Paul Matthews, Transparent Minds in Science Fiction: An Introduction to Alien, AI and Post-Human Consciousness

Paul Matthews, Transparent Minds in Science Fiction: An Introduction to Alien, AI and Post-Human Consciousness (Open Book Publishers, 2023), 144 pp. £28.95 Hb. £16.95 Pb. ISBN: 978-1-80511-046-0 (Hb)

This short book will be useful to those wanting to know more about non-human consciousnesses in Science Fiction novels. Written by a Computer Science lecturer, there are numerous insights into the way that novels deal with emerging or already present other lifeforms. It is clear that a good deal of work has been done in both literary studies and AI studies and knowledge of the two is put to good use here. The author’s enjoyment of the texts discussed is apparent from the opening ‘Preface’. Describing himself as a ‘technologist’, Matthews remembers a youthful enthusiasm for the genre of science fiction and the optimism he discovered in texts from the explosion of writing in the 60s and 70s. He has nothing but praise for the ‘increasing gender and cultural diversity of authors’ (x) since that period. The timeliness of his discussion of the sentience of AIs (and others) in novels cannot be denied.

Matthews opens his introduction with the statement that ‘It should be more widely appreciated that literature is a kind of scientific tool that can be used to shed light on consciousness’ (3). There follows a kind of beginners’ guide to the kinds of literature that ‘includes characters’ mental states’ (3). Often the criticism is admirably up to date, featuring, for example the ‘neuroaesthetics’ of Kay Young and Philip Davis. Matthews does a good job of explaining often difficult concepts and ideas from both literature and technology. There are some moments where I might have wanted a bit more context: Matthews uses the definition ‘high’ literature in scare quotes, and in opposition to his beloved ‘Science Fiction’, but this is a huge debate which perhaps should have been discussed rather than skipped over. The reader is addressed directly, with ‘you’ and ‘us’ the pronouns used by the author (11). The footnotes reveal the use of interviews and email exchanges with the authors themselves. They can also be quite chatty (‘If I were to invite you to a tortoise racing party […]’ (46). These features are perhaps unusual in an academic text but not unwelcome; they allow for a more informal approach.

The authors and texts discussed in the book are also impressively up to date. Matthews writes about and returns to such writers as Kim Stanley Robinson, Ursula Le Guin, Becky Chambers, N. K. Jemisin and Adrian Tchaikovsky. The only novelist I would have wanted and expected to see in the book who is not there is Octavia Butler, whose trilogy Lillith’s Brood imagines alien/human mating along with consequent attempts to portray the consciousness of the resulting individual. There is a real attempt to be inclusive, with lots of female novelists mentioned and that is appreciated.

The book does move around a fair bit because it is thematically organised and it can at times be a little descriptive and list-like. Matthews tends to think the quotations given can speak for themselves rather than needing analysis or explanation. His book is based on assumptions that might seem far-fetched to some: ‘I shall assume in this book that there is a continuum between universal experience and the limited kinds of consciousness we know as humans, a continuum which extends above and below us to forms of consciousness we do not or cannot know’ (25). In some ways, this book is itself a kind of thought experiment.

Chapter three deals with ‘Awakenings’, placing together in one chapter the beginning of sentience in a number of different non-human forms. Matthews considers that novelists are interested in ‘what is new about the entity’ as it begins to ‘gain this new capacity’ (27). While it is excellent to see Frankenstein discussed here and to position the Creature’s awakening alongside the developments of other characters in more contemporary novels, it was off-putting that he was described as an ‘it’. The Creature is very definitely a ‘He’ in Mary Shelley’s novel and this is an important detail, not least when he asks Victor Frankenstein to create a mate for him so that he will no longer be alone. Using the pronoun ‘it’ is revealing; it emphasises the alien, non-human, and monstrous aspect of the Creature, and diminishes his sense of personal identity. It is great nonetheless to see this text in the company of other far more modern novels, such as Stanley Robinson’s Aurora (2016) and Alan Dean Forster’s Nor Crystal Tears (1982). Every chapter is broken down further by the use of a number of subtitles, and sections are often quite short, which can add to the bittiness of the book. There are useful attempts to introduce and conclude each chapter though, with a restatement of the argument at the end of each. The subtitle for chapter three, for example, shows how the subtitles tend to be more descriptive than elucidatory: ‘Conclusion: Spiralling emergence of purpose, feedback and associative powers’. The list-like element can be seen even in such decisions.

Overall, this book offers a useful introduction to the ways in which contemporary Science Fiction deals with the question of non-human consciences. The introductory nature can be seen in the very language in which it is written; for example, ‘Here, we will describe some different ways in which authors have attempted to describe the experience of aliens, animals, conscious AIs, and human consciousness given new physical, cognitive or sensory capabilities’ in chapter four (45). Chapter five on the ‘Hive and Distributed Mind’ and six on the Posthuman have similarly useful insights for the reader.  It certainly is the case that Matthews succeeds in his aim to show the ‘possibility of unlocking wonder’ by ‘imagining alien mental states’ in the novels discussed (109).

Sharon Ruston, Lancaster University