Wednesday, May 21, 2008

She, Robot

Welcome to the future. It is a time when humanity is divided over the questions of technological ethics and the concept of biotechnological research. Factions vie for prominence across the length and breadth of the stars, and the war between the League and the Federation has widened the rift between opposing doctrines. Welcome to the future as envisioned by Joel Shepherd.

Joel Shepherd, a native of Australia, brings us an interesting vision of things to come in the far future. The most interesting thing: people are still fighting over the same things that they are squabbling over now. Do humans have the right to create truly artificial life? Today the argument is over cloning, in Shepherd's Cassandra Kresnov series, the issue is General Issue Artificial Humans, better known as GIs.

So what is the big deal about GIs? The issue is less clear than one would assume. The League believes that technology is technology and is a tool for the betterment of man, while the Federation believes that technology must be used responsibly. The core disagreement over GIs is that the League views them as tools and the Federation views them as people who have no say in who and what they are. The Federation has banned the use and development of GIs and GI -related technology, while the League uses their GIs to figh the war.

OK, so now that we understand the crux of the disagreement, it is time to focus on the key character in this series: Cassandra Kresnov. Cassandra is a high designation League GI that has gone AWOL in order to defect from the League and become a productive citizen of the Federation. Cassandra pretends to be a normal human and emigrates to the Federation world of Callay where she interviews with a series of biotechnology firms hoping to get a job. Unfortunately for Cassandra, her secret is know to members of the Federal Investigations Agency, and she is abducted and experimented on only to be rescued by Callay's own SWAT Lieutenant Vanessa Rice.

Although placed under arrest due to her biomechanical nature, Cassandra, tries as hard as she can to help and cooperate with the Callay Intelligence Agency (CIA). Eventually, while enroute to hearings being held to determine her status, Sandy gets her chance to shine. There is an assassination attempt on Callay's President, and the only reason that it does not succeed is because Cassandra is in the right place to thwart the attempt. The action and intrigue spin out of control from that point on, with Sandy and Vanessa taking the lead in guiding Callay through a series of momentous crises.

The inherent question of the series: a philosophical analysis of the classic 'I think therefore I am' statement goes deeper into than one might think. The pivotal decision that comes before the players in this little drama is whether or not a GI which can think for itself can really rebel against all of her programming and become something else. There is a great scene early in the book where Cassandra explains that she likes art, and when asked why, she in turn asks why anyone likes art: it makes her feel. Cassandra has all the benefits of being a superstrong android (though she hates that term), and could probably give the Terminator a run for its money, but she really wants to give up war and fighting for a more peaceful existence.

Philip K. Dick asked Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and caused quite a stir, but Joel Shepherd asks: can an android be more than the sum of its programming? Can a machine evolve? If it does, will it be more like us, or less? With the Terminator series of movies we have seen the evolution of machine intelligence as a frightening Frankenstein's monster paradigm. Shepherd shows us that maybe, just maybe, we can make something more human than human. It is a great concept, a great series, and a great question.


Silvynstar said...

Hate to tell you this, but the Stainless Steel Rat series was (and is) written by the redoubtable Harry Harrison, not the almost equally redoubtable Mike Resnick.

Todd said...

Ooops. Thanks for the correction. I appreciate the heads up. I have changed the post.