I’m usually not a huge fan of anthologies. Not that there is anything inherently wrong with collections of short stories – it’s just that when I buy a book, I prefer the more substantial experience of a novel, rather than the hit-or-miss of short story collection. Interestingly the quality of stories bound between the covers of the King of Pain is actually very high. Not to mention that several of them are long enough to be short novels in their own right. The book itself is absolutely beastly in respect to physical size. Just look at it sitting next to my laptop for size comparison:
This is over 900 pages, densely packed with content. There are no illustrations in this book, and only maybe 10-12 partially blank pages to separate out the individual stories. The rest of it is raw, high quality science fiction.
The overarching theme of the book is more or less trans-humanism and transcending the human condition. Dukaj probes this topic from different directions trying to make the reader ponder whether or not there exists an upper cognitive bound on what we consider to be human nature. And if there is, how do we deal when people start breaching that imaginary boundary and find themselves outside the defined parameters of humanity.
I already wrote an extensive review of Line of Resistance which in my opinion is both the best, and at the same time the least accessible story in the entire collection. In this review I would like to talk about the remaining pieces and how they relate to each other.
Retro Science Fiction
Back in 2010 I wrote a post trying to define a new SF niche that seemed to be heavily underrepresented both in the multimedia sphere as in the literature. I dubbed it Retro SF or Space Punk (after Steam and Cyber punk genres) and the general idea for it was to create SF with modern sensibilities, but using the themes and visual cues from old-school SF. Little did I know that Dukaj was writing Eye of the Monster (Oko Potwora) at roughly the same time.
The story is almost exactly, to the tee what I envisioned in that post. The setting and mood is heavily inspired by the early work of Lem, Asimov, Clarke and etc. No computers, no internet, no aliens – just big space ships and astronauts uncovering the mysteries of the outer space. Yes, astronauts! Note how few hard SF novels still use this term? Even the ones set in space go out of their way to avoid using it. Perhaps because it is so familiar and so mundane.
The protagonists in Eye of the Monster are a crew piloting a commercial cargo ship that is doing routine deliveries, cruising around the solar system at sub-relativistic speeds. Their jobs were once upon a time glamorous and sough after, but over time it has lost its luster. Now, astronauts flying the commercial lanes are nothing more than highly educated space truckers. And to drive that point home, their ship is described as a dilapidated, rusty, crumbling piece of junk that needs constant 24-7 maintenance just to keep it running.
The crew is no better than the ship. Most spacers are either relics of bygone era (back when space trade was a prestigious line of employment) who just don’t know how to do anything else, or people who are running away from something or want to be forgotten. Signing up as a crew member on a commercial flight more or less allows you to vanish without a trace. You will spend next few months in deep space, with maybe one or two pit-stops, then you drop off your cargo, pick up a new haul and do it all over again. If you are running from the law, loan sharks or local mob this is the perfect way to disappear, earn some money, then get off on some remote colony and start a new life. So as you can imagine the crews do not fully trust each other… But they try not tho dwell on such things, because they have to work together to survive in outer space for months on end.
When the navigator sabotages the ships mechanical calculator (note, not a computer – the word computer does not appear in the story at all) and leads the ship off course the proverbial shit hits the fan. Everyone becomes paranoid, blame is thrown around, crew members form small cliques and alliances suspecting others of betrayal. Who is the navigator working for? Why is he trying to sabotage the ship? Who is working with him. The answers are not immediately forthcoming, and when they do they make no sense. Navigator claims he has the orbital coordinates of an object know as the Astromancer.
But the Astromancer is a legend. A space age boogeyman invented by bored spacers. Sailors had their own myths about sirens and deep sea monsters, astronauts have their Astromancer – a mythical entity that gets the blame for anything and everything unknown, unexpected and unexplained. Your on-board sensors are picking up some strange signal – Astromancer is transmitting. A ship vanishes without a trace – taken by the Astromancer. It would be easy to dismiss the navigator as completely crazy, but he actually has some convincing evidence that supports his theory.
After much deliberation, the crew decides to stay on the new course, as this will only add about a week to their total trip time. What they find at the coordinates given by the navigator defies their expectations. They thought they would find some old, lost ship with an active reactor and a broken transmitter flooding the ether with corrupted transmission. What is actually there is much more sinister – a mysterious wreckage resulting from a collision of two ships, one of which was carrying experimental self-repair module. After the collision said module got activated, but lacking programming to deal with deep space collision that nearly fused the two ships together and instantly killed both crews, it attempted to reconnect and reconcile the electrical systems of both vessels. At some it connected both incompatible mechanical calculating facilities causing a spectacular cascade of errors faults to produce something the astronauts found rather terrifying: a sort of entropic form of intelligence. A machine that spews out random signals which are 90% garbage, but every once in a while it coalesces into meaning: words, music, poems, mathematical formulas. If you listen to it long enough, it may reveal to you all the secrets of the universe… Or drive you mad.
Dukaj frames this against the setting he created: a world in which computer networks never emerged, where people fly across the stars in nuclear submarine like tin cans. He poses a theory that that progress is not a linear exponential curve as we like to think about it. Rather it is a branching tree with a lot of dead ends. Sentient civilizations make choices as they progress – they pursue this type of science rather than the other, this logical inquiry than the next. In the process some of the branches on the tree become inaccessible to them. Once you hit a dead end, it is nearly impossible to go back. For example, if you arrive at a scientific model that says it is impossible to travel faster than light, then all the experiments and theoretical work done within that framework is likely to reinforce it and it is possible you will never develop FTL. Another sentient civilization that famed their physics model differently may have easier time finding a loophole… But all civilizations are bound to hit a dead end at some point.
The Astromance is a wondrous machine that could help you leap from branch to branch on the tree of progress. Because it is an entropic free association machine, it is not bound by logic or cause-effect chains. By analyzing it’s noise you could potentially discover mathematical constants that would be impossible to conceive otherwise, or even complete new scientific models and blueprints for amazing technologies.
The only problem? The Astromancer is growing. Like a fractal cancer on the fabric of the universe it is expanding, and if left unchecked will likely end up consuming all the available matter in the solar system within the next century or two. Trying to stop it from growing will likely interfere with it’s near-magically meaningless output. Destroying it cuts human race from a magical oracle that could push it past the current stagnant technology. What would you do with such a device?
The third story in the collection is titled School and I found it very reminiscent of the novel Man Plus by Frederic Pohl. In both novels the protagonist undergoes a physical transformation in order to adapt to alien environment, and that adaptation changes the way they think and perceive the world. Both books talk about the ways our perception helps to shape our cognitive processes, and how extreme physical augmentation impacts the personality and even the perception of self. The main difference is that Pohl wrote about an astronaut who volunteered for augmentation, and was aware of the risks involved and kept in the loop with respect to what the process entailed.
The protagonist of Dukaj’s novel is a child – a street urchin born in some forsaken slums in some poverty stricken, lawless South American city. He is an illiterate orphan who grew up on the streets, and knew nothing other than violence and self preservation One day he is swept up from the street by a police patrol and put in a strange boarding school. All his class mates are orphans, and young gang members and lost children who no one will ever look for. They all are being given special care, free medical treatments, free tutoring and personal counselors who guide them in their education.
Life in the school is easy as long as you follow the rules: you don’t skip classes, you don’t try to leave the compound and you do whatever the doctors tell you to do during the routine medical checkups. If you are insubordinate you are immediately expelled with no questions asked. Most of the kids play nice, because for them this is the first time in their life they have a stable environment, a bed to sleep in and guaranteed three warm meals per day. Plus free education and medical care is nothing to scoff at either.
One problem? The medical exams are not what they seem to be. Sometimes kids vanish for weeks and come back with post-operative scars, but no recollection of what was done to them. It is almost as if the doctors were using them for medical experiments.
As the time progresses the protagonist is separated from the general population and the treatments become more invasive. They operate his eyes to allow him to see in the infrared spectrum rather than visible light. He gets extra limbs installed, number of bones removed and etc. To his horror he realizes they are transforming him into something monstrous and inhuman, but for what purpose?
Well, the purpose is simple – he is to be one of the first batch of diplomats sent to interact with a newly discovered sentient species residing in a nearby nebulae. All previous forms of contact have failed because the aliens did not recognize men and their ship as sentient entities. So government decided to build themselves an army of half-breeds, using orphans with exceptional cognitive and linguistic talents as a basis.
Transhumanism as a Defense Mechanism
The King of Pain and a Grasshopper is one of the longest stories in the book, and one which lent it half of it’s title. In it Dukaj paints a grim vision of future in which the threat of the bio terrorism has reshaped the world into something almost unrecognizable. All the affluent western nations essentially sealed themselves off from the rest of the world in bio-domes with self contained ecology. All life within the domes is bio-engineered according to strict governmental specifications and all DNA must be crypto-signed. The genomes of different biomes are engineered to be incompatible and toxic to each other – so living organisms that accidentally stray from one to the other are likely do die instantly, poisoned by local toxic pollen or bacteria. And if they survive, they will be ruthlessly attacked by bacterial and viral security phages that are programmed to attack, consume and decompose anything that does not carry correct crypto-signatures in their genetic code.
This of course prevents travel and migration, but at the same time it makes it impossible for a bio-terrorist to release a lethal viral concoction in a first world metropolitan area hoping to start a global pandemic. Such a viral agent would die almost immediately upon exposure to the local environment, unless it was crypto signed for compatibility.
Unfortunately third world nations of South America and Africa which were not part of any national or corporate alliances or conglomerates did not have enough resources to build their own biomes. They are lawless wastelands. In these regions, bio-terrorism won and all national structures have collapsed, and simply cannot exist. Under the Open Skies (as these regions are colloquially known now) it takes 1 man with internet access and about $50 in resources in order to overthrow a newly formed government and kill everyone in 500 mile radius. Most of the time a mere threat of bio-terror is enough for cities to be abandoned, governments being disbanded and regions vacated. The memento of threats which have been fulfilled is the “Junkle” a wildly growing clusterfuck aftermath of biological warfare and unrestrained bio-engineering.
The Junkle is what happens when a number of radical groups start releasing genetically modified, weaponized and hostile flora and fauna into the wild, and those death-dealing animals and plants meet, cross breed, cross pollinate, and somehow create their own toxic, hostile and constantly mutating ecosystem. On one hand it is an ecological disaster that is consuming the local jungles, fields and encroaching on inhabited areas, often cutting off and wiping out entire villages overnight. On the other it is an extraordinary exercise in rapid evolution. The only organisms that can survive in the Junkle are those who can adapt their genome the fastest. The deeper you go, the more alien life forms you encounter.
The protagonist of the story is a “plastie” – he has a rare genetic mutation that increases the plasticity his brain and allowing it to make and tear down connections very efficiently. He learns at astonishing speed, and can essentially re-build his personality, and rewire himself overnight becoming an entirely different person. The unfortunate side effect is chronic, almost debilitating hypersensitivity. Plasties are essentially always in pain – all stimuli are unpleasant and only some individuals with this condition are actually able to actually function in the society. Those who do are sought after by governments and private agencies as their cognitive abilities make them unmatched information/intelligence analysts and also perfect spies and infiltrators.
The small tragedy of Plasties is that because of their mutation they are usually incompatible with the ecology of the biome they choose to inhabit. Their DNA could be rewritten to conform to the standard templates, but that would also “fix” their mutation and rob them of their cognitive superpowers. Therefore most of them get special exception granted to them by the government, and their houses and estates become sealed ecosystems with neutral ecology. The further the common standards in the biome slide away from the base-line the tighter the contingencies must be around the Plasties adobe. And slide they must in order to keep abreast the ever looming threat of bio-terrorism. Therefore every Plastie lives on a borrowed time. One day their home nation will release an DNA update which will make all the citizens completely toxic or allergy inducing and force a pastie to either emigrate to another biome, seal off their house completely from the outside world, get standardized or die a painful death if exposed to the outside germs.
The story begins when the protagonist’s niece disappears without a trace, and the family asks him to investigate. At first it seems like a rather mundane fling – she met a boy and eloped for a weekend to some secluded location. But the girl’s trail leads him into unexpected places. As the plot unravels he discovers an international plot concocted by a rag-tag group of activists that seeks to unify the world and once again allow people to live without the fear of bio terror. The key to this is in the heart of the Junkle. There in the absolute middle of the biological melting pot, a new form of biology has evolved – one that is no longer even based on traditional DNA. One that can adapt so rapidly that it became the dominant form of life there. And one that can support complex forms of life. The idea is to obtain a sample of that life and release it in the biomes where it can overtake and rewrite local systems to an unified, chaotic and uncontrolled standard. The only downside is that homo-sapiens as we know it will cease to exist and evolve into something else entirely…
Aaand, there are four more stories to go. I think I will just cut this wall of text short and continue the review in the next post.