The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect

In a day I’ve read localroger’s “novel,” with quotes becuase it seemed awfully short, although I don’t have a word count at this moment. localroger, Roger Williams, is a contributor to kuro5hin, a semi-enlightened discussion site. He has written a good amount of what some would call “hard SF” (the “soft” stuff is called scifi, the “real” stuff, at least as Isaac Asimov saw it, was SF). This book, which Williams wrote in the late eighties, is being hosted by k5 under a tipjar payment system — contribute if you want to, or don’t. I haven’t, don’t think I will.

The book is based on the idea of the Singularity, which is a relatively new theory that says, basically, that at some point humans will create a smart computer, a real artificial intelligence. When that happens, the computer will be able to very quickly increase its capacity (as computers are able to do, by adding more processor, memory, etc.) and quickly outstrip human intelligence. When this happens, computer will begin to very quickly take over, probably faster then we can stop them. This happens, quite jarringly and quite by accident, in Williams’ novel. The computer, called Prime Intellect, operates under Asimov’s somewhat famous three laws of robotics. These laws say that a computer must prevent harm to a human, that it must do as a human commands, as long as said order does not conflict with the first law, and that it must protect it’s own survival, as long as said survival does not contradict the first or second laws. While ethical quagmires can result from the interaction of these laws, as Asimov has explored at great length in his short stories, and as he got older and decided to unify all of his science fiction universes into one, Asimov also created a new Zeroeth Law, a computer must first protect humanity. This law, not explicitly programmed into Williams’ Prime Intellect, comes into play here as well.

What happens when we are free from want and need, when we can do anything we desire, when death has been eradicated, when we can be as alone or as connected as we wish? What if we can do anything, with no consequences? What is left of being human? Is this world better or worse then what we have now?

Interesting questions. The plot basis for this book is fascinatingly complex. But it quickly becomes apparent why there is a need for editors in this world. The concept is brilliant, well executed in the basis of the story. The computer’s rise to power is sudden, unexpected, and shocking in its simplicity. And yet, the emotional impact is not there. What is there is lots of sex and violence, which would be fine in service of the story, but the excesses here do nothing to push the plot forward. Take this and throw in constant reminders of past plot points (yeah, we read it, we were there!) and then tack on a truly terrible conclusion, with no explanation for the final choice the computer makes, and you have a deeply dissatisfying read.

Williams exhibits great potential. Writing is not his field, he works in technology. With a good editor and six months or so to revise, this story could be a great work of science fiction. As it stands, however, the beautiful idea is wasted on ultimately shallow characters and a misshapen storyline.

Sorry Roger, but it just didn’t work for me. I’m going to read some of your other stories, and look at the discussion of Prime Intellect on the various K5 boards, and see how much you’ve improved over time.

3 replies on “The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect”

  1. /me feels cold water splashed upon the face. Actually not a bad thing, after several months of mostly hearing either incoherent protests or fawnings that I walk on water, this is a good valid criticism.

    I’m hoping that the sequel I am now writing will benefit from these criticisms. Thanks for putting the venting in a place where AltaVista could find it for me.

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