CyRN Book Club – Ada Palmer: Too Like the Lightning / Seven Surrenders

On Friday Jan 15th we met for our second Cyberpunk Research Network book club and discussed Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning and Seven Surrenders via Discord.

We had a smaller group this time, but nevertheless a great and insigthful discussion.

For those of you not present, here is a little summary and teaser of what you missed. It is subjective and just a few notes, but it might give you an idea and convince you to participate in our next session.

As like last time, we started our discussion with the general appreciation for the novels, with a special focus on what we like. Most agreed that the mixture of older language style, textual anachronism and formalized phrasing was unusual and intriguing. We deemed the novels to be “humanities SF” or “SF of ideas”.

Some of us voiced that they were concerned about the novels at first, as these proposed to deal with philosophy and the history of thought, much like Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World. The fear was that the novels would expect readers to have pre-knowledge or would feel too didactic, but we felt this was not the case. Instead, the ideas were presented for uninitiated readers and set apart from the narrative motions.

We then embarked on a long discussion of the idea of utopia – whether the depicted world would qualify as such and how the novel accomplished a great spread of world-building ideas. How an ideology was constructed out of lifestyles instead of spiritual beliefs and how in all, we had the feeling that the novels depicted a kind of meta-utopia for the humanities, in which language, criticism, culture were all based on ideologies within society. The breadth of the offered viewpoints and perspectives to build the society with was very alluring. Values determine each hive’s lifeworld reality.

We also discussed the issues of faith and taboo, how they might be interrelated and how religion instead of ideology seems like a fatalistic choice in the novel, unchangeable and forcing individuals to act a certain way. The hive ideologies instead felt more open and variable than religion was portrayed. We discussed whether faith was educated into people or an inherent feature.

We went on to discuss Mycroft and his redemption arc and how he was deeply engrained with the concept of providence. This is doubly reflective in the narrative, both in the sense of A.I. directing the life in the world and in the hive’s decision to play “God” – a choice on the part of the leaders to keep up an equilibrium of forces. We also discussed JEDD Mason but did not quite conclude on how to take his belief in being a god and whether the novel is serious or metaphorical about this.

Then we talked about the hives and their tendency to fetishize specific aspects of material culture (the Humanist and their boots, Utopia and their coats, etc.), even going so far as to produce fetishes like the person of Sniper. We felt that the humanists especially were cultivating a cult of personality.

Finally, we discussed how power was distributed in the novels. Who decides the fate of humanity and why. How secrets and clandestine plotting were part of this otherwise very transparent society and how this led to a very mechanistic and fatalistic view of society, where some could be sacrificed to keep the system running. We questioned whether it was ok to stop the war in a world in which technology is rapidly progressing or whether human nature needed to destroy itself partially in regular intervals.

And lastly, we shortly discussed the appeal of the different hives and where we would place ourselves in the Terra Ignota world. Which labels would we choose for ourselves … so, which would you choose?

CyRN Book Club – Martha Wells: All Systems Red

On Friday Oct 16th we met for our first ever Cyberpunk Research Network book club and discussed Martha Wells’ All Systems Red via Discord. It was a lively discussion and a great start for our little group and we, of course, hope to expand on it for the future. For those of you not present, here is a little summary and teaser of what you missed. It is subjective and just a few notes, but it might give you an idea and convince you to participate in our next session. 

We started off with a general round of commentary on the feel of novella and its general tone of lighthearted commentary. Many felt, the novella did not quite fit what they expected but surprised them positively with its quirky but loveable character. The suggestion came up that if one was so inclined, the audiobook actually was really well done. We also discussed what made Murderbot so relatable and, kind of, all agreed that their Netflix-love was probably it: don’t we all just want to hunker down and watch media all the time instead of having to deal with the messy human stuff?

We discussed possible comparisons of the novella and its themes of human/machine relations and the idea of how cyberpunk normally approaches issues of free will and a machine consciousness. In terms of its very lighthearted approach only Rudy Rucker’s stories came to mind, whereas Annalee Newitz’ Autonomous deals with same issues but in quite a different matter.

Our conceptions of what makes “human-ness” are being challenged in the novella and Murderbot’s wish to “not become human” and refrain from emotions is actually challenging to some central concepts of humanism. It makes us think of that we consider as universally human characteristics. We felt the novella (and its sequels) makes us rather consider human-ness as a sliding scale by emphasizing the different interactions of Murderbot with bots, composites, augmented and biological humans. In all, we felt the novella strongly emphasizes that technology has shifted the categories of what human means beyond our current definitions. 

We also discussed the importance of the feed(s) and its function for Murderbot but also for the humans. It seemed to us to represent a form of extended cognition and externalized memory, which allows for social interactions on very different levels and degrees of intimacy. It is at the same time very private and “close” and very public and open, depending on its different functional layers. When Murderbot is cut-off from SecHub, for example, they feel alone and isolated, almost as if the connections are part of their cognition – channels can become so dependent that they form a hive mind. Further, it is a secondary reality that simultaneously mediates the environment for every user. The experience is all encompassing, as we see when the team experiences a technologically created blindspot in their environment. We also commented on the idea that it is somewhat like Discord, with its specific themed channels and multi-communications. 

We further discussed the idea of politics and the role of corporations, what they do and how they act? It seems like a commentary on global finance capitalism with a very fuzzy agenda and even fuzzier description of their actual rules of engagement. One comment was, that the company feels as threatening and opaque as Weyland does in the Alien-series. Some commenters felt that the ending of the novella was a bit of a let-down because there is very little closure to the corporate story and the motives that the GrayChris team has. We agreed that the focus is on Murderbot and very little is revealed about the general political entities involved. Later books in the series will pick this up, but still not to the extent of delivering much world-building. 

A rather controversial issue we discussed was gender, both the idea which gender we (as readers) assumed Murderbot to have or how we imaged them and also the very important point as to why we think about/speculate on their gender in the first place. In all we agreed that Murderbot is non-binary and their gender is not the topic of the novellas. Nonetheless, we discussed how different language-versions (such as Italian or German) do, in fact, gender Murderbot or how the audio version is spoken by a young man. It seemed a relevant question why certain choices in perception were existent. Also, we agreed that in the novella the revelation of the SecUnit’s human facial features is more prominent than their gender. The group was undecided on the importance of gender in the context of the story.

This led us into an exchange on the distinctly human/non-human features and for example Murderbot’s repulsion from human emotions and their complications. It also dealt with the issue of identity and how Murderbot felt uneasy with “impersonation” of another SecUnit or (in later novellas) augmented humans. And we discussed issues of empathy (which Murderbot) feels but sarcastically comments on – is it programmed behavior or its own cultural imprint? Is there a “non-human” nature to it? The novella does seem to negotiate this boundary of how empathy is a marker for human-ness. In terms of cyberpunk, this is of course a strong reminder of the empathy test in Blade Runner. It is especially interesting as Murderbot is not only empathetic of humans, but especially of other machines. 

Lastly, we spent some time debating the “governor module” and its specific terminology. Why “governor” and not “command”? Is this an issue that redirects military language into more “school” language? Since the novella feels like a coming-of-age story, is Murderbot here depicted as a teenager? Is there a specific protection involved in “governing” a SecUnit? Or is it rather that governing decides a set of rules as guidelines for behavior vs. commanding as fixed directions that need to be followed? We were undecided.

In all, we had a great 90 min discussion of the first Murderbot novella and all enjoyed the book and the exchange about it very much. Thank you to all participants, see you soon.