Rudy Rucker: December 2011 Archives

This will be, I think, the last of my guest posts here on Charlie's Diary. It's been fun to have such a big audience, and some of your comments have been quite valuable.

I'm pleased to have stood in for a man who's one of the greatest SF writers to come along in years. Charlie Stross, Cory Doctorow, and Lauren Beukes are my faves among the SF generations after mine. Not to mention all the wonderful weirdos I've been publishing in my free online zine Flurb over the last five years. Click the cover image to see issue #12. The preceding issues are online as well, and there's an index by authors. If you root around, you'll even find an old piece by Charlie.

Sometimes I get a little tired of being cast as a science fiction writer. In my mind, I see my novels as surreal, postmodern literature. I just so happen to couch my works in the vernacular genre form of SF because the field's tropes appeal to me. The downside is that, since my books have that SF label on them, many people don't realize that I'm writing literature.

The word "transreal" that I started applying to my novels in the early 1980s was inspired by a blurb on the back of my copy of A Scanner Darkly, saying that Philip K. Dick had written "a transcendental autobiography."

I got my copy of A Scanner Darkly at the first-ever SF convention that I attended, at Brighton, England, 1979--Phil's book was just out, and some friendly British stoners whom I'd befriended at the con were talking about it, complaining a little that it was "too anti-drug." They didn't seem excited about the fact that the book was probably drawn from a chapter of Phil's own life--and that it was deeply funny, at least for those who have a taste for Phil's dark humor.

[Painting for my transreal novel, Saucer Wisdom, showing, left to right, my friend Gregory Gibson, me, and two aliens.]

After the Brighton convention, waiting on the platform for my train back to London, I was reading Scanner as I stood there. And I was laughing so hard that I left my suitcase on the platform--which I suddenly realized as the train started to move. I jumped back out in the nick of time.

Up until Scanner, I hadn't fully grasped how close Phil Dick's novels were to the kinds of books that I wanted to write. I particularly liked the language-with-a-flat-tire way that his characters talked in Scanner, and over the years I'd begin to emulate his peculiarly Californian tone. And even more, I liked the sense that Phil was writing about real people.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I've always been repelled by the notion of the multiversal world of branching time--a cosmos in which no decision matters, as you also do the opposite in some other branch of time.

Rather than feeling that the other paths are real, we in fact have an emotional, experiential sense that the bad, unchosen paths are in fact shriveling away to the left and the right. If we didn't feel this way, why would we sweat our big choices?

I'd like to see a story in which the unchosen paths really are withering away. Or, if not withering, being somehow backed away from.

So for the purposes of an SF story I'm thinking of, I'll propose that there really is only one truly existing path through the branching thicket of possible worlds. The others are juiceless abstractions. But I do want a sense of someone feeling out the best paths as in Phil Dick's vintage precog story, "The Golden Man."

My gimmick might be to suppose that our path is not a striaght line. It has kinks in it, stubs. Our cosmic world line does very commonly grow a stub out a few seconds (or longer) past a given branch point. But then it backs up and goes into the main branch. There's a continuous line of time but it sometimes reverses its direction a bit and then starts forward on a new tack.

Literature at large has its own tropes or standard scenarios: the unwed mother, the cruel father, the buried treasure, the midnight phone call, the stranger in town and so forth.

When I speak of power chords in the context of SF, I'm talking about certain classic tropes that have the visceral punch of heavy musical riffs: blaster guns, spaceships, time machines, aliens, telepathy, flying saucers, warped space, faster-than-light travel, immersive virtual reality, clones, robots, teleportation, alien-controlled pod people, endless shrinking, the shattering of planet Earth, intelligent goo, antigravity, starships, ecodisaster, pleasure-center zappers, alternate universes, nanomachines, mind viruses, higher dimensions, a cosmic computation that generates our reality, and, of course, the attack of the giant ants.

["Welcome to Mars" by Rudy Rucker. More info on my paintings page.]

When I use an SF power chord, I try to do something fresh with it, perhaps placing it into an unfamiliar context, perhaps describing it more intensely than usual, or perhaps using it for some new kind of thought experiment.

As I mentioned in my "Rudy #3" post a few days ago, I'm working towards a certain conception of a mind amplification process that I call the Big Aha. Remember that I'm not looking for something that's inarguably true, I'm looking for something that I'd find artistically congenial for use in my next science-fiction novel. And I'm planning to relate my notion to quantum computation.

[Transreal painting of my wife in analog mode and me in digital mode, dancing in (I wish) the Riviera.]

The fundamental mental distinction I want to make is that my mind, or any person's mind, functions in two distinct modes: (a) the continuous, somewhat analog, wave-function mode, and (b) the discontinuous, somewhat digital, collapsing mode. The mode (a) is when you gaze idly at a menu, and (b) is when you decide what to order.

A few commenters wanted to argue that this is a false distinction, and that wave functions never collapse. From introspection, I don't feel that this lack of distinction is true. I do feel the continuous and the discrete modes of thought within my mind.

I do know about Hugh Everett's many-universe interpretation of quantum mechanics, under which there are no collapses because the timeline is continually branching, or, more accurately, there are continuum of parallel worlds--the multiverse.

But I have an aesthetic revulsion towards multiverse stories. In a nutshell, my problem is this: If everything happens, then nothing matters. I prefer to think that we live in a single and unique universe that is somehow in an optimal form--one might think of an external godlike crafter or one might equally well think of something like a bent wire that holds a soap film that has settled into a surface of minimal area.

So today I'll say a little more about my still-evolving notions, and I'll be doing this in the light of the numerous interesting comments that I got on my earlier post. When I quote a comment, I'll put it in italics, preceded by the name of the commenter.

One more before Christmas...

IA, AI, and the Big Aha

What I've been leading up to with my talk about the lifebox is a discussion about how a certain kind of advance in AI could occur in concert with a discontinuous jump in ordinary human intelligence via IA, that is, Intelligence Amplification.

I'm calling this advance The Big Aha, and it will probably play a role in my next SF novel--which might even be entitled The Big Aha.

[Visions of the cosmic fractal in the sky.]

Let me make it clear that I'm going to be talking about science fictional ideas in this post. Not about a priori academic arguments regarding possibilities of AI.

As I mentioned in the last post, there's a tantalizing dream of AI workers that there may yet be some conceptual trick that we can use to make our machines really smart. The only path towards AI at present seems to be beating problems to death with evolving neural nets working on huge data-bases. We get incremental progress by making the computers faster, the neural nets more complex, and the data bases larger.

The SF dream is that there's some new and exciting angle, a different tech, a clear and simple insight, a big aha.

And--the kicker for my planned SF novel--the aha would work for human brains as well as for machines. I'm in fact thinking of us finding the big aha for human brains first, and only then transferring it down to the computers. Intelligence augmentation, then artificial intelligence. Not that the AI will even matters that much anymore if we can kick our own minds into a higher gear.

So what's the big aha that I have in mind?

Nice cat photo, Charlie! I like the green eyes.

In my previous post, I was talking about the idea of creating an online simulation of oneself--what I call a lifebox. For now, the lifebox is simply a largish database of your writings, spoken words, and/or images, with links among the components, and a front-end that's an interactive search engine.

[At this point I should explain that I'm prone to illustrating my blog posts with images that aren't always quite rigorously related to the topic. But here, clearly, we see a painting by me in which a person is inputting their life's information into a keyboard. Or vice-versa.]

Today I have a few more remarks on the lifebox concept, although at this point much of this material has already been anticipated in the impressively vigorous and high-level discussions in the comments. But I'll go ahead and post this anyway, and move onto something else in a day or two.

As I've been saying, my expectation is that in not too many years, great numbers of people will be able to preserve their mental software by means of the lifebox. In a rudimentary kind of way, the lifebox concept is already being implemented as blogs. People post journal notes and snapshots of themselves, and if you follow a blog closely enough you can indeed get a feeling of identification with the blogger. And many blogs already come with search engines that automatically provide some links.

I'm guest-blogging on Charlie's Diary for a week or two, putting up about six posts. I'm doing this for fun, and to drum up interest in my autobiography, Nested Scrolls, which is just out from Tor Books in the US, and has been out from PS Publishing in the UK since June.

I'll put my first post today, and then come back with my second post on December 27. And I probably won't be delving into the comment threads until Dec 28.

Preminary Pleasantries.

I'm happy to be on Charlie's blog as he's one of my favorite writers. For me, Accelerando was a huge breakthrough. Before Accelerando, SF writers were kind of worried about how to write about the aftermath of the Singularity. And then Charlie showed us how. Pile on the miracles and keep a straight face. And Accelerando was literate and funny. Once I'd read it, I was ready to write my own postsingular novel--in fact I called it Postsingular.

Something I especially liked in Accelerando was Charlie's way of saving fuel on interstellar flights. Send the people in the form of simulations running inside a computer/spaceship the size of a Coke can. And the people on his tiny ship are well aware of their nature--they jokingly refer to themselves as "pigs in cyberspace." Lovely.

Origins of the Digital Immortality Trope

Stepping back from the postsingular future, I'm going to spend my first couple of posts talking about digital immortality, both as an SF trope, and as a near-future real-world tech product. And then I'll do some posts about writing science-fiction, and about some of my recent ideas.

My early cyberpunk SF novel Software of 1982 is, I like to argue, one of the first books in which we see humans uploading their personalities as software for android bodies. Feel free to comment if you think I'm wrong about this. I'm ready for you. But, as I mentioned, I won't be on the comments until about December 28.

For now, let me say a little more about the mind-uploading trope, and suggest a way of faking digital immortality in the near future...



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