Code and the Machine
BY JASON GANTENBERG I January 30, 2010
Shelly Bryant. Cyborg Chimera. Cedar Rapids, IA: Sam's Dot Publishing, 2009. 41 pages.
Shelly Bryant's first poetry collection Cyborg Chimera is the poet's equivalent of the concept album. Replete with vignettes detailing the spectrum of ideas between inspiration and perpetuation, it is a work of speculative fiction that attempts to cope with the basic idea of free will by grappling with its uncertainty rather than debating its existence. In doing so, Bryant forces the reader to not only contemplate the boundaries that separate the organic and the artificial but also consider the importance of those distinctions. Are we programmed to behave in certain ways? If so, would that make the robot or the android any less human than we are?
These aren't novel questions, to be sure. Isaac Asimov asked them. Philip K. Dick asked them, and indeed, there are poems in this collection — "Not Programmed That Way" comes to mind — that sound like something Rick Decker would have written were he a poet instead of a cop. It is with unsure feet that we tread into the future, and we will inevitably need to contemplate our relationship with these emerging technologies in ways that may one day challenge the very basic ways in which we define life.
The book is divided into three sections, "Dreamscenes: Images from the Nightly Death," "Programmed: Coded Controls, Sequenced Solutions," and "Freewill: Definition, Determination, Destination." The first is, by far, the least concrete of the three as the title suggests. Bryant lays out the vistas and contradictions we most often find in the dream world but also foreshadows the advancement of ideas that brainstorms and thought experiments often bring. The basis for all technological (and ideological) evolution is inspiration, and the poems in "Dreamscenes" play out like a memory dump, eerie echoes and images from childhood jumbled together with visions of a savage and beautiful natural world. Bryant seems to write about the longing for our primordial roots as our inspiration wrests us away from those beginnings at an exceedingly fast pace and into a very different future, but as she expresses in the second to last poem of the section "Real Life," she seems to doubt the lack of artificiality in our natural lives and even goes so far as to suggest that everything we experience on a day-to-day basis is artificial.
"Programmed" then takes us into more concrete descriptions of the machines we've created often describing mundane actions of the machine as if they are commonplace, but she does so in a way that prompts us to view our own corporeal mass as mechanical and ask if we as humans do not act much differently than the androids we've imagined. The poem "Watchdog 9.6.2," while about a robotic dog, illustrates the previous point with this poignant description of the dog's nose: "nose flicks, data translated / into smell-like sensations." Biological organisms act in the same way; they are machines. External signals are received by the relevant machinery and then translated by the brain into an interpretation of the stimuli. How objective our own experiences of sights and smells are in relation to the robotic dog's is irrelevant. What matters is that we both work in precisely the same way.
I might be seeing reflexivity where it was not intended, but Bryant's observations and depictions of machines acting as they were programmed to act and without any real choice are described with such matter-of-factness that it is difficult to separate human mundanity from that of the machine. These sentiments are compounded by "Programmed" leading directly into "Freewill," the last section of the book and the one that deals with our own attempt at defining choice. We are slaves in this section. Bryant never states this explicitly, but the human in "Freewill" is held captive by the physical limitations of the body, time, space, society, etc. In having to survive within the parameters exacted by all of these constructs, natural or artificial, our free will — if it exists — is hampered and abridged by seemingly infinite constraints. However, I think the poem "Double Helix," which outlines in simple terms the structure of DNA and the code that allows life to operate, clues us in to Bryant's final verdict. We are ruled by code, and all of our actions are carried out only because that code provides the possibility. As Bryant states, it is the "Library on which / Origins are writ."
It would be tempting to allow that line to spur the undying Creation vs. Evolution squabble, and while everyone has an opinion in this regard, we risk cheapening the message of "Freewill" and Cyborg Chimera as a whole by distilling its contents into this debate. The point is that regardless of where that code came from, whether it is natural or whether it is artificial, we humans are the result and, as such, are machines just like those we create, governed by our programming yet driven to find answers.
All in all, Cyborg Chimera is a compelling, well-realized collection of poems by an author comfortable with exploring the personal as well as technological ironies and uncertainties of the modern world.
Read "Temenos," which appears in Cyborg Chimera and was previously published on Sloth Jockey.