Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Robots, Aliens, and Humans -- oh, my!

I read a lot. In fact, one of the total pleasures of my Third Third is that I get to keep on reading and reading and reading no matter what time it is. I figure I can sleep in or switch the next day’s activities from “challenging” to “laundry,” and put my brain on hold. Sometimes, the words swim because I am so tired … but the book is so good.

Every now and then, Tim will lift his head, scowl at the clock, at my light, at me. I won’t move, won’t say a word. Maybe he’ll think this is all a bad dream. And when he goes back to sleep, I put a pillow over his head so the light doesn’t bother him. Sometimes, I’ll go out to the couch. That’s if I know the book is so good I’m going to keep on going and going.

A friend recently asked me if I’d join her on Goodreads. The idea is great – book sharing is always great – but I just can’t handle another online thing. So I rely on my book club, on the recommendations of friends. Once, my friend Robin picked Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card for book club. It was an odd choice: sort of young-adult-ish, science fiction-y, but I was hooked.

I like a good story in a book, a creative imagination that tells a good story. But if the book can also shed light on what being human means, then that book turns on light bulbs, sparks conversations, dominates my waking life for a while. I think and think about it. To me, thinking has a lot to do with being human so thinking about being human just maximizes the whole business. Science fiction thinks about being human a lot (what with all those aliens).

I just finished an extraordinary book, Shine Shine Shine by Lydia Netzer. The main character is married to an astronaut roboticist who is also autistic. I love autistic characters (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon, among others) because they think a lot and they think in very unusual ways. So an autistic roboticist is thinking about what makes a robot a robot and what makes a human human.
‘There are three things that robots cannot do,” wrote Maxon. Then beneath that on the page he wrote three dots, indented. Beside the first dot, he wrote “Show preference without reason (LOVE)” and then “Doubt rational decisions (REGRET)” and finally “Trust data from a previously unreliable source (FORGIVE).”
He is saying this because those things don’t make sense, there’s no logical reason for them – maybe reasons against them – so it wouldn’t be a robot thing. But then the bigger question: why are they human things?

Okay, you get the picture. If you were here and not in the ether, I’d be delirious if you read the book so we could talk about it. [Please comment if you do read it. We’ll talk.] But if you were here, you might roll your eyes because I could really talk about it to death. Sometimes my idea of human is a little too much thinking and talking.
Anyhow, Ender’s Game is like DVDs with lots of seasons and episodes: it has sequels and sequels. So I just read The Speaker for the Dead (the sequel), and in it, one of the little alien characters (who’s sort of half-animal, half-tree) is describing his life to the human colonists:
“The first life is within the mothertree, where we never see the light, and where we eat blindly the meat of our mother’s body and the sap of the mothertree. The second life is when we live in the shade of the forest, the half-light, running and walking and climbing, seeing and singing and talking, making with our hands. The third life is when we reach and drink from the sun, in the full light at last, never moving except in the wind; only to think and on those certain days when the brothers drum on your trunk, to speak to them. Yes, that’s the third life.”
Get it? He’s entering his Third Third, too! It’s his time in the sun, his time to reflect, to advise, to feel the full light.

The whole universe has a Third Third – even the aliens!


  1. Good book on autistic people: The Rosie Project. Laugh-out- loud funny, too.


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