Sunday, November 18, 2007

Book Review of Genesis

The book-reading frenzy continues. This evening I finished a Poul Anderson book written in 2000 called Genesis. Anderson's works of the far future, most of them written in the 1990s provide the primary basis for my mistrust of The Singularity is Near. While Ray Kurzweil waxes eloquent about the potential glories of super-advanced computers and hyper-intelligence made larger by uploaded human minds, Anderson takes (or rather, took; he died in 2001) the human side of things. He sees machines becoming so powerful and all-encompassing that humans become little more than domesticated animals in their midst.

Consider: if we had created actually good machines to protect human life, improve the environment, guard our citizens, watch the skies, etc., what would be the purpose to our lives? What need would there be for bravery? For hard decision-making? For genius? After all, if the machines think so much more quickly than we do, they will undoubtedly surpass any achievement we might conceive. They can travel the cosmos more safely and less expensively than we could.

Genesis conceives of such a world, starting from a couple hundred years in our future to a billion years from now. In short vignettes he shows human society losing its vitality and self-determination as the machines take over more and more control. Indeed, the machines even stop a human-devised plan to stop a coming ice age 10,000 years off because the machine intelligence believes that such a plan would reduce the resources available to prevent a larger cosmic disaster 100,000 years hence.

This is a lot of heavy thinking to digest, so to make the big ideas a little more human, Anderson provides us with two lead characters. The first is Christian Brannock, a typical rough-and-ready Anderson male, liberty-loving and competent in the manly arts (hunting, fighting, composing ballads). Brannock spends only the early part of the book as "himself." The rest of the time he becomes an electronic, uploaded version of himself that is placed in a variety of machine bodies.

His later companion is Laurinda Ashcroft, the woman who helped the machine intelligence ("Gaia") convince humanity to accept Gaia's 100,000-year plan over the human-centered 10,000-year plan. She too is revived when Brannock's upload is dispatched by the galaxy-wide "universal mind" to learn why Gaia has started hiding things from "her" fellow intelligences.

Even with these two characters in play and Anderson's mythic prose to help bring these technologies down to Earth, Genesis is not as easy to read as Anderson's other, human-centered adventures, like the Time Patrol stories or Starfarers. Perhaps that is on purpose. With so much machine intelligence doing Deus-knows-what above our heads, what place do human beings have in such a universe? The best and brightest are uploaded into the collective consciousness to better the machines, and there is little evidence of the machines showing interest in becoming more human (a la Data). There seems little room in such a future for action-oriented men and women of adventure, such as Anderson tends to prefer.

I had a little easier time understanding Genesis only because I'd read The Singularity is Near recently, but the book is not for everyone. I'm also left to wonder where Anderson picked up his ideas and research, given that his book came out before Kurzweil's. Wherever they came from, I salute him. This was a challenging story to tell, and Anderson does manage to pull it off.

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