Here I am again, reviewing a novel most of you probably won’t be able to read. The good news it’s the last one I have for now. The bad news is that I might get more at some point. But again, Dukaj writes good stuff – so if yo do have an opportunity to read it, go for it.
In stark contrast to the voluminous Perfect Imperfection and Black Oceans, Extensa is rather short. It’s more of a novella or an extended short story really. But it was published as a (rather thin) hard cover book.
The blurb at the back cover is misleading and alludes to some cataclysm, and describes the main characters as last surviving humans on earth. This couldn’t be more wrong. The book is about stragglers – extreme religious conservatives that got scared of the progress and decided to live like their ancestors did. Earth is otherwise teeming with people – they are just not what you would consider baseline homo-sapiens anymore. Humanity has shed the biological shells, and with them the mortality. Most of the surface of Earth was reconfigured as a computronium matrix where most of the post humans now do their processing. They are non corporeal intellects floating in a reconfigurable nano machine soup. In the middle of that maelstrom of computation lies the Green Kingdom, which is not actually a kingdom. It is not a nation or a state, because it’s inhabitants are too afraid of progress to form one.
The population of the “kingdom” is very low. Maybe few thousand, if even that. Most of these folks live on large, self sufficient estate. They farm, raise cattle, practice husbandry and etc. Each estate is kept by a clan, or an extended family unit of a dozen or so people that work to keep the farmstead going. Most clans prefer to settle at least a day or two of travel from the nearest neighbor and keep to themselves.
At scheduled intervals, tradesmen of each clan travel to ruins of a small picturesque town and hold a grand bazaar where they exchange goods, and hold council where they vote on the matters of the kingdom, resolve territorial disputes and etc. They also put together The List.
You see, these folks are not the Amish. They have never given up on certain civilized luxuries such as electric lighting for their households. While they sworn away modern locomotion and communication they like to have glass windows, aluminum spoon and forks in the kitchen and china instead of clay for their tableware. The problem is that their population is to small to build an industry that could make these things, and their culture and customs forbids bootstrapping industry. They want to live pre-industrial rural life, fearing a domino effect. If they jump-start the old factories to make glass or utensils, soon people will want radios, TV’s and God-forbid computers. And from there it is only one short step to ascendancy – or as they see it, eternal damnation.
So they make a list, and they give it to the post-human representative that manifests in an old abandoned crypt in the Bazaar Town. He snaps his fingers and their carts fill with light bulbs, petrol, china, Tupperware and all kinds of modern luxury goods. Why not? The posts live in a post scarcity economy. The very fabric of the Green Kingdom is made from the same reconfigurable nanomachinery that they use for processing. They can reconfigure matter at the atomic level at will. It costs them nothing.
Actually, that’s wrong. Keeping the Green Kingdom afloat does require quite a bit of computational resources. It also prevents them from optimizing their computronium, as they have to route around it. Those posts who have left the Earth are actually doing much better in terms of adopting their environment to their needs. Mars, and the asteroid belt have already been disassembled and converted to computational resources, likely in a project leading up to a full blown Matrioshka brain. The baselines of course see the deconstruction of mars as a proof that the post-human technology is dangerous and that the posts are using it recklessly.
They tell tales how the crazy demons that migrated to mars made the planet blow up with their arcane science. Or how they made the moon moon into amorphous blob with constantly shifting patterns on the surface. They are of course wrong. The inhabitants of moon and Mars are fine. In fact they couldn’t be better. It’s the Earth dwellers who are getting shafted supporting a physical reservation for baselines. The Green Kingdom slowly shrinks as more an more posts lose interest in the project, and divert resources. Many would simply wish to digitize the remaining handful of humans by force, but a vocal minority keeps the project running hoping that the baselines will eventually come around and request to “ascend” out of their free will.
The story is told from the perspective of a baseline who, becomes fascinated by astronomy. His family does not really approve this hobby, but they begrudgingly let him indulge in it as long as he does not tamper with forbidden post-human Clarktech. The telescopes and pre-singularity space exploration equipment is ok. One of such advanced tools that was created prior to the disembodiment of the human race was the Extensa system. Scientists launched thousands of tiny starwisps at interesting objects in the sky. Each carried a payload of quantum entangled particles, and a nano factory. They were to travel at relativistic speeds towards their target, using quantum entanglement to call home. Once near the target, the entangled set that was left on Earth would be implanted into a host. The host would then would experience the target directly – his brain wired to the starwisps probes. The nano-factory would them be used to collect local materials and construct local base of operations – computing nodes, probes, sensor arrays, etc.
The protagonist does exactly that. He merges with an Extensa that just reached nearby nebula. The point of interest – a gigantic anomaly that resides there. It takes him years to establish presence in the system, expand his remote feelers and do some preliminary measurements and to teach himself old-world astronomy and physics from ancient books to understand the data he is collecting. He makes a shocking discovery – the anomaly is another Extensa like system. It’s a quantum entangled artificial construct. But definitely not one of Earth origin. It is a completely alien thing – a proof not only of life, but of advanced civilizations existing outside of the solar system. He does not have the faintest clue how to communicate with it.
Suddenly he has a bargaining chip in his hands. Something the baselines can trade with the post humans. The transcendent population of Earth is indeed very interested in this finding. They want to barter. The protagonist is to ascend immediately so that they can unravel the entangled particles from his neural cortex and build an interface for themselves. They are willing to extend the duration of the Green Kingdom experiment if he does this.
Sounds like a no-brainer, right? But for a someone who was born and raised into a culture that views posts as nothing but demon-spawn that tempts the noble Good fearing humans with immortality, while leading them towards eternal damnation this is not such an easy choice. Especially when he is told right of the bat “We could take you by force, but we prefer that you consent”.
It’s a really good story. Unlike the previous books of Dukaj that dazzle you with linguistic pyrotechnics and segue into Neal Stephenson style philosophical and scientific tangents, or astute socio-political commentary, Extensa is very simple in structure. It’s written in first person, from a perspective of bright, but still fairly backwards baseline human living in a very anti-intellectual society. A lot of things are merely hinted at or implied. Much of it reads like a fantasy novel, with a post-singularity technological backdrop hidden underneath. It is a very nifty way to present the story and I enjoyed it quite a bit.
I definitely recommend this book to all those capable of reading it. It is very short, but worth checking out.