Stephenson’s Em Fantasy

Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (’92) and Diamond Age (’95) were once some of my favorite science fiction novels. And his Anathem (’08) is the very favorite of a friend. So hearing that his new book Fall; or, Dodge in Hell (’19) is about ems, I had to read it. And given that I’m author of Age of Em and care much for science fiction realism, I had to evaluate this story in those terms. (Other reviews don’t seem to care: 1 2 3 4 5)

Alas, in terms of em realism, this book disappoints. To explain, I’m going to have to give spoilers; you are warned.

Here’s the book’s em scenario. A tech star gets a video game tech star to sign up for cryonics, and later when that guy dies early as a billionaire, his estate freezes him. This estate and this still-living associate, now also a billionaire, spend many billions funding research to develop an advanced brain scanning tech, and then on figuring out how to run that scan as an emulation.

Decades later, access to big enough quantum computers finally allows the creation of a real running em, except that this em is disconnected from the outside world, and has no memories of a prior life. Since as a human he once designed video game worlds, he eventually makes up his own fantasy physical world and rules. Then others who were scanned are added to this world, first thousands, then millions, then billions. Eventually most all humans go there, and able robots are invented that go to space to supply enough computing and energy and cooling to run it all.

Even though all these humans and orgs who build all this are supposedly deeply immersed in the tech world, none of them imagines any other use for ems than creating an immortal heaven, initially for rich folks. The possibility of making trillions selling access to em workers doesn’t interest them. So while they make tools to try to watch what happens in this heaven, they never let its residents see or talk out, or remember their prior lives. Ems never do any useful work.

The first em who set the rules of this world becomes a relative god with vast powers. He anoints demi-gods, and grand mythical adventures, dramas, etc. play out. The ems, who can’t remember their prior lives, live as primitives in a pseudo-nature fantasy-like low-tech world with very simple tools, boring jobs, pain, wars, etc. But they are mostly immortal there and have magic spells and auras on their heads that let them share feelings when they touch.

There is only one em system on Earth. No one ever makes another competing system; we never even hear of anyone trying. Apparently everyone is eager to go to the standard heaven where they don’t remember their past and live as immortal magical primitives with boring jobs. Because deep down we all really crave living as primitives ruled by tech gods?

This system starts out as an opaque hack and stays that way forever. The orgs spending billions to run it supposedly can’t support the usual controls that one might have over computer processes. While they can control an overall budget, they can’t control any relative spending, or even where that spending happens, and they can’t save the system state to pause it. The rules imagined by the first em control everything, and no one later, human or em, can resist them. Ems must all run at exactly the same speed, each has a single spatial location, they can’t make copies of themselves, and they must all obey the first em’s rules for this world.

The actual physical location and limits of the computers supporting all this are assumed to have no effects visible to the residents of this fantasy world. All they see is this fantasy world according to its rules. When this other tech star dies and enters this world, however, he somehow has system privileges to give himself more power and control, and he seems to remember more. He is somehow the bad guy to the first em as good guy, and good vs evil wars ensue.

If you’ve read Age of Em, you can see these are pretty arbitrary and unrealistic assumptions apparently made to put ems in a typical fantasy-like world, so the author can tell a typical fantasy story. In reality, I say, ems will most likely remember their past, be easily connected to our world, and have local budget-based control over their running speed and copy making. They will do useful work, and they’ll often notice the locations and limits of their physical computing infrastructure. They will often coordinate on shared virtual worlds, but those wouldn’t usually be primitive fantasy worlds with all rules set by one super-god. Many such worlds would be created, with rules supporting advanced lifestyles.

The saddest thing here, from my view, is the low interest in what an em world would really look like. Even if he didn’t come across my book, I’m sure Stephenson has access to many computer savvy folks who could have explained many real computing system issues. But he apparently didn’t bother, probably because he doesn’t care much and guesses that most of his readers feel similarly. Alas, he’s probably right.

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