In the mid-24th century, Ellen May Ngwethu, a member of the Cassini Division, the front-line force of the Solar Union in the face of the post-human Jovians, summarises to herself the ‘true knowledge’ that was the foundation of her society:
Life is a process of breaking down and using other matter, and if need be, other life. Therefore, life is aggression, and successful life is successful aggression. Life is the scum of matter, and people are the scum of life. There is nothing but matter, forces, space and time, which together make power. Nothing matters, except what matters to you. Might makes right, and power makes freedom. You are free to do whatever is in your power, and if you want to survive and thrive you had better do whatever is in your interests. If your interests conflict with those of others, let the others pit their power against yours. If your interests coincide with those of others, let them work together with you, and against the rest. We are what we eat, and we eat everything. All that you really value, and the goodness and truth and beauty of life, have their roots in this apparently barren soil.
Thucydides is not mentioned as one of the miscellaneous group of writers whose ideas were synthesised by a group of Japanese and Korean bonded labourers (those are named as Stirner, Nietzsche, Marx, Engels, Dietzgen, Darwin and Spencer) to produce this doctrine, but I don’t think it’s just my obsession with the work that lets me hear echoes of his ideas as well, as the first to identify the belief – which is not the same as expounding it, however often he has been read in those terms – that might makes right. The idea of a philosophy that is founded on the bedrock of reality, a universe of things rather than a world of words, also echoes the tradition of Thucydidean interpretation, especially that offered by Nietzsche.
Most striking of all are the parallels between the context of Thucydides’ exploration of such ideas, in the Mytilene Debate and the Melian Dialogue, and the context of this exposition by MacLeod’s character: a debate about war and existential threat. Having long been quiescent, the Jovian culture is showing signs of revival, and the potential rate of development of virtual beings and their previous behaviour implies an immediate threat to human culture in the solar system; plans have been put in place to annihilate the Jovians, but when contact is established and they appear to be reasonable and open to peaceful co-existence, a fierce argument ensues. For Ellen, the threat to humanity’s interests is sufficient to justify the recourse to an immediate pre-emptive attack – the Athenian doctrine raised to species level, one might say – but this view is contested, partly by offering different interpretations of interest (the Diodotus move) and partly by introducing broader ethical considerations (the Melian gambit) to temper the harsh, reductionist philosophy of naked power and interest.
There are some obvious and interesting differences in the way that this debate is staged, compared with Thucydides. Firstly, it’s a dialogue amongst the humans, debating how to evaluate the Jovian threat and how therefore to respond, rather than between the humans and and their potential targets; it’s the representative of the humans’ Solar Council who clearly represents the Melian traits of the illusion of hope and the risks of prospective decision-making, gambling on the possibility that the Jovians are well-intentioned and open to reasoned argument and so opposing any pre-emptive attack. Further, MacLeod’s account highlights some important issues in inter-state (inter-species) relations; not just whether trust is possible between radically different systems (creatures), but the need for an expectation of consistency and continuity as a basis for agreement – the problems of dealing with a state when its government or even its political system changes are as nothing compared with the problems of dealing with a species that might have evolved significantly by next Wednesday. Finally, the balance of power in this situation is both uncertain and shifting; one of Ellen’s arguments is that, because of the capacity of the already-powerful Jovians to develop themselves and their society so rapidly, humans have at best only a limited window in which an assault might be effective, before they will find themselves put into the position of the Melians instead – to survive only as pets or slaves, or to be destroyed, according to the whim of the post-humans.
One of the underlying themes in Thucydides’ account is the way that the Athenians decline to recognise the Melians as having any significant rights; they define them in terms of their powerlessness and their relation to the Athenians’ own interests, treating them in effect as inferior and other. For readers of a liberal persuasion, this is precisely the danger of states developing such an attitude, dehumanising their opponents and anybody else who stands in their way. MacLeod’s Jovians potentially are a different species – but that makes the situation more rather than less complicated: one crucial question is whether the human ancestry of the Jovians means that they retain elements of humanity despite everything – and therefore whether destroying them would be like “some group of chimps using rocks to beat out the brains of the first humans” – or whether they are utterly alien beings whose skills include the counterfeiting of humanity as a means of manipulation (and, as Ellen says, “Look where not doing it got the chimps”).
This question is dramatised for the reader by the fact that the book’s narrator is manifestly a zealot; as well as being implacably hostile to the post-humans, Ellen is utterly opposed to recognising the claims to sentience of any artificial intelligence, whereas the previous book in MacLeod’s series, The Stone Canal, had clearly established that AIs could be considered as autonomous and more or less human; indeed, we encounter two familiar and sympathetic characters from that book at the very beginning of this one, one of them an ‘artificial woman’ and the other a copy of a long-dead man, presented through Ellen’s eyes to emphasise the extreme nature of her world-view. Thus, while the first encounter with the Jovians corresponds to the trope of the wise, beautiful and peaceful aliens whose angelic appearance will at any moment become demonic (and so the reader is inclined to be suspicious), we’re also all too conscious of Ellen’s prejudices and paranoia, and the genocidal implications of her logic, to feel certain about this. Until late on, the book holds open not just the question of whether or not humanity will succeed in destroying the Jovians, but whether a successful genocide will appear as the tragic and barbaric consequence of a corrupt, paranoid world-view or as the only means of rescuing humanity from destruction or slavery.
In the event, the Jovians embark on precisely the sort of hostile takeover of both computers and human minds that Ellen had feared, thus justifying their destruction (which Ellen and her crew accomplish). Further, by the end Ellen has modified her views on the claims to sentience of artificial intelligences, in part because of the argument from another AI, Dee, that this requires a significant proportion of her processing capacity; the Jovians are inhuman because their simulacrum of humanity requires only a tiny fraction of their almost infinite capacities, and is solely a means of engaging with (and manipulating) humans rather than providing their sense of self. Still, doubts remain; the book closes with a fragment of a televised debate about the morality of Ellen’s actions, and it is noted that some Jovians had actually wished to reach a genuine accommodation with the humans but had been eradicated by the hawks in their ranks – which both justifies their destruction in terms of desperate self-defence in the given situation (there was no hope of reconciliation after that) and raises questions (though not for Ellen) about the genocide of a sentient species with at least the potential capacity for peaceful co-existence with humanity.
The Cassini Division presents a society in which the harshest possible interpretation of the Thucydidean world-view appears to be one source of its fundamental ideology, and a situation in which the Realpolitik of the Athenians, the willingness to destroy others in pursuit of one’s own interests, appears as the correct course of action. This is not a vindication of the Athenian doctrine in general – but it certainly seeks to make the case that, in specific circumstances, ‘might is right’ is right. One might read this equally well as a qualified defence of the doctrine – or as a critique of the way it is all too often crudely applied, emphasising instead the very specific circumstances (a genuine existential threat to an entire society, for example, rather than terrorist activity) in which it may be justified.
I had a great opening for this piece all planned out – a variant on Marx’s remark in the 18th Brumaire about history repeating itself, first as tragedy, then as farce and finally as speculative fiction – until I checked the publication date of The Cassini Division. 1998; before the agenda of the US Neocons become widely known, certainly before they started putting the logic of the Melian Dialogue into practice in Afghanistan and Iraq, with catastrophic consequences for those countries. Obviously I’m not proposing Ken MacLeod as an unwitting propagandist for the Project for the New American Century, but did he pick up something in the wind, anticipating the way that claims about the need to combat allegedly existential threats by any means necessary, and the conviction that superior power confers the right to determine reality in one’s own interests, would dominate the world in the following decade?