“But you may have noticed that for a terrifying murderbot I fuck up a lot.”
In “Artificial Condition - The MurderBot Diaries 2” by Martha Wells
The very unfamiliarity of SF is one of its attractions for me. It slows down the reading and speeds up the need to think, both within and across books (intertextuality). Familiarity, similarity? Try reading these in a row, then come back and tell me you were on familiar ground all the while and that your mind is still in the same shape: "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?", "Ubik"; "Version Control"; "The Gradual", "The Dispossessed" and "The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories".
Setting a story in another place or another time enables speculative fiction like the one Martha Wells attempts with her MurderBot series to explore ideas that literary fiction might really struggle with. I'm interested in divided societies … Irish … English … Dorset … Croatia … Bosnia … Israelis and Palestinians … A literary novelist dealing with any of those intractable, complex conflicts faces countless challenges and pitfalls, but so does a SF writer when trying to deal with the estrangement of the world created (if done right). Want to engage with complexity and nuance? Want to encounter counter-intuitive thinking that forces you to think again and again? Read and re-read Kafka. Can Xue. Javier Marías. Karl Ove Knausgård. (Spoiler alert: some of the books these writers wrote are not realistic. Some of them are SF. Some are fantasy. Some are science fiction. Some are not. A fully rounded literary life means reading across the full spectrum of fiction. Yes, a fully rounded literary life (indeed, a fully rounded life) means reading across the full spectrum, i.e., not reading just within one genre, i.e., not being one of those narrow-minded readers who prefers only to read, for example, crime novels, SF, Literary, Thrillers, ....In many ways I don't want to argue with anyone because I think I agree with a lot of what a lot of people are saying when to argue for specific books. To argue that "a genre" is inferior is nonsense -- yet this is what many people are doing when they dismiss SF. I've never really understood what people actually mean when they say "literary fiction". But there does seem to be a category of fiction which gets reviewed on the "literary" pages while other categories get relegated to the "genre" columns. This category includes fairly limited mainstream novels about middle class life in the tradition of the "realist" novel (itself a pretty limited form of the prose novel) or novels in which someone is "using the tropes of [genre]" or has "transcended the genre" (whatever that means). Far more honest to admit that X is actually writing SF, or even to admit that among this stuff called SF there is actually some fine writing. Most of the time, it amounts to a war of definitions and false dichotomies. The mundane literary establishment tends to marginalize SF. Yet, George Orwell's 1984, the works of Margaret Atwood, Kurt Vonnegut, and Doris Lessing are just as much SF, using the same tropes to advance the same thought experiments and commentary on society as many other writers ghettoized into the SF genre today. (Frankly, many of the "genre writers" do at least as good a job of tackling the thorny issues as these more canonized writers, and write extremely well.) On the other hand, there are certainly books written to be enjoyed and consumed, without quite such a hefty intellectual burden. These have their place (in SF and, frankly, in literary fiction) as well.
What Martha Wells attempts and succeeds this time around is to question the proverbial questions: "Computers now lack the processing speed but one day, why not? What do you think our compassion and empathy is? And what do you mean by feel?" Is it just neurons firing and picking up neurotransmitters? All we are doing is sensing the right combinations of them. Is there so much difference between calling up range of neurotransmitters and calling up a range of subroutines to achieve a similar effect? One definition of compassion is 'pity inclining one to help or be merciful'. What makes you think (even if they ever could muster such an emotive response) that a murderbot SecUnit would be inclined towards 'mercy' or capable of 'pity'? 'Empathy' involves the power of identifying oneself mentally with (and so fully comprehending) a person or object of contemplation. Is 'empathy' way beyond the realm of synthetic neurotransmitters, despite what the transhumanists (and Musk et al would have you beLIEve? Empathy, however, is not a socially programmed response to given stimuli, to which any number of individuals are likely to react differently. The fact that the word 'neurotransmitters' has become applied to both to organic and to synthetic, technological operations, does not mean that they are the same thing with regard to their respective innate and substantive qualities. It can be said of a relentless long-distance runner or rugby player that they have a 'good engine', but this in no way equates them to the engine that propels a Bentley Continental. Our synthetic neurotransmitters are 'programmed'; programmed to perform certain operations within certain insuperable limits. The same does not apply to the human being and its unparalleled operational capacity (the human brain is capable of creating and programming synthetic neurotransmitters).
The hoity-toities will arrive soon enough and the 'daydreaming evasion' is going to get dropped pretty quickly. This is, of course, a charge only levelled by those who haven't really read any SF, but do honestly know that the genre covers the entire spectrum from densely literary to, yes, 'daydreaming evasion’. Of course, they're worried if they did pick up some SF they might actually enjoy it, and they don't want to be seen as the sort to enjoy SF books. Books are there to be slogged through, after all. For what it's worth, I probably read more literary fiction than I do SF these days, but it is literary fiction that's (usually) more than a decade old, and which has survived because it's good enough. I never want to read another literary novel about wealthy people in Lisbon, London or Paris having marital difficulties - give me some star-gazing MurderBot SecUnits over navel-gazing jerks any day.
A much better effort when compared with the first volume.
Fred Pohl's "Man Plus" explored similar themes, but Martha Wells does it much better.
SF = Speculative Fiction.