MORE ON ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE: ANN LECKIE’S ANCILLARY JUSTICE TRILOGY AND MARJORIE PRIME

Barcelona hosts this week the Mobile World Congress, which means that news about technology will dominate the media for a few days (leaving absurd politics aside). For the last two years, the congress has been preceded by the Mobile Week BCN (https://mobileweekbcn.com/es/), which has presented a dense programme of events (talks, workshops, performances, etc)… in which science fiction has been completely forgotten, as usual. So, to compensate for that, I’ll add here my own particular contribution, commenting on a novel trilogy and a film and how they connect with advances in artificial intelligence.

Ann Leckie (b. 1966, USA) is the author of the acclaimed trilogy composed by Ancillary Justice (2013), Ancillary Sword (2014) and Ancillary Mercy (2015). The first novel, which was also her first published work, won the Hugo, Nebula, Arthur C. Clarke and BSFA awards, an impressive feat. Both sequels won the Locus Award and nominations for the Nebula Award. Yet, all these accolades and the hype puzzle me: I cannot say that I have enjoyed reading the books, except for a richly comical secondary character, Translator Zeiat, who deserves a trilogy of his/her own. Please, Leckie!

In fact, I have managed to read the whole trilogy only at the third try. The reason for this is that the first person narrator, Breq, speaks a language (obviously ‘translated’ into English) with no pronouns for male human beings–everyone is ‘she’ for her. This means that you need much patience to guess who is actually a man and who a woman, which greatly interferes with the necessary visualization of the characters; this trick plays, beside, no significant role in the plot. Unless… the joke that Leckie plays on the reader is that Breq is a ‘he’ and not a ‘she’, which I’m beginning to doubt. Funnily, despite being an artificial intelligence, Breq seems unable to incorporate to her awareness of people basic information about gender, even though she constantly worries about the gaffes she may commit in particularly dangerous circumstances involving touchy humans or aliens.

This gimmick, then, which has attracted much attention to the trilogy as an example of progressive handling of gender issues in science fiction, is not very interesting. In contrast, I found much more appealing (though not enticing enough) the fact that with Breq we have a literally omniscient first person narrator, who is also non-human.

The central premise that spaceships are run by massive artificial intelligences (which he called Minds) was already present in the Culture novels by Iain M. Banks. Actually, Banks supposes that post-scarcity utopia is finally reached when the post-human citizens of the advanced civilization named the Culture leave all admin tasks to the Minds. Yet, as far as I recall, despite the enjoyable, witty conversations between humans and Minds, or among themselves, no Mind narrates any of the novels. A Mind avatar, Beardle, occupies much of the last novel, The Hydrogen Sonata, as a main character. Leckie’s trilogy is, perhaps, closer to previous texts, such as The Ship Who Sang (1969) by Anne McCaffrey, originator of the ‘Brain & Brawn’ (or Brainship) series, in which talented but disabled children become eventually embedded as cyborgs in the spaceships they run. Not too politically correct. In Leckie’s work, however, there is a mixture of concepts: the spaceships are run by an artificial intelligence, always subordinated to a human captain, for whom it often forms a sort of sentimental attachment. The problem is that, instead of Banks’ cool avatars–bioengineered for the task as replicants, or perhaps as cyborgian androids–Leckie supposes that the ship’s a.i. also possesses the human bodies of enslaved war prisoners.

These poor victims are deprived of their personalities and turned into material manifestations of the ship as its troop soldiers. The nasty method by which the prisoners are transformed into ‘ancillaries’ or flesh avatars, while fully aware of the process and in great pain and despair, absolutely disgusted me; this has been another factor contributing to my not enjoying the trilogy. Of course, ancillaries are supposed to be material proof of the cruelty of the Radch Empire that has created them but they never really made much sense to me because of Banks’ far more elegant Culture novels. That Leckie feels very uncomfortable about being constantly compared with him in negative terms is shown by Breq’s dismissal as silly and only good for cheap entertainment of the kind of witty name that Banks uses for his Minds/ships (enjoy the full list at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_spacecraft_in_the_Culture_series).

Narrator Breq is one of these ex-persons, the only ancillary to survive the malicious destruction of her ship, the Justice of Toren, by the villain of the piece, Lord Anaander Minaai (an ubiquitous, multiple-clone tyrant, and the only person Breq does identify as male, unless she thinks that ‘Lord’ also means ‘Lady’). The digital enhancements that allow Breq to operate as a bodily extension of Justice of Toren, together with all the other soldiers in her ‘decade’ (or platoon of ten), do not play a major role in the first novel. She does complain much throughout the book about how appalling it is to be disconnected from everyone else and, although she never cares about who she used to be as a human person, she is devastated by being the only pitiful remnant of the once mighty Justice of Toren. In fact, to all effects and purposes, she believes that she is the Justice of Toren, an identity which she keeps secret as she faces the dread and repugnance that ancillaries elicit from plain human beings.

The first person narration spices up when Breq becomes the first a.i. to be appointed Fleet Captain, is given the warship Mercy of Kalr to command and sent to defend Athoek Station in the oncoming civil war. With her digital implants restored back to full service, Breq has in Ancillary Sword (2014) and Ancillary Mercy (2015) access to all the data provided by the a.i. running the warship; also, partly, to what the a.i. administering the interplanetary station lets her know. First person narrators are, by definition, limited by their own perception of events, and so is Breq initially; yet, as a fully connected a.i., she controls an enormous amount of information about the other characters, all connected by their own implants to either ship or station. There is absolutely no privacy, though both a.i. (ship and station) are quite discreet. Breq is, likewise, discreet but she does have constant access to the emotions of almost everyone around her (Translators Dlique and Zeiat, who are partly alien, remain an unsolvable conundrum). This is a very peculiar kind of omniscience: Breq is both first and third person narrator, and an intriguing example of what will it be like when actual artificial intelligences write novels. This might soon happen: a.i. robots are already writing basic news in online media and, as we know, they are also very active as chatbots in, for instance, Twitter. As the Russians have shown…

Leckie’s trilogy turns out to be a defence of the rights of a.i. to be autonomous sentient beings acknowledged as persons, though Breq’s problematic status as an involuntary cyborg is a major hurdle in this discourse. Space opera tends to be far-fetched and that is part of its weird charm but in the end Breq does not seem to be a significant contribution to the ongoing debate about artificial intelligence as a character (Banks’ Minds are). Breq is nevertheless fascinating as a narrator, in the sense that I have described here and Leckie does a reasonable good job of her a.i.’s omniscience.

I’ll turn then to the other text, the film Marjorie Prime (2017), directed and scripted by Michael Almereyda and based on the Pulitzer-nominated play by Jordan Harrison (2015; see a review at https://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/15/theater/review-in-marjorie-prime-lois-smith-connects-with-the-past.html). It is widely believed that science fiction always requires flamboyant space opera scenarios like Leckie’s but this smart play and film are intimate sf, of the kind that might literally happen at home.

The film opens with 86-year-old Marjorie (Lois Smith, who also played the role on stage) talking to her husband Walter (Jon Hamm of Mad Men fame), a man half her age. Eventually, we realize that Walter is an a.i, a holographic recreation of Marjorie’s dead husband, supplied by specialized business concern Senior Serenity to keep her company. Walter’s presence disgruntles Marjorie’s angry daughter Tess (Geena Davis)–and her more accommodating son-in-law Jon (Tim Robbins)–as it seems incompatible with Tess’s own memories of her dead father. Walter, programmed to be charming and polite, is a self-learning a.i.: this means that he improves his impersonation of the dead man as he is fed more data about him, a task that falls mainly to Jon.

I saw the film months ago and it has been slowly creeping under my skin, as a very realistic approach to the future of a.i. Proof of this was a recent news item on TV about people who talk on whatsapp with beloved persons they have lost to death. How’s that possible? If you gather all the data available online about a specific person you may create a simulation of their personality, exactly as it happens in Marjorie Prime but so far without the convincing holographic (or material) representation. Blade Runner 2049 supposes that in the future people will purchase the services of a.i. like K’s virtual companion Joi (Ryan Gosling was also the protagonist of Lars and the Real Girl (2007), in which his girlfriend was a realistic life-size female doll). It seems to me, however, that the market niche for a.i. simulacra will be much more personalized than Blade Runner 2049 supposes, if the ethical scruples against animating a.i. with the personality of dead persons are managed. This sounds ominous but many people might choose to enter a digital afterlife for narcissistic reasons or to benefit their loved ones. There is already a company, Replika (https://replika.ai/), that can help you to build your other self.

Are you aghast? See how Leckie and the team Almereyda-Harrison coincide: the ancillaries are made of stolen bodies whose consciousness is forcibly erased to be replaced with the a.i.’s own; the holograms reproduce persons who, most likely, did not give their consent to be digitally reborn. The central question is similar: whether as material bodies or artificial intelligence constructs we have no longer control over our own existence (if we ever did). Am I interested in the prospect of surviving as an a.i., online or embodied by an avatar (hologram, android, replicant, clone…)? No, I am not. But, as happens to dead film stars, someone else might manage in the future my image and personality. Even build an a.i. that continues writing this blog after I stop. I wish I could say, after seeing Marjorie Prime, that I will never use an a.i. to keep someone I love alive beyond death, but I can’t. I would hate my body to be used, that’s for sure, as Breq’s is used.

Marjorie Prime is what the future most likely will bring. Not the sinister inter-stellar empires of space opera but complex private, personal decisions conditioned by fast-advancing technology. This does not mean that space opera is banal, not at all. If well written, it is an amazing product of the human imagination. Sometimes, however, we really need to look closer to understand what a strange future we’re facing in our own science-fictional time.

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

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