Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Saturday, April 29, 2017

the masterful diptych of Coroger Zelaznorow

It’s been very interesting for me to re-read — for the first time in 40 years, so who am I kidding, let’s just say read — Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light. It’s a wonderful book, and I am especially pleased that I got to it just after reading Cory Doctorow’s new novel Walkaway. Doctorow’s book has some good points, but I wasn’t a big fan — I felt it left too many important questions unasked — until I realized something: Lord of Light, though written fifty years ago, is actually the sequel to Walkaway. And if you think of the two books as a diptych, the first installment gets a lot more interesting. Let me explain, with many spoilers.

Roughly in the middle of Doctorow’s novel “walkaway” scientists – that is, scientists who have gone off the standard panoptic grid of our world, the “default” world, have headed out into the wilderness to live in anarchic community — figure out how to upload human consciousness to digital form and then reconstitute that consciousness. Which means, at least according to one way of thinking, the way of thinking that Doctorow allows to dominate the book, the end of the reign of death.

The chief conflict of the book, then, pits the scientists who want to share this power with everyone against the capitalist one-percenters of “default,” who want to keep it for themselves – partly because they think that scarcity creates value and they are the Lords of Value, but also because they control the 99% by making them afraid of bodily harm and death. (As David Graeber wrote a decade or so ago, our whole social order is upheld by the threat of violence against bodies, and Walkaway is essentially Graeberian political philosophy in novelized form.)

Eventually the good guys win out, and immortality-via-upload becomes widely available – but it turns out that those minds miss being embodied, and scientists somehow find a way to grow bodies and reanimate them by injecting them with consciousness. Or something. (There aren't a lot of details.)

The story begins less than a century from now, and ends not too much later. So let’s fast-forward a few thousand years, and imagine that Earth has died or been destroyed but humanity has spread elsewhere in the galaxy. And on at least one of the planets our descendants colonize, control of immortality has been seized by a tiny few. It turns out that, for them, simply being immortal – or, if that’s the wrong word, simply having access to recurrent embodiment – isn’t enough. Welcome to the world of Lord of Light, or, as I prefer to think of it, Walkaway: The Sequel.

The attentive reader of both books will notice that one difference between the two is that in Lord of Light human minds are no longer uploaded to the cloud, stored on a networked server, but are simply transferred from one body to another. Our author, Coroger Zelaznorow, doesn't explain this, but it’s easy to understood what must have happened in the intervening centuries. Already in Walkaway we see the disturbances that arise when more than one living instance of the same, or “same,” person is around; those disturbances surely would have been magnified as downloading became more widespread, not least among megalomaniacs who wanted to see themselves as widely distributed in the world as possible. Moreover, minds uploaded to networked servers would have found themselves subject to to the experiments, relatively benign or deeply malicious, of hackers. In the end, it seems clear, the protocols of transfer were deemed safer, more reliable, and less subject to abuse than the protocols of uploading/downloading. Perhaps someday Zelaznorow will write a novel about this period of transition between the two ways of making us immortal: the Networked Way and the Way of Transference.

Now, it will immediately be seen that the Way of Transference introduces a complication: if your consciousness is not uploaded to a supposedly safe location, then if you are murdered or have a fatal accident you, as they say in Lord of Light, “die the real death.” But is this a bug or a feature? Might it not be that many who have lived a very long time, in multiple bodies, learn that death is indeed the mother of beauty? We might here compare Iain M. Banks’s Culture books, in which, as Banks himself explained, most people live a few hundred years and then accept death. Not all — some choose the Networked Way and get themselves downloaded immediately or after a period of sleep — but most. It seems likely that to the potential immortals of Lord of Light the possibility of the “real death” is another reason for preferring the Way of Transference.

Over time, the controllers of any given culture learn how technologies work, decide which potentialities are to be embraced and which resisted, tune their employment of those technologies to their larger purposes. In Walkaway the controllers, the capitalist one-percenters, want to keep immortality for themselves, but by the time of Lord of Light the strategy has become more complex.

If Walkaway offers its readers a straightforward and apparently simplistic victory for sharing — for acting on the assumption of abundance rather than scarcity — Lord of Light shrewdly and usefully complicates the situation by showing that even if sharing wins in one place and time it may not do so always and everywhere. The Lords of Karma, as they call themselves, have discovered the virtues of control that is not based on exclusive possession. They do not want to keep immortality only for themselves; they want to share it; but they want to exercise precise control over that sharing.

And it turns out that the ideal structure to enable what they want is that of traditional Hinduism. Within a social order aligned to the Hindu cosmos, they can be gods, each of whom “rules through [his or her] ruling passions,” as one of them says, achieving and enacting the apotheosis of that passion. And by controlling Transference, they can punish those they deem wicked by re-incarnating them in an inferior body, perhaps that of an animal — you can never be sure in this world that a dog is merely a dog —, and reward those whom they deem virtuous by elevating their status, incarnation by incarnation, raising them up to become demigods and then, ultimately, gods. (Of course, employing the time-honored logic of colonial powers they say that they are merely withholding blessedness from those who are not yet ready for it.) And only those who have fully internalized the ethos of the Lords of Karma will be allowed to join that pantheon. The world is governed, then, by a self-perpetuating oligarchy which must occasionally refresh itself, if only because over the centuries some will inevitably “die the real death.”

And a world so ordered is one in which the Lords of Karma are gods not just because they are (probably) immortal and (certainly) immensely powerful, but also because they can compel worship. The capitalists of Walkaway manifest a craving for mere power that would be annoyingly simplistic if the book stood alone; but when we understand that it is the first book of a diptych then we see that it describes a fairly early stage in the history of oligarchy, and that later stages make progress by a kind of ressourcement. The unspoken motto of the Lords of Karma is: Ad fontes! And the fontes to which they return are those of religion. They receive worship, and they gratify the desire of many human beings to find something or someone to worship. And by reliably granting ascent to those who satisfy their demands, they create an orderly, coherent, and logical system — a system which constitutes a powerful myth, and, as Freddie deBoer recently commented in an essay which only superficially seems to have little in common with this one, "the human animal runs on myth."

Only a great scoundrel would seek to disrupt so peacefully disciplined a world. Or a great saint. Or someone who is a bit of both.

When I read Walkaway I was disappointed by its limited exploration of the ethics of immortality, and the complete lack of interest in metaphysics. (There is no myth in Walkaway: the place of myth is taken by 3D printers.)  The book elides vital questions simply by treating the reconstituted minds as the very same characters whom we have come to know, as the other characters themselves do. There are bits of desultory conversation about the continuity of identity via digital representation, but the narrative simply doesn't allow us to take seriously the possibility that such representations could be deceptive and that the characters for whom we have come to have affection have in fact “died the real death.” It is only when reading Lord of Light that we see how Zelaznorow calls into question the narrative assumptions of Walkaway.

Similarly, in Walkaway our characters mainly want to stay alive, to enjoy one another’s company, to feel useful — they don't inquire any further into life’s possible meanings, its ultimate values, what Robert Pirsig (God bless his soul) called Quality. But all these lacunae turn out not to be oversights but rather a clever suspending of certain questions so that they can be explored more fully in the sequel. That Zelaznorow is a genius. But you can only see that if you read the sequel. Reading Walkaway alone might be an underwhelming experience.

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