Whole brain emulation and mind uploading are science-fiction concepts that I love, because they raise really complicated questions related to philosophy of mind, a particular field in philosophy that I find very fascinating. Moreover, it’s scary how close we might be to achieving these in real life. Some critics have made very compelling cases for why this isn’t possible—but no one has been able to prove it, one way or another. Where scientists cannot yet go, science-fiction authors can speculate and explore the ramifications of this type of technology. Richard K. Morgan uses it to good effect in Altered Carbon. Joss Whedon did it really well in the tragically short-lived Dollhouse series. In the sixth episode, “Man on the Street”, short interview-style clips of people commenting on the dollhouse-as-urban-legend are interspersed throughout the main story. The very last interviewee says:
If that technology exists—it’ll be used. It’ll be abused. It’ll be global. And we will be over. As a species. We will cease to matter. I don’t know, maybe we should.
Chills run down my spine whenever I recall this quotation. It emphasizes the Pandora’s Box that our technological advances continue to be. The atomic bomb was perhaps the first such advance, and it won’t be the last. If we develop the ability to alter our memories and identities in such a fundamental way, and someone decides that it will be profitable to do it to people against their will, then we are done.
Sadly, both Whedon and Matt Forbeck paint a realistic picture of how this might happen. Whereas Whedon is more concerned with exploring several questions related to identity, autonomy, and self-determination, Forbeck focuses on just one: what happens when mind-uploading, combined with cloning, allows for immortality? His answer is a United States ruled by an oligarchy of amortals, the richest of the rich who can afford the exorbitant price to have their minds backed up and loaded into a clone whenever their current body dies. The protagonist of Amortals, Ronan Dooley, is an everyman who finds himself an amortal because he was the first, the prototype, a Secret Service agent saved from the bullet he took for the President thanks to the Amortals Project.
In this near-future America, there are groups and movements who do not think the amortals are people. Rather, they are copies of people. Is this Ronan really the same as the original Ronan, or is it just a copy of his mind? If I upload my brain to a computer and run it on the computer, are there two of me? Which one is more “real”? This is a question philosophers of mind like Daniel Dennett have considered for a while now, and it’s definitely something that will come to a crisis if mind uploading ever becomes a reality. For what it’s worth, I’m not sure where I stand on the matter.
On one hand, I do not believe in any kind of immortal soul or Cartesian duality: to me, the brain and the mind are a single thing. So it’s true that a copy of my brain is going to be a copy, but if it’s a perfect copy, then it’s still me. If there is no difference, no way to distinguish between the two (except that one of them might be in a box instead of a body), then how can I say one is more “me” than the other?
On the other hand, I read some articles by N. Katherine Hayles when taking Philosophy of the Internet course last year, and she has some very convincing arguments in favour of an embodied perspective—that consciousness as a phenomenon is heavily linked to being embodied. And even if I am correct and there is no such thing as an immortal soul, I still feel like there is still an issue of continuity. If I’m Ben I and I meet an untimely end in an unlikely accident involving reading and a particle accelerator, and Ben II gets activated from a backup I made the week before … Ben II is me, because he has my memories, but the particular instance of me who was Ben I is gone forever. Ben I won’t know or care about this, because he will be dead and in my scenario there is no life after death—and Ben II won’t care, because as far as he sees it, he’s just like Ben I. So it creeps me and reassures me at the exact same time, if that makes any kind of sense. And if it doesn’t, then I suppose this demonstrates just how confusing this whole matter can be!
Forbeck doesn’t quite go into the matter of identities to the extent I, as a philosophy geek, might have loved. But I’m not going to fault him for that. Instead, he chooses to focus on the social and political consequences of this ammortality and the existence of the amortal class. Ronan Dooley is amortal, but it’s as a result of his continued membership in the Secret Service. He isn’t rich enough to afford ammortality himself (this becomes a plot point at least twice), so he is an outsider. Not only are we supposed to identify with him, but he becomes a credible lens through which we can critique the institution of amortality.
Though Forbeck discusses in his afterword how the idea for Amortals goes back to the nineties, this book has an extremely current feel to it. In particular, a lot of the critique that Forbeck levels at the United States government and at amortals sounds like the discontent that has found a voice in the Occupy Wall Street movement. There is a perception, which I happen to share, that the much-vaunted democracy of the United States (and to a lesser extent, similar nations like Canada and those in the EU), has become a plutocracy, with power concentrated in the hands of the super-rich and corporations (who are, in many ways, interconnected and almost indistinguishable). Whether this perception is accurate is debatable, but Forbeck indulges in a cynical what if? game to show us what the United States could become.
After all, once the rich have the ability to live forever by cloning new bodies and downloading all their memories, why bother curing diseases like AIDS or malaria? These tend to affect the poor, huddled masses. Why bother providing health care at all? So Forbeck’s vision of Washington, D.C. is a city that has slowly begun to collapse under the weight of an under-maintained infrastructure and a neglected population. We’re given to understand that this is true for the United States in general. One quibble I have with Forbeck is the implication that amortality has slowed the pace of technological innovation as a whole. Unless he’s implying that this is a deliberate conspiracy to prevent innovations that could grant the masses more freedom (an implication that I don’t see), then I don’t see how this follows.
Plus, there’s the fact that being the only amortal in a family just sucks. Ronan is turning 200 as the book begins (the White House throws him a birthday celebration the same night as he was downloaded into his latest body). He’s survived his wife and five generations of descendants. Ronan Dooley V and his son, Ronan Dooley VI (whom we call Five and Six for short), are still alive, but for the first part of the book they remain estranged from our Ronan, who has let ties lapse. Being amortal among people who cannot afford amortality is much like being an immortal among mortals: doomed to watch those you care about grow old and die, even as those who replace them come to see you either as a legend or a relic—or both. Ronan is lonely in so many ways. He’s isolated. And he’s armed. So he’s not just dangerous—he’s dangerous with a helping of basket case waiting in the wings.
I suppose I should eventually review the story instead of rambling on about how fascinating mind uploading is. This time Ronan wakes up to find out that he didn’t die saving the President from an assassin—someone murdered him and posted the video online. So he has to solve his own murder, because it’s bad publicity, but as a result of his laxity with making backups, he has lost the last six months of his memories. This hinders the investigation. You know what else hinders the investigation? People trying to kill him again. Or his partner.
As a thriller, Amortals is unquestionably well-paced and exciting. Forbeck knows how to keep the reader engaged. The key is not to avoid dull moments, because lulls provide the reader (not to mention the protagonist!) a chance to pause and process the action scenes. But they need to be carefully planned and constructed for maximum effect—something that Forbeck does well. There were numerous moments when the chapter ended on a kind of cliffhanger, one that I hadn’t really seen coming and even evoked a sense of genuine peril and vulnerability. This is difficult to do, even in a book where people can come back from the dead, because we generally don’t expect the protagonist to die unless it’s at the end.
As a mystery, Amortals is unremarkable and bland. I figured out the identity of Ronan’s killer before the end of the first chapter. Unlike my dad—my first question when I see him reading a new mystery is always, “Did you figure out who did it yet?”—I don’t usually do that. It’s supposed to be a twist, I suppose, but it’s predictable if one is familiar with these types of science-fiction stories. And I kind of feel like the murder mystery becomes sublimated to the eventual plot concerning political machinations and conspiracy theories. That being said, Forbeck makes it worth our while, pulling out a few more twists that I didn’t see coming and finishing with an ending that is almost more open-ended than I can bear.
Owing to its unimpressive mystery, I was going to give Amortals two stars. Ronan is a solid protagonist, but I didn’t much care for his voice. The other characters are somewhat two-dimensional, particularly the antagonists. Yet as I write this review, it becomes apparent that Forbeck still managed to strike a nerve with me. Maybe it’s a particularly sensitive nerve, and people who aren’t as interested in these concepts will not find the book as enjoyable. But it’s enough to prompt me to reevaluate my rating. Amortals, while far from being amazing or even very remarkable on its own, is enjoyable and, in some ways, quite thought-provoking. It’s definitely deeper and more nuanced than the type of thriller I tend to condemn in my reviews, and hence Matt Forbeck demonstrates the power of well-conceived science-fiction as a setting and as a plot device: it provides a framework that makes for a better, more substantial story. Ultimately, that’s what I’m after.