(2009) Keith Brooke, Solaris, £7.99, pbk, 443 pp, ISBN 978-1-844-16710-4
In 'Patent Pending' (Tales from the White Hart, 1957), Arthur C. Clarke imagined an invention that allowed all human sensations to be recorded. After a brief test on a gourmet meal, it is immediately adapted for purposes of sex.
In discussions within ASTRA, the Association in Scotland to Research into Astronautics, leading to the final chapter of my own 'Man and the Planets' (Ashgrove Press, 1983), the late Chris Boyce outlined a future of mind-machine interaction which seemed to lead to humanity evolving in the direction of a hive-mind; at first he saw no problem with that, but later agreed that 'the spirit of the beehive is in this'. "With duplicates of all bodies available to duplicates of all minds, there's immortality for all, but the increased diversification leads to increased homogenisation. The group-mind would change its attitudes too slowly and be too inflexible to survive, unless it had a continuous influx of fresh ideas and attitudes from enough new adults to change the consensus, and the population explosion would force the conversion of the Solar System into a Dyson Sphere, either a solid shell or a vast swarm of artificial asteroids. But when all resources are exhausted, the group-mind must fragment, with asteroids cannibalising one another, until all that's left is debris which the Sun gradually smoothes into a vast, peaceful equatorial ring. Meantime, in planetary systems to which the adventurers fled long ago, events move inexorably along the same course, and the expanding culture survives, spreading from star to star, in the worst way envisaged by Freeman Dyson: "Intelligence may indeed be a benign influence, creating isolated groups of philosopher-kings far apart in the heavens and enabling them to share at leisure their accumulated wisdom... (or) intelligence may be a cancer of purposeless technological exploitation, sweeping across a galaxy as irresistibly as it has swept across our own planet." (Scientific American, April 1964.)"
Voluntary euthanasia could be one way out, but isn’t the only way. Chris Boyce suggested an active interstellar programme of self-replicating 'von Neumann probes', whose computers could house human personalities. In theory, such probes could explore the entire Galaxy in 1-2 million years, less than the present age of mankind. "Since travel broadens the mind, the answer to the problem of stasis on the net may be what Boyce called 'the terminal transmission', transferring one's awareness to a distant von Neumann probe and erasing it from the Solar System net. Transfer would 'feel' instantaneous, and once 'in' the probe one could switch off during the boring interstellar and interplanetary transfers, 'waking' only when there's work to do or something to see. Nor would one be limited to a single probe, when the net is effectively being cast over a whole Galaxy. John Kelk [an ASTRA member] calculated that, even if such a complex 'signal' had to travel by two different paths, to make sure there were no errors, it could cross the Galaxy in only three 'steps'. Chris Boyce thought such a transition to 'Cosmic Man' would be like going from the sea to the land. Very few lifeforms have gone back to the sea, which is now merely a part of the human environment in which we do not live, although we visit it; likewise, he thought, star-travellers will not want to live on planets again."
That raises other problems, though on a different level, so we can skip them here. The Slovenian editor Samo Resnik considered that chapter of the book to be so important for the future of mankind that he had it translated and published in Fantazia 1, which would have been the first of an influential series but for political enmity in his home country. It’s been strange to read a novel whose logic so closely parallels that of our 1970s/1980s discussions. In The Accord, initially, 'nobody goes into space any more', so the novel lacks our interplanetary dimension, but it jumps past it to the interstellar one.
In The Accord, the initial solution to the Malthusian problem is for the dead to shift into a virtual world which has no interaction with our own. Its parameters will be set by the Accord, a consensus of all the recently-living personae transferred into it, (much like Roger Penrose’s attempt to prove that the human brain is a quantum computer) resolving the issue of solipsism. To forestall the dangers we foresaw in 'Man and the Planets', there will be no interaction between the new world of the dead (a new version of our world), and the real world. But even so it doesn’t work, because the Accord is using up more internet space with every individual who dies online, and in a world of worsening global poverty more and more choose to do so – indeed, there’s a global semi-religious movement, the Soul Harvesters, encouraging people to do it.
Moving into quantum space is a temporary solution, but in the end a different version of Chris Boyce’s interstellar solution prevails. In my first ASTRA discussion book, Man and the Stars (1974), we concluded that human colonisation of Earthlike worlds would be impossibly difficult, unless maybe with faster-than-light links with Earth, due to the sheer difficulty of integrating terrestrial life-forms into another world’s biosphere. That does not affect the dead in the Accord, because they’re fireproof unless the Accord itself is tampered with, so they go for settling Earthlike planets instead of Chris’s 'terminal transmission'.
But from the outset (guess what?), the designer of the Accord has used his temporary, prototype segments of the Accord as virtual worlds in which he can persuade the woman he’s infatuated with to have sex with him, without either of them betraying their real-life partners – "and that," as Arthur said in 'Patent Pending', "raises profound philosophical questions we can hardly go into here". However her husband, hitherto his major political backer, is psychotically jealous. He has no problems with the philosophical issues and he kills her in the real world, whereupon the designer kills himself. But the murderer cannot leave it at that and the plot becomes an elaborate cat-and-mouse game in which each of them can interact with reality at different times, while simultaneously hunting each other and the hapless beloved through multiple versions of the Accord, which keep merging into the main one, because ‘there can be only one’. The technology allows them to take over people in the real world, initially as willing ‘sweats’, but that has all the dangers which “Man and the Planets foresaw with regard to making cyborgs, and sure enough, the takeover process quickly becomes involuntary for the victims. 'The spirit of the beehive is in this' – don’t be afraid, don’t be very afraid, think about what could prevent it and then check your solutions against ours. You can still get Man and the Planets on eBay. Meanwhile, read The Accord for an alternative way in which it could all go completely wrong, and don’t be surprised that once again human sexuality has screwed up what could theoretically have been perfect.
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