Writing a cybernetic novel

The Island Survival Guide and narrative reflexivity

The Island Survival Guide and narrative reflexivity

I would like to define a cybernetic novel as one that writes itself, or one where the reader is also the narrator. A novel that possesses self-reflexivity. I made the sketch (see above)  some time ago while thinking about my novel “The Island Survival Guide“. When I say “I thought about my novel” I mean as a reader, not as a writer. In fact, cybernetic writing blurs the distinction between writer and reader, and finally break it down completely: the writer is the reader who is the writer, and so on. As it does so it also undermines and destroys a more significant dichotomy, the difference between the narrative (object) and the narrator/reader (subject). The two become one, one reflecting into the other. This is of course a logical paradox. Cybernetic writing is a logical paradox based on reflexivity.

The paradox of narrative reflexivity that defines a cybernetic novel is what makes it what it is; it is a paradox that creates an escape hatch, or a quantum wormhole, connecting two different universes that exist in different dimensions. The mind is free to travel between these two narrative universes. As it travels it transfers experiences and knowledge between the two universes. Thus, the paradox of narrative reflexivity becomes the act of creation. The novel is created as a dialogue between the 3-dimensional (+time) universe of the narrator/reader/writer (the terms cease to have distinct meaning in a reflexive narrative context) and the multi-dimensional universe of the novel.


M C Escher’s rendering of reflexivity in narrative: cybernetic writing

As old meaning breaks down because of continuous feedback between the narrator and the narrative, new meaning is created.

The Island Survival Guide was my second experiment in writing a cybernetic novel (my first being The Secrets of the Lands Without).

What? For a phantom we have suffered?

Venus preventing her son Aeneas from killing Helen

Venus preventing her son Aeneas from killing Helen

Herodotus says that the gods had the real Helen whisked away and hidden safely in Egypt, while giving a doppelgänger of hers to Paris. That the Trojans and the Greeks had fought over a ghost.

Euripides in his tragedy “Helen” picks ups this version of the story and weaves a plot where, ten years later, Helen meets Menelaus in Egypt. He returns from Troy and is shipwrecked. The new king of Egypt, son of the recently deceased Proteus,  hates the Greeks and wants to marry Helen despite her will. Like Paris, he too has fallen under the spell of her beauty.  In the end Menelaus recognises his true, and faithful, wife and they manage to escape back to their home in Sparta.

Helen of Troy is one of those ambivalent female characters that Euripides loves to deconstruct. She may not posses  the darkness of Medea but Helen is equally tragic. Because of her thousands of young men will kill each other in battle, the greatest heroes of Troy and Greece. She will be the cause that Troy is destroyed, sacked, ruined. And all that not because she plotted or wished any harm to anyone, but because of her beauty. Like all tragic heroes, she cannot change her fate. Gods have decided that her beauty would be the cause of destruction, that she would be death. Then the gods decide to play one more game: they send a ghost to Troy and let everyone fight over it. The gods are ruthless. They play with people like people play with dolls.

“Οὐκ ἦλθον ἐς γῆν Τρῳάδ’, ἀλλ’ εἴδωλον ἦν”, says Helen in the play. (“I did not come to the land of Troy, it was a phantom”).

And the messenger replies: “Τί φῄς; Νεφέλης ἄρ’ ἄλλως εἴχομεν πόνους πέρι;” (“What are you saying? We have suffered because of a mere phantom?”)

Euripides wrote the play after the Sicilian Expedition where Athens suffered a humiliating defeat. It was the beginning of the end for the great city, and the poet wanted his audience to understand that war was the root of all evil; and that war was about nothing. There was no Helen in Troy. There was no glory in Sicily. The gods played with human weaknesses, hoping perhaps that the mortals will grow wiser once they suffer. But do we?

Consider the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – weren’t they wars about nothing? Isn’t any war really about nothing? About ghosts?

The gods had put the real Helen under the protection of Proteus, the king of Egypt. Proteus is the son of Poseidon; his name means the “first born”, the “primal”. He is a sea god who, like water, adapts and changes shape. Reality is protected by change, or change is what hides reality from our senses. Change confuses us. We long for stability; and that is our fall. Our tragedy is that we cannot help but being constantly deluded.

Victorian scientific romance and robot apocalypse

The 1800s must have been a great time to live. They mark the beginning of many things we take for granted today; most notably democracy, technological and scientific innovation, globalization and international trade. The British Empire was at its height, people started moving with steamships and trains across continents, and inventions like the telegraph and the telephone allowed news to travel faster than ever.

History must have seemed to take a whole new course, unimagined by people who lived only a few years earlier. Writers such as Samuel ButlerH.G. WellsWilliam Morris, and others pondered upon the question of progress, and a new literary genre was created that mixed fantasy, satire and allegory: the scientific romance. A few notable books of this genre are “The Time Machine” (1895) by Wells, “News from Nowhere” (1890) by Morris and “Erewhon” (1872) by Butler.

Samuel Butler

In Erewhon (an anagram of “nowhere”) Butler describes a utopian society that had become industrialized long before Europe and had opted to banish machines. This was because in Erewhon machines were deemed to be dangerous. Butler expanded on the idea in his “Book of Machines” where he claimed that Darwinism applied to machine evolution, and therefore it was inevitable that machines will ultimately develop consciousness. Butler claimed that  “it was the race of the intelligent machines and not the race of men which would be the next step in evolution.” Frank Herbert, the author of “Dune”, as a back-story coined the term “Butlerian jihad” to describe an event 10,000 years before the events of Dune, where thinking machines were outlawed.

Butlerian Jihad

There is a cautionary tale in Victorian scientific romance, something that resonates vividly in our post-industrial age . The 21st century arrived awkwardly  The events of 9/11, as well as the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, colored the first decade of our century with the shades of two unnecessary wars that polarized politics. The economic crises of 2008 and the current crisis in the eurozone have shifted public debate towards a refutation of capitalism.

Whilst all this take place in the forefront of public awareness an immense technological revolution brews quietly in the background. This revolution is all about intelligent machines. They may not have arrived at the level of consciousness yet (but who can really tell?) but they control our planet and our lives already. Our financial and commodity markets, our defense systems, our industries, our infrastructures are all controlled to a greater or lesser degree by autonomous computer programs.

In October 2011 a major military exercise took place across NATO countries in preparation for future cyberwar.  NATO scenarios assumed a cyber attack from a hostile country or terrorist organization. But, what if the “attack” comes as a rebellion of our “mechanical slaves”?  How could we tell the difference?  And what could we possibly do to defend ourselves then?