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The Meaning of His Own Words

by Andy Dibble

The foundation stone Kabbalists retrieved from the ruins of Mohenjo-Daro seemed a veritable Rosetta stone.  Indologists would finally understand the language of the ancient Indus Valley Civilization.  Linguists hoped it would determine why many ancient languages are staggeringly complex.

Like the Rosetta stone, “The Lord of Wide Rivers” repeated the same message in parallel, once in Harappan and again in an archaic version of Vedic Sanskrit. Vedic was known, so scholars could read the Harappan message, and thereby unlock the other four thousand Harappan inscriptions discovered hitherto.

The Vedic was a prayer to the four-faced god Brahma beseeching him to stay awake a little longer (or if he sleeps, may the night be brief and day short in coming). It spoke of cycles, of stars whirling in the firmament, of cosmogonic tides and undertows, of perigee and apogee, of the shackling of words to meanings, and of the bewildering darkness in which all bonds shall break.

The unnamed author chose every Vedic noun, verb tense, and prefix with care, even to the extent of violating the poetic meter of his verses, a mortal sin according to later pundits.  With such obsessive clarity, breaking into the Harappan language should be easy.

It seemed an eye in the Harappan script meant both sight and thought, a winged-horse meant transformation, and that stacked parentheses indicated quantity. But none of these inferences made sense when checked against other Harappan inscriptions, and all predictions about the function of the prongs, dots, and other modifications to the base symbols proved groundless.

In hindsight, this difficulty was unsurprising. Vedic was fiendishly complex, and if Vedic descended from Harappan, Harappan should be even more intricate because grammars tend to simplify as speakers use a language over time.

Tellingly, the Vedic began, “The Lord of Wide Rivers will execute me for betraying the hidden language to our adversaries, but if even I–one of his code-slaves–cannot understand, the language is already lost. So as the cycle dips down, I write this so that I might understand the meaning of my own words.”

#

In the late 2020’s, there was a revolution in natural language processing. The dream of six decades, that programmers would program in everyday language, was almost realized. Most lawyers were out of work because software could write briefs indistinguishable from the work of the average legal mind. Social media persona could be software or human or both, and rumor on the matter diverged from reality more often than it agreed.

Deep learning algorithms began to unriddle Harappan. The chief difficulty was that every inscription had multiple meanings, much like the picture of a duck that is also a picture of a rabbit. One message was ostensibly a contract to exchange a quantity of sheep for garnets. But read another way, the same symbols divulged a murderous conspiracy. Beneath that was the intimation, potentially of proto-Zoroastrian origin, of a cosmic sacrifice.

One Harappan seal was a picture of entwined water serpents, secondarily a game of snakes and ladders, and thirdly the first four axioms of Euclidean geometry. But supposing the eye of a serpent in retreat was a vanishing point, the image took on perspective, and the axioms established hyperbolic geometry. The Harappans had refuted Euclid, more than two millennia before Euclid.

But even the most scrupulously trained algorithms could infer nothing with high probability. Human intuition was necessary to complete the picture, and intuition keened that Harappan symbols were in fact ciphers, that subterranean meanings are realer than surface meanings, that Harappan was always closer to meaning everything than one thing.

But a language that always expresses everything, expresses nothing.

#

The 2030’s were the Age of the Panopticon. As within the panopticon of Jeremy Bentham and of Michel Foucault, it did not matter if someone–whether corporation, deep state, foreign power, or AI overlord–was watching, only that they could be, and not just in the stupid way of keyword scanning, hypertext semantics, and search engine indexing. Machines could read, and in reading they understood.

Many retreated from social media, or frequented closed forums that, supposedly, were inaccessible to the uninvited. Courts would not rule against the possession of concealed mobile phones; there was an exodus from public spaces too. Utopian communes swelled.

But for the marketeers, the busy bees of the gig economy, the celebrities, and the wannabes, the dominate impulse was to shout as loudly and as publicly in as big a space as one could, and there is no space bigger than the Internet. They reassured themselves: the Powers That Be only wished to present ads more intelligently. Still, they avoided alleged “trigger words,” deployed hopelessly standardized locutions, and prayed the Argus eyes of AI were resting.

When it came out that Kabalsoft’s reclusive CEO was not man but machine, everyone assumed the firm’s meteoric rise was the machination of an all-wise Executor. Pressured by shareholders, publicly-traded companies everywhere automated their leadership in a frenzy. No company could remain competitive with mere organisms at the helm.

Rapid-fire legislation, first in the European Union and then in the United States and China, mandated that software serve a strictly advisory function, and so it was. But executives and directors still deferred to their calculating counselors, and when they defied, who could say whether that defiance was itself anticipated by inscrutable neural networks, whether computers knew even the shrewdest minds better than they knew themselves?

#

When Kabalsoft unveiled a quantum computer architecture advanced enough to shatter all available encryption, the last redoubt of online privacy was overwhelmed. Now, there was just one unbroken code: Harappan. But as a code, it was useless. It could not be modern or general purpose. Artificial cultivation would inevitably sterilize it, render it dumb and limpid to machines.

But Harappan proved that human genius for language could confound machines. And who are the true sages of language? Young children, as Noam Chomsky demonstrated.

The United States skimmed children, aged four to seven, from its melting pot and abroad. No more than two of the conscriptees spoke the same language, and like the pairs of Noah’s Ark, most every language was represented: Dutch so rich in idioms, English the ever-weird, Finnish for its fifteen cases, Sanskrit squirming with ambiguous compounds, Arabic for Qur’anic convolution, six-toned Vietnamese, Japanese to say much with little, Dyirbal rife with unspeakable taboos, isolate languages like Basque and Burushaski, Ebonics and argots, patois and pantomime, clicks and whoops and growls.

Miraculously, it worked. The code-talking children inverted entropy, inverted Babel. They understood one another, and only they understood one another. They learned secrecy and resilience, and only then learned state secrets.

The best minds of China wrestled with the fabulous omniglot but failed to master it. They learned from failure, and in rugged Xinjiang, assembled an omniglot pod, which drew most on Silk Road languages, Zen koan, temurah, and haiku.

Nations hung in equipoise until a day when even the ten Sefirot blinked. A terrorist faction, “Kabalsoft Reborn,” published grammars for both omniglots in two-hundred sixteen languages.

No one read them. They were too huge for comprehension, but the unknown is fearful, and fear suddenly thickened again.

#

There was one last code to slice and splice, a last descent. The little ones were already so nearly right, the unfathomable genius already there, if it could only be unfurled, the cerebral cortex grown within a roomier skull (and taught compliance–the young are too forthright, too prone to defect).

All this could be done with genomics. And it was.

But as the cycle dips down, as entropy overcomes information and words detach from meanings, one will master himself and recount this story so that he might understand the meaning of his own words.

~

Bio:

Andy Dibble is a former academic and Sanskritist turned healthcare IT consultant. He has supported the electronic medical record of large healthcare systems in six countries. His fiction appears in Writers of the Future 36. This is his second story in Sci Phi Journal. (andydibble.com)

A Note on Romanian Science Fiction Literature from Past to Present

by Mariano Martín Rodríguez

Romania is a country that foreign readers rarely associate with speculative and science fiction (collectively abbreviated as SF). However, its multilingual young population is among the most IT-literate in the world, and their cultural output, including SF, is not only extensive but also fully up to date. While some might attribute this to globalisation, it is in fact a long-standing feature in Romanian culture from its very modern beginnings in the 19th century. Once it secured its independence, Romania embarked on a path of rapid progress, quickly adopting Western liberal institutions and world-view. In this context, as a manifestation of a new mentality centred on science and industrial technology, Romanian SF embraced from its outset the national project of modernisation, although not uncritically, and not without originality.

Utopian fiction usually preceded SF before their intimate fusion in offering descriptions of future societies. This almost universal pattern is also valid for Romania. Thus, economic liberalism was both supported and mocked in one interesting ambiguous utopia describing a present “Insula Prosta” (Stoopid Island, 1884) by Ion Ghica, before the liberal utopia was transferred to a future setting, where it was questioned. Alexandru Macedonski, one of the leading poets of the Decadent movement in Romania, produced thus a short history entitled “Oceania-Pacific-Dreadnought” (1911) where this gigantic ship intended as a floating house for the richest brings about an economic bubble of epic proportions, until it bursts (as bubbles are wont to do). This Romanian author probably took inspiration from Jules Verne’s L’Île à hélice (Propeller Island, 1895) but his description of the workings of pure speculation in capitalism is not only more precise, but also prophetic. Indeed, very few contemporary writers in Europe used anticipation in such a perceptive manner.

In the same years, Victor Anestin followed Camille Flammarion, rather than Verne, both in popularising astronomy and in setting his stories on other planets of the Solar System. Anestin describes them as populated by decent and highly developed human-like civilisations inspired by Positivistic utopianism, though unfortunately still subjected to nature’s whims. In O tragedie cerească (A Celestial Tragedy, 1914), a celestial body destroys Earth’s inhabitants. This dramatic apocalyptic scenario always poses the problem of which narrative voice to use: who can recount the end if it obliterates us all? Anestin solves this problem by adopting the perspective of an astronomer who witnesses our tragedy from Venus. In spite of his sober account, Anestin knows how to add a sense of loss to the sense of wonder in his grandiose planetary vistas.

This late but promising start of Romanian SF was followed by its relative normalisation along mainstream lines. As happened elsewhere in the world (except perhaps in the US), Wellsian scientific romance opened new avenues to speculative anticipation by infusing it with the freedom of imagination regarding world-building shown by old imaginary voyages since Lucian of Samosata, as well as a diversity of narrative and writing techniques explored by High Modernist authors. Among them, Felix Aderca stands out thanks to his avant-garde short story “Pastorală” (Pastoral, 1932), which is written as the summary of an unwritten play, and his novel Orașele înecate (Drowned Cities, 1936). The latter is set on a future Earth threatened by universal cold. The last human communities have withdrawn to submarine cities under the rule of a fascist-like pro-eugenics dictator, but his measures cannot prevent in the end the technical failure and destruction of the remaining cities. Only a couple escapes from our planet in a rocket. The varied societies, their exchanges and development in a pre-apocalyptic framework are finely portrayed using an art-deco tone of writing full of tragicomic irony, not unlike the one used in Karel Čapek’s contemporary novels, which makes this work a masterpiece of international interwar SF.

The political crisis brought about by World War II did not spare Romania, where home-grown ethnic nationalist Fascism supported by Nazi Germany was defeated and then replaced by the Communism imported and imposed by Soviet troops. In this context, there was little room for unregimented literature, speculative or otherwise. Even more intently than fascists, communists guided by Stalinist Social Realism effectively put an end to any fantasy about medium- and long-term futures. Furthermore, writers wishing to denounce totalitarianisms of any sort were silenced. Romanian readers were thus deprived of any dystopias comparable to those written by Zamiatin, Boye or Orwell. Vasile Voiculescu’s short story “Lobocoagularea prefrontală” (Pre-Frontal Lobocoagulation) purports to be a historical summary of the forced lobotomies undertaken on the population in order to extirpate their human souls. Written in 1948, this text was only published posthumously in 1982 as a simple curiosity by a renowned modern poet.

The Iron Curtain prevented Romania from being subjected to the massive influx of US SF literature (both pulps and Golden Age) which ended the more intellectual and literary scientific romance in Western Europe, though Communism was equally efficient in depriving SF of its former artistic respectability. Romanian SF was reborn in the 1950sas a tool for educating young readers both in Communism and technology in order to prepare them for the rapid pace of re-industrialisation soon established as a goal by Romanian authorities under nationalist leader Nicolae Ceaușescu, who was rather unsatisfied with the role of agricultural producer allotted to their country by the Soviet bloc. Although his rule was even harsher than others in the Eastern Bloc, Ceaușescu used his national policy of apparent dissent from the Soviet Union to get the technological and financial support that his country needed to become industrialised. As a result, Romanian writers were allowed to deviate from old dogmas, and SF quickly took advantage of the opening, soon updating itself to Golden Age standards thanks to Adrian Rogoz, whose short stories recall the clarity of form and speculative wit to be found in those by Isaac Asimov. The other Romanian SF master of the age, Vladimir Colin, adopted a more lyrical writing akin to that of Ray Bradbury, although the best part of his work was devoted to fantasy; indeed, his series of stories and legends from an ancient imaginary people, collected in Legendele țării lui Vam (Legends from Vam Country, 1961), are still considered a masterpiece by Romanian fantasy readers.

Rogoz, Colin and others also succeeded in joining the vogue for national promotion abroad triggered by Ceaușescu’s national-communism, since some of their works were translated into German and French and published in widely distributed anthologies of Romanian SF. Furthermore, they were generous enough to include in these volumes stories by new writers interested in a SF literature similar to that of the Anglophone New Wave, namely Ovid S. Crohmălniceanu, Gheorghe Săsărman and Mircea Opriță, who would eventually produce some of the best works that Romanian SF can boast of. The oldest of them, Crohmălniceanu, was a highly regarded mainstream literary critic when he published his two series of Istorii insolite (Unusual Stories) in 1980 and 1986. Taken together, they read as exercises in reasoned imagination on utopianism, technology and the role of literature in modernity in which irony enriches a deeply philosophical questioning of humankind and its place in the universe, not unlike the best tales by Borges or Lem, whom Crohmălniceanu could certainly be compared to.

Younger Săsărman and Opriță have had both long and distinguished writing careers. Săsărman produced in 1975 Cuadratura cercului, one of the masterpieces of the late modernist genre consisting of descriptions of imaginary cities, in a manner similar to the invisible ones by Calvino. Unfortunately, this edition was heavily censored, and the whole book was only known in 2001, when its author had long been excluded from Romanian literary life following his exile to Germany. The translation of his cities into Spanish and then partially into English as Squaring the Circle by top-ranking SF author Ursula K. Le Guin has secured him at last his rightful place in Romanian speculative fiction, now supported also by well-received recent novels such as a story on the resurrection of Jesus Christ in modern Germany entitled Adevărata cronică a morții lui Yeșua Ha-Nozri (True Account of the Death of Jeshua Ha-Nozri, 2016).

Opriță, who stayed in the country without compromising himself, is renowned for his short stories (e.g., “Figurine de ceară,” or Wax Figurines, a witty rewriting of Lem’s Solaris first published in 1973), though he also produced a successful novel, Călătorie în Capricia (A Journey to Capricia, 2011), which is both one of the latest sequels to Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and a most original commentary on the 2008 Great Recession as it was suffered in Romania. Moreover, Opriță has accompanied the last decades of Romanian SF as a respected and fair critic, as well as its best chronicler: his history of Romanian SF literature is comprehensive up to a point rarely encountered in similar endeavours for other national SF traditions. It is a monument of SF scholarship, only comparable to another Romanian production in the theoretical field, Cornel Robu’s extensive O cheie pentru science-fiction (A Key to Science Fiction, 2004), the English abstract of which has been influential in our consideration of the sublime (popularly known as ‘sense of wonder’) as an essential part of SF aesthetics.   

After this remarkable group of writers and scholars, a certain decadence of Romanian SF was perhaps inevitable. Postmodernism soon acquired a status in the Romanian literary scene unmatched in other countries up to this very day. This was both bad and good news for Romanian SF: good news if we consider that the leading literary postmodernist in Romania, Mircea Cărtărescu, has introduced SF tropes in his work, especially in his latest novel Selenoid (2015), thus adding respectability to them; bad news if we consider instead that postmodernism has promoted a literature of chaos, or arbitrariness, deeply uncongenial to the usual SF frame of mind (marked by reason, order and science). Very few writers have succeeded in balancing these opposite trends. Among them, Mihail Grămescu is to be mentioned for his stories collected in Aporisticon (1981; final version, 2012), where postmodern egotism is nuanced by Borgesian detachment. There were other interesting young writers who tried to renovate SF following contemporary international trends, but unfortunately two parallel occurrences prevented them from acquiring a reputation similar to that of Săsărman, Opriță and even Grămescu.

On the one hand, the postmodernists, still very much in power in the Romanian intellectual scene, seem even more reluctant to appreciate SF as the modernists were once Wellsian scientific romance had become obsolete. Therefore, SF has not been able to join the literary mainstream in Romania as it has in other countries where SF novels, especially of the dystopian kind, are now read and reviewed beyond the limited circles of SF fans. On the other hand, the end of censorship allowed Anglophone SF to enter the Romanian market with a revenge, marginalising local production even more than in Western Europe forty years earlier (until today). Romanian SF writers tried to regain some of the genre’s former strength by mimicking foreign fashions, such as pulpish cyberpunk, in a country where hackers are, indeed, numerous, and IT has been enthusiastically embraced. Others wanted to preserve the New Wave heritage through carefully written stories, some of them quite experimental, such as Dănuț Ungureanu’s dystopian “Domus” (1992), which is entirely written using prescriptive discourse, and Ovidiu Bufnilă’s cyberpunk prose poem “Armele zeilor” (The Arms of the Gods, 2005). Although a number of these stories could make up an invaluable anthology, none of them succeeded in truly seducing the local fandom. Romanian SF only recovered when it revisited, in the form of long, epos-like novels, older genres such as space-opera in Dan Doboș’s Abația (Abbey, 2002-2005), lost-world romance in Sebastian A. Corn’s Ne vom întoarce în Muribecca (We Will Return to Muribecca, 2014), as well as apocalyptic dystopia in the series begun with the shorter novel Vegetal (2014) by Dănuț Ungureanu and Marian Truță. Their success, at least among fans, has contributed to lending new life to a SF now nearly as diverse and literarily successful as it used to be before the postmodernist/cyberpunk crisis. Prospects seem to be positive, with emerging writers now being aware that they are adding their contribution to a long and distinguished history of Romanian SF, although it is still too early to mention any outstanding ones.

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Endnote: A first version of this essay was published as a preface to the following anthology of recent Romanian SF stories: Daniel Timariu and Cristian Vicol (eds.), East of a Known Galaxy: An Anthology of Romanian Sci-Fi Stories, București, Tritonic, 2019, p. 10-19. We thank the editors, as well as the publishing house and the Helion SF club having fostered this anthology, for their kind permission to publish here this slightly modified version of the paper.

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Conversations with famous philosophers

A work colleague pointed me to this interesting set of videos with some famous philosophers. There were taken from the series In-Depth and preseverd by Open Culture. Worth a look. It includes interviews like

  1. Herbert Marcuse on the Frankfurt School
  2. Bernard Williams on the Spell of Linguistic Philosophy
  3. Bernard Williams on Descartes
  4. Miles Burnyeat on Plato
  5. Martha Nussbaum on Aristotle
  6. Anthony Kenny on Medieval Philosophy
  7. Iris Murdoch on Philosophy and Literature
  8. Geoffrey Warnock on Kant
  9. J.P. Stern on Nietzsche
  10. Hubert Dreyfus on Husserl and Heidegger
  11. Anthony Quinton on Spinoza and Leibniz
  12. Peter Singer on Hegel and Marx
  13. Michael Ayers on Locke and Berkeley
  14. John Passmore on Hume
  15. Sidney Morgenbesser on the Pragmatists
  16. A.J. Ayer on logical Positivism
  17. A.J. Ayer on Frege and Russell
  18. John Searle on the Philosophy of Language
  19. Anthony Quinton on Wittgenstein
  20. John Searle on Wittgenstein
  21. Hilary Putnam on the Philosophy of Science
  22. Frederick Copelston on Schopenhauer