Thursday, January 27, 2005

Cyc and Sensibility

I don't just read children's science fiction. That way madness lies. Lately my bed-time reading has been The Best American Science And Nature Writing, 2002 edited by Natalie Anger.

I am very impressed: twenty seven articles and only one weak one in the lot.

Last night, Clive Thompson's article "The Know-It-All-Machine" caught my eye. It's a report on Doug Lenat's Cyc project.

Doug Lenat, as many of you probably know, is trying to create an intelligent computer the hard way, teaching it as many bits of "information" about the world in order to create a network of "items" from which the computer will construct a "commonsense" in order to make decisions.

Doug Lenat is bringing up baby. It's a twenty year job--at least.

This article caught my attention because of what it requires: in order to know what a computer/baby needs to know, the "teacher" has to step outside their own world and attempt to describe it without any of the ingrained assumptions that thirty years of living here give us. Any teacher knows this problem: you give the class a set of instructions and half way through it becomes clear that there is something you didn't say, that is so horribly obvious that you thought it was common sense, but the absence of actually saying it means that you suddenly have a classroom of confused students.

I hit this conceptual issue a lot when I'm teaching writing. Getting students to question the conceptual "bible" with which they live is very difficult. Of the students I teach, the older black women tend to find it easiest. Often they find it liberating because many of them have learned how to function in a white, male workplace essentially as if it were a second language, so that they negotiate their way through "compound meanings" on a day to day basis, teasing them apart to work out what is being asked.

I'm interested in this because modern sf is constructed through the formulation of "compound meanings" in order to create consensus space in which there is a shared "commonsense". And at each stage of this--from the bald info-dumps, the complex constructions grounded in seventy years worth of legacy texts by the likes of Charlie Stross,--we the reader are engaged in a subliminal process of shifting through what we "know" of the sf world and what, in this world "commonsense" means.

Now: how do you do this for the child reader? Or is reading science fiction as a child just like becoming bi-lingual? Two sets of "commonsense", two conceptual bibles?


Blogger Lazygal said...

"Or is reading science fiction as a child just like becoming bi-lingual? Two sets of "commonsense", two conceptual bibles?"

I never thought of myself as a scifi reader or a mystery reader or a literature reader - I just read. Each "world" had its own commonsense: the world of Narnia was as foreign to me as that of Little Women, and I just accepted it as it was. Jo starting a career as a circus clown would have been as incongruous as Eustace becoming a hippie.

There are so many types of science fiction that the idea of one "commonsense" doesn't hold up.

10:59 AM  
Blogger JeffV said...

There must be a 2004-2005 Best American Science and Nature Writing out there. Thanks for blogging about this--I'd forgotten about the series and need to pick up the latest one.

You might read Clare Dudman's novel One Day the Ice Will Reveal All Its Dead (Wegener's Jigsaw in the UK), which really reads as if a fantasist did a historical novel about a scientist. I don't know any other way to put it. (There is definitely something about a surreal fantasy writer's perspective that differs from that of a realist--a view of the world that has nothing to do with the events described in a story or the style used, really.)


11:20 AM  
Blogger Farah said...

Lazygal's comment is spot on. I think my point is that most of my non-sf students don't recognise what she is saying. And it's now recongised that children that grow up bi-lingual find language acquisition easier , so the extension works just as well in terms of fiction--the more you read, the more you are aware of these discreet worlds.

I had a related post ready to go about this, but I'm sitting at a friends computer without a visible USB port so it will have to wait until tonight.

Kai's piont, "Nearly everythign is science fiction to a child" was one of the starting points for this research project. If everything is sf to a child, why is there so little sf for children? I found precisely seventeen picture books (from Canada, the US, Ireland and Britain). Yet there is never any shortage of bunnies in dresses. I genuinely think that that there is a mismatch between what children actually do and what is being written for them. I reckon children could hanbdle much more complex sf than the basic --let's have an adventure in a rocket, which is (mostly) what I'm seeing.

5:14 AM  

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