Episode 27: Annalee Newitz on “Lost Cities” and the Nature of Self
Image: An excavation site at Çatalhöyük, used according to a CC BY-SA 4.0 license. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
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More from Annalee:
- We talked at length about Charles’s favorite podcast, Flash Forward, specifically
- The episode “Bye Bye Binary,” about a post-gender future
- And the Flash Forward book, out now!
- Did Europeans really eat mummies? Yes!
- We also mention our sixth episode, “DS9’s “Rejoined” – is it gay if it’s in space, is it immortality if you’re a robot?” – the origin of our fixation on robot bodies and elongation of life
- Frankly, it’s a banger
- We love Star Trek
Yeah, and also there’s, um, alien genitals, so… in case you have any experience with that.
[excitedly] Yes, yes, yes
[simultaneously] Oh, absolutely, 100%
So yeah, it was like, I’m inventing some new genitals. Ooh, I like these genitals.
Hello. This is Assigned Scientist at Bachelor’s. I’m Charles and I’m an entomologist.
And I’m Tessa, and I’m an astrobiologist.
And today, our guest is Annalee Newitz. Annalee Newitz writes science fiction and nonfiction. They are the author of the book Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age, and the novels The Future of Another Timeline, and Autonomous, which won the Lambda Literary Award. As a science journalist, they are a writer for the New York Times and elsewhere, and have a monthly column in New Scientist. They have published in The Washington Post, Slate, Popular Science, Ars Technica, The New Yorker, and The Atlantic, among others. They are also the co-host of the Hugo Award-winning podcast Our Opinions Are Correct. Previously, they were the founder of io9, and served as the editor-in-chief of Gizmodo. Annalee, welcome.
Hey, thanks for having me.
Thank you for coming on. And thank you for giving me the thumbs up to just plagiarize your website bio.
That’s what it’s there for.
So actually, you are our most extensively interviewed and published guest so far. So great job on being a trailblazer in that area.
[laughs] Oh, well, thanks, I guess – it means my lips are sore.
So in recognition of that – normally, we ask people how they got started in science and whatever. But if people want to find that out about you, I feel like they can just go look for it. So instead, I’m going to start out with a question that is highest in my hierarchy of values, which is – how great was it to be a guest expert on the podcast Flash Forward?
Oh, wow, that is a really good question. I am a huge fan of Rose Eveleth. And actually, the, the deep dark sort of sort of Pleistocene history of that show is that initially, Rose created that show for Gizmodo when I was the editor in chief there, and it was incredibly successful under a different name. And there was a horrible… when she decided she wanted to, you know, take it independent, there was a horrible IP struggle, and Rose was like, fine, I’ll go make a new one. And she did. And it’s obviously incredible and wildly successful under the new name. So it was super delightful when I finally got to, you know, be a guest on the show, because I had sort of been, you know, just like it’s whatever, grand parent. And I just think what Rose does is so fantastic. And now there’s a book coming out, a Flash Forward book.
It’s gonna be amazing. And I just I really love. I mean, she’s such a great reporter, and I kind of aspire to one day be able to do radio reporting like that, you know, where there’s actually clips of other people talking on our podcast that I do.
Genuinely, I’m always afraid that I’m too overbearing about it, because I will tweet out how much I love Flash Forward, like, once every two weeks at least, but it is…
I think that’s the right number of times.
I mean, I hope so. I’m not like a weird reply guy about it. It’s just such an incredible idea for a show and extremely good execution.
Yeah, I mean, she’s a pro. And of course, she had been working in radio for quite a while before she did Flash Forward, and she continued to work in radio and podcasts professionally for large organizations. And now I think mainly she’s doing her own indie stuff, which is kind of the dream. But yeah, I think the thing I love about it most is that she gets such a good range of guests, people you might not expect. And I think one of the things I love in science journalism, both as a writer and listener, and a reader, is when people don’t just interview scientists, like they’re like, you know, you can be an expert in something, even if you don’t have a PhD, which is completely true. And of course, we’ve had great discoveries from people who didn’t have PhDs or who had the equivalent of PhDs, but were kept out of academia because they didn’t, you know, meet some kind of social standard, you know, maybe they had the wrong gender. And so I just I love that she consistently reminds us that expertise is not granted by academia. It’s granted by you knowing stuff.
Yeah, well, and it’s the… I knew, I knew that I was going to love Flash Forward obsessively, forever when I listened to the episode that was like, What would a future without gender be? Because I had avoided listening to that one, because I’ve been burned by cis people before.
And then I listened to it, and it was like actually thoughtful and engaged with not just abstractions of gender, but how people actually live inside of gender and included like a trans person, and I was like, yes!
That’s the way you do it right? Don’t go the Star Trek route of like, here’s a planet with no gender, but for them, it’s taboo to have gender! I love the idea that like a civilization would develop that didn’t have gender, but like then there’d be these like weird perverts who were like, we’ve invented this idea of like a binary based on some arbitrary physical features that we don’t even possess as a species. So anyway, not to…
I feel like if people actually approached the story that way, where it was a bunch of kind of weird perverts, that would be interesting.
I mean, it kind of… like, not to go into like Star Trek: The Next Generation, like, immediately out of the gate, but like, it kind of is presented that way in this one episode. But like…
I, I… Annalee, let me, let me just say, it’s never too early to go to Star Trek: The Next Generation on this podcast.
[laughs] Okay, good – we’ll just dive right into the important topics. But I feel like yes, if there really were like an effort to like, investigate how somebody might arrive at the concept of gender in a genderless society, that would be amazing. But that was not what Star Trek did. They just assumed that like, any any civilization that didn’t have gender must actually also have a notion of binary gender, because like, that’s how, what else would gender be like? Obviously, it’s going to be a binary. And obviously, you’ll have stumbled across this concept, even if your civilization doesn’t have it. So yeah. Oh, well, this is, as you said, we’ve been burned by cis people before when they when they try to imagine this stuff.
Yeah. Well, I’m going to try what is perhaps going to be a callous segue, so I apologize in advance. [Annalee laughs] But speaking, potentially, of being burned by cis people, I’m actually interested if you’re willing to talk about it, what it was like coming out as non binary, as a person who has already pretty publicly established.
Yeah, I mean, it’s been a bit of an adventure, I wrote an article… well, I wrote a piece for my newsletter about it, partly as a thing to just point people to to explain what was going on. And part of what I said in the newsletter was that I’ve, I’ve basically been non binary my whole life, and it’s been relatively obvious to almost everyone I’ve dealt with both professionally and personally, that my gender is not, shall we say, typical, and I’ve… ever since I was a teenager, I’ve always worn ties and suits when I once I could afford them. And I, you know, always dismayed my mother, who definitely understood that my gender was not the same as her gender and was, you know, constantly concerned about my lack of pink clothing. And the fact that I was always stealing my dad’s clothes. So to me, it felt like this is not even a transition like this is just like, at last, I now have a pronoun that’s in the frickin dictionary, and I can use it and people will now understand what’s always been really obvious.
But, you know, surprisingly, people didn’t understand. I mean, shockingly enough, people were like, But wait, we never noticed about how you don’t really seem like a male or female human. So it’s been, you know, sometimes it’s surprisingly smooth. What I did was… kind of foolishly, I decided to come out publicly as using they/them pronouns right when my novel, Future of Another Timeline, was coming out, because I knew I was going to be doing a lot of public bibble de wibbly. And so I wanted people to have the right pronoun. Unfortunately, in the book promo, I think there were still a lot of female pronouns in there. So people understandably got confused. And that was fine. And like, sort of in that transitional time, I told people like, Look, you know, she are they is fine. If you’re going to mistake me for a gender definitely mistake me for a woman because like, women are awesome, although I was… every time someone would say “she” I would kind of my heart would sink a little bit.
So yeah, so I had to do like, I guess… so at first, I was kind of chill about what people did with my pronouns. And I’ve also never, I’ve never worked like, I’ve often been misgendered as like a guy because of how I dress, I have short hair. And that’s never really bothered me, either. So like, I kind of went through this phase where I was, like, whatever pronoun you’re gonna throw out of your mouth is fine. But then, about six months after I sort of told everyone I started to get a little bit more pissy about it, and like a little… and I mean, it shouldn’t be pissy, right. Like, I just started to have better boundaries about it. And I started to say like, Look, please use they/them pronouns.
And so if I was doing an event, or if I was kind of meeting someone for the first time, I would figure out a way to kind of say okay, they/them pronouns. It’s really easy, since this has been an online year to, you know, send people an email with my name in my signature saying “Annalee, they/them,” which some people pick up on, and some people don’t. And now, I feel like that kind of thing is gonna just keep happening, and I’m just gonna have to get a really thick skin and start just like anytime someone misgendered me, I’m just gonna be like, they whenever they say she, but it’s I haven’t quite reached that part yet where I’m able to just like interrupt someone and be like, excuse me now, I tried to kind of front load it and be like, let’s let me explain to you about my pronouns. Here’s the link to Merriam Webster, where they explain about them like, but yeah, it’s it’s a, it’s definitely a journey that I am still on. And we will see how it goes. I feel like in 10 years, this will all be resolved. But like right now we’re in the middle of like, everyone’s confused. And also, it doesn’t help but occasionally I still forget and misgender myself.
So we, we all struggle with that. I mean…
I know. It’s just so embarrassing. Yeah, we’re, I’m like trying to insist really strongly, everyone else get my pronouns, right. And I’m like, oops, I just called myself “she.”
Well, I mean, I, ’cause… that’s one of the… ’cause we just get into habits.
I know. Yeah.
It’s tough. No, but I think the the six month thing gets into what I imagine is probably a pretty common trans experience of like, you can put off self knowledge for a long time. But then once you get to the point where you like, acknowledge the truth of something suddenly, it’s like, anything other than that is just unbearable.
Yeah, it feels… it’s funny, because I mean, because I really have been non-binary my whole life without a pronoun for it that I that was sort of widely used. I’ve always felt a little, when people would use my pronouns, or call me a girl or woman or whatever, I would always feel a little kind of cringe. Like, that’s not quite right. But like, now, it’s not just a teeny cringe. It’s like, like needles in my head or whatever. Like, I just I feel it, like I feel it on my skin when people use the wrong pronoun. And it’s like, just come on, guys. Just get it together. We’ve all been saying “them” for a long time – for like, over 1000 years in English. So I think we can just… let’s just go ahead and and try to do it. Yeah.
So do you mind if we talk about your new book a little bit?
I would love to talk about my new book.
Okay. So Four Lost Cities, excellent book on forgotten history of a lot of what we consider to be how modern cities developed. I actually finished it just last night, really liked it.
So I definitely recommend it to all of our listeners, you know, you stated somewhere that you spent something like two decades doing the research for this book. And I guess my first question is, what would be the most fascinating or unexpected thing that you learned in that journey? You know, bringing this book to life?
Yeah, it was really only about seven years that I worked on it. I mean, I have been a science journalist for about two decades. So in that sense, I have…
That’s probably where I got it from. Yeah.
But I mean, obviously, seven years is a super long time… I mean, usually I take a lot less time to do a book. There were a ton of incredibly surprising things I found out because basically, with all four cities that I looked at, I thought I knew about them, and of course, once I really started researching and visited the sites, there were a ton of things that I hadn’t understood.
I think the first really weird thing that got me interested in writing the book was, I had written a little bit about the city of Çatalhöyük, which is an ancient city, about 9000 years old, in central Turkey. And it’s kind of considered one of the earliest examples of a city in the world. You know, it’s kind of halfway between, like a really big village and a really small city. And it has quite unusual architecture for a city – it’s, it’s very, it’s kind of like a bunch of apartments squished up together or a bunch of condos. And they all share a roof in common. So it’s like a whole bunch of houses with a, you know, that are relatively small, actually, just like maybe two or three rooms each. And people got into their houses through doorways in their roofs. So the sidewalk of the city was on people’s roofs. And that, to me was really interesting.
And I was like, wow, this city sounds so cool. It’s so ancient, I would like to go visit. And so I had an opportunity to go to a conference there and see it in person, and I hadn’t quite realized… even though I’d read a little bit about it, that one of the ways that the people in the city honored their dead was by burying them under their bed platforms. So when you walk through the archeological excavation, which is enormous because this was a city and so they’ve only really uncovered a few small neighborhoods out of this really dramatically large place, you can see, like, as they’re excavating, you can see like the walls, and you can see paintings on the walls. But you can also see these holes, like, punched in the floor, where archaeologists had excavated skeletons out of, out of the floors. And like I said, these skeletons were buried under bed platforms, because you know, that people had sort of, they would build up a little layer of plaster on one side of their home and then put like furs down on it and stuff. And that’s where they would sleep on top of their beloved dead.
I remember seeing that and seeing it in person, it really made me realize that this was a truly different kind of civilization than anything I had ever encountered in the modern world. And I was trying to kind of put myself into the headspace of what it would be like to live in a world where, like, of course, you would bury your dead under your bed. Because for us, like, that’s a taboo, it’s like a horror movie. It’s like, super scary. But for the people of Çatalhöyük, it was obviously a comfort, it must have had all kinds of meanings for them that we don’t even know. Right?
That was kind of what launched, like I said, what launched the book for me was trying to think about, well, what else is it that we’ve lost about this history? Like, we’ve lost our understanding of what kind of belief system created a world where people did that, but what else can we learn from from that world? And what else can we learn from this city? And, you know, the city lasted for over 1000 years, it was a pretty darn successful city, much more successful than San Francisco where I live, which, you know, barely, barely lasted in its current form for about, you know, 100 years. So yeah, so that was pretty weird. But then I found out lots of other weird stuff too, along the way.
Any other death stuff?
Well, you know, archaeology is all about death. So yeah, like everything is death stuff. [all laugh] Because like, I mean, that’s the thing is, how we learn about ancient people, almost always is from graves and grave goods. So each of the cities had some weird death thing, I would say? One of the cities is Pompei, and of course, we all think of Pompeii as like a giant deathtrap because of course, Mount Vesuvius erupted and buried the city in ash. And there’s all of these famous casts… like, molds that have been made of, of the dead bodies that were left under the ash.
Because as… so the ash hardened into basically concrete, and then bodies decomposed under the ash, and then in the 19th century, this archaeologist was like, Oh, actually, if I pump plaster into these hollows in the ash, I can recreate the body that was in there. And so we have all of these incredibly evocative, like, molds of these bodies and people looking really upset or being asleep or whatever. What I didn’t realize was that actually, only a small percentage of people at Pompei died, only about 10% of people seem to have died, just based on what excavations have revealed. A huge part of the city – 90% of the city – fled and were refugees. And so that kicked off a huge, basically relief package that the Emperor gave to these survivors. And that to me was like, what? I had no idea. I didn’t even know that there was such a thing as a disaster relief package 2000 years ago, but there was. It was quite extensive, and the Empire actually built new neighborhoods for a lot of these people who, who were refugees, built them… allowed them to inherit property from their masters, because a lot of these people were former slaves. And so it was quite a moment for, for Rome. And so that was pretty cool. I’m trying to think of another cool death thing…
I just, I can’t believe that Doctor Who would have lied to me about how many people died.
I know. These… a lot of this stuff is recently like it’s probably post that Doctor Who episode.
Well, okay, I forgive them then.
[laughs] But yeah, Doctor Who is a very important historical…
Yeah, they’ve never been wrong, except for this one case.
Right. Exactly. And also about the future too, so, it’s really helpful.
So good news and bad news there. But we do know that “Toxic” gets to the very end of the earth. So that’s good news.
That’s that is good news, yes. And, yeah, there’s a lot of things that we know about the future from, from the doctor.
Well, I’m actually interested… you mentioned this guy in the 19th century, who made these molds of people in Pompei and I, I don’t know a lot about archaeology, but what I do know is that like every other field, there have been massive technological innovations over the past century, two centuries.
We… don’t have a lot of mummies, because when Europeans got really into Egyptology, and mummies, they would like, take them apart, they would do dissections, they would eat them. And so a lot of the methods that they use to learn about these things ended up destroying them. So are there in these ancient cities, a lot of examples, or even just any examples, of people using more destructive methods than we would use now… like is there lost information because of how people have tried to study these cities in the past?
Oh, completely and that is actually one of the things that I talked about a little bit in my book is that, all all four of the sites that I look at are huge and very, like, momentous, so people have been studying them for hundreds of years, in some cases. So, so we’re talking about like, people starting out looking at these places in the 18th century, where you’re basically talking about using like a pickaxe and a shovel. And at Pompei, for example, we are missing an entire layer of Pompei, because a lot of those excavations in the 18th and 19th century, as people dug down, they just wrecked the upper storeys of all of these houses. Pompei was, in many cases, you know, two storeys high, three, four storeys high – people lived in, you know, apartments, and, and often on, you know, an upper floor. And so yeah, we’ve lost that.
And now, the excavations taking place at Pompei are much more methodical and they’re using ground penetrating radar to figure out like where the roofs are, so that they don’t just accidentally pick ax through a roof. And, and so now that there’s, you may have even read in the paper, there have been a couple of incredible finds, they found an intact ceremonial chariot and they found a relatively intact bar called a taberna. Pompei has a lot of bars. [all laugh] So, you know, they had, like, for a town of like 12,000 people, we’ve already discovered 160 bars, and now they’ve discovered another one. So it was a party town. It was it was a tourist town.
Yeah, I was about to say – they must have had quite the nightlife
They did. And actually, and they had two theaters, they had such incredibly destructive Gladiator riots, like when the gladiator team lost or one or whatever people would Riot and like kill each other and stuff. And so actually, Emperor Nero forbade Pompei from having Gladiator games for like 10 years because their riots were so bad. So you know, it must have been bad if Nero was like, cut it out guys. [laughs] Too violent!
So there’s that. But then the other kinds of tech that people are using now, which is incredible, is they’re using a lot of LIDAR and satellite imagery to locate structures that have been hidden by sand or hidden by jungle. And so at Angkor, which is one of the cities I looked at, which is the capital of the medieval Khmer empire in Cambodia. A lot of that city was originally built from wood, you know… There’s the famous temples at Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, which are made of stone and still look amazing. And they’re in Tomb Raider, the first movie.
Their highest accomplishment.
Exactly. That’s basically what the Khmer emperors aspired to. One day, I’d like to be represented in a video game with a white lady. So for a very long time at anchor, European archaeologists were like, Oh, it was a pretty small city, like it’s just these stone temples and people kind of living in and around the temples. And that’s it. And there’s all this writing in old Khmer that suggested that the city had had about a million people in it. And Europeans were like, haha, those Southeast Asians, just exaggerating the majesty and massiveness of their city. And then, just in the last 10 years, archaeologists did a LIDAR survey of the area around Angkor and discovered. Oh, there’s actually signs of a city grid that extends for many kilometers and could easily contain a million people. And it’s a very obvious extensive city grid. It’s like, it’s like roads that are on an east-west orientation. We can see house foundations, we can see little pools that people on an individual block would share, you know, they keep water in there for the dry season. If you look at these LIDAR images, they’re incredible. And it makes it very, very obvious that those numbers written down, you know, 1000 years ago, probably were pretty accurate. You know, there really, were about a million people living there, making it basically one of the biggest cities in the world in the Middle Ages. So it was a pretty badass place. And now that we have that imagery, archaeologists can begin to excavate in areas where ordinary people lived, not just where the kings and queens and their retinue lived. So that’s really cool.
And then Cahokia, which is an indigenous city in the United States, that’s, that’s one of the cities I looked at. That’s an example of a city that was very obvious that it was a city, it’s made out of these enormous pyramids, packed earth pyramids, and the biggest one, which is still around, which hasn’t been demolished, has a footprint about the size of the Great Pyramid of Giza. So it’s, it’s really quite obvious that this is something that people built.
And Europeans discovered it and kind of the late 17th, early 18th century, basically, because it was during a period when white settlers were trying to slaughter the indigenous folks, and also, when they weren’t slaughtering them, kind of justify why that why white people sort of had a right to this place. Because of that, the history of Cahokia was kind of suppressed, like basically, people who the Europeans who discovered it thought that probably what had happened is that ancient Egyptians had come over to America and built it, they were like, couldn’t have been these indigenous folks, like it must have been, I mean, it makes sense… Occam’s razor, right, obviously, Egyptians came over, they probably, you know, used a Stargate, that that was kind of the explanation for this area.
And it wasn’t preserved, farmers plowed over all of this precious land that had, you know, lots of graves and lots of cultural artifacts in it. And there was a huge mound that was part of Cahokia in St. Louis, that was it was an enormous pyramid full of all kinds of ceremonial objects, jewelry and human remains, and in the 19th century, it was all destroyed to be turned into landfill under the railroad that was being built through St. Louis. So that’s kind of that’s not even an example of destructive archaeology, that’s just literally destructive colonialism. It’s like, oh, how do we make it seem like there’s no magnificent long history behind indigenous civilizations in North America? Well, we just pretend somebody else built it. And then oh, we just destroy it.
Luckily, there are still many parts of Cahokia that have been preserved, and it’s now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. So now nobody’s fucking with it anymore, but it did not become a World Heritage Site until the 1980s. And before that, the most sacred awesome part of Cahokia had a drive-in theater built on it.
[heavy sarcasm] Cool.
Yeah, but super cool. But yeah, I mean, it’s I… that to me is like the perfect like white settler colonialism moment of like, oh, here’s your awesome city built around these huge earthen mounds? Well, we’ve built a drive-in theater here. But you know, what we did we named it “Mounds Drive-In,” so.
What an insult.
It’s like an insult, but also this weird like, well, we’re kind of admitting that there’s a thing here, but we’re kind of not there. So anyway…
Just… the degree to which the settler colonial state erases the 1000s of years long history of, of people building and living here is just, it defies articulation.
Yeah. And I think what’s really hopeful now in both archaeology and anthropology, and I should couch this in, I should say, it’s hopeful, but of course, it’s still a tiny flame of hope. It’s not like a roaring fire of hope. But many, many more indigenous people are getting involved in archeology and anthropology, who understand the importance of this history. And also, of course, many indigenous nations and tribes have survived who know about the importance of these places, and they’re now finally getting to be centered in media narratives about them, in histories about them. And so I think we’re just… I think we’re in the very earliest days of making that history as important as it should be. And I hope, I hope that that continues, I hope we don’t see another wave of white settler suppression. I think we’re on the right path. But it’s still, like I said, it’s still early days.
Yeah, I have to say one of the coolest moments in Four Lost Cities is a section on Cahokia where, you know, you talk about one of the figurines that had been recovered from Cahokia being shown to one of the people who is descended from the peoples who built Cahokia and immediately the person was like, Oh, yeah, I know what this is, you know, this is figure of who we call grandmother who’s, you know, this very powerful spirit who guards over the harvest, and just yeah, instant recognition, kind of minded to, you know, remind the reader that these cultures aren’t dead.
Not at all, they’re not lost. You know, that’s the thing. And, you know, I called this book Four Lost Cities, partly to kind of thumb my nose at the idea of, of lost cities, because the whole point of the book is that none of these places were ever lost, and that they continue to have an incredibly important influence on on us today. All you know, depending on where you live, each of these cities might have influenced your culture.
Exactly. Yeah. And I think also, something you said with regards to the Khmer city whose name has…
Yeah, that one… is getting into sort of, the standards of evidence in scientific disciplines, and the way that we weight different people’s contributions. where, you know, the idea being… well, there couldn’t possibly have been a million people here. And then that only being accepted once a certain kind of, like data retrieval was used?
Yeah, I mean, I think, especially in archaeology, there are a lot of questions and debates over what counts as evidence, who counts as the kind of person we allow to produce that evidence… And I mean, it’s super complicated, because part of the reason why we have that gatekeeping in archaeology is because there is this long history of people looting. And so you don’t want to sort of say, well, anyone who finds a thing is allowed to call it evidence, because you want people to be excavating and analyzing this stuff in a way that is respectful and also doesn’t destroy the evidence. Right. So there’s that piece of it. But yeah, I think then the other piece is, you know, archaeology is kind of a Western discipline, and so anytime you see archaeology taking place outside the West, immediately questions about, like, a colonial perspective, come into play… questions around how the archaeologists are interacting with local people and using their knowledge or not using their knowledge.
And again, I mean, this is something that archaeology is grappling with, like, right this second, like, I guarantee you that at this exact minute in time, there is some grad student somewhere who is writing a piece of their dissertation where they’re talking about this exact problem. And so…
God bless them.
And indeed, bless their hearts.
And, and so I think you see the same narrative unfolding again, and again, where, you know, people who live in a place are saying, Hey, this is what this is like, this is a great city here. You know, this is a great part of our history, our ancestors were like, super amazing. And then you have these sort of colonial archaeologists coming in and saying, Oh, I don’t think so like you, obviously, you think that because you’re a puny minded person who, you know, thinks that a stick is really a gun or whatever, right? Like they have some narrative in their heads about how nobody can possibly have an amazing history unless they’re European. And I think, you know, because a lot of archaeology gets started in the 19th century, during the era of, you know, incredible European imperialism, we have a lot of these stories leftover in our history books that archaeologists today have to overturn.
I think the thing that’s nice is that a lot of these new techniques, these sort of non invasive techniques like ground penetrating radar, or LIDAR, they’re actually allowing us to get away from that colonial narrative a little bit. So even though these are kind of newfangled tools that may be coming from developed nations, they’re still being used in the service of essentially honoring history, because when you aren’t doing kind of invasive digging and crunching around, it allows preservation to happen in a much more serious way. And also, it’s leading to discoveries, like the discovery of Angkor, which, you know, validates the history of Southeast Asian people who have been, you know, insisting on this all along correctly. So, yeah, it’s, it’s a conundrum. It’s hard. archeology is part humanities, part science, all… cop? [all laugh] Cop doesn’t really work that way, but it is it’s really hard when your evidence is itself really ambiguous, and where it’s really obvious that the person uncovering that evidence may have an agenda. It’s a tough one. It’s very hard to do reproducibility in archaeology. So yeah…
Well, I I would imagine non destructive techniques, maybe help that a little because if you’re using ground penetrating radar, another person also can, whereas if you physically take an object… you just have that object.
That’s right. And actually now, a lot of archaeology is also working with photogrammetry, like techniques of gathering using like 3d laser imaging and just digital cameras to, even if you’re taking an object, or even if you encounter an object that isn’t below ground, you can take a really incredibly detailed 3d image of it, and then make it available to other scholars who can look at it. And I think that’s another huge breakthrough, which is making archaeology so much more accessible. You can have someone who’s on site, who is like, okay, we found this new statue, okay, I’ve created a perfect, you know, 3d replica of the statue that’s digital, and now I can share it with my friend who’s like 3000 miles away. And they can say, Oh, actually, yeah, this is comes from this particular era, you know, you can tell from these centimeter long blips on it, that it’s, you know, made by this particular type of person. And so that is really a hugely important development, data archaeology.
Different subject, it appears that you have a new novel that you’re working on, that’s going to be coming out, hopefully in 2022.
Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Sure. It’s called the Terraformers, and it’s about environmental scientists 50,000 years in the future who are working on a terraforming project, just like it says on the tin. It’s kind of a multi generational epic, because I track three generations of people who are terraforming, so starting with kind of an early phase in terraforming and ending with gentrification. So after they’ve kind of terraformed and built cities and the people are gentrifying the cities. It’s kind of… I mean, a lot of it is definitely directly inspired by stuff I learned while doing Four Lost Cities, because a big part of the book is about how do you build a civilization using cities? And so I got to have lots of fun designing cities, some of which are quite evil, and designed to be really oppressive cities, and some of which are trying to be a bit more anarchist in the way that they structure their city planning and their city government. Yeah, it’s, it’s kind of wonky. And actually, a lot of it deals with people going out in the field and gathering samples. The main characters are all these environmental workers. And so I mean…
I think both of us here can relate to that.
So yeah, so there’s like, I basically, I was just looking through my notes for the stuff that I’m working on right now. And I have this, like, list of upcoming scenes. And it’s like… gathering data, using sensors to like figure this out, hot sex, and then gathering data. [all laugh] There’s definitely like, there’s a lot of data gathering, and then there’s a lot of hot sex, so… well, not a lot of… I think there’s a lot of simmering desire, and then there’s a few moments of hot sex.
Well, there you go. And I mean, I, I listened to another one of your interviews, [jokingly] because I’m prepared.
Thank you. That’s awesome.
Any time. And I think you mentioned how people liked in your non-Autonomous novel I…?
Future of Another Timeline.
Yes! I’m bad with names of things.
It’s also a very long title, I just call it FOAT.
Yeah, and how you’d like… grad students got back to you about how they finally felt represented.
I think what we’re… the real takeaway here is that you are perhaps the preeminent voice for grad students in contemporary science fiction.
That actually makes me incredibly happy. I spent a lot of time in grad school, so I have a lot of feelings about it that I’m clearly still dealing with.
Okay, so I want to make sure that we get to the final part of all of our interviews with people because I feel like you will have a really good answer to one of our recurring questions. The final thing that we like to do when we bring guests on is to ask them to weigh in on one of our recurring themes. And I believe Tessa sent you the questions that we ask people?
Yep, I’m totally ready. I chose to answer the question about whether I would get my brain uploaded into a robot body.
So the question being, assuming that your physical body is on the edge of death, and you’re given the option to put your brain inside of a robot body, would you do it? And, is this a form of immortality?
Oh, I like that is this a form of immortality is part of the question. Um, I think so. I have. I have a lot. I thought about this a lot. I have a lot of characters who are robots in mind. novels, including in the terror formers, which I’m working on now, where there’s a lot of cyborgs who are dealing with basically having brains that are in some kind of tech substrate. I think, like, I have a lot of worries about it. But I think if I were in a situation where I was on the edge of death, and I was given this option, I want to survive, right? So I would definitely say yes, but then the question is, as many other people have asked, Is that really me? Like, is that upload me? Or do I die, and then there’s a copy of me that goes on? I definitely think it’s a copy of me. So I’m going to die no matter what… I guess, like, the thing that is me is gone. And that’s okay. I think it’s kind of like leaving books behind, you know, like, okay, like a piece of me is left behind, a piece of data that represents me is left behind, and it gets to be in this robot body.
The other thing that’s going to make it not me is that of course, I don’t exist in a robot body, and your body is a huge part of your identity. It’s how you interact with the world. It’s also really importantly, how other people interact with you, the way people see your body is a big part of how you see yourself as much as we may struggle to resist that. So I think, then, I would feel like a it’s not immortality and be I’m now a new being who’s dealing with all the bullshit of like being a robot in a human world where people are like, Oh, you’re a robot, you know, you probably don’t have freewill. And people can reprogram you to do what they want. So there’s gonna be a whole new realm of micro aggressions I’m going to be dealing with. And the other thing is that if I really am in a robot body, and my brain is really running on like, I don’t know, Intel chips are Who the fuck knows, right? Well,
The way that we’ve been imagining this is, it’s literally, physically your brain. And they’ve just managed to plug it… like in Doom patrol. You’re basically Cliff Steele.
That’s bad. So then I have to wear like terrible, like 90s band t-shirts?
Well, you might get, like, an upgraded robot body, like um…
Did you see Space Sweepers?
Okay, so space, I was thinking about this a lot. So space sweepers, which is an amazing movie, it’s available on Netflix, highly recommend. It’s a, it’s set in the future. And it’s about people who clean up space junk. And it’s like, and they’re all like working class, and they kind of get embroiled in a whole, like, secret scientific thing. So that… don’t worry about that. But there’s one character who’s a robot, who’s part of the team. And they have like a very, like a standard robot body where they’re just they kind of look like a stick figure, almost like they’re not really gendered. But like, they have a male voice, and everyone assumes that they’re male. And throughout most of the movie, this is not really a spoiler, because the movie is not… shouldn’t ,it should all be about this robot, but it’s not. So the robot’s always like yeah, this isn’t really me. I don’t really feel I mean, one day, I’m going to get a body upgrade. And everyone’s like, yeah, yeah, whatever. And then at the very end, this incredibly hot woman, like shows up, and is like working with the team. This is like in the coda, and you’re like, Who’s the hot woman? And then it’s like, they, they… she opens her mouth, and the robot voice comes out. And it’s all like, I got my upgrade. And I just love that idea. That’s like trans robots, yes!
Is there even any other kind?
They’re… no, this is like, and it’s in space, so it’s automatically gay as well.
[all laugh] Yeah.
So this is kind of how I imagined robot life in a way, like, I don’t like… I get what you’re saying, but like, Oh, well, they’ll just put your brain in there. If they put your brain into a robot body, like, you’re still going to be a cyborg. Like, your brain is still attached to some kind of computer or some kind of, you know, chipset. Yeah. And also, it’s gonna… you brain, why would you want to keep your brain? Like your brain is going to decay!
Well, if anybody wants a long answer to this question, we have a whole episode about it.
[laughs] Okay, I’ll have to go back and listen to it.
Yeah, we started talking about the gayest episode of Star Trek, which is… well, before Discovery, which was “Rejoined,” in DS9.
And we got done talking about the gay stuff pretty soon. And we pivoted into what makes immortality and like, and… both Tessa and I are pretty much agreed on, there needs to be some continuity. Like if there was a break in your consciousness, but going from one form to another, that creates a new person, but if there is a, if you’re like, fully yourself the whole way through, then that’s sort of more of, you are yourself. And I’m actually… in your response, I have made a realization about myself, I think, which is that I’ve always kind of… like, being inside of a robot body has always been a real dream of mine. It’s like, (a) be a monk, (b) be a robot. God, can you imagine if I were a robot monk?
I think that would be awesome.
[whispers] Oh my god… [normal voice] Anyway… maybe later. Um, but and so it’s like I’m trans. And so I always imagine if I were put inside of a robot body, that’s like, ultimately what I’m trying to get towards anyway. So I’m trans, in a human context, and I’m also… robot trans.
Yeah, I love it. I mean, I think in a way, like, that a lot of us are… what, what are… what are we going to call this? It’s like trends, Techno, Techno? I don’t know, a lot of people would just call it post-human, right?
Yeah… because… I think, to put it maybe more succinctly, what you said about how people respond to your body.
being a lot of your own body image and like that determining your relationship to other people. I my like, ideal body is not like, cis man, it is… robot.
Yeah. And you want people to respond to you that way. Right? Like, you want them to have a response, like, you’re a robot, and like, now I’m going to treat you the way I treat a robot. Yeah, which could be good or could be really bad.
And I know that we’re almost out of time. But yeah, we did add an additional wrinkle to this question in, like, a recent episode that we recorded, and I would love, if you could just weigh in very briefly, because there was the question of… somebody was like, Yes, I would put my brain inside of a robot, and then the question becomes, is there a point at which you would let your robot self die?
You know… I mean, it’s really hard because I think, I mean, one of the reasons why I’ve always argued against longevity technologies, like, because there’s so many, I mean, I live in, in kind of the Silicon Valley area where people kind of worship this idea that one day, we will all be immortal, which I think is bullshit, and also really bad for the environment like, and also it’s going to just lead to, like, rich people live forever, and poor people don’t.
Yeah… well, and, and as you said, the the history of cities, and the history of human culture, is the history of death, like, evolution happens because things die and things change.
Right. And so if you could be transplanting your consciousness into different bodies, I suppose that could count as some kind of change or evolution. But I do think that it’s hard like we… because we are living beings, we are programmed to want to survive, and… with, you know, obviously, a few exceptions, and so it’s hard. If someone were giving you the option, like, I think it would be hard to say no, unless we came up with new social rituals around, like, sort of what a reasonable lifespan is, and like, kind of preparing to die. And like, you know, so I think we would have to come up with new ways of thinking about death and making it more of a choice. I think a lot about like, The Good Place, which is a great example of that, where people are given the opportunity to live forever, but they still choose…
I was just thinking that, yeah.
And I think something like that, where it’s like, you’re really given as much time as you want. And then at a certain point, you’re like, you know what, I think I’m ready like to just be… to put down all my burdens, and just have no more cares and relax, you know.
Become a part of the universe.
Yeah. But like, not in an upsetting way, like on Lower Decks when like the guy turns into an energy being and he’s like, “actually it really hurts!”
Oh dear… yeah, well, I… it’s, we’ve hit an hour. Is there, Tessa or Annalee, is there anything that either of you want to say that you haven’t gotten the opportunity to?
Um, not that I can think of.
No, I’m, I’m good. That was really fun. I was excited to, like, discuss the whole robot brain, robot identification things.
If you ever have a free hour and you want to talk weird metaphysical robot stuff, I am always available.
Yep, we’re here for you.
Annalee, if people want to find out more about you, or what you do, where should they look?
I’m on Twitter @annalen. I have a website, which is annaleenewitz.com. And you can hear me every other week on the podcast, “Our Opinions are Correct,” which I do with Charlie Jane Anders, who’s a great person. And I… you can find me on the shelves of your local bookstore. So check it out. Please buy from indie bookstores, that would make me very happy.
Or go to your local library.
Yes. Or go to your local library. Exactly.
And a lot of libraries… I don’t know if people know this, because I take advantage of this all the time, but you can just tell them to buy… well, they won’t just do it if you tell them to – suggest purchases! That’s how I get most of the books that I read.
Yeah. And honestly, like, librarians are the greatest, they want to get you books and, I mean, librarians have been some of my, you know, biggest boosters for my books, like that’s how a lot of my books get to people, is through libraries and so I’m like insanely grateful to all these wonderful librarians who’ve been working by themselves in libraries for the past year and so we’re all gonna go as soon as we can, we’re gonna hug our librarians and like touch all the books and enjoy it again.
I am on Twitter @cockroacharles, and Tessa?
I’m on Twitter @spacermase.
The show is on Twitter @ASABpod and at our website where we post show notes and transcripts for every episode, asabpodcast.com
And until next time, keep on science-ing.
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