19 July 2007

In which our author ponders on the value of escapist reading...

In a private aside conversation about the information thread, Dr C made reference to enjoyment of some science fiction as "escape reading". I agreed with him that the reading in question was both enjoyable and escapist. However, it's an interesting thing about the mind[1] that it seeks meaning and pattern even where none exists ... and, of course, in fiction it does exist.

So, even in our escapist reading we find grist for our mental mill (an example of which I found in Dr C's most recent post, but that's another red herring). Specifically, once we have a particular subject in mind that subject seems to be everywhere we look.[2]

And thus it is with me, recently. Everywhere I look, since the conversation with Dr C began, I find material of relevance to that conversation. In particular, a novel which I picked up for light relief over breakfast: Vitals, by Greg Bear[3]. I have now finished my breakfast, though not the book which I have put aside at page 150.

I picked up this book on a whim, from a charity book shop, months ago. My previous experience of Mr Bear contained two books (Eon and Moving Mars), both of which speculated interestingly on areas of mathematics and science in which I had specific professional interest, supplied me with spice for mathematics and science seminars, and were enjoyable relaxation reading to boot. This one is set in a field where I have only a lay knowledge and Dr C would be more professionally at home: microbiology, with a focus on longevity research. To be honest, I find the book less interesting to me than the previous two (it is primarily a "man on the run" paranoid conspiracy thriller), and therefore less engrossing, and so less escapist ... but the embedded content, and the lines of thought which it sparks and feeds, are worth the reading anyway. And many of those lines of thought run into the chreodic pathways laid down by the information conversation with Dr C.

Here is an extract taken from page 23 which, as it happens, touches on an area with which Ray Girvan and I were briefly if pseudonymously concerned some years ago. It also completes the circle to both Dr C's original kicking off point in robotics.

I smiled. 'Uploading into cyberspace, living in a computer or a robot brain, immortalized in hardware, in silicon...'

'Makes you laugh?' Montoya asked, sipping.

'No. I just don't think it'll happen in time for me and thee.'

Tell me why,' Montoya asked primly.

The devil is in the details. The mind is the body. Gus is still back with Descartes in believing they can be separated.'


'Downloading the brain's patterns isn't enough. Everything you know and think is embedded in your neurons, but your consciousness is in the cells of your entire body. Your mind is really a complex of brains, with major contributions from the nervous and immune systems. The flesh is intelligent, all flesh, and all of it contributes to your personality at one level or another. Take the body away, and you become near-beer, bitter without the kick.'

Montoya chuckled and looked away, rubbing one hand on his breast. 'Why not capture the state of each cell, each neuron, in a computer? A super MRI machine could do something like that, right?'

'Each one of our cells is like a huge factory with thousands of machines and workers. What the cells do, the decisions they make, how they live, contributes to what you think and how you behave. We won't capture that much detail in any artificial memory in our lifetime. Even if we could, one human being would probably fill all the computer capacity on Earth.'

1. I unapologetically use the word mind in its quotidian, not scientific or philosophical, sense - in what I would professionally call "conversational register". I am not, in other words, venturing further into the already huge and labyrinthine implications of the information thread itself.

2. As a child of peripatetic foreign service parents, I observed from early in life that as soon as heard that I would soon be living in such and such a place or country, the news was suddenly full of that place or country. For at time, I formed the erroneous impression that either I or my family were uniquely special and important, that the business of the cosmos revolved about me or us.

3. Bear, G., Vitals. 2003, London, Harper Collins. 0007129750 (pbk.).

4. Bear, G., Eon. 1985, New York, N.Y., Bluejay Books. 0312941447.

5. Bear, G., Moving Mars. 1st ed. 1993, New York, Tor. 031285515X (acid-free paper).

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