Saturday, August 26, 2017

The ultimate shiver running up the ultimate spine

Propagating at a significant fraction of the speed of light, a frisson of alarm travelled the length of the Atlantic Space Elevator, like the ultimate shiver running up the ultimate spine.
There's a lot going on in The Night Sessions, by Ken MacLeod. It's a police procedural. It's science fiction. It's an ecologically challenged future where religion has been eradicated from public discourse, the Faith Wars having culminated in the discharge of nuclear arms. There's a Third Covenant on the rise in Edinburgh.

And robots are attaining consciousness.
Detecting Hardcastle might or might not be difficult, but preventing that entity from accomplishing whatever it had planned was likely to be violent and, as far as Skulk2 was concerned, terminal. It had been thrown into this unenviable position by its original self, from which its sense of identity was diverging by the millisecond. Skulk2 was still Skulk, with all the original machine's emotions and loyalties, memories and reflections, but it found itself both baffled and despondent about the decision its past self had taken — that blithe disregard for a separate being that was, after all, as close to itself as it was possible to be. Some of that resentment begin to jaundice its feelings about Adam Ferguson. The man had been as casual as Skulk had been in sending his old friend on this probably suicidal mission.

Remembering their conversation just before the copying, Skulk2 made a cold assessment of how much separate existence it could experience before it drifted so far from its original that would find the switch to self-sacrifice mode painful. This projection of a future potential state of mind was an absorbing exercise, and in itself intensified its self-awareness. The time, it discovered could be reckoned in minutes.
I read this book earlier this summer while in Edinburgh. That made for spectacular reading: wandering the wynds of the Old Town by day, and settling into our hotel to read about those same paths by night. Plus I learned a little about the Covenanters along the way, which definitely added to my understanding of the issues in the novel.

About two-thirds of the way through my interest waned a bit, partly because of the distractions of vacation, but also the story gets a little chaotic — there are just so many weighty issues in this 260-page novel that they start to suffocate a little. That said, I'd like to come back to this book someday.

Los Angeles Review of Books: Taking the Future on Faith
It's here that the capabilities of the robots and their superiority to mere humans becomes clear. It isn't just their speed and versatility, or their ability to toggle their minds from one state to another, from self-preservation to self-sacrifice. Two different characters ask two different robots whether they are saved ­— whether they have backed up their memories and mental states. On one level, it's a trite pun; on another, it's the kind of science-fictional sentence that creates a new reality by collapsing the gap between metaphor and literal act. Robots can save themselves, and can be resurrected by downloading a copy into a new body. They are, essentially, physically immortal. And it's here, too, that we begin to realize that the conspiracy Ferguson has been so doggedly unraveling cloaks the true meaning of the Third Covenant, that the real story has been happening elsewhere, and that MacLeod has ruthlessly followed the logic of his intelligent, ambitious novel to a conclusion that’s truly world-changing.
io9: Do Protestant Terrorist Robots Have Souls?
There is something brilliant in MacLeod's idea that when robots achieve human-style intelligence that they'll become as irrational as humans too.
Strange Horizons: The Night Sessions by Ken MacLeod

See also the Complete Review for its comprehensive review round-up.

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