A science fiction futurist book to make you think about an impending problem we haven’t faced yet, that’s what this is. An intellectual lunch at a conference that needs to happen. The author might have revealed too much in the synopsis but here’s the distillation:
The story describes the future we are currently working towards, where there’s no famine, all work is carried out by automation and people are free to pursue their leisure interests, which are usually to “drink and dance and screw because there’s nothing else to do” (Jarvis Cocker). One of these sheep citizens learns about an alternative, the ruthless meritocracy of the twentieth century. Although the risks are great, like coming out at the bottom of the social pile, there are occasional benefits that humanity in the future has all but forgotten: job satisfaction, self-worth, physical fitness, competitive challenge, feeling part of something greater than oneself; all the missing mental candies of happiness. To get them back into human lives, the protagonist chooses to become an activist revolutionary. Go retro!
This existential issue has stepped beyond the old nineteenth century ideologies that were set up in response to the industrial revolution, socialism and capitalism. It has become, truly, a question for science fiction because a world where we only have to do the jobs we want to do is within sight of the next generation of humankind. This sounds great but it takes a writer like this to explore the negative side of this third industrial philosophy.
There’s a big question underlying all of this: Can humans be truly happy if their sense of purpose has been removed? Secondary questions include: Will we continue to evolve if there is no competitive niche to select between probabilities of survival? (with artificial help, all flawed genes will survive and the standard of our species’ DNA can only regress). Should we strive to make our lives easier and easier, longer and longer, to suspend incentive to try (all being looked after anyway), until humans become the pets of their servant robots? Is it good to lose free will to make choices between right and wrong, to strive or be lazy, if by compliance with a system we only represent the matter being processed through it? Is it right to fear the efficiency-driven robots might conclude the human component is unnecessary luggage? Is everything we want the same as everything we need? If we find the human species has changed unrecognisably, could this change ever be reversed or would we have lost the skills to survive without the feeding tube?
“Beyond your social life you don’t have any fears. If you want to get Chinese, we go to China. If there’s a movie that doesn’t exist, we can make it together.”
I can think of one simile, that of antibiotic use. In developed countries, our immune system hasn’t had to fight hard for three generations because we use antibiotics. These are becoming gradually less effective as the various hazards which survive these medicines are selecting in favour of their most resistant strains. When antibiotics become useless, we will have artificially interfered in the system with the result that stronger (than otherwise background normal) strains can fight our weakened (than we would have had without decades of antibiotics) immune systems. In short, we make life easier for ourselves for fifty to one hundred years and then pay for it later, many times over, because we’re so limp without artificial support.
The protagonist’s answer is meritocratic capitalism, but that has imperfections too: “Nobody agrees with your ideas, Reid. That’s why they changed. That’s why sixty years ago, people changed them. Your ideas were killing everyone, slowly.”
Hawking and Musk cautioned that we have reached a crossroads in artificial intelligence development where we can choose between allowing or preventing a potential threat to our assumed position as the dominant decision-making species. Please note the difference – they were not suggesting the machines would harm us physically but they were suggesting we would be passing the baton over and following behind them, trusting in the generosity and compassion of metal. Do we want that to happen? If we continue on our current trajectory and choose that version of the future, to make our lives more comfortable, after a few generations will we still be entirely human? We might need Shakespeare, or his sister, to bring that point to the world’s attention. The experience, the struggle and perhaps even the sadness is part of the human experience, so without it don’t we just become useless lumps, bored and reliant on an external source of handouts for survival?
I love the idea that an artificial intelligence can be brought down by presenting it with an abstract statement it can’t process, such as: “A man is a giraffe under an iron sun.” Well done.
“Every question he has possessed about himself wilts and dies on the vine, dropping to the ground and fertilizing his growth.”
There’s a sharp sting in the tail end pages of this story, which will make you sit upright too. The empire strikes back - and not in the fashion you’re expecting.
Principles of Literary Criticism would claim that “effective critical work requires a closer aesthetic interpretation of the literary text as an object”. By that rule, this book frames an important social question and that question needs to be asked more often or we will be walking ahead without seeing where our foot is landing. Therefore, this isn’t just a competent science fiction adventure, it has implications and worth. We are moving toward this without a debate on whether a cosseted future is in our best interests. It might be or it might not but The Retroactivist is a prompt to think and choose before we become reliant for survival on something external to our species.
I recommend that the author send copies of this book to the major national science fiction archives, as when this philosophical question for humanity becomes a hot topic, its early portrayal in this fictional story should be acknowledged and considered in the literature.