Wednesday, 12 March 2014

From The Earth To The Sun

Jules Verne's Moon novels are two volumes that should have been one whereas his Hector Servadac is one volume that has been split into two. Human beings would not be able to survive either in a projectile fired from a cannon or on a part of the Earth struck by a comet.

The two Parts of Hector Servadac could appropriately have been entitled From The Earth To The Sun and Around The Solar System. The characters seem to spend nearly all of Part One thinking that they are still on Earth. Until it is explained, the change to their environment is uniquely strange.

The Moon novels spend too much time stating, in a documentary style, what was already known about the Moon and far too little time describing any new discoveries made by the astronauts. They seem to glimpse seas and clouds on the Far Side but do not discuss this before concluding that the Moon was, but no longer is, habitable.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Hector Servadac

Hector Servadac, one of Jules Verne's fifty four Extraordinary Voyages, was translated into English and published in two volumes as To The Sun and Off On A Comet but is now referred to as Off On A Comet. Thus, when I ordered Off On A Comet from the public library and received To The Sun and Off On A Comet in one volume entitled The Space Novels of Jules Verne, I thought that I was getting the novel that I had requested and another that I had not heard of whereas the one that I had not heard of is simply the first part of the work that I did want and Off On A Comet in a volume to itself would have been only the second half.

While agreeing that Hector Servadac is a deplorable title, I suggest that the original subtitle, "Voyages And Adventures Across The Solar World," might instead serve as an overall title that would both express the contents and convey the scope of this single novel.

Jules Verne's Series

OK. I got it wrong again. See here. Three Jules Verne novels form a trilogy:

From The Earth To The Moon
Around The Moon
The Purchase Of The North Pole

- two form a diptych:

To The Sun?
Off On A Comet
(Later: it transpires that these books are a single novel translated and published in two volumes.)

- two feature Captain Nemo:

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea
The Mysterious Island
and are connected by other characters to In Search Of The Castaways

- and I suspect that there are other connections between Verne's books of which I am as yet unaware.

Wells' two interplanetary novels follow Verne's and also in the same literary tradition are CS Lewis' Out Of The Silent Planet and Perelandra/Voyage To Venus. The third volume of Lewis' trilogy, That Hideous Strength, continues the tradition because, although it is set entirely on Earth, it places Earth in a Solar context and imparts information about life on the Moon. However, it is mainly a reply to Wells' The Shape Of Things To Come and Olaf Stapledon's Last And First Men because it addresses the question of the social role of science in the future of human civilization on Earth.

Friday, 7 March 2014

Moon, Sun, Comet

I said before that Jules Verne wrote three interplanetary novels but this was wrong. Off On A Comet has come to me from the public library in a double volume with its prequel, starring the same central character, To The Sun? -of which I had never heard.

Thus, it would be possible to publish in uniform editions six classic volumes of interplanetary fiction:

From The Earth To The Moon, Verne
Around The Moon, Verne

To The Sun?, Verne
Off On A Comet, Verne

The First Men In The Moon, Wells
The War Of The Worlds, Wells

I now have three by Verne to read with interest.

Monday, 3 March 2014


One familiar sf scenario is a decades-long interstellar voyage with passengers in suspended animation tended either by robots or by a rotating crew. In one of the chronologically confusing chapter-long flashbacks of Use of Weapons (London, 2013), Iain M Banks relocates his protagonist, Zakalwe, as a passenger and temporary crew member on such a voyage. This is another interesting change of scene but I am having trouble pulling the whole narrative together.

Another crew member tells Zakalwe a story. Because his people discussed the question of the soul so much, a philosopher king ordered a global debate after which he withdrew to think, then published two books, one endlessly repeating, "Souls do exist. Souls do not exist," the other endlessly repeating, "Souls do not exist. Souls do exist." (p. 356)

This might be considered either amusing or profound but I saw it as both wasteful and insulting to religious believers, philosophers and psychologists. Banks could better have spent those two pages summarizing the history of the subject, starting with people inferring a soul from the experience of apparently leaving the body while dreaming. I commend the Buddhist anatta teaching but am interested to hear reasoned expressions of other theories or beliefs.

Winning A War

In Use Of Weapons, it is a thing of beauty when Zakalwe takes charge of a war run by incompetents and turns it around. A province with a dozen important religious sites is about to fall. Defending the province will only get the sites damaged or destroyed whereas surrendering the province now means that they will be regained intact with much new treasure when the war is won.

Surrendering the province will also stretch the enemy's supply lines while the rains start behind them. Enemy commanders will know that the surrendered province is a trap but will be ordered in anyway, which will demoralize them. Also, by stopping the bombardment of roads, Zakalwe ensures that the roads will fill with refugees, slowing enemy troops further. But bombing some bridges and the enemies' oil refineries will make their commanders advance more cautiously even if, as believed, they have great reserves of fuel. In any case, Zakalwe distrusts his side's intelligence about enemy fuel and thinks that the enemy are equally uninformed.

When the enemy Imperial Court and their high command meet, Zakalwe proposes dropping an otherwise defunct and useless spacecraft on them, pretending that it is the first in a series of new missiles, then offering to negotiate with the commoner's parliament while the enemy are riven by civil war.

One man turns everything round - but then is told that larger scale politics require his side to lose.

Sunday, 2 March 2014

The Artificial Intelligence Question In Use Of Weapons

An artificial intelligence addresses a human being:

"'Your brain is made up of matter...organized into information-handling, processing and storage units...'"
- Iain M Banks, Use Of Weapons (London, 2013), p. 279.

The AI lists three factors that have organized the matter of the brain in this way:

genetic inheritance;
experiences since before birth.

The AI asks:

"'An electronic computer is also made up of matter, but organized differently; what is there so magical about the huge, slow cells of the animal brain that they can claim themselves to be conscious...?'" (ibid.)

Nothing magical but we are in fact conscious. Otherwise, we would be unable to "claim" anything. Also, the term, "'...experiences...,'" entails consciousness.

"'...but would deny a more finely-grained device of equivalent power...a similar distinction?'" (ibid.)

Many devices made of organized matter are not conscious. However, if "'...of equivalent power...'" means "...that performs exactly the same functions...," then, yes, this electronic computer is conscious.

There is a verbal ambiguity here because previously the term "electronic computer" applied to artifacts that merely manipulated symbols without any knowledge of their meanings and therefore were not conscious. Thus, a biological organ that merely handled, processed and stored "information" could conceivably be an unconscious organic computer rather than a conscious brain. The information stored in a book or library is not conscious. An intelligent conscious being is any entity, organic or artificial, that is capable not merely of scanning and copying texts but of reading and understanding them. "Understanding," like "experience," entails consciousness.

Before asking its question, the AI had said:

"'Forget...about how machine brains are actually put together...'" (p. 278)

But how they are put together matters. Surely that determines whether or not they can be conscious? The phrase "'...machine brains...'" is ambiguous. If it means "machines that duplicate the functions of brains," then these machines are conscious whereas if it means "machines that simulate the functions of brains," then such machines are not conscious.

The AI continues:

"'...think about making a machine brain - an electronic computer - in the image of a human one.'" (ibid.)

Any artifact that is exactly modeled on a human brain so that it perfectly reproduces the functioning of such a brain will, by definition, be conscious in the way that a human brain is but will not be what used to be called "an electronic computer."

The AI suggests this process:

"'...start with a few cells, as the human embryo does'" (ibid.);
let these multiply and connect;
add new components;
make connections "'...identical...'" (ibid.) with those of the stages of human development;
in order exactly to duplicate human development, limit the speed of transmissions along the connections;
have "'...these neuron-like components...'" (ibid.) fire messages in response to signals received;
thus, exactly mimic the development of a human brain ("mimic" is ambiguous between simulation and duplication);
also mimic its output by sending signals similar to sound, touch and light as experienced inside the womb (surely this is further input, not "output"?);
simulate birth;
apply sensory stimulation so that the device thinks that it is "'...feeling, touching, tasting, smelling, hearing, and seeing everything your real human was...'" (p. 279).

At the end of this process, the AI suggests that the device can be given "'...just as much genuine sensory input, and of the same quality, as the human personality was experiencing at any given point.'" (ibid.)

Does "...the human any given point..." mean a particular person whose experiences will be directly transmitted into the device? I do not find this last point entirely clear but, in any case, if the device is genuinely an artificial brain that is literally experiencing sights, sounds etc, then of course it is conscious. But that is because the AI has described an exact duplication of human development. This still leaves open the question of the nature of those machine brains whose construction we were told to forget about in the first place.

Although, the AI refers at one point to "outputs," its description of the developing device is of an entity that is almost entirely passive in its reception of inputs. In this respect, it appears to duplicate the development of a human embryo and infant. However, I think that organisms became conscious not merely by receiving inputs but primarily by interacting with their environments. Thus:

organisms were naturally selected for sensitivity to environmental alterations;
organismic sensitivity quantitatively increased until it was qualitatively transformed into conscious sensation;
sensation was naturally selected because pleasure and pain have survival value.

By "sensation," I mean the most elementary stage of consciousness, the transition from being hot to feeling hot. This happens because an organism approaches life-giving heat and avoids dangerous heat so that action, not mere reception, is paramount. Since "sensation" entails consciousness, the phrase "conscious sensation" is redundant but I use it to differentiate sensation from sensitivity that has not yet become conscious. A sensitive recording device is not conscious but sensitive organisms became conscious.

The AI asks:

"'...where is the difference? The brain of each being works in exactly the same way as the other; they will respond to stimuli with a greater correspondence than one finds even between monozygotic twins; but how can one still choose to call one a conscious entity, and the other merely a machine?'" (ibid.)

What is the point of spelling out that two entities are identical and then asking what is the difference between them? The question still remains how are AI's in the Culture constructed and are they conscious? Of course, Banks writes their dialogues in such a way that they clearly pass the Turing test but these books are works of fiction. We have not yet encountered such entities in reality.

What does "'...merely a machine...'" mean? So far, machines have been mechanisms designed to perform functions without being conscious of them. In a motor vehicle, consciousness is provided by the driver, not by the engine, and, when a computer merely manipulates symbols, then consciousness is provided by programmers and users, not by the computer. If, however, some other "machines" can duplicate human consciousness, then they are conscious machines, not "mere" (unconscious) machines.

Saturday, 1 March 2014

From The Earth To The Moon

I cannot take either Jules Verne's prose style or his characters seriously. Both the narrator and the characters are very precise about the technology of the cannon but very imprecise about the lunar environment. They do address the obvious point that the cannon blast should crush the occupants of the projectile.

It seems that Ardan, Barbicane and Nicholl go to the Moon to die. They have no way to return to Earth. When told that there is conclusive evidence that the Moon has no atmosphere, Ardan can reply only that there is some contrary evidence which makes it possible that there is an atmosphere but he address neither the obvious distinction between an atmosphere and a breathable atmosphere nor any other environmental factor such as temperature.

The original idea was just to fire a cannon at the Moon, not to redesign the projectile as a vehicle. Near the end, they even treble the number of passengers and take all sorts of extras, including two dogs. Verne ducks the issue of the lunar environment by having the projectile go into lunar orbit and ends with the optimism of a Terrestrial observer who is sure that the astronauts will find a way out of their predicament. When the projectile has left Earth, the narrative point of view remains Terrestrial so that, strangely, we lose direct contact with the astronauts. The idea for interplanetary communication was to write large letters in a desert and to send regular supplies in further projectiles.

I am genuinely curious as to what happens in the sequel, Round The Moon. The two projected options were either that their orbit would decay and that they would land after all or, alternatively, that they would remain in perpetual orbit. The sequal title seems to preclude the former and my understanding is that they do not land but what does happen and do they find a way either to return to Earth or to survive indefinitely in space?