Kill All Humans

proxima-stephen-baxter-gollanczI’ve been reading Stephen Baxter’s novel Proxima and its sequel Ultima. I’d been prevaricating about these for a while. I always quite like Baxter when I read him, but I don’t quite trust his prolificacy. Let’s take a chunk of time:

  • In 2006, he published Emperor, the first in the Time’s Tapestry sequence, following it with two sequels in 2007 and a third in 2008. Emperor came in at 368 pages, the first sequel 320, and the final two 336 pages each. So that’s 1360 pages in three years.
  • In 2007, he also published Firstborn, the third volume in the Time Odyssey trilogy, a collaboration with Arthur C Clarke, which was 388 pages. And a YA novel, H Bomb Girl, which was a mere 288 pages.
  • In 2008, he also published Flood, which was the first of two books dealing with catastrophic flooding caused by climate change. 548 pages.
  • In other words, between 2006 and 2008, he published works totalling over 2500 pages, and this period of time is not unusual; it’s fairly typical, in fact.

So I didn’t quite trust that these two novels would be any good, coming as they do amidst his multi-volume collaboration with the late Terry Pratchett, the Long Earth series, which was concerned with the multiverse, or the idea that we live alongside multiple parallel universes.

At first, Proxima seems like it’s going to be a space colonisation narrative, with the twist that all the colonists have been press-ganged into participation. But there is a parallel narrative about a mysterious source of power (“kernels”) that appear on Mercury, which turns into a story about a mysterious Hatch that appears; and then all of a sudden we’re into Long Earth territory and alternate histories. Huh. Oh, and there are artificial intelligences, some of them robotic.

And it’s all perfectly readable and it rolls along, but it’s a bit of a mess, thematically, and you kind of get disappointed that the characters you invested in at the beginning never really get a chance to develop satisfactorily, or that other characters just appear and then disappear without really doing much.

So in the end, I was probably right to feel wary, but these were library loans, so never mind. This isn’t even a review, not really, but it made me think about some things.

Those robots, those AIs.

There’s a Cory Doctorow story that pokes fun at the idea that you would risk actual humans in human bodies in space exploration rather than constructing robot explorers or using AIs. Imagine: instead of having to develop cryogenics to enable human bodies to travel long distances, you send off a ship and then later on transmit (at the speed of light) an uploaded intelligence into an artificial body or robot in time for the exploration to take place.

Because it seems obvious by now that, where humans can be replaced by robots, they will be. Robots don’t need tea breaks, holidays, sleep, maternity leave, or regular pay rises in line with inflation.

So if you’re a human, and I’m assuming you are, you probably want to be in a profession in which you can’t possibly be replaced by a robot. But what is that, exactly? In Proxima, the colonists are aided by a robot/AI that can make soil, produce genetically engineered crops, offer medical treatments and assist in births. So it’s a farmer, a scientist, a doctor and a midwife. Oh, and it could teach children as well.

I’m a teacher. One of the key pieces of jargon in the profession these days is the word consistency. We all need to be doing the same thing. Managing behaviour in the same ways. Following the same classroom routines, setting homework on the same days, issuing sanctions and rewards. It’s easy to dismiss all this as Emerson’s “foolish consistency” that is “the hobgoblin of little minds”, but of course the agenda is far more sinister.

The latest aspect of the hobgoblin is the idea that, within departments, we should all be teaching the same stuff at the same time. A manager on a tour should be able to visit the classrooms while, say, Year 9 are being taught, and find the same lesson being taught by all the teachers. So as well as following the marking policy and the behaviour policy, we’re all expected to subsume our individuality as teachers and just follow the scheme of work… or the textbook… or whatever piece of courseware the corporate education publishers produce.

The first step is, can we replace expensive qualified teachers with cheap unqualified teachers? That’s easier to do if you have a bunch of pre-made lesson plans and schemes of work. But of course, the end game is, can we replace the warm body in the room with a robot and some software?

Bang.

So: raise a glass to inconsistency, to unpredictability, to not planning, to winging it, to charisma, to the messy, disorganised, impossible to programme, human being in the room.

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