From: Edmund Horner
Location: Wellington, New Zealand
In at least two places you've written of minds damaged to the point where important human faculties are entirely gone, but which nevertheless present an appearance of healthy ordinariness. I'm thinking of Emmanuel Goldsmith from Queen of Angels -- e.g. the interesting quiz he was given before his Country was explored, and what the psychologists concluded from his reactions; and the people in Dead Lines -- I seem to recall references to people who have been turned into automatons that are able to mimic genuine human self-awareness to the degree that they seem just like everyone else -- I think the villain was an ordinary woman who had undergone a serious mental breakdown and been turned into a monster. There may be other instances in your writing of similar phenomena.
Am I right in thinking that this is a theme you've intentionally explored multiple times (as it seems), and will you return to it in the future? And do you believe that this condition may actually exist for many people in the real world? It seems a lot like some kind of sociopathy, from my shallow understanding of it.
A recent Economist article on Free Will versus Determinism has set me thinking on such things (with all the usual philosophical questions about whether a human is more deterministic than any other machine, and how this impacts responsibility, etc.).
It's Christmas Eve in New Zealand now, so I'm prepared to wait a while if you're on holiday... (PS. Will Christmas really be something of a novelty in Los Angeles circa 2048 ?)
From: Greg Bear
Hello, Edmund! Merry Christmas morning to you. You've hit on a pretty consistent theme in many of my works, which is the possibility of problem-solving intelligence without overt self-awareness. As western, upper-brain thinkers, we tend to believe that will--focused self-awareness, usually accompanied by an Olympian wrinkled brow and a HUGE mustache--is the only way to get things done, but as a writer, I know very well that most of my work is accomplished well below my conscious perception.
Social animals require something like self-awareness to fit into a group, to model their role and place in that group, and to model the reactions of others to their actions. Minus that kind of self-awareness, individuals may lose certain inhibitions and perform badly on the social stage. This is almost certainly not the only explanation for such phenomenon as serial killers, craven CEOs, and corrupt politicians, but it could be ONE explanation.
Determinism is an aggravating position. Leibnizian determinism--if we knew the position and velocity and such of everything, we could compute and therefore predict all future states--begs the question, compute with WHAT? Most deep thinkers in this area have long since realized that if you can't actually build the machine that does the miracle you're proposing, you're talking through your hat. Mathematically speaking, such complex systems are their own most efficient computers--only by observing the system will you be able to understand the system. And human beings are in no way comparable to clockworks, PCs, or even super-computers--we are like no machine ever designed or conceived of by any human. Our past states do not ratchet in any complete, mathematically tractable way to our future states. Therefore, we are--so far--pretty unpredictable. And in our confusion, it's possible that every now and then, we actually exercise free will--within our limited range of choices! So--is free will a roll of the dice, or a conscious decision made by a ghost in a non-existent machine? Very big questions here! Thanks for writing.
From: Rouald Laurenson
A nice Christmas-eve-time post, Greg.
And I think you are in fact a considerable contributor on these 'big questions', by means of many generous explorations in your fictions.
I much appreciated and enjoyed the treatment of quite a few personalities in transition throughout Slant. Not least Giffey himself, or Mary, or Alice, or in the pre-ending, Jill; more transparently Jonathan, and his wife.
I guess the ones that change are the heroes - and the ones that in one of many ways, choose about their relationships ;)
From: David Markwick
Location: United Kingdom
Ever since I first heard of this idea that I might be spending time talking with perfectly ordinary acting people who are actually not experiencing any kind of conscious experience I've been fascinated by the notion. I have no idea of course what to ultimately think of it all because the question remains outside of meaningful conclusion. But as an idea it's interesting.
I guess I came to the conclusion that what we see of other people are essentially shadows of their actual existence where they intersect with my own. "They" might be having their own totally different experience, with a shadow of my own existence being observed by them.
Equally a nutty idea I know :D
Religion is also an interesting idea, I suppose that someone who believes enough can meander his way through his experiences and life (making "choices" of observation according to deeply held beliefs) toward a place where the outcome does actually closely resemble what he/she believes. Of course this opens up the possibility of dysfunctional people finding their own place too, I hope the lawyers never get a handle on this. ;)
But then why do these people still seem mostly compatible with my own worldview? I guess it's possible for people to live on a broad plane, with only the intersections having any meaningful existence, observers needing to be observed sort of thing. Or something. Merry Christmas to you :)
From: Greg Bear
Who was it that suggested that we end up in the heavens or hells we imagine or plan for ourselves? Interesting Christmas speculations, now post-solstice!
From: Rouald Laurenson
Well, I see we have to give you compliments only after the philosophy season ;).
BTW, pen name invented just because I need to preserve a 'clean' professional one, am sure you understand.
Besides, I started a nice story once, on characters Rouald and Laura...makes me smile to think of them.
From: Greg Bear
Ah, the philosophy season! Now what decorations would we put up for that? And how would Talk Radio attack the War on Philosophy? ("Happy thinking!" vs. "Merry Platonism!")
Compliments are welcome any time of the year...
Recall, Uncertainty has only to do with the particle level, whereas uncertainty is based on a lack of information. Regardless, the universe does manifest, so there must be a determining process. As for free will, if there is any, it would appear to me that it is the ability to entertain new data. From then on, it's a matter of what drives exist within us. As with genetic potentialities, and despite our awareness, the strongest will express. Hence, the more we are capable of realising data that contributes to a thing, the more likely it will be available, and then automatically enabled.
Supplemental: whether this is actual, it is suggestive of how one can be....and, as John Cage so adamantly tried to attain, we will be relieved of choice. Or, perhaps, the anxiety enshrouding it.
From: ryan costa
Location: cleveland, oh
Sometimes I'll see footage of a criminal being sentenced in court for some violent crime. I'll wonder if they are self-aware, or mildly retarded and/or psychotic to such a degree it doesn't really matter.
The new complex automaton is made possible in our complex hyper-stratified society. Suburbanites re-devolve into a new type of hillbilly/yokul easily manipulated into mass movements of war, of socio-economic structural change resulting in more of the stuff that got them riled up in the first place. There are dozens of hyper-specialized channels and professions and schools, and it is easy enough to for the human machine to reassure himself with exactly what he wants to hear while wearing blinders to the bigger picture or the consequences.
From: Greg Bear
True enough--but I suspect we've had these problematic individuals with us for ages. It's simply very difficult to construct and train a fully functional, socialized human being--no surprise then, however tragic, that many get lost in the process. As you suggest, however, increasing complexities could push out individuals who might otherwise get along well enough in earlier times.
I find this discussion particularly interesting because I am an aspie - that is, I have what is known as Asperger's Syndrome, a so-called "autistic spectrum disorder" caused by a genetic mutation in the brain. Several of the characteristics described in these posts could certainly be descriptive of AS; we lack a certain awareness of social etiquette and cues, are often completely unable to read or interpret body language and other non-explicit communication, and care little for peer approval. These qualities, however, do not make us sociopaths; they merely make us the outcasts, eccentrics, mad geniuses and Silicon Valley geeks of the world. :)
The incidence of the Asperger's mutation is increasing throughout the world, and there is a certain group of aspies who believe that we are actually an evolutionary step forward for the human race (a la the X-Men) in a time when the previous human herd mentality is no longer needed, and indeed could even have become a severe liability. I personally find it an interesting theory but am not yet prepared to declare myself a member of a new sub-species, hehe.
Btw, Greg (Mr. Bear?), I have read almost all your books, starting with Blood Music when I was 14, which led me into a lifelong literary love affair. You are by far the best hard sf/speculative fiction author around today and I want to thank you for years of enjoyment and provocation and challenging ideas. Happy New Year! xxx
From: Greg Bear
Thanks, Nikki! I've long been fascinated by Asperger's and autism, and recognize the possibility of a spectrum from nerd/math whiz to Rain Man--I'm somewhere along that curve myself, more in the word-nerd region than math-nerd, however. It's an intriguing concept--but a little vague,I think, and perhaps too inclusive now--and too long a part of folklore. The absent-minded professor, Einstein can't tie his own shoes, Revenge of the Nerds--all contribute to the legends. As to whether all us nerds represent an evolutionary shift--well, who would have guessed that bona fide nerds would rule the Northwest, and top the list of the world's richest individuals!
In my experience, there's no group friendlier or more accepting of behavioral differences than nerds--and they make up a large part of the science fiction community I grew up in, thank goodness for their example. On the opposite end of the scale, I think, are those who are far too sensitive to social signals--and that could include fanatic fashionistas, gossip columnists... and some of those people who made us miserable in high school.
Psychopaths can be incredibly attuned to the social and behavioral patterns of others, but their interior state seems quite different, certainly where compassion is concerned. They have little or none. Think Stalin or Saddam--and then compare them with a relatively minor-league butcher like Ted Bundy. They are often socially adept animals turned pure predator.
Greg, I just went back in your blog archives and came across a post in which you said you gave a talk on the contribution of AS and autistic people to the sf scene/community; this was at a convention in 2001, I believe. Very cool! You are so right about nerds being the most accepting, non-judgmental group; I've experienced it myself and have seen it commented on numerous times by others on various aspie websites. In fact, that very trait has been listed by Tony Attwood (a leading figure in the AS field) as one of the identifying criteria for AS: "free of sexist, "age-ist", or culturalist biases; ability to regard others at "face value"" - which he calls a "qualitative advantage in social interaction". The entirety of the list, and its context, can be found at www.thegraycenter.org/sectionsdetails.cfm?id=38
I agree that there is certainly a tendency towards over-inclusiveness at the present time. But I also feel that that is in itself a classically aspie flaw and should not be seen as a reason to doubt/negate the entire concept of AS. For those of us who have long known that there was something incontrovertibly *different* and *alien* about us but had no understanding of it, the AS diagnosis is an unimaginable relief. Not so much for the "label", but for the knowledge that we are not alone and that we are part of a larger community of kindred spirits. Despite the general disinterest of aspies in peer approval and social niceties, we are only human beings after all, and loneliness is an omnipresent shadow in many an aspie's childhood and even adulthood. Identifying the "cause" of one's difference and connecting with others who share it is a liberating and self-affirming experience.
What you say about psychopaths is interesting. Obviously there is often a super-developed social sense, and an absence of both empathy and compassion. But I wonder if that in and of itself is a recipe for a Ted Bundy? Does lack of copassion in and of itself lead one to kill? Is empathy the only thing restraining us from becoming murderers? I think a person like Ted Bundy is the result not only of the absence of certain qualities, but of the *presence* of another quality most of us do not have - the active desire to kill and cause pain and suffering to other people. We all have the *ability* to do these things, but an active lust for it? No. And I don't believe that is simply because we have compassion.
As for the Saddams and Stalins of the world... well, who can say for sure whether they truly took pleasure in their evil deeds or whether their egomaniacal visions simply overrode their normal human faculties? In many ways I think it would be fairly "easy" to be a genocidal dictator as opposed to a serial killer; the dictator has the advantage of delegation and thus both physical and psychological distance from his acts, and as mentioned his vision/ambitions provide him with moral justification, while at the same time the massive scale of what he does renders it numbingly incomprehensible.
Oh, and I changed my page to "Public" instead of "Private" - so, on the slim chance that you have the time and inclination to take a peek, you are now able to do so. :)
Once again, thanks for everything. xxx
From: Ryan Costa
I can't help but think of the Wall Street Sociopaths. The Thomas Friedmans, the Stephen Moores, the Ayn Rands. Chains of command and consultants so long no one is responsible for anything in the push button wars of the present. A generation of car addicted baby boomer chickenhawks trying to live up to the fantasies of movies about World War II.
From: Greg Bear
Let's not confuse philosophy, enthusiasm, and personal drive--even extreme forms--for psychopathology. The psychopath has a real problem--not a problematic set of persuasions!
I haven't read up on any of this recently, but if I remember correctly psychopathology is, as the name would indicate, a psychological defect in which the psychopath has no sense of wrong and right. No moral sense or ethics; so he just does what he pleases. He really can't help himself. A sociopath, by contrast, understands the social conventions of right and wrong, but sees himself as above and beyond such trivialities; he is narcissistic to the point of having a God-complex and sees others as inferior beings who only have worth if they can serve his purposes at any given moment. So sociopathology is more of a personality disorder as opposed to a "true" mental defect.
Ryan, following 9/11 there was an excellent article in Tikkun magazine (Vol. 16, No. 6) called "Confronting Evil" by Andrew Kimbrell. Did you read it? It is in much the same vein as your comment, first outlining the difference between "Hot Evil" and "Cold Evil" and then delving into the anatomy of cold evil and what he calls the "Techno-Cocoon" which allows us to remain so distanced from the effects of our war-making. Very interesting reading.
From: Greg Bear
Apropos of this thread, I highly recommend Deirdre V. Lovecky's excellent book on Asperger's and Autism, DIFFERENT MINDS, published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers in the UK.