I usually don’t review short stories here but perhaps I should start. I recently read a very short piece by Janusz Cyran, a Polish SF writer that struck a cord with me. The story itself was not all that spectacular, and especially the ending didn’t really do much for me but the central concept was brilliant. Very original take on a rather common theme. The story is titled Faster (original title “Szybciej”) and it has appeared in the September issue of the Nowa Fantastyka magazine. I don’t think there exists an English translation so I will just tell you about it.
The story takes place in a distant future, when human race attained immortality by shedding their biological bodies and moving their consciousness into a virtual universe. This digital world is cohabited by two offshoots of the former homo sapiens race. The traditionalists live in a hyper realistic simulation of the world which they left behind. They still have bodies that seem physical, they can still eat, drink and make love and etc. The post-humans on the other hand moved on, shed the remaining shackles of simulated physicality and exist as purely abstract intellectual entities.
This virtual world naturally runs on “hardware” residing in the physical world. As the amount of data produced by the system is constantly growing, the hardware must expand to accommodate it. Over the countless centuries the post-humans have managed to harness almost every single atom of matter in the universe to be part of the gigantic quantum computer network which hosts their existence. There first crisis comes when they realize there is no more matter available to add additional processing nodes or more storage. The are suddenly strapped for resources. They’d love to get rid of the computationally intensive simulation used by the traditionals but the system was designed to prevent them from doing exactly that. So they do the second best thing – they offer various Faustian deals to the traditionalists or trick them to voluntarily relinquish mental resources. Such unfortunate individuals are reduced to functional imbeciles and their storage and processing resources are repossessed by the post-humans in order to facilitate continuous growth.
Then they discover a second, even more disturbing problem threatening the survival of the human race. The universe is expanding! In the physical world the hardware components are hurtling away from each other through space at ever increasing velocity and the imminent Big Rip will eventually pull apart the galaxies, solar systems and then even individual stars and planets and even the individual atoms at which point even the quantum level communication which drives the virtual world will become impossible.
Traditionalist who live in their simulation are completely oblivious to this impending doom. Many of them simply have a eerie feeling that the time flies by faster as they get older. That’s because it does. As the universe is expanding, the communication between the hardware nodes becomes slower. So for example a simple 5 minute conversation with your neighbor may actually take years of real-world time to calculate process and generate.
The protagonist, a traditionalist, finds out about this and gets a clock which shows him the passage of the real-world time. He puts it in his bedroom so that he can observe this phenomenon. At first the clock counts time in hours, which the character notes spin by at astonishing pace. Much later he notes that the clock no longer uses hours, but now counts time in months. Then it changes to years, hundreds of years, millions and etc. To cope with the increased transmission times the post-humans must adjust the simulation. First it becomes black and white, then grainy and low resolution. The traditionalist society falls apart as individuals become trapped in their own houses no longer able to reach cities and public places due to data transmission bottlenecks and poor state of the simulation. Eventually the protagonist decides to simply stay in bed and observe the clock because anything else is an enormous hassle. He knows that soon the virtual universe will grind to a halt, but the final thoughts of all of it’s inhabitants will be preserved for eternity in the quantum states of the particles that will continue hurtling through space into the unknown.
Brilliant, and striking concept! The image of a dying virtual world and the protagonist lying in bed observing a widely spinning clock and thinking until his mind comes to a slow halt really made an impression on me!
Cygan however managed to work in a semi-romantic subplot with a rather disturbing ending, and a rather disappointing twist ending. No it does not turn out to be a dream, but the story ends on an odd spiritual/religious note which IMHO didn’t really add anything to the story.
Anyway, I thought it was a really interesting idea for a distant future SF story so decided to share it with those of you who might not be able to read it. It really made me think. I’m not entirely certain that it will ever be possible to accurately digitize a human brain. I’m still hung up on that consciousness interruption thing. There is some interesting discussion on the topic in that thread, and I also had some really insightful email exchanges about it with few people (hey Sam, how is that book coming along?). I sort of figured out a way I could imagine digitization of human consciousness without the interruption and creating a mental twin. Here is what I wrote about it back then:
We talked precisely about the issue you describe – if you digitize a brain, and upload it to a cloned body (like in Cory Doctorows Down & Out in the Magic Kingdom) or a virtual simulation of some sort you are really creating a “twin”.
I also read an interesting short story on this topic, but for the life of me I cannot remember the title or the author. The basic premise is that a guy goes hiking in the mounties and gets hit by an avalanche. He is rescued but looses a leg and bunch of fingers, and his left hand suffers severe nerve damage due to the multiple fractures so it will never be functional. His family tries to convince him to simply abandon this crippled body and restore himself from a backup he made prior to his trip. He doesn’t want to do it because in his mind this will mean death. He will die, and some other guy who looks like him, and has all his memories will wake up somewhere else and go to live his life. But he himself will be gone. So he refuses. His family and doctors decide to build a case showing in court that due to head trauma and severe emotional distress he is not in the right state of mind to make that decision, and want the courts to authorize the procedure to restore him to the state of full mental competence and physical health. So the poor guy decides to spring himself out of hospital and run away.
I wish I remember who wrote that. But yeah, it’s an interesting problem. I don’t know whether an actual “transfer” is even possible. With Cylon’s maybe, because they are artificial beings. But with humans…
An idea I had a while ago was to make it a gradual, long term process. You would get implanted with a “transfer chip” and some nano tech. The chip would then gradually map your brain and create exact digitized functional copies. Once a part of your consciousness would be mapped, the nano machines would “re-wire” your brain to delegate that functionality/memories to the chip, and deactivate relevant area of the brain. At some point you would be running on a fully digitized mode – at that point the chip can be extracted, and your body with non-functional brain can be discarded. That’s the only way I can image actually imagine digitization of consciousness without that “you die, but your mental twin lives on” thing.
I admit that the mapping chip was heavily inspired by… Yeah, Farscape. I bet freelancer (my fellow Gigi Edgley fan) knew exactly where this was heading when I used the expression “brain mapping chip” instead of neural implant. :P
So anyway, lets say that digitizing your mind is possible and you can upload yourself into a virtual simulation or even attain higher state of awareness as one of those post-human things (virtual singularity?). Theoretically this would mean that our dream of immortality would finally come true. But Cyran’s story shook me by showing me that there is no such thing as immortality. You can’t defeat the destructive forces of entropy! And once you are a digital construct in a virtual world, an eternity may fly past you so fast you won’t know where did all these centuries go. There is a definite end to our existence in this universe, and we can do absolutely nothing to prevent it. Deep down it really disturbs me, even though I know perfectly well that:
- None of us will live long enough to see this inevitable death of everything
- Human race is more likely to die by supernova than or a meteor than via Big Rip
- I always knew that universe would end – Big Rip, Big Crunch, the Heath Death – all are equally inevitable
I guess what I find disturbing in this story is the very fact that humans in it have achieved virtual immortality (pun intended) but had it insidiously snatched away from them by Lady Entropy. We face death every day so ultimately we are much better prepared to face the end of the world than this fictional race of immortals who know no death or sickness.