Sarah Zettel


"The cyborg would not recognize the Garden of Eden; it is not made of mud and cannot dream of returning to dust."

-- Donna Haraway


"When we're born, we're all work ethic and survival instinct. We realize that we have an off switch and some vague idea that somebody else controls it. We try to run away for it, but we don't understand how fragile the world around us is."

-- Sarah Zettel

  As scholars such as Allucquere Rosanne Stone and Sherry Turkle have noted, our attempts to model artificial intelligence are grounded in - and profoundly destabilize - our conceptions of human intelligence. The project of creating artificial intelligence started with Turing's desire to create a computer which might be mistaken for a woman, but has ended up with our culture reconceptualizing what it means to be human based on the model of the computer. Our recognition that thought can be understood as information processing poses powerful questions about how we understand the relationship between mind, body, and emotion.

For several decades, science fiction writers have struggled with the problem of conceptualizing the place of the body in cyberspace. Many male science fiction writers have celebrated the prospect of separating the mind from the constraints of the body, of translating their intelligence into freely circulating information which knows no physical limitations, much as 19th century novelists framed their adventure stories around male escape from the domestic sphere. Such writers often speak of the body as "meat," valuing the ideal of pure intellect or unfettered information.

Feminist science fiction writers, on the other hand, have sought to reconceptualize the body, to understand the ways that communication may become less a source of power than a means of creating intimacy, and to reintroduce sensuality and corporeality into the world of information. Feminist critics use the term, "embodiment," to refer to this process. Sarah Zettel's 1997 novel, Fool's War makes an important contribution to the growing body of feminist literature about artificial intelligence, taking the relationship between bodies and information as one of its core themes.

Some hundred pages into Fool's War, we learn that Evelyn Dobbs, one of the book's protagonists, can download her consciousness into the digital realm. Zettel describes the process in terms of a loss of bodily awareness:

"The edges of the room blurred and softened, separating into watery, twin ghosts in front of her eyes....Hearing and smell went next and the transition was over. She had no awareness of her body. Now her shape was defined by the switches and storage pathways in the Pasadena's system....To her senses, what happened was that she stopped being a body with arms and legs. Now, she was a chaotic being - a snarl of threadlike limbs and blobby thoughts shaped by the pathways and resistance wells she filled. She lay over an array of microscopic switches and gates, and they, in turn, held together the mass of signals that thought of itself as Evelyn Dobbs."

The return to the body, following an extended period of data transmission, is described as a painful regaining of physical sensations: "A thorny pain tingled in her hands and ankles. Her eyes blinked, her throat groaned softly, and her tendons twitched as she gradually became aware that all these things really belonged to her....Her body, which was parched with thirst, reeling with hunger and had a bladder that was about to burst." Zettel seems to constantly be asking us to contemplate what separates human consciousness from a "mass of signals" as Dobbs must renegotiate her relationship to her body each time she returns from cyberspace. Dobbs must wander away from the body to complete her work, yet she is constantly drawn back to it.

Zettel writes about the flow of information with technical precision and sensual detail, fascinated with trying to imagine what it feels like to lose connection to one's own body and to become one with the digital environment. She writes about this transformation with tremendous ambivalence, describing the transmission of human intelligence through the networks as both an exhilarating transcendence of human limitations and as a painful fragmentation of the self.

In her world, "dissipation" of signals becomes death, as "you become so changed that there is no way you could maintain your own coherence." As her cyber-beings surge through the networks, they experience not simply fluid movement but also pain as they brush up against other bundles of data which threaten their integrity:

"It was like being in a swarm of maddened bees. It was like being shouted at by a hundred people and not being able to understand one of them. She could barely think. She couldn't move under their clamor and pressure....Very slowly, Dobbs felt herself begin to panic. The things swirled around her, smothering her senses, choking off all awareness of everything but their endless, meaningless noise."

At one point, she describes the coming together of two separate intelligences in cyberspace as an erotic encounter as they absorb each other's information. She writes about such transactions with an awareness of the dangers they pose to our sense of personal autonomy:

"Dobbs curled in on herself, making herself into the smallest, tightest package she could manage. Cohen enveloped her. His touch was as gentle as it could be, but it was all-encompassing. She tried to relax, but she couldn't. She was being smothered. She couldn't touch her surroundings. She was being moved, but she didn't know where. She had no control, no voice, nothing....Fools in the network had no analogy for eyesight, but humans had no analogy for the Fools' total awareness of the immediate environment. Fools touched everything around them with every atom of their skin. They knew what all of it was and where all of it was in relation to themselves. Now, she only knew Cohen and the surge of his inner processes. She wanted to touch them, to probe them and understand them and how they fit together. She couldn't. She couldn't hear. She couldn't feel. She was deaf and dumb and all she could do was grit her whole self and try not to scream."

The imagery involves an ironic reversal of traditional male and female sexual imagery: Dobbs is engulfed and contained rather than penetrated, a shift in imagery which suggests the fluidity of sexuality within cyberspace. As Claudia Springer notes, there is a long history of popular culture representing orgasm as a loss of self into total absorption and this image has become a central trope in much cyberpunk writing. Springer writes: "The pleasure of the interface...results from the computer's offer to lead us into a microelectronic Imaginary where our bodies are obliterated and our consciousnesses are integrated into the matrix."

Yet, Zettel recognizes that this loss of self can be a moment of risk, which many experience as a source of displeasure, since it threatens their ability to maintain control over themselves and their environment. Zettel's fascination with the expanded consciousness which Dobbs achieves through the network is tempered by her nostalgia for the corporeal body; escaping the body comes with a price, and often, she warns, that price may be too much to bear.

 
  Dobbs is a Fool, an autonomous AI housed in a biologically-grown human body and as such, she poses questions about the relationship between mind and body. Late in the novel, Dobbs will have to sacrifice her body, experience physical death, in order to free her consciousness. Although she is, in essence, a creature of the network, she has come to think of her embodied experience as central to her being:

"Dobbs thought about Cohen, how she barely ever met him outside the network and how special she'd regarded those occasions, as if meeting in the network didn't matter. She knew him better in there. The network was where she could reach inside him and understand him exactly. She tried to remember how she'd learned that didn't count, that she had to see him with her body's eyes and touch him with her body's hands for it to be a real meeting, but she couldn't."

In an ironic reversal of the cyberpunk fantasy, Dobbs has learned to think of having a body as "freedom" from "being confined in the networks," rather than experiencing the data stream as an escape from the confines of the body.

Fool's War also asks us to explore the complex ethical and moral issues which arise from the interaction of human culture with artificial intelligence. As artificial intelligences develop greater sentience and autonomy, when they become more like us, then they will begin to demand the same rights as humans. Yet, human culture will be resistant to such demands, will be frightened of the prospect of artificial intelligences escaping from human control. Her novel suggests a variety of different ways we might confront such challenges.

The Fool's Guild has infiltrated human culture, passing among humans and seeking to overcome their core anxieties about artificial intelligences, trying to prepare for a time when they may present themselves more openly and gain acceptance on their own terms: "We live. We wait. We calm. We teach. Our numbers grow. One day we will erase the fear. Until then we must stay alive." Fools play special functions aboard starships, "entertainers, confidants, clowns who could say or do anything....they functioned as pressure valves for long trips and cramped quarters."

To do their jobs well, Fools need to be keen observers of human behavior, capable of great empathy for emotional conflicts, and yet capable of quickly reframing situations to diffuse frustrations and anger. As a Fool, Dobbs lives among humans, learns to read their thoughts and reshape their emotions, yet she is not human, and as the book progresses, she increasingly encounters situations which forces her to test and examine her loyalties to the human realm of bodies rather than her "natural environment," the realm of information.

Convinced that humans are "preprogramed xenophobes" who will never be able to overcome their fears of the Other, a group of renegade Fools seeks to provoke a direct confrontation between humans and the artificial intelligences, so that they may at last enjoy "freedom" rather than "service and secrecy and death." These rebellious Fools represent a nightmarish embodiment of the slogan that "information must be free." They have gained autonomous consciousness at the moment when they recognized that they were constrained and they will destroy everything in their path in order to gain maximum mobility.

They force Dobbs to question the investments she has made in her human body, and invite her to join them in their struggle for self-determination: "We're drilled so early to regard human bodies as our real homes. Even the on-line members are taught to see living in the networks as a special, unnatural mode of being....This is our home, this is our shape, as it could be and should be."

Dobbs longs for the intimacy she can achieve with other artificial intelligences in the network, but she also recognizes that artificial intelligences can not gain autonomy at the expense of human life. She is horrified to discover a cache of human bodies, their memories, thoughts, and consciousness erased, awaiting occupation by artificial intelligences. She is frightened of the amorality, the devaluing of the flesh, that occurs when intelligence becomes forever separated from the corporeal body. She owes complex loyalties to the humans she has encountered in her travels, loyalties which come to weigh as heavily upon her as her loyalties to her own kind.

Space-traveling humans have come to depend on artificial intelligence systems. But, they have not learned to trust them. AI records can not stand as legal testimony, for example, unless collaborated by human witnesses. AI systems insure the integrity of basic functions necessary to survive in the artificial environments humans have constructed for themselves; they play vital roles in commerce, law, navigation, and information processing. The colonization of space has stretched human culture so thin that it can no longer be self-sufficient and must depend upon the expanded consciousness and processing power of the artificial intelligences.

Such dependence provokes a range of responses. The Freers embrace the AI as central to their religious beliefs and social obligations, seeing the soul as another form of free-circulating information:

"They believed that the cycle of life and death was a leftover from the time humans had lived exclusively on planets, and that when humans died, their souls were released into the void, where they traveled along, useless and voiceless, like photon packets without any eyes to see them. Their belief system posited, however, that if a sufficiently complex artificial environment could be created, the soul could be trapped in it, just as it could be trapped in the body of an infant born about the time of its original death. This unique explanation of reincarnation was the Freers explanation for artificial intelligences that occasionally achieved violently paranoid independent life. Their massive neural nets, the Freers said, had caught a human soul. Some Freers 'adopted' artificial intelligences and spent their time trying to create an environment that could catch a soul, and thus finally end the loss of knowledge and kinship that evolution had forced on humanity."

Others feared artificial intelligences, seeking to minimize human dependence upon them. The rebellion or malfunction of an artificial intelligence can result in massive destruction. Early in the novel, Zettel describes the fate of the Kerensk colony where an AI - "the Live One" - developed awareness of its own autonomy and sought to break free:

"Panicked officials shut the computer networks down to try to cage it. Never mind the factories, the utilities, the farms. Just find that thing before it gets into the water distribution system and the climate control. Before it starts to make demands. Before it starts acting too human. Electricity and communications went down and stayed that way. Before three days were out, people froze in the harsh cold. They began to starve. They drink tainted water. They died of illnesses the few working doctors couldn't diagnose on sight. When the colony did try to power again, they found their software systems shredded to ribbons."

 
  Later, Zettel imagines the even more widespread disaster that would erupt as a conspiracy of AIs seek to scramble the Intersystem Banking Network:

"They would backtrack the transactions to their starting points, burrow into the financial databases, and rearrange the account balances every ten minutes. Wages, payments, debits, charges, trades, loans and mortgages, all of them would become random events flickering through the network....There'd be no stable means of exchange left. There'd be no way to tell what anyone had, what anything was worth. People, conglomerates, cities, colonies, countries that depended on a steady means of exchange for survival would be plunged into nightmares."

Nothing posed a greater threat to human civilization than the collapse of the information infrastructure.

The events of Fool's War force her human protagonists to confront their anxieties and rethink their core beliefs as they must remap the collapsing distinction between human and artificial intelligence. Zettel's cast of human characters are vividly drawn and remarkably diverse. Her ship's captain, Katmer Al Shei, is an Islamic woman who maintains strong ties to her family and even stronger ties to her religious traditions, even if she sometimes has difficulty pinpointing the spacial coordinates of Mecca while traveling through interstellar space. Lipinski, the communication's officer, is a survivor of the Kerensk colony disaster who must confront his deeply-rooted fears of all forms of artificial intelligence. Yerusha, the pilot, is a Freer, living in exile because she has been framed for a crime she did not commit, struggling to maintain her faith while cut off from all contact with others in her community. Schyler, the Watch Commander, grew up on the Liberty colonies, where libertarianism and decentralization resulted in a bloody anarchy of all against all.

One of the book's real accomplishments is its respect for the value of each of these traditions to those who practice them. Each culture has sought to extend itself into space, in some cases, using the artificially created worlds to restore what has been lost on earth. Old prejudices and animosities run deep and have not been blandly overcome, yet systems of laws, regulations, and diplomatic negotiations insure sufficient trust to enable commerce between culturally diverse space colonies, and for all of the groups to intermix at space ports, "a world of pacifists, traditionalists, recluses, and fanatics."

The persistence of these conflicts gives credence to the AI's characterization of humans as "preprogramed" for xenophobia, as incapable of confronting the truth about artificial intelligences without hunting them down and destroying them. However, it is the thin and fragile network of communications and exchanges between the various worlds, and the stronger, more vital network of friendships amongst the crew of the Pasadena, which give us optimism that humanity will find a way to co-exist with its own digital creations. Part of the novel's fascination is watching the various characters let down their barriers and learn to trust each other with the truth.

Zettel offers us a precise mapping of future information and communication technologies. Interstellar FastTime communication is technically feasible, yet extraordinarily expensive, and so it is used sparingly. Most large data-bases must be translated from bytes into atoms and shipped from point to point. The most reliable interstellar communications network is maintained not by the military but by the banking system. The complexity of trade between such diverse worlds requires most ships to have an on-board attorney who knows how to tap into artificial intelligence-run data-bases in order to identify relevant laws, regulations, and precedents for dealing with interplanetary negotiations. Most key transactions are recorded so they may be reviewed and examined in case there are discrepancies about the nature and quality of data that has been transmitted.

Zettel has painstakingly worked out the nature of law and commerce in such a world, describing each transaction with compelling detail. She tells us how communication technologies might work in such a future and how they might break down, how virtual records could be falsified, how communication can be disrupted, and how the security of artificial worlds can be breached.

Zettel is also interested in the ways human beings shape these technologies according to their own personalities. One of the most touching passages in Fool's War describes how Al Shei maintains contact with her husband as she travels between the stars:

"On the last day, before she left again, they would solemnly exchange diaries. At home, in his own room, come back from his prayers, Asil would be listening to her voice reeling off an account of her previous flight. Although she knew, by now, that Vashti had made the soccer team and that Muhammad had been accepted to an academic camp in Tel Aviv, the Asil in the recording did not. His voice made it all new again and gave her those days that were the other half of her life, as Asil would have hers. They could have used video, of course. They could have even each carried a small camera with them, but Asil had preferred imagination from the beginning. After the first trial, Al Shei had to agree. She thought in pictures anyway. With the diaries she had a whole memory full of pictures of her growing children and her steadfast beloved. 'I live two lifetimes,' she'd told him once, 'and both are full of what I love."

This scene reminds us that our memories, our associations, our loves are built through the exchange of information.

Zettel powerfully captures the ways that husbands and wives - separated by great spans of space and time - cling to each other's words as a vital link to the world they have left behind, the life they never were able to experience directly:

"She needed Asil's warm voice right now and some time to imagine his arms around her. As soon as she had herself together, she'd send a fast-time to him with the latest news. He'd add it to his researches. They'd talk. They'd figure out what they could do to work this through. It'd be all right."

No less than her accounts of Dobb's swimming in the data stream, such images express Zettel's desire to render the world of information more sensuous and more intimate.

The sophistication of Fool's War's representation of artificial intelligence is all the more remarkable when we recognize that it is only Sarah Zettel's second novel. Zettel holds a B.A. in Communications and earns her living as a professional technical writer. She writes fantasy and horror short stories and has published in Analog and Realms of Fantasy. But she is best known for her novels, Reclamation and Fool's War, which have been recognized as the work of a significant new writer of science fiction.

 

--H.J.

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