Friday, June 11, 2010

Spanner: Scientism and the Mechanists

Relatively few people in the US know about Doctor Who (British and American official sites), the most famous British science fiction series and one of the longest running TV shows in history. Me, I've only seen a few episodes in their entirety, and not a single entire serial, and that was years and years ago; more recently, I've caught fragments of episodes from the Tom Baker era. But no one who has seen the series can forget the series' most iconic villains, the Daleks, whose creator Terry Nation, who grew up during World War II and experienced the terror of the London Blitz, envisioned them as "cosmic Nazis". Now take the Dalek out of its salt-shaker shell and implant it into an anime mech. The result is the "Mechanists" of Spanner. The name designates a faction centering on a cult similar to Warhammer 40,000's Adeptus Mechanicus. This faction holds to an interpretation of the "Law of Social Darwinism" different from that of the ruling Corporate aristocracy: where the Corporates believe corporations to be humanity's successors, the Mechanists insist that posthumanity will be entirely mechanical. They strive to create true cybernetic organisms ("cyborgs" for short) that are superior to mere intelligent carbon-based lifeforms in every way. If the Corporates' religion is, of course, Corporatism (a political ideology transformed into a cult), the religion of the Mechanists is Scientism: the cult of science. The ever escalating strife between the Corporates and Mechanists ultimately helps bring the Corporate Empire down.

The Mechanist worldview rests on a mysticism of technology. One of Spanner's heroes, psychologist Willa, claims: "There's something of the cargo cult about them." Mechanists believe that humanity can overcome death and conquer the universe — if they abandon their perishable flesh and implant themselves into far more durable mechanical bodies with much more easily replaceable parts. This is, for example, the view of Hans Moravec expressed in his books Mind Children and Robot. The Mechanist agenda is known as the Moravec Plan, named in his honor and first proposed by him in Mind Children, in which he describes in detail the transference of consciousness from a human body into a bush robot. The Mechanist mysticism is commonly known as TechGnosis.

So where does the Dalek connection come in? A common science fiction trope is a cyborg or an AI-robot who comes to loathe messy flesh, especially human flesh, sometimes to the point where the cyborg tries to destroy flesh. In creating the Daleks, Nation drew on this trope, though he never made it explicit (he merely had the Daleks hate everything non-Dalek and try to "exterminate" it). I explicitly invoke the trope and make it part of the Mechanist ideology.

The "crusader" element of the Mechanist faction originated, like so many of the technological dangers threatening Spanner's world, in US military research during the Cold War. While the Soviet Union was still a threat, the Pentagon began research into power armour like the mechs Robert Heinlein created for Starship Troopers. There has also been research aimed at implanting computers into human brains. In Black Science, one of Dictel Research's military weapons projects involves direct mental control of weapons such as drone aircraft and battle robots. The next step, of course, is the fusion of human warrior with battle robot. Willa discovers that the Mechanist cult has had Dictel Research and other weapons engineering labs as breeding grounds for decades, since the Cold War. She also discovers, to her dismay, that some of the hackers who helped her in Bad Company are all too willing to betray their friends in order to join the cult. One of the leaders of the cult is, in fact, her ex-husband and mortal enemy, Dr. Henry Becket, a notorious misanthrope she actually calls a "Dalek".

My point is that even science and technology can be turned into irrational religion. That's what scientism is: the religion that worships science. And, like Islamism and the Christian Right, religion can be turned into a dangerous political ideology. The endless squabble between the Corporate overlords and the Technocrats who actually run the Cartel administration (and whose Rationalism is equally religious) is bad enough, and both factions must constantly fend off assaults from the various militant religious and ideological factions hellbent on overthrowing them through brute force. Add the new Mechanist faction into the fray, and we end up with a battle royal that ends up undermining the whole Corporate Empire. The Machine Cult, with employee-free automated corporations as their vanguard, will challenge the Money Cult for control of the Cartel. Seeing opportunity in its division, corporate assassin Spanner will take advantage and do her best to bring the whole Corporate machine down.

Note: If you see a similarity between my "Mechanists" and Bruce Sterling's, you're perceptive. Sterling is one of my bedrock influences, and I'm mutating his meme. I'm also doing the same to his "Patternism", transforming Sterling's genetically engineered race (in Schismatrix, a Shaper "faction" notoriously prone to rampant apophenia leading to paranoid psychosis) into a psychic or mental talent. One such patternist, Willa, says, "Patternists make the best science fiction writers." Perhaps, in my AugNoWriMo project Any Monkey with a Typewriter, the reason why protagonist Keenan Sasser is such a lousy science fiction writer is that, unlike Willa, he is not a patternist...

Back to Spanner’s World...

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