I’m off writing new stuff, so I’m posting this Raw Feed from 1991.
The choice is not random since I’ll probably reference this novel in a future post.
You may remember Platt as a minor net celebrity for an article he wrote about working at Walmart back in 2009.
In the 1980s, he had a couple of useful books of interviews with prominent science fiction authors of the time. In 2014, they were reprinted as the Dream Makers: The Stairway Press Collected Edition.
Raw Feed (1991): The Silicon Man, Charles Platt, 1991..
This book combines the concern with computer technology seen in the works of Vernor Vinge (who’s help is acknowledged), the exploration of technology’s social and moral implications (with the resulting moral ambivalency) seen in James Gunn’s sf (at least as seen in his The Burning and The Immortals), and the radical, anarchical-libertarian politics of Norman Spinrad into a novel I liked a lot.
This novel is concerned not only with the technical aspects of recording a person’s consciousness and putting it into a virtual reality of a computer, but, perhaps even more importantly, moral, psychological, and social questions are addressed.
The makeup of consciousness and memories is not understood. Platt makes the analogy of a magnetic tape recording a symphony without understanding the principles of composition — but recorded with brute force. Neurons and their connections are recorded fine tuning a person’s perception of stimuli — making sure, for instance, that the signal for the taste of fine brandy is not the same as that for beer. The shortcomings of fractal techniques for picture generation is covered as are the shortcomings of pseudomorphs — Platts termed for personalities not recorded but created for the computer. The latter tend to be rather one-dimension. And, of course, there are the limitations of computer space and the need for a constant power supply. Platt’s “infomorphs”, as the personality recordings are known, reside in the computer system MAPHIS which Platt even presents a diagram for. All these technical aspects are included to, as some hard sf does, get people to take the possibility seriously.
Platt’s novel is in the style of a thriller so the questions are briefly raised to provoke thought but Platt moves on and leaves his reader to ponder implications. Would life in a virtual reality be somehow spiritually corrupting because of the possibility for absolutely unlimited abuse of pseudomorphs, the realization of every fantasy? (Platt makes a valid point that most people’s fantasies are “corny” and no longer shocking once they’re in the open of the virtual reality of the computer.) Then there is the very basic question of whether a copy of a person’s consciousness is that person. (Lifescan scientist, biologist, and Zen Buddhist Michael Butterworth says no and won’t undergo the process.) There is the potential to realize transcendental opportunities that virtual reality offers — to fly, to walk on the moon, to flee a crippled body like Rosalind French does — to a world of sensuality ignored in her physical body’s quest for immortality. Of course, a form of immortality could be offered but so could eternal slavery. The control Gottbaum has over the other infomorphs is troubling. There is the loneliness of being the first infomorphs to possess brains encoded in computers carried about by robots. And, of course, the whole project is transhuman.
These issues are well dramatized in the novel’s central character of Leo Gottbaum, the scientist who’s vision — political and scientific — is realized in the novel. Gottbaum is a brilliant sixties anarchist — a ruthless, selfish one. One might agree with his criticisms of the novel’s staid, centrally-planned, socialist, poor America but Gottbaum (whose name means “God-Tree” in German — I suspect this intentional symbolism given Gottbaum’s reference to himself as god of the virtual environment and the Tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil, but it’s curious) is unpleasant. He’s willing to kill an FBI agent, protagonist James Bayley when the latter uncovers his Lifescan tampering but is talked out of it. He treats his daughter badly. He sets himself up as god in MAPHIS and, via virus proxy, the world’s cybersphere. He refuses to believe that society has any right to control, direct, or curtail his activities. Yet, he does not harass or kill the other infomorphs (He does battle French and Porter when they try to usurp his plan for world anarchy, but he doesn’t kill them.) He heralds a free, technologically advanced world at novel’s end with his multiple personalities constantly maintaining anarchy but otherwise not interfering in the world. Perhaps Platt set out to make him one of those great men who do good things but aren’t very likeable.