Thursday, July 26, 2007

Don't open the box

Michael Stephen Fuchs - who first hit our bookshelves with the technothriller The Manuscript (which I reviewed for Pulp.Net) is back. His new work is more-or-less in the same genre, and a specific one at that: Our heroes and/or heroines are undergoing an existential crisis and some form of Psychic MacGuffin (that might resolve said crisises) presents itself with a flash two thirds into the book; heroes and heroines then fall over themselves in an effort to claim the MacGuffin before Others do. The Others will be toting an embarrassment of weaponry and many fire-fights will come to pass before the MacGuffin is taken, by either our heroes/heroines or the Others...with existentially interesting results.

If this book was a car, it would be very difficult to handle, look swanky, and have little boot space...but you'll have a soft spot for it all the same.

The main protagonist is a woman fighting for meaning in her life following the death of her elder brother. Though British, she has fled to California where she works as a computer programmer tasked with constructing artificially intelligent 'bots' for first-person shooters. Prior to this, she was an academic specialising in AI. She lives - somewhat improbably, it has to be said - with a Bonobo chimpanzee and spends her days in conversation in with her office mate, Thad, a hunky-but-married computer engineer. Both of them have issues with whether or not their lives can have meaning.

For a thriller, the Pandora's Sisters is actually quite slow to start. Fuchs patches this a little with a 'flashforward' section that shows how much peril the protoganist will get into - in the Vatican, apparently, and it will involve halberds and Swiss Guards dressed like Bavarian school children. Until then, the book comprises a somewhat frustrating combination of character navel-gazing and occasionally interesting mini-essays on aspects of popular science, particularly evolutionary psychology.

I had a mixed reaction to the philosophy in this book. Fuchs is a philosophy graduate, and no doubt knows his stuff. But his characters - some of whom have PhDs in related fields - seem to produce, for the most part, rather weak philosophical ramblings of the kind one reads in bad undergraduate essays. Now, a work of fiction isn't an essay, and this might well be the result of Fuchs smoothing out some of more difficult bits...but I was disappointed.

For example, one of the dangers (to identity) of applying evolutionary psychology to human behaviour is that, to an extent, a component of our behaviour must be determined by the information in our genes. ...But that does not mean that the remainder is fodder for our free will. It is controlled by the information in our environment. And the combination of these two complex information systems - the human body and its environment - covers the extent of our behaviour. Though the characters in Pandora's Sisters search for meaning as something hidden, almost, in the genes, it seems that a meaninglessness is already apparent in their discussions about evolutionary psychology, completely independently of any 'Pandora code' in the DNA. And yet, as far as I can tell, they don't consider this.

The other difficulty I had concerned the notion of consciousness. There are lots of good arguments that counter the 'ghost in the machine' dualist of Descartes and others, and (speaking with my cognitive science hat on) most neuroscientists today see consciousness as a 'wave crest', if you will, of many components that, in themselves, do not show 'conscious behaviour'. The perspective is one of evolutionary continuity, too, with chimpanzees, for example, seen as having the precursors consciousness (because of their shared ancestry with modern humans). But the characters in this book see the emergence of consciousness as a mystery that somehow confounds evolution, just as nineteenth century critics of natural selection though the eye was too complex to evolve (in fact, it has evolved several times independently). I just didn't buy it.

Still, I recognise that this is a work of entertainment. Once the guns come out, the novel switches gear into a dream-like actioner where characters discuss their favourite automatic rifles, perform startling feats of derring-do, and generally bust caps in various asses. Fuchs's prose is sharper and wittier than before, and he's kept the focus on fewer characters. Definitely worth a look.


Blogger The Wired Jester said...

Interesting review - but I'd be interested to know why you decided to read this particular book? (Although I've just realised, this guy might be really famous when it comes to thrillers, and I would not know as I haven't read much of that type of stuff).

Actually, while I'm complaining of the fact I know so little about thrillers, perhaps I could importune upon you to, at some point, write a post recommending some good ones to try....?

3:15 PM  
Blogger Alex Watson / Sifter said...

Damn blogger. Not sure why it changed my name to Wired Jester. That's the *URL* computer. Do keep up.

3:16 PM  
Blogger Dr Ian Hocking said...

Well, I read this book because the author sent me a copy and it looked interesting. Plus I'm generally interested in the MacMillan New Writing enterprise.

A post recommending good thrillers sounds intriguing. Perhaps I should do a top five books and top five films...stay tuned!

4:58 PM  
Blogger pomo housewife said...

ach, blast it, now I'm going to have to read the book. Hopefully the library will have it, as I wonder if the navel-gazing, er, I mean, philosophy, will keep me interested - I enjoy exploring ideas, but if they are too crusted in academic nomenclature, I find it too hard after a day of work and kids, and if it is too watered-down, it can become meaningless generalization.

Why is it that thrillers so often more boring than thrilling? I'm usually pretty suspicious when I read the words 'tense' or 'taut' - how does the writer maintain that tension? Even when there is something mundane going on, you have that sense of menace and impending violence.

I'm not sure that I really know what a thriller is, you know.


12:06 AM  
Blogger Dr Ian Hocking said...

Go ahead and read it, Helen - I think you'll it fairly tense and gripping. You might want to try ordering it through your library.

12:10 PM  
Blogger Neil said...

Interesting to read your comments about the blurring of philosophy/psychology, Ian.

From your review, the book sounds like it's two separate works. I think I would be interested in reading something similar, but even, with the navel-gazing and the action more balanced.

I've never understood this fascination with staring at fruit.

3:38 PM  
Blogger Dr Ian Hocking said...

Yes, I like the blurring of psychology and philosophy. In fact, I've always thought (and tried to show students) that psychology is seen best as a branch of philosophy; with just a little philosophical vocabulary, it becomes much easier to conceptualise the history of psychology and its various paradigms.

I think Fuchs has managed a fairly good integration here; at least, the philosophical conundrums are integral to the plot. I'll be interested to see what he comes up with in his next book.

4:25 PM  
Blogger Tom P. said...

But the characters in this book see the emergence of consciousness as a mystery that somehow confounds evolution

The "I don't understand it so it must be magic" theory of evolution. I could never force myself through a book like this. I find that I damage too many walls by throwing the book at them.

10:32 PM  

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