“Crystal Nights” covers enough ground for any ten short stories. Actions have consequences here too, but messing with the nature of the universe is more than simply metaphorical. A rich dot-com-style billionaire sinks a considerable portion of his fortune into developing the fastest computer ever. And he keeps the technology all to himself. (Egan may not be familiar with how computer geniuses become billionaires – they can be obsessive geniuses, but usually if they keep the things they do secret they don’t become the rich kind.) He hires a team of people to put together a complete simulation of a universe inside the computer. His plan is to evolve an intelligent lifeform inside the computer that will then be able to help him in the inevitable war of super-intelligences that he just *knows* is coming. (Again, I’m just not sure that people this unstable really run billion-dollar software companies.) He repeatedly tweaks the design of the universe to keep evolution going in the way he wants it to: towards abstract thought, towards spoken and written language, towards sophisticated mathematics. Entire species evolve and go extinct in a heartbeat. He’s literally playing God. Let’s stop for a moment and reflect on the implications of intelligent design. What if someone has designed us, and the world, to achieve an evolutionary outcome? Given all the incredible pain, misery, and suffering that goes on in the world, how fucked up would that entity have to be? Egan presents us with the answer to that question in this story’s protagonist.
Eventually the billionaire talks to his creations directly, telling one of them essentially what he wants and why. He lays out the choices: help him, or he’ll regretfully have to destroy them and start over. He leaves an “Easter Egg” for them on their Moon, in the form of a monolith straight out of 2001. Through this interface, they can interact, in the most limited possible way, with our universe. We’ve all read “Frankenstein,” and we know what happens to unethical creator figures. The computer beings find a third way and forge their own destiny, and we can’t help but cheer. This review may seem spoiler-ridden, but there’s a so much more going on in this story than my bare-bones summary can begin to cover. Egan is one of my all-time favorite authors, especially when he’s using hard sf to examine ethical propositions. Here he’s in excellent form. All the world building, the descriptions of the artificial simulation and the computerized evolutionary process are fascinating. This one substantial story is probably worth the price of the issue alone, and I’ll be keeping it in mind come awards time.
Kimberley Lundstrom at The Fix:
In Greg Egan’s “Crystal Nights,” wealthy tech entrepreneur Daniel Cliff has a vision. He wants to create true AI, functioning at a human level, through a carefully controlled evolutionary process. Because Daniel has the money and the will, he does succeed with his project, but the end result is not what he expected.
“Crystal Nights” is an interesting take on the themes first explored by Mary Shelley in Frankenstein. Unlike most stories of manmade intelligence, Egan focuses not on the plight of the creatures or the effect on society of their existence, but on the motivations of their creator and on how the creatures and their actions affect him. Although Daniel is not the most sympathetic of characters, his dreams and his flaws are quite recognizable, and therefore compelling.
Reading Greg Egan’s Crystal Nights, at times I felt the same sense of wonder and excitement I used to feel decades ago when I first came across SF. I’ve never read any of Egan’s books, all I knew was that he was a ‘hard’ SF writer, and I was mentally prepared to be bored, as I don’t even understand really how a light bulb functions (I assume there’s an alert homunculus inside with a candle)! And there were a lot of details in the story I simply knew nothing about, starting from the very beginning with FLOPS ratings, which apparently are quite the opposite of flops! But though the precise workings of the computational (and, later, subatomic physics) developments were a mystery, their effects were clear, and the creation (following a cruel natural selection process imposed by a creator not in himself cruel – an interesting touch) of AI in the Phites, and their progress, is every bit as intense and exciting – and real – as any detective story or thriller, or indeed as the history of the universe itself from the Big Bang to… well, I won’t reveal that. Read the story; be thrilled. If fuzzy (yes, yes, it’s a poor pun!) me got so much out of it, readers with a scientific background will get so much more: this is a master-class in how to avoid info-dump. And don’t go expecting a hackneyed updating of the Frankenstein myth; this is a classic in its own right.
this is a typical Egan story. Some good stuff about artificial life let down by the total implausibility of the characters. At least it has got some cool bits in it. [...] could have done with being a bit more abstract
Back to the SF. Huzzah! It’s Greg Egan, which is good. And it’s Egan and good form, which is even better news. He follows one driven scientist whose discovery of a means of creating computational power previously only dreamt of, enables him to explore the limits of just what can be created inside silicon. He creates powerful simulations, in which the building blocks of life are created, and in which he encourages his creations to develop sentience through setting environmental challenges.
The processing power enables him to develop sophisticated creatures quite rapdily, but this does require him to play god with those he creates, discarding those headed into evolutionary dead-ends. Fortunately, he is able to recognise the point at which those which he has created are sentient enough to feel sadness, and then it becomes more of a challenge, encouraging them to grow thorugh direct intervention.
As his creations develop apace it becomes clear that he has succeeded beyond his wildest dreams, although a nightmare unfolds as they are able to make the leap from creatuers living in a computer simulation to ones which can manipulate the world outside.
And finally, my original thoughts:
Charles Stross with the lobsters filed off. This is a story about evolving AI by darwinian selection — crab-shaped AI with control of their own physiology, in fact — and the ethical pitfalls thereof. As with Beckett’s story, in fact, the deeply felt and convincingly articulated ethical concern for other forms of sentience is one of the most satisfying aspects of the story. It comes in this story from the author, not the protagonist; Daniel Cliff thinks himself not an unkind god, just one who is prepared to make some sacrifices, cause some suffering, to promote the development of the kind of intelligence he wants. The story accelerates nicely, in a “Sandkings” direction, with some welcome flashes of wit (how Daniel made his money, for instance, or what the crabs find when they reach their simulated moon), and an ending that is apt, if not completely satisfying.
As you may guess, I haven’t actually read “Microcosmic God”. But did my opinion of the story change on a re-read? I’ll tell you later…