I decided early on that all my children’s books would carry some small educational element embedded in the story. While Willow the Vampire is about discovering history, The First Intergalactic Dating Agency is about understanding science.
In the story the two boys are the sons of astronomers and physicists, so not scared of encountering the odd robot, spaceship or time travelling contraption. However, foster child Molly has led a very different life and, as a girl, has been brought up with a certain fear of science and technology. Although this may look like gender stereotyping, I felt this was still very much part of modern girls’ daily experience in schools and at home. I wanted to address this issue as well as looking into our attitude towards technology as a whole.
As a child I grew up with the wonderful stories of French writer Jules Verne, who used 19th century cutting edge scientific discoveries and theories as starting points for many of his fantastical adventures. At a time when people where still speculating about journeys to the moon, submarine travel and the use of electricity, Jules Verne wove such facts and theories into his stories and made them seem possible; so much so that, when some of these things came true in the 20th century, many people thought he had “predicted” these inventions.
Today we read every week about new discoveries by space probes and giant telescopes in space as well as planning our first mission to Mars with the aid of robots. Unlike many children’s books that are based upon little more than their author’s imagination, I wanted to use the Jules Verne principle and weave information about cutting edge robotics and space travel into my novels.
This is easier said than done – like Molly, I grew up as a technophobe and am scared of anything that is marginally more technical than my waffle iron or toaster. Reading through human brain-to-robot-interface experiments or seeing the latest robotic achievements, where restaurants have robots serve diners their meals or ASIMOV shows off his stair-climbing skills like a cute, pacifist version of a Dalek scares me more than I can say.
Most of the technology we already use in our daily lives is so beyond our understanding that a thinking and decision making robot would probably have great fun manipulating sheep-like humans, who follow the latest technology without question (especially if it’s trending on Twitter).
The ghost in the machine is scary not because it’s the mind of a new being, one that is outside of our ordinary understanding and now sharing the planet with us. It is frightening, because the origin of its “soul” lies within the human brain – with all our faulty traits of character as well as any kinks in personality of whoever programmed the robot in the first place.
For in this Human Mark II all compassion has been removed – this upgraded soul runs strictly on mathematics and calculating the best possible outcome, one that is not based on that which supposedly makes us human, namely the ability to see beyond saving our own skins and the wish to save that of others. The upgraded human thinks no further than his own robotic nose and wouldn’t lift a bionic finger to save the life of another being.
Compassion is not a concept that figures much in science, although it should, even more so than in other disciplines.
This is assuming not all scientists are completely devoid of feeling and compassion, as those who experiment on animals clearly are. Such people will justify anything that serves their “scientific achievement”, no matter how debased or cruel it might be. From torturing mice, kittens, puppies and rabbits it is after all only a small step to experimenting on babies.
Perhaps the ghost in the robot is so terrifying because we see in it our own reflection, the thing we have become, a slave to science and technology, just one step away from no longer being in control of Earth and life as we know it.
At the heart of my time travelling adventure is the question of how far we are prepared to go in the name of science and technology? Children growing up now are forced to learn an ever increasing amount of facts, figures and the use of constantly changing technology. My friend’s six-year-old daughter knows more about the remote TV control, the internet and computer games than I do…
When Peter and Leroy’s dads send out a message into space, they have no idea what the consequences of their actions are going to be – just like most scientists, I hear some of you cry. If we don’t try, we won’t succeed in the name of progress…along those lines many terrible things have been justified throughout human history.
We are apparently closer than ever to finding alien life – but what’s the use, when we have no respect for the life forms that are already sharing THIS planet with us?
The ghost in the machine that we created may well decide that in order to save THIS planet, the human race is obsolete and a kinder, gentler creature should emerge through evolution – one worthy of making contact with whatever might be out there – and may be willing to communication in dots, lines and numbers with the ghost in our machine.