Against A Diamond Sky †by Orion's Arm 2008 novella contest winners
Against A Diamond Sky is a collection of five novellas that were selected by a 2008 competition of stories set in the framework of Orion's Arm view of the future of Earth-originated ("Terragen") civilization. Orion's Arm is an internet community that has worked carefully to envision a scientifically plausible future. For instance, for interstellar travel that sneaks around the light-speed barrier, Orion's Arm imagines travel through a type of wormhole that is consistent with known science - wormholes that don't act like magic, but have serious constraints imposed by physics. [For a synopsis of wormhole travel in Orion's Arm, see this wormhole article ]
The home page for Orion's Arm describes itself as "a scenario set thousands of years in the future where civilization spans the stars. Godlike ascended intelligences rule vast interstellar empires, and lesser factions seek to carve out their own dominions through intrigue and conquest. And out beyond the edge of civilized space and the human friendly worlds, adventure awaits those prepared to risk all."
For more info on Orion's Arm, see: http://www.orionsarm.com/
The Book In General
Although I didn't have specific expectations when I began the book, I did have preconceptions about the Orion's Arm universe. However, my knowledge of Orion's Arm was limited. I was taken by surprise when I found the novellas dealt with different eras in the Orion's Arm universe, rather than focusing on later stages. The novellas also did not depict as much a sense of galactic community, interrelations or exploration as I might have imagined. Meanwhile, there was more emphasis on hierarchies of types of intelligences, and the relations between the greater intelligences and intelligences of more modest scale.
The stories are quite different and each reader may find some appeal to their preferences more than others.
1) "Heavenís Door" by Michele Dutcher
This one takes place during the 26th and 27th century, while Terragen civilization is still limited to our solar system. Humans are being modified. Dangerous nanoswarms have seriously damaged the inner planets, so the strongest societies are in the outer regions. The weaker society of Mars is being exploited by the stronger society of Titan.
Some citizens of Mars want to fight for their planet. One of these, William, has become a leader by presenting a messiah image. Part of that is tech modifications to his body which allow him to release chemicals from his hands that make people feel happier when he touches them. While trying to discover the source of a series of deadly attacks, he is contacted by Kasha. She is a woman who was put into a sort of refrigerated imprisonment for being a "witch" (causing events by unnatural means).
Kasha demonstrates extreme levels of psychic powers. For instance, while she is on a planet and William is in a spaceship out in space Kasha appears in William's cabin substantial enough to cut his leg, drink some of his blood and seal the wound - but leave a lasting scar to show it really happened. William's messiah touching trick is explicitly and repeatedly referred to as tech - Kasha's acts are never given any plausible foundation. There is nothing else in the story to suggest humans possess tech capable of these phenomena. As readers of this site may know, psychic powers in SF is one of my pet peeves. So, this did not leave a good first impression for the book. Fortunately, psychic powers were absent from the other stories.
William frees Kasha of her imprisonment and they become lovers. Kasha uses her powers to help re-terraform Mars. However, Kasha seems to be finding victims to drink blood. Both William's reduced activities for Mars and Kasha's undesirable activities lead to William's colleagues feeling a need to take action.
2) "Diversion Tactics" by Steve Bowers
The story takes place after Terragen civilization has expanded beyond the solar system. By this time Terragen civilization includes a variety of intelligences - humans, enhanced animals, human-animal mixes, AI's and other engineered forms. The AI and other engineered forms that are more intelligent than the other entities are known as transapients. Some humans and others feel threatened by the transapients.
The story includes a world with enhanced dogs that talk, use brain implant-controlled robots to do work for them, etc. Some of them are involved in military and security activities. One pack is hired to find out about a 20-kilometer long spaceship being built by humans - possibly to attack a transapient base.
The humans have a secretive non-elected government. Dissidents want to look inside the huge ship. Frank and the dogs working for the dissidents get into the ship. During their efforts to get access to the main area of the ship and during their journey through it, we get a view of the vast structure and its tech.
It takes a while to get to the meat of the story, but then it has a lot to offer. Future tech, intrigue, a puzzle to solve and clever tricks.
3) "Parameter Space" by Graham Hopgood
Much of the story takes place in a virtual world. Electronic consciousnesses (with virtual bodies) carry out lives in an elaborate simulated world in a computer system. The computer system is under the control of a transapient. This is a strongly post-human vision.
The virtual world, Hubris, is an arts-oriented community. The virtual people live personal lives, create art, go to see art, review art, act as art dealers, etc. But the transapient has other plans.
At times, I found the jumps between subplots to be confusing. This is a story of human-scale intelligences at odds with larger-scale intelligences.
4) "The Devoted Follower" by Darren Ryding
The story begins with a man who has continued, for decades, to honor the memory of a reactionary dictator who once ruled the area where the man lives. The man feels the dictator was great for his male chauvinistic, might-makes-right and we-need-hardships-because-people-are-getting-soft philosophy. This "devoted follower" is told his hero is still alive somewhere. Under that temptation, he agrees to go with those who told him this. He finds himself on a starship where a hologram of a woman has him tell stories about his hero.
Much of the book is either telling about the dictator or about the interviews between the hologram and the follower. It is clear on the starship that their society does not conform to the dictator's philosophy, and they are more interested in understanding the phenomenon, rather than wanting to be taught the dictator's ideas or methods. The hologram of the woman at times asks the man about the dictator in ways that question the man's beliefs, but she doesn't attempt to convince him of another ideology. There are aspects of the interviews analogous to a psychotherapy session.
References to holograms, starships and such create a background of SF elements, but much of the content is not that futuristic. It makes one think of all the religious fundamentalists, reactionary talk shows, back-to-the-good-old-days politicians, etc. that inhabit our world today. Unfortunately, those reactionaries are not merely being studied by greater powers.
The first resolution in the story seemed to me to be mixed in terms of its physical and supernatural implications. I imagine the intent was a physical analog to a supernatural setting. The second resolution seemed to be more decidedly supernatural. As a result, it left me with some feeling of dissonance.
5) "Apotheosis" by Kevin Schillo
This story turns up the scale of greater intelligences and their relations to less vast intellects. It even refers to multiple levels of intelligence "singularities" - levels at which intelligences below a certain singularity cannot understand the thinking of intelligences beyond that singularity. The premise of Apotheosis is that a transapient of the third singularity has been acting like a benevolent god to the other inhabitants of a star system isolated from the rest of Terragen civilization. That changes when it crosses beyond the fourth singularity.
Despite the third singularity transapient's good past behavior, some people had always had their doubts about depending on it. So the story begins largely as a dialogue between Dominic (a believer in the transapient's goodness) and Valnar (one of the non-believers). They discuss whether the transapient can be depended on to act in the best interests of people. While they are discussing this, the transapient crosses to the fourth singularity and its behavior changes. Later, Dominic (our former believer) has another conversation with another of the long-time non-believers. The non-believer speaks in more depth about what might motivate higher-level transapients, whether their vast intellects mean they have the right answers, why they don't seem concerned about the heat death of the universe, why no earlier alien civilization ever colonized the entire galaxy, etc. It is the ideas in these dialogues that seem to be the meat of the novella.
It's food for thought for those interested in the kinds of issues Asimov's Laws of Robotics were intended to deal with - but extending the questions much further into the future. It goes beyond the point of robots capable of intellects like extremely bright humans to entities that could build themselves up to planet-sized intelligences. Given the potential risks of vaster intellects with vaster power to impose their wills, how should humans approach artificial intelligence (and enhanced electronic consciousnesses)? And what are the chances nobody anywhere (on purpose or by accident) will ever create an entity that would begin the process towards the vaster intellects described in this story? Should we assume such entities will appear, so our best strategy is to develop AIís designed in ways we hope will make them continue to be protective of us - even to protect us from dangerous intelligences?
The story provides an ominous view of the future which demands we think about these matters while humans are still running the show. In Ward Moore's Greener Than You Think, a species of plant was bred by humans that turned out to be too successful in growing and spreading (it takes over the entire world). If we don't breed our AI's properly, something similar may happen.