#80 = Volume 27, Part 1 = March 2000
Attempting Immortality: AI, A-Life, and the Posthuman in Greg Egan’s
If he’d rebuilt himself, reinvented himself … then how much of
the man she’d known remained? Had he granted himself transhuman resilience …
or had he died in silence? ...
Where was the line? Between [radical] self-transformation … and death
itself?—Egan, Permutation City (309; italics in original)
Anything’s bearable—so long as it’s finite.—Egan, “Closer” (341)
“Cyberspace,” writes Kevin Robins, has been dubiously promoted as a “virtual
laboratory for analyzing the … post-human condition … including the relation
between mental space and the bodily other” (140). All too often, however, this
“bodily other” tends to (de)materialize as the effacement of the body into the
Cartesian or Kantian a priori spaces of transcendent humanist desire. This
failure of either literal or fictional cyber-spaces to engage meaningfully with
posthuman sites of identity and ontology is to some extent redressed in Greg
Egan’s Permutation City. His combination of “hard” and “metaphysical” sf
proffers diegetic worlds that open up avenues of exploration for the written
production of social, cultural, and individual subjectivities in universes that
challenge the fundamental humanist assumptions about objectivity, the body,
identity, life, and “cosmology” itself.
Egan constructs an elaborate interrelation of multiple digital topologies and
cosmologies, providing a narrative complexity of juxtaposed and dichotomous
paraspaces and multitiered ontological levels. By juxtaposing cybernetics’ two
competing paradigms of digital “life”—the “symbolic” AI hypothesis with the
“enactive” model of A-Life—Egan enters into an informed and constructive
dialogue with the entire scientific, philosophical, and metaphysical discourse
surrounding “life,” identity, ontology, and the (post) human1 while
retaining a strong fictional narrative. He situates these quests for immortality
within a wholly “subjective cosmology,” by which he means “that what we
experience as ‘the universe’ depends significantly on the structure of our own
bodies and minds … [where] subjective experience pieces all of reality together
as the pattern in an intrinsically random cloud of events” (Egan, “From
Infinity”). This re-contextualization and violent dissection of spatio-temporal
parameters, combined with the subjective fragmentation of digital topologies and
the object/subject “bodies” therein, holds serious repercussions not only for
notions of identity, but also for the debate surrounding what constitutes being
“human” and being “alive.”
Within these multiple paraspaces and sub-paraspaces, serving a common sf
function as frame narratives, Permutation City also examines both
corporeal and virtual body images and boundaries, (virtual) immortality, the
ontological status of digital “Copies,” creation(ist) mythologies and hubris,
the relationship between bodies, subjects, and digital topologies, various
evolutionary models, and the desire to meet the “alien Other.” The narrative
manages to address many “big issues” by alternating between a “corporeal
present” and two or more diegetic spaces. Here, different permutations of the
same characters exist in alternative forms, that is, digital Copies and clones
of Copies “running” in various “environments.” The resulting ontological
indeterminacies bring the complexities of the “metaphysical sf” tradition into
Egan’s “hard science” account of near-future technologies.
Permutation City is expanded from the earlier novelette “Dust,” which
uses the subjective “experiences” of a digital Copy to illustrate the hypothesis
that all possible permutations always already exist in an infinite number of
parallel universes. Here, the “realities” of self-contained worlds depend on the
existence of an observer to “join up the dots,” rearranging perception “solely
by virtue of the potential redefinition of the coordinates of space-time”
(105; italics in original). This cybernetic simulacrum has “assembled” itself
and its world from the “cosmic dust,” a “universe completely without structure,
without topology. No space, no time; just a set of random events” (107).
Permutation City “pushes this idea to its logical conclusion” (Byrne &
Egan “literalizes” these “permutation” theories by scattering dust-like
cut-up fragments of his original story throughout the expanded novel and using
anagram rearrangements of the novel’s title as chapter headings. Permutation
City also delivers an epigraph in the form of a twenty-line poem consisting
entirely of anagrams of “permutation city” as further demonstration of the
subjective rearrangement of random particles into alternative universes and
meanings, a theory the novel self-reflexively refers to with the analogy of a
“cosmic anagram” (122).
The theory of cosmology in Permutation City is based largely on the
“anthropic principal,” whereby the origin of the universe is constrained by the
existence of the individual human, thus placing the “human” at the center of our
particular “realities.” This anthropocentric conceit is then undermined by the
novel’s conclusion. The posthuman is decentered by the alternative
paradigm-forming subjectivity of an A-Life alien Other. While the cosmological
principal remains emphatically subjective, it is no longer anthropic. To
understand the complex implications of the metaphysical debates enmeshed in the
hard science extrapolation of Permutation City, it is necessary first to
make a short detour through the contemporary scientific and philosophical
debates surrounding Artificial Intelligence and Artificial Life.2 I
then examine how Egan’s narrative addresses many of the issues arising from this
debate, especially in relation to digital permutations of putative immortality.
AI vs. A-Life. The definition of “cybernetic life” is highly contentious.
A strong humanist resistance to digital life in silico seeks to rebuff
any elision of the putatively “essential difference between people and machines”
(Boden, Artificial Intelligence 420). At the other extreme to this fear
of “dehumanization” is the prevalent yet potentially flawed cyberneticist
positioning of evolution as information processing. This simplistic
computational analogy fails to note that information is not an entity in itself.
Rather, information is produced and processed by bodies (but not necessarily
organic bodies) in relation to their respective environments and particular
socio-cultural context. Alternatively, A-Life pioneer Chris Langton defines life
as a “a property of the organization of matter, rather than a property of the
matter which is organized” (qtd. in Levy 118). Other arguments focus on an
agent’s capacity to evolve through self reproduction and mutation. Most of these
definitional attempts suffer from inconsistency (346).3
Marking the recent popularity of chaos theories and non-linear dynamic
systems has been a correlative interest in the notion of increasing complexity
as a measure of evolution and life itself. Complex systems lead to emergent
behavior, and their unpredictability has become a key theory in the study of
techno-biologic systems. Such emergent behavior is witnessed in the A-Life of
Permutation City. The philosophical “definition of life,” however, remains
as subjective as Egan's cosmology itself. Indeed, many A-Life researchers
believe that it is only by “making life, [that] we may finally know what life
is” (Levy 10).
The definition of cognition is equally contentious for proponents of digital
“being.” Both the top-down “symbolic” and parallel processing “connectionist”
models of AI are based largely on the materialist assumption that “mind” is a
function of the brain, and thus that replicating the activity of the brain will
produce cognition. Such “simulation” is limited, with the status of “cognition”
remaining dependent on subjective human interpretation (Franklin 141, 146).4
Furthermore, like any fictional “digitally uploaded” cybernetic being, AI
“entities” also encounter a lack of embodied knowledge. For Egan’s Copies, this
predicament becomes central to their problematic ontological dislocation.
Logically distinguishable from AI is the field of A-Life, represented in
Egan’s novel by the Lambertians. Egan contrasts their underlying principles with
those of the AI-like Copies, enabling an interrogation of each competing
paradigm of potentially immortal life. A-Life”s “bottom-up” approach “seeds”
cybernetic environments with the digital equivalent of DNA (cellular automata),
which evolve and behave in lifelike dynamic systems that illustrate “deep
complexity” and self-organization (Levy 70, 80). This demonstrates, argues
Langton, that rule-based structures can “hold the keys to reproducing beings and
to entire universes” (Levy 102). A-Life’s swarm-type, non-hierarchical digital
“vivisystems” are largely uncontrollable and unpredictable, “out of control
swarmware” (Kelly 22–24). This is exactly the model of A-Life seeded into a
“boundless” environment in Permutation City.
Unlike AI models, A-Life systems independently act upon their own
environments, making a reality out of a world and thus removing
the subjective interpretation of the human (Franklin 380–81, 187). The Danish
physicist, Steen Rasmussen, notes this autonomy, stating that, “an artificial
organism must perceive a reality R2, which for itself is just as real as our
‘real’ reality R1 is for us.” Despite R2 being materially embedded in R1, it is
both independent and has “the same ontological status” (Levy 145). Cellular
automata, then, are their own reality, obeying their own logic-based
structure which exists outside anthropic parameters. Lefebvre argues that each
living body “produces itself in space and … also produces that space” (170). The
“living” and “enactive bodies” of A-Life entities, then, are not only seeded
into and produced by their coded “artificial” environments, but in turn
productively interact with and may possibly affect—indeed potentially produce—those
spaces. The A-Life agent’s cognition lies “not in representation, but in
embodied action” (Varela 16, 20). This difference from merely imitative AI
“copies” that reflect our reality forms the central “subjective cosmological”
dilemma in Permutation City. Egan’s A-Life entities evolve not only their
representational form but also the underlying rules governing their space and
thus the very algorithms coding their evolutionary existence. This has drastic
consequences for the AI agents also existing in yet powerless to fundamentally
affect their environment. The novel presupposes a non-anthropic
subjective cosmology, where different agents—human, posthuman AI and non-human
in silico—can exist in alternative “worlds” that are equally “real.”
AI, A-Life, and the posthuman. Assuming, then, that enactive A-Life
agents are “alive,”5 A-Life can function as a decentering of the
human—placing the “new agent” (its purpose, environment, realities, and moral
considerations) at the previously anthropic center. Nigel Clark argues that
A-life bodies “constitute a new form of—truly autonomous—signifying object,”
with “no obligation to perform for the gaze of an outside observer” (130).
Rather, synthetic organisms may one day reverse the gaze, “turning our
perceiving bodies into perceived bodies” (130–31). Clark’s rearrangement of
signifying objects and semiotic systems of priority not only serves as
theoretical pointer to Egan’s fictional reversal of the digitally embodied gaze,
but also breaks with the humanist logocentrism that dominates the discourse of
artificial bodies as necessarily related to reproducing the image of the
“redundant,” retro, and abandoned corporeal body.
Although artificial “life in the machine” is extant, the notion of the
“(post)human” in the machine remains highly problematic. The reductionist
rhetoric of neuro-cyber symbiosis reveals a return to the Cartesian AI notion of
“mind as computation.” As Hans Moravec acknowledges, this idea is primarily
concerned with “minds that aspire to immortality” (5), a transcendence into the
machine that erases the phenomenological model of mind, body, and world.6
Meaningful transmogrification of the “human” into some digital AI form remains
little more than an sf device or wishful, humanist desire for immortality.
Although A-Life agents must be considered “other than human” rather than “posthuman,”
their independently evolving, techno-biological behaviors and realities draw
attention to our own corporeal, socio-cultural, and spatio-temporal evolutionary
conditions, actions, and anthropocentric assumptions. Furthermore, they reverse
the once-omnipotent human gaze back onto our presumptions regarding “life”
itself. A-Life bodies are also the bodies of the alien Other we will perhaps
meet in future cybernetic environments, “bodies capable of reconfiguring
themselves into more permutations than we could ever conjure up for our virtual
selves” (Clark 130). As such, they may provide useful lessons regarding our own
transient condition of “becoming–posthuman” in process. A-Life, argues
Thomas Ray, is a truly comparative biology that can extend our Earth-limited
concepts of biology, evolution, and complexity (179). Thus, Egan’s thoughtful
engagement with the discourses of A-Life and the (digital) posthuman condition
produces a remarkably original and informative example of contemporary sf.7
Permutation City: Immortal copies, digital ontologies.
Permutation City is essentially a novel of two halves, each correlating with
a different paraspace. These paraspaces create their own distinct subjective
cosmologies, with separate topologies, (dis)embodiments, and ontologies.
Accordingly, they are best dealt with in the somewhat linear logic in which the
novel presents them: from vulnerable VR copies to the negentropic immortality of
the TVC universe and finally the grounded, “mortal” A-Life paradigms of the
Autoverse that question “living forever.”
The “Copies” are “whole-body architectural simulations” that give the
“illusion” of a VR (re)embodiment along with “uploaded” consciousness.
Approximations of their visceral counterparts, Copies are “cheats” with no
“underlying logic,” “ad hoc … software mongrel[s]” that lack any basic
foundation in physics or biology (101). They are directly analogous with
sophisticated “top-down” AI. The fundamental purpose of these Copies is the
pursuit of a “highly specific free-market version” of immortality. Originating
within an elite digital gerontocracy, the Copies dataist existence is inherently
late-capitalist, being wholly dependent on the free-market’s infrastructure. A
Copy’s transcendence is both commodified and compromised by the cost of
computation needed to “run” their scan. While the wealthiest must still run at a
slowdown rate of seventeen, poorer Copies are relegated to the “slow clubs,”
where subjective time is even further retarded. Financial transactions, then,
underpin a Copy’s very existence, begetting an “economics of ontology” (114)
with serious repercussions for the relative subjectivity of these digital
Such vulnerability to technology, processing demands, and human agency does
not, however, discount the possibility of real existence.8 Despite
their “exploitable insecurities” (70), it is sufficient for Egan that AI Copies
and A-Life entities perceive their own reality R 2.
As the Copy “Durham 2” recognizes, “For any
human, absolute proof of a Copy’s sentience was impossible. For any Copy, the
truth was self-evident: Cogito ergo sum” (40–41).
Durham 2 is the first Copy of a still-living
person to survive the ontological contradiction of being concurrently visceral
and digital. Awakening electronic and naked—created as the digital
Adam/Golem—“he” now exists simultaneously in the precarious border zones of
different “metaphysical planes” (32), two universes functioning with altered
subjective temporal rates. Denied his “bailout” option, digital “existence”
itself begins to “seduce him” and a “visceral sense of identity” develops
(11; italics in original).
Permutation City raises serious doubts, however, regarding the exact
nature of the Copies’ subjectivities: are they, or are they not, “the same
person as the person they were based on”? (77) As this article’s epigraph notes,
if the subject and his/her Copy are not deemed to be the same subject,
then the “immortality” offered by the process of copying is an empty illusion.
Simulation is replaced by non-alike substitution. From the moment the
Copy becomes conscious it begins to evolve independently. Experiences, thoughts,
bodies, forms, and spatio-temporal dimensions all diverge; both now-separate
entities are always becoming—other than their former self/ves. They become
“irreversibly different people” (73). As the Copies beget clones, the original
corporeal subject’s identity is further fragmented and lost to a multiplicity of
disconnected, irreconcilable identities. Thus, the substitution of Durham2 for
Durham, when both still exist, elides conventional delineations between
“artificial and real” by producing two simultaneous realities.
Subjective cosmologies: “dust to dust …” Permutation City’s
cosmology sounds the death knell for the unified self and linear Euclidean
universe of Western metaphysics. The relativity of the Copies’ universes begets
an infinitely indeterminate existence, where “there is no space or time…All
[is] dust” (121–22; italics in original). By constructing their subjective
experience, “Every Copy proves the dust theory to itself a million times a day”
(168). The consequences of this “subjective cosmology” extend to all facets of
existence: time, space, identity, form, image, site, body, emotions, memories,
pasts, and possible futures.
Egan playfully employs his subjective premise in a Dickian metaphysical
dilemma that refuses to distinguish between delusional paranoia, reality, and
various virtual realities. Thus, through a process of repeated copying,
“DurhamX” gains not only multiple futures, but many pasts (161-64). DurhamX
regards these many different copied, cloned, virtual and visceral selves as an
“inseparable” collective, although he remains uncertain as to the ontological
status of this retrofuturistic and seemingly infinite “us”: “Do you think I’m
alive? If a Copy’s not human, what am I? Twenty-three times removed?” (191,
197; italics in original).
Peer, a Copy relegated to the “virtual slums,” also embraces the subjectivity
of the “cosmic anagram,” thereby rendering his higher relative rate of temporal
slowdown meaningless. By abandoning any contact with the “real” world, the rate
at which one’s scan is computed becomes irrelevant: “One instruction per
millennium—it makes no difference” (296). To escape the anachronistic images of
his human history, Peer adjusts his “model-of-a-brain,” establishing a series of
virtual pasts that effectively “annihilate” his original “persona”—David
Hawthorne. Through the ensuing oscillation between different states and other
selves, Peer becomes ahistorical, a perpetually present and “endless series of
people. Linked together by the faintest thread of memory” (297). Peer’s final
act is to relinquish altogether the “illusion of still being this imaginary
thing called ‘me’ … Why go on pretending there’s one ‘real’ person, enduring
through all those arbitrary changes?” (297–98). In opting for a collective state
of being, Peer many not only crosses the line
between radical self-transformation and death—abandoning any illusion of
Hawthorne’s “immortality” (118)—but he also rejects “the last vestige of his
delusion of humanity. The last big lie” (68; italics in original). By
dissolving the unifying thread between his multiple, fragmentary selves, Peer
denies the Western subject of unitary wholeness, removes the humanist heritage
from any productively inclusive notion of the posthuman (or “
under erasure) and finally becomes non-human in his own “Solipsist Nation.”
Solipsist nation: abandoning the human in the posthuman. Peer’s solipsism
makes explicit the disavowal of the “real” world implicit in all cyberspatial
fictions, a generally escapist abandonment of moral concerns and corporeal
responsibilities. The philosophy of “Solipsist Nation” embraces virtuality while
rejecting the “limitations” of human heritage, form, image, and memories, taking
“everything which might be revered as quintessentially human … and grind[ing]
it into dust” (68; italics in original). By altering who he was as well as
who he now is, Peer moves away not only from the “human,” but also from
the inclusive interrogative
human, toward a state of being
emphatically “not human” (63). Peer exaggerates his rejection of and
estrangement from the human condition through an emphasis on his altered
ontological, temporal, and spatial states of being. Unlike Durham2, Peer-as-Copy
now is the original One. He embraces the infinite permutations of boundless time
and space to become Peer_, an entity for which illusion, delusion, simulation,
and substitution have no meaning. All are subjective realities as true or false
as each other—R X.
Endeavoring to create a “Solipsist Nation” entirely from fragments of his
self (297), Peer’s conceited acts of self-begetting attempt to plug the
(emotional) void in “his” eternal existence through a narcissistic intimacy with
the self-as-Other and “many.” In refusing to recognize the “independent reality”
of others, such virtual empowerment reproduces cyberspace’s isolationism (Robins
144). If, as Elizabeth Grosz argues, “It is our positioning … as an object for
others in space, that gives the subject any coherent identity” (“Space” 18), it
could be argued that such solipsist bodies have no way of defining their
existence or establishing identity. Furthermore, if the Copies are “non-bodies,”
then how are their identities and digital topographies formed and maintained at
all?9 In addressing the deeper implications of such virtual
“existence,” Permutation City juxtaposes the corporeal with the virtual,
the symbolic with the pure symbol, the productive with the redundant.
Corporeal bodies and digital bodies: excremental realities vs the non-body.
In the denial of the body we recognize the denial of the
real.—Valie Export (23)
Permutation City makes explicit the association between the visceral
and the real: the viscer(e)al. Maria is the novel’s corporeal anchor in
“reality,” the keystone whose body is uncompromisingly identified with her
house, figurative site of the self. This physio-psychical foundation of rock is
the antithesis of the shifting sands that underlie the novel’s digital
cosmologies and identities.
Essentialist correlations between the female, the body, and matriarchy
characterize Egan’s representations of Maria. While the male protagonist,
Durham, embraces the AI association of identity with mind, Maria resists the
virtual life in an association of body and identity that appears to draw on the
tradition of relating women to bodies and men to minds.10 It is
notable that the novel’s female characters cling both to the integrity of their
bodies (Francesca) and to their body’s image (Maria2), while the
males willingly abandon them for more fluid, “transparent” re-representations.
Maria’s identification with her womb-like house is accompanied by her
positioning as figurative “mother”- cum-creator of an entire new species, the
Lambertians, and their “planet.” This role is supplemented by images of birth
and blood that can only relate to specific, physical, maternal bodies. Egan
establishes a metonymic association between the pungent necessity of excrement
and corporeal reality that accompanies Maria from first appearance to last. The
novel’s bracketing references to the stench arising from a burst sewer are a
reminder of the functions that deem the body to be “alive” and hence mortal (15,
Durham’s suicide underlines the relationship between the visceral and the
real. Ending his visceral life in favor of a putative re-birth into immortal
digital existence, his death-by-disembowelment—marked by the “sickly sweet”
smell of shit and vomit—signifies the necessary relationship between life and
death in the corporeal world. Seeking to evade the death of their bodies through
life in virtuality, the Copies deny real birth and “living being.” By abandoning
the excremental self (“Prologue” 9), they attempt to deny their very mortality
(Grosz, Volatile 207).11 Durham2 displays an
“abjection” toward bodily waste which, as Kristeva notes, “reaches its extreme
in the horror of the corpse” (Grosz, Volatile 194), the decomposing
cadaver that provides an unwelcome reminder of material mortality.
These body-redundant Copies stand in stark contrast to Maria’s flesh-bound
existence. Although many remain reluctant to abandon the remnants of their
body’s image, wherein they still attempt to locate their unique “self,”
such bodily illusions have no bearing on the Copies’ cognitive processes or
sense of identity. The body’s boundaries are already violated by the extension
of its image after death. Informed bodies are replaced with information as
bodies, and the repercussions are many.
As I have argued elsewhere, the basic premise that the organic and “human”
can be wholly represented as digital information algorithms is
problematic.12 The inherently intuitive, non-linear, and paradoxical
mode in which humans process analog information remains in stark contrast to the
binary nature of the digital process. The “phenomenological body in its
space-time continuum of sensibility and perception,” necessary to produce
“human” thought (Lyotard 81), remains absent in the Copies’ simulated image. The
experience of having a body, as distinct from a representation of a body,
appears impossible to digitally recreate. Permutation City’s digitally
encoded substitute-simulations of analog entities are indeed “non-bodies,” which
lack the “essential non-algorithmic ingredients” that Penrose argues must be
present in any “action of consciousness” (526).13
It is instructive, then, that many of the Copies remain “faithful by default
to human physiology” (251). In keeping with the differences in representations
of gender, the reluctantly scanned Maria2 even retains the illusion of her
excremental realities in a vain attempt to affirm the lost body (251). Unlike
Maria2, the Copy of Thomas Riemann effects a tentative movement away from the
image of the body-as-scanned. Although more “truthful” to a Copy’s digital
architexture of being, Riemann’s specific choice of modified image remains
faithful to the idealized cinematic human body. Clark identifies such continued
reference to the redundant body in cyberspaces as a “recursive corporeality” in
which retroactive “hyperbolised bodies of the digital domain” resurrect the
pre-digital referential form of the body (126).14 The Copies are
“semiotic ghosts” clinging to recursive genders and redundant images (albeit
hyperaestheticized) in order to “ground” their identity.
Conversely, Peer progressively abandons the form and integrity of “the body,”
challenging the validity of remaining “enslaved by an obsolete respect for the
body's fragility” (111). Peer demonstrates his rejection of the “human” in a
symbolic (virtual) evisceration of the iconographic body that parallels Durham’s
He [effortlessly] plunged his fist into his chest … and tore his heart out.
He felt the parting of his flesh … but although aspects of the pain were
“realistic,” preprogrammed barriers kept it isolated within his brain, a
perception without any emotional, or even metabolic, consequences. And his heart
kept beating in his hand as if nothing had happened. (63)
The illusory body without consequences is literally (over)exposed as fake.
Both Peer and Durham display the (potentially fatal) signs of panic bodies,
bodies in crisis that fragment and collapse, manifesting their crises as a
borderless, uncontained diffusion of inside to outside, psychasthenia
represented graphically as Organs without Bodies. Despite the similarities,
however, Durham’s painful mutilation and death, his reeking intestines on the
floor with “Blood-red shit” (204), stand in marked contrast to Peer’s sybaritic
and “playful” wrapping of a coil of intestine around his neck (65). This analogy
establishes yet another juxtaposition of embodied reality with digital
Limiting Peer’s “pain” to the purely cognitive and programmable denies the
most fundamental phenomenological experiences of the body. Pain, and therefore
suffering, is posited as a basic function of living as experiential body
and thus an important element in the production of identity. Lyotard has argued
that “suffering is the mark of true thought,” a suffering of time and experience
(84–85). Egan explores the complex ontological implications of pain, suffering,
and the virtual, or “non-body” as identity, through Riemann2,
the paradox that appears both to prove and disprove Lyotard’s thesis.
Riemann2 is literally inscribed with the scar that not only
“encodes” his corporeal predecessor’s guilt, but also becomes the “sole mark of
his identity” (274). Displaying an unusually strong identification with his
former self and body, nothing can convince Riemann2 to “see himself
as the innocent software child of the dead Thomas Riemann” (212). His actions
confirm that pain and suffering are indeed an integral part of the “self.” In a
literalized Kafkaesque (self) punishment, the body’s inscription of guilt is
enhanced by a ritualistic writing on the surface, a self-mutilating
scarification marking the number of times he has “re-lived” the crime. Riemann2’s
“body” becomes the arbiter of his entire subjective experience; his “body knew
only the time he carved upon it” (245).
Carving into the digital representation of a body that always heals itself,
Riemann2 craves a corporeal punishment ultimately denied him by virtue of his
immortal digital being. Unlike Peer, he experiences an emotional torment that is
neither unmeaningful nor insignificant, proving on one level that a digital Copy
can indeed “suffer.” His suffering, however, remains more a consequence of
cognitive guilt than of the physical punishment he attempts to inflict upon his
unaffected body (245). His paradoxical attempts to render the virtual world real
through “corporeal consequence” are doomed.
As with Peer, it is instructive to compare Riemann2’s self-mutilation with that
of the human Durham, for whom the destruction of the body is (fatally) real.
Ultimately, both Riemann2 and Peer present inconsequential non-bodies that are
isolated in subjective space and time from other bodies and spaces. There are no
other bodies to act with and against and so to enable a production of space and
time. The structure of the Copies’ environment, then, is as problematic as their
Producing digital bodies, representing new spatialities. Egan’s Copies
exist in a contradictory and paradoxical “auxiliary geography” of deception
(84–85). Given Lefebvre’s argument for a reciprocal relationship of production
between bodies and (their) spaces (170), what can we make of the Copies’
dialectical relationship with their digital topography of “three dimensional
wallpaper” (10)? This visual environment is a prime example of a Kantian a
priori given space, a flattened Euclidean plane of Cartesian logic that
“contains” rather than interacts with the bodies represented therein. It defies
all notion of the social, phenomenological space of mutual production. As
programs that “produce no output” (107), the Copies are confined to the
symbolic, imaginary, non-productive, and reductive realm of representational,
illusory space (Lefebvre 312–13).
The binary essentialism of the Copies’ digital environments limits their
opportunities for lived social practice, their pre-defined spaces seemingly
impervious to the effects of the “bodies” that inhabit them. Offering the
illusion of boundless, borderless expansion, such techno-utopian virtual spaces
serve as constrictive non-social spaces that deny agents any interaction with
Other bodies. Through abstraction—time to space, object to subject, reality to
semiosphere, social to mental (Lefebvre 296)—digital space relinquishes its
potential as the heterotopological site of the irruptive posthuman in favor of
constructivist ontologies, where concrete time and social, specific bodies are
Permutation City draws an explicit analogy between this digital
environment and the “illusion” created by a cul-de-sac’s idyllic wall mural.
This literal “dead-end” pastoral scene is a two-dimensional trompe l’oeil,
an impossible contradiction and willful deception. Once revealed, the illusion
can never again be mistaken for reality (15–16). Rather, it is exposed as an
unsustainable other-world fantasy with neither future nor substance, a clear
pointer to the apparition-like basis of the Copies’ spaces. As we shall see,
Egan returns to this mural at the novel’s end, completing the association
between virtuality and fairy-tale fantasy, but in the context of the novel’s
second paraspace, the “TVC universe.”
TVC: digital topologies. Durham2’s “cosmological dust”
hypothesis leads DurhamX to propose the creation of a self-contained
and autonomous universe based on the theories of observation. This paraspace
twice-removed—a virtuality independent of our known universe—is a
self-replicating cellular automaton, a six-dimensional TVC (Turing, von Neumann,
and Chiang) universe. The TVC is a Riemannian space, a spherical geometry
that enables spaces of n-dimensions to be theorized (Grosz, “Space” 20).
Importantly, this universe rejects the Kantian a priori given space of
the original Copies’ VR environments. Rather, it is entirely dependent upon the
observations of the Copies to produce it. This Schrödinger-type
cosmological existence creates an ever-expanding, boundless space, extending
itself through the “sheer force of internal logic, ‘accreting’ the necessary
building blocks from the chaos of non-space-time by the very act of defining
space and time” (167). The Copies’ non-productive non-bodies are replaced by
over-prioritized patchwork bodies-as-creators, producing an abstract, fetishised,
eternal spectral space out of dust—“Permutation City.”15
The purpose of this universe is to grant a “true” immortality that will
putatively defeat cosmological entropy. By “transcending” to some neg-entropic
space independent of physical matter and linear time, this digital ark promises
not “emortality” but (subjective) immortality: “not dying, period” (187).16
Aptly named “Elysium,” this “Extropian” Other-space is commensurate with more
traditional notions of a heavenly after-life, reiterating the religious
connotations found in most sf texts of immortality.
The TVC’s cloned “inhabitants” exist in the enforced solipsism of a universe
with an independent scale of space, time, and dimension. Created as digital
progeny by ontogenesis software, the Elysians are no longer concerned with the
“continued existence of Planet Earth” (170): the “old human shackles are gone”
(308). This unbinding of the human atavistic lineage allows for the recreation
of who you are and what you are. Maria2, however,
rejects such subjective elasticity, clinging to the illusion of human physiology
in an endeavour to ground her identity and existence in the “human context” of
familial ties (252, 308). In contrast, the Elysians adopt ever more elaborate
forms. Yet they too appear concerned with maintaining some association with
In a conflation of object and subject, certain Elysians take on the
spatial material form of their technological ancestry (234). This
morphological mimicry of artefacts of cybernetic history is evidence of their
inability to locate themselves in relation to the infinite n-dimensionality of
their boundless TVC universe. Their technological pantomime can be positioned as
a psychasthenic “depersonalization by assimilation to space,” the effect of
borderless space as a devouring and captivating force.17 In a
collapse of the distinctions between self and environment, the Elysians display
a type of “appersonization” identified by Schilder as the process in which we
“take parts of the bodies of others and incorporate them in our own body-image”
(qtd. in Burgin 152). The dislocation to virtual (cyber) spaces often
literalizes such appersonization via the appropriation of other technological
bodies into the image of avatar bodies.
Displaying a sympathetic digital identification between building (virtual
object) and body (virtual subject), the Elysians imitate their retro-Futurist
spaces. They graphically illustrate the problematics of existing in what Manuel
Castells has dubbed the “space of flows,” a zone where identity is lost to the
boundless eternity of “timeless time and placeless space.” The TVC produces a
spatial-social landscape of “eternal ephemerality.” In this “condition of
structural schizophrenia” … “people lose their sense of self and attempt to
reclaim their identity in novel forms” (Stalder).18
This additional display of “panic bodies” demonstrates what Lefebvre has called
the “besetting terror” of the trial by space (qtd. in Burgin 36). The TVC
universe collapses “digitalised time into [an already-borderless] space” (Biddick
52), transforming this putative transcendent haven into a “space of terror” that
compounds the Elysians’ crisis of location through a further abstraction of
space, time, and energy from social to mental. Thus, as is so often the case,
the sf narrative of immortality enters into the realm of Faustian bargain,
hubris and appropriate nemesis.
Immortal hell. The sf genre is entwined with the desire for immortality.
Oscillating between utopian perceptions of immortality as boundless opportunity
and dystopian depictions of longevity as a curse, sf narratives have explored
numerous hypotheses and their possible repercussions. Permutation City
addresses many such issues, including the “deeply ingrained [“Death Ethic”] that
says dying is the responsible, the moral [and human] thing to do” (Egan, PC 34).
The Faustian aspect of Maria’s figurative bargain with Durham-as-“devil,”
accepting the gold pieces to “save” her mother's life through copying, is
depicted as a trade for her “soul” (172, 199).19 Maria2’s digital
resurrection comes at the cost of losing the human race—past, present, and
future, physically and emotionally. Memories, family, and friends become
meaningless random noise (§23:226). She equates her absolute isolation with
being “buried alive” (225), a simile of everlasting suffocation that Baudrillard
applies to such “prophylactic utopias”: “If in the past it was the dead who were
embalmed for eternity, today it is the living who are being embalmed alive in a
state of survival” (Ansell-Pearson 149–50).20 Similarly, Riemann
depicts his own condemnation to an eternity of self-loathing as “being cast into
Hell, without so much as a glimpse of Heaven” (246). The TVC universe is a “ship
of fools” (188), plunged into the fiery pit of Hades rather than the ascendant
glory of Elysium.
The TVC universe is a made-to-order utopia of infinite possibility but no
effect; there is no death, no challenge, and no God (230). Every Copy is
effectively condemned to perpetual solitary confinement. In an attempt to fill
the void created by this “abyss of immortality,” Peer randomly programs
“prosthetic interests” and exo-self identities, yet the sheer scope of the
infinite must eventually render these efforts futile, for “in the end you’re
going to come full circle and find that you’ve done it all before” (230–32). The
TVC’s constant expansion promises “eternal growth,” but delivers a feedback-loop
of repetition, thus questioning the value of immortality. It is this very
borderlessness of the TVC's infinite space-time that creates the “terror” that
manifests in the panic-bodies of Copies and Elysians alike.
The contradictions of “existing” in multiple permutations and alternative
subjective time frames and spatialities create a phenomenological crisis that
finally leads to DurhamX’s rejection of immortality: “I’ve had enough.
Twenty-five lives … I want one life, one history. One explanation. Even if
it has to come to an end” (306). Following the suicidal example of the flesh and
blood Durham, this distant digital descendent finally confronts the futility of
living forever: “What is there left for me to do?” he asks, “Onwards and
upwards? In search of higher order?” (307–08) His final “death” is achieved
through simultaneous destruction and (self) re-creation. Giving “birth” to a
“software child who’d merely inherited its father’s memories” (309), Durham
crosses the line between self-transformation and death. For Peer, Riemann, and
Durham, the only real choice in life is the death that immortality has denied
them. Ultimately, their acts of self-mutilation, fragmentation, and
self-substitution appear to confirm that only the finite is bearable.
The seeming absurdity of the desire to live forever is highlighted by a
fundamental challenge to the Elysians’ paradigm of immortal existence that
emanates from the A-Life inhabitants of Permutation City’s third
paraspace, the Autoverse-based Planet Lambert.
The Autoverse. The Autoverse, Egan’s third frame narrative, is a digital
cellular automata environment, situated somewhere between the impossible
complexity of real-world biochemistry and the “architectural simulation” of the
Copies. Unlike the Copies’ ad hoc programs, the Autoverse adheres to a
simplified yet unwavering set of principles, a new physics that grounds its
emergent A-Life entities in a logical foundation: “Everything was driven from
the bottom up … just as it was in the real world” (24). Maria’s success in
creating the Autoverse conditions in which A. lamberti could mutate,
adapt, and self-replicate allows the evolution of independent A-Life entities
that are as “real” as their own separate universe. Where the subjectivity of the
TVC universe assumes, the space of the Autoverse consumes,
becoming the site of computational ethology, metaphysics, and philosophy.
Durham takes an Autoverse of planetary dimensions, “seeded with the potential
for developing … genuine aliens,” into the TVC universe (137). This “seed
for a biosphere” (94) is designed to assuage the TVC’s claustrophobic
isolation by providing the Elysians with the potential to “confront the Other”
(168). As science has also argued, the evolution of A-Life, as independent
instances of life in “other universes,” offers the prospect of encountering true
alterity (Ray 179).21
Via A-Life, Egan’s sf pursues a conceivably more attainable form of alien
encounter than that proffered by traditional Bug-Eyed Monster narratives, for as
Durham notes: “what could be more alien than Autoverse life?” (168)
A-Life offers a “profound break” with the anthropic semiotic systems and
recursive corporeal re-representations that have dominated the “bodies” of the
digital domain (Clark 130–31), presenting possibilities for an Otherness that
escapes limiting reflections of the Same. The truly alien may well be
encountered by a journey across digital space-time into an alternative universe,
rather than traversing our galaxy’s physical space.22
Planet Lambert is a “sub-paraspace” within the TVC universe. Its different
physical and metaphysical laws and assumptions give rise to a fundamental
conflict of paradigms between the Copies’ virtual world twice removed and that
thrice removed of the A-Life entities, the “Lambertians.” Different spaces beget
Other bodies. Permutation City takes non-hierarchical and non-linear
swarm-type vivisystems, discussed earlier, as the model for its digital aliens.
Planet Lambert’s dominant life-form evolves into an insect-like, intelligent,
self-aware species of deep complexity that performs “a kind of parallel
computing in swarms” (223). This analog-type hive-as-organism paradigm
transforms the Lambertians’ digital incarnation through the “bio-logic” of
organic behavioral models.
The Lambertians’ swarm paradigm erases the divisions between technology and
nature and between communal and individual (266). Importantly, Egan argues that:
“We mustn’t judge [the Lambertians] by anthropomorphic standards … any attempt
to render [their thoughts and behavior] in human terms would be false” (238,
267). The Elysians’ failure to heed this warning leads to a fatal paradigm
The autonomy of Planet Lambert’s structural laws from those of Permutation
City and the intrinsically alien nature of cognition arising from the logic of
the “swarm” combine with the productive bodies of the Lambertians
themselves to create a reality out of a world that no longer need defer to
either the TVC or the Elysians within it. The enactive nature of the Lambertians
themselves builds upon the initial “given” algorithmic structures of their
environment and their very selves, evolving in unpredictable ways that the
Elysians and their TVC universe cannot. Durham creates the chance to meet the
Other, but it is a Faustian pact fraught with unforeseeable consequences. As
Kevin Kelly notes: “give up control, and we’ll artificially evolve new worlds …
[but] this is a devil’s bargain” (311). The uncompromised bodies of the
Lambertians beget their own reality, R3, as opposed to the Copies’
representations-in-crisis, simulated in an abstract empirical R2. The
rule-based structure of this R3 grants it dominance over the
Schrödinger-based cosmology and existence of the Elysians, who finally meet
their nemesis. A gradual “becoming-hegemonic” of the Autoverse’s underlying
rules and the Lambertians’ theoretical explanations for them constitute the
“revenge effect” of this neo-natural system. The Elysians are “out explained”
and “out evolved” in a dramatic demonstration of Levy’s argument that: “Our
uniqueness will lie in the ability to create our own successors” (9).
In a wonderfully ironic inversion, the Elysians themselves become the
misguided Alien emissaries, believers in a false immortal universe. The
Lambertians reverse the logocentric gaze, removing the “posthuman” from “center”
to the margin, where the anthropocentric conceit of the Copies is exposed as a
baseless assumption of “cosmological” superiority, a digital “Orientalism.”23
In wishing to explain themselves as creators, the Elysians allow their specific
subjective cosmology to be rejected rather than “reinforced” (290).24
The virtual world made a reality by the Lambertians subsumes the TVC
fantasy. Sub-space becomes dominant space in a rear-guard action of the
“(sur)real” over the virtual, the embodied over the non-bodied. The Lambertians’
embodied enaction reclaims the phenomenological body in the digital realm.
Creation myths: “The Garden-of-Eden Configuration.” The Copies’ narrative
in Permutation City abounds with hubristic creationism, where DurhamX
is the undisputed digital postmodern Prometheus, Creator, and “God” of the TVC
universe, itself fittingly known as “The-Garden-of-Eden Configuration.” Maria,
however, regards Durham’s plans as the paranoid prophecies of a misguided
Messiah who will create a “virtual Jonestown massacre”—a repeated reference to
mass suicide which reinforces the notion of bodies in crisis (170, 172, 183).
Maria remains wary of her “dubious authority” as “mother” of the Lambertians,
noting that Planet Lambert “existed on its own terms” (268, 288). She questions
the Elysians’ erroneous assumption that the Lambertians will accept them as
their Creators (259). The retro-fitting of creation mythologies to the digital
spaces of posthuman construction in Permutation City demonstrates an
unwillingness to separate physics and ethics from the theological notion of a
Creator, a notion successfully challenged by the alien consciousness of the
Lambertians, for whom “creators are a non-subject” (257–60). The Lambertians’
swarm ethology offers alternatives to the humanist individual, familial atavism,
Oedipal narratives, and creationism. By “out-explaining” the Copies’ existence:
“The whole idea of a creator tears itself apart. A universe with
conscious beings either … makes sense of itself on its own terms…or not at all.
There never can, and never will be, Gods” (307). For Egan, then, “the whole
cosmology of Permutation City turns the idea of a creator into a logical
impossibility” (Byrne & Strahan, “Counting”).
Becoming-mortal (again). Norbert Wiener’s God & Golem, Inc.
cautions that the contest of man and intelligent machines runs parallel to that
of the Creator and its creature, invoking God’s game with the Devil. In this
“very real conflict,” argues Wiener, God is “less than absolutely omnipotent”
(14–15, 23–24). This warning goes unheeded by Durham in his creation of “out of
control” swarmware, A-Life as devil incarnate. The technocratic hubris involved
in the Promethean construction of a fully autonomous race of digital Golems is
avenged by the usurpation of the creator by the created. The (post)human-as-Creator
is proven inherently fallible. The implosion of Permutation City and the
reversal of the TVC grid’s once constant expansion into entropic decay is the
outward manifestation of the deeper implication of the Lambertians’ rejection of
their creators: that the infinite and the eternal are absurdities.
The Lambertians dismiss immortality as an impossibility (291). Thus, the
Elysians, entities “born into a universe without limits, without death,” are
faced with the reality of “becoming-mortal again” (292). In successfully
challenging the (il)logic of the Elysians’ cosmology, the Lambertians not only
cause this particular “Garden-of-Eden configuration” to collapse, but also call
into doubt the possibility of its ever being duplicated. This refers us back to
the analogy of the cul-de-sac’s trompe l’oeil, a subjective illusion
which could never be recaptured once exposed.
Permutation City’s “Epilogue” returns us to the narrative of Maria’s
embodied reality. This brief revisiting of the cul-de-sac’s spectral space and
“dead-end” fantasy serves as a reprise of Egan’s emphasis on the phantasmic
nature of the Copies’ digital architectures and topographies. Maria turns her
back on the mural’s empty promise and chooses the viscer(e)al, with its
accompanying “stench” of physical embodiment. Her choice of this site to
commemorate Durham’s death, not his eternal life, completes her association of
digital existence with fairy-tale like (non)existence in both “permutations.”
Maria2’s exodus into a second Garden-of-Eden is symbolically
characterized by the icon of “a three-dimensional Alice stepping into a flat
story-book illustration” (302). This representation of a movement from three-
dimensional corporeality into the two-dimensional Euclidean plane of a priori
digital spaces combines with the “illusion mural” as a direct commentary on the
narrative’s final positioning of the Copies’ existence. As the “Maria in
Wonderland” iconography suggests, their immortality is a subjectivist delusion.
For Egan, the debate between AI and A-Life has been won by the latter, the
Lambertians prevailing over the uploaded Copies, their digital progeny, their
dreams of immortality, and their entire cosmology.
Questioning “living forever.”
Maybe the time came, for everyone, when there was no way forward,
no other choice but death. Maybe the Lambertians were right, maybe “infinity”
was meaningless … and “immortality” was a mirage no human should aspire to. No
human. (308; italics in original)
Maria2’s closing reflection leaves hanging the important implication,
“No human.” Even the posthuman, however, appears incapable of enduring
the daunting prospect of living forever. Peer, Riemann, and DurhamX in his many
“permutations” all embrace the finite. It is ironic—given that it is they who
most adamantly reject the notion of the infinite—that only the Lambertians
appear to have any hope of success in “living forever.” Where the cybernetic
posthuman falters under the ontological stresses of immortal trans-mogrification,
the non-human paradigms of alien A-Life seem more suited to the adaptation
necessary to survive being immortal. The “swarm ontology” of the Lambertians,
unhindered by traditional Western epistemologies, exhibits an innate otherness
that allows both the individual and the collective (social) to become a type of
Deleuzean haecceity, with immortal possibilities and capabilities. Unlike
the fragmented identities and panic bodies in crisis of all the “posthuman”
protagonists—Maria/Maria2, Durham/DurhamX, Riemann/
Murderer and Hawthorne/Peer_—the embodied enaction of the Lambertians produces
provisional bodies that are digital in form yet analog in nature, a symbiotic
“embodiment” that offers the potential of a greater adaptability to changes in
flows of information and transformation.
A-Life’s comparative biologies not only expand our limited concepts of
evolution and life but may even offer a “new way of doing philosophy” that
breaks with Western metaphysical traditions (Dennett 291), thereby furthering
its usefulness as a reflection on both the human and the posthuman condition.
Similarly, A-Life allows sf to narrate an alterity divorced from the
“familiar.”25 The challenge that A-Life can offer to existing hegemonic models
may best be met by the kind of non-anthropic perspective that sf such as Egan’s
Permutation City’s repeated references to the “immortal abyss”
emphasize the many problems associated with immortality. The trial by placeless
space encountered by boundless bodies becomes an ordeal of timeless time endured
endlessly by “eternal” entities. Life, it would appear, is not “always too
short,” all things requiring eventual closure.26 When time becomes
eternal, its passing is rendered meaningless.
In view of Permutation City’s ostensible rejection of immortality, it
could be argued that the novel is one of sf’s cautionary tales, and yet the
eventual fate of the Copies remains equivocal. We do not know that the
infinite is no longer possible, that new Garden-of-Eden configurations will not
succeed. We can, however, be certain that the Copies are no longer infallible
Creators of their own subjective universe. The eventual fate of the “triumphant”
Planet Lambert also remains obscure. Similarly, there is no reference to the
possible consequences arising from their R3 becoming-hegemonic for our R1.
While the nemesis of Permutation City is confined to the digital
paradigm, there are real anxieties that the development of A-Life constitutes a
tampering with the “justifiably forbidden” that will result in Frankensteinian
consequences for human life, eventually driving us into “unwilling extinction”
(Levy 346–47). On this particular issue Egan remains remarkably ambivalent. He
gives little indication as to whether we should regard A-Life as our future,
successor, substitute, alien ambassador, co-habitative Other, or deadly
adversary. Egan’s work belongs to that mode of sf which presents alternative
technological future scenarios in a style of dedicated ambivalence.
Adding a wealth of material to science fiction’s traditional narratives of
the quest to live forever, Egan furthers the genre’s significant role as one of
the prime narrative sites of mediation. Permutation City brings together
philosophy, theology, science, technology, fantasy, and contemporary theories of
body, identity, space, and time under the all-encompassing umbrella of the (post)human
pursuit of immortality. The novel provides a circumspect warning about the
far-reaching possible corollary of living forever, for (post)humanity, society,
culture, and the individual.
1. The “posthuman” is a complex discourse of cyborg semiotics and anthropology
that lays claim to a rhizomatic convergence of bodies and philosophies. It is
both material and metaphysical, visceral and discursive. Its destiny is that of
peerless cultural bricolage, combining the creative “posthuman mediations” of
art, theory, science, and sf, a feedback loop that sets up a standing wave of
reciprocity between different discourses.
I argue that posthuman “bodies,” including artificial bodies,
should be defined not simply by their differences in form, substance, or
subjectivity from human bodies, but rather by their altered affective
capacities, whether to produce modified discourses of power, ideologies,
ontologies, or spaces.
Although “posthuman” has become the most common neologism for
some putative state “Other” than human, I argue that we need to challenge the
linear notion of the post-human.This linear model is too indebted to limited
interpretations of the Nietzschean Übermach. Rather, I submit that the
human “under erasure” serves as a more productive signification
of diffraction and différance, rejecting representations of the Same as
Other. The polysemic human is figured as always provisional, a
continual process of “becoming” that interrogates and disrupts rather than
rejects the “human.” It signifies a site of contestation that resists limiting
codifications and which critiques both the utopian and dystopian consequences of
“becomings.” The human is positioned as site of hybridity and
monstrous transgression, both promising and deceptive, a re-figuration of desire
and the Other beyond binary difference. I argue that the human
may offer strategies that enable us to think outside the confines of Western
metaphysics and thus constitute a challenge to the anthropocentric and
logocentric traditions of humanism, suggesting an alternative (meta) philosophy
founded in an ethology of bodies.
human under erasure becomes an
exemplary signifier of the uncontainable and unpredictable, where the
possibilities of diffractions are always already within. A constructive
“becoming posthuman” would likely be that which interrupts, disrupts,
re-interprets, and re-configures the models of the human and the paradigms of
humanism, thereby resulting in a diffraction that makes a difference, as opposed
to mere reflexive representation.
In this ongoing and indeterminate condition of “being
provisional,” it can be argued, there are no notions of “completion.” It is
possible to portray the transition from the
human to human as a
“phase transition,” a zone of becoming-Becoming where the properties of the
human and humanism are transgressed by the human and
posthumanism. Every attempt at a definitive delineation of what constitutes the
human (or posthuman), then, would be fundamentally
ill-conceived. The cited, sited, and sighted posthuman would remain limited by
the boundaries of what and where it putatively is not. Rather, the human
under erasure is a play of deferred signification that endeavors to produce a
never-ceasing questioning of the limits of the human. The human and the
human become implicit within each other.
For the sake of convenience I have continued to use the term “posthuman” here.
However, the above caveats are implicit in my use of this term.
2. Egan’s views on the changing relationship of science and
metaphysics, and thus the character of “hard sf” itself, are illuminating. He
argues that, due to “developments like chaos theory, complexity theory and
quantum cosmology,” the formerly metaphysical and religious now becomes
scientifically testable. Thus:
It now becomes possible to write, with a fair degree of
scientific rigor, about anything from the technology of rewiring your personal
morality, to the possibility of manufacturing new universes. Hard sf doesn’t
mean ignoring the human consequences, or the ethics, of any of these things—it
just means not ignoring the facts. (Byrne and Strahan, “Burning”)
3. It is invariably noted, for example, that although mules
cannot self-reproduce and viruses have no metabolism, both would be considered
“alive.” For other listed criteria see Crick in Franklin 170
4. Steven Harnad notes that computation is the purely
syntactic manipulation of symbolic code, which in turn is interpreted by us as
meaning something. That “meaning,” he argues, is not inherent within the code,
but is projected onto the symbols by us from without (Harnad 294-95).
5. Instructively, Kevin Kelly argues that what we once
imagined to be “metaphorically alive” we now see as truly alive: “the part that
is artificial [in A-Life] is not the life, but the materials.... It is real life
in an artificial medium” (Kelly 347-48). In effect, A-Life research is not only
“redefining biology and life, but ... redefining the concept of both artificial
and real” (349).
6. Robert Pepperell envisions a time when “Humans will, in
some sense, merge with machines to the point where they become
indistinguishable.” This, claims Pepperell in a woefully reductionist
foreclosure of the entire discourse, “is Post-Humanism” (160). Even Moravec,
promoter of humanity’s eventual “genetic takeover” by our computational “mind
children,” admits to the inherent conflation of “postbiological” futures freed
from bondage to ... mortal bod[ies] with the supernatural (4, 1). There is no
discernible difference between this putative nonfiction and science fiction.
7. Certainly, Egan is by no means the first sf author to
engage meaningfully with AI and A-Life. Rudy Rucker is another good example. His
three “Ware” books represent a classic treatment of AI (Software 1982,
Wetware 1988, and Freeware 1997). This trilogy contrasts with his
nonfiction, such as Artificial Life Lab (1993), which includes a diskette
of Rucker’s own work with cellular automata “cyber creatures.” These “boppers”
represent a crossover from his fiction. Examples of these and other A-Life
programs may be downloaded from his home page, at: www/mathcs.sjsu.edu/faculty/
8.The common argument that A-Life is not alive because it
depends on the agency of human technology is refuted by biologists Margulis and
That machines depend on us for their construction and
maintenance does not seem a serious argument against their viability. We depend
on our organelles ... for our life, yet no one ever argues that human beings are
not really living. Are we simply containers for our living organelles? (Franklin
9. I thank N. Katherine Hayles for noting that although the
Copies are on one plane “non-bodies,” in another sense they too have their own
forms of “corporeal instantiation,” although radically different from that of
the Originals (personal communication, July 1999). As becomes apparent, however,
this degree of instantiation is not sufficient to act as a grounding for
identity or ultimately perhaps even existence itself. What develops are fluid
“panic (non) bodies in crisis.”
10. Civilization, argues Valie Export, has always produced the
enigma of woman as the site of the body, which acts as boundary and (sexual)
difference. As a result, “woman only exists as body or as image (or not at
all),” an opaque representation as compared to male “transparency” (Export
14-19). See also, Grosz, Volatile 203.
11. According to Kristeva, “living being” can only come from
the “undignified, nonpoetic, daily attributes of existence” bestowed upon us by
our bodily flows (qtd. in Grosz, Volatile 194).
12. For further discussion, see my “Posthuman Topologies.”
Analog information is tolerant of ambiguity; it is concerned with inclusive
“both-and” iconic representations. It is the contextual “domain of similarity
and resemblance.” Digital information is a precise, logical measurement, the
on/off dichotomy of abstract, exclusively binary boundaries. Its denotative,
cognitive structures are the “domain of opposition and identity” (Wilden
155-95). While the analog mode of information is itself “analogous” with the way
in which the organic (and therefore human) functions, digital information is a
closed signification of artificial conventions. I have argued that the digital
being is doomed to an existence as meaningless as the two-dimensional
differences between the ones and zeroes which constitute the digital domain’s
13. Similarly, Varela’s model of “knowledge as enaction”
insists upon corporeal specificity, proposing that “cognition depends on the
kinds of experience that come from having a body with various sensorimotor
capacities ... themselves embedded in a more encompassing biological and
cultural context” (15). This is not to limit bodies to the confines of
the organic. Varela is arguing the case for real digital bodies that
interact with their own specific realities. Lefebvre also argues that the total
body “constitutes, and produces, the spec in which messages, codes, the coded
and the decoded ... will subsequently emerge”—not a theory of information that
brackets the brain as a recording-decoding machine separated from its body
14. The term “skeuomorph” is borrowed from
archeological anthropology by N. Katherine Hayles to illustrate the reference to
now-redundant design features in cybernetic technologies. Skeuomorphs are
“threshold devices” that “visibly testify to the social or psychological
necessity for innovation to be tempered by replication” (Hayles 17). The
redundant cinematic body of cyberspaces, then, referred to by Clark and narrated
by Egan (and Gibson et al.), illustrate society’s recourse to threshold
15. It has been argued by Alec McHoul that cyber environments
are “spectral architectures,” possibilities oscillating in an indeterminate
“unbounded space” that “circulates at rapid speed between the actual and the
virtual.” The cyber resides in the “ranges of space between—spaces that are
neither ... present nor absent, material nor immaterial, ‘as’ not ‘as if’” (17).
16. Alan Harrington’s The Immortalist (1969) uses the
neologism “emortality” to signify an immunity to aging but not to injury and
possible death. See Stableford in Clute and Nicholls (616).
17. Roger Caillois argues that “for the subject to take up a
position as a subject, it must be able to be situated in the space occupied by
its body” (qtd. in Grosz, Volatile 47). The virtual subject’s
cyberspatial dislocation and consumation by space may represent a pre-condition
of psychosis, where the individual “feels himself becoming space” and collapses
18. Felix Stalder offers an instructive reading of Manuel
Castell’s first two volumes of his planned trilogy on the information age:
The Rise of the Network Society and The Power of Identity. Stalder’s
reading also draws upon Castell’s earlier work: The
19. Ironically, the solipsist nature of Maria2’s
TVC existence denies the reward of knowledge, since she can never know whether
Francesca consented to be scanned (220). Maria2’s anguish over the
unanswerable question, “Had she managed to save Francesca?” is
contradicted later in the novel: “at least she’d saved Francesca” (305;
italics in original). Only the embodied Maria could ever know this.
20. In a remarkable mediation between sf and science, Thomas
Ray—a notable A-Life researcher—offers an identical case to Durham in his
argument for the perusal of A-Life as the alien Other:
Our concepts of biology, evolution, and complexity are
constrained by having observed only a single instance of life, life on earth. [T]ruly
comparative biology is needed to extend these concepts. Because we cannot
observe life on other planets, we are left with the alternative of creating
Artificial Life forms on earth.... These new instances of evolution are not
subject to the same physical laws as organic evolution ... and exist in what
amounts to another universe.... Evolution is then allowed to find then natural
forms of living organisms in the artificial medium. These are not models of
life, but independent instances of life. (179)
21. It is indicative of Egan’s irony that the “final journey”
to meet the A-Life of Planet Lambert is undertaken in a graphical representation
of space travel. As Maria sardonically notes, “we’re crossing space to meet the
alien after all” (284). In fact, they are crossing into a different
topographical representation of space and an alternative frame of time.
22. In this instance, rather than producing the non-Western as
Other—as argued by Edward Said in Orientalism (1978)—it is the A-Life
digital order, as opposed to the copied digital self, that is constructed as the
romanticized “alien Other.”
23. Permutation City also addresses one of science
fiction’s perennial dilemmas: if we do get the chance to meet aliens, how should
we approach them? As “siblings arguing our viewpoint,” or “Gods revealing divine
truth?” (240). By explaining the Elysians’ universe out of existence, the
Lambertians become one of sf’s more formidable and effective alien foes, yet
their devastating effect is unintentional and a direct result of the Elysians’
empirical state of existence.
24. For a comprehensive collection of recent articles on
A-Life and philosophy, see M.A. Boden, ed. The
Philosophy of Artificial Life.
25. For Fredric Jameson, the tendency to become “irrevocably
mired in the all-too-familiar” is one of sf’s most problematic limitations,
reducing putative future strategies to a “contemplation of our own absolute
26. The conclusion of Egan’s Diaspora, which also
explores the consequences of immortality, points emphatically to the dilemma
created by eternal time and existence. After having “seen everything they wanted
to see” and spent some “two hundred million clock ticks thinking about it,” an
entire civilization, the Transmuters, simply end their existence. As the Citizen
Paolo prepares the follow their example, he explains: “It won’t be death.... The
Transmuters didn’t die; they played out every possibility, within themselves.
And I believe I’ve done the same ... there’s nothing more for me. That’s not
death. It’s completion” (Diaspora 281-82).
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