The Silicon Man by Charles Platt is a very thorough treaty on the foibles of ‘Uploading’ people (in the vein of Charles Stross’ Accelerando or other books on a similar topic…), mixed with a good old detective story, and hacking as a socio-political act…
Plus, it was published by Wired - how cool can you get? Ok, ok, yesterday’s cool ;-)
Jim Bayley, loving father and husband, works for the FBI. While he traces the source of some new, deadly weapon which doesn’t leave any trace (it simply erases all brain function) on the black market he stumbles upon an (apparently failed) research project called ‘LifeScan’ at North Industries, a Defence Contractor. LifeScan attempts to create Artificial Intelligence not by building/programming intelligence, but by scanning a brain, neuron by neuron, to be simulated and stimulated as part of the computer.
The team feels (understandable) threatened by Bayley’s poking about, captures Bayley, and uses him as the first Guinea Pig to be uploaded into their MAPHIS (memory array and processor for human intelligence storage, thanks for asking) system. Successfully, it has to be said.
The man behind the ever-going-on-needing-money-but-never-delivers-anything LifeScan programme is Leo Gottbaum, supposedly retired, a reactionary, and anti-government (all kinds thereof) TV head, and an early virus writer. And he has an agenda…
The concepts are interesting indeed – I love the idea of using the brain as some kind of ‘black box’, simulated in a computer instead of building a classic AI. Basically they’ve given up on creating intelligence, given up on understanding how the brain works, and simply try to copy it and feed it with simulations. They even use specialized simulation hardware (MAPHIS), although hardware can be simulated through software, as Gottbaum proves later on in the story…
The social/sociological/legal/psychological impact of uploading humans is discussed and played out, with all the big questions present, like Are you a legal entity? Are you alive? Are you yourself, or just someone similar, ie a cheap copy? And is it worth it?
There is a (very good!) introduction by Greg Benford, explaining why this is classic in his opinion, and offering some explanations on the topic. Despite of what he claims this is _not_ the first ‘upload’ book (see Gibson’s ‘Kings of Sleep’ for an earlier example of a story), but maybe the one that went first into the (murky) depths of the topic.
What else can be said about this book? The happy ending feels wrong, and tacked on like the one in Wild at Heart.
Otherwise it makes for a very interesting and well written read, with only the personal details and exchanges being rather excruciatingly trite in parts. But Platt is not alone there… and they are necessary for the story and the topics brought up.
The hacker stories and the political slant feel extracurricular and unnecessary for the story, but were, I presume, something Platt wanted to get across – maybe some personal opinion of his?
Definitely recommended, this _is_ a classic from Wired’s heyday (I didn’t even know they used to publish books!)
Title: The Silicon Man
Author: Charles Platt
Reviewer URL: http://skating.thierstein.net
Publisher URL: http://www.wiredbooks.com
Publication Date: 1997
Review Date: 18 September 2006