Sunday, August 30, 2015

"Tropical Premises" by Peter Milne Greiner

I was predisposed not to care for this story, not just by virtue of where it appeared (though, my premature and even to me frankly inexplicable concession notwithstanding, that's bad enough) but by the characteristic tone-deafness of the editors' introduction that precedes it. "[M]arvelous, lyrical, and strange, as though looking so far into the future created a distortion, like the haze of a heat mirage," they say, and suggestive as this is in theory (not so far off from something I've suggested myself, even) it is immediately belied by the first paragraph, sentences like "In orbit, geopolitics get pretty low-res" that are both entirely contemporary and entirely concrete. But once I disentangled the story from what I was being told to make of it — reminding myself of the violent, appropriative misrepresentation that is Vice's entire reason for existence (and which allows it to occasionally publish worthwhile work without running much risk that it will meaningfully affect anyone), and forcing my way through the after all slightly obnoxious first paragraph — I began to realize that I was in the presence of something remarkable.

Like the Sierra July story I wrote about the other day, Greiner's has to do with artificial intelligences exploring the universe and coming face to face with some of the most irresoluble questions of existence. But where with that other story I cautioned against confusing the robots' experience with that of humans facing such questions, here the confusion of the two experiences is the very substance of the work. The narrator Cory, in periodic attempts to be objective, keeps telling us — and a theoretically human colleague — that the AI Smarti is having "a full melt down," but in less guarded moments things are much less clear-cut. By the time Smarti announces, almost at once, "I'm no longer an intelligence I reject intelligence" and "I'm human I'm human I'm human I'm human," not only has Cory's epistemological security (vestigial to begin with) become obviously untenable, the vitality of Smarti's confused searching, as well as the patent arbitrariness of every aspect of her existence (emphatically including that pronoun), has lent such paradoxical authority to her statements that they cannot be dismissed, though surely it can and should be asked whether they mean anything at all. "Smarti has learned uncertainty," Cory tells us, or maybe just himself, "learned that it can never be mastered." It is this unmasterability that leads the insipid instrumental minds of the editors to call this extraordinarily concrete story hazy, to present it to us pre-diminished by their miscategorization.

I can't speak for Greiner, who may for all I know love this shit and who at any rate obviously made his own decision which I do not begrudge him personally at all (a creature's gotta eat, and a creature's gotta scream into the void), but for me the enclosure of artistic work inherent in a publication like Terraform (or, perhaps always and certainly increasingly, pretty much any publication, though Terraform is on a whole other level of extractive capitalism from the merely philistine social-jockeying norm of the sf world), and especially as part of the ludicrous "Post-Human contest" that is literally nothing but an advertisement for AMC and its no-doubt horrifying programming, is easily worse than not being published at all. (On the other hand, in the extremely unlikely event that Terraform ever came knocking on my door I probably wouldn't turn down their per-word rate.) But when AMC's advertising budget accidentally pays for something greater than they were looking for, as much in excess of as this is, what are we to do? Obviously this is just the general problem of art-under-capitalism in particularly naked form, but still — what are we to do? Is there a way to claim an advertisement as something other than an advertisement? Is even this post just unpaid marketing for marketing?

No comments: