Perfect Imperfection (Perfekcyjna Niedoskonałość) by Jacek Dukaj

When I read Accelerando I concluded that Charlie Stross is a master of putting a staggering number of cool ideas on every single page of his novel. The density of ideas per page in that book was so great it was approaching weapons grade quality. I don’t think anyone could match him at this game. Until now. I think I have found a worthy contender – polish Science Fiction writer Jacek Dukaj. His novel Perfect Imperfection has a similar “holly shit, this book is epic” quality to it.

That said, I am little torn writing about it, because I know it will be inaccessible to about 90% of my readers. You see, there is currently no English version of the book. It is only available in Polish, which means most of you won’t be able to read it. So reviewing it here makes little sense. On the other hand, perhaps writing about it in English to generate some buzz amongst English speaking SF enthusiasts may be constructive.

Perfect Imperfection - Book Cover

The story goes a little bit like this: Adam Zamoysky, a 21st century astronaut is recovering from a failed mission that left him and his crew adrift in deep space for over 600 years. Everyone on board was dead when the vessel was discovered, but Zamoysky’s body was surprisingly well preserved in the cryo pod. The more interesting detail is that his DNA did not match any original crew member, nor does his name and records exist in any archival documents preserved by various space agencies. He is a mystery – man who has never existed. A wealthy and influential tycoon Judas McPherson takes an interest in Zamoysky and decides to resurrect him. Just scanning his neural connections does not necessarily give you a key to all of his memories – it is basically just a state vector, and there is data loss on account of the subject being dead. So to see what happens you have to take that data, and run it. The most efficient way to do this of course would be to run him as a virtual simulation – or better yet few hundred of parallel simulations, weeding out the ones that are not spilling the beans or can’t recover past memories. But since McPherson is a Stahs (Standard Homo Sapiens) of the First Tradition (no wetware implants, no spawning new instances of yourself, no genetic manipulation – his tradition only allows him to do basic backups Cory Doctorow’s Bitchun society style) he decides to do it the old-fashioned way – by giving Zamoysky a biological body and existence in physical world.

Initially the astronaut’s reality is being filtered, to spare him future shock. A dedicated AI simply edits out anything that would be out of place in a 21st century setting. This way Zamoysky can interact with McPherson and his guests without breaking the illusion that he is back in his own time. Fortunately (or unfortunately – depending how you look at it) the filtering AI is damaged during a failed assassination attempt. Suddenly Zamoysky is hit with a whole load of band news. For one, he died. Two, he never seems to have existed. Three, he is technically a property of the McPherson family. Four, it is a 29th century and singularity came and went, changing the world beyond recognition. Five, someone rich, powerful and influential wants him dead. Six, McPherson just recovered a fragmentary message from his time well that says that a big war is coming, a Zamoysky’s is somehow implicated in that conflict.

McPherson tasks one of his daughters (also a Stahs of First Tradition) with stashing the poor, future shocked astronaut somewhere safe and away from civilization and wait out the storm. So Angelica McPherson – a young girl who at her Father’s request spent most of her childhood at a Jesuit mission in ass-end of Affrica hunting elephants and getting groomed to be a cog in the McPherson business machine becomes Zamoysky’s guide to the future. Ironically, the blast-from-the-past protagonist is more augmented than his companion who was born into a world of high technology. The wetware circuitry that was used to hook him up to the reality filters also gives him access to HS plateau (post singularity version of internet) and virtually manifest anywhere in the HS civilization. Now he has to piece together his shattered memories, figure out why everyone in the known universe wants to get at them while at the same time trying to find himself in this new reality.

Dukaj is full of interesting ideas, and his post singularity future is equally awesome but starkly different from Charlie Stross’ vision. Stross predicts that a logical way for a civilization like ours to evolve is to disassemble our solar system to build a Matrioshka brain to satisfy our ever growing computational needs. He sees baseline humans being marginalized, and forced out to live their lives out exploring deep space or huddling around brown dwarfs while artificial minds stay in their computational grids around yellow stars. Dukaj has a slightly different idea. What if we didn’t have to build Matrioshka brains? Why if we could figure out a way to bend time-space continuum in just the right way to create a pocket dimension that is described by a slightly different (reduced) set of physical constants. What if we could optimize these universes for data transfer speeds, storage efficiency, etc… Well, then we would not need to build Matrioshka brains – we could just use these pocket universes to create incredibly powerful computational devices that are not bound by laws of physics of this universe and take no physical space. Dukaj dubs these contraptions “inclusions” with the “ultimate inclusion” being a theoretical bee-all-end-all pocket universe that could not be optimized or improved upon.

Plateau – the above mentioned hyper-internet is one of such inclusions, optimized in such a way that data transfer to and from it is constant, regardless of where you are located in the physical universe. Zamoysky’s reality filter was another inclusion – one designed to host the hardware for a sophisticated AI. Sol Port is another one – an inclusion that engulfs the entire solar system making it impossible for anyone or anything to go in or out without proper authorization.

Secondly, Dukaj envisions a future in which standard baseline humans can peacefully co-exist with god-like AI constructs. How? Civilization. In Dukaj’s universe civilization is actually a concise term that describes a community of sentient beings voluntarily choosing to abide by an arbitrary set of laws, rules and regulations. The HS civilization is built as a stratified society in which those who choose to be un-augmented are protected from those superior to them. The authority lies with an inclusion known as “The Emperor” who controls all the plateau resources and all nano-clouds within the bounds of the civilization. If you want to store your data on HS Plateau or manifest yourself in the physical form somewhere in HS space, you simply lease resources or nano from the Emperor, who can swiftly rescind them if you break the law. Of course if you are a super bright post-human or AI who thinks that baseline Stahs is scum of the earth to be squashed, you can simply leave HS Civilization and apply for residence in another one. On the other hand, if you are a Stahs and you want to do business with higher intelligences you can use the Emperor as the mediator, interpreter or ask him to give you access to powerful slaved AI’s that can crunch data, and do projections and advise you on strategies.

Dukaj has interesting take on post-humanism, both as a state of being and as a process. If you recall Accellerando, even though Manfred Macx was a futurist and trans-humanist he was hesitant to augment himself past certain limits. Stross pretty much drew a line in sand and said: up to here, you are human and if you rewire yourself further you will become something both incomprehensible, inhuman and frightening. Dukaj is very aware of this problem, but in his universe there is no line – there is a blurred spectrum of humanity. Yes, if you continue augmenting yourself for pure performance you may eventually lose track of your humanity. On the other hand, constructs such as the HS Civilization serve as a convenient anchor for super-bright post humans or AI gods. Since they must sometimes do business with Stahs they must keep some vestiges of humanity to be able to empathize and comprehend them.

Actually, to discuss this, I need to show you something. This here, is Remy’s curve:

Remy's Curve

That big dot in the middle is the ultimate computer – best possible quantum computing machine that can be made in our universe. Below it are augmented, multi-threaded post-humans, and Stahs’ of various traditions. Above it lie intelligences that run on hardware that can exist only in various optimized inclusions – leading all the way up to the ultimate inclusion, and the god-of-all-gods intelligence that would inhabit it. Dukaj theorizes that without a social construct such as the HS Civilization, most individuals and societies will naturally push up the curve at a break-neck pace. The curve has a seductive pull that is hard to resist. To wit, Zamoysky who has started as a relic from the past, makes several strides up the curve throughout the novel, without even noticing. First, when he learns how to use plateau to manifest himself in a different part of the universe by leasing Emperors nano to form a physical body he can control. Then, when he splits himself into two parallel threads because the situation requires him to be in two places at the same time. It is easy, effortless and rewarding. The question is when do you stop, and how do you know you went to far.

This is why the Civilization protects those who choose to live as a Stahs. To refuse the pull of the curve, and choose to live slow analog life in a digital world is seen as somewhat noble pursuit. Shahs’ maintain the baseline of humanity against which higher intelligences can calibrate themselves. Without them the post humans and AI’s could easily, unintentionally lose sight of what it means to be human.

Anyways, it is an excellent book, full of great ideas and interesting musings. It is smart, well researched and well written post-singularity science fiction. If you speak Polish, I could not recommend it enough. If not… Well, you could potentially email his publisher and ask if there is an English translation in the works… Though I’m not exactly sure how that works – I guess they only handle his publishing in Poland, so for an English version to coalesce into existence there would probably need to be some involvement from a US publisher who would be willing to distribute the book on this side of the pond, or something.

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11 Responses to Perfect Imperfection (Perfekcyjna Niedoskonałość) by Jacek Dukaj

  1. Liudvikas LITHUANIA Google Chrome Linux Terminalist says:

    Dam you, now I want to read that book and I can’t. I and it’s highly probably I won’t be able until I can install polish language right into my brain.

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  2. Christopher Anthony CANADA Mozilla Firefox Linux says:

    If you’re a fan of “the density of ideas per page”, you should really check out Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco.

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  3. Agnosis MEXICO Mozilla Firefox Linux says:

    You bastard!!!

    It’s not fair, now I’ll be googling every week until there is an English or a Spanish version. Wait a moment … you can translate it for us. Well, I suppose you won’t do it, buy I had to try.

    Reply  |  Quote
  4. Åka SWEDEN Mozilla Firefox FreeBSD says:

    Many are interested to know about science fiction in other languages than English, if nothing else because they realize that there is so much out there that they will not know anything about if they don’t expand their horizons beyond that language sphere. Do you know about the World SF blog?

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  5. Ron NEW ZEALAND Mozilla Firefox Linux says:

    Well that was a great tease

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  6. Halka SLOVAKIA Google Chrome Windows says:

    Heh. Tease.

    So, that’s the second polish book I’m not quite able to read in my queue (aside from “Nikt” by Magdalena Kozak).

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  7. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Google Chrome Linux Terminalist says:

    @ Liudvikas:

    One must wonder how exactly would that feel. Installing a language patch I mean. After all, it is almost impossible to divorce the language itself from it’s culturally meaningful idioms and phraseology. In fact, languages seem to be more than just data mappings for ideas – they influence how you think. At least I know that I need to “switch gears” (so to speak) if I want to think in Polish vs English.

    @ Christopher Anthony:

    Will do. :)

    @ Agnosis:

    Well, the thing about translating fiction is that it takes a lot of literary skill. I could probably trudge my way through it and translate it to the best of my ability, but it would be a pale shade of the original. Also, translating idioms and cultural references while preserving their intended meaning is extremely difficult.

    @ Åka:

    Nope, I didn’t. Thanks for the link. :)

    @ Halka:

    I have not read that one. Also, bonus points for Kimiko Ross gravatar. :)

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  8. MaybeNextTime POLAND Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    I’d like to recommend another great novel by the same author: Lód (Ice), which is probably one of the greatest sci-fi novels I’ve ever read. I’ve been reading it every Winter (it’s way more immersive that way) for the last three years (I’m a busy man and the book’s over 1000 pages long). It’s written in heavily russified Polish, as Poland in this alternative history is still under Tsarist Russia’s rule, which makes it a pleasure to read on its own merit. Here’s what wiki has to say about the book (no spoilers here):

    “The story of the book takes place in an alternate universe where the First World War never occurred and Poland is still under Russian rule. Following the Tunguska event, the Ice, a mysterious form of matter, has covered parts of Siberia in Russia and started expanding outwards, reaching Warsaw. The appearance of Ice results in extreme decrease of temperature, putting the whole continent under constant winter, and is accompanied by Lute, angels of Frost, a strange form of being which seems to be a native inhabitant of Ice. Under the influence of the Ice, iron turns into zimnazo (cold iron), a material with extraordinary physical properties, which results in the creation of a new branch of industry, zimnazo mining and processing, giving birth to large fortunes and new industrial empires. Moreover, the Ice freezes History and Philosophy, preserving the old political regime, affecting human psychology and changing the laws of logic from many-valued logic of “Summer” to two-valued logic of “Winter” with no intermediate steps between True and False.

    Dukaj noted[1] that in this book, science in science-fiction stands for the philosophy of history.”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ice_%28Dukaj_novel%29
    http://www.thebookseller.com/news/fierce-auctions-among-busy-day-frank furt-dealmaking.html

    “Atlantic Books acquired world rights, excluding Poland, to Ice by Jacek Dukaj, a “philosophical and historical adventure”. Nic Cheetham, publishing director at imprint Corvus, bought the rights directly from Pawel Ciemniewski at Wydawnictwo Literackie, Dukaj’s Polish publishers. Corvus plans to publish Ice, which won the Polityka Prize for the “Most Important Polish novel of the last 20 years”, in June 2012.

    Hopefully the English translation retains the beauty of the language used in the original version. :)

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  9. Pingback: “Perfect Imperfection” – Jacek Dukaj and the power of mind « GREG LEWICKI UNITED STATES PHP

  10. Greg Lewicki Opera Windows says:

    Looking for a good synopsis of ‘Perfect Imperfection’ by Dukaj I found your essay. When I read about “Accelerando” in the first sentence, I knew it will be a decent read. After reading the whole thing I must admit your English essay on the Polish science fiction work is the most complete and informative thing I found regarding the book. Good job! I wrote a piece referring to your review on my website.

    Greetings!

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  11. Piotrus UNITED STATES Google Chrome Windows says:

    I have actually exchanged emails with Dukaj about translations, and long story short, he (like most foreign authors, really) cannot find a publisher in the English-speaking country interesting in translating his works. So if you want to email somebody to get this in English, focus on English publishers.

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