RE: The hazards of writing fiction about post-humans

From: Ben Goertzel (
Date: Tue May 03 2005 - 06:59:34 MDT


This reminds me of conversations I used to have with my friend Jeff Pressing
(an American who was a psych prof at the University of Melbourne, and also
an accomplished jazz, classical and West-African-percussion
composer/musician ... for a while he was head of the music school at LaTrobe
University... unfortunately, he died of a fluke meningitis infection a few
years back...).

Anyway, I compose and play music as well, and though I'm nowhere near as
erudite or technically skilled as Jeff in the musical domain, I was never
quite sure I wanted to be. I always felt that his compositions, though
wonderfully subtle and intricate and learned and often beautiful (and
integrating ideas from nearly every form of music ever created on Earth),
lacked some human emotional OOMPH!! that I tried to put into my own
(significantly simpler) music. Now Jeff was by no means lacking in
emotional OOMPH!! himself ... far from it ... he was a nerd of sorts, but
his personal and emotional and social life had a lot of different dimensions

But what he always said to me, when I complained about this (we had this
conversation repeatedly), was, "Ben, I learned a long time ago how to evoke
human emotions through music. It's not very hard to elicit powerful
feelings in people by arranging chords and notes in the right way. But I
just lost interest in those very simple equations a long time ago. The
patterns in the music I'm making now are a lot more subtle and interesting."

I'd reply something obnoxious like "Well, if it's so easy to elicit powerful
feelings in people via music, then how come you've never written anything as
good at evoking human feelings as the Jupiter Symphony, or Beethoven's
Ninth, or Round Midnight...."

His response then would depend on his mood. Sometimes he'd say that those
pieces of music, though good in their own way, didn't really interest him
anyway. When he was in his "detached and superior musical snob" mode, he
viewed these great compositions the same way I might view the bronzed and
hulking flesh of an exquisitely well-toned bodybuilder -- outstanding in its
own way, but not the sort of thing that really gets me excited....

Modern classical music, and to an extent modern jazz as well, have left
behind the need to pander to human emotions, and are in large part exploring
realms of musical structure that don't interact so intensely with the
particular dynamical patterns of interaction and fluctuation that
characterize human feeling.

Personally, I like many instances of this sort of music -- but it's never my
*absolute favorite*, it never moves me as much as Mozart or Monk or Paganini
or Jimi Hendrix, who explicitly *do* pander to my human emotions, who
explicitly arrange notes and sounds in familiar forms that elicit feelings
of anger, love, wonder, confusion, relaxation and so forth within me.... I
can see that these composers and musicians are playing with my
neurophysiological responses in a fairly simplistic way, compared to the
patterns existing in the music of Jeff and other more modern and
sophisticated composers -- but as a human being, I *like* having my
neurophysiological responses played with in that way. And of course,
getting that "simplistic" manipulation so wonderfully right still takes a
lot of art and science....

Anyway, I haven't read your new novel yet but I got a similar vibe from your
novel Transcension, even though the characters were real humans living real
lives. Partly because the reality they were living in seemed so tenuous,
and partly because of your patterns of focus and language in describing the
characters and their actions, it was hard for me to feel really emotionally
attached to any of the characters. This did make the novel less appealing
to me than others of similar quality, in certain ways; yet it also made it
more appealing, in other ways ... because it provoked thoughts and feelings
about the nature of mind/feeling/reality that more conventional novels don't
tend to provoke.

I suppose that truly transhumanist fiction lives in the same artistic space
as modern classical music, in the sense that it's constructing and evoking
interesting, intricate patterns that happen not to be closely cued to human
body-responses. In a sense these more abstract, body-detached art genres
will never be as gripping as their more human-body-centered, "primitive"
counterparts -- but as the Singularity approaches, they may come to have a
greater and greater appeal even so.... Personally I find such works of art
fascinating precisely because of the META-FEELING they evoke --- the way
they acutely sensitize me to the fact that I am a human body and so much of
what I think is important and interesting is cued to my physiological
responses and evolutionary biases.

One thing that would be interesting to see in a sci-fi novel would be a
character who the reader DOES intensely care about, because he/she has been
developed in a loving and careful manner characteristic of high-quality
traditional literature, who THEN becomes transhuman, rational,
to the reader. This would solve the artistic problem you mention, in a
sense, and it would have a powerful impact on the reader in terms of making
the aesthetic difficulties I've been discussing explicit as part of the
story's theme.

-- Ben

> is an interesting review of my new sf novel GODPLAYERS. The reviewer is
> especially exercised by the fact that my posthuman characters are not
> immediately understandable -- indeed, beyond empathy -- by human
> standards:
> <the frustration level mounts as one waits in vain... for
> characters... to
> display any hint of a genuine inner life as they move randomly from scene
> to scene, world to world, reality to reality. Perhaps Vorpal homunculi do
> not possess inner lives, and Broderick's point is that these seeming
> superhumans, for all their power, are soulless automatons without a shred
> of humanity.... Surely there should be some character, somewhere in a
> novel, to which human readers can feel connected. ...As the sequence of
> events grows increasingly frenzied, with ever-greater reliance placed on
> what might be termed info-splatters, the lack of a deep humanistic
> substrate left this reader, at least, with no ground to stand on. >
> I'm torn in my response to this. On the one hand, it wouldn't make much
> sense to write about posthumans as if they were representations of the
> people down the road, or in the next room. On the other, I have tried to
> ground the fairly breakneck narrative within thematic structures and
> reverberations recognizable from myth, dream, and the traditions of
> science-fiction itself when it ventures upon the superhuman. Greg
> Egan met
> with this same objection, of course, and so, in various degrees, did John
> C. Wright and Charlie Stross. Maybe it's an artistic problem beyond
> solution -- for humans.


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