Archive | human/machine RSS for this section

Does Xanther Dream of Electric Kittens? (or Do Narcons Dream of Their Own Supersets?)

Battlestar Galactica

The Matrix

Blade Runner (and by extension, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?)

 

*Possible Spoilers for those works below. You’ve been warned.

All of these works are heavily referenced in Xanther’s narrative. But to what end? The clearest solution is the common theme between them- the dubiousness of agency. In Battlestar, it’s the non-self aware Cylons that become critical of both themselves and of each other. In The Matrix, it is Neo and all the others who want to be awakened. In Blade runner, both Rachel and Deckard, the first of whom finds out that she is not human, and the latter of whom (in some film versions) begins to doubt his own humanity, experience this.

Religion also plays widely into these works, including TF. With Battlestar, we have the Lords of Kobol, and the call names of many of the characters themselves, references to our own Greek deities. With Blade Runner, we have to look a little further, into the original literature. In Androids, the characters participate in a type of transcendent, collective experience called “Mercerism.” I’ll spare you the details, but it becomes an analogue for Deckard’s whole story. In The Matrix, the idea of religion is much less prominent, but just as important. Savior complexes and resurrection imagery and all that. In TF, especially Xanther’s story, we almost simultaneously have a healing of the sick and a resurrection (Xanther’s wounds from collecting the cat, and the cat itself.)

This primes us to readily think of the Narcons as gods, or at least the players in some unknown chess game.

But we can’t really assume this from TF-Narcon∧9, by its own words. On pg 572 (unmarked,) it tells the reader “I have neither form nor control.” and “I have no agency.” First, if it has no agency, how can it pause? Second, what, does it do?

The discussions I have seen are discussing the Narcons as god-like beings or as AI’s. TF-Narcon∧9 even tells us that the “con” is for Construct. But we can also see, from the comments of the other Narcons, that 9 is not a reliable narrator. We know it lied to the reader about how many parameters there are, and that there likely are MetaNarcons, so how can we know the truth of any one of those parameters?

What this brings me to is this question:

What if we’re looking at the story inside-out? What if the Narcons don’t exist outside of the characters, but inside? What if all of the Narcons are inside Xanther’s head, with all of their subsets and supersets, just as a coping mechanism for her? Every other scene that plays out in other chapters is just her, fitting together the answers from the Question Game into narratives of her own construction. She is the MetaNarcon.

Being overwhelmed

We are inundated by the strong opinions of older generations on how the extent to which technology in engrained in our lives. It’s difficult for those not raised on Facebook/Twitter/Instagram/Snapchat to understand how we consume media to the point where if we are unable to get in touch with people it can feel like there is something physically wrong with us. Millennials get a lot of crap for behaving a way that they do, but part of that frustration might be misplaced. Is it fair to judge a whole generation based on the fact that more is available to for young people than there has ever been before? I challenge older generations to consider how they would have acted had all this been available because I think that would open up a lot of questions about the way people relate to each other. Maybe some of the social problems stem from the fact that human nature hasn’t really changed; it’s just manifesting itself in new ways not seen before. It’s not like until the emergence of the Facebook iPhone app people didn’t feel anxiety, stress, jealousy, loneliness, or the desire to know what their friends or significant others were up to. Now there are just different and more in depth ways of dealing with these emotions.

 

Xanther falls above average on the frailty/sensitivity scale, but she is still a child raised on technology who is used to being available 24/7 and connected to everyone you want to at any time of day. People that fall into the Millennial age bracket think less of the technologies available today because we have been raised on them. I don’t think I’d be too far off in saying I don’t think Xanther would directly cite social media or texting her friends as a cause for her to become agitated. Changes in media aren’t as big of a deal to us because we’re used to the market for this changing rapidly. We didn’t have meltdowns about the switch from buttons to touchscreens. We transitioned relatively smoothly from T9 word to Autocorrect. And we certainly don’t do this.

enhanced-27858-1416347209-33

 

What I wanted to do in this post is relate the way young people relate to technology to the way Xanther behaved at the party at Anwar’s office. A claim that gets made pretty frequently is that the ubiquity of social media and technology in our lives is the root of a lot of anxiety and feelings of being overwhelmed. However I think that people are capable of these feelings without any outside factors. A lot of things can be overwhelming. Xanther is overwhelmed by there being a lot of people and conversations in the office, so she goes to the bathroom to calm down. She becomes overwhelmed by her own thoughts so she turns to social media, Parcel Thoughts, to calm down. She becomes overwhelmed by the images she sees there, so she returns to where the cause of her almost-episode began – the party. My point is that face-to-face human interaction is seen as the pinnacle of communication styles for non-Millennials, but really anything can cause stress or anxiety; it’s all about differences in people and the personal coping style of the individual.

 

We all have stuff that occupies our minds that we have to deal with in order to be functioning human beings. It is 100% true that some of this can be attributed to things we see online, but I don’t think that the explosion of technology as a driving force in our lives is the sole cause of the anxiety of society as a whole but more of a reconfiguration of already existing feelings and thoughts. Shallow people have always existed; Instagram didn’t create this type of people. Girlfriends and boyfriends have also had those jealous, suspicious feelings about their significant others; the ability to see someone’s best friends on Snapchat didn’t invent these feelings of doubt. I personally can get overwhelmed from anything. I don’t discriminate. And I think to cite social media and technology as the cause of social problems would be small minded. I really appreciate the way Danielewski has integrated people’s interactions with technology as a main theme of the novel because it starts rich discussions about the role technology should play which I think are necessary because I have a feeling the media isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

“What does this mean?” – Is the question the answer?

After our class’s last discussion of the novel, a classmate and I had a discussion of our own about Danielewski’s intent for writing this amazingly confusing novel that’s seems purposely chocked-full of innuendo and infinite loops.  Is Danielewski really that eccentric?  Has he actually left a shattered vase for us to tediously reassemble piece-by-piece, that if we worked hard enough and had enough patience, could actually put back together?  Are there actually patterns with deeper meanings throughout this novel and future series (at least, as many as we think there are)?  Or, is Danielewski cruelly taking advantage of his most compulsive readers; leading them to a hay stack to search for a needle that isn’t there; and charging them for the thrill of an endless hunt?  If you’ve ever seen the joy some people get from watching their dog hopelessly search for a ball that they never actually released at the end of their throw, this act of deception might seem more plausible.  If you’re thirst for clarification and completion wasn’t quenched by the first volume in this series, would you buy the second?  What about the twenty-seventh?  Would you feel cheated if there were no solid conclusions that could be drawn from the series no matter how many volumes you read.  Or, is that the point?  The redacted text sure felt reminiscent of Mad-Libs to me; just waiting to be filled in.  Maybe we are NarCons; everyone of us a different NarCon, putting the pieces together in our own way, but each still coming up with an equally valid theory.  I know that sounds a lot like what an English class or book club is supposed to be, but usually you can locate clear supporting evidence for claims and be at least partially certain of some things in the story.  In “The Familiar”, I’m not one-hundred percent certain of what dimension I’m in, much less who or what the narrators are, or if there are actually even any characters in the novel at all(our class made reference to The Matrix trilogy).  This post isn’t meant to try and diminish Danielewski’s work, or to try and deprive his fans of the thrill of the search, but to question the novel’s meaning in a way that’s not just about the story inside, but about the medium itself.  Is this just a sophisticated version of a Mad-Libs, a cruel prank, or will Danielewski eventually let us in the know?

Fractal Imagery

One of the first things I noticed when I started reading The Familiar was the unique pattern that seem to persist in the crease of the book’s binding. As I read on, I believe it was about 200 pages in, I began to notice that not only had this (what I had assumed was merely cosmetic) design persisted but it changed through the text. So, what’s the significance of this seemingly random pattern that shifts, grows, and moves throughout the text? I literally woke up a few times thinking about this question. After 800 or so pages, and hours of theorizing the importance of seemingly miniscule detail, I believe that this design is one instance of the the motif of fractal imagery.

I would like to place a disclaimer that the computer sciences are far from my area of expertise, but I do have basic knowledge of how fractals function. In nature, fractals can be observed in crystals, in the repetition of the crystalline structure that creates the sharp edges and smooth planes of the minerals. In regard to coding, which I believe everyone would agree is a common theme with characters such as Anwar, fractal coding is utilized to render images. The process through which images are created (if my limited understanding is correct) is tangentially similar to how crystals are formed. Given an algorithm, a set of rules that are finitely specifiable and operable, a computer can repeatedly perform a given piece of code to render an image made of hundreds-of-thousands if not millions of digital polygons on a computer screen. To my understanding, this is how fractal coding functions—by aiding in the production of images.

The motif of fractals first became a topic of interest through the design in the middle of the book that looks like a crystalline structure being formed. However, on page 327, Xanther begins to recount the sensation that goes through her miraculous mind, a process which draws many parallels to fractals and crystalline structures:

“[B]ehind her eyes like this gray ice, only sprouting all these crystal formations….the spiky icy stuff…this prickly stuff everywhere, freezing up into her, like that flaky ice that forms on meat after it’s been in the freezer for a long time, dead meat, right?…Anywho, that’s how Xanther’s head feels most of the time, like frost on dead muscle after it’s been left in the freezer too long.”

Drawing a similarity to Xanther, TF Narcon^9 characterizes itself as being “fractally locatable” a code in which “there is no last integer” (565). Though I’m not entirely certain how these characterizations relate to the characters themselves, this understanding of fractal coding and fractal imagery as a motif definitely seems to suggest some importance, and though I am unaware of how these motifs affect character relations, it could provide insight into some common occurrences in the text, namely the repetition of other images.

As I discussed earlier, fractal coding and naturally-occurring crystalline fractals function through repetition. Throughout the novel there is a repetition of the color pink in seemingly all storylines, animal imagery is related strongly with Luther, as well as animals playing a key role in the jingjing and Xanther storylines, but there are also even more peculiar similarities that seem to occur simultaneously to characters regardless of their spatial setting. The phenomenons which I’m speaking of are the strange sound that Xanther, Astair, Anwar, and  Ozgur all seem to hear. Luther also seems to hear some sound when they go to visit his dogs the first time, but the mysterious source of this sound is never discovered. Though these characters are separated by space, they all experience the same auditory phenomenon. Combined with the continued motif of the color pink and animals, it would seem that this repetition is not something to be overlooked. The repetition of these “auditory images,” as well as the color pink and animals, might be a revealing similarity to the repetition that is present in fractal coding.

Özgür’s Posturing

Özgür struck me emphatically as the most stereotypical of The Familiar’s nine narrators. He portrays himself as a noir style detective, complete with “the overcoat, [and] the trilby” (174). Moreover, he constantly references his heroes- crime novelists and jazz musicians- whom he emulates in practically every way “until eventually he no longer resembled a caricature of Marlowe, but if anything Marlowe looked like a caricature of him” (174). Yet it is this strange sense of self-awareness that saves him from becoming a cliché. In his first section in the novel, he ruminates explicitly on whether or not he is simply a posture, never reaching a real conclusion but claiming that he is not thinking of these cultural icons even though they have populated his thoughts for the last couple of pages and reemerge not five lines later after a brief interlude focusing on a mysterious woman, another noir trope. He seems to realize his own unoriginality but is unwilling to create a distinctive identity for himself or fully admit his banality. Given the meta-fictional context of the novel, Danielewski seems to be commenting here on media’s potential to shape our conceptions of the self insofar as people purposefully craft themselves after cultural archetypes. Özgür epitomizes this aspect of mass media and production.

Has anyone else noticed any instances of purposeful identity construction in the other narratives?

What is a Narcon?

SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT

On page 563 there is a line. On the next page are these words “A good enough place to pause.”  Then the page numbers and the time stamps stop and we get to meet the narrator. He(I assume the narrator is a he and I will continue to refer to him that way to reduce confusion) is an AI called TF-Narcon9 and he has a sense of humor. He also seems to have emotions, though he fervently denies any individuality whatsoever. What completely rocked my world though was the subsets that include almost every major character. Are they Narcons or are they just being studied? If they are being studied, why? What is a Narcon? Who invented them? These are questions that need answers! What do y’all think?

Shattered Glass

There is an interesting visual throughout the pages of this book. On the very inside of the pages, extremely close to the spine, we can see a graphic that looks something like shattered glass. It is almost impossible to see.  The shards appear to cascade down the page, as if they have just been broken.  The size of this graphic varies on every page, but it makes an appearance on  most, if not all, of the pages I have examined in some way. I’m not really sure what to make of this, or if there is anything to be made of it, but I’ve been thinking a great deal about Danielewski’s act of remediation of certain media in this novel, so I’d like to think that there could be. When we pick up this book, or any book for that matter, before we begin reading it, it is quite literally closed to us. When they are published, novels’ covers act as a “screen” of sorts, presenting readers, or “viewers,” with a visual that grabs our attention and entertains us through its colorful design. Still this “screen” of a cover separates us from the content inside. It is a concrete entity that begs us to engage with it, to delve into the world it teases us with. If we could not open the book and turn its pages, delving deeper into the world as we progress, that world would be forever lost to us.  But with novels, it is not. Once we open the book, we break through the “screen” of the cover and enter that world. We shatter the glass which separates that world and the one in which we sit reading the novel. Thinking about The Familiar as a remediation of virtual media or television shows, it is almost as if we are transcending the physical paper of the pages and entering the virtual world, or a world that previously been closed to us due to these physical constraints. It is an unknown yet exciting world. There is an old adage that books transport us to new lands, new realities, so why not the virtual one?  In this vein, flipping the pages becomes akin to the act of surfing through the web or scrolling through television channels. This graphic is also another example of the immersive nature of this novel. When we open the novel and enter the world of The Familiar, we become a part of these characters’ lives, even if they are not aware of our presence. We step through the “screen” of the cover and the rain of glass and become a part of something greater with the turn of every page. The presence of this “shattered glass” graphic design on each page is a constant reminder of these ideas. This “shattering of the glass” graphic also demonstrates how it is impossible to passively read this book.  If The Familiar does indeed remediate other forms of media like television and online communication/computing (and I believe that it most certainly does) then this “shattering of the screen that separates us from the media that we use every day” visual could serve as a call to end this passive form of engagement with media technology in which many people take part in this day and age. It also calls back to the title. It makes us question what is “familiar” to us, those ordinary things in our daily lives that we may not ordinarily remark upon, but perhaps, that we should.

Anwar’s Code

Anwar’s sections — specifically “Square One” — seem to remediate code through their formatting. The use of <>, {}, [], and <> to contain asides, words and phrases in other languages, commentary on the narrative, and Anwar’s (or someone/-thing else’s?) thoughts makes keeping up with the narrative of the section challenging and even confusing at times. It also brings to mind questions about the differences between “operative” and “non-operative” language, between words or phrases that do something (as in code) and words or phrases that mean something. Anwar’s section seems continually to blur that line.

The “commented out” sections on pages 84, 89, and 98 are also interesting (those sections of narrative that are marked with //). Comments work in code to help readers of that code understand what a particular part of the code is supposed to do, or at least what the programmer wants a particular part of the code to do. Comments, usually set off by //, are non-operative, meaning they are meant only to be read by other programmers and not read by the machine’s compiler. Yet this is not what the commented out sections of “Square One” seem to do. Instead, the commented out sections on pages 84 and 89 are examples of calculations or what we might call “code.” They are, in some sense, operative.

But then this seems to change on page 98. Are these comments “operative?” If so, how? How are the comments on page 98 different from those on pages 84 and 89? What might these differences mean?

Do Androids Dream of Cylons?

So I’ve found it really interesting how in the Xanther and Anwar sections we repeatedly get references to BSG, Blade Runner, and PKD’s works. All (it is the new BSG as specified by the helpful annotators) of these deal with aspects of the human/robot relationship and use that as an extension to explore what it means to be human and how one knows one is human or machine and can a machine become human. This in connection to Xanther and her cognitive processes (be it a product of genius or autism) seems to me to present a degree of resonance between her and the android/cylon characters who find out they are not in fact human/wish to pass as such. She struggles with passing as human with her fellow classmates as seen in the Dr. Potts sections and her mentioning of the bullying she has suffered as well as the toll her epilepsy has on her way of thinking (she tries to escape the beast).

In Anwar’s sections the use of [], {}, and <> symbols as opposed to () as with Astair, associates him with his code writing and reflects a mind the thinks in a similar pattern while also associating him with androids with the robotic/computer connections that entails.

The annotators of the work (as of page 395) could be machines, robots, aliens, or simply those who Johnny Truant-like have found these records and thus are speaking to the reader.

Likewise the first of the vignettes in the prologue seemed to me to also be of a futuristic/machine/robot vein as least that’s what it evoked for me while reading the black pages which could easily represent a computer code screen (though the font is not the standard code font).