(reading notes for Permanence by Karl Schroeder)
It is expedient that there be gods; therefore, let us believe in them. — Ovid
Like everyone else on Earth at this time, when they thought about the future expansion of humanity into space, they pictured colonies on single, Earthlike worlds orbiting Sunlike stars. And since there were only six G-class stars within twenty light-years, their dreams were spare and even forlorn— of six tiny settlements huddling on worlds separated by generations of travel time. Such settlements would only be reached using colossal, expendable starships capable of carrying a mere handful of people at some small fraction of light speed. But the brown dwarfs each had their retinue of planets— the halo worlds, as they came to be called. And though they were not lit to the human eye, many of these planets were bathed in hot infrared radiation
Jupiter's magnetic field was already strong enough to heat its moons through electrical induction, the magnetic field of a brown dwarf fifty times Jupiter's mass radiated unimaginable power— power enough to heat worlds. Power enough to sustain a population of billions; enough to launch starships.
cannibalism, neural-lock slavery and mass suicide
“Great! These are yours,” he said, handing her a small card and a ring phone. The card had a hologram of her on it and proclaimed her to be a probationary citizen. The phone consisted of two rings, a big one worn on the wrist and a small one, the speaker, which went over her middle finger. “Keep the card close to your skin for the next couple of days; it has to learn your scent. I've put a hundred dites in it for you.”
The effects of maintaining contact with other worlds might be subtler than money or birthrates could account for. Maybe they were no less important, though.
Gods and Kami
“I'm a nun with the Permanence Order,” she said. “I work for the compact.”
Halo worlds like Erythrion had power to spare for their colonies, but couldn't afford to launch something so gigantic as an interstellar cycler. Only the lit worlds could muster that kind of energy, and the lit worlds had abandoned the halo.
“It'll take your eyes a few days to fully recover,” she said as Rue groped for a coffee bulb she could dimly see floating in front of her. “You haven't used them for a month and the muscles have loosened up.”
To be a brother of the Cycler Order was to adopt an uncommon religion, one that had as its ideal Permanence: the creation and maintenance of a human civilization that could last a million years. The Order was all about discipline and spiritual purification, requirements for people who trained to plan operations that lasted centuries.
Dr. Herat proclaimed Michael's talents uncanny, but it was merely that he spent all his time learning the human side of bureaucracy and working it to their advantage.
He was inspired; the NeoShinto implants in his cerebrum made it easy for him to find the kami of each place they visited.
the fossilized remains of an alien nuclear reactor
The monks of Kimpurusha, who had sent Michael with Dr. Herat, believed that humanity could perceive the Divine only in the familiar environment in which the species had evolved. In deep space, surrounded by machinery and on worlds whose scale and physical laws were literally inhuman, the human heart quailed. Human spirits shriveled. In order to survive, the NeoShintoists believed, humans had to learn to find the Divine in each new place and the Divine presented itself in endlessly different ways.
Our first theories about alien intelligence were providential: we believed with Teilhard de Chardin that consciousness is a basic characteristic of complex thinking entities. When we developed the FTL drive, we burst into the galaxy in search of beings more «evolved» than ourselves, in the belief that a universal Reason would unite us with other species at the same level. What we found instead was that even though a species might remain starfaring for millions of years, consciousness does not seem to be required for toolmaking. In fact, consciousness appears to be a phase. No species we have studied has retained what we would call self-awareness for its entire history. Certainly none has evolved into some state above consciousness. The Panspermia Institute was formed out of the disappointment of this discovery. We sought to uncover the conditions that give rise to sentience; if we could not find aliens like ourselves, perhaps we could guide candidate species into our mode of experience.
The characters were geometric, spikey, and woven together in a way that made Michael's eye hurt to follow them.
The Chicxulub called them the 'lamp bearers' or something like that.
He imagined— and he knew it couldn't be so— that the people of the free halo worlds still saw things like the boy before they had put nanotags in every object and inscape in his head. As if a chair could be a mountain or a starship and not just a collection of values and registrations.
As they watched, a dark rectangle, translucent like a fine gauze, moved across the face of the planet. It resolved into a black cylinder of indeterminate size. There were some mirrored spheres at one end and a set of black rings of consecutively larger sizes appeared to be drifting behind it. “You can't see a lot of the Banshee,” said Crisler, “because it's mostly thin spars and cable. There's sixty kilometers of line played out behind the engine you see here. It ends,” the image changed, “here.” This was a more familiar sight: two standard balloon habitats, joined by a V-shaped elbow at their tops. It seemed to be floating alone in space. “Banshee's state of the art: a fullerene-wrapped superconducting magnet with a field radius of eight thousand kilometers, a pion drive, and a courier class fast hyperdrive.
attempts to create a unified galactic parliament have failed; the other spacefaring species are too alien for us to deal with.
Michael tuned his inscape to full realism, and the illusion vanished: Now he saw the buildings and streets of Chandaka's capital as they really were. The older towers were of carved stone, beautiful and baroque; everything new, though, was made of gray concrete, undecorated in reality.
Ironically, it cost Michael money to view the city without inscape filtering. He flipped his inscape back to full representation and instantly the streets became canyons of light, full of virtual pennants and floating holographic ads. The gray concrete walls became marble, a thousand kinds of music sprang up around him and what had been bare stalls along the side of the road turned into a carnival market.
Once upon a time there would have been NeoShinto shrines here, physically present along with all the other sects of Permanence. But it was illegal for a religion not to charge for its services in the R.E. There was in fact a Church of Permanence here— the bastardized version whose doctrines and rites were «owned» by a cabal of fallen brothers back on Earth. Michael would have had to pay just to walk through its doors.
They would go on an orgy of destruction in which not a single stone of the city would be damaged, but the values in every nanotag would be wiped clean. Ownership, credit histories, monetary value itself resided in the physical objects traded in these streets. There were no central records, as there might have been in centuries past. In the Rights Economy, information was immanent, and by the time the rebels were done, the citizens of this city would no longer own anything, not even the shoes on their feet. Whole inscape domains would be erased, taking with them jobs and pensions.
Any object that lost its nanotags automatically became government property, so hard-working people and those who had lived for generations in ancestral homes here would see their properties expropriated. The farmers who had brought their produce to sell no longer owned that produce. The government knew this would drive people into the rebel cause in droves, but they had no alternative. Their orders came from Earth, after all. Earth was very far away, and the Rights Owners there would not be sympathetic.
What's the difference between holding an object, say a cup, made by alien hands and a cup created out of nothing by the universe— by the ineffable?”
“An alien speaks, or a stone speaks— what's the difference?” said Mike. “The experience is similar.”
Our goal has always been to become one with our environment— to absorb its particular character, which we call the kami or spirit of a place. That experience is always an experience of union, of joining with the world that we're otherwise alienated from. I've experienced it on a hundred worlds, in places humans can only timidly tread. On Dis, though… On Dis I experienced not union but annihilation: my consciousness expanded and at first it was ecstatic, but the kami of the place were too alien and too strong. I could see myself, infinitely small and vulnerable, a stranger to this place and then even that was gone; I was swept away, becoming one with Dis and lost to my Self.
“Signs. Actually,” he said, looking around, “this place is festooned with writing. It's just that it's for beings who see with sonar.”
We did find life, everywhere, in fact. The universe is overflowing with it, it appears in unthinkable environments. It thrives brainless and without senses on nearly every world that could sustain liquid water. But intelligent life? That's another story. We didn't find any during that period— not currently existing intelligence, that is. But everywhere we went, we found the ruins of great ancient civilizations… cities and shattered fleets; burnt-off continents still radioactive after a million years… and everywhere, we found Earthlike planets that had been bombarded by meteors all at the same time, sixty-five million years ago.
The Chicxulub, you see, were the last pangalactic civilization. They wiped out every other sentient species in the galaxy by sending out self-reproducing planet killers— von Neumann machines— that bombarded every world that had animal life bigger than a fly. Then they died out in turn. “The Chicxulub left the galaxy empty of technological species.
That's still the prevailing opinion in the R.E. “So the Rights Economy went from being a completely local, Earthbound incestuous loop into a kind of panhuman taxation empire. It expanded like a swarm of locusts, devouring the inhabited lit worlds of the cycler civilization, bypassing the halo worlds and leaving them stranded and alone.” Herat sighed. “I know it's a tragedy. I saw it happen. But at the time… it made so much sense. The R.E. was the only way to maintain control over the far-flung colonies, to prevent them from developing into political rivals, or from going transhuman on us.
The autotrophs developed in a kind of Eden, where predation didn't exist. They developed technology more as an outgrowth of their own bodies than as a cultural phenomenon. Imagine their shock when they began to visit other worlds and discovered that creatures who actually ate one another were dominant nearly everywhere.
And there's the sylphs, who are incredibly dangerous. We set up colonies on six sylph worlds before we even knew they existed. A biologist on one of the colonies made the discovery that every form of life on her planet had identical DNA— from the giant fern forests to sea slugs at the bottom of the ocean, it was one species, just expressing different genes to become different life-forms. And even the plants had nervous systems. What's more, the colonists had all reported various levels of radio and electronic interference on these worlds. It turns out the sylphs communicate constantly— it's a global network that passes experiential information back and forth. By the time we realized this, a good ten percent of the colonists themselves were sylphs— changelings, replaced in the womb by mimics. “After an initial panic we realized the sylphs weren't attacking, they were just doing what they do— adapting to a new feature of the environment, in this case us. The changelings didn't even know they were sylphs— their human consciousness was completely separate from the underlying sylph mind. “Discovering this, we made the fatal mistake: We tried to communicate with them. “The result,” said Herat sadly, “was the extermination of a colony of twenty-five thousand people and the subsequent cauterization of the continent they'd lived on by our navy. It turns out that to the sylphs, the highest ideal is adaptation. To them, the notion of adapting your environment to suit you is horrifying.
Dis is a rectangular piece of woven fullerene, ten meters thick, four hundred kilometers wide, and five hundred long. Three billion years ago, it was part of a ring-shaped orbital structure almost two thousand kilometers in diameter.
Sentience and toolmaking abilities are powerful ways for a species to move into a new ecological niche. But in the long run, sentient, toolmaking beings are never the fittest species for a given niche. What I mean is, if you need tools to survive, you're not well fitted to your environment. And if you no longer need to use tools, you'll eventually lose the capacity to create them.
By definition, anything we've mastered becomes instinctive. Walking is not something we have to consciously think about, right? Well, what about physics, chemistry, social engineering? If we have to think about them, we haven't mastered them— they are still troublesome to us. A species that succeeds in really mastering something like physics has no more need to be conscious of it.
The builders of Dis faced a dilemma: The best way to survive in the long run on any world they colonized was to adapt yourself to the environment. The best survivors would be those who no longer needed technology to get by. They tried to outlaw such alterations, but how do you do such a thing for the long term without suppressing the scientific knowledge that makes it possible?
The inhabitants of Dis had studied previous starfaring species. The records are hard to decipher, but I found evidence that all previous galactic civilizations had succumbed to the same internal contradictions. The Dis-builders tried to avoid their fate, but over the ages they were replaced on all their worlds by fitter offspring. These descendents had no need for tools, for culture, for historical records. They and their environment were one. The conscious, spacefaring species could always come back and take over easily from them. But given enough time… and time always passes… the same end result would occur. They would be replaced again. And so they saw that their very strength, the highest attainments they as a species had achieved, contained the seeds of their downfall.
toolmaking species are rare to begin with. It takes an unusual combination of factors to create a species that is fit enough to survive, but at the same time is so unfit in its native environment that it must turn to its weakest organ, its brain, for help. Reliance on tools is a tremendous handicap for any species; only a few manage to turn it into an asset.
technological civilization represents a species' desperate attempt to build a bubble to keep hostile environments at bay. Sentient species also never cooperate with one another over the long term, because the environments they need in order to live are incompatible.
Jentry's Envy appears to have been built for more than one kind of species to use— not just more than one species, more than one kind. It implies the one thing we've never seen: multispecies cooperation. If it's not a fluke, a one-time happening in the history of the galaxy, then it suggests there may be a way to break the cycle of competition and destruction that's ruled since the first stars were born.
There were numerous round «signs» like those they'd found above, set in vertical rows in the wall. When the sonar hit them just right, they turned into complex three-dimensional swirls that seemed to move. Beautiful
This environment was alien, but something Herat had said last night came back to him: “What we will share most fundamentally with aliens will not be mathematics, or reason, or language, but basic bodily functions. If we're going to commune with them, it will be on that basis first and the others later or not at all.”
Once he had believed death was merely a remerging with the universe. Now he saw that universe as vastly indifferent and himself as trivially small within it. To die was not to merge; it was simply to cease.
This place was deliberately designed and yet no human person had ever stood here. Human instinct reacted just as though these walls had fitted themselves and the lights assembled from nothing and lit on their own. In a sense they had; an independent inhuman part of the universe had created Jentry's Envy and perceiving this, the part of the human mind that once saw spirits in stones awoke.
Instantly he was surrounded by dozens of iconic objects, slowly rotating photos and control surfaces. These would not normally be visible to anyone else, but his suspicion of inscape ran all the way back to his childhood and Michael had spent a long time adding various semilegal privacy devices to the foyer. They were stored, with the rest of his private data, in the data chip in his skull. He had novels in there, hundreds of hours of music, movies, and all the reference material he might ever need in his work. All that storage was too cramped to accommodate even a single NeoShinto kami, of course.
INSCAPE NORMALLY SHUT down when you closed your eyes.
After some people died they made it so that you could only take your senses away from reality in special circumstances. Rather than build something that appeared to be a separate reality— but isn't— they decided that everything should appear to be here, in this reality, with us. So the public and private inscapes were developed. Private inscape is made up of those things that only you can see, public ones are the windows and shows that you share with other people. They all reach you by the same means, through the implants in your sensory nerves.
Now, we believe that this trend has gone too far in the opposite direction; the Rights Economy has layered its version of reality on top of what everyone sees and hears— strictly in the name of economics, they claim, and the alternatives could be far worse. True— they could completely control the appearance of reality if they chose. But as it is, though they think they are being moral, they are godless people, because they have made it appear that the essence of things is money— that a thing only really exists if it can be bought or sold. When you look at a rose, you no longer see the immanence of the thing itself; all you see is a price.
Years ago, when he was testing the limits of his ability to touch the kami, Michael had tried to find the kami of inscape. He had no doubt that they were there; everything that came to human consciousness as a presence held kami. So one night he had sat down in the middle of a marble floor under the wan light of Kimpurusha's faint ring and summoned the kami of Data.
When he was younger, the kami of Data had almost killed him. They were infinitely powerful and mercurial. They defied identity while greedily sucking it from everything in their domain. They embodied the spaces in between the blocks of information that were known to people using the Net. So they had come at Michael as answers to questions he'd never thought to ask; they had promised unifications of senses, like the texture of green or the sound of height. As soon as he entered their influence they fell upon him and he was trapped in their realm until his brothers found him in the morning and pulled him free
trying to forget the ghosts and the electric power of the kami of Data.
Mike put his hand on the card and downloaded something through its galvanic interface.
“NeoShinto is simply a system for summoning and contemplating kami,” he said. Well, that sure explained it. “Kami?” she pressed. “Who're they?” “Spirits of a place,”
There's nothing metaphysical about it,” Mike said quickly. He described a truly frightening set of neural implants he'd gotten when younger; having some bizarre AI altering your consciousness went way beyond any of the control mods Jentry had tried. Rebecca listened with particular (doubtless clinical) interest. “…So I can record the stimulation pattern for this vision and literally e-mail it into the galactic inscape network. You see, it's a technology, not a mythology. NeoShinto is a branch of Permanence, which is a nonmetaphysical religion, like Buddhism would be if it stayed purely methodological and didn't keep holding onto ideas like karma and reincarnation. Permanence is a scientifically developed meditation program that is tailored to the individual; if you follow it properly you're very likely to reach a state of mind that used to be called 'enlightenment. We try not to label that state because everyone has different interpretations of it until they experience it and after they experience it they generally laugh at the idea of describing it in words.”
“NeoShinto is all about creating and capturing an artificially generated mystical experience, similar to our target state, so that people can 'visit' the state and decide whether they want to pursue the program.”
“What test is that?” asked Blair. “She called it 'the Supreme Meme, ”
“The idea is this: Say you had just died and the angels or kami or whatever asked you where you would like to go now— anywhere in the multiverse, any kind of rebirth or heaven you want. Here's the Supreme Meme: How would you have to feel about the life you've led and your universe, to say to that angel, 'let me come back to where I started and live this life over, exactly as it was, no detail spared. » “Well, that's, just—” sputtered Evan. “How would you have to feel? And could this or that religion or ideology that I believe give me that feeling— even in theory? That's the question and you apply it to the religions people try to sell you on. Because if a religion can't, well… sanctify… everything, even the crappy parts of your life, then it doesn't measure up.”
You might think they want to talk— but Bequith and I have found ample evidence that symbolic communication is only really useful within a species; different intelligent species are usually so different that communication between them is useless at any level above threat/reward signals. We never have anything in common above basic bodily functions, so what's to talk about?
infected with a number of academic prejudices
He felt an old itch at the base of his brain. The NeoShinto AI was awake, preparing to skew his neural pathways in the direction of a mystical experience. All he had to do was give it a subject to focus on.
There's a group of radical Buddhists who've had themselves genetically engineered to be phototrophs— they're green, if you can imagine that. Lost their stomachs, sealed up their anuses and adopted the autotroph way. They're ice-blind crazy, but the autotrophs do seem to accept them
The manufactured objects here— buildings, cars, clothing— all seemed as feral and natural as the stone and ice to Michael, simply because he could see them without seeing ownership and ideology branded on them through inscape.
the R.E. would never tolerate such an arrangement. Genetic alteration of humans was illegal— as were the personal neural implants of NeoShintoism, he thought sourly. The R.E. was terrified that humanity would radiate into a thousand subspecies, as had happened to so many spacefaring civilizations in the past. That fear was one of the reasons they used to justify the tyranny of the Rights Owners.
The autotroph AI was a cloud of black metal beads, each about the size of a bee. They had wings and were distributed throughout the vast space of the enclave. Here, though, the green people had built a device to attract them. So were they going to speak to the autotrophs through this device— or only to it?
Apparently, there were several levels of connotation to Chicxulub writing. It wasn't simply a matter of surface meaning and implication; each word in effect punned off its neighbors and contained multiple allusions. Also, the primary physical metaphors of Chicxulub were inhuman: a metaphor using a galvanic proximity sense as its basis couldn't be simply converted into a visual or tactile equivalent. The AI might be laboriously changing its own mind into something like a Chicxulub/human hybrid. For a few minutes, it would become alien not only to Michael and Herat, but to its own creators.
These are some translations into terms you may understand. Chicxulub language is self-modifying, so the best translation is one that uses what you call puns to convey the meaning: “Self-containered: to evert, encome-pass farship's precreative behestination. Your orgasmasher's detournement is presended.”
It could be translated into any number of human mythologies. This one is Greco-Roman: “Daughter of Saturn, you may escape your devouring father's belly by wielding the bright sword that we have forged for you.”
The most literal translation,” continued the AI, “would be: “To the Chicxulub or those like them: The Other you fought has become your Self. To resolve that crisis, follow this starship to its birthplace. There you will find a new use has been made of your ancient weapon.”
There were hints in the archaeological record that the Chicxulub had been wiped out by their own machines, after inevitable genetic drift and social pressures had rendered them unrecognizable to those machines. The final era of the Chicxulub must have been a nightmare time: All innovation was outlawed, all social and genetic innovation crushed, and everything that could be done had been done. Everything that could be thought had been thought. Everything else was illegal, and lurking in deep space were the soulless executioners who would wipe away any group who tried to change things.
“An autotroph is not a thing. An autotroph is a system.”
Rue frowned at the data units, then said, “I guess I just don't understand what it is about these things that's so precious.” Vogel chuckled quietly. “You're seeing only their shells. You have to experience the kami directly to understand. That's the whole point.”
Vogel laughed. “Belief is entirely unnecessary,” he said. “None of us believe anything. NeoShinto is a method, not an ideology.”
NeoShinto is part of the philosophy of Permanence,” said Vogel. “Permanence is the attempt to create a human culture that can survive indefinitely here in deep interstellar colonies. NeoShinto is a Permanence program that explores the limits of human neurological programming.
Humans think metaphorically. Most of our thoughts are built up of more primitive metaphors. Our most atomic metaphors are hard-wired in as a result of where we evolved. One of those hardwired metaphors is something we commonly call 'I. It's the metaphor of self-as-object. “Religions throughout history have tried to replace this primary metaphor with self-as-world, but it's very difficult unaided. Takes years of effort by specialists, because you're operating on basic neurological programming. By the twentieth century they had drugs that could explode the 'I' metaphor, but they didn't have the conceptual framework to understand what they were doing. We have it. “NeoShinto is just a technology for replacing your 'I' with a perceived Other— what we call the kami. We attach no mythology or dogma to the experience. You're free to interpret it however you'd like.” There was irony in his smile now. “I don't understand,” she confessed. “Of course not,” said Vogel. “You can't until you've met the kami. Would you like to try?”
Religion had never interested her. She had accepted the simple message of the Supreme Meme: no matter how infinite the universe, time circles back around to here and now, to this very second. No matter where you went after you died, you'd end up back in this life again. Paradise was no more permanent than this very second. So your responsibility was to this life, not any afterlife.
“I won't be your guru,” said Michael. “I merely found the kami, I don't possess their… power.” “Oh, we know that. We just want your blessing to use the Euler Night in our initiatory ceremony. The religion's a mystery cult, adhering to the principles of Permanence Study 19-A. We're not exploitative economically or socially. People can come and participate in the mysteries and if they choose they can volunteer to run centers or learn to conduct initiations. There's no metaphysics or myth system, we're purely methodological. All clean,”
Anybody can visit a NeoShinto chapter or buy the equipment to visit the kami privately. They hardly need us, do they?” Irina Case shook her head. “It's Leary's principles of Set and Setting. We provide a social context for the experience. The ceremonies help visitors to the kami to bring their experiences back to their daily life.” She drew herself up and said in a
Everything— every instant— was infinitely significant. Even the most fleeting moment, he realized, was permanent.
As a cycler captain, she was the traditional choice to perform such a memorial. She had learned, on the Envy and in the depths of Oculus's ocean, that she was truly a captain when she forgot to doubt herself. Today, she could let the voice of tradition and centuries-long purpose speak through her. The authority was not originally hers, but it became hers through her acceptance of the role
It isn't being built, so much as condensed atom by atom. The bots used a combination of magnets, laser holography and vapor deposition to create the entire thing as a single object
All human societies have outlawed self-reproducing machines. You know the disasters that happened the few times the things were made— ecological catastrophes, nanotech-based diseases… Most other sentient species also ban them. But not the Chicxulub. They raised their creation to a fine art.
Out there in High Space, the war is of all against all, and it goes on forever. No one needs anyone else if they can simply pull up roots and move a few light-years to get away— which works great until you run up against someone who's there already. That's the great lesson of the Chicxulub, isn't it? No matter how big the galaxy, its resources are finite— but with FTL, mobility isn't. Barendts, the result is always— always— the disintegration of the species into thousands of subspecies that war among themselves and with their neighbors. Permanent war. In all the lifetime of the galaxy there's only been two exceptions: the Lasa and the Chicxulub. The Lasa opted out of FTL travel completely; they discovered an environment that encouraged cooperation rather than competition: the halo worlds. No halo world can stand on its own. They need one another, and war between them isn't possible because of the barrier of light-speed.
The Chicxulub are the only other solution, Barendts. The only other solution is to keep yourself pure, and wipe out every competitor. That's what the R.E.'s all about, isn't it? It was created to force humanity to stay together.
The original Lasa— the species that gave us the name— realized that no species is permanent. Only the ecological niches, the environments friendly to one or another kind of life, have any kind of permanence. They saw that they would rise and fall like every living form. So, instead of trying to extend their existence, like so many other species before and since,” he sighed, “they looked to ways of preserving and nourishing an environment that would encourage the birth and growth of species similar to themselves. Cooperative, farsighted peoples.
The Lasa, you see, aren't a species. They're an environment— an ecological niche. Bequith, here, explained that to me. And I'm coming to agree with him that humanity would do well to expand into and nurture this niche.”
Michael now believed that the theology of NeoShinto was incomplete. “It tries to make us one with the universe— and it succeeds. But I got lost in that oneness, and I suspect many people do. Your Supreme Meme taught me that the little inconsequential details of my everyday life are as real and valuable as everything else put together. In science they have a principle called complementarity: mass and energy are the same thing, but you can only have one at a time; a particle has momentum and position, but you can only see one of those at a time. So it is with our lives. We need to honor our sense of unity with the world, but we also need to honor our individuality. Both are true. Both are absolutes, and we have to nurture both if we're to survive on these worlds.
Nothing's permanent. But everything can hand what's unique, what's best about itself, to what comes after.