DEUS EST MACHINA
Stem Cells, Cyber-limbs and Self-Evolution
the belief or theory that the human race can evolve beyond its current physical and mental limitations, especially by means of science and technology.
I read the simple definition above with three sets of eyes.
The Sci-Fi nerd in me gets all warm and tingly at the thought of neural nets and exo-skeletons, A.I., and cyberspace. It’s Blade Runner and Neuromancer, the Diamond Age, Broken Angels, and Deus Ex. It’s all the bright and shiny tech that boldly goes into a future where no one has gone before. It conjures all the cool things that get me to sit up and think and dream.
Next, the person who has dealt with a disability most of his life can’t help but wonder if something like medical nano-machines could repair my spine and allow me to run again. (At least handle a flight of stairs easily.) I imagine bio-tech as this amazing, miraculous breakthrough – a sort of modern, upgraded, super-charged penicillin that triumphs over diseases and genetic defects. It will correct, even reverse traumatic injury and impairments. Picture prosthetics or biologically-optimized organs and limbs that are more responsive, faster, stronger than your OEM parts. Extended lifespan, augmented intellect, light-speed connectivity and communication, whole new realms of human interaction, creative expression, and media… The possibilities are vast and mind-boggling.
Finally as a Christian, I can’t help but see a religion. A thoroughly modern, secular one, sure, but Transhumanism (a.k.a. “H+”) is indeed ‘a particular set of faith statements and worship’. From what I find from various sources online, Transhumanism is a systematic worldview with firm devotion not so much to divinity or a grand meta-narrative, but to science and self-will. Faith is in Technology, the Creed is Human Ingenuity, the Doctrine, Self-Evolution. The hitch in this post’s title is intentional: God IS the machine. Immortality will come, but only to those who upload.
It’s at the intersection of those three perspectives where things get weird for me.
Before I go further, let me say I’m not a Christian who holds Science and Religion to be antithetical. In my mind, they only ‘oppose’ each other in the same sense I have an opposable thumb: both allow me to grasp things. The two disciplines overlap in some areas and certainly inform one another, but one addresses the natural world, the other the spiritual and moral one.
As I see it, the real friction between the two stems from assumptions and conclusions made when trespassing in the other’s field. To my mind, the statement “There is no Heaven because I looked through a telescope and didn’t see it” is just as absurd as “If God had wanted us to fly, he would have given us wings.” I submit that “Directed Panspermia” – the theory aliens deliberately seeded the basics of life on Earth – requires the same leap of faith, if not more, than any chapter in Genesis.
So the issue confronting the modern devout isn’t whether to acknowledge science as ‘a systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world using observation and experiment’. Too late – Science is a thing. And let’s thank God for it. Nor is the proper response of the Pious to retreat into a ‘Luddite Alamo’ and raise bulwarks in the name of ‘Doctrinal Purity’. Church cannot, must not become an anti-intellectual enclave that implicitly disapproves of technology to advance knowledge and improve the human condition. At best, Religious people are considered anachronistic – that kind of reaction is dangerously regressive and deliberately ignorant.
If I camped out there for a second, I apologize. Anti-intellectualism in the name of God is a pet peeve of mine. And I simplified the positions, I know. The scope of this essay doesn’t permit me to dig down or expand the discussion. There isn’t time or space to layout a comprehensive, systematic comparison between a traditional Biblical worldview and secular, scientific, Post-Modern Humanism. At the end of the day I’m just a Christian geek – a believer trying to be faithful and authentic before God who also reads, enjoys, and writes Science Fiction.
But that’s the rub. As a Christian and a writer, Transhumanism challenges my understanding of the very nature of Life: What does it mean to be human? Do we have a soul? Are we indeed nothing more than self-aware meat machines, able to change, upgrade, or replace parts as desired, answerable to no one but ourselves? Or is there a critical spiritual element to existence that is inextricably linked to a transcendent reality?
Christian-wise, that right there is a deeper, more fundamental worldview question than anything Gospel-related. I have to decide if there even IS a God before I can wonder if that Jesus of Nazareth fellow had anything to do with my sin.
In my writing then, Transhumanism is the inevitable Materialistic philosophy that dominates my imagined future. It is the majority counterpoint to Religion, and most of the dramatic tension, conflict, and themes – obvious or oblique – stem from the friction between two perspectives. Any Christianity, religion, or spiritual dynamic has to be organic to the plot and serve the deeper theme without (hopefully) getting ham-fisted and didactic.
One of the impulses that drove my first novel Running Black was the belief that the only thing that restrains man’s inhumanity to man is a principled commitment to a transcendent, spiritual worldview – a perspective that conceives of a world beyond this one and holds life as a sacred gift. That is the fire-break designed to check Mankind’s tendency to exploit and commodify human life. Even with it, we don’t treat our fellow humans properly – what makes us think we won’t abuse clones or androids? Take HBO’s rebooted “Westworld” series as an illustration of what I’m talking about here. Set in the near-future, it’s a live-action, Old West theme park for the wealthy. But we’re light years from Disney World. Westworld is loaded with Deception, Torture, Rape, Theft, Killing… Apparently, technology doesn’t improve human nature so much as reveal it – which is the main issue for me.
Someone will rightly ask about the evil done in the name of traditional religion. From Crusades to Inquisitions, Pogroms to Jihads, Religion is brutally telling as well, no question. The errors are even more glaring because cruelty and ignorance strike at religion’s core principles. I submit those are human flaws, not religious ones. Mankind has a tremendous capacity to cloak prejudice and avarice in whatever’s close at hand, be that a flag, a manifesto, or a holy book.
But now I’m back at the principle conflict in the Judeo-Christian story: Imago Dei versus the Fallen Nature. God, Humanity, Sin, Redemption… In my thinking, a story’s setting and props change but the essential conflict never will: God or No? Deliberate or Accident? Mortal or Immortal? Imago Dei or Smart Meat? A hundred years from now, we might be encased in a cyber-linked, stainless steel body basking in the light of a distant star, it won’t matter. Everything flows from how we answer those questions.
It was William Faulkner who said writers must get back to “the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.” That quote has come back to me again and again since I started writing six years ago. Fiction is about entertainment and escapism, of course, but a good story is also about expression, exploring, asking questions, pushing boundaries in search of answers. In spec fiction particularly, we’re able, however clumsily, to fashion different worlds, to create another place to stand, from which we just might get another angle on Life and human condition and make some sense of it.
I’ve heard it said ‘Art with an Agenda is Propaganda’ but good art, good fiction, is ‘a lie that tells the truth.’ Now as a Christian, I believe all truth is God’s and that any facet of it, however small or oblique, ultimately points back to Him.
As a Christian who writes speculative fiction, I want to tell good stories. I want to entertain and engage. I also want to be consistent and credible, embracing the facts of modern world while holding fast to eternal truths. ‘Roots and Wings’ like the Chinese proverb says. I don’t have all the answers. My stories certainly don’t. Maybe though, in the midst of my scribbling about clones and corporations and robots and military AI, I can shed some light on those heart conflicts Faulkner mentioned or at least start asking some of the right questions.
I honestly don’t know what the future holds – I hope nano-meds for my spinal cord – but the New Testament Book of Hebrews assures me whatever happens, I don’t have to write my story alone, Jesus promises to be the ‘Author and Finisher of my faith.” I find that profoundly comforting and will do whatever I can to offer that same comfort to anyone who wants it.
FULL FAULKNER SPEECH BELOW:
Eresh’s Chimney looked like a mud castle made by a giant. A mish-mash of crude bricks, rough boulders, and hewn beams the thickness of tree trunks, the spire gnarled its way skyward, knobby, crooked, and enormous.
There was a single entrance at the ground level, two massive doors of stone. They were the color of storm clouds and seemed to take forever to open.
The sun had started its drop toward the western edge of the horizon when Levi, Gibs and Addas watched Snat delicately unwrap a leather bundle of long wire instruments and with a wink, get to work on the mechanism. “Have us in before you can say ‘Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn.'”
Twenty minutes later, he was still fussing with it with his tools, but muttering in goblin under his breath.
Levi steeped up behind him and peered down over his shoulder as he worked. “Legend has it that lock was fashioned by Völundr himself, sort of a payback to Eresh for helping him escape an island where he’d been imprisoned. Cunning genius that he was, I’ve read the smith crafted such things looking in a mirror. That way, spying eyes would be hard pressed to understand, let alone copy the secrets of his trade. Perhaps if you imagined yourself inside the lock—”
“Credentialed in gobermouch before the Shattering, were you?” the goblin snapped. “Cause you’re a bit mouthy to have been a picklock.”
“Ah, it’s just we should gain entrance before the sun sets. While there’s still light, you see.”
“I see.” The goblin gritted his teeth, put one pointed ear against the lock plate. “If you’d quite yammering. I’m—” A grin. A soft click. “There!” He tugged gently. The massive stone door whispered open.
Snat knelt and wrapped his tools back up. “In you go,” he nodded. “While it’s still light.”
Bit of fiction today. The opening ‘graphs of my next mil-SF short.
Have a good day and enjoy Thanksgiving.
They kill you week twenty of Enhanced Tactical Training.
I mean you feel like the instructors have been trying to kill you ever since Basic, certainly during the Advanced courses in whatever branch you served before you were selected for the CRISIS Program: Rangers, SEALS, Delta, Intelligence Support… But after all that, this time it’s real.
The surgeries have long since healed. You’ve integrated with your augments and are still riding the transhuman high. (Yes, you are that fast. And strong. Your new reflexes make Olympic athletes look like they have cerebral palsy. ) You’ve gotten past the mind-fuck that is an implanted cyber-link and now appreciate just how god-like an integrated communications and tactical information network is. You’ve mastered augmented vision, micro-drone tactics, Tac-net hacking, robotics, exosuits, laser weapons, Low-G, deep water, arctic, jungle, desert, and half a dozen other extreme environments. You thought you were badass before – well now you’re officially the bastard child of Terminator and Superman. You almost feeling sorry for whoever you’re ordered to kick the shit out of.
Then one morning near the end of the course they let you sleep late, (a clue, right there) and feed you a decent breakfast. (That was your second warning) After, the instructors escort you to a part of the base you didn’t know existed, turn off your cyber-link, and put you in an elevator. Next thing you know you’re thirty stories underground standing in front of a white vault door with a sign over top that reads
And the last enemy to be destroyed is death
What the hell?
Afterwards back at the barracks, Chandra said he recognized it. A passage from the Bible, the part when Jesus Christ returns, defeats the armies of Satan, cleans up the mess and turns the Earth into the Garden of Eden. I don’t know if that means we’re part of a new world or we’re supposed to establish Paradise, or what, but we definitely fight and are always in the shit. Our team’s call sign is Zulu-6. After that the day though, we began calling ourselves ‘Zombie Six’. But I digress…
You stand there thinking about the sign, no doubt getting scanned, identified, cross-checked, and verified until finally the big white door hisses open and a pair of very polite and professional doctor-types bring you in. They strap you on a comfy operating table and hook up the usual web of electronic leads, IVs and data jacks, explaining all the while this particular procedure won’t take long. You’ll have the rest of the day to yourself afterward.
Then they kill you.
It’s a cocktail of phenobarbital, Pavulon, and potassium chloride. Death by lethal injection. You’re left to cool to room temperature for thirty minutes. Your death gets certified. Then they bring you back.
They want to get it out of the way – dying. To prove to you the augs and implants actually work, that the nano-blood, the cyber-implants kick you into CLS or ‘Critical Level Stasis’ to prevent you you completely shuffling off your mortal coil. All that bleeding-edge tech and those new and improved organs grown from your very own stem cells really do preserve your essential systems.
Not that you’re invulnerable. Massive trauma can still be fatal, as are the NBCs – nuclear, biological, chemical weapons, but your new body can take extraordinary levels of punishment. Far, far more than you imagine.
So they kill you to prove it.
This is the keystone to your training because the head shrinkers and mad scientists behind the CRISIS unit’s inception and technology convinced the generals you will be an infinitely better soldier once you’ve gotten over that marrow-deep, primate nightmare fear of death.
And more than anything else, generals want better soldiers.
They also want a return on their investment. The government dropped millions to borg your body into the ultimate killing machine – to re-make you into a true ‘Smart Weapon’. That means you get an OS upgrade to match the shiny hardware, i.e. your brain gets a major adjustment to fit your new body’s capabilities. Otherwise, all that fancy gear wired inside you will never get used to full capacity.
And believe me, the shit we’re up against, we need full capacity.
Finished edits on part one of The Shattered Worlds and decided to play around in GIMP. I like the way this turned out. I think people are going to enjoy this story.
Someone asked about ‘Dead Saints’ the other day. Well, it’s on the back burner until the election is over. It’s been a stop and go project from the beginning, with the first scenes and outline sitting on my computer for several years. The current delay is due in part by my malaise and general frustration as well as an eerie resemblance between the current political situation and several key plot points.
For example, the story’s antagonist is a corrupt politician demonically inspired to boost their career trajectory toward the White House by deliberately allowing a terrorist attack and then playing the hero in the aftermath. Evidence of this conspiracy is contained in emails thought deleted by the politician’s staff but uncovered by the protagonist while battling both natural (terrorist) and supernatural (demonic) forces in an attempt to stop the imminent terrorist threat.
And here I was, making stuff up.
Have a good weekend.
Black Mirror, Season 3 Episode 4 that is.
I am tripping on Black Mirror. My lips to God’s ears, I wish I had the chops to write things like it.
As long as I’m confessing… I binged the first two seasons when they appeared on Netflix and have been spending most every spare minute on Season 3 since it was announced last week. Sort of a Twilight Zone on Crystal Meth and a 4G Wireless connection, the series has riveting plots, great writing, and pitch-perfect acting that synthesizes each episode into a polished splinter digging in that sensitive intersection of human nature, technological advances, and social trends.
That’s not saying I ‘like’ each episode or agree with the conclusions. It’s not Family Friendly by any stretch. (I suppose as a Christian, I’m not supposed to appreciate it, but frankly Scarlet…. ) Polished as each vignette is, the tone is brutally frank and deeply unsettling. I suspect the real reason it gets so uncomfortable at times is how authentic, incisive, and terribly plausible it all is.
Which brings me to San Junipero – the episode I watched during lunch yesterday.
As a thirty-one year Christian, former Christian Drama Team leader, pastor, and missionary, Sunday School teacher, Bible Study leader, etc, I can’t recall ever seeing such a brilliant and beautiful dismissal of religious faith. I mean that sincerely. I was speechless with admiration not choking on indignation. It was a slice of artistic genius.
It would be difficult to explain line by line how San Junipero encapsulated such a momentous dismissal unless you’re familiar with the traditional Biblical worldview and you watched the episode. I don’t want to slather a spoiler-filled synopsis here. But if you’ve seen it, I bet you’ll follow along: start with the distinctly secular, scientific premise of digitized consciousness/personhood, add the lesbian relationship, the one character’s heart-rending rejection by ‘strict religious family, the other’s poignant lack of faith concerning belief in ‘life after the death’ in the case of her spouse and daughter. Then so to the perpetual Spring Break hedonism of the virtual ‘afterlife’ – (in the 80s, no less) Add it up and the underlying statements are plain: there is no soul, no Eternity, no spiritual dynamic to life, no accountability, no consequences.The episode is a complete dismissal of and substitute for religious faith. The writers even managed to give Belinda Carlisle’s Heaven is a Place on Earth far more meaning than it ever had. (or deserves)
Ooh, baby, do you know what that’s worth?
Ooh, heaven is a place on earth
They say in heaven, love comes first
We’ll make heaven a place on earth
Ooh, heaven is a place on earth
The purpose here is not to air my sniveling, or rate the show on some Faith- Based Approval Scale, or offer a Believer’s Public Service Warning. I really do appreciate the show. It is excellent and challenging.
If there’s a caution, it’s to myself. I know God’s redemption is real – I’ve experienced it in my own life and seen it authentically transform others in America and overseas.
That said, I’ve concluded lately that much of the Western church still operates under the illusion that many non-believers/other-believers need or want or are interested in the Gospel message. Maybe twenty-five years ago, but not anymore. Not really. If anything these days, they’re indifferent. Or dismissive. Contemptuous. Even hostile.
The fact is, most folks are already confirmed and committed not just to carnal and consumer distractions but to a definite worldview. Or they have sought out and bought into alternative remedies to their questions and issues, selecting them from the drop down menu of hundreds of available options in our pluralistic, globally-connected, information age world. We Christians assume they’re hungry in quiet desperation when in reality they are all set and just ate. And yet we’re still knocking on the door with yesterday’s sandwich.
So my personal caution is this: as an artist and a writer, as a human being who believes and has experienced God’s Grace, I am convicted of my need to earnestly, diligently pray for His Spirit to inform and infuse my character, my words, and my work. The world is far better at everything than I am. And they have more of it. The only thing I really have isn’t even mine – the grace and truth that is in Jesus. And I can and should do my level best to pass that on as uncut and consistently as possible. But it needs to be in my bones not just on my bumper sticker. Because in the end, that is the only way I can be a genuine witness to His death, resurrection, and reality.
Have a nice day.
And watch Black Mirror.
Netflix just announced Season 3 of the BBC show “Black Mirror“.
Billed as a ‘Twilight Zone for the social media generation’, if you missed seasons 1 and 2, you should queue them up asap. But be warned: it’s as brutal as it is brilliant. Black Mirror is a very appropriate title. There’s no “…who’s the fairest of them all?” here – you’re just as likely to be horrified as you are fascinated when you look.
A ‘fifteen minutes in the future’ kind of Sci Fi, the show’s writers have an eerie knack for standing right in the intersection of technology, cultural trends, and our primal human appetites. Whether it’s the sordid voyeurism for political scandals, clones of deceased loved ones downloaded with personality algorithms based on social media profiles, to reality shows, pornography, virtual reality, the impact of mnemonic cyber implants on relationships, what makes the show remarkable isn’t merely its excellent script, stories, or acting, but the terrible plausibility of it all.
Again, this won’t be everyone’s cuppa, but I suspect it will engage futurists, fans of William Gibson, and SF junkies out there. As a Christian, I’m both struck and dismayed by how astonishingly well it captures humanity’s capacity for creativity and innovation, as well as reflecting the deep-rooted flaws in our souls that only God, not technology, can remedy.
And as a SF writer, I confess I’m a little jealous.
Trailer for Season 3 below. Now go queue it up.
Have a good day.
Work has slowed down to where I can revise the first major section of my next novel, Shattered Worlds.
So no computer games for me this month, eh?
To thank you for your support and encouragement, all three of my Near-Future shorts are available for free at Amazon for five days beginning tomorrow Sept 9. Download them, tell a friend, pass the info on. They’re short, easy reads. I hope you find your time well spent. Click on the covers below.
Have an excellent day.
Oh yes, please.
The next iteration of cyberpunk-awesomeness is here. The latest installment of the Deus Ex gaming franchise was released yesterday and my bytes are all aflutter.
Immersive world, excellent voice acting, multiple paths/game play methods, RPG elements, deep story line, these are great games, and I mean ‘great’ as in ‘like a good book’. This is far more than a SF-flavored Run n Gun with a dash of grit, cybernetics, and lens flare. These games draw you in, force you to think, make choices, get lost in the story’s implications, complications, and conflicts. As a cyberpunk fan-boy, I’d love to hang out with the creators and writers up in Eidos Montreal for a week to just listen and take notes.
I am resisting the siren call of Mankind Divided because I’ve set aside September to revise the first section of my next novel, Beneath the Broken Moons. But it calls to me from my Steam Cart. Oh how it calls…
Have an excellent day.
Fellow writer types – this is worth a read. Art hard and watch your back.
Scammers used to operate at the edges of the publishing business, but have wormed their way into its heart. And the entire industry is in denial.
An unintentionally revealing aspect of the tiresome Amazon-Hachette dispute was a series of statements from an organization purporting to advocate for authors’ rights. One of the heinous crimes Amazon was said to have committed was treating books like toasters.
With such a claim, Authors United was attempting to tap into a current of feeling about the commoditization of literature – as if Amazon was the first company to put a price tag on a book, and writers around the country were hitherto living off laurels and kudos. It’s tempting to suggest that other entities in the publishing business might be doing as well as Amazon if they also treated books like toasters and attempted to sell the bloody things, but I digress.
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