Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Cosmic Life

Originally published on Poul Anderson Appreciation, 11 August 2012.

In his History of Technic Civilisation, Poul Anderson imagined abundant galactic life, including planets where human beings could breathe and walk without having to transform either themselves or the environment first. His Harvest Of Stars (New York, 1993) has the opposite premise. Life is rare and cosmically insignificant until it spreads from Earth.

When human personalities have been downloaded into artificial neural networks, then carried at near light speeds across interstellar distances, then one download directs terraforming even of an initially lifeless planet while others are incarnated in newly grown human bodies. Thus, a single personality:

"...won't ever have to end..." but "...can have life after life, on world after world...Bringing life to the universe..." (p. 528)

Life triumphs against all the odds. Despite inhospitable environments, the light speed limit and the impossibility of transporting many human organisms across long interstellar distances, the downloads will spread organic life throughout the stellar universe whereas the Solar "sophotects", self-evolving artificial intelligences incorporating human minds but not independent downloads, endlessly refine their own inorganic intelligence, contemplating pure mathematics instead of the material universe.

It follows that the sophotects were wrong to think either that life was insignificant or that their theory enabled them to model all its possible forms. The leading download, Anson Guthrie, has:

"...a gut feeling that the universe isn't as lifeless as the sophotects on Earth claim." (p. 508)

But the universe, or what we see of it, was lifeless until Guthrie and his companions started to remake it, perhaps the ultimate achievement of Andersonian characters.

Olaf Stapledon had anticipated Anderson's download-sophotect dichotomy. In his future history, Last And First Men, successive human species inhabit Earth, Venus, then Neptune. Later species can direct evolution, thus create their successors. Some Third Men, valuing intellect, create, as the Fourth Men, disembodied, artificially maintained Great Brains, like conscious organic computers, which become hostile to organic life but which eventually realise that their merely cerebral understanding is frustratingly limited because they themselves lack insight into values and that they in their turn must be replaced by normally constructed though thoroughly perfected Fifth Men with brains as large as possible though no larger in a bipedal form. Unfortunately, however, Anderson's sophotects never do realise the limitation of their own merely intellectual approach. Consequently, conflict between them and free human beings continues throughout the Tetralogy, of which I have started to reread the second volume, The Stars Are Also Fire.

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