"Cognito ergo sum" (I think therefore I am) Rene Descartes (1596-1650)

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John Gannon


“Have you ever had a dream that seemed so real? What if you could not wake up from this dream? Would you know any difference between this world and the dream world?”-- Morpheus, “The Matrix”
“Cognito ergo sum” (I think therefore I am) -- Rene Descartes (1596-1650)

When Descartes uttered these words nearly four hundred years ago he certainly had no conception of a computer age. He certainly had no idea that one day this quote would perhaps give credence to an artificial world. With the past four hundred years aside, Descartes is still an extraordinarily important philosophical figure. In the novel, Permutation City, by Greg Egan, Descartes philosophy, is one of many that play a role in the development of the book. Permutation City questions reality and our very belief in the concept of life. What if we could all be scanned? What if we could become a copy; basically a detailed CAT scan that captures our thoughts and memories? No one would have to die. What would be our reality? Would our world; and our surroundings become real?

Egan sets this book in the year 2050, four hundred years after Descartes’ death. In this future few things have changed, our reliance upon computers has grown, but the changes are nothing so shocking or confusing. In many ways the believability of this novel is not an important issue.

The dust theory, a core idea presented in this novel, a true part of its science fiction nature, combines something of modern chaos theory and classic mechanics. However unbelievable maybe we can side step these problems and drive more at the core of what I believe Egan was writing trying to say. (I will for the sake of thoroughness try to define the terms as I go.)

The book begins rather slowly, however an interesting aside I found while reading a review of the book was the poem composed at the beginning was entirely an anagram of the books title. This is to help emphasis the changing nature of the TVC and the autoverse, each of which will be explained in due time. The first book of the novel is concerned with character development and laying the plot line for the more important second book.

In the first book we are introduced to the novel’s main characters, Durham and Maria. Durham, the pioneer and former patient of a mental hospital, is recruiting hyper rich copies (the in-depth living CAT scan) to invest in a new project. One of these copies is Thomas Riemann, a former banking magnate. In the course of creating this project, the future Permutation City, Durham recruits autoverse (an advanced version of Conway’s Game of Life, containing thirty-two chemical components) expert, Maria, to create a cloud of gas and planetary systems that could perhaps one day form the basis of artificial created life. (Trying to avoid ruining the novel for those that have not read it, I will touch lightly on a few of the following topics and will only try to cover things the ideas central to my analysis.)

The program Durham has been working on is the creation of an entirely virtual city. In 2050 computation power still has its limits; it is not so advanced or so inexpensive that Durham’s enormous model could simply be run on a mainframe. Instead Durham is planning to launch this program in a very different way, gambling on his revolutionary dust theory. (According to his theory one processor would spawn a Turing machine, where the processor mere build outwards forever, composed of mathematically arranged dust. With this idea in mind computational power has no limits.) After enough of these processors are built, the software can launch this extensive model of a city, running it in its entire splendor. This is the TVC universe and surely a contributor to the books science fiction nature.

The TVC universe is one loosely based upon Newtonian mechanics; however these physical rules are easily bent. Appearances and realities are all easily changed in the software. Durham and the seventeen others, the sixteen billionaires and Maria, all have worlds of their own, which they can mold into anything. They can relive a moment as many times as they would like, they can imagine themselves as any animal, they can create nearly anything, including their emotions. They are virtual Gods of their domain, manufactures of their reality. The city, perhaps, their last links left to humanity, is populated by projections of humans. The City is the meeting point of each of the founder’s domains. In addition to this TVC, there is the separate solar system created by Maria. This autoverse solar system is controllable from the TVC; the occupants commonly speed up the autoverse time creating a world for the bored, immortals to visit.

With these details aside, I can finally drive more towards what I think Egan intended as a major part of Permutation City. Pushing the physical, biological and chemical implications of what he is talking about aside, I feel that this book is questioning the very way we define our reality and ourselves. What is reality? Or perhaps even more importantly, what is consciousness? What is it that makes us human? For centuries these and other ideas have plagued philosophers. These ideas are now a part of the expanding field of computer science and with the recent mass media interest (take for example; “The Thirteenth Floor” and “The Matrix”) the entire populace. One of the primary questions in philosophy concerns appearance versus reality. We all know how an object appears, but what if the object is not really like what it appears to be. To steal an example from philosophy class and Montaigne, we all know how wine tastes (appears); it seems sweet when you are healthy and it tastes bitter when you are sick. How is it that wine can have two contradictory natures? Nearly four hundred years ago the philosophers were worried about their senses being the deceiving agent, today the worry has grown. We probably never can prove that an objects appearance and essence are exactly the same, so when confronted with the idea of a separate reality how can we distinguish what is real from what is artificial? What about the copies who are able to talk to Durham and join his efforts to launch the TVC? What about the copies that are part of the initial launch of the Garden of Eden in the TVC, that become cut off from what we all deem as reality? These copies live in a separate universe, and while this universe may not have the same rules as ours, does that make it any less real? Aren’t these copies capable of thought and emotions? Do they live life? If we were to take Descartes’ quotation on the surface these copies must exist. They are living breathing things. They think. They love. They have every possible concept of what we would call reality, with the exception of one important factor; they have no boundaries, yet. The TVC is after all based on some infinite idea in the dust theory, a theory creating infinite time and space.

It is difficult to imagine what make us human. Egan however allows the reader to see something of a struggle for a grasp upon humanity by allowing us an insight into three characters. Maria, a copy is still extraordinarily grounded in the ideas of the real world. Thomas Riemann, although a copy of a copy, may be the most human character in the novel. And, ‘Peer’, a man that has shed any ideas of what he once was with the exception perhaps of one thing, love.

Perhaps we should look at ‘Peer’ first to see what a human is not. Peer, as he has renamed himself, is a product of revisions. He has forgotten the man he once was, the only trait he has left which resembles his human form are hallow expressions, snap shots of the passion and thoughts he once had. The only thing that remains of his human life is his love for Kate. In the TVC, Peer and Kate manage to become stow-aways. A part of the city’s software, therefore they can react only with the city, to them the people and the copies are merely an extravagant play going on all around them. In the TVC world Peer amuses himself by transforming his interests at random intervals, programming himself to become passionate and immersed in each area. Programming himself to become a different person, changing his personality as a chameleon changes color. Finally in all these stints as another person Peer loses who he is; he blacks out for nearly a month, becoming a different person. Peer has left what we would call reality behind, forgetting any previous human concept of reality; he has accepted the computer software as the only world he knows.

Maria’s concept of reality in the TVC is very much the common one shared among most human beings. Instead of using a ‘free floating’ computer terminal or getting rid of unnecessary nuisances such as going to the bathroom or eating, all options the other copies have seized upon; Maria clings to these. She clings to Durham and these ideas as though they define who she was and who she still is. Maria’s is no different from the flesh and blood Maria in the real world. Her reality is not that of an immortal copy, but of a normal human being, whose concept of time still requires some fine-tuning.

Riemann is perhaps the most interesting of all the characters. His (Riemann’s) flesh and blood body has long since decayed, so the Riemann in the TVC is actually a copy of a copy. A man of incredible wealth, Riemann also has a past that haunts him deeply. As a copy, Riemann had the basic needs removed; however unlike Peer he never sought to actually change his mental processes or his physical body. Riemann however has had all the scars with the exception of one removed from his body. The remaining one scar is everything to Riemann. It is the memory of pain and of death. In the TVC these feelings consume Riemann. Riemann is consumed with finding some sort of redemption, finding some way that he may finally rest in peace. Riemann is looking to absolve himself of the one true human trait he feels. However it is this one characteristic, and its accompanying scar, that allows him to live the 7000 unbearable years. Unlike the other founders, he has not found happiness or contentment. He is still trapped in the universal human conditions of pain, anguish and guilt. Maria’s feelings are perhaps the most in tune with what we define as our every day reality; however, Riemann’s anguish and pain show the readers more than just something human. It shows the reader something basic, something instinctual. Riemann’s plight is something akin to hell. His immortality is tainted by memories, by the knowledge that he is not real, and by the thought that he cannot right the wrong, haunted by the idea that he escaped justice.

Delving back to look into the philosophical ideas presented in Permutation City, this novel is one of many recent works that calls the common human concept of reality into question. Egan skillfully crafts a variety of scenes and illusions throughout this book that merely build on his initial creation of the TVC and the autoverse. Early on in the novel Maria stumbles across a beautiful mural in a run down part of town, at first she is fooled by it thinking she has found a beautiful road to ride her bike down. But as she draws closer she realizes that this beautiful thing she had seen at a great distance was nothing more than an elaborate painting. At a distance this mural looked like a beautiful reality, perhaps akin to the idea of immortality; but once you are close enough to inspect it, the beauty and grandeur fade.

Many other recent works like “The Thirteenth Floor” and “The Matrix” have focused upon some of the ideas presented in this and many other novels. In their own unique way, each of these pieces explores the ideas surrounding reality and our concept of it. “The Matrix” places each human being into a state of perpetual artificial life as machines use us for glorified batteries. But, a few interesting questions are raised by this movie. The questions can used to help better define who we as humans are. “The Thirteenth Floor” was a movie that we had the luxury of watching in class; its similarities to Permutation City are boundless. In “The Thirteenth Floor” the characters create an artificial world populated by beings, which in turn create their own simulation of a world. Where is it then that the ’real’ world is?

Perhaps reality is something akin to the popular Russian dolls; layers and layers of nested ideas. Or, perhaps we can borrow something from basic physics; I personally define reality as all the things I interact with, I live by appearances, accepting many of life quarks (sorry for the bad physics joke), I live in my frame of reference accepting it as my reality. If reality or consciousness is a product of emotions, then the characters in the TVC must surely possess a consciousness. Their emotions range from bliss to haunted condemnation of life. What about the simulations in “The Thirteenth Floor?” Surely the agents, the characters, in the 1930 representation possessed emotions or what about the agents who created this program? The men and women that live in what we would define as the modern day, surely they seem real? Douglas Hall, or Hannon Fuller, the men responsible for creating a simulated world within a simulated world, possess thoughts and emotions, they appear to be human. Surely they are swayed by passions. Surely they are human beings.

It is difficult at best to argue any of these philosophical points. Surely these questions have been around longer than any of the recent movies or books, longer than Descartes, longer than early Platonist philosophy. These questions of what reality is may never be answered. Perhaps it is these questions that define reality for us; they keep us searching, furtively for an answer. Permutation City is not a work grounded in reality; it truly is a complex look into some of the modern and futuristic looks at biology, chemistry, physics and computer science, which contribute to the underlying ideas, beginning with Descartes' ideas. The idea of modeling a human being and running him as if he were a software program is becoming more and more feasible. However I feel these ideas are quite minor when compared to the philosophical notions and potential implications of technology for our concept of reality. Granted as more and more knowledge becomes understood, as we learn more about our world and define laws of science that explain everyday occurrences, perhaps these philosophical notions will fade into obscurity, dwelling more in the occult part of human life. Realistically, I marvel at the advances of technology, but I also enjoy the knowledge that not everything can or will be known. I think it helps to reveal an important concept we all should remember, how miraculous it is that space dust came together in the right way to form who and what we are. Realizing our rather meager beginnings’ attempting to explain anything as complex as reality or consciousness is left more to an educated guess rather than science. If reality is indeed what Professor Gessler stated the second day of class, layers of nested representation, our life and what we understand may only been one of many coverings, or perhaps it is the one reality out there. Either way, these and many questions are facing human kind today; however the answers are a long way away.
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