The Flash Forward Proof Has Arrived!

FlashForward_2After many months on the back burner, I finally took a big step while house-sitting for my family this weekend and created and ordered a proof of Flash Forward. For those who don’t know, this book is an anthology of short sci-fi stories I did back in April of 2013, with a few additions from both before and after. All told, it works out to 19 short stories, 140 pages, and just over 51,000 words.

For some time, I had been wanting to do some fiction that explored the world of emerging technologies, artificial intelligence, autonomous machines, space exploration and the coming Technological Singularity. And a project involving a short story a day for 26 days was just the excuse I needed. After collecting the resulting stories together, I grouped them into three parts based on common time period and theme.

transhumanismPart I: Transitions deals with the near future, where climate change, militarized borders, and explosive growth in portables, social media, and synthetic foods will have a major effect on life. Part II: Convergence deals with the ensuing decades, where space exploration, artificial intelligence, digital sentience, and extropianism will become the norm and fundamentally alter what it is to live, work, and be human.

And Part III: Infinitum finishes things off, looking to the distant future where the seed of humanity is planted amongst the distant stars and our species passes the existential singularity. It was fun to write, but what I’ve been looking forward to for quite some time is the chance to hold a physical copy. Somehow, that’s always the best moment of the whole creative process for me. Seeing the book in print, as a real, physical thing you can touch and leaf through.

hyperspace4And now if you’ll excuse me, I have a book to edit, a million and one ideas for critical revision to consider, and a whole heap of what Aldous Huxley referred to as “Chronic Remorse” to deal with. Writing, huh? There’s a reason not everybody does it!

Accelerando: A Review

posthumanIt’s been a long while since I did a book review, mainly because I’ve been immersed in my writing. But sooner or later, you have to return to the source, right? As usual, I’ve been reading books that I hope will help me expand my horizons and become a better writer. And with that in mind, I thought I’d finally review a book I finished reading some months ago, one which was I read in the hopes of learning my craft.

It’s called Accelerando, one of Charle’s Stross better known works that earned him the Hugo, Campbell, Clarke, and British Science Fiction Association Awards. The book contains nine short stories, all of which were originally published as novellas and novelettes in Azimov’s Science Fiction. Each one revolves around the Mancx family, looking at three generations that live before, during, and after the technological singularity. is the central focus of the story – and Stross’ particular obsession – which he explores in serious depth. The title, which in Italian means “speeding up” and is used as a tempo marking in musical notation, refers to the accelerating rate of technological progress and its impact on humanity. Beginning in the 21st century with the character of Manfred Mancx, a “venture altruist”; moving to his daughter Amber in the mid 21st century; the story culminates with Sirhan al-Khurasani, Amber’s son in the late 21st century and distant future.

In the course of all that, the story looks at such high-minded concepts as nanotechnology, utility fogs, clinical immortality, Matrioshka Brains, extra-terrestrials, FTL, Dyson Spheres and Dyson Swarms, and the Fermi Paradox. It also takes a long-view of emerging technologies and predicts where they will take us down the road.

And to quote Cory Doctorw’s own review of the book, it essentially “Makes hallucinogens obsolete.”

Plot Synopsis:
Part I, Slow Takeoff, begins with the short story “Lobsters“, which opens in early-21st century Amsterdam. Here, we see Manfred Macx, a “venture altruist”, going about his business, making business ideas happen for others and promoting development. In the course of things, Manfred receives a call on a courier-delivered phone from entities claiming to be a net-based AI working through a KGB website, seeking his help on how to defect.

Eventually, he discovers the callers are actually uploaded brain-scans of the California spiny lobster looking to escape from humanity’s interference. This leads Macx to team up with his friend, entrepreneur Bob Franklin, who is looking for an AI to crew his nascent spacefaring project—the building of a self-replicating factory complex from cometary material.

In the course of securing them passage aboard Franklin’s ship, a new legal precedent is established that will help define the rights of future AIs and uploaded minds. Meanwhile, Macx’s ex-fiancee Pamela pursues him, seeking to get him to declare his assets as part of her job with the IRS and her disdain for her husband’s post-scarcity economic outlook. Eventually, she catches up to him and forces him to impregnate and marry her in an attempt to control him.

The second story, “Troubador“, takes place three years later where Manfred is in the middle of an acrimonious divorce with Pamela who is once again seeking to force him to declare his assets. Their daughter, Amber, is frozen as a newly fertilized embryo and Pamela wants to raise her in a way that would be consistent with her religious beliefs and not Manfred’s extropian views. Meanwhile, he is working on three new schemes and looking for help to make them a reality.

These include a workable state-centralized planning apparatus that can interface with external market systems, a way to upload the entirety of the 20th century’s out-of-copyright film and music to the net. He meets up with Annette again – a woman working for Arianspace, a French commercial aerospace company – and the two begin a relationship. With her help, his schemes come together perfectly and he is able to thwart his wife and her lawyers. However, their daughter Amber is then defrosted and born, and henceforth is being raised by Pamela.

The third and final story in Part I is “Tourist“, which takes place five years later in Edinburgh. During this story, Manfred is mugged and his memories (stored in a series of Turing-compatible cyberware) are stolen. The criminal tries to use Manfred’s memories and glasses to make some money, but is horrified when he learns all of his plans are being made available free of charge. This forces Annabelle to go out and find the man who did it and cut a deal to get his memories back.

Meanwhile, the Lobsters are thriving in colonies situated at the L5 point, and on a comet in the asteroid belt. Along with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the ESA, they have picked up encrypted signals from outside the solar system. Bob Franklin, now dead, is personality-reconstructed in the Franklin Collective. Manfred, his memories recovered, moves to further expand the rights of non-human intelligences while Aineko begins to study and decode the alien signals. II, Point of Inflection, opens a decade later in the early/mid-21st century and centers on Amber Macx, now a teen-ager, in the outer Solar System. The first story, entitled “Halo“, centers around Amber’s plot (with Annette and Manfred’s help) to break free from her domineering mother by enslaving herself via s Yemeni shell corporation and enlisting aboard a Franklin-Collective owned spacecraft that is mining materials from Amalthea, Jupiter’s fourth moon.

To retain control of her daughter, Pamela petitions an imam named Sadeq to travel to Amalthea to issue an Islamic legal judgment against Amber. Amber manages to thwart this by setting up her own empire on a small, privately owned asteroid, thus making herself sovereign over an actual state. In the meantime, the alien signals have been decoded, and a physical journey to an alien “router” beyond the Solar System is planned.

In the second story Router“, the uploaded personalities of Amber and 62 of her peers travel to a brown dwarf star named Hyundai +4904/-56 to find the alien router. Traveling aboard the Field Circus, a tiny spacecraft made of computronium and propelled by a Jupiter-based laser and a lightsail, the virtualized crew are contacted by aliens.

Known as “The Wunch”, these sentients occupy virtual bodies based on Lobster patterns that were “borrowed” from Manfred’s original transmissions. After opening up negotiations for technology, Amber and her friends realize the Wunch are just a group of thieving, third-rate “barbarians” who have taken over in the wake of another species transcending thanks to a technological singularity. After thwarting The Wunch, Amber and a few others make the decision to travel deep into the router’s wormhole network.

In the third story, Nightfall“, the router explorers find themselves trapped by yet more malign aliens in a variety of virtual spaces. In time, they realize the virtual reaities are being hosted by a Matrioshka brain – a megastructure built around a star (similar to a Dyson’s Sphere) composed of computronium. The builders of this brain seem to have disappeared (or been destroyed by their own creations), leaving an anarchy ruled by sentient, viral corporations and scavengers who attempt to use newcomers as currency.

With Aineko’s help, the crew finally escapes by offering passage to a “rogue alien corporation” (a “pyramid scheme crossed with a 419 scam”), represented by a giant virtual slug. This alien personality opens a powered route out, and the crew begins the journey back home after many decades of being away. III, Singularity, things take place back in the Solar System from the point of view of Sirhan – the son of the physical Amber and Sadeq who stayed behind. In “Curator“, the crew of the Field Circus comes home to find that the inner planets of the Solar System have been disassembled to build a Matrioshka brain similar to the one they encountered through the router. They arrive at Saturn, which is where normal humans now reside, and come to a floating habitat in Saturn’s upper atmosphere being run by Sirhan.

The crew upload their virtual states into new bodies, and find that they are all now bankrupt and unable to compete with the new Economics 2.0 model practised by the posthuman intelligences of the inner system. Manfred, Pamela, and Annette are present in various forms and realize Sirhan has summoned them all to this place. Meanwhile, Bailiffs—sentient enforcement constructs—arrive to “repossess” Amber and Aineko, but a scheme is hatched whereby the Slug is introduced to Economics 2.0, which keeps both constructs very busy.

In “Elector“, we see Amber, Annette, Manfred and Gianna (Manfred’s old political colleague) in the increasingly-populated Saturnian floating cities and working on a political campaign to finance a scheme to escape the predations of the “Vile Offspring” – the sentient minds that inhabit the inner Solar System’s Matrioshka brain. With Amber in charge of this “Accelerationista” party, they plan to journey once more to the router network. She loses the election to the stay-at-home “conservationista” faction, but once more the Lobsters step in to help by offering passage to uploads on their large ships if the humans agree to act as explorers and mappers.

In the third and final chapter, “Survivor“, things fast-forward to a few centuries after the singularity. The router has once again been reached by the human ship and humanity now lives in space habitats throughout the Galaxy. While some continue in the ongoing exploration of space, others (copies of various people) live in habitats around Hyundai and other stars, raising children and keeping all past versions of themselves and others archived.

Meanwhile, Manfred and Annette reconcile their differences and realize they were being manipulated all along. Aineko, who was becoming increasingly intelligent throughout the decades, was apparently pushing Manfred to fulfill his schemes to help bring the humanity to the alien node and help humanity escape the fate of other civilizations that were consumed by their own technological progress.

Needless to say, this book was one big tome of big ideas, and could be mind-bendingly weird and inaccessible at times! I’m thankful I came to it when I did, because no one should attempt to read this until they’ve had sufficient priming by studying all the key concepts involved. For instance, don’t even think about touching this book unless you’re familiar with the notion of the Technological Singularity. Beyond that, be sure to familiarize yourself with things like utility fogs, Dyson Spheres, computronium, nanotechnology, and the basics of space travel.

You know what, let’s just say you shouldn’t be allowed to read this book until you’ve first tackled writers like Ray Kurzweil, William Gibson, Arthur C. Clarke, Alastair Reynolds and Neal Stephenson. Maybe Vernon Vinge too, who I’m currently working on. But assuming you can wrap your mind around the things presented therein, you will feel like you’ve digested something pretty elephantine and which is still pretty cutting edge a decade or more years after it was first published!

But to break it all down, the story is essentially a sort of cautionary tale of the dangers of the ever-increasing pace of change and advancement. At several points in the story, the drive toward extropianism and post-humanity is held up as both an inevitability and a fearful prospect. It’s also presented as a possible explanation for the Fermi Paradox – which states that if sentient life is statistically likely and plentiful in our universe, why has humanity not observed or encountered it?

According to Stross, it is because sentient species – which would all presumably have the capacity for technological advancement – will eventually be consumed by the explosion caused by ever-accelerating progress. This will inevitably lead to a situation where all matter can be converted into computing space, all thought and existence can be uploaded, and species will not want to venture away from their solar system because the bandwidth will be too weak. In a society built on computronium and endless time, instant communication and access will be tantamount to life itself.

All that being said, the inaccessibility can be tricky sometimes and can make the read feel like its a bit of a labor. And the twist at the ending did seem like it was a little contrived and out of left field. It certainly made sense in the context of the story, but to think that a robotic cat that was progressively getting smarter was the reason behind so much of the story’s dynamic – both in terms of the characters and the larger plot – seemed sudden and farfetched.

And in reality, the story was more about the technical aspects and deeper philosophical questions than anything about the characters themselves. As such, anyone who enjoys character-driven stories should probably stay away from it. But for people who enjoy plot-driven tales that are very dense and loaded with cool technical stuff (which describes me pretty well!), this is definitely a must-read.

Now if you will excuse me, I’m off to finish Vernor Vinge’s Rainbow’s End, another dense, sometimes inaccessible read!

Transhumanism… The Shape of Things to Come?

“Your mind is software. Program it. Your body is a shell. Change it. Death is a disease. Cure it. Extinction is approaching. Fight it.”

-Eclipse Phrase

A lot of terms are thrown around these days that allude to the possible shape of our future. Words like Technological Singularity, extropianism, postmortal, posthuman, and Transhuman. What do these words mean? What kind of future do they point to? Though they remain part of a school of thought that is still very much theoretical and speculative, this future appears to be becoming more likely every day.

Ultimately, the concept is pretty simple, in a complex, mind-bending sort of way. The theory has it that at some point in this or the next century, humanity will overcome death, scarcity, and all other limitations imposed on us by nature. The means vary, but it is believed that progress in any one or more of the following areas will make such a leap inevitable:

Artificial Intelligence:
The gradual evolution of computers, from punch cards to integrated circuits to networking, shows an exponential trend upwards. With the concordant growth of memory capacity and processing speed, it is believed that it is only a matter of time before computers are capable of independent reasoning. Progress is already being made in this domain, with the Google X Labs Neural Net that has a connectome of a billion connections.

As such, it is seen as inevitable that a machine will one day exist that is capable of surpassing a human being. This sort of machinery could even be merged with a human’s own mind, enhancing their natural thought patterns, memory, and augmenting their intelligence to the point where their intelligence is immeasurable by modern standards.

Just think of the things we could think up once that’s possible. Well… you can’t exactly, but we can certainly postulate. For starters, such things as the Grand Unifying Theory, the nature of time and space, quantum mechanics, and other mind-bendingly complex fields could suddenly make sense to us. What’s more, this would make further technological leaps that much easier.

Here we have an area of development which can fall into one of three categories. On the one hand, advancements in medical science could very well lead to the elimination of disease and the creation of mind-altering pharmaceuticals. On the other, there’s the eventual development of things like biotechnology, machinery that is grown rather than built, composed of DNA strands or other “programmable” material.

Lastly, there is the potential for cybernetics, a man-machine interface where organic is merged with the artificial, either in the form of implants, prosthetic limbs, and artificial organs. All of these, alone or in combination, would enhance a human beings strength, mental capacity, and prolong their life.

This is the meaning behind the word postmortal. If human beings could live to the point where life could be considered indefinite (at least by current standards), the amount we could accomplish in a single lifetime could very well be immeasurable.

The concept of machines so small that anything will be accessible, even the smallest components of matter, has been around for over half a century. However, it was not until the development of microcircuits and miniaturization that the concept graduated from pure speculation and became a scientific possibility.

Here again, the concept is simple, assuming you can wrap your head around the staggering technical aspects and implications. For starters, we are talking about machines that are measurable only on the nanoscale, meaning one to one-hundred billionths of a meter (1 x 10-9 m). At this size, these machines would be capable of manipulating matter at the cellular or even atomic level. This is where the staggering implications come in, when you realize that this kinds of machinery could make just about anything possible.

For starters, all forms of disease would be conquerable, precious metals could be synthesized, seamless, self-regenerating structures could be made, and any and all consumer products could be created out of base matter. We’d be living in a world in which scarcity would be a thing of the past, our current system of values and exchange would become meaningless, buildings could build themselves, and out of raw matter (like dirt and pure scrap) no less, societies would become garbage free, pollution could be eliminated, and manufactured goods could be made of materials that are both extra-light and near-indestructible.

All of this progress, either alone or in combination, will add to a future that we can’t even begin to fathom. This is where the concept of the Technological Singularity comes in. If human beings were truly postmortal (evolved beyond death), society was postscarce (meaning food, water, fuel and other necessities would never be in short supply), and machines would be capable of handling all our basic needs.

For Futurists and self-professed Singularitarians, this trend is as desirable as it is inevitable. Citing such things as Moore’s Law (which measures the rate of computing progress) or Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns – which postulates that the rate of progress increases exponentially with each development – these voices claim that it is humanity’s destiny to conquer death and its inherent limitations. If one looks at the full range of human history – from the Neolithic Revolution to the Digital – the trend seems clear and obvious.

For others, this prospect is both frightening and something to be avoided. When it comes right down to it, transhumanity means leaving behind all the things that make us human. And whereas some people think the Singularity will solve all human problems, others see it as merely an extension of a trend whereby our lives become increasingly complicated and dependent on machinery. And supposing that we do cross some kind of existential barrier, will we ever be able to turn back?

And of course, the more dystopian predictions warn against the cataclysmic possibilities of entrusting so much of our lives to automata, or worse, intelligent machines. Virtually every apocalyptic and dystopian scenario devised in the last sixty years has predicted that doom will result from the development of AI, cybernetics and other advanced technology. The most technophobic claim that the machinery will turn on humanity, while the more moderate warn against increased dependency, since we will be all the more vulnerable if and when the technology fails.

Naturally, there are many who fall somewhere in between and question both outlooks. In recent decades, scientists and speculative fiction writers have emerged who challenge the idea that technological progress will automatically lead to the rise of dystopia. Citing the undeniable trend towards greater and greater levels of material prosperity caused by the industrial revolution and the post-war era – something which is often ignored by people who choose to emphasize the down sides – these voices believe that the future will be neither utopian or dystopian. It will simply be…

Where do you fall?