Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Review: Feed Them Silence by Lee Mandelo

A character study about the hubris of believing you can cheat hubris

I'm afraid the fashionable trend of referring to people as "bodies" is incorrigible by now. What began as a specific usage in Academese with a specific meaning has finally completed its migration into literary language, where it stands out from the text like a record scratch in a soundtrack. If you can summon the patience to put up with dozens of instances of this lexical affectation, you'll have a pleasant time reading Lee Mandelo's otherwise fascinating novella Feed Them Silence.

Set in a near future beset by ongoing environmental collapse, Feed Them Silence tells the story of Sean, a neuroscience researcher in a failing marriage, and a wolf called Kate, a member of the last surviving pack in the wild and Sean's object of study. As part of a last-resort attempt to make people actually care for endangered species, Sean et al. have developed a neural implant that transmits the sum of Kate's wolfy sensations and emotions into Sean's head. The hope of this ethical minefield of a study is that, by making an animal's inner experience publicly known, enough empathy will be sparked to mobilize stronger support for conservation programs. However, before Sean's investigation yields any publishable findings, it becomes clear that downloading a wolf's consciousness onto a human brain should come with a lengthy warning label. What this mental connection does to Sean and how her human connections change as a result of Kate's influence is the main focus of the story.

One recurring preoccupation in Feed Them Silence is the question of who is invading whom. From the inside of her fancy telepathic machine, Sean believes she's bored a peephole into the wolf's mind, but the process could be just as accurately described as the wolf's experiences supplanting Sean's. If you're going to pretend that scientific observation can be passive, you're going to have to deal with what "passive" entails: to know something is to let it change you. Is Sean still Sean while the content of her subjectivity is being replaced with that of another mind?

That question can be rephrased as: can Sean truly know what it's like to be a wolf? But then we'd be joining a discussion that started half a century ago and remains unresolved. Fortunately for the reader, Feed Them Silence isn't so much a story about the metaphysics of consciousness as one about the ethics of interaction. Sean et al. are well aware that Kate didn't, and couldn't, articulate an informed opinion about the prospect of having a chip put in her brain for someone to spy on her thoughts. This whole mission to engender empathy relies on an act of aggression. In trying to foster cooperation between humans and animals, Sean has had to commit the deepest breach of trust.

The book acknowledges this paradox with open eyes, as do researchers in the real world. Our natural communication barrier renders lab animals more vulnerable than human volunteers, and yet it is that same communication barrier which makes a laxer ethical standard necessary for animal experimentation to be doable at all. A mouse can't tell you whether it wants its belly cut open, but precisely because you can't ask it about its dinner, you have to cut its belly open.

In the case of Kate the wolf, the paradox is compounded by layers of dramatic irony. The neural implant was put in her without asking how she felt about it, but the direct communication that the implant provides makes it now possible to know exactly how she feels about it. But even with that level of access to Kate's mind, what good does it do? It's still mediated by a radio signal, and processed by Sean's human brain; and the people Sean wishes to convince of Kate's inherent worth will only know her wolfy feelings as expressed in human words. The book refers multiple times to the preverbal, intuitive, visceral quality of the data received by Sean's brain, but the reader can only learn about it from the words in the book. Feed Them Silence thus becomes an illustration of the paradox attributed to the sophist Gorgias: things can't be known, and even if they are somehow known, they can't be communicated—the paradox being that such a statement is itself the communication of something known. Literature is the art of going inside someone's head; to write a story about the impossibility of truly going inside someone's head is the ultimate form of dramatic irony.

So let's talk about a singing cat for a moment.

At the end of The Second Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling, Mowgli the man-cub feels a sudden urge to abandon his wolf pack and return to human society. As a farewell ceremony, his animal friends sing a song of well-wishing. The panther's part includes these verses:

Feed them silence when they seek
help of thine to hurt the weak.

The reference to this line in the title of the novella does quite a bit of heavy lifting. As a human who can understand the speech of wolves, Mowgli is the ideal of empathy that Sean aspires to. And the panther can be read as Mowgli's mirror image: an animal who can understand humans. The farewell song is made of moral maxims intended to keep Mowgli in good terms with the natural world even after he's reintegrated into civilization. In this context, "to hurt the weak" alludes to the imbalance of power between humans and animals, and the request to "feed them silence" means to deny humans the use of the fruits of that imbalance of power.

In other words, Sean's method of research, conceived as a means to oppose the domination of nature, can easily become another form of domination. The findings of her study could be packaged and monetized as an entertainment gadget instead of a tool of political action. Empathy, the altruistic sharing of pain, can be twisted into a selfish extraction of pleasure. And here's where the novella reaches thematic completion: the point where the political meets the erotic.

Intersubjective attunement taken to the point of feeling exactly what the other is feeling is the Holy Grail of eroticism. Sean's link to Kate isn't blatantly described in those terms, but it's impossible to miss the intense desire that such intimate connection produces in Sean. In one scene, Sean's therapist directly compares her marital difficulties with the undemanding presence of an always available object of desire who can't refuse, can't reject, can't withhold, can't leave. But even through her deliberately unidirectional channel of communication, the power that Sean exerts over the wolf is complicated by the power that the wolf begins to exert over Sean. Just like with knowing, to desire something is to let it change you.

In a short wordcount, Feed Them Silence explores convoluted questions of epistemic justice and proposes a scenario where the standard intuitions fail to offer full solutions. Your mind may not know whose mind you're visiting while reading it, but one sure thing is that your mind will have been changed by the experience.

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie/Miraculer, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.

Reference: Mandelo, Lee. Feed Them Silence [Tor, 2023].