Science fiction author Neal Stephenson has a new book out called “Fall.” One of its overall themes is the end of death. In the book, a billionaire named Dodge, who made his fortune in video games, had his digital consciousness uploaded after his death. Stephenson was inspired by John Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” the 17th century poem about the afterlife and the forming of the world. But even though the end of death sounds like a utopia, Stephenson created a digital afterlife called Bitworld where human nature generates the same old problems.
Host Molly Wood spoke with Stephenson about whether the problems in the digital world Dodge encounters in the afterlife are mostly iterations of the same problems that exist in the physical world, known in the book as “meatspace.” The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Neal Stephenson: What happens is that he ends up recapitulating, and the other people who are scanned and come into this afterlife end up recapitulating certain features of the world that we live in today. And the question is: Is this just a bad habit we can’t break, or is it that we need those things in order to be human?
And the controversy that kicks off in meatspace is that there’s another group that just hates that. And their whole plan all along was to do something radically different and leave behind those aspects of human nature that they see as gross and biological.
Molly Wood: Do you feel like we have the capacity to build a utopia as humans or that we’ll always be pulled down a bit by our nature?
Stephenson: I don’t know. I don’t think that it would be a very interesting story. In “Paradise Lost,” it starts out in heaven and then it follows the angels that get cast out of heaven. They become the main characters in this story. And even though Milton is totally a sincere, believing Christian, the bad guys end up being a lot more interesting than the good guys who don’t really have much to do.
Wood: It’s that old saying, “I prefer heaven for the climate and hell for the company.” Separate from the book, there’s this ongoing question about whether we are or are not living in a simulation. And your book really imagines what it would look like. What if we are?
Stephenson: “What if it’s turtles all the way down,” as the saying goes. One of the people I sort of give a shout out in the acknowledgements is David Deutsch, physicist at Oxford who has written a book called “The Fabric of Reality,” which is a wide-ranging book. But one of the major themes is how much computation would it take to simulate our universe down to such a fine level of detail that we wouldn’t be able to tell that it was a simulation? No jaggies, no digital artifacts.
The direction he goes in is that it would basically take the whole universe to make a simulation that good. And that’s a thing that comes up in this book, as well as the fidelity, the resolution of the simulated afterlife wants to get greater and greater, even as more people are showing up there and creating larger and larger demands on what the computing clusters can actually produce.
Wood: Previously you’ve written about virtual reality much more specifically, and I wonder what made you make that turn toward augmented reality as such a day-to-day part of people’s lives and information feeds?
Stephenson: There’s a chunk of the book that takes place about 20 years from now, so I’m trying to depict day-to-day life 20 years from now in a way that makes sense. Today in day-to-day life, we go around staring at little rectangles in our hands all the time. So the question is: 20 years from now is it going to look exactly the way it looks today? Or is that going to look dated?
If you see a movie now that was filmed in the 1990s, and they’re trying to depict what they think of as a high-tech environment, you see these people sitting in front of computers with these enormous monitors, these cathode ray tube monitors, with what looks like terrible low-resolution screens, and they have big, clunky cellphones. Everything just looks kind of hilarious. So I tend to assume that 20 years from now, our world is going to look hilarious in the same way that we’re going to be using other stuff to do the same things. To me, a plausible replacement for that is some kind of glasses that you could wear around. Not [virtual reality], because then you can’t see what’s around you and you’re going to step on your cat and walk into doors and stuff, but AR, so you can still see your environment but interesting things get added to it.
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Life extension and immortality are popular topics in science fiction. Stephenson’s book focuses on one version of life extension, the kind where the human body is frozen until it can either be reanimated, or as the tech develops in the book, there’s enough digital storage and computing power to host a digital version of someone’s brain and consciousness.
A lot of it is about the legal battles that happen because billionaire Dodge put it all in his will — that this is what he wanted done with his body after he died.
And just this month, a Montana man filed a lawsuit against a cryonics company that’s holding frozen bodies — in some cases, just heads.
Kurt Pilgeram is suing Alcor, aka the Life Extension Foundation, which has at least 170 frozen people (including baseball legend Ted Williams) for $1 million and the return of his father’s frozen head.
Sometimes real life and science fiction are not that far apart. Tech enthusiasts and billionaires are trying to skip the whole die and be frozen or uploaded part and are pushing for extreme life extension techniques to try to defeat death altogether.
How about we stop talking about death for today and get back to living?
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