Re: [CRYONICS][BOOK] "The First Immortal"

Hal Finney (
Mon, 2 Feb 1998 10:23:09 -0800

Brian D Williams, <>, writes:
> I just finished James Halperin's "The First Immortal", and to be
> quite frank, I loved it. (@@@@)
> I would love to start a discussion on it, but I guess I'll wait a
> couple of weeks to avoid spoiling...... (get it?)

I liked it a lot, too, and in fact I started reading it again right after
I had finished it the first time. However my son is reading it now so I
didn't finish my re-read.

One of the big problems in any 21st century SF which incorporates nanotech
and similar advances is how to avoid the Singularity - the acceleration of
advancement into a pace so furious that the world becomes unrecognizable.
It appears that Halperin has no more than postponed the Singularity, as
it looks unlikely to me that humanity will come out of his 22nd century
in any kind of recognizable form.

Halperin has a couple of tricks to slow the rate of technology advance.
One is to put restrictions on AI research. Some early AI machines become
aggressive and kill people, and after that they are not supposed to be
programmed with emotions or survival instincts. They're just a bunch of
Vulcan types. They do become much smarter than humans over the course
of the 21st century, but presumably these restrictions do limit their
rate of advance.

The other magic which Halperin has up his sleeve is his Truth Machine.
This was the subject of his first novel, which I haven't read. The device
is a foolproof lie detector, and it allows laws to be enforced with a
certainty far beyond anything which would be reasonable today.

Once there is a world government armed with the truth machine, they
can pass laws restricting access to nanotech (and presumably any other
destabilizing technologies) and be sure they are enforced. This prevents
various technology runaway scenarios, both good and bad.

Not having read the first novel, I find the potential for abuse with a
truth machine very troubling. It is presented in almost purely beneficial
terms, but obviously it could be misused as well. The idea reminds me
somewhat of David Brin's "transparent society", where you have a Big
Brother-like monitoring system, but it's OK because the people doing the
monitoring get monitored, too. The danger is that if an evil person somehow
got into power, he'd be able to use these technologies to maintain his
power very effectivelly. No revolt or rebellion could be hidden.

In effect this kind of technology is a power amplifier. Whoever has the
bulk of power in society can use this to enforce their will. If the mass
of people ultimately has the power, then in many ways the truth machine
will be beneficial, as they can prevent evil people from seizing power
away from them. On the other hand, where the masses misuse their power,
there won't be the limitations on their abilities that we have today.
The majority of people in the United States believes in conventional
religious morality, but if it wants to legislate on that basis, in
practice it can't control people's private lives very well. A truth
machine would change that.

> I see it is in development as an upcoming mini-series, if done
> properly, IMMHO it could change the future of cryonics.

I'm a little skeptical about this, having seen many efforts fail in the
past which were going to change the future of cryonics. For example,
Omni magazine had a reasonably well promoted contest where the prize was
"immortality" - a cryonic suspension contract with Alcor. This was a
big jump into the mainstream, especially with the idea of cryonics as
a prize, a reward, not some kooky perversion. However it was not much
of a success; there weren't many entries, and I think most people were
just not ready for it.

I thought Halperin's novel was most effective in depicting a 21st century
where we'd like to live, and where technology really does advance to
the point where it solves many of our most difficult problems. I was
uncomfortable when it took on a scolding tone, shaking its head over how
blind people were in the late 20th century not to sign up for cryonics.
This reminds me too much of a temperance tract regaling us with the
evils of Demon Alcohol.

Science fiction authors often succumb to the temptation to have their
future characters talk about the mistakes of the 20th century - if
only they'd taken care of the environment, or if only they'd been more
socialist, no, if only they'd been more capitalist, etc. I never find
this realistic (how much time do we spend talking about the mistakes of
the 1890's?), and even when it does fit, I don't necessarily think the
future characters are right (people today disagree over the morality
of the "robber barons" of the 19th century, even with 100 years of

Halperin doesn't overdo this, fortunately. If his novel is a success
then it probably will help to make cryonics more acceptable. But I
suspect that it will be many years before it becomes truly mainstream.