Choosing Sides

War is Hell.  Never doubt it.  This edition published by Panther Books 1971.  Cover illustration by Peter Tybus.

War is Hell. Never doubt it. This edition published by Panther Books 1971. Cover illustration by Peter Tybus.

It seems inevitable that the rise of artificial intelligences will eventually result in them surpassing the human race in most, if not all, fields of mental activity.  I talked about this in a previous webpost – The Threatening Singularity.  It would then appear to be only a matter of time before their dominance over their creators would be assured, despite every precaution taken to prevent it.

But human beings are not known for simply accepting a position of inferiority in any situation where they have a choice – the fight against domination by machines has featured regularly in science fiction, not least in the popular Terminator and Matrix film series.  On the other hand, though, a civilization ruled, or at least controlled, by advanced AIs might not be all bad.  In fact, it could be quite comfortable, and highly desirable, provided they have our best interests at heart.

It forms the basis of Iain M Banks’ highly successful series of novels set in the universe of the Culture – an interstellar society where the controlling AIs are benevolent and other life-forms consequently live an almost utopian existence.  In his 1987 book Consider Phlebas, it is acknowledged that “a case could be made for holding that the Culture was its machines, that they represented it at a more fundamental level than did any single human or group of humans within the society.”  So when, in that same novel, conflict arises between the Culture and a civilization with an entirely different basis, a human justifies his support for its opponents by saying, “They’re on the side of life – boring, old-fashioned, biological life; smelly, fallible and short-sighted, God knows, but real life.”

Conflict, sad to say, does seem unavoidable whenever a human being is subordinate to someone, or something, else, and doesn’t like it, though choosing sides in any war will depend largely on one’s perceptions at the time.  William Tenn’s brilliant short story The Liberation of Earth was first published in 1953 as a satire on the (then) recent Korean War.  Humanity is really little more than a bystander in an interstellar war, but both sides are keen to gain its support, and the use of its planet.

One side looks humanoid, and so gains our immediate backing, but turns out to be an alien silicon-based life-form.  Its opponents are repulsive worm-like creatures, but are nevertheless carbon-based, and there is strong pressure for us to stick with our own kind.  As the war sweeps back and forth, we endure frequent “liberations” by each in turn.

The overall message is clear, and could be as relevant today as it was at the time that Tenn was writing – choosing sides in any conflict may be manipulated by others whose have little or no genuine interest in the long-term future of the people who have to do the choosing.  And the suffering which results may have its impact regardless of the choice – let’s never forget that real war is not some kind of glorified video game, but has grim consequences.

The author James Sallis featured Tenn’s story in his 1969 collection The War Book.  As he makes clear in his introduction, he prepared this anthology to protest “the idiocy and the wastes of war” at a time when many science fiction writers had signed a declaration against the Vietnam War.  His overall argument may be that one’s decision should perhaps not focus so much on which side to choose, but on whether or not the war needs to be fought anyway.  And the book’s tagline is unambiguous: “War is Hell…whatever century it’s fought in.”

If, in some future conflict, it comes to a choice between siding with fellow humans, or with the machines who have become our superiors, the decision might not be as clear cut as we might wish.  Having said that, we may not even be in a position to make a choice in the first place.

Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)

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