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Complex Novelty

26 Eliezer_Yudkowsky 20 December 2008 12:31AM

From Greg Egan's Permutation City:

    The workshop abutted a warehouse full of table legs—one hundred and sixty-two thousand, three hundred and twenty-nine, so far.  Peer could imagine nothing more satisfying than reaching the two hundred thousand mark—although he knew it was likely that he'd change his mind and abandon the workshop before that happened; new vocations were imposed by his exoself at random intervals, but statistically, the next one was overdue.  Immediately before taking up woodwork, he'd passionately devoured all the higher mathematics texts in the central library, run all the tutorial software, and then personally contributed several important new results to group theory—untroubled by the fact that none of the Elysian mathematicians would ever be aware of his work.  Before that, he'd written over three hundred comic operas, with librettos in Italian, French and English—and staged most of them, with puppet performers and audience.  Before that, he'd patiently studied the structure and biochemistry of the human brain for sixty-seven years; towards the end he had fully grasped, to his own satisfaction, the nature of the process of consciousness.  Every one of these pursuits had been utterly engrossing, and satisfying, at the time.  He'd even been interested in the Elysians, once.
    No longer.  He preferred to think about table legs.

Among science fiction authors, (early) Greg Egan is my favorite; of early-Greg-Egan's books, Permutation City is my favorite; and this particular passage in Permutation City, more than any of the others, I find utterly horrifying.

If this were all the hope the future held, I don't know if I could bring myself to try.  Small wonder that people don't sign up for cryonics, if even SF writers think this is the best we can do.

You could think of this whole series on Fun Theory as my reply to Greg Egan—a list of the ways that his human-level uploaded civilizations Fail At Fun.  (And yes, this series will also explain what's wrong with the Culture and how to fix it.)

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