Welcome to the “So You Want To Be a Human” Tour, brought to you by the lovely people at Simon & Schuster Canada and fellow bloggers Joey and Amanda. What’s this tour about, you may ask? Simon & Schuster Canada happen to be publishing three very different and wonderful books that examine what it means to be human (and not human): The Swan Riders by Erin Bow, The Diabolic by S. J. Kincaid and Boy Robot by Simon Curtis. They have asked the three of us to champion one of these amazing books, and to explore a little bit more about how each book examines humanity. I’m so pleased to kick off today’s discussion, followed by reviews by myself and my fellow bloggers between tomorrow and October 18th. On October 19th, we hope you will join us for a Google Hangout with all three authors (details to follow)
I have the great pleasure of championing my favourite book of the year: The Swan Riders by Erin Bow, sequel to last year’s incredible The Scorpion Rules.
Greta Stuart has become AI. New transmitters have silvered her fingerprints. New receptors have transformed her vision. And the whole of her memory has become one book in a vast library of instant knowledge. Greta is ready to rule the world.
But the new technology is also killing her.
Greta is only sixteen years old, but her new enhancements are burning through her mortal body at an alarming rate. Of course the leader of the AIs, an ancient and compelling artificial intelligence named Talis, has a plan. Greta can simply do what he’s done when the time comes, and take over the body of one of the Swan Riders, the utterly loyal humans who serve the AIs as part army, part cult.
First though, Greta will have to find a way to stay sane inside her new self. Talis’s plan for that involves a road trip. Escorted by Swan Riders, Greta and Talis set out on a horseback journey across the strange and not-quite-deserted landscape of Saskatchewan. But there are other people interested in Greta, people who want to change the world…and the Swan Riders might not be as loyal as they appear…
To kick off the tour, I’ve been asked two deceptively simple questions: Why have you chosen to champion this book? and What does it mean to be human?
Aside from the fact that I do think that this duology of The Scorpion Rules and The Swan Riders is one of the best-written series of books produced in the past few years, there are many specific reasons why I wanted to champion The Swan Riders. Here’s a few of them to get you started:
Greta Gustafson Stuart, former princess of the Pan Polar Confederation, newly minted Artificial Intelligence. Greta is our eyes and heart of the first book, and she makes some incredible decisions. At the start of The Swan Riders, Greta is struggling with her transition from human to AI. She is no longer a princess, and she is no longer human – but she remains determined, defiant and more than competent. She is capable not because she is able to access her AI databases but because she has learned so much in her sixteen years and she refuses to forget the lessons of her past. She is the one who will rule the world, and she is more than up to the challenge. While Talis may have pulled my focus in book one, is it Greta who lit up the pages in book two; she may no longer be a Princess, but she is absolutely a QUEEN.
Talis. In book one, Talis was the terrible, wonderful, wise-cracking killer of cities, and in book two… ah, well, that would be spoilers. In book two, we learn so much more about Talis – about Michael Talis, who sacrificed himself to became Talis – and the dimensions to his character are infinite. He still tells terrible jokes, and he is still able to blow up cities with a single twitch of his finger (sorry, Calgary), but there is so much more to Talis that we begin to understand and learn from in this book. He and Greta must reverse roles, and learn to survive anew in their new forms.
A horse named Gordon Lightfoot. Gordon is one of several horses we meet at the start of the book, including Heigh Ho Uranium, Roberta the Bruce, and NORAD. There are so many great jokes in here that I can’t spoil it. I’ll just leave it for you to ponder.
Francis Xavier and the Swan Riders. From book one, we are taught to fear the Swan Riders for their arrival foretells death. In this book we learn that the Swan Riders were also a source of life, saving many all over the world as living angels for the UN. When we are introduced to Francis Xavier, to Sri and to Rachel, we find that they are just as complicated, wounded, strong and ultimately incredible as Greta and Talis. Francis Xavier is the knight errant to Talis’ king, sworn to defend and to follow, yet he has his own emotions to deal with, especially as he watches the woman he loves being controlled by Talis. FX is a character who will remain with you, and you will shed tears for him again and again in this book.
Empathy, emotion, and the fine line between human and not. There is an ongoing discussion in the book about finding and retaining humanity; Greta struggles quite literally with losing her humanity to her new AI being, and will die if she cannot reconcile the two parts. I loved this discussion so much and for so many reasons, because it transcends this book and made me look at the bigger picture. How do we demonstrate our humanity? What qualities define us as human? The AIs as represented as Talis share a human form, but that leads to a whole host of other questions about possession, memory and consent.
The people and the circumstances in The Swan Rides are complicated and damaged in so many ways. I loved this book for the humour, for the strong, capable characters who grabbed me by the throat and made me love them, for the intense edge-of-your-chair actions, for Talis’ horrible jokes, for Elian and his capacity for hope and love, for the spaceship (!!) and especially for the horses and the goats. There was no other option for me – The Swan Riders is the best book I’ve read this year.
If you ask a hundred people what it means to be human, you will receive a hundred different answers. Some will cite our use of language, some our behaviour, and others will point out our social and physical developments. For me, however, being human is being able to acknowledge your emotional connection to your surroundings in some way, and incorporating that into your daily decisions. It’s never easy, and it is constantly evolving.
Being human means we constantly struggle between the choices of what is right and what is best. All too often these are not the same thing, and it is because we are human that we cannot take this decision lightly. In the first book, Talis and Elian were pure forms of detachment and emotion respectively, but in the second book, circumstances dictate that they re-examine their point of views. Concepts of love, patriotism and preservation are interpreted very differently by these characters, and it’s fascinating to see how their views evolve over the course of the books.
Emotion is a reoccurring theme in The Swan Riders, and for me it is the heart of what it means to be human. Greta post-transformation rather clinically catalogues the seven basic microexpressions (“happiness, sadness, fear, anger, disgust, surprise, and contempt”), but notes that there is no facial expression that shows love, grief, regret or duty. Yet it is these particular emotions that define our humanity, and cause us to act (sometimes rashly) in many instances. If our leaders were AI figures, then decisions such as blowing up entire cities would be rational choices based on what was necessary. Human costs would not factor into the process, because the end result would be better for the majority. However, being human means we must consider the emotional and personal cost of our actions as equally as the sense of the ‘greater good’.
From the outset of this book, Greta must find a way to accept her new AI reality without letting the emotional cost of her humanity destroy her mind in the process. Since AI replay memories as pure data, they must remove the emotional context from each incident in order to survive. Similarly, Talis experiences a wound that severs his connection to the data stream, leaving him with nothing more than the human responses of his host, Rachel. Both must struggle to adapt and reconcile their sense of self in their respective realities, while fighting their own bodies for survival. To me, memories are the foundation upon which we build our sense of self in relation to others, and how we learn from our mistakes in order to grow and develop as individuals. By removing emotion, can we accurately calculate the impact and emphasis of each memory on our development?
I don’t think that defining what it takes to be human is an easy question, and I think it’s one that writers have struggled with for decades. I do believe that it’s a continually evolving answer, and that there are some fantastic talking points in Bow’s The Swan Riders. What does being human mean to you? Have you read The Swan Riders yet – if so, who is most human in your mind? Leave your comments below.
Check back tomorrow for my review of The Swan Riders, and be sure to follow my fellow bloggers Amanda and Joey as they post their reviews. Many thanks to Simon & Schuster Canada for the invitation and for each of these three novels!