Tuesday, January 25, 2011


When people speak of manipulating the topologies of space in speculative fiction films or books, this is the kind of thing that I see in my head.

One of my favorite books to invoke warping space into alternative shapes is Greg Bear's 1985 hard science fiction novel, Eon.

Set in an alternative early 2000s in which a declining Soviet Union clings to existence, the book details the exploration of seven-chambered asteroid that appeared from out of nowhere and inserted itself into a near earth orbit. The seventh chamber turns out to be infinite, a cylinder of warped space-time wrapped around the thread of a naked singularity and extending past what should be the end of the asteroid.

Known as the the Way, the endless seventh chamber also touches upon other continuums of space, and portals can be opened between them.

While not an award winner or widely read in literary science fiction circles, Eon is one of the most influential speculative novels of my youth for both its scope and the partially post-human society that lurks a million kilometers down the axis of the seventh corridor.

Early on in the book it's revealed that asteroid's chambers and cities were constructed by humans from a thousand years in the future--distant decedents whose ancestors survived a limited nuclear exchange between the Cold War super powers. An exchange that should have taken place around the time that the asteroid arrived in orbit. The human cities of the asteroid are empty when the first explorers arrive, but after an important mathematician is kidnapped while investigating the machinery that sustains the seventh chamber, an expedition is launched and eventually the fate of the asteroid's builders is revealed.

And that fate is one of the best realized depictions of an optimistic path of development for our species. One that I would still like to see realized in our future.

The society is a liberal democracy in which bodies and minds can all be re-shaped with technology. Many humans retain their original forms with only minor mental augmentation while others are dedicated Luddites without enhancement. Many have abandoned the human form completely and enjoy both boosted intellects and an expanded range of emotions. Additionally, the dead live on in the axis-mounted city's memory system as active software entities, while partial copies of personalities are sometimes dispatched to act as agents for VIPs.

This was my first exposure to the idea of how intimately our minds and personalities are shaped by the brains that generate them. It was also the first exploration that I had read of how we might chose to reshape ourselves if we had the power to reprogram our psyches. What would we make of ourselves, and what kind of societal tensions would exists between the various factions that came out of those choices? How would history cast its shadow over all of this.

While the mind and the brain are out of fashion at the moment in literary science fiction, we live in an age in which the functions and evolutionary context of the brain are rapidly being resolved by gestalt of scientific disciplines. It's also a time in which we are developing the machine interface and gene manipulation technologies that will let us plug into and alter the gray matter that makes us what and who we are.

Evolution has shaped us to its own purposes through the demands of individual and social survival and the contingent compromises of wetware engineering. At the same time it's also given rise to minds and cultures that looks past those demands and that have created technological societies that bear a decreased resemblance to the lives of our ancestors, for both good and bad.

These are issues that are worth investigating as we move towards a future in which we will be able to change the parameters of our nature and even where our individual personalities lie within that continuum. If you haven't read it yet and you enjoy hard, well-written science fiction, Eon is a good place to start pondering all of this.

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