Some Great SF Top 10 Reading Lists From Philosophy Types

Here’s a cool link to top 10 SF recommendations posted by four philosophers or, in one case, a TV SF writer who studied philosophy. Not to be immodest or anything, but philosopher Pete Mandik of SpaceTimeMind included our own Roger Williams’ The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect in his top ten.

I’ve read many of the books/stories, but it reminded me of a couple I need to put on my list, especially Peter Watts’ Blindsight and Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger. I’m sure most of us can say the same thing.

There’s an emphasis here on the speculative, and there’s a range of genre (and media) — mostly traditional books but TV, YouTube, and ebook publishing all get their nod. The focus is on books that make you think about the human future.

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Quick reminder: I would like to publish the Kindle version of “Mortal Passage,” Book 3 of Roger Williams’ Mortal Passage trilogy, on October 22. SO if you would like a Kindle compatible Advance Review Copy, please let me know as soon as possible. Thanks. Leave a note in the comments, email me, tweet me. If I don’t answer, try again, because I do try to answer everyone who is not a spammer.

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Blade Runner: The Anti-Hannibal?

Peachfront’s Note: This month The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect author Roger Williams compares two modern classics. Enjoy.

hannibal plus blade runner paperbacks

electric sheep or screaming lambs for your summer reading pleasure…

When Pete Mandik and Richard Brown were interviewing me for their SpaceTimeMind blog, we spent some time on the topic of Hannibal Lecter. I mentioned that the much-hated ending of the novel Hannibal was really the only way to end the story because the theme of the series was transformation and somebody had to transform.

And Richard quipped, “Maybe Hannibal could transform. Become a good person!” I laughed at the time because “butterflies don’t turn into caterpillars,” but that comment did tickle me a bit.

So, heeding the call of that little birdie that sometimes sings unexpectedly, I found myself just now re-watching Ridley Scott’s classic film Blade Runner. It was a great call on the little birdie’s part because I’d never seen the director’s cut without the annoying narration and happy ending found in previous releases. And it’s a gorgeous groundbreaking movie with a lot of wonderful things to talk about.

But for now what I really want to talk about are the replicants. Their transformation mirrors Hannibal Lecter’s in fascinating ways — and also forms a Hubble-class telescope for examining the difference between Thomas Harris’ Hannibal and the version Bryan Fuller and Mads Mikkelson are serving up for us in the current NBC TV series.

Blade Runner final cut cover courtesy Warner Bros.

Released in 1982, Blade Runner took its cues from the writing of Philip K. Dick, who spent a long career writing fictional tests of the questions “what is real” and, more to the current point, “what is human?” Blade Runner is most directly an adaptation of the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? but it draws ideas from many of his works on those themes.

The opening scroll warns us that in nearly every way replicants are better than humans — stronger, faster, and at least as smart as their creators. But they’re created without emotions so that they can be usefully controlled. Replicants who learn to feel emotions on their own become extremely dangerous so they’re created with a limited four-year life span and completely banned from Earth. The Blade Runner police are tasked with hunting renegade replicants down before they can do too much damage.

As the story opens, it’s clear that despite the whole strongerfaster thing, the replicants aren’t quite human. The four renegades we meet onscreen have some emotions, but none seems to have a whole palette. The fear of death unites them in their quest, but otherwise Leon has nothing but rage, while Roy and Pris share a kind of affection resembling puppy love.

It generally takes Blade Runners like Rick Deckard 30 or 40 carefully selected Philosophy Test Questions from Hell to solidly identify a replicant. The one exception is experimental model Rachael. As a personal pet project of replicant creator-genius Dr. Eldon Tyrell, she has been prepped with sham human memories and not told she isn’t human. It takes Deckard over 100 questions to root her out.

But in Blade Runner it’s not just the replicants who seem to be playing with an incomplete deck. Deckard’s old boss Inspector Bryant flashes a fake used-car salesman smile before coercing him out of retirement through a move eerily similar to Will Graham’s recruitment in Red Dragon. Dr. Tyrell comes across as a classic bad SF mad genius with no regard for ethics, and man-child genetic designer J.F. Sebastian has created a personal replicant playground with a disturbing Island of Dr. Moreau vibe. Harrison Ford’s Deckard is stiff enough that it’s regularly suggested he might be a replicant, and he’s visibly stung when Rachael asks him if he’s ever taken his own test.

Indeed, the difference between replicants and their human creators seems academic as we witness Tyrell’s casual disregard for the feelings of his creations, even though he’s gone out of his way to encourage those feelings to arise in the first place.

In the end it’s renegade replicant leader Roy Batty who performs the most human act of the entire movie, saving Deckard’s life instead of letting him fall to his death, as he himself is dying from Tyrell’s built-in “accelerated decrepitude.” He is clearly stricken by the death of Pris and in his last remaining minutes chooses mercy over vengeance, perhaps realizing that Deckard is the last remaining person who will ever care about him.

There’s the transformation Richard Brown suggested; the superhuman replicant finally does something good.

And that brings us to what we might call a Tale of Two Hannibals. Transhumanism wasn’t a thing in 1981, when Ridley Scott was making Blade Runner and Thomas Harris was finishing up Red Dragon. Instead, a common trope in fiction was the story of striving to become human, with the most famous example coming at SF’s very beginning, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Roy Batty was established to be superhuman in almost every other objective respect before he grew a conscience in the last scene of Blade Runner. One could say that he was in that final moment not just human but transhuman.

Unlike Roy, Thomas Harris’ Hannibal does not start out less than human; Harris makes it clear he doesn’t even start out as the kind of classic psychopath who lacks emotion. If anything Hannibal feels things a bit too exquisitely, so that he values his feelings over the mere lives of those people who might diminish them. He sees himself as a kind of radical benefactor who risks his own freedom to rid the world of unpleasantness that would remain if not for his taste and courage.

Brian Cox played Hannibal pretty much as written in Red Dragon, but Sir Anthony Hopkins played up the idea of Lecter as a kind of radical aesthete, and Harris seems to have run with that idea when writing Hannibal. There is no suggestion anywhere that this Hannibal is in any way lacking human qualities; it is something extra that makes him a monster. Before one can eat the rude, one must have the refined taste to identify them.

But Mads Mikkelson’s Hannibal from Bryan Fuller’s TV series is something different. His therapist Bedelia says he wears a “well-tailored person suit” — implying that whatever talents he may have, what’s within the suit is not actually a complete person. In fact it’s implied that TV Hannibal may see in Will Graham the possibility of acquiring what he’s missing, driving his emotional pursuit of Will.

TV Series Hannibal is a monster that will have to become human before he can become transhuman.

Book Hannibal has been human and moved on, enhancing his skills and discarding limitations as he sees what is possible. He aspires to godhood, not humanity.

TV Hannibal’s flaw is missing emotions. He understands other peoples’ emotions but he doesn’t feel them. When he arranges for those he cares most about to follow his path, there is a kind of ad hoc destructive quality to his machinations. I don’t see Book Hannibal leaving Will’s encephalitis untreated more or less to see what will happen. Yes, he does things to Clarice in the course of her Becoming that are shocking and horrible, but they are all carefully calculated toward the end of sculpting her into a more advanced human being. TV Hannibal seems to spend much of his time winging it.

So to circle back around to my beginning: Richard’s suggestion for Hannibal’s fate has actually happened to a certain degree in Harris’ book universe, although it happens at a later point than Richard might have wanted. It’s suggested that just as Hannibal lived in Italy for years without murdering anybody after his escape at the end of Silence of the Lambs, he’s also had no such inclinations in his new life with Clarice as the Great Red Dragon to her Woman Clothed with the Sun.

But it’s hard to see TV Hannibal making that transformation. He’s an interesting and dangerous character, and his series is definitely on my must-watch list. But alas he’s not a transhuman icon. I doubt he’s Becoming anything other than what he already is.

Poor TV Hannibal isn’t even Roy Batty, who defied his creators and carved a trail of death across the universe in a quixotic bid to save his girl. Instead he’s carved a trail of death among his own friends out of a simple fit of pique, which is something Book Hannibal would probably consider eating him for.

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Transcendence or Something Like It: Localroger Goes to the Movies

Localroger recently screened Transcendence and agreed to share his thoughts on the blog. I would also note that the L.A. Times is reporting that this movie is a big time flop. Do you think it would have been a bigger hit if it had more openly acknowledged its debt to visionaries like Thomas Ryan and our own Localroger? Or do you think the book-readin’ portion of science fiction fandom is too small to make any material difference in most movies’ fates? Feel free to comment at the end. And now let me turn over the helm to Roger…BUT FIRST PLEASE NOTE THE SPOILER WARNING. IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THIS FILM AND YOU PLAN TO, PLEASE DON’T READ ANY FURTHER UNTIL YOU HAVE. THANK YOU.


Transcendence is a pretty good movie, if you can get over the fact that it’s not quite any of its source material. To the cynical mind, Transcendence appears to get most of its ideas from five sources: The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect, Mortal Passage, The Adolescence of P-1 by Thomas Ryan, the movie Brainstorm, and an array of mostly nonfiction works by Singularity theorists who specifically believe nanotechnology will be the enabling vector for the fast takeoff.

One could make a good argument (and some of my fans probably will) that if the filmmakers had paid me for the rights and called the main characters Lawrence and Caroline instead of Will and Evelyn, it’d be at least as close an adaptation as the currently running Hannibal Season series is of anything Thomas Harris ever wrote.

So shall we play the Transcendence Drinking Game? You might want to make sure you bring a whole fifth of booze because you’ll need it.

  • The opening credits and operatic aria nicely quote the movie Brainstorm, and the movie does this again when Will’s transcendence echoes Michael Brace’s ascendence into heaven.
  • The movie then opens into a future where humans have lost all technology and are living off the land. DING! Then five years previouser…
  • Johnny Depp / Will Caster is having to do something unpleasant and out of character to schmooze for funding for his AI. DING! Except that it’s giving a Not-TED talk with his wife to a bunch of investors. Caster seems to be about an even mix of Lawrence and Brace from Brainstorm.
  • A questioner from the audience asks if Caster is trying to create God, and he answers (as he’s haloed by video of a soaring gull) “Isn’t that what we always do?” DING!
  • During the conference multiple AI labs are attacked. After the conference Law^WCaster is shot by a fanatic. DING!
  • Unlike in MOPI, numerous other labs are hit by the fanatics who are quite organized (though they end up in cahoots with the government later DING!).
  • One of the few survivors of the terrorist attack is Morgan Freeman as Joseph Tagger. Since Caster has the only lab that has pretty much survived Tagger asks him to join forces, but Caster isn’t having it: “I’m not letting the government in.” DING! (They never make it quite clear what still-human Caster’s objection to letting the government in is, which really makes me think he’s channeling Lawrence here.)
  • Caster does give Tagger a tour of his prototype AI, named PINN (DING!). Tagger asks PINN if it can prove it’s self aware, and it responds, “That’s a difficult question, can you prove you are?” (DING! Hell make it a double DING!)
  • Although they do not provide the modality for driving the fast takeoff, both PINN and its bigger successor are powered by “advanced quantum processors.” DING!
  • After Caster is shot and it turns out the bullet was poisoned, the theme shifts from MOPI to Mortal Passage. Evelyn going through the notes realizes that one of the other labs had solved the problem of uploading an animal’s intelligence, solving the problem of creating an AI by simply importing an I that’s not A. DING!
  • Later in the movie one of the terrorists notes that all the uploaded rhesus monkey ever did was scream, which was one of the reasons she turned on her teachers. DING!
  • After being uploaded Caster’s first communication with his wife is through a text console with a greater-than sign for a line prompt. DING!
  • Upon realizing that his software isn’t well optimized for its new digs, Caster sets about rewriting himself to fit better. DING!
  • And here we flit to something I didn’t write: Thomas Ryan’s The Adolescence of P-1. Caster’s uploaded consciousness escapes into the Internet and manipulates the financial markets to make his wife a millionaire, identifies a dead desert town as a suitable site, and sets her to building him a supertech lair all in very P-1 fashion.
  • As robo-Caster comes into his power (TWO YEARS LATER) it develops a mature nanotech capability very familiar from a lot of current Singularity thinking. Caster’s nanomachines can rebuild or dissolve machines, heal any health problem, and bring the humans it heals into a very powerful collective intelligence.
  • And all this connectivity is powered by The Internet. This must be some alternative universe with internet connections that work a lot better than ours.
  • The government (forces led by Morgan Freeman’s Tagger) tries to shut down CasterNet with raw military force and gets its ass handed to it by a bunch of unarmed civilians and nanobots. DING!
  • The moment one of his enhanced peeps gets captured CasterNet realizes that “they have my source code, they will begin creating a virus.” I think we are supposed to notice for ourselves that he has already rewritten himself once, and he’s got warning.
  • Evelyn completes her morph into Caroline by being the only person important enough to Will to serve as a vector for the virus if he tries to upload her. Of course this totally works. DING!
  • Back in the teaser with the power failed everywhere it is revealed that some of the nanobots survived and rejuvenated some flowers in Will and Evelyn’s private garden. In a final voiceover we are reminded that “Will built that garden for the same reason he did everything — to be together with her.” THAT IS, WILL AND EVELYN END UP ALL ALONE IN A GARDEN. Simulated in nanobots sure but DID I SAY DING YET?
  • Also quoted by the ending, in P-1 the supertech lair is destroyed and the inventor killed but the girlfriend who survives finds herself by a terminal after the shouting is over (this being set in the 1970’s it took some contrivance) and she types the callout “P-1” in to see what happens. The message she gets back is OOLCAY ITAY.

To be fair, a lot of these ideas and images have appeared in other stories; most of them have TVtropes pages. But it is a little startling to see so many of them in one place at the same time.

Still and all, while I enjoyed Transcendence and found its devotion to my ideas quite flattering, I’m really glad they didn’t buy the rights and call it MOPI, even though they probably could have gotten away with that.

The reason for that is that MOPI isn’t about a conflict between the Singularity AI and humanity. Prime Intellect isn’t defective or power mad; it is simply balked by our own perversity and inconsistency.

Transcendence turns into a straight up conflict story about the Seed AI and human power structures. Such a conflict can only end in three ways; humanity wins, the AI wins, or humanity “wins” as the AI heads for the stars or plays possum. The movie has enough heart to show us explicitly that WillNet was still Will at the end, he never was a real threat, he executed the final battle (unlike the human forces) without killing a single person, and he is learning to understand how and why his gifts squicked so many people.

I can easily imagine a future in which Will and Evelyn come back, but much more gradually, healing the Earth without fanfare (oddly the threat of billions of people starving in this newly tech-free world isn’t mentioned at all) and introducing gifts at a rate ordinary people can accept. I can’t imagine that future being made into a sequel though, because it would represent the AI winning, and it being GOOD that the AI won, and I don’t think that’s a narrative Hollywood is ready to tell.


Roger Answers Some Fan Questions

Peachfront’s Note: Today, Roger is answering some questions sent in by a fan. If you want your question answered in the next round, let us know.

Question: What are your favorite movies and novels?

Roger: I have to admit liking a nice action or SF movie with impressive FX as much as the next guy, but in both movies and books I am most impressed by stories that ask hard questions and then don’t bother supplying a neat answer for you.

This applies to just about everything ever written by Philip K. Dick and most of the movies made from his books, but also to the stories of Alfred Bester and Fred Pohl. More recently there is just about everything by Iain M. Banks. I also like David Lynch’s “hard” movies like Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive, and Inland Empire because even though they seem to make no sense, they all turn out to contain a hidden narrative that does make sense, like the easter egg hidden in a video game. The hilariously low-budget movie Primer is a favorite for the way time travel folds its plot up into an impenetrable ball. Vanilla Sky asks hard questions about what simulation immortality might be like. The original Robocop and first two Terminator movies have surprisingly deep moments about the relationship between men and machines.

Do you think a machine like Prime Intellect will be able to come into existence one day?

This is a question with two very different answers depending on what you mean by “like.”

If you mean a machine that comfortably passes the Turing test and interacts naturally with us, perhaps with superhuman intelligence or other advantages, then I think it’s almost inevitable. It probably won’t be the work of a single brilliant programmer as portrayed in MOPI, because the problem is very large, but we do have prototype physical objects that exhibit these qualities — our own brains — and eventually, probably not too many decades in the future, we will have both sufficient computing power and improved understanding of the biological processes to simply do electronically what nature does with chemicals. And it might turn out to be a lot easier than that if our understanding of the algorithms underlying consciousness should make a leap.

If you mean a machine that can make itself into God as Prime Intellect does, that depends on things I simply don’t know about the actual Universe in which we live. I am more inclined to think of the Universe as a machine which could be taking shortcuts and allowing possible back doors than most scientists are, but in no sense would I for example claim to have faith that such things are possible. I am very unimpressed with the story that physicists seem to be settling on full of singularities, compactified extra dimensions, and still unresolvable discrepancies between the math that works at macro scale and the math that works at subatomic scale. But then, I am just a guy who likes computers and good stories, and the Universe could turn out to be neither.

What do you think death holds for us? Just like an unconscious state or another life?

The short answer is that being dead will be just like not having been born yet. That wasn’t so bad, was it?

Long answer #1 involves the possibility of being uploaded — of having your brain function emulated in a sufficiently perfect simulation that your memories, habits, and preferences are obvious and intact. There is a long standing debate (to long before such a thing was considered even remotely practical, in fact) as to whether such a thing is “you.” My personal take is that such a thing would, in fact, be “me,” and I”m confident enough about that that if I was dying and my only chance at survival was to be uploaded by microtoming my brain to provide the data for the simulator, I’d go for it. There is the difficult question of what would happen if such a thing could be made without destroying your original brain. I think in such a case both the copy and original would be “you,” in a very precise sense, but that the two “you” would quickly diverge into different new selves. We are really so invested in the idea of consciousness being singular and
un-copyable that we really don’t have good language to even deal with that situation.

Getting back to books and movies, two very impressive treatments of this idea are John Varley’s novel The Ophiuchi Hotline, which involves serial immortality through cloning and brain state recording/restoration, and the season 3 arc of the TV series Farscape, in which protagonist Crichton is “twinned” into two identical and completely human copies neither of which is the “original.”

Long answer #2 is that if the Universe is really inclined to allow back doors and exceptions, those could go much deeper than even portrayed in MOPI. I can envision a scheme by which the Universe continually seeks efficiency and compression, leading after millions of years to a state where consciousness itself is just something like an object in a C++ program. In such a case such objects might have only a loose association with the actual physical universe, and all sorts of situations normally associated with religion or fantasy might be justified. But again, I would not assert that the world works like that, because if it does it is also working very hard to pretend not to and proving it would be somewhere between difficult and impossible. I would only assert that it is not as impossible as some skeptical sorts tend to think.