An occasional series that is a continuation of my essay anthology, On Being Human: critical looks at books and movies that examine the question of humanity. (Buy the limited edition hardcover, Kindle version, or download it for free at the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography)
“A beginning is a very delicate time.” – Princess Irulan from Dune (David Lynch, 1984)
The Story So Far …
The Cassandra Kresnov series by Joel Shepherd brings together the thrills of military science fiction with challenging ideas about sentient machines and political transition. Killswitch continues the story of Cassandra Kresnov, a sentient machine, and her life working for her former enemies.
The crux of the narrative lay with the eponymous killswitch. Kresnov used to be a soldier working for The League. Now she lives in Tanusha on the world of Callay, itself part of The Federation. Unlike The League’s gung-ho technocratic libertarian policies, The Federation is more conservative. Based on Earth, The Federation bans the use of “artificial humans.” That is until Kresnov became a political refugee and began working for The Callayan Defence Force (CDF).
But The League installed a device to prevent their robotic super-soldiers from going rogue: a killswitch. Located in the spinal column below Kresnov’s brain, it can be blown at any moment by an outside force. This leads Kresnov to go AWOL from her CDF unit and seek out her creator, a man named Renaldo Takawashi. Her discussion with Takawashi is the intellectual climax of Killswitch, a revelation by Kresnov of her maker.
Complementing this conversation about non-human sentience is Callay’s delicate political position. President Neiland now heads The Federation’s transitional government, moving the political center from Earth to Callay. But not everyone loyal to The Federation want to see this change. The transition of power becomes anything but peaceful and Neiland and Kresnov literally get caught in the crossfire. Even with a multi-planetary nation-state imbued with a tradition of democracy, a peaceful transition of power becomes less a given and subject to populist opposition and military intervention.
Moving the Center
“A beginning is a very delicate time,” to quote Dune again. In a previous volume, it was mentioned that the United Nations moved its headquarters from New York City to Tbilisi, Georgia. It symbolized a change in geopolitical power as China and India rose in power while the United States devolved into a xenophobic, isolationist political has-been.
Moving the Federation’s headquarters from Earth to Callay represents another symbolic move. But Killswitch reveals the delicacy of the situation. Even with the war against the League in the past, the movement of the political capital from one world to another leaves the Federation vulnerable to attack. In this case there are internal and external enemies.
One of the major opponents of the move is the Federation Fleet. The military spaceships have loyalty with Earth, not Callay. While this may seem shocking to those who grew up in Western-style democracies with participatory elections, in other parts of the world the military play a key role in maintaining political order. Case in point: Egypt during the Arab Spring. In many cases the military is seen as an institution of continuity and security.
When regimes have become too corrupt, tyrannical, or inept, the military would step in (stage a coup d’etat), form a military junta, and suspend constitutional rights. Greece, Turkey, and India are noteworthy examples (in the case of India, Indira Gandhi’s “Emergency” period).
Like having Kresnov work for the CDF, moving the capital to a non-Earth world is a massive cultural shift. The common bromide trotted out by futurists is, “Information wants to be free.” Does it? Really? To quote Kids in the Hall member Dave Foley, “Words aren’t good or bad because words don’t have a central nervous system.” And, finally, who can forget this chestnut, “Reality has a liberal bias.” The point being, when change occurs there will always – always! – be opposition. The Civil Rights, healthcare reform, and Roe v. Wade all represented some aspect of the greater liberal agenda. Increasing rights, affordable treatment, and control over one’s body met with virulent, violent, and vicious opposition. America eventually did enter the hallowed halls of civilization, but it had to do so kicking and screaming the entire way. Power is easy to take for granted when you have for it a long time period. It is very hard to give up. Usually the law has to get involved, because self-policing can become a farcical sham. Those fingers on the levers of power need to be pried off. Earth, the center of the political universe for so long, is reluctant to give up its power to another world. The same way “human” meant “organic and sentient being,” “the Federation” meant “Earth” and everything associated with it.
Every change seems weird and strange at first, the Federation moving its seat of power to Callay seems strange, but not without precedent. But every political transition is a delicate time. The ascension of a vulgar, tiny-fingered reality TV star to the highest political office in the United States occurred because of a technicality. He threatened violence because “the system is rigged.” (It is rigged. It’s called The Electoral College and you will support it, worthless prole!) But the transition proved peaceful, albeit with all the dignity and probity of a fire at a down-market strip club.
Meeting Her Maker
Through subterfuge and machination Cassandra Kresnov finally meets Renaldo Takawashi, an important inventor in the General Issues (GIs). Throughout the series Kresnov has displayed skills and intelligence unheard of in GIs. These skills include strategic thinking and advanced emotional responses. The standard GI was built as a shoot-and-kill super-soldier. More powerful than their human counterpart and programmed not to question orders. Kresnov was different because she headed up a squad of Dark Star commandos, The League’s version of The US Special Forces or British SAS. She lead her team into high-risk military operations more complex and daring than the usual frontal assaults seen in wars of attrition.
But her advanced intelligence and emotions made her become self-aware and self-conscious. Fleeing the League and forcing to “pass” as a human only exacerbated this self-consciousness. So after two novels where she shows her loyalty to The Federation, she meets her maker.
This meeting recalls her previous conversation with the Callayan senator Swami Ananda Ghosh. To summarize, Senator Ghosh told Kresnov all life was sacred, even non-life like her.
Takawashi tells Kresnov about The League’s founding principles:
The League was founded by people who believe humanity’s greatest promise is yet to be fulfilled. Synthetic, biological replication technology is merely a logical extension of this philosophical intent. It is the constant yearning for self-improvement, for discovery, expansion and renewal that makes us truly human. Evolution made us who we are, but evolution lost its grip upon our destiny from the first moment an ape brandished a tool and used it to manipulate his environment. We now have control of our destiny. And we must evolve ourselves, for our own reasons, and our own purposes.
This rah-rah pragmatic humanism has echoes in every vague prophecy from professional futurists to the racist and genocidal utopians in the eugenics movement. In this case humanity created GIs, not as immortal extensions of humanity, but readily disposable killbots.
Their discussion ultimately involves Kresnov’s creation and the existence of a similar GI, a kind of evil twin to Kresnov. The twin has all of the intelligence but none of the emotional empathy acquired by Kresnov in her interactions with organic humanity.
One creative, dissenting mind can be contained … for a time, at least. But imagine if numerous such minds got together. Commingled. Cross-pollinated, if you will. I daresay you would have left the League far earlier than you eventually did, had you gained such exposure to like minds, with whom to further shape your subversive ideas. Or to foment a rebellion.
Keeping the GIs on a short leash – or, in this case, short lead time from production to mobilization – had its military, but also political, reasons. Another parallel would be preventing slaves from reading and girls from getting an education. The worry of those in control is not simply having these subservient groups reading, but the possible threat of having these groups question what they read. (It should come as no surprise that the Cassandra Kresnov series is published by Pyr, a spin-off publisher from Prometheus Books. Prometheus Books publishes various titles relating to science education, freethinking, and skepticism.)
Meat, Machinery, and The Mind
The Cassandra Kresnov series is a profound meditation on the question, “What does it mean to be human?” Can a GI, essentially a complex thinking machine, be considered human? Is it possible to see beyond our meat-centric biases? This bias is rooted in our disdain for a machine’s mind. How smart is too smart for a machine? The predictive algorithms of Amazon.com is startling, but not on the level of approaching The Singularity. What happens when machines begin to form their own morality? Their own judgment?
What happens when there is a mind but there’s no meat attached? In the case of Cassandra Kresnov, this highly intelligent mind is jacketed in a form resembling our meat. On top of having human-like intelligence, her body can become a super-weapon, since it is made from materials used for spacecraft and military hardware. And yet … and yet … she has the morality, vulnerability, and emotional intelligence making her seem all too human. Our reactions are paradoxical. She looks like … sounds like … behaves like … and yet she is not. Is the way out of the paradox to involve adopting a halfway position, recognizing Kresnov’s not-humanness insofar as essentials are concerned, yet embracing her as a fellow human because she has been socialized to such a degree as to be indistinguishable from organic humanity? The most important question is: Does this matter?