Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Review - Requiem of the Human Soul by Jeremy Lent

Short review: "Primal" humanity is up for extinction by its genetically altered descendants in a world that seems to have forgotten the distinction between negligence and intentional harm, so the only thing that can save us is the nebulous mushiness of the human soul.

In the near future
Science is the enemy
For no real reason

Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Member Giveaway program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Full review: Requiem of the Human Soul is the first science fiction book I have read in which science is the villain. When I say "science is the villain", I don't mean science gone awry (as the case with so many Crichton novels), or even that there is a mad scientists using his super science powers to create mutants. Rather, I mean that according to the book the portion of the human brain that allows for the rational thought process that results in science is the problem. Science, and the resulting modern world, is apparently killing the human soul.

The plot of the book is fairly simple. Genetically engineered humans (designer humans, or d-humans) have become the dominant majority in the world, with unmodified humans (primals) making up a significant minority and forming a permanent underclass. The UN, which is a meaningful force in the fictitious future of the story, has exclusive authority to deal with the "primals" (via the UN agency known as UNAPS, or the UN Authority for the Primal Species). The viewpoint character of the story is Eusebio, a primal who is abducted by UN investigators to participate in the proposal for extinction of primal species (PEPS) hearings with Naomi, a "d-3 human" and primal rights activist serving as his counsel, while Harry Shields, another d-3 human, serves as prosecutor. After brushing through some fairly concrete objections to PEPS, the hearings get to The Point of the Book, which is that destroying the primal species will be a massive crime because doing so will run the risk of extinguishing the human soul. This seems like an awful thin thread to hang the fate of humanity on, so the author introduces an alternative, the Rejectionist activist Yusef, who offers Eusebio the option of destroying New York to strike a blow for primal rights. The book meanders along for most of its length until the very end, when a couple of plot twists effectively invalidate everything that happened in the book, and leave the reader wondering why the UN went through the entire charade.

I believe there is a tendency among writers who have not dealt with science fiction (and fantasy for that matter) before to think that science fiction is easy. In fact, I think writing good science fiction is much more difficult than writing "straight" fiction because the author, in addition to providing interesting characters and a good story, must also establish the fictitious backdrop of the story. This usually requires what is known in science fiction circles as the "infodump", and mastering the art of the infodump is one of the key elements of making a science fiction writer good. A true master will establish elements without making it a big deal (for example, Heinlein's famous line "the door dilated"), which others use more clumsy methods (the "as you know Bob" form of exposition). Unfortunately, a lot of the background in Requiem for the Human Soul is given as clumsy infodumps. The characters of Naomi and Yusef exist in large part to dump information on Eusebio, and by doing so, dump it on the reader. One annoying way this is done is by bringing up a topic Eusebio (who has lived a sheltered life outside the mass media of the larger world) knows nothing about, and then telling him about it. But the typical method of conveying the information is not for Eusebio to have a conversation with the infodumper, but rather for Eusebio to report what he was told, for example:

"GALT, Yusef explained, had presented a zero-sum game to the world: On the one hand you could have continual war and human suffering; on the other hand, you could have global peace only by giving up the spiritual existence of life - the most important aspect of mankind's existence. But the Rejectionists believed genetic engineering could optimize the spiritual aspects of human beings, and in doing so, tolerance and love for others would naturally follow."

So, we don't get the conversation in which this information is imparted, instead we get a very didactic and heavy-handed retelling of what was said. This crops up several times in the book, we are told what a conversation was about without the messy bother of the actual conversation. In my opinion, this is a very weak way to convey information. (As a side note, why do I think it is not an accident that the "Global Arms Limitation Treaty" acronym "GALT" reminds one of an Ayn Rand protagonist).

The second major way that infodumps are done in the book is via "interludes" in which the narrative is set aside for a bit in order to jump back in time to characters from the past, such as the founders of the Humanists (primals who reject genetic engineering on the basis that it is damaging to the human soul), or newspaper articles on important historical events. The featured characters from the past share the same conversational foibles as the ones in the up-to-date story line do, but the newspaper articles come off as a the equivalent to a feature piece in a newspaper today describing how the internet works. While reading them, one wonders why the details of trips to offshore genetic engineering clinics would include the description of what (by the time the article is supposed to have been published) would have been the equivalent of describing how a telephone works today.

One other annoying thing about the book is that it seems like the author, to a certain extent, is simply not playing fair with the narrative. By this I mean that it is clear that he wants Eusebio to be left with no defense against the PEPS proposal save a defense of the human soul, and in the rush to get there, he brushes aside some fairly rational arguments against it. The author uses the crimes of primal humanity against nature: The destruction of natural habitat and over-hunting and so on, leading to the extinction of species as evidence that the primals are only being hypocritical when they argue against the PEPS proposal. But this logic train has enormous holes in it that any competent lawyer could drive trucks though. Naomi, for a superior, genetically engineered d-human, seems to be a fairly incompetent counsel since she never once points out that this argument argues for a moral and legal equivalence between mere negligence and intentional extermination. One also wonders why she never points out that the d-humans, who argue that they are by reason of their genetics, morally superior, rely upon an argument that places them in an equivalent position to the supposedly morally inferior primals they propose to eliminate (not that they are equivalent, as they propose to do with intent what primals did via negligence). Never mind that the d-humans in the story don't seem to show much in the way of superior moral behavior, they assert that they do, and yet the entire argument in favor of PEPS rests on an equivalence with the very group they claim is morally inferior. In the hearing, Eusebio sits in a neurographic chair that monitors his brain for truthfulness, and yet neither the prosecutor or the defense counsel do. One wonders why Eusebio didn't object to this: If he is required to tell the truth and they will monitor him to ensure that he does, why is the prosecutor free to lie if he wants to? It is shown that the downtrodden nature of the primals is, in large part, due to the policies enforced by UNAPS and GALT, and said downtrodden nature is used to help justify PEPS. The stunning hypocrisy of this stance is never brought into the hearing, merely commented upon by Eusebio outside the hearing. Once again, Naomi seems to be quite incompetent. Finally, given that there are supposed to be 7 billion d-humans and 3 billion primals at the time of the story, one presumes that the bulk of the habitable area of the Earth is occupied by d-humans, that same area that was the native habitat the primals are accused of destroying. Yet the argument that d-human society is hypocritical in that it reaps the benefits of the ecological devastation they lay at the primals' feet while at the same time decrying it is brushed aside in a perfunctory manner. I understand that Lent wanted to get to The Point of the story and talk about the human soul, but not bothering to deal with what should have been some very substantial issues in anything but the most perfunctory manner simply makes the book less effective than it could have been.

Further, a lot of the science elements of the story are simply unconvincing, leaving the reader with huge questions. The PEPS proposal is to be implemented by disbursing "Isotope 909" which will make primals partially sterile. The question that occurs to the scientifically inclined reader is "isotope of what?", since an isotope is an atom of the same chemical element that has a different atomic mass. Which chemical element makes up "Isotope 909" (or the other one mentioned in the story, "Isotope 919")? Is it Vanadium? Yttrium? Some other element? Which element would have an isotope with an atomic mass of 909 (or 919) anyway? That's about 615 grams per mole more than the mass of Ununoctium, which is pretty unlikely, and all of the elements with that high of an atomic number are horrendously toxic to everyone, not just pregnant women, so the whole "isotope" business just makes no sense. I figure that what Lent must mean is something like "Compound 909", which is what would make sense in the story, but when an author of a science fiction story gets basic science terminology wrong, it seriously damages the rest of the story by pulling the reader out of the narrative flow.

Another critical element to the story is the cancer related death of Eusebio's wife, which could have been cured, but it is explained, doing so would have been too expensive. Her form of cancer is rare in the modern world, and hence the special machines that could have synthesized a protein that would eat the cancerous cells (something I'm not even sure that a protein could plausibly do) are rare and must be imported at prohibitive expense. But that doesn't make much sense. A protein is merely a collection of amino acids in a particular sequence. Any process by which one could create one protein could probably pretty easily be modified to create a different one, which makes the whole subplot less than scientifically plausible. Again, this pulls one out of the narrative and damages the science credibility of the story.

Another question that arises in the story is that the societal fall out from rampant global warming forms a critical element of the back story of the setting (driving the handover of military power to the UN, and the creation of GALT), but the d-human society shown consumes massive quantities of energy, even to the point of running a huge project to revive (and control in minute detail) the African savanna. Where does this massive volume of energy come from? How is it generated without creating a huge amount of global warming? This question, like many others, is simply unaddressed.

One important science element that seemed quite odd was the distinction between "d-humans" and primals, which is elevated in the book to the level of speciation. Much is made of the fact that primals share 99.4% of their DNA with chimpanzees, while only 99.3% of their DNA with d-humans (given that there are d-1, d-2, d-3 and soon to be d-4 humans, one wonders how such a specific percentage is arrived at). However, given that most of the d-human changes were originally driven by taking some superlative primal and copying their genetic code (there is a long digression about this), one wonders how this is even possible. The d-process, as described in the book, is about modifying existing genes, not about creating, removing, or adding genes, and one wonders if the d-humans could in fact, vary from primal humans by the 15 million or so base pairs required to exist in d-humans but not primals to make the d-humans genetically that different. One comes away from this comparison wondering just how much research on genetic engineering was done in the background for the book.

This DNA difference is used in the book by d-humans to assert that primals are a different species. One unanswered question is whether d-humans are unable to interbreed with primals (the classic definition of speciation), since, of course, humans cannot interbreed with chimpanzees. Once again, this is a glaring, and unanswered question. And, one question raised by the possibility of speciation and completely ignored is: What duty does one sentient species owe to another? Apparently the d-humans are convinced that the primals are a different species (many call them "chimps"), and the mandatory moral modifications that are supposed to make d-humans less doctrinal and less aggressive don't seem to prevent them from adopting a clannish, bigoted, and racist attitude towards primals. Nor do the modifications seem to prevent the d-humans from blasting away at primals quite violently. I'm not sure if we are supposed to conclude that the moral modifications are in fact a sham and the d-humans are hypocrites on this score, or that the author simply didn't think through the implications of his own setting. Either way, it is another plot element that just doesn't hold up.

But, one might say, these are just a stylistic quibbles. What about the great story? What about the struggle to save the human soul? After all, this is The Point of the book. Well, even here there are problems, and they stem from some flawed ideas about science. The whole idea of the human soul in the book revolves around something called the "Schumacher Smudge", named after two time Nobel Prize winning scientist Julius Schumacher. When doing neurographic imaging of the human brain, Schumacher noticed a "smudge" on the images. This "smudge" is identified by him as evidence of the soul (based on almost nothing). After some personal tragedy, Schumacher bums around the third world living a primitive utopian existence and then returns to write his "masterpiece" On Being Human in which he explains that the smudge is the human soul, and that the prefrontal cortex and the style of thinking that is driven by that part of the brain has suppressed the more primitive parts of the brain and the "spiritual thinking". Further, the d-humans he had imaged didn't seem to have the smudge, and thus genetic engineering should be discontinued to avoid possible damage to the human soul. The story says that there was a huge negative reaction to his book from religious authorities and the scientific community, which seems to be intended to demonstrate the narrow-mindedness of both communities. However, I can not only understand the negative reaction of the scientific community, I would expect it, since as described the book appears to be nothing more than random speculation. Schumacher's idea that the smudge is the human soul appears to be based on nothing at all. Effectively, Schumacher supposedly thought that his status as a two time Nobel Prize winner would carry the day. But argument by authority doesn't work in the scientific community, and Schumacher would be expected to know that. In point of fact, those who attempt to make scientific arguments from authority are usually roundly (and rightly) ridiculed. Rather than making him out to be a genius, Schumacher's story makes him out to be something of a dimwit. The evidence supplied for the thesis of On Being Human seems as insubstantial as the evidence linking themerisol with autism, making Schumacher seem to be the Jenny McCarthy of his day.

In any event, Schumacher is killed for his ideas, and his close associates get together and found the Humanist movement dedicated to avoiding genetic engineering in order to prevent possible damage to the human soul. The odd thing is that they don't appear to spend any time working with neurographic engineering and studying the smudge to figure out if it is actually the human soul. Nor do they study primal humans and d-humans to determine why one has the smudge and the other apparently does not. Instead, the Humanist community descends into what seems to be an endless round of mystical mumbo-jumbo as they seek to get in touch with their primitive roots. The Humanist communities also, for some reason, cut themselves off from each other, and contact with the outside world, exclusively studying things like Australian Aboriginal dream time experiences and Native American ghost dance ceremonies and the like. It is all very "New Age" quasi-philosophy, seeking the "ancient wisdom" rather than actually studying the evidence of the human soul. Rather than sympathizing with the primal Humanists, one ends up holding them in contempt for not bothering to follow up and actually figure out if the claims of their spiritual founder actually held water.

The book makes a few stabs at substantiating what it means by the human soul, including scenes in which Eusebio experiences his "vision quest" and forms a connection with his totem tree and a "connection of souls" during sex between Eusebio and the love of his life Sarah. But as interesting as these spiritual experiences are, can they really serve as evidence of a special soul? Accepting them at face value doesn't help, as Sam Harris has pointed out, it is quite possible to experience spiritually uplifting moments without resorting to explaining them by means of  some sort of transcendent spirit or soul. One question that has to be asked (since a theme of the book is that modern life and Western culture is destroying the human soul) is how is it that people living in modern societies seem to have these sorts of spiritual experiences all the time?

More saliently, one has to seriously question the idea that primitive societies lived in harmony with nature. The Australian Aborigines are referenced several times, as are the Native Americans, but the evidence available concerning Australian and North/South American prehistory is that when humans reached those continents they immediately hunted all the large animals to extinction. Mayan civilization is thought to have fallen apart due to ecological disaster following overuse of the land. Tribal society in Indonesia seems to be brutally violent and destructive (see the description of this society in Guns, Germs, and Steel). These pieces of evidence seem somewhat at odds with the idea that primitive societies are based upon harmony with the world, and offer a calming spiritual alternative to the modern world. Even if it were true, giving up the benefits of modern society seems like an awfully large sacrifice for the alleged benefits of the spiritual primitive societies.

And one wonders how the idea that d-humans have no soul even works. The d-humans are by and large humans who have been modified to resemble and have the attributes of famous and talented people. I kept wondering if the point of the book was that top NFL players don't have souls? Or that Bill Gates has no soul? Or Scarlett Johanssen? That they are closer to having no soul than, say me, or you? It just doesn't seem to make any sense at all. The d-human PEPS prosecutor also goes on at length about how the primals themselves helped destroy the human soul when Western civilization (apparently dominated by the tyranny of the prefrontal cortex) trampled upon the culture of more primitive indigenous peoples like the Australian Aborigines and Native Americans. What goes unremarked upon is that if the Schumacher smudge is actually evidence of the human soul, such trampling didn't actually destroy it.

As a side note, one of the fictitious articles about d-babies talks about the "top NFL player's genetic array" as an option. How is this determined? Is the top football player a running back? A quarterback? A lineman? A safety? All have different skill sets and presumably different genetic arrays. Which one is the "top player", can this be determined? Does everyone want a rifle arm? Or giant behemoth who can knock people off the line? What genetic traits are actually universally desirable? It is this sort of bald statement that makes one pause. Statements are made that just don't seem to hold up and then expected to do so without any backing at all. One thing that seems to be universally useful would be the disease screening (which the Humanists reject, making them the future equivalent of people who refuse to vaccinate their children), and it is this sort of thing that, to me, makes the d-human society one so very attractive. On the one hand we have the Humanist obsession with the vague implications of a smudge that is claimed to be a soul (but never proven to be as far as I can tell), and on the other the elimination of diseases like cancer and the extension of the human lifespan through genetic manipulation. I know which society I find more attractive, and it isn't the one that thinks smoking in a wigwam is spiritually uplifting enough to turn its back on modern medicine. Even before the twist ending (see below), I found myself unsympathetic to the Humanists and their stance that amounts, in my view, to something akin to child abuse.

Despite the build up, the Yusef subplot ends up amounting to not much. One wonders to begin with how blowing up New York would advance the cause of the primals, rather than simply causing the immediate destruction of the primals as a threat. (For that matter, one wonders why the destruction of Columbus caused the U.S. to kowtow to the CARGI legal proceedings, given that the book was written after 9/11, it seems unreasonable to think that a terrorist attack would provoke much of anything but the attacked power lashing out in response). The Rejectionists are too insubstantial a movement in the story to make their claims particularly interesting: Eusebio due to his self-imposed isolation from the modern world knows nothing about them, and we get very little other than propaganda from either side. In the end, the nuclear bomb subplot seems tacked on, a sort of false attempt to add some action to a story that didn't really need it.

But that's a minor problem. The major problem is that the PEPS hearing is a sham, as is all the moaning about the human soul. The PEPS hearing was merely a ruse in order to get Eusebio into the neurographic chair, not to monitor his truthfulness, but to get an image of the human soul. The PEPS proposal is going to be implemented regardless, and both Naomi and Harry had concocted this hearing in order to preserve a record of the human soul so that future generations of d-humans could have it genetically implanted in their DNA. The problem with this is that it is a stupid way to get an image of a primal human soul. It is also needlessly cruel (remember, d-humans are supposed to be superior morally). Eusebio is removed from his home with no notice, and none of his friends, family, or neighbors know where he is, and because he knows about the PEPS proposal, he will never be allowed to communicate with them again. One has to think that if all Naomi and Harry wanted was a neurographic image of the human soul they simply could have asked for a couple of primal test subjects without the rigamarole of the hearing process and without having to abruptly and permanently separate them from their entire family. Maybe this is supposed to be a commentary on how humans treat test animals, but if so, it is very subtle. The PEPS hearing sham also ends up giving them exactly one example of a human soul, which seems fairly short-sighted to me, whereas some sort of research project would have given them dozens if not hundreds of examples to work with.

An even bigger problem is that, in the very last pages of the book, it is revealed that there is a "prefrontal cortex" soul called the "infinite soul". Once again, this is the author not really playing fair with the reader, as in the old saying: If you have a gun in the first act, it must be used in the third; but the converse is true as well, if a gun is used in the third act, it should show up in the first. The "infinite soul" is simply lobbed into the narrative from left field, with no real foundation at all. The Schumacher smudge is defined as the "earthly soul", and humans share this with all animals. The infinite soul is shared by primals and d-humans. In other words, what makes humans uniquely human is not the Schumacher smudge at all, but rather something that they share with d-humans. This seems to invalidate the entire premise of the book - the primitive soul isn't what makes a human a human. And it isn't threatened by the genetic engineering of humanity, or the rise of the d-humans. What makes a human a human, as opposed to any other animal, is exactly what Lent spent the entire 300 prior pages saying was destroying humanity: The tyranny of the prefrontal cortex. And Lent closes his story by going back and having Eusebio wax poetic about Chief Joseph and how the human soul will be lost and reborn as a result of the neurographic imaging. Whether this is simply Eusebio missing the obvious conclusion to be drawn from this bit of information, or Lent simply ignoring the implications of his own setting again is unclear. In any event, one ends up not feeling very sympathetic towards Naomi or Eusebio (for different reasons), and not really lamenting the impending doom of the primals (which I think is not the reaction Lent was hoping to evoke).

This could have been a much better book, but the lack of willingness of the author to work through the implications of his own setting hampers it significantly. The apparent lack of scientific knowledge also hurts the story, since in what reads like a hard science fiction story, especially a near future science fiction story, you have to at least get the science kind of in the ballpark of plausible. Not even the future history seems particularly compelling, as it is more or less a laundry list of scary shibboleths: Global warming will cause massive wars over water, third world countries will sue the first world for compensation for imperialism, the government will begin monitoring everyone with implanted microchips, and so on and so forth. In the end though, what unravels the story is the twist ending that throws in random elements from left field, exposes the supposedly smart d-humans as idiots, and invalidates everything about the story that went before.

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