Thursday, 23 July 2015

Synths, Simulants, Robots, Androids, Bluds and Meks

Science fiction is full of them. Increasingly, some of them are making themselves felt in the real world. Robots of various kinds are increasingly common. Sadly, there was news a few weeks ago of a robot that accidentally killed a factory worker.

There seems to be something in human nature that fears the 'similar, but maybe not quite the same'. Perhaps the fear has genetic roots. It's frightening and it can lead to downright evil, when it makes us distrust people of a different skin colour or with different beliefs - or the tribe over the next hill who, after all, are not 'us'...

Science fiction plays on this fear in many ways. Combined with our deep fear of technology gone mad, it has led to some brilliant works of fiction by Isaac Asimov, Ursula le Guin, Philip K. Dick and Margaret Atwood, among many, many others.

Science fiction is regarded by some as a genre for men and boys. Perhaps it's the technology aspect - though there is absolutely no reason why women and girls should not be interested in science and technology - including computer programming, artificial intelligence (AI) and robot design (I am and I know many other females who are. I'd be the first to encourage them). But perhaps there's a deeper reason why much sci-fi does not appeal to women. In many (though by no means all) works of sci-fi, both books and film, there's an emphasis on war. On weapons. On struggles to the death, often between civilisations. OK, so women can be interested in war. But in my experience, they're not, or not so much, unless it's forced upon them. That's a generalisation and there are exceptions, of course.

I believe there is a need for more of the gentler variety of sci-fi that explores personalities, individual lives and, especially, the lives of women. Psychological suspense is a very popular genre with the female sex, and it combines beautifully, in my opinion, with speculative fiction and science fiction.  Consider the series 'Humans', currently showing on UK Channel 4 TV. This is a great example of informed scientific opinion meshed with the conflicts arising in an ordinary family. OK, the family has a 'synth' to make their meals and clean their house, but they're a pretty typical family, parents and three kids, with a good few secrets and lots of anxiety and stress. The presence of a synth (is she conscious? What does that actually mean?) is an added complication, and it combines beautifully with absent Mum, angsty teenagers and tempted Dad.

 I've just read a book called 'A Calculated Life' by Anne Charnock. It  was a finalist for the Philip K. Dick Award and the Kitschies Golden Tentacle (Debut Novel) Award, and a very worthy one in my opinion. It's set in the late twenty-first century, where big business is employing 'simulants' (artificially grown, genetically engineered individuals) to carry out advanced mathematical modelling and forecast economic trends. Jayna, the protagonist, is one of these super-intelligent synths, and the book is written from her perspective. Far from being an emotionless robot, she adores her stick insect pets and has warm feelings for her friends. But she and the other synths live a restricted life in a kind of institution which limits their social interaction and enforces early bedtimes and a controlled diet. When Jayna develops feelings for a biological human and begins to question her life and long for change, her troubles begin.

What I love about this book is its focus on a very appealing individual and the problems she encounters in her friendships and her work. This makes Jayna someone with whom I can emphathise (the stick insects help!). Her problems, although embodied in a different age, are not so far from my own experience. Just as in 'Humans', we have interesting (and important) social and scientific questions, explored from the perspective of a character we care about.

I have tried to do something similar in my own novel, shortly to be released, called 'Lena's Nest'. Lena is a scientist and a mum, who through a terrible accident ends up in the world of 2104. Like Jayna, she is human, but her ideas of what this means are very soon to be tested to the limit. The Meks she encounters are a new branch of humanity, distinct from the Bluds, who are the biologically-evolved humans. What's more, Lena's own work on AI is at least partly responsible for some of the problems of the Meks, through the failure (not  really Lena's fault) to establish sound ethical practice. Lena engages with the Meks, with a rather irritating Blud called Noah, with her own cognitive 'twin' and with the problem of finding out what happened to her children. I have tried to create an exciting and moving story while encouraging my readers to think about some of the relevant issues. I hope it works!

 I'm on the lookout for more sci-fi of this variety to read. If you have any suggestions, or would like to post a review on my blog of anything of this type, please get in touch. Films too, please, though my main focus is on books.

Happy reading,

PS More news of 'Lena's Nest' soon. You can read more about my novel and ask for a free pre-publication review copy here.