Editor’s Note: This is the second part of Roger’s extended meditation on where his ideas for The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect and the “Passages” stories came from. Read Part 1 right here.
In fiction, The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect of course remains the ultimate Rapture of the Nerds representation of the Hard Takeoff Technological Singularity, where humans create God not just metaphorically, but for real. In Passages and The Happiness Broker I wrote about humans who become gods. In The Fifth Gift I wrote about humans meeting actual benevolent gods.
In nonfiction, I gave the Roman Catholic Church the benefit of certain doubts while examining its motivations. I did a couple of pieces on New Agey topics about reality and even astrology.
As Peachfront noted in her introduction to this blog, I tend toward “big ideas,” partly because I don’t have much time to write so I only work myself up when I have a good reason. But I hadn’t realized until this little post-K5 review that this particular big idea was such a hobby horse of mine. There it was, again and again, mortals and gods circling warily.
This wasn’t any kind of wish-fulfillment fantasy either. Most of my godlike characters find the experience of being a god to be at best a pain in the ass. Yet my hobby horse doesn’t seem to be any kind of self-consoling ode to the wonderfulness of mortality either; Bringer Tom has a huge future full of accomplishment and well-earned pride. It is neither the gods nor the mortals but the dynamic between them that seems to fire my imagination.
I was raised by devout Southern Baptist Christians and taught early that there was a stark binary afterlife for which I must prepare, a fate whose duration would dwarf the eyeblink of my mortal life but whose character would be irreparably set by what I do in these few mortal decades. I was promised an eternity, but whether torture or delight would depend on how I comport myself here in the World of Form. Like most children I was credulous enough to sincerely believe in this well into my teens.
But when I was twelve my parents enrolled me in a Catholic secondary school. This isn’t all that unusual in New Orleans, a city founded by Catholics, because the Catholic schools have a well-earned reputation for giving the best secular education. The school promised my parents that I wouldn’t be required to participate in any Catholic rituals, and they kept that promise. But they did require me to learn the basic tenets of Catholic faith, as part of a non-ritual religion class, as well as the basic tenets of other religions like Buddhism and Islam. I was unable to resist the conclusion that the God I had been taught to venerate was not in fact some ultimate god-creator with no rival, but just one god in an ocean of godlike beliefs and human experiences, and in many ways one of the less interesting ones.
I finally admitted to myself that my protestant Christian faith, that thing which I’d been promised would guarantee me an eternity of bliss, was toast when I was 15.
And like most converts I bounced hard in the opposite direction. You don’t say it too loudly in the deep South or to parents who still tithe to their Church but I quickly came to believe that religion was nothing at all but a set of con jobs and exploits directed against universal human weakness and directed toward concentrating power in the hands of men no more godly than Al Capone.
This is pretty much where I was in 1982 when I had the seminal idea for The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect And that’s one reason I couldn’t write a story about the idea.
In the 1980s, Peachfront and I developed an interest in gemstones, which in that day for good commercial reasons meant developing an interest in what was then called the “New Age” too. One of the books we browsed made a curious challenge; it said that whether you believed in the technique or not, you had no cause to critique it unless you gave it an honest try. It’s an interesting thing about New Age magic systems that they do not require faith or belief; they just require that you do the ritual. So we took a couple of these dares.
The results were extraordinary.
Now, this does not mean that either of us gave in to the idea that the universe is made of woo instead of atoms; indeed, the very same text that made the dare warned that skepticism was necessary and that the forces one might contact and use could also use you if you were too credulous. Where in Christianity do you see anything like THAT? So experiments were done, with a lot more care than most people bother with (hey my Dad was a physics professor) but OK I’m also not a lab capable of doing a proper double-blind study. Still, I came away with the understanding that I might not know everything after all. By 1990 I’d formulated a statement I still make when the topic comes up:
“I believe in all this shit on Tuesdays and Thursdays. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays I know it’s all crap, and on the weekends I’m agnostic.”
Pagan gods are very unlike the Christian God though; they are multifarious and limited and often challenged. The existence of such gods would suggest that the Universe is a very different thing than it appears to be, not a billiard table full of tiny inflexible actors but something more like a computer with rules that could be very firm, but also bypassed or hacked under the right circumstances. I do not find this possibility very pleasant, but my own experience requires that I at least give it serious consideration and in that regard I do find it fascinating.
As unpleasant as the idea is that the Universe is a malware-ridden computer populated by beings that aren’t part of the design, the alternative seems even worse — that humans have a universal and pervasive perceptual defect that makes us think these fairy tales are real. Honestly, the latter possibility is very likely; my casino experiences showed me how poorly humans manage things like randomness and the mirage of “luck.” But I like to think I am smart enough to have corrected for that, and I’m still left with anomalies.
So this possible universe that has gods working behind its apparently clockwork scenes is a thing I have to treat seriously, even if I don’t “believe” in it. And that situation is … interesting. Maybe the Christian God isn’t so interesting but gods who have to exercise their power while sneaking around, careful not to alert the gods+1 of their activities — that is the stuff stories can be made of.
Similarly, the pure Rapture of the Nerds isn’t much of a story, as I realized during the 1980’s. But understand that the ending is madness and suddenly there is a story.
Meanwhile there are little stories about romance and action and stuff which seem very small compared to the other ideas I like to entertain. I did once write a romance story, though; but being me, the romance was instigated by a god, who being a god watched the rest of the action play out without much worry about the mortality of the actor he’d drafted into the story. That’s kind of the way gods seem to roll.
And while part of me wants the power of godhood, I’m not sure I’m enough of an asshole to assume the responsibility.