OBIR: Occasional Biased and Ignorant Reviews reflecting this reader’s opinion.
THE HUMAN TEMPLATE – by Dale L. Sproule
Publisher: Arctic Mage Press, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, November 2020.
Cover Art: Carly Belford
“Resurrected 300 years after his consciousness was uploaded into a vast biological computer housed in the root network of a genetically engineered forest, Raine Naidu finds himself leading the non-human faction in a war for Earth’s future. Get ready to meet the BioGrid and reconsider what it means to be human!”
The above blurb, which is on the back of the book, gives you the gist of the plot. It’s about trees. Trees that collectively form a super computer of unimaginable power. Trouble is each tree thinks of itself as a human being, and you know that means trouble.
The first chapter is straightforward. Raine Naidu, son of Dr. Naidu who is in charge of the BioGrid project near Hope, British Columbia, is showing internationally famed telecast star Freda Zhang around the facilities and telling her all about the genetically modified Banyan forest his father has helped bring about. She could care less. She’s more of a gossip journalist out to prove famous people are even weirder than their fans suspect. Naturally she and Raine wind up having sex together, each trying to prove a point, I think. Happens all the time to journalists interviewing famous people. Drove Walter Cronkite nuts. (That’s a joke for old timers.)
Seriously, though, the initial chapter is all about demonstrating human frailty and unreasoning impulsiveness. Raine, in particular, is a victim of imposter syndrome, full of self-doubts and still suffering from an upbringing by genius-level parents who seldom had time to give him emotional support. He nevertheless functions well in adult society, but much of it is an act. He’s not even sure he knows what it is like to be fully human, or maturely human, or acceptably human, or something. Much like a lot of people I know, including myself. Part of what makes life exciting, or at least a never-ending series of unexpected revelations.
The forest, on the other hand, is solidly secure in its treeness. Yes, the trees have been genetically modified. They know how to put out forest fires started by lightning strikes. More importantly, the tree matrix, an interconnection of roots, has been designed to enhance the normal level of chemical communication to a super-computer level of information exchange intended to enable the trees to process the vast amounts of data being fed into it by mere humans. This, of course, to serve humanity, a function which requires the forest to communicate with its “masters.” Unfortunately, the trees are in to being trees, and can’t be bothered. Humans aren’t worth talking to.
Collectively, the trees are sentient. But, so too, are individual trees. Collectively, the trees have arrived at a consensus they adhere to religiously, namely to ignore the humans. However, individual trees, some of them, are capable of being free-thinkers able to break away from the grove, so to speak, and these Dr. Naidu singles out to subvert and convert to his purpose. Their numbers have grown, and their influence has become such as to render an easy exchange of views possible, at least potentially. Hence the danger for both collective entities.
To make matters worse, the project is on the verge of transferring a human personality, or at least a coded copy of same, into the forest. A human template for the trees to absorb and digest in order to produce … what? The best of both species combined into a superbeing that will initiate an era of progress utopian in the extreme? Sure. Right. Always a good idea.
An unexpected global catastrophe takes place and the forest is deliberately infected with Raine Naidu, an electronic simulation of him at any rate, right down to the monsters of his Id and other baser instincts. Fake, but fully human, his presence the ultimate interface.
Turns out only fragments of his data “took,” much of it being lost forever. Raine became simply an incomplete file in a desk drawer, so to speak. Fortunately, more or less, over time some of the free-thinker trees began to experiment with taking on human personalities, if only to combat boredom, based on the historical data they are able to perceive. Being attached to the greatest computer, albeit a vegetative computer, of all time, they learn how to “visualize” their avatars and surrounding settings in a somewhat “holodeck” manner. Even for trees, this is a lot of fun, and fads come and go. Of course, with the root interconnectivity, the free flow of information, it is near impossible to stay private. Some participate in manifesting as human, the rest are a bunch of perve voyeurs along for the ride, eager to vicariously share whatever “new” experiences the free-thinkers come up with.
I say “fortunately” because one of the trees realizes Raine’s data is the only genuine human presence, or at least a simulacrum of one, present in the forest. This is a learning opportunity not to be missed. Slowly, methodically, the tree assembles Raine’s data into a coherent whole, filling in the gaps with guestimates of the most likely code sequences based on barely-conceived interpretations of how humans thought and felt. Patience pays off. Raine springs to life as an artificial avatar of himself, fully conscious if very confused, a veritable patchwork Frankenstein monster of a human being mentally and emotionally, but nevertheless the closest thing to a “real” human being in the forest mindset.
Raine is a huge hit. He becomes the fad of the moment, mainly because of his memories of hot, passionate sex with Freda Zhang. Sure, the trees had “read” all the manuals and biology textbooks and literature devoted to the subject, but this is the first time they are able to experience all the emotions and feelings embedded in the memory of someone who had actually had sex and quite a thrill it is. Immediately the majority of trees incorporate the “new” awareness into their own avatars and the culture of the forest is changed forever. But after a few decades the trees get bored, if not with sex, than at least with Raine, and suddenly he is no longer the centre of attention. Suits him. He’s still trying to figure out who and what he really is, and having thousands of intruders sharing his every thought and emotion had been something of an inhibiting burden. Go figure.
Now this is where the book gets really interesting or turns into a hard slog, depending, perhaps, on your own interests in literature. Philip K. Dick maintained that science fiction writers are wasting their time if all they read is the competition. Far better, in terms of coming up with interesting characters and writing techniques, to study literary fiction, especially the classics, be they works by Dickens, Zola, or Gogol. If you are versed in literary history, and general history, you will find the forest section a delight, with many avatars of people you’ve always wanted to meet or at least learn more about. But if there is no instant recognition when each is introduced, the result is liable to become a confusing kaleidoscope of historical figures that come and go faster than you can pigeon hole them. The result can be very frustrating, in the sense of so much fresh input being thrown at you it dissolves into a kind of blur.
What complicates matters further is that every “individual” dons and sheds characters at will. For example, Raine feels “safe” in the presence of old Doc (Cory Doctorow), his mentor, the tree which brought him to reconstructed life. Here, at last, is a solid emotional anchor in his life he can cling to and depend on. So he is a bit nonplussed when Doc turns into Marilyn Monroe and tries to seduce him. This is a bit of social etiquette his previous life did not prepare him for. It is a reminder that nothing in the “reality” visualized in the minds of the trees is real. Everything is an artificial concept dependant on data bases manipulated by the ultimate computer, a matrix of bored and possibly insane trees. What could go wrong?
And here’s the thing. If the trees have any instinctive motivation at all, it is the pressing need to serve humanity. This has been programmed into them, partly through actual code programs, partly through genetic manipulation. But, since the catastrophe, all contact has been lost with the human race (which may possibly be extinct), so the fundamental drive of the trees has become the desire to understand humans so that they can be served properly should any turn out to still exist. Problem is the human beings never succeeded in understanding themselves and all the trees can access is a cornucopia of best guesses, assumptions, and misunderstandings otherwise known as world literature. The equivalent of the ancient library of Alexandria is available to the trees, and it doesn’t resolve a single question. Nothing can be proven. Except maybe that humans were pretty darn weird.
One group of trees, a very small number, have concluded the whole program of trying to figure out how to serve mankind is a non-starter and an all-around bad idea that deserves to be ignored. They want to be trees and nothing but. Humanity can go hang (which evidently it did already—good riddance to worthless trash). These trees refer to themselves as the Primevals. All the other trees ignore them, which is just fine by them. They want to be ignored. After all, they’re just trees. Who talks to trees?
The majority of the trees have decided that their fundamental essence is that of the super computer they were created to be, and that what they should do is analyse and codify human nature as best they can but without any of this nonsense of pretending to be human, which is viewed as a sort of blasphemy. They call themselves “The Core” and the manner of their mental behaviour is arrived at through consensus. They don’t tolerate anything which appears to threaten their mission in life and will go so far as to dismantle the program of an individual tree if its thought processes diverge too radically from the perceived ‘norm.” They’re not a lot of fun. They have no sense of humour.
But then there’s the Free-thinkers. They’re nuts about roleplaying humans, the more outré the better. The Core tolerates them on the grounds they might come up with occasional valid insight into human behaviour which is worth incorporating into the slowly evolving consensus opinion of The Core. Keep in mind, however, that The Core are hypocrites. By far the majority of trees shivering with delight as they vicariously share the experiences of the Free-thinkers are solid, stable, respectable members of The Core. Think of them as members of the local Chamber of Commerce, immensely respectable, who happen to have privately and secretly amassed vast collections of 19th century porno or whatever. There’s a certain level of shame and self-loathing which, if triggered, can lead to dire consequences.
I find the Free-thinkers section of the book quite a hoot. The reader eavesdrops on conversations between interesting characters like Federico Fellini, Charles Darwin, Alan-a-dale, Che Guevara, Emmeline Pankhurst, Don Quixote, Harvey, Maximilien Robespierre, Clyde Barrow, Bullwinkle, Simone de Beauvoir, and many others. Some of these characters are fictional, some historical, but it’s all the same to the trees. What counts is their unique, individual aspects, their “originality.” Not only do they represent a tree’s best guess at what the characters are like, through roleplaying they explore the prospect of what these “thinkers” would have accomplished had they lived longer in the real world, or appeared in more books and cartoons. In other words, the trees don’t just recreate these iconic figures, they allow them to “live” and evolve further.
This makes for extremely interesting philosophical discussions and the like. It is not only Simon de Beauvoir talking, but a Simone de Beauvoir whose situational awareness includes all of human history in excruciating detail, and likewise for all the other characters. Thus they are more opinionated than ever, and inspired to fathom the meaning of it all. For the reader it’s a bit like being invited to attend an exclusive intellectual literary salon whose collective IQ and brilliance will make your head swim. Personally, I think that’s damned cool. Beats conversations at bus stops.
Raine, himself, is overwhelmed at times. Though eventually forced to character-shift himself, mostly he clings to being Raine and trying to understand Raine. And when you get right down to it, he represents you and I as individuals struggling to be clearly defined as such in a society which is constantly changing, constantly inspiring, and constantly threatening. Essentially the poor guy is faced with the task of finding the meaning of life, the universe, and everything, or go crazy. The whole book is a metaphor for humanity’s ongoing effort to define itself, to understand what is going on, or at least survive what is going on. Ain’t nobody holding up a sign reading “42.” The answers are as numerous as the questions. As a victim of the Shah’s secret police once famously asked when finally released from the torture cell, “Why was I ever cursed with the ability to think?” For thinking is what got him into trouble.
When you think about it, a forest of trees contemplating its own navel, so to speak, is maybe not the best source of a solution to the question “What is humanity?” All the same, an intriguing concept which is a fun way to raise many interesting questions and explore some fascinating answers.
No doubt many of you have concluded that the book is all talk and no action. Yes, the trees themselves are rather obviously rooted to the spot, but their conscious entities, as manifest in the characters, flit about from bole to bole via the root system in a manner identical to streams of information moving through the circuits of a computer. Some paths are obvious, some devious, some useful places to hide. Often there are reasons to hide. Especially when The Core is moved to destroy individual Free-thinkers who have gone too far. Politically, it’s like a giant game of “whack-a-mole” replicating the kind of measures a police state takes against revolutionaries keen on subversion. Life in the forest is not all sweetness and light.
Besides, some of the Free-thinkers decide they need more data, and what better way to gain more information about humanity than to bio-engineer a capacity to literally reach out (with roots) to interface with humans and share their thoughts? Assuming there are any humans still around. Turns out there are. The BioGrid facilities have become a vast temple complex devoted to atoning for Mankind’s role in the catastrophe which destroyed technological civilization and much of the natural world. This involves sacrifice to placate the forest. Till now, the BioGrid and humanity have existed in isolation. No longer.
This transformation takes place about one fourth of the way into the book. All I have explained so far is the basic setting. From this point on the action/adventure aspect of the book takes off and much hilarity ensues, at least in my mind. The pathetic attempts by the Core to understand and serve humanity, for example. Rather like a sociologist attempting to define and categorize the phenomenon of serial-killing. This can be rather problematic when you’re locked in the same cell as a raving lunatic steeped in bloodlust. Difficult to maintain one’s objectivity.
The principal tree characters have already been firmly established. Now comes the turn of the human characters, most notably Gloria, an innocent young girl who is first to be contacted, and her older sister Adoris, who makes Lucretia Borgia look like an amateur. The resulting explosion of Machiavellian plotting and manoeuvering, not to mention violence from assassination to preemptive-strike warfare, makes for a fast-paced novel where the reader never knows what’s going to happen next. Suffice to say there is no unity anywhere. The humans compete among themselves, as do the trees, and both species attempt to exploit each other for purely selfish purposes. Much like the modern human world today, in fact. The metaphor has been greatly expanded at this point. Just as in real life, I haven’t got a clue what the solutions are, but I do find myself rooting for certain characters and hoping they will ultimately succeed.
I don’t find out how it all ends because the book is not a stand-alone. It “ends” somewhat abruptly, in mid-stride as it were. But it is so unusual and fascinating I definitely want to read the next volume, or two, or however many it takes to complete it.
An intellectual, philosophical view of a war between trees and humanity is a refreshingly original take on what is required for any society to flourish and survive. That each side is fighting a civil war (more-or-less) at the same time simply adds to the “realism” of this quest to understand what makes us tick. Despite a slow beginning (depending on whether you appreciate it or not), this is basically a rip-roaring adventure with action a’plenty, albeit steeped in intellectual pondering as to what it all means. This is a very neat trick to pull off, but it works. Amazingly, it works. Kudos to Dale L. Sproule. A remarkable achievement. I like it a lot. Can’t wait to read the next volume.
Dear reader, if this sounds like your cup of tea, go for it! A rare and wonderful book, though a tad cynical. It’s about us, after all. Be prepared to be shocked. And amazed.
Check it out at: < The Human Template >