BSFA nominee: “Crystal Nights”

Today’s story: “Crystal Nights” by Greg Egan. read here, or listen here. Today’s opinion roundup starts with Karen Burnham:

“Crystal Nights” covers enough ground for any ten short stories. Actions have consequences here too, but messing with the nature of the universe is more than simply metaphorical. A rich dot-com-style billionaire sinks a considerable portion of his fortune into developing the fastest computer ever. And he keeps the technology all to himself. (Egan may not be familiar with how computer geniuses become billionaires – they can be obsessive geniuses, but usually if they keep the things they do secret they don’t become the rich kind.) He hires a team of people to put together a complete simulation of a universe inside the computer. His plan is to evolve an intelligent lifeform inside the computer that will then be able to help him in the inevitable war of super-intelligences that he just *knows* is coming. (Again, I’m just not sure that people this unstable really run billion-dollar software companies.) He repeatedly tweaks the design of the universe to keep evolution going in the way he wants it to: towards abstract thought, towards spoken and written language, towards sophisticated mathematics. Entire species evolve and go extinct in a heartbeat. He’s literally playing God. Let’s stop for a moment and reflect on the implications of intelligent design. What if someone has designed us, and the world, to achieve an evolutionary outcome? Given all the incredible pain, misery, and suffering that goes on in the world, how fucked up would that entity have to be? Egan presents us with the answer to that question in this story’s protagonist.

Eventually the billionaire talks to his creations directly, telling one of them essentially what he wants and why. He lays out the choices: help him, or he’ll regretfully have to destroy them and start over. He leaves an “Easter Egg” for them on their Moon, in the form of a monolith straight out of 2001. Through this interface, they can interact, in the most limited possible way, with our universe. We’ve all read “Frankenstein,” and we know what happens to unethical creator figures. The computer beings find a third way and forge their own destiny, and we can’t help but cheer. This review may seem spoiler-ridden, but there’s a so much more going on in this story than my bare-bones summary can begin to cover. Egan is one of my all-time favorite authors, especially when he’s using hard sf to examine ethical propositions. Here he’s in excellent form. All the world building, the descriptions of the artificial simulation and the computerized evolutionary process are fascinating. This one substantial story is probably worth the price of the issue alone, and I’ll be keeping it in mind come awards time.

Kimberley Lundstrom at The Fix:

In Greg Egan’s “Crystal Nights,” wealthy tech entrepreneur Daniel Cliff has a vision. He wants to create true AI, functioning at a human level, through a carefully controlled evolutionary process. Because Daniel has the money and the will, he does succeed with his project, but the end result is not what he expected.

“Crystal Nights” is an interesting take on the themes first explored by Mary Shelley in Frankenstein. Unlike most stories of manmade intelligence, Egan focuses not on the plight of the creatures or the effect on society of their existence, but on the motivations of their creator and on how the creatures and their actions affect him. Although Daniel is not the most sympathetic of characters, his dreams and his flaws are quite recognizable, and therefore compelling.

Steve Redwood

Reading Greg Egan’s Crystal Nights, at times I felt the same sense of wonder and excitement I used to feel decades ago when I first came across SF. I’ve never read any of Egan’s books, all I knew was that he was a ‘hard’ SF writer, and I was mentally prepared to be bored, as I don’t even understand really how a light bulb functions (I assume there’s an alert homunculus inside with a candle)! And there were a lot of details in the story I simply knew nothing about, starting from the very beginning with FLOPS ratings, which apparently are quite the opposite of flops! But though the precise workings of the computational (and, later, subatomic physics) developments were a mystery, their effects were clear, and the creation (following a cruel natural selection process imposed by a creator not in himself cruel – an interesting touch) of AI in the Phites, and their progress, is every bit as intense and exciting – and real – as any detective story or thriller, or indeed as the history of the universe itself from the Big Bang to… well, I won’t reveal that. Read the story; be thrilled. If fuzzy (yes, yes, it’s a poor pun!) me got so much out of it, readers with a scientific background will get so much more: this is a master-class in how to avoid info-dump. And don’t go expecting a hackneyed updating of the Frankenstein myth; this is a classic in its own right.

Martin’s take:

this is a typical Egan story. Some good stuff about artificial life let down by the total implausibility of the characters. At least it has got some cool bits in it. […] could have done with being a bit more abstract

Best SF:

Back to the SF. Huzzah! It’s Greg Egan, which is good. And it’s Egan and good form, which is even better news. He follows one driven scientist whose discovery of a means of creating computational power previously only dreamt of, enables him to explore the limits of just what can be created inside silicon. He creates powerful simulations, in which the building blocks of life are created, and in which he encourages his creations to develop sentience through setting environmental challenges.

The processing power enables him to develop sophisticated creatures quite rapdily, but this does require him to play god with those he creates, discarding those headed into evolutionary dead-ends. Fortunately, he is able to recognise the point at which those which he has created are sentient enough to feel sadness, and then it becomes more of a challenge, encouraging them to grow thorugh direct intervention.

As his creations develop apace it becomes clear that he has succeeded beyond his wildest dreams, although a nightmare unfolds as they are able to make the leap from creatuers living in a computer simulation to ones which can manipulate the world outside.

Top quality.

And finally, my original thoughts:

Charles Stross with the lobsters filed off. This is a story about evolving AI by darwinian selection — crab-shaped AI with control of their own physiology, in fact — and the ethical pitfalls thereof. As with Beckett’s story, in fact, the deeply felt and convincingly articulated ethical concern for other forms of sentience is one of the most satisfying aspects of the story. It comes in this story from the author, not the protagonist; Daniel Cliff thinks himself not an unkind god, just one who is prepared to make some sacrifices, cause some suffering, to promote the development of the kind of intelligence he wants. The story accelerates nicely, in a “Sandkings” direction, with some welcome flashes of wit (how Daniel made his money, for instance, or what the crabs find when they reach their simulated moon), and an ending that is apt, if not completely satisfying.

As you may guess, I haven’t actually read “Microcosmic God”. But did my opinion of the story change on a re-read? I’ll tell you later…

Story Notes 2

Apologies for the quietude around these parts at the moment; I’m going through another busy period at work. I actually have a fair few posts in the half-written or draft-that-needs-polishing stage, though, and hopefully I’ll get some of them up next week. In the meantime, have some more brief short fiction reviews.

“Greenland” by Chris Beckett (IZ 218)
A bleak story, and one which both revisits a familiar Beckett theme (identity) as well as extending into new territory, in that (as he notes in the story’s introduction) it’s one of his few tales to feature climate change as a significant background element. A solidly rendered sub-tropical Oxford is the primary location, with a dystopic background in which “Old Brits” defend the borders of their country with machine guns on the beaches. The narrator, Juan, is a refugee from a fractured Spain, and early in the story he loses his menial job at Magdalen college due to competition from newer — for which read “cheaper” — immigrants. In order to make ends meet, Juan takes up an ostensibly friendly professor’s offer of participation in an experiment for cash. But the bleakest aspect of the story is the depiction of Juan’s dysfunctional relationship with another immigrant, a French graduate called Suzanne; both have been damaged and deformed by the un-person treatment they receive from the population around them, despite the fact that immigrants now represent the majority of the population. When Juan tells Suzanne that he has a way to perhaps make enough money to get them to Greenland (a fabled refuge), her thought is not of the potential risk to him, her eyes just light up. “Here,” Juan thinks, “was the evidence of how much poverty and fear and hopelessness had coarsened and corrupted her. But I was coarsened and corrupted too.” The experiment itself turns out to be a less mundane kind of science fiction, although in Beckett’s hands it doesn’t feel incongruous, and it provides Beckett the opportunity to make some strong points about the moral value of any kind of sentence. In that, the story of Beckett’s which it most closely echoes is “Karel’s Prayer”, though it is to my mind the more effective of the two pieces; worth reading for its detail, and for the cumulative power of its voice.

“Crystal Nights” by Greg Egan (IZ 215)
Charles Stross with the lobsters filed off. This is a story about evolving AI by darwinian selection — crab-shaped AI with control of their own physiology, in fact — and the ethical pitfalls thereof. As with Beckett’s story, in fact, the deeply felt and convincingly articulated ethical concern for other forms of sentience is one of the most satisfying aspects of the story. It comes in this story from the author, not the protagonist; Daniel Cliff thinks himself not an unkind god, just one who is prepared to make some sacrifices, cause some suffering, to promote the development of the kind of intelligence he wants. The story accelerates nicely, in a “Sandkings” direction, with some welcome flashes of wit (how Daniel made his money, for instance, or what the crabs find when they reach their simulated moon), and an ending that is apt, if not completely satisfying.

“Traitor” by M. Rickert (F&SF, May)
I don’t know, you wait years for an M. Rickert science fiction story, and then … this is another near-future piece and, as with “Bread and Bombs” and “Evidence of Love in a Case of Abandonment” (a) it derives quite a lot of its power from revealing exactly how the world in which it is set has changed from our own time, (b) the change is dystopic in nature, and (c) the viewpoint of a child is central. Where “Traitor” goes further than either of the others is the elliptical manner in which the world is described; a scene in which a mother and daughter visit an ice-cream parlour verges on true surrealism, and a several-page digression into another story (another familiar Rickert trick, admittedly) successfully obscures precisely how the relationship between that mother and daughter is developing until the final page of the story. I have to admit that I found “Traitor” a bit less organic than the best of Rickert’s stories, but it still achieves a commendable intensity.

“Shad’s Mess” by Alex Irvine (Postscripts 15)
Irvine strikes me above all as a competent writer; everything in his stories always fits together with a pleasing clockwork deftness. This one is about a blue-collar teleport repairman who, after a somewhat grisly transporter malfunction, gets sued by some Christian missionaries and starts seeing something he refers to as the Entropy Gremlin. You might think that the satiric/fantastic elements wouldn’t mesh with the down-to-Earth grubby space life aspects, yet they do. What it lacks, perhaps, is the ability to inspire a particularly strong emotional or intellectual connection in the reader; I’m left with a sense that as well-executed as it is, it’s a story that doesn’t add up to much more than the description I’ve just given it.

“Africa” by Karen Fishler (IZ 217)
I’ve enjoyed Fishler’s previous Interzone stories, and I enjoyed “Africa”; like the majority of modern Interzone‘s stories, it seems to me, it aspires to craft rather than innovation, but like Irvine’s story it is a good, solid piece, even if that means I’m damning it with faint praise. The set-up is this: at some point in the future, humanity is expelled from Earth by an alien race, probably (though I don’t think it is explicitly specified) for incompetent planetary stewardship, bound never to return or indeed to land on any other planet. A barrier was constructed around the Earth, with a station that travels on its surface to meet and interrogate any intruders; it is manned by long-lived Guardians, although their numbers have dwindled such that there are now only two of them, Tomeer and his clone-father. A ship approaches, which also appears to be carrying only two people, this time a daughter and her natural father, who is dying. The daughter, Ainkia, tells Tomeer that they are all that is left of Expelled humanity, the rest having died of age and sadness. Youthful, innocent Tomeer is touched by her request to bury her father in the Earth’s soil, but his father is less than impressed by the idea. What’s most satisfying about “Africa” is that, though hardly action-packed, it never feels as though it is treading water – indeed, as usual with Fishler the character relationships are well defined, such that when the inevitable hard choices come (and this is where it scores slightly over “Shad’s Mess”) they mean something. It is not an extraordinary story; but it is an admirable one.


Today, the lion’s share of my eternal admiration for hard sf, at least the best stuff, at least in principle if not always in execution, goes to its sheer bloody-mindedness, the blatant glee with which it ignores more common modes of aesthetic enjoyment. In a hard sf story, truth really is beauty. Take this paragraph from Greg Egan’s “Glory” (to be found in the Strahan/Dozois New Space Opera):

The world the Noudah called home was the closest of the system’s five planets to their sun. The average temperature was one hundred and twenty degrees Celsius, but the high atmospheric pressure allowed liquid water to exist across the entire surface. The chemistry and dynamics of the planet’s crust had led to a relatively flat terrain, with a patchwork of dozens of disconnected seas but no globe-spanning ocean. From space, these seas appeared as silvery mirrors, bordered by a violet and brown tarnish of vegetation.

There is no poetry in this. With the possible exception of “tarnish”, every word of the paragraph is chosen purely for its ability to explain, to set out the particulars of this planet with as little distraction as possible. Yet the image conjured is wondrous, in a strict sense — it is remarkable; it is extraordinary. It is how the story’s protagonist, a mathematician who’s travelled across a reasonable chunk of interstellar distance, sees the universe. Later in the story, she supposes that an alien race’s drawings and poetry “no doubt had their virtues”, but they seem to her “bland and opaque”; it is a conspicuous refusal of that type of beauty, in favour of the symmetry and solidity of mathematical proof. Sure, you could dress up the facts, translate them into a different form, and sure that could be beautiful in its own way. But equally, in its own way, it’s already beautiful.

OK, I’m exaggerating. That paragraph isn’t what’s great about “Glory”, and neither, really, is what comes after, which is most of the story but which feels a little familiar. (The mathematician has the option of sending a final, wonderful proof, one that explains the significance of everything, to her people, and chooses not to, because seeking after knowledge is, in the end, what’s satisfying.) No, what’s great about “Glory” is the opening of the story, the four pages before that paragraph in which Egan’s dispassionate camera tracks the meticulous unwinding of what is effectively a galactic-scale Rube-Goldberg device. We start with two ingots floating in space, one of hydrogen and one of anti-hydrogen. They are forced together in such a way as to produce a needle of compressed matter and antimatter one micron wide, sculpted such that one trajectory is favoured for the annihilation debris. The needle accelerates to 98% of the speed of light and travels, in the few trillionths of a second of its subjective existence, across light years and into the heart of a star. There, the few million excess neutrons included in the original ingots set up specific shock waves in the star’s plasma, the initial pattern elaborating to create a molecular factory, the products of which are ejected from the star at a velocity just below that needed to escape from the star’s gravity well, on arcs that intersect with the gravity well of the system’s gas giant, which captures them and draws them down onto its third moon. Once landed the machines construct a receiver, just in time to collect a series of timed gamma ray pulses from the needle’s original destination, that contain the information needed to recreate the story’s protagonists in forms native to their new location. (Sympathetic viewpoint characters? Ha! Who needs ’em?)

Two mathematicians arrive, and go about their separate missions:

Anne’s ship ascended so high on its chemical thrusters that it shrank to a speck before igniting its fusion engine and streaking away in a blaze of light. Joan felt a pang of loneliness; there was no predicting when they would be reunited.

Having read through four pages that depict a process that is precisely, spectacularly, absurdly, predictable — more detailed and convincing than my synopsis above — you can understand why Joan might be a little nervous. I almost wish those four pages could be carved off and anthologised in their own right; because their glory, I think, is that just for a minute they make you see the universe through Joan’s eyes.