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Major Spoilers for Science Fiction Short Stories: Warnings from the Future, Cyberpunk Series I by PT Logos
Good science fiction presents speculation and evokes questions. What will our future be like? Will this be a desirable future, or not? Is virtual reality a crutch to be scorned or a sad reflection of reality’s shortcomings? These are some of the questions raised by P.T Logos’ recent release, Warnings from the Future, a collection of three short science fiction stories set in a far future world eerily similar to our own. This review will contain spoilers, so if you have not read the book, I advise picking up a copy on Amazon now.
The book is split into three short stories, each portraying a different type of character and context in what seems to be a coherent futuristic world. What each of these stories accomplishes is presenting an excellent contrast of a utopian world in which we have conquered many of our previous shortcomings, and a dystopia where the line between reality and virtual-reality is blurred.
A memory’s future: What makes ‘us’ us?
Logos’ first story opens with the scene of an advanced medical facility, where the protagonist, a space explorer named Adam Stroble, is receiving surgery to further extend his life. Throughout this surgery, Logos manages to blend description with action seamlessly, presenting the lore of the world with the actions of the present.
What is revealed early on is how the human mind and body has become more and more literally treated like a computer. Alan nonchalantly speaks about defragging his own memory, a practice used on computers to clear our unnecessary files and save space. There is also mention of reboots. Much of this is explained by the fact that many humans now have cerebral up-links that, like real computers, need constant firewall updates to prevent viruses and spam. In this world, humanities’ obsession with computers and smart-technology has led to us integrating it into every aspect of our lives.
Adam Stroble doesn’t trust a lot of this new technology, but relies on it for his profession and to extend his life. While he has lived for centuries, the reboots and defragging of his mind have kept his mental faculties healthy, and the surgery has allowed his physical body to retain its vigour. But he is abnormal among those who choose to take this surgery. It is risky and may have complications that lead to death. Many others have rather chosen to retire to virtual reality. Adam’s obsession with space exploration, however, drives him on – until something doesn’t seem quite right.
Adam thinks the surgery has gone okay, but as he leaves the hospital, everyone disappears. The AI of the hospital informs him that he is not Adam Stroble. He is a recollection of Adam Stroble – a memory. The real Adam died leaving the hospital. As one can expect, this not-Adam doesn’t take this well.
Many philosophers have discussed what we are. Are we a brain in a vat? Are we the human-animal? Are we just a collection of memories and experiences? The AI that accuses this not-Adam of being not Adam is what we call an Animalist. It believes that the physical Adam Stroble – the organic body – is the Adam. The recollection of Adam’s memories is merely a glitch in the system. An imitation, despite the identity.
But is this AI right? In reality – we don’t know if our genuine memories could be uploaded to a computer. Thus, Animalism does hold some clout, in that our personhood and our identity begins and stops at the confine of our physical brain. But this story illustrates that our memories can hypothetically exist separated from our physical self. In the context of this story, the not-Adam genuinely has the memories of the Adam. So, is it Adam?
We function as a product of our memories. We are shaped by our experiences. The only thing that comes close to contributing to our nature as much as experience is perhaps our biological nature – and maybe not even that. This not-Adam has all the experiences of the Adam. He is the product of all the experiences that made Adam. The only thing barring him from acting like the Adam that died outside that hospital is the AI preventing him due to an ideology that may have outlived its usefulness.
What comes up as a theme in both this story and the second one, Tracer, is the sanctity of the physical body over the mental. It is seen as completely fine to rid oneself of memories and experiences, despite their importance to forming our identity, but as will be seen in the next section, it is apparently not okay to allow people to be happy within the confines of their own mind at the expense of their own body.
The story ends, however, as the not-Adam successfully transplants itself within a droid and renews his space exploration. His crew, or him, sends a note to the government, basically stating that it doesn’t matter what they think, but that this Adam is Adam. It is a high note which resonates well, and shows a good level of optimism in a story that creates so much doubt.
Tracer: Should we have the right to end people’s pleasant delusions?
Robert Nozick, libertarian philosopher, formulated a thought-experiment dubbed the Experience Machine. The thought-experiment posed the question that if a virtual reality could perfectly convey the most optimal and pleasurable experience to its users, would it be preferable to real life, or be rightfully seen as abhorrent due to its fictitious nature.
This story follows Amalia, a Tracer. Her job is to infiltrate the virtual realities of people called lost ones, people who have escaped to virtual reality and never leave it, at the expense of their physical bodies. Tracers are tasked with waking these people up, so they can seek medical attention and not waste away in a virtual world. While it is phrased in many places that they are helping people, it does raise the question if their legal ability to force people out of virtual reality is at all ethical.
This raises the question of if people should be allowed to harm themselves, or if it is even harm. Does the state have the right to intervene in peoples’ lives if they believe the person is self-harming themselves?
This is not an out-there question. We face this question every day in topics of drug use, suicide, alcohol abuse, prostitution and many other activities identified as self-harm by the state. Virtual reality, to many in this world, has become a highly addictive drug – capable of elevating them out of an unpleasant and traumatic reality. The Tracers’ job is to end this delusion – for good or ill. But do they have the right?
Nozick’s Experience Machine is a point of contention among many philosophers. Is happy fiction worth sacrificing an unhappy reality? Is reality intrinsically important? We like to think so, but why?
In the review of the first story, I established that our identity is linked to our experiences. If our experiences are fake, then our identity is fake. But this presumes that those experiences are truly fake. Physical is not necessarily the exclusive reality. While the Experience Machine may only churn out fake experiences, these experiences are realised in the minds of the very real people who experience them. It shapes them, and if these are good experiences, it also fulfils them.
Liberalism’s prime prerogative is to allow individuals to seek out their own happiness. In a liberal state, use of the Experience Machine would be optional. Depending on the intensity of the liberalism, dying as a result of a virtual reality overdose may also be permitted.
As abhorrent as this may seem to many, it is all in an effort to allow people to live the life they want to. Where intervention is justifiable is only where the people have consented to intervention or perhaps when parties genuinely believe that the fulfilment of the individual is better found through other means.
This latter point may be a dangerous slippery slope, however. There are seemingly obvious cases, such as saving a mentally ill person from committing suicide, or trying to save a relative from a drug addiction – but these may not be so clear cut. We are our experiences, and if our experiences dictate that we want to take drugs or that we want to kill ourselves, then perhaps that is what will lead to our fulfilment. Intervention may be inappropriately infringing on our efforts to seek the best choices for ourselves. So, the question becomes: when do we know if bad decisions are truly the person’s?
It is true that we aren’t always in control. Our minds are fickle and we can do stupid things without meaning to. Puberty and peer pressure can lead to taking drugs, which send us into addiction. Chemical imbalances can cause clinical depression. These are not formed from our experiences. They are formed from flaws in our biology. So, to conclude this Segway, perhaps the morally justifiable intervention is one that saves us from our fake selves, or more aptly, our natural but flawed self that is not informed from rational experience but rather flawed biology.
But the question remains if the Tracers are justified in their actions. Do they have the right to strip someone of their Experience Machine? One of my few qualms with this engrossing story is that I felt Logos did miss a few opportunities to expand on this theme, rather taking it as a given that the Tracers are doing the right thing.
Where Logos almost approaches the question I wanted to see asked was when the villain accuses Amalia and the Tracers of merely stripping people of their happy dreams. This had the potential to raise the extremely important moral question of if we are entitled to the experiences we want. But Amalia, the reality fundamentalist that she is, rejects the villain and overcomes him, escaping his creepy manipulations. While she thought she had failed to cure him of being lost, it is revealed in a great twist that he was, in fact, a simulation.
I really enjoyed this story, but I did come out feeling a bit dissatisfied. While the intent of the story may not have been one to ask of the ethical nature of our experiences, it did have heavy implications of such a theme. While it may not have fulfilled this desire of mine, it did lead me to this question – and for that, it is a good sci-fi.
The Cosme Project: Should we treat amnesiacs as different people?
The final story in the anthology has themes similar to the previous, discussing the nature of our identity and our memories. The story begins with an old scientist working on the moon, alongside many other scientists with a variety of different projects. Sharing the facility with him is a psychiatrist, who he simultaneously finds alluring and terrifying. But as the story progresses, it is revealed that he may not be the scientist he believed himself to be.
A Clockwork Orange and many other science fiction works have dealt with the idea of unusual, identity-shifting rehabilitation of criminals. The Cosme Project takes a similar trope and makes it its own, portraying an introverted scientist who was once a psychotic criminal. As the story reveals through a feverishly anxious exploration of what is real and what is unreal, the scientist is shown to be a lab experiment – dedicated to not only cure a criminal of his anti-social tendencies, but also make the resulting individual accept that they may not be the person they believed themselves to be.
But, does this matter? The scientist, Wright, goes mad at the prospect that he is Xavier, a psychotic criminal. But the Wright we know is not Xavier. He is a scientist working on energy sources to advance space travel. This may be a delusion, but in our initial experience, like him, we have no room to doubt this assumption. While not-Adam was Adam due to shared experiences, Wright cannot be Xavier as they share very few, if any memories.
The psychiatrist should have released Wright into society. He was no longer Xavier and should not be treated like Xavier. While Adam is not truly dead, Xavier is. He consented to die when he signed the forms. Wright should be spared the torment and be allowed to live as a new person – not for Xavier, but for this new identity.
Topping the story, truly expressing its fruitless anxious nature is the repeating of the first passage in the finale. It drives home the point that this has happened before. Perhaps, Wright has a little too much Xavier in him to truly be allowed to live freely as a new person. Perhaps, the psychiatrist is to blame and should stop tormenting what seems to be a new man.
What this story also raises is the common theme among all the stories – that of bodily sanctity over the mental. The mind is a tool, like a computer, that needs to be maintained for its efficiency, but not due to any form of identity or intrinsic worth. Xavier believes a loss of his memories will allow him to live a better life – but it is not him. It is merely his body. A hunk of flesh, that’s health is given a little too much importance – for what is my body to me, if it is no longer me?
P.T Logos’ collection of short stories is more than just a promising start to a career in science fiction writing – it is a very well-polished, unique and thought-provoking collection of stories that accomplish the truly valuable aspects of the genre. I genuinely look forward to more from the author, and especially more extrapolation on this dark, internally contradictory world, much like our own.