Short works

Books : reviews

Damien Broderick.
The Dreaming Dragons.
Penguin. 1980

Damien Broderick.
The Judas Mandala.

rating : 3 : worth reading

Damien Broderick.
The Black Grail.

expansion of Sorcerer's World, 1970

Damien Broderick.
Striped Holes.
Avon. 1988

Damien Broderick.
The Spike.
Reed. 1997

rating : 3 : worth reading
review : 6 September 2001

There is something big on the horizon. Really big. Our technology is increasing in leaps and bounds, and computer power, artificial intelligence, neuroscience, and nanotechnology all seem to be heading in the same direction: one that will alter our lives in a fundamental way, maybe changing us into immortal ineffable transhumans, maybe obliterating us completely. All this appears ready to happen some time in the first half of the 21st century -- that's right, in less than fifty years. Some writers call this event -- where the curve goes straight up -- the Singularity; Broderick calls it the Spike. (It eventually goes straight up, rather than being a mere ever steeper but never vertical exponential, because of the ever-faster development possible once AIs surpass human intelligence -- an event ever-predicted to be just a few decades in our future.)

Broderick takes us on a wild ride into the unimaginable, but frighteningly near, future. What the world will be like, what we will be like, after the Spike is literally unimaginable to us. (Although it is interesting to have lived through some qualitative changes recently. The Web, and search engines, have definitely made my life different. I can now do things, and find out things, I wouldn't have even know how to do only recently. Now when I'm away from my computer, I feel more bereft than I used to feel away from my reference library. Post-Spike will be like this, only unimaginably more so.) As well as discussing the arguments of the gung-ho Extropians and other transhuman exponents, he also mentions the arguments against this vision. His balanced approach is even more persuasive than a one-sided account -- because, even with the negative arguments, the Spike looks inevitable, and close.

Some of the things that seem to worry Broderick don't worry me too much. I think his arguments about an uploaded me not being me will wither away once the technology becomes commonplace and routine, and some kind of paradigm-shift occurs. (But I agree with Broderick that some of Greg Egan's short stories on this topic, like "Learning to Be Me" and "Transition Dreams", give strong pause for thought.) And I am glad to think that the suggested transformation will make the post-me totally incomprehensible to the me-of-now. After all, the me-of-now is happily totally incomprehensible to the me-of-six-months-old -- and the relative timescales we are talking about are even larger. As long as there is some degree of continuity -- that I somehow continue to be me -- I would love to continue to learn and experience and grow, and, hopefully, get wiser. It's the thought of staying as me-of-now for eons that is the true nightmare. (I think this is why surprisingly many people seem to be hostile to the thought of immortality, or even modestly extended lifespans -- they are imagining centuries more of this life, of not knowing what to do on a wet Sunday afternoon.)

The Spike ranges over many topics, and by the end, nanotechnology, resurrecting cryo-frozen heads, mind uploading, and immortal transhumans are looking rather tame, compared to some of the speculations about potential life just after the Big Bang (using an argument symmetric to Tipler's Omega-discussion of infinite subjective time being available at the Big Crunch).

The arguments about ways to prepare for the Spike struck me as sensible, but more than unlikely to happen. If this stuff sounds like way-out SF even to those of us familiar with the technologies, how much more so to the politicians and others who would have to support and implement the suggested preparations? Another part of the problem is, because of the shape of the curve, that most of the ever-accelerating change will happen close to the Spike event itself, making preparation look less urgent now than it really is.

Still, Broderick paints a mostly exciting if somewhat frightening picture of an apparently inevitable event. I'm rather looking forward to the Spike. I think. (I'll be really miffed if it's delayed by just a few years, so I'm dead when it comes. Anyone for head freezing?)

Damien Broderick.
The White Abacus.
Avon. 1997

Damien Broderick.
Tor. 2002

Damien Broderick.
The Time Machine Hypothesis: extreme science meets science fiction.
Springer. 2019

Every age has characteristic inventions that change the world. In the 19th century it was the steam engine and the train. For the 20th, electric and gasoline power, aircraft, nuclear weapons, even ventures into space. Today, the planet is awash with electronic business, chatter and virtual-reality entertainment so brilliant that the division between real and simulated is hard to discern. But one new idea from the 19th century has failed, so far, to enter reality—time travel, using machines to turn the time dimension into a two-way highway. Will it come true, as foreseen in science fiction? Might we expect visits to and from the future, sooner than from space? That is the Time Machine Hypothesis, examined here by futurist Damien Broderick, an award-winning writer and theorist of the genre of the future. Broderick homes in on the topic through the lens of science as well as fiction, exploring some fifty different time-travel scenarios and conundrums found in the science fiction literature and film.