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PostPosted: Sat Sep 04, 2010 10:23 pm 

Joined: Thu Sep 25, 2008 3:16 pm
Posts: 249
Location: Uppsala, Sweden
Jason Sanford's 'Plague Birds,' in IZ 228, is seemingly straightforward, but its density and strangeness call for close reading. Very briefly, it concerns several groups of humans isolated on some planet. Thanks to biological engineering that went drastically wrong, these groups aren't made up of our baseline humans. Their genetic endowments have features of certain animals and might deviate from ours in other ways.They are to be shepherded back to baseline, guided by a diffuse AI placed in each settlement. The AIs can interact directly with the villager's nervous systems; they advise and nudge. The biology varies from settlement to settlement.

Although the genomics of the settlements differ, certain intersettlement norms were established by the people who started this project and then left. I shall not say how they are enforced. To do so might spoil the pleasure of slowly learning about this by reading the story. Instead, I want to point out one simple point that a reader might miss. The norms are fixed. Their violation by any member of any settlement elicits 'instant and deadly judgement' (p.33). These judgements are based upon an 'absolute' set of 'perceived wrongs' (p.35).

It's easy to miss what this talk of norms implies. The matter is twofold but simple. Either the norms are nothing but the wishes and desires of the starters (i.e. what they believed would be a morally decent way of returning the groups to baseline), or these norms are ethically absolute in some sense, and the starters think they know this and have the right to enforce them. 'Plague Birds' contains this distinction, but I don't know if Mr Sanford realises it. The distinction was first made clear in the Platonic Dialogues and in the Oresteia tragedies of Aeschylus. In our time it's the postmodernist distinction between relativism and absolutism in understanding life (I'm no postmodernist). Jason Sanford mentions the matter, perhaps understands what he is up to, and leaves the disjunction unresolved. That is alright for the sake of good storytelling, but it is the main problem of ethical and political philosophy. All I am doing here is pointing out that the problem is present in this excellent but difficult short story.

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PostPosted: Tue Sep 07, 2010 12:54 am 

Joined: Wed Mar 14, 2007 12:13 am
Posts: 80
Location: United States of America
George: Thanks for the insightful post. Without giving anything away, you are correct--in the story there has been an attempt to fix the norms. But what does this mean to a society desiring a return to humanity, especially when to be truly human a society's norms must be dynamic and open to change? And are the norms as handed down across the generations as "ethically absolute" as the story's enforcement mechanism intends? Those are some of the fascinating questions I was exploring with "Plague Birds."

I wish I could give you my answer on all this--and yes, I do have one--but I'm writing more stories in this universe and this theme will return. I know that answer may seem a little lame, but the points you raise are a central part of the very next story in this sequence. The new story follows Cristina de Ane as she visits a village where a horrific murder was committed, and discovers that making ethical judgments can be nearly impossible when you can't trust what your own senses and knowledge tell you.

Anyway, thanks for the kind words about the story.

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