform of sensing and reacting and controlling the environment. That seemed obvious enough but was just the beginning of the puzzle for me. It also left the possibility of machines “waking up” far too distant a possibility since evolution worked very slowly in the biological world.

I suddenly envisioned computer programs competing with each other to solve specific problems in massive phalanxes. Each program varied slightly from the others in minute details. One could print “X” while another could print “Y”. The programs that did better would then be replicated into the next generation. Gradually the programs would converge on solving a problem using a simple evolutionary scheme. There was an initial sense of elegant simplicity, though the computing system to carry the process out seemed at least as large as the internet itself. There was a problem, however. The system required a central governor to carry out the replication of the programs, their mutation and to measure the success of the programs. It would also have to kill off, to reap, the losers. That governor struck me as remarkably god-like in its powers, sitting above the population of actors and defining the world in which they acted. It was also inevitable that the solutions at which programs would arrive would be completely shaped by the adaptive landscape that they were presented with; though they were competing against one another, their behavior was mediated through an outside power. It was like a game show in a way and didn’t have the kind of direct competition that real evolutionary processes inherently have.

A solution required that the governor process go away, that the individual programs replicate themselves and that even that replication process be subject to variation and selection. Moreover, the selection process had to be very broadly defined based on harvesting resources in order to replicate, not based on an externally defined objective function. Under those circumstances, the range of replicating machines—automata—could be as vast as the types of flora and fauna on Earth itself.

As I trudged up the arroyo, I tried to imagine the number of insects, bacteria, spores, plants and vines in even this relatively sparse desert. A cricket began singing in a nearby mesquite bush, joining the chorus of other crickets in the late summer evening. The light of the moon was beginning to glow behind a mountain ridge. Darkness was coming fast and I could hear coyotes start calling further up the wash towards St. John’s College.

As I returned home, I felt as though I was the only person walking in the desert that night, isolated in the dark spaces that separated the haphazard Santa Fe roads, yet I also was warmed with the idea that there was a solution to the problem of purpose embedded deeply in our biology and that could be recreated in a laboratory of sorts, given a vastly complex computing system larger than the internet itself. That connection to a deep truth seemed satisfying in a way that the weird language of religion had never felt. We could know and understand our own nature through reason, through experiments and through simulation, and even perhaps create a completely new form of intelligence that had its own kind of soul derived from surviving generations upon generations of replications.

But did we, like gods, have the capacity to apprehend this? I recalled my Hamlet: The paragon of animals, indeed. A broad interpretation of the Biblical Fall as a desire to be like God lent a metaphorical flavor to this nascent notion. Were we reaching out to try to become like a creator god of sorts through the development of intelligent technologies and biological manipulation? If we did create a self-aware machine that seemed fully human-like, it would certainly support the idea that we were creators of new souls.

I was excited about this line of thinking as I slipped into the living room where Mom and Harry were watching a crime drama on TV. Harry would not understand this, I realized, and would lash out at me for being terrifically weird if I tried to discuss it with him. The distance between us had widened to the point that I would avoid talking directly to him. It felt a bit like the sense of loss after Dad died, though without the sense of finality that death brought with it. Harry and I could recover, I thought, reconnecting later on in life and reconciling our divergent views.

A commercial came and I stared at the back of his head like I had done so often, trying to burrow into his skull with my mind. “Harry, Harry!” I called in my thoughts. He suddenly turned around with his eyes bulging and a crooked smile erupting across his face.

“What?” he asked.

It still worked.

Signals and Noise: Chapter 7 (Parsimony)

Monotony is the essential character of those late nights, so familiar to Zach and all his fellows. Monotony, but restful and calm, withholding the sharp edges and the intaglios of faces that define everyday interactions, while still remaining a part of the web of life. He could send an AetherNote or email and get a response, but without the complexities of the face had he been talking to the person. There were gigabytes of missed nuance, pursing lips, pauses, dilating pupils, flush responses—all lost behind the veil of electronica. Moreover, he could pause for that brief moment without any awkwardness, and they could pause as well, waiting for the ideas to filter out of the calamity of neural collisions. When everyone can order thoughts a hair faster than ever before in history, yet still interact deep into the night like they were sitting at a pub or around a campfire, there is an acceleration of competitiveness, a capacity for intellectual posturing. The new assholes, the new religionists, the new atheists, the new technologists, the strident politicos, the snarky personalities—everyone primps and props their online identities behind this veil of witty pretense, hearts racing as they snap at the refresh icon, waiting for the cannonball retort.

Democratizing it is, but with the side effect of drowning out the instant, unfiltered and emotive response on the one hand, and the dramatically conditioned and elaboratively intellectualized riposte on the other. There was too much lag for spontaneity and too little for detailed flourish. It is a channel that emphasizes bluster and bombast in securely short constructs. And thought followed suit. Thought on the average got better, but the best thought was drowned out by the long tails of opinions washing through them like the wake of a whale. Acceleration itself accelerated, too, and bloggers were posting faster than responses could be read—two or three times a day—and emails were sent just to assert a role in the ongoing Sturm und Drang, like minor keys singing provocatively against the quiet of those nights, against the monotony, the essential quiet that once was empty.

Zach was feeling again through The Spinner’s world, listing out his connections and zeroing in on their backgrounds, sifting through county records and USENET backgrounders, watching for their signals. There was a process, of sorts, but it was like the foraging of ants following pheromone trails. A tidbit led to a scent, then another tidbit, then a possible payout of information. But the payout was tentative to start with, and was only held down like a cat’s paw holds down a butterfly, until there was sufficient resolution and cover of all the linkages, otherwise releasing the facts back into the wild. Ignore it. It was nothing. Start again: prodigal gathering then sifting down through a filter of parsimony. Ambiguity was the enemy, especially for names and dates. The more ambiguity, the more parsimony and care that was required. But when there was resolution, it was a little victory, and Zach strutted around his room, tweeting his kingness and texting victory signals out from the cavern.

The Signal was in there, too, but was constantly darting out of site like crawfish in a muddy ditch. Even as Zach zeroed in on a faint reflection—an echoed reminder of the patterns he kept seeing—he was beginning to doubt that the pattern was meaningful. If it was significant, why wasn’t it significant enough to erase its own trail? There was a dissonance to its own existence that Zach had never seen in anything else. Code solved problems. Code sold click-throughs. Code instrumented desires. Code did not slither and leave trails. Code was not snails.

Signals and Noise, Start of Chapter 17 (Cannibalism)

The fear of cannibalism is encoded in the recesses of the Greek mind. It was an observational archetype that lent nothing to Zach’s understanding of Homeric epics, but Harrington was insisting on the significance of eating people as a placeholder for the antiquarian origins of the Greek culture. He briefly considered questioning the teacher deeply and humorously as to how exactly they ate people. Did they begin with the heads and brains like the Pacific Islanders? Or maybe they preferred the soft parts first like eyes and genitals, following the predatory predilections of dogs, cats, and wolves? The difference between the animal and the human condition was the difference between survival and a ritualistic misunderstanding of the origins of power, and Harrington’s lecture was conveying nothing about whether that distinction was at play. He just wanted to shock a little bit, to tantalize the minds of his charges with incongruities that might provoke them into learning. Zach thought about raising his hand and asking if cannibalism would be on the test.

The dazing effect of irrelevant information had consequences, but Zach knew his peers well enough to understand that there was nothing that could truly provoke them short of blatant sexuality or gratuitous violence. The former worked on everyone, but the latter had a negative counter-effect on all but those predisposed to voyeuristic fascination with the horrors that the human mind was capable of. The only solution was to teach with porn, Zach thought, imagining vignettes with Helen of Troy servicing shiploads of sailors in gratitude for her safe delivery to the walls of the great, impenetrable city. Impenetrable until the protection tore just a little and the famous sneak attack carried the wiggling penetrators in to finally sodomize the city into submission. The gods were wowed by the cleverness, dropping their robes in a frantic embrace that resulted in more jealous coupling still until Odysseus got lost between all the bed sheets.

Zach was hardly concentrating by this point and instead sat up and leaned forward. Belinda was looking at him again. Little Beli no more, he reminded himself. He turned towards her in a slow, controlled motion and she turned away with equal effort. He stayed looking intently at her profile and watching her eyes flicker up and down, and then just a bit towards him. She hugged herself and put her chin against her collarbone, eyes closed, for long enough that Zach finally turned away. He was no cannibal, he thought, for brains or hearts. He wasn’t sure what he was, locked into this cycle of school lessons, skating, hacking, and mortal combat with a mystery that was only growing more evasive the deeper he penetrated into it. Cannibalism was easy, hunger was hard, he thought as Harrington pushed the metaphor of order out of chaos in the core of the ancient mind.

We haven’t changed in that regard, Zach thought. There was always the impossibility of other minds, shuttered behind words and complexions. The eyes did nothing but reveal faint signals through a gentle lift of a brow or squint of happiness. They were no window to the souls at all. Belinda was just historically more predictable than The Spinner, but only because he had done his infamous deeds just outside in the hall, and she had not. Or she had not yet, he thought. What did it take to carry any of them over that horizon of horror? What made the cannibals eat their neighbors in those proto city states in Scythia and Ionia and the Peloponnesus? Fear was occluding reason for Zach again and he turned away from his uncomfortable visual confrontation and sank into his desk, watching Harrington try to stir the imaginations of his classmates, stoned and worried over their AetherFaces identities, dedicated to posturing and college admissions, and inattentively pawing at their notebooks. He shook and went flush when a door far out in the aural expanses of the hallway snapped closed. There was panic here, but he closed his eyes and breathed for a moment, then another, and the buzzer finally rang and he sat still as the shuffling began. Belinda moved fast past him and was gone, her miniskirt matched to her miniboots, black against the pink of her thighs.

Poetry and Imprecision

But what if the written word is not identifiably personal or about human relations? What if the ideas expressed in the texts don’t bind to any kind of honest analysis of the facts? What if the semantics are so diffuse that they are open to almost any interpretation?

Then we have poetry.

On the Bay Area’s KQED Forum, Elaine Pagels talks about the Book of Revelation and her new book, its influence, misinterpretation, reinterpretation, and the scholarship that surrounds it.

Poetry is hidden and mystical. This makes it great in inspiring interpretation but also great in the breadth of the imaginable interpretations. Imprecision can inspire monumental achievements and horrific human tragedies–likely in about the same proportions. Luckily, we now have the power to parody and deconstruct it all without fear and with the building knowledge that through that deconstruction we can better account for an understanding of the humanity of others.

Fiction and Empathy

The New York Times reviews the neuroscience associated with reading fictional accounts, concluding that the brain states of readers show similar activation patterns to people experiencing the events described in the book. This, in turn, enhances and improves our own “theory of mind” about others when we read about social interactions:

[I]ndividuals who frequently read fiction seem to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them and see the world from their perspective. This relationship persisted even after the researchers accounted for the possibility that more empathetic individuals might prefer reading novels.

Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature suggests that the advent of the printing press is where we see the start of a shift in European societies’ attitudes about violence. The spread of reading and the growth of political satire correlate with reductions in state violence through the 19th Century and into the 20th (yes, he argues the 20th shows a reduction in violence, despite our intuitions about WWI and WWII). Think Voltaire. Think All Quiet on the Western Front.

Teleology, Chapter 26

Wherein, the protagonist, Mikey, his twin brother, Harry, and a journalist, Jacob, are being physically healed by intelligent nanomachines while their consciousnesses are in a virtual world that appears to be a research ship in the Pacific Ocean.

26

We hovered in our “matrix” of sorts for ten more days. The Lexis reported that the search by US military forces was intensifying. Swarms of unmanned underwater and airborne vehicles were scouring the sea, though the most intense efforts were concentrated several hundred kilometers from our new location. The Lexis believed that the platform was in jeopardy because of the new connectivity that they had achieved to the outside world through the control of the nanobots, but also seemed consigned to whatever fate I dictated concerning their disposition. I chose to wait because our medical conditions were improving day by day—at least according to them—and I saw no reason to emerge until maximally healed.

We relaxed aboard the Recherché in the meantime, eating Cottard’s increasingly elaborate cooking and drinking his exceptional wines. The wines and foods were all familiar to me, I realized; the sensations had been mined from our thoughts and recollections. There was something disturbing about that, though I didn’t feel particularly violated because the Lexis were both a familiar quantity to me and their motivations I suspected were not malevolent.

While waiting I worked with the Lexis to try to understand how they had taken command of the external nanomachines and how they had modified them to improve their functionality. They regarded the entire exercise as something like the Sistine Chapel ceiling. It was an elaborate artistic effort designed to promote the idea of the Creator among their kind by showing my adventures in an almost unimaginable heaven that they saw us living in. The idea of our physical universe was largely outside their ken but was supported through the equivalent of oral traditions among their kind. Even the act of saving us was more like rearranging statuary on an altar to them—an act of religious observance that had moral implications as mystical stories but was otherwise not translatable into their frame of reference.

I asked for control over the spatial representations and they created a series of dashboards on the bridge of the ship that allowed me to, initially, change textures and lighting. Being becalmed in a misty fog was wearing on me, so I admitted sunlight and designed a small island with a lone palm tree for fun. I asked for a view of the platform and they provided it, showing how dark it was three miles below the surface of the pacific before I asked for alternative lighting and an ultrasonic visualization was provided. The platform was huge, now, yet they were still building, focusing on support structures for landing Leapers and docking cargo ships for a larger industrial enterprise.

I was sitting with Jacob and Harry when I asked them why they chose the designs they had chosen. It was very simple, the Lexis had replied, the designs were needed in order to build and lift the components needed to create the Cosputer. They had read my mind and were simply following through on what they thought was needed to make it happen. Harry had been solemn for the past several days, ever since I revealed that we were in a simulation and showed him a video of what had transpired.

“I’m worried that you really are the anti-Christ, Mikey. Look, you have created the power to live forever and create your own heaven.”

“Trapped on a ship is hardly heaven, Harry, although Cottard’s cooking is very good,” I joked, “But seriously, man, I don’t want to deceive anyone. I don’t want to lie. I don’t intend to harm anyone and, as far as I know no one has been harmed except for a few of your compatriots in those Leapers. Other than people not being so interested in Christ or Allah or Mohammed or Krishna, what lies do you see?”

“Well, that’s just it. There is the great lie of separation from God that you are promoting.”

“I’ve never understood that, Harry. You are claiming that there is this rift and it is caused by human choice and belief, yet is only discernable to a select few like yourself, while the rest of us are just victims of some impending doom. When I talked of private versus public knowledge, I was being far too kind, really. The fact is that you are asking people to surrender their minds and all thinking to a series of irrational abstractions. It is delusional and crazy in a very real way. I am not even sure what the Cosputer can be used for. The idea of being absorbed into it is just one possibility that is not even well worked out. Mostly I’m interested in this slightly incomprehensible physics that happens when these micro black holes start whirling in close orbits near their event horizons.”

“But it is all so inhuman. Our gods were designed for us here on Earth,” Jacob said.

“They were. That is the secret, really, Harry. You can escape from the tyranny of the irrational by just giving yourself over to one of the oldest realizations: we invented the gods to order our world and help us. You can be a good Christian again if you realize that. There is no explaining the cruelty and horror of the Old Testament or the barbarism of the Koran without that realization. Odd, though, when I put it that way it actually gives Christianity a slightly elevated position among the Abrahamic trinity, at least. Perhaps ‘the least offensive of them’ is the more proper description. Still, you get a tremendous amount of mileage out of religion if you just give up on the literalism and irrationality. You can appreciate the messages of love and understanding as reflections of a fundamental need for people to live together. Though shall not steal or murder makes perfect sense as evolved algorithms for social order and were invented by every major civilization through religion or civil law or some combination of the two. Religion was and is an evolutionary learning system that has served us well but you are showing the unintended consequences of that primitive system when you are irrationally literal about these things. Actually, though, that is incorrect. You are not being particularly literal on these issues. You are being too expansively creative, instead, trying to apply poetic mythical guidance to every event in the world according to whims of your dictates. God didn’t intervene to give the US the first atomic bomb or infect the Chinese computing network with the Shibboleth 7 virus in 2034, but God is worried about my nanomedicine inventions and what their role is in the grand theater of the end of the world? Why not show some humility and just calmly wait for things to happen? Why are you so egotistical that you think you have a role in all this?”

Harry was stunned at my diatribe and sat still for a long pause just watching me. “Maybe I have a role because of who you are,” he said sheepishly.

“Maybe, but it is definitely the case that there is nothing evil in any definition of the word to what I have accomplished so far, nor was there ever evil intent, nor did I directly or indirectly hurt anyone. I can’t even tell you the last time I lied to anyone, Harry. I am certainly flawed in many ways. I doubt myself. I think badly of others sometimes. I hated you for years, though I’m not sure how flawed that was. I have lustful thoughts, which is something that your people seem to find bothersome yet with too many examples of hypocrisy to bother enumerating. Mostly, though, I have just studied the history of ideas and rational thought to come up with what I have achieved. And here you are, being brought back from the dead to share in the future.”

Jacob poured himself another glass of virtual wine. He was clearly enjoying my rant. “Mikey, do you think it would be possible to create a nanobot virus or something that would actually disable or remove the urge of people to be religious? Would that be possible?”

I sat back down, realizing suddenly that I had been pacing, and poured a glass myself. “I suppose so. Our minds are currently interfaced together supporting the direct stimulation of our sensory subsystems to provide an almost perfect simulation of normal reality. That knowledge could be used to stop religious thinking, too, I guess.”

“Under what circumstances would you consider doing something like that? Let’s say that some crazed Muslim terrorists were plotting a bombing and you came to know about it. Would you be willing to simply stop the titer of dopamine or whatever that feeds that religious feeling? How about when Harry was about to bomb Rio?”

Harry stayed quiet while listening to our discourse. He was angry, I could tell, periodically shaking his head in disbelief at what he was hearing.

“I don’t think so. Morally, I see a basic principle of minimal action to achieve a needed goal in play. The person should be allowed to think and, well, not-think, their way through complex dilemmas up and to the point where they are going to take action to harm someone else. Then, the choice should be based on the least invasive means to achieve the goal of stopping them. So, I guess I would blow out Harry’s van’s tires before I would invade his brain. He has a right to think badly, I suppose, and we have a right to protect ourselves against that bad thinking, but we have minimal rights to modify his brain.”

“What about for the mentally ill? Let’s say that there are people who are pathologically aggressive due to a genetic predisposition. Do we have the right to modify their brain under those circumstances? And what if religious fervor is, in fact, linked to this tendency towards magical thinking and dopamine? Is it acceptable to consider religious feeling mental illness under those circumstances? You just declared it all expansively irrational, after all.”

“Hard questions, but the problem of mental illness and its relationship to crime has to be driven by the individual. Same with religious belief taken to extremes, I think. If Harry wanted his brain modified, I would be inclined to let him make that choice. But for the delusional psychotic it may be appropriate to modify their brains just a bit in order to get them to a level where they are at least able to process information accurately enough to be able to make the choice as to whether they want to have the mental illness lifted from them. Anything else bespeaks tyranny to me, even given an otherwise irrational hatred of another group or people. You kind of need a Turing Test in way to determine whether someone is mentally capable or not.”

Harry seemed roused from his funk, “What’s that?”

“Alan Turing, British chap who developed much computational theory and worked on decrypting German Enigmas in World War II. The Turing Test is simple enough. If you communicate with a remote system and it convinces you it is human, then it is indistinguishable from human. That’s what I brought Jacob out to the platform for in a sense—to let him talk to the Lexis. But a weaker version of the Turing Test might apply to human rationality. If a remote communicator leaves the impression that it is capable of decision-making based on principles that are mostly internally consistent and can reason about the outside world, then they must be seen as mentally capable. This is slightly different, I think, from the legal dividing lines of sane versus insane, but is useful to me to answer this question, at least. Since Harry would have passed that test even around the time of the bombing, he would be entitled to just being shot dead rather than having his mind altered to bring it into better conformity with some greater rationality.”

Jacob was intrigued, “So, do you retract your claim of irrationality, then, concerning religious belief? Your requirement of sufficiency of rationality would be disputed by people like Szasz.”

“It’s worth nuance, I think. We can be irrational about many things. I loved Cassandra. I love my mom. My emotion on these points is just that—subjective—not derived out of rational consideration of their value to society or me, yet when we generate poetry about our loved ones we don’t expect that poetry to command us to act irrationally. Rationality is an understanding of consequence and an acceptance of limitations, I think. I read books in my teens that were so interesting to me that I wished they were, in fact, true. If I had translated that wish into actively trying to make them true, I would have been in trouble. I didn’t and most people who feel that way about their favorite fiction don’t commit crimes, either. Religion seems to be the exception.”

“Stop. Who did you read?”

“Niven’s Known Space, Dick, McCaffrey, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Robert Anton Wilson; the hit list goes on and on. I wasn’t overly discerning until later in life,” I said, trying to distance myself from youthful exuberance. “Your comment on Szasz—Myth of Mental Illness, right?—isn’t as accurate as you might want it to be. Reality is partly a social construct, but equality for all in a safe environment kinda trumps that. Witches could be burned had they really, provably, been harming people.”

Jacob was intrigued, now. “Wish fulfillment is aspirations run amok. We visualize what we would like to be true—to be real—and sometimes it jibes with actual outcomes. Could you see religion as wish fulfillment, then? Irrational when at its worst but a driving force for moral reasoning at best, especially when there is no, was no, educational background that helped promote reasoning about ethical decisions?”

“Absolutely. Daddy is watching me and will whack me if I don’t do the right thing. My desire is muzzled by the constraints of religious teachings, just like the legal system and ethical reasoning constrains us today.”

Harry was sitting up, attentive again, “So you don’t think that my thinking was inherently crazy, just that when it was combined with the bombing it became crazy?”

“I suppose so. I said before that I forgive you and I mean it, but that forgiveness is almost exclusively predicated on you being able to keep it in your pants, so to speak. Talk all you want but don’t mix diesel and fertilizer. Craziness is only relevant when it exceeds the bounds of one mind. The worrisome thing for me is the question of where children’s minds live in this kind of an ethical system. Legally, here in America,” I realized the humor of what I had said, “or back there in America, I should say, children are a special, protected class of citizens, entitled to some rights but having lesser rights, as well. Still, I think the same rules must apply. Until the crazy religious kook hits the kid as part of indoctrination, there is no harm done. I would dearly love that the Madrasahs and Rabbinical and Catholic schools taught kids to reason first and then asked them if they wanted to believe afterwards, but the end of that kind of thing is a long way out.”

“OK, OK,” Jacob continued, “I see your point concerning manipulating brains directly. But how about doing it indirectly?”

“What do you mean?”

“Lexis, could you make the platform fly?” Jacob asked into the air over the wine bottle.

“Yes, certainly.”

“Could you turn the platform into a sphere of nanomachines that could work cooperatively to achieve different goals while hovering in the air?”

“Yes.”

“Could you create nanomachines that could go into people’s homes and project three dimensional holograms of Jesus or Mohammed or Krishna and have those holograms talk to the people?”

“Yes.”

“See, Mikey, you are in the lobby of omnipotence. You could drive people’s beliefs without the need for modifying their brains. But is it ethical? Let’s say that you could use these holograms to tell Muslim terrorists that they were on the wrong path?”

“It’s an intriguing possibility, though the ethical dilemma is that it is deceptive. I would be deceiving them that I was their god or prophet or something.”

“Right, OK, what if the talking hologram was none of the above but indicated that it was a new representative of ‘great forces for good’ or something happily neutral sounding, and it indicated that great good could come about by not following the old ways? It would have to happen to everyone on the planet on the same day and would have the remarkable benefit of being direct experience. The Lexis know all the languages of mankind, too, which would make it easy for them to translate the message of sorts. What would you command, oh Creator?”

“I still feel uncomfortable. Even with careful avoidance of details, it feels deceptive. It fails the sniff test. I’m trying to get others to believe certain things and willing to exploit their weaknesses to achieve my goals.”

“Yahweh and Allah and Jesus didn’t have that kind of conscience, you know? They demand things of people and are not apparently concerned with their feelings, very much. Job expressed doubt but there wasn’t much sympathy on the part of God. We are the pathetic creatures to be toyed with for our own good.”

“Jesus didn’t do that,” Harry exclaimed, “Jesus just loved us.”

“Well, he loved us so much that he threatened us with Hell, a concept that didn’t even exist in the Old Testament. He loved us so much that he was resurrected and left the planet. Why bother, really? How does any of that translate into some supermiraculous love? God gave his son… God is omnipotent. He could create any number of super luminous beings and send them on down to us. And then Jesus becomes identical with God in some Trinitarian blurring together of words? You are demanding that we give up rationality again and just support random semantic constructs.”

“It’s not random to us. The trinity is real and reflects differing aspects of God. Jesus is the redeemer aspect.”

“Nonsensical and contradictory. Our moral compass has evolved an exquisite sensitivity to fairness and to being treated unfairly, yet your God wants fairness only for believers. It worked as a cosmic plotline for bad poetry, but it doesn’t scan now. All the Abrahamic gods lack morality, lack love and lack kindness in any modern sense. They lack the ability to grant that to the people because they are not as great as their creations. I can’t trick or force people to not believe, just as I can’t trick or force people to believe in something new, because it is wrong for me to do so. It is abstractly wrong—ideologically wrong—because I abstractly believe in freedom and personal ideals. That was only a weak theme in good old-fashioned religion. You have the choice, perhaps, but the choice has supernatural consequences. I would not promise the impossible because it would be wrong, nor would I manipulate possibilities. All I could do is accept the choices.”

“How close were we all to death?” Jacob asked. He was pulling the cork from another bottle the steward had brought in off Cottard’s infinite wine list.

I peered at him and laughed, “Lexis, were any of us technically dead in the sense of our hearts having stopped for an extended period of time?”

The air fluttered and spoke, “Yes, both you and Harry were technically dead according to that criterion. Creator, your heart was stopped for two hours and forty minutes while we repaired the damage. Harry was dead for twenty seven minutes.”

“Harry, we both rose from the dead and have the possibility of being benevolent gods. Any interest?”

Harry was angry, now, “Just because you have these powers doesn’t make you into a god!”

“Why not? What separates your God and Jesus from super-intelligent and super-potent space aliens? Or some pre-existing form of life that looks remarkably like us. After all, we were made in God’s image, weren’t we?”

“But God is infinite love, the creator of all things, and light!”

“You don’t really mean that, though, do you? He can’t be light per se. Light is just electromagnetic radiation, so you can’t mean that literally, right?”

“Not literally, but in the sense of goodness.”

“Well, why not just say ‘goodness’ then, rather than saying ‘light’? But more critically, I am a creator, at least to these Lexis, and I have the ability to love all people, at least enough that I won’t harm them. What makes this possibility so very different from your God?”

“You are not infinite and omniscient.”

“And how does being actually infinite and omniscient make God better than me? First, it doesn’t really make any sense. If God were infinite He would occupy all known space or even perhaps all space including unknown space. That would mean that we were in fact part of God’s body, but that would also mean that we couldn’t actually be apart from God. It would be more like pantheism, I think. And ho ho for omniscience. How does knowing everything that is happening, has happened in the past or will happen actually make God good? He obviously isn’t really using that power to save us from disease, much less even Yahweh’s chosen people or Allah’s chosen people or anyone else. He foresees every little cancer, but let’s us suffer through them for our spiritual growth. Ahhh, yes, but He sees a greater purpose that we can’t possibly know that is still to come and happens in the afterlife. But so what? We can live forever, or at least until the universe collapses by simply repairing these bodies at a molecular level. We can eliminate pain and suffering without actually needing to know the future. The future doesn’t much matter insofar as you are not subject to its impacts.”

“Those are the lies we feared, Mikey. You are promoting the greatest lie that we can live without Jesus. It is all unfolding just like we had feared. You may very well be Satan incarnate.”

I laughed and sipped at the Bordeaux. Harry was agitated and it wasn’t going away. I tried to calm him down a bit, “Come on, Harry, this is just a discussion. You must have had discussions like this over the years?”

“Not really. We talked about our love of Jesus, mostly, and matters related to the church. This kind of blasphemous speculation never came up.”

“Why do you think that is?”

“Because we are more godly than you. We understand the power of Christ to redeem our souls. You don’t even care. You just want to change this world without regard for Heaven.”

“Wait, are you implying that any attempt to explain this world or make life better for people is evil? That seems remarkable to me. Didn’t you go build clinics somewhere to help people?”

“Yes, but it was done in Jesus’ name. That’s the difference.”

Jacob was perplexed, “So, if Mikey had done exactly the same research and come up with exactly the same results but had been an avid Christian, you would embrace the outcomes as good?”

“Yes, if he called on the Holy Spirit and he did God’s will and helped people through nanomedicine or whatever, than it would be holy, too.”

“I guess I don’t see what difference it makes? What if Mikey were to project into every home in every language that he wanted everyone to follow his new interpretation of Christianity that had brought about these miraculous changes to our lives? And let’s say that you weren’t aware of this discussion, would you believe it to be true and good?”

“I suppose so. The name of Jesus purifies everything, so if he was to use it it must be holy.”

I was mortified. He was suggesting a kind of warding magic. If the word was used, it had power in itself. But not all words had that power, just the word “Jesus.” “You are aware of the No True Scotsman fallacy, aren’t you?”

“No, what’s that?”

“Well, you want this invocation to have power, but there must be some other Christians who you don’t think are right, right? Like the Christians who support gay marriage and pride, or those who think evolution is accurate science?”

“They aren’t true Christians.”

“Well, how is it that they pray, invoke the name of Jesus, yet come away with all these wrong ideas? I thought the word purified everything?”

“They’re just misguided.”

“Right, no true Scotsman would murder his clansman, so he just can’t be a Scotsman. It’s as old as stone. Once again, if you want words to have meaning and power, they have to be at least consistent in their meaning. If you say the word Jesus has power, then you have to explain why it doesn’t have power most of the time. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, help me. Nothing. Bupkes. I’m irredeemable and you were brought back from the dead by the miraculous intervention of science. It’s not a lie and, honestly, the closest thing to a grand, all-encompassing and deep conspiratorial lie I’ve ever encountered is the claim that there are supernatural beings who created us, intervene in our lives and can be petitioned to carry out our wishes. We have the power to try to make that lie stop, yet so many fools and children buy into it because it gets them laid, because it comforts them, because they never think for themselves, because they are unwilling to ask basic questions about why we are here and what we should do with our lives. Here we are, though, continuing on with the grand mystical tradition of living and we still haven’t given ourselves over to an honest assessment that there are no gods at all out there, that we are part of a remarkable and random event, possibly driven by forces we don’t yet understand but altogether unrelated to the little wondrous fables that were invented during the Roman Empire.” I paused and realized I was too riled up, but there was sudden inspiration, too. “But what if we did what Jacob suggested, Harry? What if I did fly around in a big impervious sky ball and tell people that God has really returned and that they must do certain things. Would you see my decision making as being influenced by Satan? Does Satan influence me either way, really? If I decide not to do it because it is dishonest at some level or if I decide to go ahead with it?”

“I don’t know. It doesn’t matter because neither was done in the name of Jesus, I suppose, so it wouldn’t matter.”

“I get the broken record thing, Harry. I also have to turn you over to the police when you are well enough to move. You realize that, don’t you?”

“I do. I came to you to warn you. I don’t care about my fate here on Earth any longer.”

“What if I gave you the option of remaining in this state of suspension, instead? You would effectively be in jail. You could observe outside events but would otherwise live inside a virtual cocoon. Not as primitive as this but at least as lonely?”

Jacob cocked his head, “Why would you do that? You don’t think society—the other families—deserve some kind of justice?”

“Wouldn’t I be giving it to them? They would know he was decommissioned and I might even tell them that he was imprisoned. And, in a way, he would be helping with the Cosputer effort. This virtualization is just one step removed from being truly bodiless. He would better serve here as a research subject in righting the wrong to Rio and its employees than in a federal prison, wouldn’t he?”

“You would have to tell the families. They wouldn’t agree to it.”

“Maybe, I don’t know. If I were to move him and his body into space, there would be no jurisdictional issues. Well, I could be prosecuted for aiding and abetting a fugitive, I suppose, were I to return to the States. Or, alternatively, I could just offer to house all criminals in such a place, thus getting Harry as part of the bargain.”

Signals and Noise: Chapter 13 (Cygnus atratus)

Sometimes, when Zach had too much coffee, when he had sneaked a smoke on the back porch that projects out over the weedy ground and right up to the back wall, beyond which is the alley and driveway of an apartment complex in drab rose and orange, sometimes he would lie awake until there was a subtle shift in his sensibilities that was almost like a buzz encompassing him, and he would go on thinking about the events of the day even as he drifted off to sleep and then awoke again, minutes later, and was still thinking about them, like an unbroken chain of reasoning that suffered a momentary dip. But there was always a specter hanging in the facts and the faces and the ideas, like an irrational interloper. Only a fever ever reproduced anything like those moments—like that specter—only a fever could twist ideas over themselves into the impossible and weird motifs that were a merger of sleep and waking fantasies. Zach would rouse in those moments or sometimes bolt upright while trying to reclaim the ideas and force them into a coherent whole, but then, when the pieces had regained their permanence and the puzzle was reunited and showed, once again, the rational and calm artwork on the box of everyday reality, Zach would find himself longing for that alternative state, for the confusion that he struggled to subdue in the hypnagogic fog. It was not just curiosity, he realized, but a sense that there was a constructive event surfacing out of his unconscious self—an event that was using his memories for some special purpose.

There was an ameliorative effect to the anxieties of the day that crept in at those moments, like a sieve had strained all the complexity out of the bursts of nervous arousal, and he would lean back again into the hollow of his down pillow that smelled like his hair, tinged by his shampoo, and turn his face into the dome, sliding his cheek against the silky weave of the pillowcase, finally thinking that sleep would arrive soon. Mostly, then, he would move into the shadows and fog of sleep but, now and again, he would hover there for hours, replaying and reinventing the edges of discussions, the mandates of school anxieties, and the incomprehensible transgressions of strangers into his life. Morning would come too soon on those nights, and he would be the first to see the grays emerging behind the sulfur streetlights, his anxiety rising again at how he would survive the day half asleep, trudging through school halls or, if it was a Friday or Saturday night, relaxed enough to sleep straight through until the sunlight reflected off the apartment windows and played across the walls of his room, his cavern, and he awoke into the warm buzz of the afternoon.

The shooting—that day—kept him awake almost every night, replaying the slow churn of events, encircling everyone’s reactions with descriptions and summaries that formed a narrative backbone for what had happened. We were scared, he thought, we were all scared, but we were also determined to survive. We would have moved to stop the shooter if he had come through that door. Fantasies, constructed of the scripting television mindset, involved him vaulting over chairs and tables to tackle the shooter, cushioned by the thick down coat as they slid into the hall. He was a hero and had saved the school, and had to stand before the school and the national cameras to accept the accolades earned by selfless heroism. There was the alternative where he kicked a desk into a perfect crotch-smashing impulse, forcing the dropping of the gun, and more awards. There was the armed Zach who always kept a secret handgun for just such a moment, ending the shooter’s life with a single, perfect shot, and being forgiven for his rakish disregard for the law in carrying firearms on campus. There were all these possible outcomes but only the trajectory of slow fear building and releasing was the real history, and Zach always began and ended with that same recollection, pregnant with the reality of that moment, the smell of sweat and urine, the fight or flight of three score teens just barely held against an impending doom.

Signals and Noise: Chapter 9 (Trance: beginnings)

States of consciousness satisfy wildly different conceptions with equanimity. Here we have epiphenomenalism, where the feeling, the self, the I, are all freeloaders on some deeper commingling of logical prescriptions and mathematical calculations. We can stop right here, though, and track about in the cathedral of those subjective essences, reveling in each distorted recollection and episodic fumbling, worried that we are deflating the heart of the matter, the emotional character, draining out the seed that is essentially who we are. With time hanging like this—stopped, frozen—the propositions and their statistical basis functors start to rise into clarity, and the ripples of their influence trickle into sensibility. I did in fact do that, say that, because it did in fact make sense. I am aware of that now and the blip of clarity, momentary as it was, reflects that underlying matrix of contending feelings, driving hopes, and social posturing.

But here we have dualism, reflecting every folk psychological wire in our hypothetical soul. We are distinct and apart from our bodies, like parasites hitching a ride, implanted by some god or first principle back behind our brow ridge. Oh, yes, we are subjects of the body and brain, but we are also their master. We command, they obey, at least until they buck and collapse under duress, laziness, and pain. The signals come back in and there is not enough will, despite our separation behind the bunkered walls of gauges. There is not enough will, somehow, to push a bit further, because we are in fact the fatigue, the pain, the boredom. We realize this at those passing moments when we are at the limit and the structures seem too porous for there to be any reason to the proposition. Yet, once again, the next morning, we wake to the default position and are in command again, not noticing the irony in needing to clear our head with coffee, to get on task, to conquer the residue of sleep that clouds our minds. Even the ownership empowers the broken metaphor: “our minds.” We have no minds. We are mind.

Zach was in a trance, having run through a three-phase meditation exercise that began with a breath, a centering, and a focused visualization of a small green ball floating in a pool. It was part of the exercise to try to stop worrying about the details of textures and colors and settle on some representation that was adequate enough for holding a mental focus. The pool changed from day to day. The ball was always neon green, though, with fluorescence pulsing along the seams and at the corners. The ball stood out against even the chlorinated brilliance of the pool water, against the rippling sapphire.

The second phase was more physical and less eidetic. By pure concentration, relaxation was impressed on the entire body, beginning with the toes. It actually felt more like vibration to Zach. He wasn’t sure exactly what relaxation felt like, but knew that by the time he finished moving up and along the lines of his body, ending with a final tumble down across his nose and into his cheeks and lips, that he would more often than not be drifting into a hypnagogic peace. He sometimes would take the final deep breath that concluded the second phase and just sleep, hearing faintly the distant sounds of the city in repose.

But if he made it through that phase there was a final visualization that crossed imagining sensations like being on an elevator with an inchoate claim about drifting into a void, an abyss.  There was a countdown process, going deeper, deeper, deeper, until finally Zach was fully quiescent. Yet there he was, his body frozen with the tingle of extended non-motion, and as the meditative entrainment and procedural mantras ended, he was back and self-aware, refusing to break the physical lock-down for minutes as his mind began to reassert the coded blur of imagery and words. He would sometimes try to tamp it down, but it was like stuffing cotton balls in a dyke. The mind is porous—unkempt—he thought, then wanted to unthink it.

AntiTerran Metatextuality

Intertextuality is a loaded word. It covers allusion and parody and reference. For some authors, it is the motivation to write, from Umberto Eco’s semiotic indulgences to Nabokov’s vast, layered palimpsest in Ada. I create deliberate allusions to Genesis in Teleology and references to Nabokov’s Ada in Signals and Noise.

The opposite of intertextuality might be centrality or concreteness, but it might also be the extension of the literature or artwork as references in other works that extend or reimagine the original work, creating a literary chain of sorts. Your intertextual references are referenced by my metatextual extensions.  Outertextuality? Whatever the term, we get a kind of referential landscape like a network that builds on an artificial landscape, the lives of imagined characters, and the universe of ideas that they inhabit.

Dieter Zimmer, who appears to have done the German translation of Ada, has a brilliant example of metatextuality in his Geography of AntiTerra. With methodical precision, he translates the textual descriptions into a map of the imagined world–a kind of fan cartography that solidifies the strange geography into a complete realization. I’m reminded of the Elven dictionaries in The Silmarillion or the detailed online fan fiction from adoring readers of current bestsellers.

I think there is likely a strong connection between the psychology of religious belief and the same motivators towards metatextuality. Imagined worlds are always interesting and plotted. Even when characters are harmed or injured, we feel only fleeting sensitivity to the idea of their injury. Moreover, the intertextuality is a network of coherence-supplying support for the narrative’s epistemology. The more detail, the greater sense of clarity of the imagined world, and the more buy in as to the reality of mysteries described therein.

Interestingly, there is both supporting and counter-evidence for this idea.  The previously discussed work on apophenia leads the way, but we can drill in even more closely on these notions by looking at experimental methods that show relationships between New Age belief and schizotypic personality indicators (although not traditional religious belief, interestingly), as well as the evidence that semantic association is greater among schizotypic personalities.  Building that palimpsest of associations is carefully-controlled madness.