If you asked me who were the most interesting SF writers of the last decade or two, I would without give you five names: Vernor Vinge, Charles Stross, Cory Doctorow, Neal Stephenson and Jacek Dukaj. Not necessarily in that order. All of them have a lot in common. They all write about the human condition at the cusp of singularity, they all are extremely prolific and they all excel at making their book dense with high brow ideas, science and philosophy. The first four are fairly well known all around the world. The last one, not so much which is a shame.
Dukaj writes in Polish and his prose is not always easy to read. He is the kind of writer that readers love but translators hate. He molds the language, sentence structure, grammar and vocabulary to his stories – he uses it as a storytelling tool. His novels are peppered with neologisms, scientific terms and references that he trusts his readers to either know, or look up. To read his novels at a decent comprehension level you do need to know a little bit about science, a little bit about popular culture, and a little bit about science fiction in general – because he won’t stop to explain. He writes for certain kind of people – people like you and me. The vanguard of humanity, the dreamers waiting for singularity, the nettizens, the internet generation, homo digitalis.
Line of Resistance is a good example of this specific style targeted at specific audience. It is a 200 page novella published as part of his anthology titled The King of Pain. When I picked up that volume I expected it to be a collection of short stories, but that assumption was wrong. At 900 pages, the book is almost encyclopedic in size. It contains six texts, most of which could be easily published as full blown novels in their own right. I was planning to review the entire book as a single entity, but alas this is not possible. The scope of this book is so immense that lumping all these stories together would to them a great disservice. So I will review the longer, denser pieces on their own. But I digress…
Line of Resistance is right up my alley, but would be completely incomprehensible to someone like my dad. And not just because of the rather difficult, disjointed stream of consciousness narration. Not because of the overwhelming density of ideas per page and the rapid succession in which Dukaj jumps between them. Not because of the abrupt changes in the writing style that break the flow and force you to re-adjust. Not because of the dense mass of grammatical neologisms that range from interesting to downright obscene. No, it is because my dad would have no context. Half the references would sail above his head, the rest would be incomprehensible. Being an old-fashioned analog man, he would have no connection to the protagonist. Why? Well, let’s face it – I have yet to meet a 50-60 year old who would not be baffled and then frightened to the core by progressive transhumanism.
That’s essentially what this story is about. It is a contemplation on the transformative process that will allow us to progress from trans- to post-humanism. It is about the birthing pains of the new type of humanity, as told by someone who is no longer strictly homo sapiens. Dukaj writes about the existential enui felt by people trying to find their place at the cusp of singularity.
Imagine near future – decade, maybe two after Vernor Vinge’s Rainbow’s End. Consumer grade electronic hardware no longer exists – you connect to the internet with wetware implanted directly into your skull at birth. Bandwidth is ubiquitous, unlimited, and free. You see HUD’s overlays and virtual displays with your mind’s eye. This is how you work and play now. Instead of watching a movie, you now experience it as one of the characters – their feelings and thoughts piped directly into your cortex. Instead of playing a game, you immerse yourself in hyper-realistic virtual world almost indistinguishable from the real thing. Singularity approaches! And it is not the theoretical science fiction anymore – it is a concrete thing. People feel it’s call in their bones.
The world is in turmoil as corporations try to find themselves in the post-scarcity world of free energy and free time. Nation states are atrophied and are rotting away, their borders made meaningless by seamless communication streams piped directly to your cortex allowing you to manifest anywhere without leaving your house. Educational systems are defunct, as every child has an equivalent of Stephenson’s Diamond Age Primer implanted in their heads. Medical science is progressing so fast that mother nature can no longer keep up. Aging is a thing of the past as rapidly evolving geriatric treatments can keep your body in peak condition almost indefinitely. Social norms are unraveling as people experiment with their newly found freedom. Progressive liberalism is the rule, and conservatives are slowly dying of old age clinging to outdated modes of life that are no longer relevant.
For individuals, life is mostly good – but most recognize they live in troubled times. Many are confused and lost in this new reality. Society was not suddenly transformed into a magical currency-free meritocracracy like Cory Doctorow’s Bitchun society. Bitchuns operate under a classic Marslow’s hierarchy of needs. Their technology satisfies the first three steps of the pyramid, but they still have to to work to climb on the the esteem and self-actualization tiers. Dukaj’s universe has dealt away with the entire pyramid pharmacologically. Bad self-esteem? There’s a pill for that. Worried about the amount of fucks you give? There are designer drugs that will let you control the exact amount of fucks given about anything or everything. Every emotion and experience has been reduced to it’s chemical basis. They sell love in a can, eye drops that cause religious elation, liquid lust in a bottle and there is even a spray that will may you gay for a day. And if that’s not enough you can get an elective cognitive surgery like in Stross’ Glass House. If you don’t like something about yourself you can “fix” it permanently or temporarily.
Humanity is collectively becoming your aunt’s fat cat. A brutally efficient opportunistic predator driven by self preservation instinct suddenly finds itself in an environment where all his needs are met. What does it do? It slowly eats itself stupid, all the way into morbid obesity. It becomes to fat and too lazy to hunt or even move, but cannot die because the food keeps on coming and the friendly vet keeps stubbornly unclogging it’s arteries. The only difference is that humanity did it to itself. It was brought to it’s knees by it’s own accomplishment. The technological progress that was supposed to be it’s crowning achievement has turned out to be a blind alley that will lead it to it’s decadent demise.
What do young immortals do with their lives at the cusp of singularity? Not much as it turns out. They lead idle, decadent lives and loose themselves in virtual pleasures. They sit on their asses drinking and doping themselves stupid while fighting dragons and building solar empires in their favorite virtual MMO’s.
Dukaj’s protagonist, Paul (Paweł), is a content creator gripped by the same existential dread felt by millions worldwide. He is young, wealthy, affluent, immortal, completely disillusioned and bitter. He performs one of the few jobs that can’t be efficiently outsourced expert systems – he creates narratives and stories that captivate the hearts and minds of his peers who idle their days away in digital worlds. In a way he gives people reasons to get out of bed in the morning. He gives them something to look forward to amid the daily grind and boredom. His work, used to be his reason to wake up and face the day, but over the years he lost the fire. He sees the pointless artificiality of the narratives he creates. He can’t even enjoy his own games and stories because knowing the process, the marketing tricks, the psychological hooks – it ruins the illusion for him. Nothingness and senselessness of modern life is slowly drowning him in existential pointlessness. He is grasping at straws, and looking for a way out – a way to save himself and by extension maybe even the entirety of the human race.
How do you get out of existential funk brought about unprecedented prosperity? What do you do when the biggest problem in your life is that you have too much free time, too much money and too much power and absolutely nothing to do with any of it?
Your first instinct might be to throw it all away, turn your back on the progress and go live an Amish lifestyle in the woods. Sadly, while that might be a viable option for an individual, it is not an option for the human race as a whole. It is just trading one blind alley for the next – a society arrested at a more primitive technological stage would be just as stagnant. That is not the way.
So Paul embarks on a quest to find a purpose. Any purpose really – as long as it is real, concrete and would give his life some meaning. He tries to find people who seem to be thriving (not financially but mentally) – people who seem to have adopted to their environment. He studies their coping strategies hoping to adopt them to his own predicament.
He briefly flirts with religion, but abandons it almost immediately. The faithful he meets are interesting – some follow the tired western monotheism, others find meaning in new re-interpretations of Christianity in which the Trinity is actually a variable quantum state function of the universe. But, alas what is the meaning of faith in a world where you can easily re-program yourself to think anything you want. Paul could easily patch his mind to become a devout Mormon today, and a fervent follower of Koran tomorrow. It’s too easy and too artificial and it offers no path of progress for the humanity as a whole.
Paul also meets people who choose self destruction as a viable option – they drug themselves into oblivion, wipe their own minds clean, reduce themselves into infancy. Others like Paul’s girlfriend take a slow approach by selling themselves into BSDM slave rings. There they find new challenges and new boundaries to push against – and with them some semblance of serenity. But again, nihilism is not something that will save the human race from the fat cat syndrome.
Through his work, Paul meets an influential patriarch who initially seemsto have an answer. He recognizes the fact that humanity is in a transitory state and that it has hit some local minima and is unable to progress beyond it. He has a plan to fix it. He wants Paul’s company to help him build a bridge to the other side.
He correctly identifies the problem (he understands the existential enui quite well) and the approaches that won’t work – religion, patriotism, career, ambition, etc… His plan is not to inspire people, but to trick them into having a purpose. He fancies himself Leto Atredies that will set the civilization on a Golden Path to post-human bliss. But like all businessmen he only worked out the easy part of the equation – the hard part is Paul’s job. Paul is to build him a honeypot for human souls – a perfect memetic, viral narrative that will entrap humanity and infect them with some viral dream. He is like that guy at your work who thinks he has an idea for a social network that will be bigger than Facebook. What do you say to someone like that? Go home gramps, you’re to old – Millhouse will never be a meme. These things cannot be forced – you might as well try to ram religion down people’s throats. In a world where minds and attitudes are malleable, there such a scheme could never work…
Eventually Paul finds what he was looking for. After much searching and many tribulations he realizes the only way forward is to embrace progress, and let yourself be carried away by it’s torrents. After all, who is to say that the countless of hours spent in virtual worlds are completely meaningless? That the relationships you develop with your guildies are less real and significant than your meat-space connections. Human body is already fully malleable via surgery and gene-therapy, human mind can be reprogrammed and drugged into submission. Human condition is no longer a function of nature and nurture – who you are depends solely on who you want to be. Pick a body, and personality and you can be that person through the miracles of modern technology. Life is already like one big video game, so why not just cut the cord and ditch the meat? Physical world is no longer a place for men, no longer our domain – so why not migrate out there, into endless virtual worlds where you can re-shape and re-define yourself at will. The only way forward is to shed the last shackles of nature and become creatures of pure will. That’s the only way we can evolve away from what we formerly were, into what we can potentially become – something new, something different, exciting unknown, and yet unknowable.
The brilliance of this novel lies in the fact that Dukaj is not afraid to irreverently tackle the age of question of what it means to be human from a transhumanist angle. Right now, humanity is still rather simple to define. You can pull up two strands of DNA and say: “this one is human, this one is not”. But will it be that simple tomorrow? Probably not.
Same goes for self identification. Right now you are defined by set of parameters that are for better or for worse fixed – you are this gender, that race, this sexual orientation, and you feel this or that way about broccoli and spinach. You define yourself via a list of traits and preferences that for the most part are not easy to change. But what they were? What if you could re-invent and reconfigure yourself just by willing it?
Dukaj shows that humanity is an artificial construct invented by man, and thus subject to change as man enters the next stage of evolutionary progress. Same goes for the concept of self – it is an abstract idea we created at a point in time when we existed as meat-bound individuals with fixed bodies and rigid minds.
As we move toward singularity the concepts of humanity, individuality and self-hood will need to adapt and change in ways we may yet not be able to imagine.