Perhaps my very earliest memory is from the age of around three, being in bed and being taught to read by my mother. Yes, she did also read to me, or tell stories. She loved Greek mythology and imbued me with the magic of story telling from antiquity.
Those memories don’t last long, once she’d got me to learn to love reading she left me to it. I became a voracious reader. Some of her own childhood reading became mine, the Just William books and oddly enough, Biggles and, of course Wind In The Willows. My more absent father added Winnie The Pooh into the mix.
From about the age of eight I would bicycle down to the library any time I wanted and fill a knapsack with books. Childhood and teenage insomnia meant devouring books and torch batteries in equal measure.
That head start in reading meant that all through primary and middle school I was left to my own reading devices. Whilst almost everyone else was forced to laboriously consume ‘age appropriate’ books under supervision, I and a handful of others were given the run of the school library to read what we wanted.
It was the high school that tried to destroy any interest in reading, not just in me, for all pupils. The first English lesson of the new term would be devoted to handing out three books. One of poetry, a Shakespeare play and a ‘worthy’ novel. By the time of the next lesson I would have read them all, only to have to spend the whole term bored out of my mind as about 5 pages a lesson were laboriously read out aloud. By the end of the term I’d have read another 50 or so books.
My saviour was my library membership card.
Today I’m a big fan of my Kindle, I’m on my third. It used to be an annoyance with long distance travel to physically carry enough books to last a trip. Now, I have hundreds available at the swipe of a fingertip.
Sometimes that can make me lazy and resort to comfort reading old favourites before breaking out and embarking on fresh, even worthy, reading material.
And it’s the old favourites that this prompt is all about. But how on earth do you pick one book ? I’m not being deliberately obscure in this choice, I’m highlighting what I think is a little gem of a book that few will have come across.
In my early teens I came across Frank Herbert and his opus of the Dune series. There is a magnificent expansive scope in this series, sadly ruined by his son carrying on the franchise from notes left by Frank over 30 years ago. However, it’s not for Dune that I’m writing. I got to explore other books by Herbert. I particularly love the Dosadi Experiment, but just ahead of it my go to is Destination: Void.
It’s a theme throughout his books that Herbert asks the questions “How do you define human ? And how far can you stretch that definition ?” And boy, could he stretch it in thought provoking ways.
There’s no way to precis this book, the concepts are too wide ranging to reduce to a simple synopsis.
Included in this book are clones. How human is a clone beyond being identical to the original ? What rights does a clone have ? There’s an edict quoted in the book “Clones are property”. Clones are expendable material.
It’s an exploration that asks the question “what is consciousness ?” In some respects it’s one for the tech nerds as it explore a race against time on a deteriorating spaceship to create an artificial consciousness from the onboard computer.
I read this long before I became involved in tech, but my work and research with data storage and memory systems that are inherently finite and confined within current retrieval and error correction capabilities sent me back to this book with renewed awe at the scope that Herbert envisaged nearly 50 years ago.
We are in an age where we talk of Artificial Intelligence. Yet, the book describes concepts for Artificial Conscious that are to AI as current AI is to the Babbage Difference Engine.
The human mind is not an infinite storage machine, yet it has recall of pertinent events across a life time. It deduces correct results from incomplete, even erroneous information. We have thresholds that we apply to stimuli and information we receive and store and yet, years after an event we can get a trigger that brings back vivid memories that we’d not realised we stored, that had unconsciously made it through the threshold filters.
Most intangibly of them all, the human mind has variable concepts of time and emotions, intuition is almost too abstract to define.
How do you create these in a non-organic system ? Can an artificial consciousness love or hate its creator ? Does it have to be free to do either ?
The scope of these questions and the attempted answers in this book is majestic.
Of course the attempt to build an artificial consciousness comes to a fitting climax. The book concludes with the newly awakened God like consciousness having whisked our protagonists many light years in the blink of an eye speaking its first words to its creators :
” … You must be together when you make your decision.”
His voice rasping in a suddenly dry throat, Bickel glanced up at the vocoder, said: “Decision? What decision?”
“Flattery knows,” said the vocoder. “You must decide how you will WorShip Me.”
By itself Destination: Void is a standalone tale, but Herbert then continued it in a series of three books with poet Bill Ransom called the Pandora Sequence that are mind-blowing in scope and push the concept of what is human even further.
The complexities of consciousness explored in this book have since given me a bridge between my daily work in the understanding of logic and data science and the personal experiences of hypnosis and sub-space that play with my consciousness.
“Science does not need mysticism and mysticism does not need science. But man needs both.” – Fritjof Capra: The Tao of Physics