The Early Days of a Better Nation

Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Homage to Catalonia

On Monday morning I got back from Barcelona, to find Mrs Early asleep, Master Early asleep, and Zhukov (the Early dog) very much awake. Stitch and Split was interesting and worthwhile. Its poster deserves to become a classic of SF art, though even with the full-size version you may need a magnifying glass to spot some of the jokes, like the Culture ship names in tiny print, and the Giant Egg-Laying Insect, and the sunken city of Shanghai. My participation was invited, and expenses and fee paid for, by the Fundacio Antoni Tapies, to which much thanks.

I arrived in Barcelona on a rare (they say) wet weekend, so felt quite at home. It wasn't raining when I arrived, so there was no problem taking a bus in and lugging my stuff from Catalunya square to the Hotel Banys Orientals. It's a good modern hotel, where I found a handy pass for free lunches and dinners and a couple of faxes of directions from the organiser, Nuria Homs. So I left my luggage, looked at the map, and slogged off up the road a mile or so to the Fundacio Antoni Tapies, where the event was taking place.

In an auditorium under an art gallery I met three young Belgians, Laurence Rassel, Nicolas Maleve and Pierre de Jaegger, who introduced me to Nuria. Pierre took me out for a beer and we'd just got in a second when Nicolas arrived to advise us that the show was starting. Jordi Sanchev-Navarro talked about cyberpunk films. Laurence translated for me while he was talking. Every time a film clip came on - no matter how interesting or bizarre - I went out like a light, but she was too polite to comment. Every so often Laurence would break off her translation to say 'But you know this!' This was being polite too. For me it was all educational.

After the talk we went to a nearby bar and I asked Jordi if he knew of a film festival called Dead By Dawn. 'Of course,' he said. 'I know Adele!' We all talked for a bit and Laurence, who'd read all my books, asked: 'But what I want to know is, how did you become a feminist?'

This was a difficult question to answer since nobody had ever called me a feminist before.

The Belgians then took my out to a fine restaurant above a bookshop, where I ate fish. This was to become a theme of the weekend. Back at the hotel I crashed out, and woke in time for breakfast. I'd intended to wander around, and I did, as far as the rain allowed, to the foot of the Rambla (antique market, a lift up the column and a lot of photographs of Barcelona in the rain) and part of the way up. Umbrella sellers came out like mushrooms. By lunchtime I was feeling hungry and the hotel's adjacent restaurant was on the list that my card gave me a pass for, so I went back and ate fish. Out in the rain again and up La Rambla, and on to the Fundacio again, where I read, snoozed, and got ready for my talk. This involved selecting passages from my novel The Stone Canal for Laurence to photocopy for the translators, who were on hand to provide simultaneous translations over nifty skiffy radio headphones into Spanish and English, and who (in the event) did their job well. A little later, as the hall filled up, I met an enthusiastic reader, Professor Louis Lemkow, and a Spanish SF publisher (not mine) Miquel Barcelo Garcia, and the rest of the panel.

The other members of the panel were Manuel Moreno, Jordi Lamarca i Margalef, and Carme Gallego. Carme kicked off with a refreshing Enlightenment attack on the whole notion of identity, starting from the insight of the Scottish philosopher David Hume that even personal identity is a fiction. Collective identities, she argued, merely multiplied the fiction.

Jordi spoke about one of his interests, autobiography, and its role in shaping identity and the quest for what he called a 'middle term' between collective and individual identities. (The vagueness is all mine.)

I then, bracketted with readings from relevant passages from The Stone Canal, said something like this:
Is it possible for human personalities to be recreated in computer systems? Personally, I doubt it. To create a software model of the brain and its body and environment is difficult enough even in principle, let alone in any foreseeable practice. To enable that programme to run, to iterate, to take even one step, is a difficulty of a far greater order. Perhaps I'm just being stubborn, but I remain unconvinced that it's possible at all. To claim that human personalites, with real continuity with those they've been copied from, can exist in a virtual environment raises philosophical questions far deeper than most stories on the subject even consider, and far too deep for me to go into here.

Nevertheless, I think it's worthwhile and legitimate to write science fiction stories that assume it is possible, as I've done in The Stone Canal and elsewhere. As the American SF writer Kim Stanley Robinson points out in this context, science fiction provides us with metaphors for the mundane, and for the changes in our daily lives. When aviation was changing the world, science fiction wrote about space travel. When space travel was not changing the world, and medicine and drugs were, science fiction wrote about Inner Space. When computers were changing the labour process in factories and offices, science fiction wrote about cyberspace. Now that much of our work and leisure and relationships are mediated by computer networks, and much our lives lived online, science fiction talks about 'uploading' human personalities into virtual reality. It's a metaphor for what has already happened. In emails and newsgroups, websites and weblogs, many of us - deliberately or otherwise - project an 'online persona' which has a far from simple relationship with our actual selves. How many of us have had the experience of meeting someone we have come to know online and found them quite surprisingly different from the person we had imagined? As used to be said back in the early nineties, on the Internet nobody knows you're a dog.

But it's not simply a question of dissembling, of faking an identity, of anonymity or pseudonymity. To the extent that it has real effects, on other people and on the world, your online persona is your real self. You are responsible for it. There is no evading that. And these effects can be serious, can be very much 'part of the real world'. We're often reminded of the dark side of this, in fraud and entrapment and so forth, but we should also remember the bright side. Think of Salam Pax, the famous 'Baghdad Blogger'. As a young gay man in Iraq, he was able to use the Internet to both conceal his personal identity, and to reveal it, to come out before thousands and thousands of readers - and to affect quite profoundly the way in which many people saw the war. Here for the first time was somebody writing, almost intimately, in real time, to people in the attacking countries as the bombers took off from England and he - and we - could count the hours until they arrived, and worry when his messages stopped. Think of how emails and newsgroup messages directly affected how people outside the United States experienced the September 11 attacks and their consequences - many them anxiously seeking news of people they had never met in person, only online, but who were their friends or acquaintances nonetheless.

On the other side of the screen, so to speak, the Internet has changed many people's very personalities and identities - 'identity' this time meaning how they see themselves, and what they identify with. Again, we are often reminded of the dark side - of how people with warped and anti-social characters, ideas and impulses can find each other. But here, as in the real world, misanthropy is misguided. As the English historian Henry Thomas Buckle said, acts of virtue must far outnumber acts of vice, or humanity would long ago have perished. There are online communities of evil or disturbed people, for sure. But they are far outnumbered by the online communities of good people, whose interests are innocent. If you're innocent and isolated, discovering that you're not alone is an immense relief and can be the beginning of liberation. Minorities - sexual and political, religious and anti-religious, intellectual and artistic - can share their interests and legitimise themselves in their own eyes and those of the rest of the world. Not all of this is good, but most of it is.

Even the science-fiction idea of electronic immortality for digitized personalities is a metaphor for real life. We can't be sure, but we may suspect, that everything sent across the Internet is stored somewhere. Our newsgroup postings are now permanently archived in public, there to entertain or embarrass us for the rest of our lives. Perhaps the dark archives of the security services hold all our private messages, and represent the only immortality most of us will ever have. Who knows what intelligences, human or artificial, will in some distant future study these scraps of our souls as we study cave-paintings and bone-carvings, and wonder about the strange people who created them, back in the dawn?
Manuel Moreno followed up with an entertaining survey of 'selves and territories' in the form of aliens and their environments, taking classic SF examples such as Hal Clement's Mission of Gravity and Frederick Pohl's Man-Plus, as well as amusing examples of getting it wrong, from Barsoom to Hollywood.

Discussion, as you might expect, followed. Then another visit to the bar, and another seafood dinner. I had forgotten what fresh mussels taste like, and never known what razor-shell clams (wasted as bait in all my experience) taste like. And other alien life-forms ... 'You are a marine biologist,' said Nicolas. 'You must know how to dissect a lobster!' I did my best.

In a wine-bar found by Louis, much later, I heard about the events of two weekends ago, which - tragic though their impetus was - were for a few hours revolutionary - 'You could reach out and touch it!' said Nicolas - as millions of people in the street discovered through rumour and text message and website that they'd been lied to, and that much well-meant comment was misinformed. 'Even your weblog - !' Laurence had said earlier, to my embarrassment. The city, I should say, is spray-bombed with graffiti, its shop and office windows postered with anger and mourning, the black ribbon and the Catalan flag.

I said goodbye outside the hotel to Louis and the Belgians, finished my wine left over from lunch and read Buckle. The following morning, mercifully sunny, I shopped for gifts in the back streets and then headed for the airport. My flight to Heathrow was delayed long enough to make me miss the last flight to Edinburgh. Iberia, the airline responsible, put me up for the night in the Radisson Edwardian, a hotel I's last been in at a long-ago Eastercon, Evolution. When I walked into the bar I laughed out loud. Everything was still the same: the saddle-shaped bar stools, the seating, the paintings of horses. Entire conversations flashed back. I spent two quid on a half pint and went to bed; woke at 4.30 and caught the first plane home.

In the late evenings at the hotel and waiting for flights I'd finished reading Buckle's History of England, Volume 3, the one about Scotland. Its reading has, I think, changed my entire sense of identity, but that's another story.


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