Way Cool Animation Shout-Out to Prime Intellect from Kaizo Trap

So Localroger stumbled on this way cool post yesterday by Guy Collins Animation when he was checking up on The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect stats and referrers. Somebody told us that the free book has gotten 600,000 unique monthly visitors. Wowsers! We really appreciate it. And we think you’ll enjoy their animation too. Check it out!

Note from Localroger: “The animation is more than it appears; it is full of puzzles, hidden links, and easter eggs. The puzzles lead to other videos which show the girl and guy sucked back into the video game in various stages of crashing, and leading to five different endings.”

Singularity and Sociopathy With Roger Williams (Podcast Now Up!)

“Singularity and Sociopathy,” Episode 16 of SpaceTimeMind philosophy podcasts, is now up and ready for your listening entertainment. Roger writes from an outsider/literary perspective, but here he gets a chance to speak with some real philosophers about some of the ideas that informed The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect as well as his reading of Thomas Harris’ Hannibal. Enjoy! You can find the free YouTube audio podcast by clicking right here.

Don’t forget to visit the SpaceTimeMind blog for a complete list of their podcasts.. Roger also appeared on the previous episode, #15, and readers who love big ideas will find plenty more to intrigue them in the list.

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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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‘The Fish Goes Away’ 12 Years Later…

Note from Peachfront: When you’re writing big picture stories, it’s inevitable that you’ll confront perhaps the biggest questions of all about religion, God, and the meaning of it all. Here’s a new post from Roger about one of his influences.

I’ve kept up an interest in the Catholic Church because, despite being raised Protestant and drifting toward either Atheism or Paganism depending on the era and day of week, I went to a Catholic secondary school because in the very Catholic-founded city of New Orleans those are the schools with the best reputation for providing a secular education. And it’s a common thing here; many of my classmates were also nominally Protestant, and while the school required us to study Catholic doctrine in religion class they had a standard procedure for excusing non-Catholic kids from the actual religious rituals which were sometimes performed. And for all its often noxious superstition and history the Church is one of oldest continually running institutions created by mankind.

As anyone who cares about the news at all certainly knows by now, Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected to the Roman Catholic Papacy this year, taking the Papal name Francis after St. Francis of Assisi. Not only is this the first time in 1,100 years a Pope has taken a name never used by a previous Pope (that being Pope Lando elected in 913 CE), it’s also the name of the founder of an order that was once nearly kicked out of the Church for its aversion to the trappings of wealth.

But picking his name was just one of many first things Francis has done in his first few months in office which has turned the Papacy upside-down. He eschews the Papal residence (“But there is room here for 300 people!” he is said to have exclaimed when he saw it) living instead at the same Vatican residence where he stayed as an electing Cardinal during the conclave. He doesn’t use the Popemobile. For the Easter ritual of washing feet, instead of the traditional male priests he serviced twelve juvenile prisoners, two of them shockingly female. He expresses surprising respect for people of other religions and even atheists.

All in all Francis has quickly brought two interesting questions to bear, each of which is interesting to ponder:

  1. What makes Pope Francis tick and why is he doing these things?
  2. Did the Cardinals know what they were buying into, and how are they taking these affronts to their deep tradition?

1. What makes Pope Francis Tick?

Francis is not a progressive, as numerous progressives have complained after looking into his relatively standard and sometimes even atavistic attitudes toward sexuality and his lack of fire confronting some existing Church scandals. And this is to be expected because if Francis possessed a drop of progressive blood in his entire body he never would have gotten within a thousand miles of the conclave.

Francis is in fact very deeply conservative, so conservative that he actually places the values taught in that fat book the Christians peddle over the traditions of the ancient and bloated organization that just elected him to lead it. He is all about meekness and caring for the poor, and has been for long years before his election. Even in Argentina he lived modestly eschewing the Cardinal’s mansion, took public transportation, and mingled with the poor. He seems to consider this an essential part of his calling, since you cannot help the poor if you do not know or understand them.

Despite his flaunting of tradition, Francis has pursued his calling with a typically Franciscan modesty though. He has criticized capitalism as a form of idolatry and supported unions as a necessary instrument for the poor to stand against those oppressing them, but he has not done so with the fire of 70’s-era liberation theologists. Instead of giving fiery speeches he leads by quiet example.

Long story short I think Francis is actually that creature who sometimes seems as mythical as Hobbits, a Christian who actually follows all those words in the New Testament that so many Christians seem to prefer to ignore and who lives by them, for real.

To anyone raised in a Christian framework Francis isn’t really all that hard to understand. He is deeply devoted to following the example of Christ, devoted enough to flaunt tradition in a role of leadership. But he is still deeply invested in some of the Church’s antisexual attitudes, and he is not going to go so far as to cry for armed revolution or to openly defy those whose power over him he acknowledges.

The much more interesting question is:

2. How the hell did this guy get to be Pope?

It’s important to understand that not only did Cardinal Bergoglio get elected Pope, he very nearly got elected pope in 2005. He was a frontrunner in that conclave which went on to elect Cardinal Ratzinger / Pope Benedict XVI. That conclave required an historic number of balloting rounds and it’s said that Bergoglio, as a frontrunner, pushed to end the deadlock by imploring his own supporters not to vote for him.

Back in 2001 one of the very first things I wrote for kuro5hin was The Fish Goes Away, an essay about certain odd things the Catholic Church had been doing in the 1990’s and a theory of why they had been doing those things. The theory I offered, to a bit of a hostile reception, was that the Church has an occult tradition including the Kabballah and astrology which the Protestants, having split off at a level not privy to these secrets, did not take with them. And this occult lore was generally regarded by those who knew about it as a powerful and dangerous weapon best kept private for the use of a privileged few.

At the time of Jesus’ ministry things like astrology weren’t considered secrets, although they would be part of what we might today consider a college-level education. It was a relatively recent thing that Hipparchus had discovered the precession of the equinoxes. It is this phenomenon that is responsible for that awful earworm about the Age of Aquarius. But in the time of Jesus of Nazareth, it was actually the Age of Pisces displacing the Age of Ares. The idea that the the point in the sky that doesn’t move as the night progresses itself moves would have been a big thing for those early thinkers to contemplate.

My theory is that the early Church did not, in fact, choose a fish (the “Ichthys”) as its symbol because of an acrostic. Someone very well educated decided that the teachings of Jesus were in alignment with the coming era of Pisces and that the Romans had been ascendant because they were more in alignment with the fading age of Ares. But as the Church actually did replace the Roman Empire, growing into a powerful and hierarchial organization, such ideas were made secret and reserved for the use of Popes and royalty. The true meaning of the Ichthys was buried, though the symbol was kept because of its secret power.

Bear in mind that this is no judgement about whether astrology actually works. The more important question is whether the leaders of an ancient and very conservative organization think it works. And I would have to say, if you believe in transubstantiation, believing that God writes his will in the sky is a really small additional step.

So if you will take a little leap with me and suppose that the Church aligned itself with the Age of Pisces in a fairly central way 2,000 years ago, you probably have heard at least one earworm song suggesting that the Age of Pisces is, like, over. And I think this has a lot to do with some of the weird stuff the Church has been doing since the 1990’s.

Things have been going sour for the Church since the French and American revolutions, but the last 70 years — all in living memory for our new Pope — have been truly traumatic. Everything about the late 20th century could not have been better designed with deliberate intent to convince an astrologer that this Age of Aquarius stuff is for real. Everywhere in life mechanism and algorithm are displacing living flesh and feeling. In the language of astrology, influences of air (thought) replace those of water (feeling).

One can read a similar transformation into the passing of Ares (fire, passion, power) to Pisces (water, feeling, reception) in the first few centuries CE. In those days early Christians probably saw their beliefs validated as they really did displace the former pagan order. But today their heirs see themselves on the wrong end of a similar transition as humans and their institutions look away from feeling and emotion to a new focus on engineering, logistics, and machines.

I’m sure the current Church leaders are unpleasantly aware of the lack of mercy their ancestors showed toward the remnant representatives of the old order when that transition occurred. I suspect the Vatican II conference was the Church’s first overt attempt to confront the oncoming Aquarian age. The modernist reforms adapted in the early 1960’s would probably have been welcome much earlier but only in a world where heretics had powers like nuclear weapons and intercontinental bombers and the relatively new science of propaganda could such reforms be seriously considered.

And for a generation that was pretty much the Church’s reaction to the changing world. And it was a very major change; it’s hard to overstate what a big deal it was to have the liturgy in the ordinary person’s vernacular language instead of the mysterious and scholarly Latin. For nearly two millennia the Church had jealously hoarded all means of religious power for its own actors, requiring lay persons to go to priests, who had to go to bishops, who had to go to Cardinals, who had to go to the Pope before their words might reach God. Vatican II admitted that a direct communication might exist between even laypersons and the divine. While not going nearly as far as the Protestants did in that regard, it was seriously subversive to millennia of Church teaching.

But ultimately, it wasn’t enough.

As the world continued to move past the Church they started doing some very startling things, like apologizing to Galileo (hey, 400 years too late is better than never, right?), apologizing about the Inquisition, apologizing about being a little too cozy with the Nazis (that possibly being an early attempt to schmooze with the Aquarian thing, the Nazis being very Aquarian), and issuing a portrait of the “New Jesus” that was rather Native American looking (though still not looking, for some reason, very Jewish).

That brings us to 2001, when I wrote The Fish Goes Away for kuro5hin. And it’s gotten worse. Quite a bit worse, in fact.

Cardinal Ratzinger attempted to deal with the ongoing disconnect between the Church and reality by taking a firm stand. This posture ended up, perhaps most horribly for the Church elders, with an exploding pedophilia scandal reaching the Pope’s own inner circle. The requirement of clerical celibacy was originally created to prevent children of priests from inheriting what might otherwise be Church property, and justified in terms now hard to retract. That this might attract pedophiles and homosexuals has been a blowback the Church has always had the power to cover up in the past. But not so much today, and the Church has other vulnerabilities that loom, most particularly their relationship with the increasingly secular Europe within which their seat of power is located.

And so now we have Pope Francis, almost a man-child who walks beside the Popemobile as he lets an autistic child play in the seat reserved for his own divine posterior. There must be many people within the Church who thinks Francis brings something important to the position, perhaps even his predecessor who stepped down making room for his ascension. I think the thing Francis brings is a connection to the poor, who probably seem likely to be very numerous in the coming materialist-capitalist aeon. Francis will teach them to exist in a new world where they don’t have their own nation-state, fancy robes, or gold baubles to trumpet their faith. I think it is dawning on a lot of these guys that this is now their future, not just because of the forces of history any lay person can see but as their own divination system warned them.

Their oracle warns them that in the future Catholics worldwide may have to live like those in post-Henry VII England as a persecuted minority, hiding not only from the atheist and capitalist rulers of the new order but from those new and aggressive heretic offshots of their own faith such as the Mormons and Evangelicals. Pope Francis is a person who would face the knowledge of such a future with dignity, determination, compassion, and hope.

And this is what I think his colleagues are hoping to learn from him.

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The Road to Schenectady — Part 3

Peachfront’s Note: This is part of a series Roger is writing on how writers get their ideas, based on his own experiences. Here’s Part 1, and here’s Part 2. Today he’s going to talk about the role of community, especially the kuro5hin.org community, and how it encouraged him to create.

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So far I’ve written mostly about the things I wrote for myself which happened to find a public audience because the site kuro5hin.org existed where they could be published, if not for money, then with an expectation of a wide audience if they survived the very democratic upvoting process.

Rusty Foster also published The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect on his servers outside of the usual kuro5hin voting process in response to strong community support for the idea. There was a period of time around 2002 when Rusty openly mused about having a “stable of writers” he would support outside of traditional publishing venues. There were at the time dozens of frequent kuro5hin contributors who might have been candidates for such a venture.

Of course, it was not to be.

What I have not written about much are the things I wrote only because kuro5hin existed as a likely outlet. All of the Passages stories except the first, The Happiness Broker and its sequel, the popular Plant essays and even the series that forged my reputation on kuro5hin, A Casino Odyssey were all written because kuro5hin existed.

I suppose it’s easy to say that makes me an egomaniac who only cares about being fluffed but from my end of the telescope it seems a lot more complicated.

Some of my stuff got a pretty hostile reception, like my libertarian-bashing sendup of Yet Another Effort and my musings on astrology and mysticism, but still I wrote up the next idea that seemed worthy.

I only stopped when one of the trolls created a votebot to make it impossible for even a popular and anticipated story to be legitimately voted up, denying me access to the front page.

I find writing easy but it’s still an extra effort to take a cool internal vision and turn it into something that holds up for another person who might not share my background or interests. So if it wasn’t to fluff my ego, why did I write for K5?

As with the very different compulsion to write MOPI I’m honestly not sure. It’s as if some ideas have a life of their own and aren’t content with living inside of my head. But like people they differ in their level of drive; MOPI wanted out no matter what but The Fifth Gift would have been content to stay a personal fantasy if I hadn’t been asked to write something “positive about transhumanism.”

I suspect I’m not the only one like this. Kuro5hin and its Scoop-based progeny seem to have brought a lot of people like me out of the woodwork.

Rusty Foster created kuro5hin.org and its software engine Scoop as a reaction to the unpleasantness of what was then the most popular tech blog on the Internet, Rob “CmdrTaco” Malda’s slashdot.org. The slashdot story submission process was believed to favor clique members and the not very well community-moderated comments were a cesspool of trolling and linkbait.

Scoop was Rusty’s answer to this situation; kuro5hin went live in late December 1999 and managed to draw off a healthy following of Slashdot refugees, eventually including myself. I made my grand entrance with A Casino Odyssey in July 2001.

In June 2002 Rusty launched a fundraiser which brought in over $37,000, and for awhile there was talk of expanding kuro5hin’s scope to create a nonprofit foundation to explore the possibilities of community edited media. It was in the wake of this that I published Passages and then MOPI there. But the foundation was never quite able to get its footing, kuro5hin stayed pretty much the same, and there was a sharp dropoff in story queue submissions after 2003.

Of course, kuro5hin was not the biggest success of Rusty Foster’s Scoop software, and his other successes probably helped doom kuro5hin by drawing his attention away from it. In October 2003 Markos Moulitsas decided to move his DailyKos blog from Movable Type to Scoop.

“Kos” didn’t enable the story voting feature that had attracted me to kuro5hin, but he did leave in place — while openly wondering if it would serve any useful purpose — the Scoop “diary” feature that allowed users to post unmoderated stories that appeared on a sidebar.

The diary feature turned out to be wildly popular, with many vibrant sub-communities forming around popular writers and meeting in the comment sections of their diaries. DailyKos went from being the most popular Democratic political blog to being the “largest progressive community blog in the United States” with an estimated 2.5 million unique viewers a month.

Other Democratic politicians took note, and when I made my way to Maine and met Rusty in person in 2008 his main source of income turned out to be consulting on Scoop blogs for Democratic political candidates. This involved a lot of travel and apparently not much time for administering kuro5hin.

Some writers whose stars like mine had flared on kuro5hin now migrated to a scoop site set up by k5 member “Hulver.” But HUSI never attracted the wide readership or incredibly high Google pagerank that kuro5hin had enjoyed.

(Amazingly, kuro5hin has incredibly high pagerank even today despite being little more than a hollow shell of its former self for more than half a decade, a phenomenon nobody seems to be able to explain.)

Others migrated to sites like Everything2 or Wikipedia, or just dropped off the face of the Internet as far as anyone could tell.

Sam “zenofchai” Montgomery-Blinn started a science fiction magazine, Bull Spec, which bought the reprint rights to publish my story Mortal Passage in print form.

In my own Internet travels I have never found a home comparable to kuro5hin that inspired that urge to write down and refine what might otherwise have been idle fantasies. I have noticed that being a popular writer on a big site like DailyKos is pretty much a full-time job, one I don’t have time for since I have a real full-time job.

Places with low barriers to entry also tend to have low readership and participation. The new trend toward “social media” like Facebook has filled the Inter-ether with hucksters intent on gaming the search engines and ranking algorithms, a game that interests me not at all.

While I wrote a lot of stuff because kuro5hin existed as a place to put it, in a sense I still wrote it all for myself.

If I wanted to game a system, I would have made a very different decision in 1994 when I cranked up Bank Street Writer and asked myself how I wanted to record the vision with which I’d awakened of a depraved future where immortality was creating a new and profound type of insanity. Should I write it for the editors, I wondered, bowdlerizing and over-explaining it to make it publishable, or write it as my heart wanted to in all its terrible splendor?

I wrote that first chapter of MOPI, and everything since, the way I would have wanted to read it myself. The fact that others have liked any of it has been nice. In some cases some of the criticism has given me pause to think and humbled me a bit. But it would not be a localroger joint if I dolled it up to make it look profitable for the suits or jacked it with buzzwords and shout-outs to enhance its SEO.

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The Road to Schenectady – Part 2

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.

* * * * *
Once Kuro5hin had truly crashed and burned, I took the opportunity to do a little audit of what I’d written. One thing that stuck out was that all of my fiction, and even a pretty good part of my nonfiction, was about the relationship between humans and godlike beings.

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.

sirius, the brightest star

Sirius and friends. © by Elaine Radford

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.

Tim Leary hugged this 80 lb quartz crystal.  © by Elaine Radford

Tim Leary hugged this 80 lb quartz crystal. © by Elaine Radford

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.

* * * * *

The Road to Schenectady: Part 1

My darling wife has done a nice job of kicking off this blog with a spoiler-free overview of how I got and developed the idea for The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect After reading that I thought it might be fun to take a longer-range view of my own motivations.

Most of the stories and essays I’ve written were produced between 2001 and 2007 because the site kuro5hin.org existed. K5 offered a low barrier to entry because anyone with a free account could submit an article to the “queue,” where the other free account holders would vote on it; stories that passed this test were published, either on the front page or to a less prominent section category. At its peak K5 had dozens of truly talented contributors and thousands of regular readers, and it was quite an honor to regularly make the front page.

Before K5, I wrote exactly two stories for my own pleasure, expecting neither to ever find publication. One of those, The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect, had its genesis in 1982 when a fellow student lectured me on the necessity of constant exponential growth for life to exist at all, a statement so stupid in its ignorant short-sightedness that it demanded a reduction to absurdity. At the age of 18 I could see how, if everything went just right, technology might ride an exponential curve to such an extent that any of us might be able to touch any part of the entire universe instantaneously.

the metamorphosis of prime intellect -- where the idea came from

star sketch by elaine radford

But I couldn’t see what happened next; I couldn’t see how to illustrate the hazard that must somehow interrupt this glorious flowering. It wasn’t until 1994, at the age of 30, that I was able to see the hazard that made it possible to tell a story, a danger not technological but human. Because in that interval I’d seen enough examples to realize that, as Colin Wilson once wrote, the surest way to drive a human being mad is to put him in a situation where he can have anything he wants without effort or cost. The Roman emperors taught us that the Singularity would end in madness if it did not end in extinction.

That morning in 1994 I sat down at the computer and faced the question of whether to report my awkward and twisted vision in its entire glory or bowdlerize it to try to make it publishable. Realizing that I might never have such a vision again I decided to report it in all its ghastly splendor. While no publisher has been willing to touch it the reception it has received in the last ten years has told me that I made the correct choice.

The other thing I wrote without consideration of an audience was Passages in the Void. I’d just read the fascinating and persuasive book Rare Earth: Why Complex Life Is Uncommon in the Universe which argued that an extraordinary series of coincidences had been necessary for the Earth to be stable enough to support the evolution of complex life forms like reptiles and mammals. Shortly after I read a review which claimed that, if this was true, it was “the end of science fiction.” Passages was a demonstration project of SF set in such a universe.

This natural contrarianism doesn’t just affect my writing. Years ago I did one of those exercises to determine what “trigger word” motivates me, and I realized that in my case the irresistible motivator was “impossible.” The surest way to get me to throw all my effort behind a problem is to tell me it can’t be solved. You say I can’t make this microcontroller run that machine? Just watch me. Of course some things really are impossible, and it’s important to be aware of that, but it’s amazing how many things are universally thought to be impossible until someone like me refuses to get the memo.

During the kuro5hin era I had a strong motivation to turn ideas into essays. One of the early ones was the story of our casino adventure, A Casino Odyssey, which turned out to be one of kuro5hin’s most popular articles. After I published first Passages, then by request MOPI, the taunt that I couldn’t possibly surpass Passages turned one story into four. Along the way I related observations from work, from philosophy, from our youthful experiments with what was then called the “New Age,” and various random ideas. Not everything I wrote was for the ages; I was sometimes a bit too quick to hit the Submit button. But much of that work was praised, and I’m very proud of it.

Alas, the K5 era came to an abrupt halt in 2007; the site had been in decline as the social experiment it represented began to fail. The best writers and most enthusiastic readers, commenters, and voters drifted off under an onslaught of harassment which the auto-moderation system could not hold back.

Revelation Passage was an attempt to get myself back in the habit of writing, but after the first of five parts posted one of the trolls created a robot to vote down anything else I submitted faster than the real members could possibly vote it up. Nobody could find a moderator and I ended up putting the story online myself. Without an obvious outlet, I lost the habit of turning my ideas into essays and stories.

I did always intend to finish the sequel to MOPI which I promised in 2002; that effort was stalled by the Tropical Storm Bill Tree Fall of 2003, then by Katrina, then by the demise of kuro5hin, and since then by sheer distance and inertia. It’s always easier to do something else with more promise of immediate results.

My wife created this blog for me as a present for my 49th birthday, a total surprise which I know involved a lot of effort and learning on her part. Her plan for this place is to do some actual promotion, something I never had much heart for myself, to bring my best writing to new readers. But I also know she knows me, and she knows the lure that a comfortable place with a blank form and a Submit button holds for me.

I’m years out of the game. Revelation Passage was supposed to be the warmup to finishing the novel sequel. I’ve totally lost the spark. Couldn’t possibly do a project like that now.

It’s obviously impossible.

* * * * *

Where ideas come from — a look at the origins of MOPI

Where do ideas come from? Harlan Ellison used to be famous for the unhelpful answer, “Schenectady,” but Roger has often gone out of the way to give credit to his mysterious muse. The trouble is that most of these essays and brief comments include a “spoiler warning.”

On this site, we’ll give you a little taste of what sparked the stories. However, we strongly urge you not to hit any links that lead to a deeper discussion until after you’ve already read the story in question. Today, we’re going to look at the granddaddy of them all…

The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect was, Roger writes, “inspired by an annoying exchange I had with a classmate [in 1982] who insisted that civilization, technology, and even life itself could not exist without constant exponential growth.” Roger chose to point out how ridiculous the idea was by making some back of the envelope calculations which suggested that, “in a couple of thousand years we would have virtually instant access to every bit of information in the observable Universe.” The more he looked at the graph, the more science fictional our future looked.

Still, where is the potential for plot and conflict if, as David Byrne and Jerry Harrison said, “Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens?”

“I lost the outline but I thought of Prime Intellect every once in awhile, and the exponential curve that led to personal godhood….”

Meanwhile, while we were waiting for the Rapture of the Nerds (a phrase that didn’t exist at the time), we got involved in more traditional methods of chasing personal godhood. Why not? Do you refuse to drive a car because one day they’ll have jetpacks on Mars? In the late 80s and early 90s, we explored some really out-there woo, including crystal power, shamanism, and the language of dreams.

Hell, Timothy Leary even hugged our 80 pound Arkansas quartz crystal that we’d trucked down from the Hot Springs area.

Although Roger rarely remembers dreams, he must have tapped into a magic pipeline, because one day he woke up with “a vision of such depravity and corruption that I had been unable to imagine it into existence in my idealistic youth…” That was the notorious Chapter One.

Roger has written much more about the origin of The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect in the long essay hosted on his web page called How It Came To Be Written, but don’t forget that spoiler warning. If you haven’t yet read MOPI and you want to, read the novel first.

Then feel free to come back and delve deeper into the inspiration behind the story.