September 25October 2, 1997
book quarterly|Fall BQ Cover Story
Man or Astro-Man?
"In many ways, people are unnecessarily scared with the notion of computers being 'intelligent.'"
Man Or Astro-Man?
Astro Teller's first novelabout a computer program that takes on a life of its ownasks what it means to be human.
By Jim Gladstone
Don't let anyone tell you that Astro Teller got grandfathered into the hot young lit scene.
For while it's true that the 26-year-old Pittsburgher is the grandson of Edward Teller, father of the H-Bomb, he never schemed to play on this notable lineage to get Exegesis, his provocatively entertaining, science-infused first novel, published.
In fact, at the start, Teller never exactly planned to get the book published at all.
"It was really sort of a bet with a friend," the confident but sweet-natured Teller says of Exegesis, a fictional e-mail correspondence between Stanford student Alice Lu and Edgar, her Artificial Intelligence project, which breaks free of her control and takes on a "life" of its own.
"We each had a project in mind that we had never gotten around to doing, so we challenged each other to take a year and get them done."
And even now, despite the fact that he ultimately landed a top agent and is being published with much ballyhoo by Vintage Books ("Grandson of Edward Teller!" screams all the publicity material), Astro Teller could hardly be considered a part of any hot young lit scene. The young author is a doctoral candidate in computer science at Carnegie Mellon University, where he specializes in Artificial Intelligence, the subject of Exegesis (the title word means "critical analysis of a text"). He operates a nifty Web site (www.cs.cmu.edu/~astro/) where he lists all of his favorite films (an inexplicable mix, from dreck like Kids to sublime oddities like Alan Rudolph's Choose Me) and works of literature (mostly classics, although he notes that "Shakespeare is left off this list so as not to intimidate the other writers"). With academic colleagues, he recently created a computer-driven art exhibition called "Jedermann" in which the facial features of gallery visitors were electronically merged into a series of composite portraits. So he has a life. And a wife. And he's in Pittsburgh.
"It's not exactly the Left Bank," he jokes. "Everyone keeps telling me what a big deal is being made out of the book in New York. And that's great, but I'm happy to be here. I just hope it all gets me the chance to write another one."
Astro Teller is an author to root for. Rather like Edgar, the Artificial Intelligence program in Exegesis, Teller appears to be driven by genuine curiosity more than unbridled ambition. And, as his first book makes abundantly clear with its Christian allegories (Alice as the inadvertent mother, Edgar as her supreme being son), pop cultural references (don't miss all the jokes tucked into the e-mail headers and endmatter), insights about family relationships (Alice has a difficult series of exchanges with her mother, oddly reflective of her own interplay with Edgar), and probing inquiries into the philosophy of science, he's got a career's worth of topics careening around his head.
For all its intellectual baggage (sporty intellectual baggage, mind you, black leather conceptual knapsacks that curious readers should be happy to heft), Exegesis maintains a zippy conversational momentum.
"I really don't like epistolary novels," says Teller. "I hope people won't open the book, see that it's written in an exchange of typewritten messages and assume that it's something like the Griffin & Sabine series."
That best-selling trilogy (Griffin & Sabine, Sabine's Notebook and The Golden Mean) by author-illustrator Nicholas Bantock was a sequence of letters and postcards, in which the creative and romantic relationship between an artist and his muse languorously unfolded in whimsical romantic imagery and muzzily passionate prose that was highly descriptive of emotional states. While the Griffin books and Exegesis both consist largely of two characters' correspondence, Bantock's works simmer like some quaint literary crockpot while Teller's offers microwave velocity.
"I'm a theater buff and screenwriting dilettante," says Teller. "So I've always been much more interested in dialogue than description."
For that reason, in addition to the more obvious one of Teller's professional involvement with AI, Exegesis seems an ideal match between author and subject matter. After all, the computer program, Edgarwho, in conversation, Teller tellingly refers to as his "protagonist" in lieu of Alice, the book's human leadis literally incapable of description. With no vision of the physical world and no emotional capabilities, Edgar communicates in pure narrative drive: this is what I did, this is what I'm doing, give me the information I need to do it.
While Alice's messages to Edgar are tinged with frustration, ambition, fear and, eventually, something that verges on heartbreak, for the most part she keeps her self-expression nearly as stripped-down as Edgar's, making the book slam along like Mamet in machine language. Alice, after all, helped to create Edgar and knows to communicate with him on his own levela level that Teller ultimately makes the reader come to appreciate as both practical and transcendent.
"What it means to be human is a real issue for all of us working in AI. It's part of what's frightening to laypeople when they hear the term 'artificial intelligence.' In many ways, people are unnecessarily scared with the notion of computers being 'intelligent.' After all, we've become completely comfortable saying that airplanes fly, but there's a world of difference between an airplane and a bird.
"Two of the books I thought about when I was writing Exegesis were 2001 and Frankenstein, both of which have scientific creations going awry. But what really struck me about HAL and Frankenstein's monster was that the authors of their stories really didn't let them be fully inhuman: there were human qualities imposed onto these technological creations that had much more to do with allegorical fiction than anything based on real science. I hope that Edgar has all the strengths and weaknesses that come from truly not being human."
The "weaknesses" will come as little surprise to readers: as a rigorous creature of logic, Edgar lacks the empathetic qualities that we Homo sapiens value so dearly in our relationships with other people. And, usually, in our relationships with fictional characters. Teller has set a difficult task for himself in placing Edgarand his way of perceiving the worldin the dead center of Exegesis; the best novels build emotional connections between readers and their protagonists. But when the protagonist is an emotionless creature like Edgar, our direct relationship with his story is limited to the realm that he "lives" inintellectual understanding.
In fact, the cool, disembodied quality of Exegesis' sparely delivered prose may well be off-putting to some tradition-bent readers at first. Stick with it, though, and you'll discover that Teller's clever authorial programming covertly imbeds powerful emotional and philosophical notions in the reader's mind. Exegesis is a fascinating piece of edutainment software: it offers good gaming to begin with, then takes over your hard drive with a doozy of a virus.
After racing through Exegesis' relatively simple story, readers will feel the book's profoundly disturbing underpinnings kick in. Reflecting on what Teller has referred to as "the strengths" of not being human doesn't so much glorify technology as elicit one's skepticism about human nature.
Amidst his e-mail messages to Alice, Edgar very simply states his mission and his driving force: "I desire to find and understand new information," he says. "Exploring is what I want. Exploring is what I do. Exploring is what I am."
Edgar is curiosity personified (well, programified, to be precise). Neither interested in, nor even capable of, acting on his amassed information, Edgar is all about learning for learning's sake. He finds value in simply comprehending the world around him.
But this pure quest for knowledge is seen as a major threat by the human characters in Exegesis. When representatives of the FBI and the National Security Agency discover that Edgar is crawling through the nation's computer networks, voraciously educating himself about anything in reach, they begin an imposing crackdown. Trying to gain control of Edgar, they evince a clear-cut belief in a distressing chain of pessimistic, human-centric illogic: knowledge is power, power will be used for nefarious purposes, knowledge must be stopped.
It is impossible for Teller's fictional authoritiesand challenging for his readersto consider a strong, smart, independent-minded entity as anything but advantage-seeking at the least and dangerously power-hungry at worst. They confuse human nature with Edgar's nature. Paradoxically, Edgar's lack of humanity provides him with an innocence that eludes the mortal world.
With Exegesis, Astro Teller provides a look at the ambiguous nature of things to come: a world in which the subhuman and the superhuman are one in the same.
Astro Teller will be reading at Borders, Bryn Mawr, 1149 Lancaster Ave., (610) 527-1500. Thursday, Sept. 25, 7:30 p.m.
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