The Big Idea

John Scalzi at Whatever does a Big Idea feature for authors to discuss their work. He doesn’t take self-published submissions, so here’s the Big Idea for Prosthetic Gods:

In the desert an ordinary human woman fights a trillion dollars of military hardware. She’s fighting a machine intended to win wars almost on its own, a machine that evolves, consumes, grows and, after a fashion, thinks. A masterpiece of nanotechnology, its creators think it indestructible, unstoppable, an enemy for whole nation states. She sees just a monument to waste, to greed, and to warmongering. She should have no chance, but if she does it’s because she is smart, and she uses tools.

Man has always been a tool user. It has been a part of us long enough to influence our evolution, those opposable thumbs and outsized brains moved on from gripping tree branches to gripping and using other things. Tools comes in different forms now, but the principle remains the same – they enhance the power of the wielder to get things done.

When a tool becomes an indispensible part of us we sometimes refer to it as a prosthesis. Sigmund Freud had this to say about prostheses:

“Man has, as it were, become a kind of prosthetic God. When he puts on all his auxiliary organs, he is truly magnificent; but those organs have not grown on him and they still give him much trouble at times.”

When tools became machines our relationship with them changed. A feature of consciousness is our anthropomorphization of everything and anything that holds an existence separate from our own. So we make our machines and, like the Devil or the Djinni, they do exactly what we tell them to. For the machines are complex, designed and built by committees, and their reasons for doing what they do become obscure, obtuse. And we fear them.

So what’s the Big Idea here? It’s about those tools, those prostheses, and the uses to which we might put them. For evolution provides a driver. The urge to compete, and the actuality of competition. For there’s a race just starting up. It’s a race between those who will engineer better humans, homo superior, and those who want smarter machines, the AIs. It’s a race between those who use machines to enhance and replace their bodies, the cyborgs, and those who just wear them. It’s a race where the best tool user will win.

There’s a price to be paid to win that race. The more powerful and intelligent the machine that extends your reach, the less there is of you in what it touches. The more we extend ourselves with prostheses, the more dilute our humanity becomes. What does it mean to reach the stars, when we have lost the sense of wonder that led us there? Most of all, will the engineered, extended homo superior recognise the some of part of itself in poor plain old homo sapiens?

For the future may well be inhabited by all those denizens of cool science fiction, the cyborgs and cyberpunks, homo superior and AIs, rocketships and warbots. But the future will mostly be us: poor bedraggled humanity, unenhanced and with only the mind evolution provided us with, struggling to get by. It’s not a bad mind though, and in the end all those tools are just extensions to another mind. Sometimes it will be the mind that matters, not the tools.

And that woman in the desert, alone against the machine? Well, we’ll just have to see. I’d say she still has a chance.


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