Sunday, January 31, 2010

Can Humanity be Replaced by Machinery: A Discussion Raised by Robin Wasserman's Skinned

Can a computerized duplicate--even exact duplicate of a human brain in an artificial body ever replace a human? If it walks like a human, talks like a human, reacts like not only a human, but the human it claims to be, and seems to emote like a human, is it human?

In a society where so many functions previously associated with man power are being performed by machinery and the line of whom creates life continuously seems to be blurred, maybe even crossed by advances in science technology, it seems to be a fair question to ask.
In Robin Wasserman's Skinned, this question is explored through the eyes--well artificial eyes, of Lia Khan.

Lia Khan dies in an unlikely car accident (in this futuristic world car accidents are outdated by technology that programs cars to go where they are told, while keeping a safe buffer from impending danger). The novel opens with the aftermath of the car wreck and it's attention grabbing from page one.

There is no way to save her burnt body from the accident, but her brain is not dead. Her parents have it replicated and placed in an artificial body. The duplicate brain is completely programmed with her likes, dislikes, memories and personality. But does this mean it's really Lia?
Her friends don't think so. Her boyfriend is repulsed by her, and that ends the relationship. Her parents regret having her brain "downloaded" and Lia doesn't feel human. In fact, Lia doesn't feel anything. She merely has a conscious awareness of sensations as they happen. She doesn't feel cold, warmth or pain. She knows that she is cold, warm or hurt.

Wasserman created a realistic character in Lia Khan. She's horrible, for lack of a better word. Prior to the car accident she was the most the popular girl in school and a rich spoiled brat. She remains the second. She's just rejected by everyone--almost, there is one exception. For a decent human being, (most of the population at large) it's hard to read the things that are said and done to her, because it's hard to see someone treated that way. I'm impressed by the character, mainly because I hated her. She is the most self-absorbed person I've ever been aware of, but I was still able to empathize with her.

The faithers, the religious party in an otherwise Godless world, claim she is soulless. She's not human. She's been programmed to think she is. Lia wonders if they are right--so do we.
The exception who treats her like a human being is Auden Heller. It's obvious from his first interaction with her that he is romantically interested in her, but she is oblivious to this. Most likely because if she still had her own skin she would be oblivious to his existence. While Auden seems to be legitimately interested in Lia, he is also obsessed with her being a "skinner" or "mech-head" as the downloaded brains in artificial bodies are referred to. Auden is unique in his own way. Not just because he's the only person who cares about the poor living in the remains of cities destroyed by nuclear war, or towns ran by corporations where people sold their voting rights and agreed to work for food and medical supplies. But because Auden is a "natural." His religious mother refused to genetically engineer him. He doesn't have the exceptional features of his school-mates.

The awkwardness between Lia and Auden as they attempt to develop a friendship, in spite of his romantic interest and her lack of interest is real. The world they live in has been called a "dystopia" by other readers and Wasserman herself. I didn't see it as that. With the exceptions of the cities all being leveled to ruins by nuclear wars, and severe climate, all the social issues exist in our world: the ethical question of keeping someone alive who by all reason and scientific definitions of life should be, classism and racism.

The plot thickens as Lia is encouraged by Auden to spend time with wreckless mech-heads, all of whom have interesting backgrounds of their own, adding to the social questions raised. Some say that Lia is presented with a choice. That Auden, the last natural, represents one choice and that the mech-heads who dance with danger at every opportunity, since machines can't die represent the other choice. I don't see it this way. I don't want to give the ending away, but I see Lia as optionless. She can only be what she is.

In the society we reside (which doesn't have to be a dystopia, but we usually allow that), we can create life artificially, end it unnaturally, or sustain it when reason and moral would tell us for all intents and purposes it's already gone. That doesn't mean we should. Just like being able to replicate your child indefinitely doesn't make it the right choice. The classism and racism (the first experimental mech-heads were taken from samples of the poor living in the ruined cities and minorities) already exists. The crucial issues raised in Skinned are issues we should talk about, but don't.

The writing is strong. Many things about this novel are better than good, but the issues aren't fully explored, just piled on one after the other. It's a good book club book, or for a class. It's definitely something that should raise discussion--something to be discussed. There are two sequels which I won't be reading, because I felt that Lia's journey had concluded with the book. But I recommend this book for anyone ready to contemplate the ills of society. I wish this book would be used for high-school English classes.

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