News, thoughts and comments on civil rights and related issues.
Saturday, December 13, 2003
Reading: Altered Carbon probes what it means to be human
What does it mean to be human? Who is and who isn't? Scientists tell us that there is less than a two percent difference between the DNA of a chimpanzee and that of homo sapiens. 'Scientific racists' such as Newamul Khan (Razib) and Paul Wickre (Godless Capitalist) of Gene Expression, the most bigoted of blogs, try to extend that to reading some kinds of humans, usually people of African descent, out of the human race. They say some of us are not really human, but a subspecies. In his strikingly prescient debut novel, Richard K. Morgan, a British writer of speculative fiction, explores the issue thoroughly without sacrificing story, plot or characterization to an idea.
In a future in which colonialization of other planets is a fait accompli, Earth has become the most traditional of human worlds. Some religions and other archetypes long lost to the newer civilizations continue to influence politics on Earth. An idea rooted in Catholicism - that real death must occur in one's real body - is about to be ruled on by the international tribunal that decides major matters of public policy. That group is dominated, and manipulated, by 'Methusalehs,' very wealthy people who have been able to extend their lives by hundreds of years through cloning. But, what is all this talk of 'realness'? Since we receive only one body, the issue would seem to be moot. Not in the world of Altered Carbon. On most planets, including Earth, even those of modest income can afford to have their consciousnesses uploaded to one new body. Their economic status determines what kind of construct they can afford and when. The lower middle-class may wait years to raise enough money to purchase a new 'sleeve' for a relative. The most affordable sleeves, cheap synthetics, are limited in their resemblance to real human bodies. High end simulacrums can be made to resemble a normal human or improved to the status of cyborgs. And, as I said before, rich people can incubate clones of themselves as new sleeves.
It is into that reality that Takeshi Kovacs (pronounced Ko-vach) is awakened after his latest death and restoration. Kovacs, a former elite Special Forces-type commando, has, as have many of his comrades, lived as a criminal for more than a decade, prior to his current death. The reconditioning of the Corps, which unthrottles aggression, while eliminating conscience, leaves them capable of little else.
Kovacs has been summoned to Earth from his home, Harlan's World, to investigate the murder of a Methusaleh, billionaire, Laurens J. Bancroft. One of the man's sleeves appears to have blown its head off, destroying its 'stack,' or memory, after returning from a business trip six weeks ago. The remaining sleeves lack any memory of the incident because they were last updated two days before the death. Bancroft does not believe he committed suicide and wants Kovacs to find out what really happened. Since the purchase of his freedom by Bancroft is his only hope of leaving virtual prison in less than a century, Kovacs can't say no. Working intermittently, and often awkwardly, with a police lieutenant, Kristin Ortega, Kovacs probes Bancroft's supposed suicide.
He enters a demimonde in which the perverse desires of the very wealthy are considered the ultimate bargaining chip. Bancroft has become vulnerable in that underworld because of his penchant for hiring prostitutes with whom he performs violent and illicit sex acts. Kovacs' and Ortega's investigation begins with low-end hookers such as the woman Bancroft visited at Jerry's Closed Cabins, but eventually leads to The Houses - exclusive whorehouses where anything from bestiality to snuffs can be bought for the right price.
But, several someones don't want the investigation completed. One of them is Bancroft's wife, Miriam, who has sexual secrets of her own. Another is an old nemesis Kovacs knew off planet. A third, operating under a mistaken assumption about his identity, also wants Kovacs' stack. The adversaries' and the protagonist's own tendency toward, if not preference for, violence, results in a trail of bodies, real and sleeves, as the investigation proceeds.
But, what does an action packed science fiction detective story have to do with the philosophical and scientific issue I mentioned at the beginning of this review? Lots. There is an easy out for well-connected murderers on the Earth of Altered Carbon. Catholics refuse being resleeved as a matter of faith. They believe only God can resurrect them. So, if a Catholic is killed, he or she can be said to have chosen to die instead of having been murdered. If one of the most powerful Methusalehs has her way, that rule will be extended to all of society - killings of those who could be resleeved will not be considered murder. The effect will be to make constructs as real as born humans under a significant aspect of the law. It will no longer matter if a body was born or is merely being worn. Takeshi Kovacs' investigation, and what he decides to do with what he learns, will determine the outcome.
The argument for not considering constructs human is basically the same as the one used to try to relegate some 'races' to subhuman status by scientific racists. They say the small differences, mainly in appearance, of people from different parts of the world mean some people, usually those of Western Europe, are more worthy of human status than others, who are, inevitably, darker hued and from areas formerly colonialized or used as slave markets by Western Europeans. However, there is an important difference. Constructs, cheap or expensive, having been engineered instead of having arisen naturally, would not be truly human. Science fiction novels such as Altered Carbon help us determine what it means to be a member of the human race.posted by J. | 3:48 PM
Tuesday, December 09, 2003
Janklow: An opportunity for equal justice
Another politician has stumbled over his own inflated ego. He is leaving Congress as a result.
The politician tried to blame the collision on a diabetic reaction that caused him to become disoriented at trial. However, he had told officers at the scene he was trying to avoid a car when the motorcyclist, expecting him to halt at a stop sign, collided with him. He also alluded to having a heart condition at trial, perhaps in a bid for sympathy. However, Janklow appears to be overly talkative. His testimony contradicted information he had given to emergency medical personnel after the collision.
Testimony by the expert who reconstructed the collision was also damning for Janklow.
Janklow, longtime governor of South Dakota, fancies himself a libertarian. He has long argued against firm speed limits and has compiled a stack of speeding tickets to confirm his opposition to traffic laws. Last year, he ran the same stop sign and crashed into a car. The victim did not press charges because he was still governor at the time.
So, we have a defendant who:
Caused a death.
Has a history of the illegal behavior that resulted in the death.
Lied on the witness stand.
Shows no remorse.
What will become of him? If Janklow were a regular guy, that question would be easy to answer. One could expect him to be sentenced at the high end of the maximum ten years allowed. But, he is not. He is white, reasonably wealthy, and one of the most influential people in his state. We will await Janklow's sentencing and see if justice occurs.posted by J. | 2:40 PM