Re: Future Perfect

Fri, 19 Mar 1999 20:45:18 +0000

Warning: the following remarks may contain spoilers for anyone who has not yet read, but plans to read, _Permutation City_ or _Diaspora_ by Greg Egan, _Excession_ by Iain Banks, or _A Fire Upon The Deep_ by Vernor Vinge.

Eliezer S. Yudkowsky asks:

> Where do you want to live?
> Permutation City?
> The Culture?
> The High Beyond?
> ...I'm asking "Where do you, personally, want to live?"...
> ...It's an entirely emotional question; where would you feel
> comfortable?

Not the Culture:

For me, Banks' Culture has the drawback that the mantle of civilization has clearly passed from the biological races to the Minds, though the latter (mostly) treat the humanoid Culture-dwellers with polite cordiality. Although the precise characteristics of the Culture seem to alter from book to book, and it's suggested that humans can upload, or form corporate intelligences, or overcome their biological limitations
in various ways, in the Culture books I've read (_Consider Phlebas_, _Use of Weapons_, and _Excession_) the humans seem to exist on one side of a vast gulf between biological life and the Culture Minds (which makes the intercourse between humans and Minds all the more implausible, though I suppose one must grant this dramatic license if AIs are to participate in stories about humans).

It's also rather implausibly suggested that a few biological brains have pattern-recognition tricks that the Minds still haven't figured out, which makes humans valuable to keep around as consultants. Also, the CIA-type skullduggery that the humans working for Special Circumstances
perform on behalf of the Culture by infiltrating the societies of more primitive planets (including Earth), while providing a vehicle for stories of interest to human readers, seems something of a forced narrative device. Some of this is played for tongue-in-cheek humor, I think
(similar to that in Brin's Uplift books), and is not meant to be taken entirely seriously by the reader.

There's a somewhat mean-spirited tone pervading much of Banks' writing on the Culture. For instance, the human agents recruited by the Culture are often subjected to rather appalling personal risks and ordeals (which form the basis of the stories). They're handsomely paid (by the standards of contemporary human society, at any rate!), but the vast material wealth of the Culture makes these exchanges enormously one-sided (from the Culture's point of view, the agents are being paid trinkets
to suffer agonies and risk their lives). The usefulness of these agents to the Culture is sometimes based on personal talents combined with idiosyncracies verging on insanity, which the Culture is rather cynically
willing to exploit (granted, this exploitation is dramatically necessary in order to tell stories based on military conflict without having the availability of near-magical ultratechnology dissipate all literary tension).

There's an air of decadence and boredom in the portrayals of the human inhabitants of the Culture, particularly those who are not working for Special Circumstances. Humans in the Culture are depicted as being indoctrinated with a carefully-cultivated pretense that governmental decisions
are made democratically and jointly by humans and machines, and that something
like due process of law prevails, but those in the know (particularly, those in Special Circumstances) know otherwise -- the Minds wield absolute
power, though usually by means of an iron fist hidden inside a velvet glove.

In _Excession_, there's also petty intolerance and one-upmanship among the
various cabals of Minds seeking status by pursuing the Excession. Also in
_Excession_, there's an all-too-human pattern among the Minds of gaining advantage by concealing information and keeping secrets -- how many inhabitants of the Culture, human or otherwise, actually found out about the existence of the Excession?

In many ways, the Culture represents the worst of contemporary human society
dressed up with AIs and ultratechnology. But most humans in the Culture don't seem to have either the desire or the means to bridge the gap between
themselves and the Minds (who treat them with a scrupulous politeness that
barely covers their contempt), and they seem doomed to languorous extinction.
All this makes for amusing and entertaining SF novels, but it wouldn't be
my first choice among fictional worlds as a place to live.

Not the High Beyond:

The humans inhabiting Vinge's Zones of Thought suffer an ultimate limit on their technologies and achievable intellectual capabilities similar to that seen in Banks' Culture (and serving a similar literary purpose. I suppose). It seems unlikely that any endeavor originating in a sub-Transcendent Zone (even the High Beyond) would be able to achieve
the momentum necessary either to engage the interest of, or to protect itself against, a Transcendent Power.

Any project or expedition originating in a lower Zone, which ventures into the Transcend, risks getting gobbled up by an inscrutable Power and/or being used for the Power's inscrutable purposes.

This is a bummer.

Not even Permutation City:

The TVC processor grid, and the software packages commissioned for it (Permutation City and the Autoverse), are launched by the mad-genius son of a business tycoon, with the financial backing of billionaire Copies.
I find this alienating, despite the presence of the isolated stowaways Kate and Peer (and by implication, others existing in their own solipsistic

Although by the time Paul re-awakens Maria to assist in contacting the Autoverse intelligences, the population of the TVC universe has grown far beyond the original founders, this does not seem like a world "for the rest of us". If I were Bill Gates, I might be able to identify more closely with the inhabitants of Permutation City. Even Peer has his origins in a sort of yuppie business-executive cum stock-market speculator whom I have trouble identifying with, though the fact that he died before achieving sufficient financial mass to attain clock-rate parity with the billionaire Copies, yet was still able to stow away in the TVC grid and ultimately found his own universe, is meant to suggest that his second-class citizenship in Permutation City didn't really matter.
Nevertheless, I find the idea of being disconnected from the rest of society by running at a slower clock rate on an indefinitely-expandable computer, and thus being forced to be the founding father of my own universe, too strange to be emotionally satisfying.

Thus, the story of _Permutation City_ in its first half is still too bound
up with the constraints of scarcity (the TVC grid is created specifically to
overcome those limits), and in its second half is too divorced from the anchors of human existence (when Peer and Kate turn away from the deserted
Permutation City to found their own world) to be entirely attractive. Also,
the TVC experiment is a sort of splinter-Singularity which forks off the mainstream of the human race without the latter ever being aware that it occurred. It isn't revealed in this book what ever happened to "the rest of us".

Perhaps the Coalition of Polises?

In Greg Egan's _Diaspora_, the Coalition of Polises (comprising Konishi, Carter-Zimmerman, and the rest) constitutes, on the eve of the Fourth Millennium, one of two modes of existence in which uploaded humans find themselves (the Polises being the entirely disembodied state, whereas the
gleisners continue to inhabit non-biological bodies).

>From a purely emotional point of view, this is the post-ultratech (if
actually post-Singularity -- only Vinge really portrays a Singularity, in
_Marooned In Realtime_, in which the post-Singularity entities simply disappear from the point of view of the remaining humans) fictional world
which appeals the most to me.

In contrast to the narrative devices adopted by Banks and Vinge, there is no gulf between humans and AIs in _Diaspora_. Uploading is a fullymature technology; unlike the expensive scanning process which candidates
for Copying must undergo in _Permutation City_, the Introdus nanoware in _Diaspora_ is free for the asking (and also seems to function rather like a
Moravec upload procedure, rather than a non-destructive copying process).
In fact, there seems to be no real distinction in _Diaspora_ between artificially-constructed minds and those which originated as humans who entered the polises via the Introdus. Unlike the portrayal of the forked-off TVC universe in _Permutation City_, _Diaspora_ is a vision of what happens to the rest of us.

Long before the year 2975, all human beings so inclined (the vast bulk of
the human race) have transferred into gleisner bodies or entered the polises;
the remaining "fleshers" are quasi-religious conservatives on the order of today's Amish. After the "little" gamma-ray burst, there are no more flesh-embodied humans remaining alive. Following the interstellar diaspora,
and certainly following the receipt of the alien warning about the coming
"big" gamma-ray burst and the resulting transfer into higher-dimensional universes, the Coalition's channels of communication are stretched to their
breaking point, but one still gets the impression that information about all these events is being shared with all interested parties (a la the Internet today), and that anyone inclined to expend the time and effort (the requisite raw talent being free for the annexation) may make meaningful
contributions to the culture (unlike the case of the Culture, in which it's
hard to believe that humans could make meaningful contributions to the efforts
of the Minds -- except for those contrived cases of human advisors with intuitive abilities beyond the Minds' ken, and the gun-toting Special Circumstances agents).

To summarize, I would say that the essential difference between the world I
find emotionally appealing and the ones I find more alienating, is that in
the former the humans are transformed en masse into their superiors,
in the latter the humans have been superseded and left behind by their superiors (the Minds, the Powers, and the TVC elite). The transformation
scenario of _Disapora_ is similar to that portrayed by Ray Kurzweil in his
recent book _The Age of Spiritual Machines_.

Jim F. (