Your debut novel Silver Screen and the new Mappa
Mundi deal with human intelligence and the possibility of
duplicating that by machine. What is it about this branch of computer
science that attracts you?
Since school I was fascinated by philosophical questions about the who,
what and why of human existence. The further I followed those questions the
more I got drawn into the various attempts we've made so far to create
models of consciousness, natural language processing and other
brain-specific phenomena. Also I got sucked backwards in historical time
through the theories of our evolution and then, in general, to concepts of how
all complex systems arise, function and fail. Computer science is trying
very hard in various ways to attempt a kind of evolution of complex,
life-mimicking systems at the moment, whereas the rest of the enterprise has
to be satisfied with thought experiments and theoretical analysis. The
practical possibilities are very strong within AI, although ultimately it
may be a project that fails to produce anything we could recognise as
consciousness -- it's a tricky topic, since consciousness itself remains to
be satisfactorily defined.
As for why I like thinking about this rather than hot fashion tips or making
shedloads of money, I've no idea. Nothing else is interesting, by
comparison. I must have been made that way.
In your worlds, memories can be quantified and stored electronically in
code. This kind of technology would allow the 'essence' of a human being to
be stored and accessed indefinitely. Do you see this innovation in the near
future? Is it something you would like to see done with your own
Ah, that's a hell of a question. It depends on whether you equate
narrative memories with identity, or 'essence' as you put it. For me, the
narrative memories are the ongoing development of the identity, but they're
also its product. By storing them you wouldn't get the identity itself,
only an approximation, and a dead one at that. However, even if this is a
'weaker' version of electronic immortality and essentially a play-only
record, devoid of consciousness, it would be an amazing development. Fully
interactive 'hosted' people come a lot later in the party, I think and I'm
not sure, after an acquaintance with Crowley's Rush-That-Speaks, that I'd
welcome that. As for whether I want to be made into Justina Preserve -- hmm,
I don't think so. The ego says 'why not?' but the rest of me says 'who the
hell would want to listen to you in a hundred years' time?'
With the possibility of 'storing' people for the future, there are going
to be the usual heated debates that any life issue attracts, but the
accepted roles might be reversed. Which side do you think the pro-lifers and
the pro-choicers would find themselves on in this case? What would such a
development mean to the right-to-die issue?
If dying were only about losing the physical body I think most of us
would be a lot less worried about it. Since, for the scientific positivist
(me), it means total annihilation then being stored has its attractions,
although I wonder what it would be like to be divorced from our senses. We
often think we're all mind anyway, but try a deprivation tank and you may
change your mind. Maybe we should ask Christopher Reeve what it's like -- and
he still has some contact. In terms of the lifers and choicers issues,
I'm guessing you mean that choice people would say they would or wouldn't
want it whereas life people would say it must be mandatory. But what would
we be preserving? Not life as we know it. It'd be like some big library of
ex-people, and you can imagine how bitter and twisted they'd all be at
having been stuck on a reference shelf... Some might see it as a sentence
in hell. Like all our other technologies, it has its own set of problems,
not analogous directly to other situations...
The advancements in your books come extremely close to producing working
artificial intelligence, a goal scientists have been striving for
decades. Despite the technology-gone-amuck literature and movies that crop
up constantly, how do you view the potential for AI? Any dangers you take
Stephen Hawking and I disagree over this point (not like we have
conversations, mind you). He thinks that AI is a potential threat. I think
it could be, but it's more likely that it will be a threat because of the
way it's manipulated by people, not in its own right. True AI, hosted by
machine, would be extremely unlike human intelligence, I think, because so
much of human awareness is based on the experience of the body and its
electro-chemical soup. Sure, you could mimic the soup, but what would be the
point unless you were trying to replicate humanity? I expect most AI will
start off as human replicant efforts, but will have to diverge as that's not
a feasible option (and it's kind of stupid -- there are billions of humans
already, why make a fake one?). Machine AI would have its own goals and
desires, I think. But I have no idea what those would be. I suppose if
those interests clashed with human ones we'd have a situation on our hands,
but would it be worse than our current unintelligent situations rife with
conflict and violence? I doubt it. People assume the machines would nuke
us for our incompetence/evil/annoying tendency to overrun the place and
shoot things, but it isn't much of a strategy, in my opinion. And it's so madly
egotistical too, expecting them to behave like us. As if machines would
give a toss about us. Leaving Earth for better pastures would be my bet, if
I were a machine with the wherewithal.
In the flesh or in the ether, your characters are always plausible,
identifiable human creatures. In novels filled with as much technology as
Mappa Mundi, is it a challenge to maintain the humanity and
the development of the people in your stories while building the technical
Actually I find it the other way around. The technical aspects are harder
to wedge in because my interest lies more in the reactions of the people and
what's going on in their lives.
So many writers fall prey to stinting one aspect in favour of the other,
but that doesn't seem to be a problem for you. Is that instinct or a
It's kind of you to say so. Personally my effort on this level is
conscious. I like stories to score on more than one level when I read them
or see them on TV/film and I try to make them do that when I write them.
Stinting is a kind of meanness, a sort of laziness. I'm dead lazy in my
life, you might say almost comatose with idleness if you saw me about the
house, but when it comes to stories I hate that kind of thing. It's like
being invited to a bring-your-own-bottle party only to find there's no
snacks or peanuts either.
After reading Mappa Mundi, I was greatly surprised to
learn that you do not come from a technology-concentrated background. Far
from bio- and nano- and all the other -technologies, you studied linguistics
and philosophy. Was it the philosophical aspects of these scenarios that
attracted you? Or are you a closet science junkie?
There's no closet. I am science girl. Philosophy and linguistics are
perceived as adjuncts or arts, compared with raw sciences like physics, but
I can't see the difference. They're all driven by the need to know, to
discover and to verify what's real. The drive to understand and explain is
insatiable, the method -- whatever suits at the time.
Few authors have met with such critical success on their early projects.
It's impossible not to be curious about your next novel. Without giving too
much away, could you share a bit of what's coming?
After the heavy, heavy seriousness of Mappa Mundi the next book is more of a
romp, although possibly not on a Peter F. Hamiltonian scale (I'm not going up
against that kind of operatic talent on its own doorstep!). It's a
muck-about with the latest ideas about M-Theory (Mystery theory, the search
for Theory of Everything/super-gravity) and brane-worlds and a speculation
about human evolution in a future where genetic and materials engineering
have been incredibly successful. Nobody's going to live in space in a can,
like Star Trek. But they're going to space all right... And for the first
time I have aliens, which is a big leap for me, toying with the
extra-terrestrial in that devil-may-care not-proven, making-it-up-entirely
kind of way. I still worry about whether I could get thrown out of Rational
Geekdom for that sort of thing.
Copyright © 2001 Lisa DuMond
In between reviews, articles, and interviews, Lisa DuMond writes science
fiction and humour. DARKERS, her latest novel, was published in August 2000
by Hard Shell Word Factory. She has also written for BOOKPAGE and PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
Her articles and short stories are all over the map. You can check
out Lisa and her work at her website hikeeba!.