[FoRK] Douglas Adams: Is there an Artificial God?

Jeff Bone <jbone at place.org> on Fri Jul 13 15:28:28 PDT 2007

On Jul 13, 2007, at 3:18 PM, rst at ai.mit.edu wrote:

> Jeff Bone writes:
>> Hmm, I do love Vinge, but I can't agree that his detailed
>> extrapolations are any more (or even as) plausible than / as other SF
>> writers in that same vein.  He seems to make bold and provocative
>> "large inferences" but the gritty minutia and the path from here to
>> there just isn't his strong suit...  (For example:  despite all the
>> trappings of very High Technology --- localizers, interstellar
>> travel, FTL galaxy-scale data networking, etc. --- his characters
>> continue to be largely human-scale intelligences, with the occasional
>> Big Bad AI.  Yet he doesn't convincingly explore why this is the case
>> or how interstellar society functions w/o there being massive deltas
>> in relative individual power levels.
>
> Well, others have pointed out the "Zones of Thought", and other
> strategies that he uses to quite deliberately keep the superhumans
> offstage (though in some of his books they're present; "A Fire Upon
> the Deep" even has humans whose job is to figure out what they can
> about their behavior, a field of study known by the lovely coinage,
> "Applied Theology").

Indeed.  But that always seemed like a bit of a cop-out from the very  
guy who (arguably) coined the term "Singularity" and invented the  
notion of cyberspace well before Gibson coined that term.   
Exploration of that theme in sci-fi --- the relationships between  
beings widely separated on the individual power gradient --- has been  
woefully unexplored, when in fact I think it's probably the richest  
and most interesting theme in the whole space, given Singularity- 
esque assumptions.

Stross does a bit of that with his "Eschaton" ploy:

   I am the Eschaton. I am not your God.
   I am descended from you, and exist in your future.
   Thou shalt not violate causality within my historic light cone. Or  
else..

...but even then it's not all that thoroughly fleshed out.  (Though  
The Festival from his book Singularity Sky remains, IMHO, one of the  
most entertaining things anybody's concocted in this vein.)

Similarly Shane Dix and Sean Williams contemplate a tiered society of  
increasingly-evolved and post-biological humans --- all still  
considered human --- in their otherwise rather bland and rote  
Evergence series.

Iain Banks IMHO probably does the best job of this with (some of) his  
Culture novels, where almost everything important is in the  
interaction between the massive, superintelligent ship-embodied AIs  
and their own society, with the biologicals playing the oddly well- 
respected, even revered, parasites who occasionally make some  
entirely unexpected yet critical / consequential contribution to the  
plot.  But still, leaves you wanting to know "why?  How did this  
relationship / situation come to be?  Why aren't the biologicals  
simply ants, or less, to the ships and world-Minds?"

I think there's a huge opportunity for somebody to take the "infinite  
iterated game" approach to explaining how, and why, biological  
societies might persist post-High Technology, on an extrapolated-MWI  
or Tipleresque deep-narrative substrate.  Excellent deep sci-fi  
background possibilities there, with rich plot and character  
opportunities.

> But as to Vinge's skill at extrapolation within those limits, I guess
> the best example is "True Names", an novella about, among other
> things, criminals coordinating their business within a global-scale
> MMORPG.  Most of it reads like it could have been written last week;
> only occasional odd turns of phrase like "thousand megabyte" for
> "gigabyte" reveal that was in fact written in 1980, when just about
> all the technology in it was totally, well... science fiction.

Agreed on that front.  True Names remains my favorite single piece of  
Vinge's whole canon.

jb


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