We live in a society in which automation has become so commonplace that its absence is more surprising than its presence, from suggestions which prompt our next online purchase based on browsing history to devices around the home which respond to verbal commands. An ever accelerating anticipation of our needs which reduces the requirement for involvement in decision making, does this allow us to be more productive, these mundane tasks of low-level cognitition undertaken by proxies and drones, or does it lead to an erosion of independence?
An attrition of reliance on processes which ostensibly have our best interests at heart but which, as has been made clear by recent data harvesting scandals, may indeed serve an external purpose not necessarily altruistic, it is in consideration of these questions that the Spanish computer scientist Carme Torras wrote The Vestigial Heart, only now translated into English by Josephine Swarbrick but originally published a decade past as La mutación sentimental.
It is the twenty second century and much of the range of human emotion has come to be regarded as “extinct” though there are those such as anti-tech Silvana who act as “emotional masseuses” in an attempt to invigorate and revitalise the lost feelings of their subjects who have become desensitised by the ministrations of their ever-present robotic counterparts.
Elsewhere, the elderly Doctor Craft is tended by his therapeutic robot Alpha+ which is equipped with an accelerated learning program by which it adapts to the needs of its patient, but while it can take care of his physical needs the doctor who once designed such robots is aware his failing mental capacity is unsupported, that his crucial creativity is diminished.
Ambitious designer Leo is drafted by Doctor Craft to conceive of a prosthesis which can stimulate creativity, his attention drawn by circumstance to Celia, once suffering from a terminal illness but now revived from suspended animation in an era where she can be healed. Newly adopted by Lu, the culture shock of the child out of time can give Leo guidance in how she adapts to her new circumstances, but Celia can also allow Silvana to witness first hand the lost emotion she seeks to rediscover.
Artificial means of supporting those of impaired ability or boosting cognition and the compromises of such are not new in media or in literature, Robot and Frank, Marjorie Prime, Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon, Alastair Reynolds‘ short story Angels of the Ashes, but where they all told stories through very human eyes, other than Celia all Torras’ characters are emotionally curtailed.
Suffering from the vestigial heart of the title, Leo is better at diagnosing failures in the subroutines of robots than comprehending why his girlfriend is angry with him, while Celia is emotionally abandoned by Lu, her only initial comfort a letter from her long-dead parents which is incomprehensible without a context which Lu has failed to give her, a neglect which is matched in Torras’ prose.
Aloof constructs of intellectual thought, Silvana is so removed from her humanity as to be almost unreachable while Lu is infuriating in her selfishness, treating Celia as an accessory whose unexpected neediness interrupts her life of indolence, and Doctor Carter is short-tempered, impatient and unreasonable; rather than Torras writing flawed characters they are little other than their flaws and none save Celia are likeable or interesting.
A clashing collection of viewpoints, often irrational and entrenched, they may attempt to argue or prove their positions but in the artificial world Torras has proposed there seems little relevant extrapolation to real-world circumstance, an improbable situation poorly established with the narrative driven by miscommunication, misunderstanding and ridiculous demands, a badly written farce absent any hint of humour which might make it tolerable.
Despite her credentials as an authority on robotics and artificial intelligence, knowledge and ideas alone are insufficient, they must be conveyed in an articulate manner so the reader can comprehend and be inspired, but while it might be generously presumed that something crucial has been lost in translation The Vestigial Heart is almost unreadable, lacking clarity and focus, Torras preoccupied with philosophical abstractions of interest only to those working in her field rather than telling anything resembling an engaging story.
The Vestigial Heart is available from 11th May from MIT Press