Faster – Short Story by Janusz Cyran

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:

  1. None of us will live long enough to see this inevitable death of everything
  2. Human race is more likely to die by supernova than or a meteor than via Big Rip
  3. 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.

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6 Responses to Faster – Short Story by Janusz Cyran

  1. freelancer SWEDEN Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    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.

    I sure did :P

    That short story sounds like something I would really want to read, so I’m glad you reviewed it. It’s hard to imagine seeing the actual end of everything, so I can’t even guess what would be going through his head (no pun intended) at that moment. I must say though, that death really scares me. Just the thought of not being, not experiencing. Just disappearing. It scares the hell out of me. So I would be the first one to want to attain immortality if it was ever possible. Of course there are many theories of an after-life, but they are just that. Theories. And who is to say that that “after-life” isn’t still bound to this universe? In that case it would be just as doomed. And that scares me even more.

    I did read your other article (didn’t have time to read all the comments though), and I do agree with you…kinda. The “transfer->backup->new body” process would definitely create a clone, and it would not be you. However, a direct transfer (like the Cylons do) could be. I mean come on, none of us know what defines our consciousness. I could be some particles in our brain, it could be some energy field we can’t detect. For all we know, it could be magic. But let’s say it can somehow be detected and “touched”. In that case, I believe moving that consciousness to another body would retain the same person. A backup copy of it, however, would not. The key word here is “copy”.

    Of course, the real problem as I see it is that we would never be able to know for sure. To us, the person would seem the same. He would even feel the same. But whether or not he is the same, or died during the transfer, we will never know. It’s kinda like the truth. I believe it was Kosh in Babylon 5 who said “Understanding is a three-edged sword. There’s their side, there’s our side, and there’s the truth.” Anyone can speak the truth, but it will always be colored by their perspective. It may or may not be the absolute truth, but no one can ever know for sure. Just because we have the same perspective and agree that he is speaking the truth, doesn’t mean there isn’t someone out there who “knows” differently.

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  2. feeshy Mozilla Firefox Linux Terminalist says:

    I’m always fascinated by the concept of a continually developing humanity. Any science fiction which deals with humanity in the far future interests me. I don’t fear death myself, but I fear loss and the loss of the richness our planet has disturbs me. I think it is our duty to ensure we preserve that through inter-stellar/inter-dimensional travel or even virtualisation.

    However my gut feel tells me we’re stuck and that a Dyson Sphere is about as far as we’ll get. After our sun dies, we die too.

    Nice post. And a very readable synopsis of the plot.

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  3. feeshy Mozilla Firefox Linux Terminalist says:

    Oh and on the consciousness transfer thing. Nobody has ever done it better than Richard Morgan – the Takeshi Kovacs series of books are almost required reading.

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  4. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @freelancer: Yeah, you are right – cylon consciousness might be different from ours to begin with. So in their case the transfer might work without creating the “twin”. Or not. Hard to tell.

    @feeshy: Well, I’d think that if we had resources to build a Dyson Sphere we would probably figure out a way to terraform and colonize other planets.

    It remains to be seen whether or not we could ever travel faster than light. However it is quite possible that we will be able to develop an instantaneous communication devices based on quantum entanglement like the Ansible in Ursula K. Le Guin Hainish cycle or the Ender novels.

    Even if FTL travel does not materialize the colonization could still be accomplished at sub-light speeds. In that case we wouldn’t really have a galactic spanning empire, but rather number of independent worlds trading in knowledge and culture.

    Oh, and I’m going to put Richard Morgan on my to-be-investigated-for-potential-awesome list. :)

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  5. jambarama UNITED STATES K-Meleon Windows Terminalist says:

    That reminds me of a short story I read on the web a long time ago. Basically a guy develops a computer that can learn for itself. It has been ingrained with the 3 laws of robotics too. First thing, it learns to talk & respond – kind of like a turing complete computer. Then it learns to teleport.

    Then it starts learning how to protect people to really enforce the 3 laws – it teleports tumors out of this dying old lady, and figures out how to make her body young & able again. It does this for the whole world, and eventually everyone is living somewhere in space & the computer will get everyone anything they ask for, as long as it isn’t death.

    This old lady (now young) develops in a violent sport where people design dangerous places, and competitors make an agreement with the computer that it won’t protect them until necessary to preserve their life. Actually she developed it because of some interaction with a murderer whom she allows to basically kill her – although this guy can’t really kill her. He walks around as a zombie kind of guy, using the computer to keep him alive despite rotting flesh & wormy organs. Anyhow, in these arenas, players can be horribly hurt without fear of permanent debilitation – the computer will fix them.

    Anyhow, this computer is keeping all of this stuff in vast databases and starts to run out of atoms to use so, against the wishes of its maker, which the computer still relies on for moral choices, the computer performs “the change” essentally digitizes everything.

    One thing leads to another, and the old lady & the computer’s maker propose a series of tough moral choices – a woman becoming so mentally dependant on cocaine she loses much of her human-ness – the realization that the computer wiped out vast civilzations of other life because it didn’t recognize the necessity of preserving “non-human” life – and others. The computer runs out of matter to deal with all these dilemmas & basically recreates a primitive earth, and puts the old lady & computer maker on it, destroys itself & all other humans. These two people start the task of rebuilding the human race.

    Anyhow, ti wasn’t the the best written story, but I thought it was pretty interesting. I spent the last 30 minutes googling for the story, but without the names of the characters, the name of the death sport, or something more concrete I haven’t been successful. Maybe someone here knows it (needle in a haystack I know).

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  6. chris GERMANY Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    that reads a lot like greg egan’s “permutation city”.

    i’d love to have a translation of the short story. polish SF is such a big untapped treasure chest, someone needs to get busy and translate it all.

    oh, and i agree on your solution to the consciousness interruption problem. through gradual virtualisation it should be possible to experience the whole thing in one piece.

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