24 June 2008

Locus guest reviewer Greg Bear reviews Damien Broderick

from Locus Magazine, June 2008

Year Million, Damien Broderick (Atlas and Company 978-0-9777433-4-6, $16.00, 304pp, tp, also $40.00, hc) June 2008.

Extreme sport of the intellectual variety — that's one way to characterize writing about the far future. In this innovative collection of new essays, Damien Broderick has marshaled some of the brightest minds in science fiction and futurist thinking, instructing them to climb very high mountains and tell us what might lie on the other side.

Broderick leads with Jim Holt's "The Laughter of Copernicus", a fine essay on the survival of number and humor and their usefulness in gauging how long a species might last. Dougal Dixon's "A Changing Earth" concentrates on geology and geological scales and points out that one million years is actually a trivial span of time. He hardly touches upon human experience, except to address our possible extinction.

Steven Harris's essay is more specific and large-scale. Like many of the writers here, he crosses the one-million-year boundary to explore what has become the gold standard techno-futurist view of human progress: our inevitable uploading into ever-expanding, ever-more-powerful computers made of "computronium." Following the lead of Robert Bradbury, who promotes astronomical-scale, deep-layered "Matrioshka" or M-brains, Harris is attracted to mathematical solutions. IQ will inevitably be enhanced by uploading into "computronium," where we will live longer and think much faster and more logically, as we spend our time dwelling in virtual worlds that outpace the universe, and solving huge problems in math and physics.

Wil McCarthy introduces programmable matter, a concept on which he holds a patent. He suggests that soon, the essence of a human being can be compressed down to a manageable amount of data, which can then be transferred across space to help recreate a simulacrum on other worlds. What will we give up as we are zipped down to a couple of terabytes or so of data? No one knows — but it's a terrific idea for a first-person story, perhaps like "Flowers for Algernon."

This "seed" concept also attracts the attention of Robin Hanson, who postulates that starships need not be filled with people, but just one or two guides and a whole lot of information, genetic and otherwise, that can be used to reconstruct a world.

Communication interests Amara D. Angelica, who explores the current thinking and future possibilities for talking with non-humans far, far away. Lisa Kaltenegger tours us through a growing multiplicity of worlds, likely to expand to awesome numbers as our telescopes and detection technologies improve.

Rudy Rucker's essay is a refreshing anodyne to some of the book's techno-faith. After an enthusiastic discussion of "orphids," smart dust-motes that could coat our world, and ourselves, like — well, dust — he says that computronium is unnecessary. Rucker supposes that nature itself is a giant information-processing system, with particles abuzz with the potential to "think" and solve problems. Perhaps computronium will ultimately be found in the stuff that lies all around us.

It's almost a given that in the future, all thinking systems will be based on computers — which for the time being, do not "think" at all — and that ultimately, the destiny of the human race lies in mathematically-based virtual worlds. Yet very few computers survive more than ten years, whereas some biological systems live for thousands of years — and humans regularly outlive their machines. The evidence for now shows that organic forms — Harris's "squishy" stuff — are more robust.

There's no reason for this not to change, but there could be real theoretical hurdles inherent in the concept of uploading into computronium.

Many of the authors in this anthology — including Rucker — use the term "compute" as if it were synonymous with thinking. In fact, organisms don't run on software and don't have operating systems, per se — their software is their hardware. Their various behaviors and states are remarkably difficult to predict or even describe mathematically — that is, to compute. Consequently, uploading without severe loss of data likely involves measuring and recording the state not just of trillions of individual cells, but of their constituent molecules — a reduced snapshot of a system that is, in fact, its own most efficient computational model. (The same argument, of course, applies to any Star Trek-type transporter.)

This may be a theoretical hurdle, and not a technical one, but many of us still wrap ourselves in silicon dreams, just as we once described the universe — and human beings — as varieties of clockwork.

Gregory Benford relates a long-running competitive discussion between many physicists — in particular Larry Krauss — and Freeman Dyson. The argument is complex, but seems to simplify down to digital vs. analog, and which can survive longer in the practically endless universe we seem to be part of. Dyson comes down on the side of analog, which can survive ever-decreasing increments of energy usage. Digital, on the other hand — because bits are finite and discrete — eventually faces a "packet" gap. I'm intrigued by this endlessly shrinking energy pool and the possibility that one can think forever on a severe budget, but suspect the fallacy here is more Zeno's paradox than technological. Eventually, even analog systems will cross the finish line. They may have more fun along the way, however.

Pamela Sargent and Ann Corwin venture into the minefield of enhanced longevity, but mostly neglect the problems of living centuries longer, or forever, in favor of the pluses — which is appropriate for this sort of book. But I've long been haunted by the inequality and economics of extreme life extension. It's obvious that not everybody is going to live forever. Who gets to choose?

Catherine Asaro discusses the possibilities of superluminal travel, in sufficient detail for experts to follow along and critique the assumptions step-by-step. Hope in this area is always welcome. Sean Carroll offers a useful primer on entropy and complexity, and then takes us into the multiplicity of universes, and the possibility of revisiting creation.

One trap of long-distance viewing is a tendency toward whited-out, emotionless abstractions. It's difficult to imagine human beings living in George Zebrowski's massively reshaped universe, and difficult to sympathize with their adventures. These may be our descendants, but they will likely feel no more a connection with us than we do with ancestral shrews — and hold no more fealty to our most cherished ideas. This is the sport at its most extreme — chilly, mind-expanding, and strangely exalting. A piece that Arthur C. Clarke would have admired, I think.

Perhaps our extreme speculations are the ones most doomed to fail. Still, it's encouraging to realize that H.G. Wells's 1895 The Time Machine, set almost a million years hence, remains one of science fiction's most compelling visions. J.D. Bernal's extraordinary essay, The World, the Flesh, and the Devil, written by a young scientist in 1929, is still fresh and full of ideas. I wonder what Wells and Bernal would have thought about virtual sex?

The futures of that greatest and most far-reaching of future thinkers, Olaf Stapledon, though distant, still seem humanly accessible, even when he writes of billions of years of evolution, alternate species, living galaxies, and alternate realities.

What Broderick's phalanx of imaginative writers make abundantly clear is there is still tremendous potential for mystery and discovery in our universe, even in so brief a span as a million years.

Progress in imagination, after all, precedes all other forms.

Read more! This is one of three dozen book reviews from the June 2008 issue of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe or buy the issue.
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