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Germán Sierra: The Artifact

This is Germán Sierra’s first work of fiction in English. His other books were written in his native Spanish and, as far as I can tell, have not been translated into English or any other language. Sierra is a neuroscientist by profession and this is very much a scientist’s novel. Indeed, I cannot recall looking up so many words in a book written in English.

The novel is concerned with human beings but as well as being concerned with the life of mind, Sierra reminds us that, while what we generally see of both ourselves and others is merely the surface, there is a lot going on underneath. He also reminds us very much that we are interacting with our environment in ways we often are unaware of. He also tells us that there are various quasi-life forms which are coming more and more important and again which we have limited knowledge of. The obvious one is intelligent machines which are playing an increasingly greater role in our lives but other include such things as viruses and prions, of which we know very little. These include the snappily named megavirus LiBaiXH90361 which may or may not be intelligent and may or may not exist.

Viruses have something to tell you.
Something dark and secret.
The way our bodies were never ours.

This quote, written by the poet Feng Sun Chen, precedes the first chapter.

You know that this book is going to challenge the reader, when you have an introduction (in white type on a black background) which, in itself, is challenging and is written by the director of The Center for Peripheral Theory and editor of The Digital Dionysus: Nietzsche and the Network-Centric Condition. (His bibliography also seems to be somewhat challenging.)

We start (after the introduction) with a complicated drawing which may or may not be a neural network. The first section is told by an unnamed narrator. He seems to be an academic. We learnt that he lost most of one arm in accident, when his car collided with an AI controlled drone. He now has a prosthetic arm – a futuristic metal, ceramic and plastic arthropodal limb attached to my humerus. This serves him very well except that he cannot seem to be able to feel with it. His girlfriend, Addia, tries to help him get his feeling back by convincing himself that he can do so.

However, before Addia, his girlfriend was Mori. The introduction suggests the name is related to MRI which, as we shall see, is relevant in a later part of the book. Mori, of course, is the Latin for death (as in memento mori) as well as the Japanese for forest. It is also a common name in both Japan and Italy and, in the UK is a major opinion poll research organisation. All of this is probably totally irrelevant.

Mori turns up at his hospital bed, after the accident, though the couple had been separated for three years and she now lives in Bangkok. She looks after him and also manages to negotiate a hefty compensation package from the insurance company. She is a somewhat mysterious lady, very rich but spending her money only on gourmet food, computers and black matte clothing. She does not own property but rents. She returns to Bangkok when he has more or less recovered.

After the accident, he becomes something of a hermit though does make a bit of money by being photographed and photoshopped with his cyborg arm. He also gets vaguely involved in amputee porn. He can detach his arm but, using wireless technology, have it move about on its own like Thing from the Addams Family. When his boyfriend comments that he would not like a handjob from it he replies Robot sex is already a thing, one of the many comments about new technology and its impact on our lives.

One day, he receives an MRI from a student of his. He wanted me to examine some weird MRI images from some volunteer who had been included as control subject in a research he was conducting. We later meet a man who seems to spend his time as a control subject in research. Though it is not explicitly stated, we must assume that this is the same person of whom this is an MRI. The control subject person tends not to give his name but do it anonymously and keeps away from projects where he might have to reveal his identity. The MRI shows an inexistent brain pathology, in fact the eponymous artifact. (An artifact is an anomaly seen during visual representation in MRI. It is a feature appearing in an image that is not present in the original object.)

Addia is involved in this project (that’s how he meets her) and says that they repeated the scan and did a CAT scan and still got the same results. However, the subject showed no symptoms so there was nothing more to be done. It was a fold in reality inside a poor guy’s skull or was it a human brain unintentionally infecting a machine. What if the software was trying to read beyond our desired limits, representing and recoding some unexpected signals as a shadow of matter? In the last paragraph, he comes up with a sort of solution but one coming perhaps more from his own desperation than any real scientific basis. But maybe not.

Meanwhile, we now follow the Control Subject. He goes to a casino and sees a woman. He thinks that she is a hooker but she is, in fact, a mathematician, studying the mathematics of gambling. Here we get into another new kind of technology. She is not too interested in win/lose games but generative games (Games that are constantly re-writing their own rules. Not performative, not goal directed, there’s no way to accomplish anything. There’s even no way to conceive accomplishment.)

Though there are these two plots – his accident and prosthetic arm, and the artifact – this is not a plot-based novel but much more looking at, quite simply, the future of the human being, the meaning of life (by which I mean more the biological meaning rather than the philosophical or even theological one) and how new technologies (including, very much, biological technologies as well as mechanical and AI-based ones) are going to change us. It is full of aphorisms and ideas around these subjects and it is this as much as the plot lines that makes this book so thoroughly original and fascinating.

I pulled out around a dozen which I found really interesting and gave me much food for thought, but there were many more. You may not agree with them or, in some cases, fully understand what they are driving at, but there is no doubt they raise very important issues regarding us a a species and, in particular, where we might be heading. Here are a few. I shall not comment on them, mainly because I am not qualified to do so, but also to allow you to make up your mind whether you agree with them and what you make of them:

There are two kinds of commercially successful technologies: those allowing us to live longer, and those that help us to let time go as if we had not lived.

Those who settle in a place or in an idea have been already defeated.

We are a remix of other beings’ experiences, interactions, successful attempts of keeping being themselves through time that became the necessary background for change.

Homo sapiens is still an unbalanced species, which has not yet found the most suitable circumstances to survive—this makes us an afraid species.

After all, we, animals, are nothing but unstable chemical stuff accelerated into feedback loops. Levels of resonance, swimming atoms, vibrating strings.

This is one of the most original novels I have read for some time. Yes, it draws on some predecessors. The introduction mentions J G Ballard and Philip K Dick and, having read pretty well everything those two wrote, I can concur to a certain degree. Ballard had trained as a doctor and this can certainly be seen in his novel Crash, which the Sierra’s narrator’s accident and prosthetic arm recalls. However, Sierra, a trained neuroscientist, is clearly well ahead of Ballard and Dick on the important subject of where the species is going and how it interacts with other quasi-life forms.

I can thoroughly recommend this novel. It is not an easy read (though relatively short) but, if the novel is to expand its horizons, there is no doubt, this is certainly one way it will go and Germán Sierra will certainly be leading the charge.

Publishing history

First published 2018 by Inside the Castle