sf


Charles Stross is my favorite living sf author, so I was happy to finally get a copy of Neptune’s Brood. In fact I foolishly decided to finish it last night, so I ended up with four hours of sleep, countered by buckets of caffein.

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It’s a sequel to Saturn’s Children, but set something like 4000 years later… which means it’s effectively a new creation. The characters are no longer androids but metahumans— the difference between machine and human has greatly eroded. The heroine, Krina, is made of metal and computers, but she breathes and eats and presumably excretes, she certainly has no problem with emotions, she can have sex, and though Stross has fun with the details of non-biological life, little in the plot depends on them (unlike the earlier book).

What the book turns out to be about is debt. It begins with a quote from David Graeber and this is not accidental. Stross talks about “fast money”, “medium money”, and “slow money”. Fast money is liquid cash and credit as we know it. Medium money is basically land and other long-term stores of value. Slow money is, well, even more long-term. It’s a currency designed an interstellar civilization that doesn’t have FTL. As transactions have to be confirmed by two interstellar banks, it’s very long-term, non-liquid, stable, and safe. Slow money is essentially an artifact of space colonization: the process is so expensive that a colony starts out in enormous debt, which can generally be paid off only in millennia— or by starting a colony of one’s own.

Krina is a banking historian, with a specialty in fraud. She moves to a system named Dojima (this is done by beaming her brain-state and downloading it into a new body) to do research and find out what happened to her missing sister, and almost immediately get caught up with a) a stalker trying to kill her, b) the Church of the Fragile, an organization dedicated to preserving biological humans, despite their comic in adaptation to modern life; c) an association of pirate underwriters. The last group is the most interesting… they do things like aggressively investigate insurance fraud, and audit cargos not to steal them but to do market interventions based on them. (Within a system, travel takes months but information travels in hours, so knowing what’s on a ship is valuable information.)

More details would either be spoilery or confusing. The plot is headlong and twisty. It all fits together pretty well, even if Krina is a bit more passive that the usual Stross protagonist.

As world building, it’s fantastic. Stross calls the book a “space opera”, which more or less means that he doesn’t want to be hassled if the science isn’t 100% plausible; but in fact there’s really nothing magical about his tech. He creates one exotic and fascinating environment after another, and Krina has to adapt to each one in turn. (At one point she become a mermaid. That might be a bit of a spoiler, but it’s on the damn cover.)

You can see why Stross is Paul Krugman’s favorite sf author: he takes problems of economics, money, and debt seriously. Krina, for instance, is instantiated as a slave— that is, she’s basically a clone of her mother, and forced to work for years to earn her freedom. This isn’t simply a bit of far-futuristic oomph; it’s actually straight Graeber, and relates to the main theme of the book: what debt does to people and societies.

I have a few quibbles, mostly related to narrative. It’s a long convention in first person novels that no one really explains why they’re writing out their story, but I think Krina is particularly messy here. She explains things that should be obvious in her world, she talks as if she’s researched her own story but doesn’t really give any metanarrative on why, the book changes to third person in a few spots, a few things are sometimes told in a weird order, as if Stross suddenly realized he needed to give some backstory to an event but didn’t feel like rewriting earlier bits.

Except in the Laundry novels, I think Stross has an ongoing problem making his antagonists smart enough. Of course we want the heroine to be smarter and later threats to be larger than earlier ones, but some of the antagonists here end up being just not very clever or dangerous.

It could be argued that Stross underestimates “Fragiles”— biological life— and overestimates how stable and durable metal and electronics are. Once you can play with genes like Javascript, who knows what limits biological transhumans have? But of course this isn’t a prediction of future development; it’s just a given of this universe that civilization has become non-biological, while (as systems do) retaining the traces of its origins.

But these aren’t biggies. It’s a fun book, it goes fast, and I wish there was a Volume Three…

One of the muses finally spoke– I’m not sure which Muse has the portfolio for science fiction.  Anyway, I suddenly have the plot for a new Incatena book.

Well, “plot” is too strong a word. “Predicament” maybe.

Areopolis-MapMorgan decides to quit the exciting but inconvenient life of an Agent, and on a whim decides to go back to Euko Teknik, in the α Centauri system, which is having a reunion for its alumni. The ex-Agent has changed sex (to whatever it wasn’t before) and had a half-mind-wipe in order to put diplomacy and espionage behind. But as we know, you can never really get away from the profession, especially in a spy novel. The boss activates some overrides in Morgan’s neurimplant. One more mission.

α Centauri, by the way, has the somewhat clunky traditional name Rigil Kentaurus. But it turns out to have the name Toliman too, and I’m considering using that. When you’re actually there, you probably don’t want to say “α Centauri A” every time you refer to the sun.

Anyway, the system contains two Incatena planets, Euko and Novorossiya, which have fought a few wars before. They have entirely different approaches and values. Euko is all about human or transhuman potential– they want to explore every possibility and rework humanity to match, and as  Euko has no native ecosphere they can rework the planet too. Novorossiya is into embracing our primate heritage, recreating the ancestral environment in the planet’s mixed alien/earthly ecosphere, and keeping a small technological footprint. (With Incatena technology, you can make your planet look like a jungle if you want– neurimplants are invisible and the high-tech infrastructure is only visible when you need a piece of it.)

But they each have their own planet, so it was not obvious how to get them into a major conflict. Finally I thought of something: The α Centauri is a double system (triple with Proxima, but it’s very far away), and orbits within it may not be stable indefinitely. So let’s say the system is getting unstable– perhaps a passing brown dwarf has destabilized it… only it turns out neither planet wants to take action to fix it. Thus Morgan’s interrupted retirement.

Now, I haven’t actually written a word yet, and it’s in line after a couple of other books anyway, so the two or three of you who’ve read APAF will have to wait a bit. But at least now I have a situation and not just a setting…

cyranoFirst, read this neat article on “cyranoids”.  The semi-stupid name is based on the play Cyrano de Bergerac; the title character provides the words to woo a woman, Roxane, on behalf of an inarticulate friend. This does not work out well.

(Linguistic note: Roxane is one of the few names we borrow from Ancient Persian; Rokhsāna was the Persian wife of Alexander the Great.)

In the contemporary experiment, it works great. Subjects are introduced to a 12-year-old boy and encouraged to talk to him; in fact all his words are provided by a 37-year-old professor via a radio receiver in his ear.  People didn’t suspect, despite the boy’s evident deep knowledge of European politics and Dostoevsky.  The reverse substitution– the professor being given lines by the 12-year-old– worked just as well.

This is mildly surprising, but as the article notes, we didn’t evolve in a situation where people are being remote-controlled by someone else.

If you want to make a billion dollars, my advice is, monetize this. My prediction is that in a hundred years, or perhaps in the Incatena, this will be commonplace.  Some easy applications:

  • Learning seduction, as in the play. Or salesmanship, or politics, or law– anything that requires verbal eloquence and social skills.
  • Teaching: channel a better teacher, or call on one when you’re stumped.
  • Politics: respond to challenges better than you could with your own brain. Never make gaffes or forget someone’s name!
  • Business deals or ambassadorships: send a human for the face-to-face interaction; control them from the head office during the hard negotiations.
  • Real-life avataring: try out life in a different race or gender.
  • Acting: never forget your lines!
  • Interviewing: send out someone handsomer / prettier (or who merely lives in the area).
  • Confrontations: get expert words when you need to stand up to someone who stresses you out.
  • Police or detective work, or journalism: do routine in-person investigations without people recognizing your face or voice.
  • Management: micromanage your employees’ very words!
  • Sex: imagine the possibilities for role-playing or dominance. Also a nice loophole: swap spouses without physically doing so.

The obvious difficulty is the pause while the avatar receives the other person’s instructions. The Wired article isn’t clear on how this was handled, but there are ways to stall for time imperceptibly; also, perhaps, the controller could go phrase-by-phrase instead of sentence-by-sentence. Possibly, with practice, the avatar could acquire the simultaneous translator’s ability to listen and speak at the same time.

The avatar also needs the acting ability needed to bring someone else’s words to life. However, this is a lot easier if you’ve just heard someone saying the words in your ear– it’s far easier than trying to bring a written text to life. (Still, there are people who can hear something and just can’t reproduce the intonation… I recall my high school drama teacher trying to coach a wooden student actor; it was excruciating.)

Would people feel alienated and suspicious if they knew that the people they talk to might be using such services? I don’t think so, any more than we’re weirded out by the fact that small metal devices issue out human-sounding words. If anything, people would probably be surprised if someone– a politician or an interviewee– turned out not to be using an expert in their ear.

More interestingly, it might be that people retreat a bit from our present-day absolute individualism. In ancient times, or in certain other cultures, it was assumed that gods or demons might speak inside your head. (The Romans believed that a spirit called a “genius” dictated ideas to people; we’ve kept the world but absorbed the spirit as part of our notion of the self.) Maybe in such a world, the idea that you had to come up with your own words to speak would seem as strangely burdensome as thinking that everyone had to cook their own meals.

Edit: A Twitter conversation pointed out that I may not have communicated that the idea is kinda creepy. And it is! But then, cel phones can be kinda creepy too (as you may notice if you try to have a RL conversation with someone who can’t keep messing with theirs). I suspect if the option was available, though, it’d be used in some of the ways described above.

There was a discussion on Mefi about plausibility in fantasy (and related genres, like superhero comics). As there is inevitably in these discussions, some people argued that there’s no such thing. It’s all made up! It’s idiotic to expect any of it to make sense!

Retcon: this is so improbable that the Death Start actually ran on an Improbability Drive

Retcon: this is so improbable that the Death Star actually ran on an Improbability Drive

Since I write conworlding books, you can guess that I think this is a silly position.

  • It amounts to making all criticism of plot, story, and setting impossible. If anything goes, nothing goes better than anything else.
  • Implausibilities cause the reader to be confused, or to actively smirk at you. C.S. Lewis compared writing to driving sheep down the road: the sheep will go into any open gate to the left or the right. You don’t want to create diversions; it spoils the effect you’re trying for.
  • When anything goes, the story evaporates. If a danger is conjured up out of nothing on one page and disappears by authorial fiat on the next, the emotional temperature drops.
  • The idea that there are no constraints on a genre can really only be held by people who don’t understand it well– or at the least, by those who have never written it.
  • Let’s not discount the biggest reason fans argue about this stuff: it’s fun. We like to argue about why the eagles couldn’t carry Frodo and whether Superman’s toenail clippings remain invulnerable.

But the biggest reason is that fantasy depends on realism. We accept the fantastic elements because the rest of the story is realistic, and canny authors increase the realism in order to allow the fantasy. The classic example is LOTR. The plot structure is that of a quest; this only works as a story, and only has an emotional effect on the reader, if undertaking the journey takes time and effort. The novel underlines and relies on the facts that walking takes time, that people get hungry and tired, that swords hurt, that weather and darkness are dangerous, that baggage is not unlimited.

On a deeper level, LOTR works because it acknowledges that empires fade, that kings and leaders are fallible, that fighting battles scars soul as well as body, that gods can come to seem remote or weak, that the bravest may come from humble and unexpected quarters.

Tolkien is actually very miserly about doling out supernatural elements. Gandalf probably uses fewer spells in the entire trilogy than a beginning D&D wizard deploys in a single day. Rarity increases value, so the displays of power or terror are all the more effective.

It’s also widely realized that a good deal of the book’s power derives from its  deep worldbuilding. The allusions seem real (because, more often than not, they are real; they refer to something buried in Tolkien’s notebooks); the languages are gloriously real; the maps and appendices please our pedantic side.  (A lot of us probably know more about the history and geography of Middle Earth than, say, that of China.)

And the thing is, this use of realism is not a pure novelty of Tolkien’s; it’s a periodic infusion into fantasy and related genres. The very setting of most fantasy– medieval kingdoms, dusty cities, dark forests– was simply the everyday world of the Middle Ages. Alice and Oz updated the setting to modern times. Fritz Leiber’s sword & sorcery stories threw in a noir cynicism and grittiness. Game of Thrones keeps the medieval kingdoms but insists on the power politics, sexism, and brutality of the period. Writers like Neil Gaiman and Tim Powers toss out the medievalism to set stories in the present world, where magic is simply cleverly hidden.  China Miéville updates the politics with a healthy distrust of the old kings and lords. Star Wars, which is basically fantasy set in a science fiction atmosphere, was novel and believable in part because things looked battered and worn.  Frank Miller threw out the camp Batman of the ’60s and inserted realistic ’80s concerns, such as psychopathic criminals and nuclear war.  The latest Tomb Raider threw out the plastic dangerless pseudo-archeology and created a Lara Croft who was young, scared, and unsure of herself.

This sort of realism insertion is why Grant Morrison is wrong when he bellows ” ‘Who pumps the Batmobile’s tires?’ It’s a fucking made-up story, you idiot! Nobody pumps the tires!”  You can insert realism wherever you want to.  Focusing on the people who care for the Batmobile could be a great story.  (No, Alfred doesn’t create and polish all those gadgets by himself.)  Maybe they’re loyal little munchkins, but maybe they resent their nutball employer and can be bought out by the Penguin.

Now, let me get a straw man or two out of the way.

Most importantly, conworlding can get out of hand.  Tolkien himself was a victim: in his lifetime he never produced a sequel to LOTR, because he could never stop tinkering with the world. You do not need genealogies and flags and languages and train schedules for every nation on your planet. And even if you have all that, you shouldn’t try to cram it into your novel, since readers will choke on it.  Make a wiki or something.

(As a side note, though, Tolkien’s anglicization is probably an anachronism. Translating Jules Verne, you probably shouldn’t turn Jean Passepartout into John Goesanywhere; and similarly if a dude is named Maura Labingi, that’s just fine, you don’t have to turn it into Frodo Baggins.  I think readers these days allow or expect a little more conworlding in their stories.)

Also, you don’t have to explain everything.  Gaiman is my go-to example here: he rarely explains how his worlds work, and they’re all the better for it.  Some things can remain mysteries.

Next: realism isn’t all-or-nothing.  Obviously, we want at least some of the fantastic elements, otherwise you can’t put “fantasy” on the cover.  More subtly, you can be more realistic in some areas than others.  As I said, Tolkien’s quest depends on the journey to Mordor being a long, hard trek. For narrative reasons, he didn’t want to sprinkle welcoming inns or towns along the route. Thus the handwavium of lembas, an elven food that’s preternaturally light and filling. Still, it’s used honestly: when you’re out of lembas, you’re out of food.

Sometimes the unrealism is not in the fantasy elements, but in emphasis and omission. I just read the Council of Elrond chapter, and I have to say, there are peculiarly few allies that Elrond & Co. trust. The Fellowship turns out to be small enough to make a standard fantasy quest, with no more characters than we can keep straight.  It’s a bit like Mass Effect: the stakes affect the whole galaxy, everyone is amassing flotillas of spaceships, and yet every single crisis is handled by sending in a three-man commando team.  I’m not actually bothered by this, though I appreciate a little authorial handwaving to smooth things over.

As a corollary, Tolkien is of course not the only model. You can get away with a lot! The Princess Bride works despite its unreality– though good characters and good writing keep it from merely being twee.

(We have higher standards about plausibility these days… we’re used to naturalistic fiction, we don’t accept the supernatural quite so easily.  On the other hand, bear in mind that in their own fields, our predecessors were probably just as demanding. If the people listening to the Iliad heard the poet messing up details of bronze age armor or horse anatomy, I’m sure they let him know.)

Next: any fantasy or sf story come with certain gimmes— things we don’t question because they’re part of the basic scenario.  There’s no use worrying about how the One Ring affects the world physically– it’s supernatural, OK, and it’s what the story is about.  Do you accept the time travel in The Anubis Gates?  You’d better, because again, it’s what creates the story scenario.

The general rule, though, is that creators have to play fair.  Suspension of disbelief is not an infinite resource.  LOTR would have disintegrated if, on page 906, Tolkien had created an Anti-Ring which destroyed Sauron’s Ring. (Introducing it on page 56 is OK.)  Once Powers sets up the rules of time travel in Anubis, he respects them and never deceives the reader with them. In such worlds, it’s an added pleasure for the reader to try to understand the rules of the world and predict how they’ll play out.

We can also inherit a few gimmes from earlier literature. We still use the dragons and wizards and magic weapons of medieval epics.  Superman has eyebeams because, basically, that was what science was like when he was invented: new physical fields and forces were being discovered at a dizzying rate. Comics just never got the memo that it’s now all about reducing everything to a few phenomena.

I should also note that just as you can inject more realism, it’s sometimes effective to take it out. The Saints Row video games are a good example: they were never exactly journalistic-level exposes of criminal gangs, but they only improved as they downplayed the gang warfare and emphasized the fantasy (and characterization).  However, this move generally works best when you’re moving into comedy, or at least less seriousness.   (Though it can also be a welcome respite from too much grimdark.  After Miller, there wasn’t much to gain in making Batman nastier; thus the relatively lighter tone of the animated series.)

I think there’s two kinds of plausibility gaps: those we notice while reading or watching, and those that only come up while discussing the work over pizza.  On the whole, only the first kind is really harmful to the experience.  I was disgusted in the movie theater when the Force turned out to be a bacterial infection.  On the other hand, I don’t really care when playing Oblivion that there are obviously more bandits than citizens in Tamriel.

Of course, it’s nice when a conworld is convincing enough that it stands up even to rigorous prodding.  And I’d add that conworlding doesn’t, as one might expect, impede storytelling.  On the contrary, it creates storytelling opportunities.  I remember looking at the maps in LOTR and wondering what Harad and the Sea of Rhûn were like. I’ve been asked many questions about the less documented areas or ages of Almea. The more you know about a place, the more questions there are. (Star Wars or the Marvel Universe aren’t impeded by the weight of conworlding; they’re impeded by the sheer bulk of story.)

If the guidelines above seem vague– well, that’s the final lesson.  Despite the tone of some nerd arguments, these are matters of art and skill, not ISO standards.

The novelist Charles Cumming laments that modern technology has made the traditional spy novel impossible:

If, for example, an MI6 officer goes to Moscow and tries to pass himself off as an advertising executive, he’d better make sure that his online banking and telephone records look authentic; that his Facebook page and Twitter feeds are up to date; and that colleagues from earlier periods in his phantom career can remember him when they are contacted out of the blue by an FSB analyst who has tracked them down via LinkedIn.

And that’s before you consider the smartphone, which maintains a frightening amount of data about its user, but also makes it hard for the novelist to keep that user out of the range of help.

I considered the problem myself, for the Incatena. It occurred to me today that the counter to all this is to spam the databases with fake data. Right now this would be tedious and probably not convincing… you can create a fake Facebook account, but you can hardly create two hundred fake friends for it.

But a fake-data industry could. There are fake social media accounts now, of course, but imagine a mature technology. Basically it would create a social media AIs which do almost everything humans do.

That seems like a lot of effort to make a few spies happy. But I think almost everyone would see the advantage of having multiple, realistic net avatars. You might want to keep certain activities from your parents, or your boss. Or you just don’t like everyone knowing everything about you. In the Incatena, not only Agents would wish, sometimes, to adopt another identity, and it’d be much easier if that identity already had a history, a credit account, and friends.

The corollary would be that the virtual world (the Vee, in the Incatena) would have a population several times that of meatspace– it’s a mixture of multiple avatars, AIs, and spam.  That sounds like a drawback, but I’m not sure it is– even today you don’t necessarily expect your other gamers, debate partners, fellow geeks, clients, and romantic possibilities to intersect.  Plus, whatever oddball game you play, you can find a full server for it!

Could advanced data mining see through the fakery and find the real individuals?  In part, yes, though it’d also face more advanced data fakery. But in part no, because any given avatar is ‘real’ at least part of the time. Besides, if your data mining gets too good, you invite retaliation against your own spies.

To put it another way… I don’t think the future fifty years down the road, much less 500, is the no-privacy panopticon some people fear, or seek. Very few people want that, and there will be a lot of effort to make sure it doesn’t happen.  Even today some governments are doing work offline or in person that would once have been written down or e-mailed, and others are demanding separate rules for their own nationals, whether to keep them from hearing of the existence of non-government points of view, or to keep them from being watched by the NSA. Maybe we’ll go back to the cyberpunk notion that all data is protected by vigilant daemons with beautiful graphics…

 

I just read Idoru, and that’s sent me on a cyberpunk binge.  Re-read Neuromancer and re-cyber-read parts of Snow Crash.  Intermittently jacking into cyberrealms, keeping my eyes out for ninjas in meatspace.

Before comparing Stephenson and Gibson, I have to reference Stephenson’s own awe-inspiring account of their rivalry.

After that, my own insight is paltry: Gibson is Dashiell Hammett, and Stephenson is Raymond Chandler.  Only with the respective output level reversed: there’s lots of Gibson to read, and lots of Chandler, but only two real Stephenson cyberpunk books, and one Sam Spade novel.

I read somewhere that genre fiction invariably passes through three stages: serious, baroque, and parodic.  Gibson more or less invented cyberpunk, and he himself spans the range from serious to baroque.  What struck me in these two books is the seriousness: the situations are outrageous, but the heroes face them with utter graveness.

Stephenson goes from baroque to parodic. If anything, he’s more realistic than Gibson– YT doesn’t sport surgically implanted sunglasses, Hiro doesn’t want to marry an AI, the Metaverse makes sense to a developer.  Yet he seems to realize the ridiculousness of his situations, sharing the joke with the reader and perhaps even the characters, who never have the sense of being in over their heads that oppresses Gibson’s main characters.

I prefer Stephenson– for that sense of realism, and his sense of fun.  Gibson’s books are tenser, but the plots have the impenetrability of noir.  Neuromancer is a heist caper which depends on every eccentric character doing the right thing, which is always a disaster; this makes for a great story, but in real life someone sensible would look for a better plan. Idoru has a plethora of intersecting obsessives whose motivations never quite make sense.  A rock star wants to marry an AI… no one quite knows what that means, and by the end of the book I don’t know either.

All these books hold up pretty well after twenty years, though of course they all got significant parts of cyberspace wrong.  The main error is of course that they underestimated what can be done online.  In Snow Crash normal citizens just go to the Metaverse to party; in Neuromancer the characters go to a software store… software is apparently only sold in little crystal shards in the equivalent of Radio Shack.  Neither author could foresee that almost all retail, to say nothing of entertainment, news, and education, would simply move online.

The other error is the perpetual one of the sf writer: when he’s writing, and we’re reading, we need to find this stuff fascinating.  In the actual future, we’ll find it banal.  There will be new things to be excited about, sure, but marrying an AI?  You can buy a RealDoll now, and the Japanese will surely have the software ready for it in a few years, and all it’ll be will be a rather pathetic lifestyle choice for otakus.  Or you can log into Second Life and go have sex with a furry.

Gibson imagined cybercowboys carefully piercing their way through massive defense of important corporate data… here the irony is that the massive corporations haven’t actually bothered with ice at all.  They figure if they require your mother’s maiden name, they’ve provided more than enough security.  Oops, hackers got in and stole ten million credit card numbers anyway.

Edit: One more thing that bugs me about Gibson: the fact that hacking is done entirely visually.  It’s like he’s anticipating the movie version.  I know it’s a trope in every cyberspace movie ever, but this is a book.  I can just buy that all the corporate data has a nice geometric graphical interface; but hackers won’t look at the pretty graphics, they’ll dive down into boring-looking files and code.  (Stephenson understands this.)  And who the hell provides pretty graphics for hacked data structures?  “Johnson, you’re in charge of visualizing the database.  And while you’re at it, make sure you provide alternate, very complex graphics for when hackers invade the system.”

PZ Myers has a posting where he makes a short argument against transhumanist uploading.  This was relevant to my interests, because I think uploading is bonkers.

He has two arguments, really.  Unfortunately one (using entropy) is just wrong: entropy doesn’t prevent complex systems; it only requires that more entropy be generated to offset them. So long as you convert only a tiny fraction of the universe into computronium, entropy won’t stand in your way.

His other argument was better. but sketchy: uploaders prefer “what is good for the individual over what is good for the population”.  As he was arguing with Eliezer Yudkowsky among others, this is probably a misfire– judging from his Harry Potter fanfic, Yudkowsky does consider it an imperative that technology benefits everyone.

Still, there’s the germ of an actual good argument in there: that the uploaders think way too much about personally not dying, and way not enough about how to make what life we have worth living.  Morally, it’s hard to argue that our biggest problem is that people don’t live 1000 or 1,000,000 years.  If humans keep on with the sort of behavior and morality and economics they have right now, such lifetimes would be hellish.  Even if you have a wildly optimistic view of how well we’re doing, prolonging lifetimes even to a couple hundred years would be horrible for 90% of the population, and that’s assuming we can even keep our civilization going.  (If you want to live forever, climate change is not your grandchildren’s problem, it’s yours.)  So even if you want immortality, you’d better prioritize, well, almost everything else.

But that’s a discussion for another day.  I was caught up short by this comment, by one Gregory in Seattle:

There is a growing belief among memory researchers that the brain relies on “archetypes.” You actually have only one or two physical memories of the taste of bacon: all of the apparent memories of bacon link back to them. REM sleep is when the brain recompiles, tossing out actual memories from short-term storage and integrating the day’s experiences into long-term storage with heavy object reuse (pardon the computerese.)

According to this model, children learn faster because they have fewer archetypes: they are building a “library” and links into them are pretty straightforward. As we get older, though, the ability to store and link novel information becomes more difficult and memory begins to ossify. Someone who pursues life-long learning can stave this off, but not completely. To use another computer example, the problem does not appear to be one of storage so much as the storage becoming fragmented. The ability to link begins to suffer, and memories begin to get lost in the shuffle.

Without a major redesign of how the brain stores memories, very long lifespans will probably bring us to a point where novel experiences cannot be integrated at all. We see this sort of slow down in people who are 90 and 100; I cannot imagine what it would be like for someone who is 200, much less 500 or 1000.

I’d never heard about this theory, but then I don’t know anything really about memory research.  But it’s a fascinating idea, and one that makes a lot of sense as a way for a creature of limited brain to organize the reams of sensory data that swamp it daily.

Though it’s not so much an argument against long lives as an argument that if we want to have them, we’ll have to change some basic facts about ourselves.  That’s why, in the Incatena, I have people doing a kind of brain reboot every century or two: throw out a bunch of memories, loosen the connections, re-adolescentize the brain.

To put it another way, your basic personality, attitudes, ideology, politics, etc. are generally pretty well firmed up by the time you’re 30.  You can adapt to new things after that, but with increasing difficulty– by the time you’re 80, you’re a curmudgeon who hates the kids’ music and clothing and votes for reactionaries.  That’s acceptable when lifetimes are 90 years, but not if they’re 900.  If you refuse to die, then you have to do something to regain your adaptability, for your own benefit and for that of society.

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