Digitization of the human personality

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Digitization of the human personality what Frederick Pohl called vastening in the Heechee Saga, is a plot device in three stories in Godlike Machines. It provides a plot twist in Baxter’s Return to Titan and Doctorow’s Life/Tomorrow and is common practice in the Amalgam universe of Egan’s Hot Rock.

I’m not sure what the big attraction is—self- preservation? If I take a picture of you and spread it around for all to marvel over as a close likeness, it still isn’t you. It’s just a picture. If I record your voice and upload to Youtube, it may sound just like you, but it isn’t. Do we say that Edith Pilaf lives on on Youtube singing Je ne regrette rien? Non. We may say it, but it is not literally true. The same is true if I digitize your personality and memory and upload them or download them into a clone or a robot. Or if you do the same to me. No matter how strong the resemblance, if my body is dead, it’s dead. You can clone my body and re-instill my essence. But it will not be me.

To return to the Heechee Saga, the main character, Robinette Broadhead, dies and his personality uploaded to Gigabyte Space. To keep him company, his lovely wife Essie is copied there too. So the reader has Meat Essie going on with her life and Virtual Essie keeping Robin company. There’s even a virtual Albert Einstein. Robin makes it all sound quite wonderful. He can think faster than ever and more deeply than ever and subjectively is living much longer because his micro processors process faster than human synapses. And he can virtually experience anything. Robin sends a copy of himself to try to talk things over with the Foe. Its all good though, because as a result of the encounter, the Foe is persuaded to not destroy all life in the galaxy because they see Robin as evidence that humanity and the Heechee are moving toward digitization and pose no threat to their plans to reboot the universe.

Doctorow has used personality digitization in previous works. In Tomorrow/Now he has it lurking in the background till the end. Jimmy’s prospects in the virtuality are murkier than Robin’s in Heechee, but at least he gets the girl. Sort of. As Jimmy puts it, “I tried to argue, but I couldn’t. Whether that was because there was a bug in me or because he was right, I couldn’t say. “ 265

Baxter puts the concept to fuller use in Titan. Poole and associates interview a “virtual backup” of Emry when they recruit him for their caper. Easier to deal with than the flesh and blood version. Emry likes the idea of “backups” not at all. He muses to himself, “And besides, the backup copy could never be you, the one who died; only a copy could live on.” “backup” Emry threatens violence when he realizes he is doomed after the conclusion of the interview. The best he can hope for is merger with the real Emry. Virtual General Cassata in Annals of the Heechee has a similar thought. He stays aboard Robin’s ship, the True Love, to postpone his liquidation. If he returned to JAWS, well, they couldn’t have a bunch of virtual generals hanging around. What would it do to the chain of command? Backup Emry in Return to Titan only gives in when Poole makes it clear that they’ll kill the real Emry if he does not. So he goes with them to Titan, with it understood that backup copies have been made for all just in case. The interesting plot twist of the story is the idea of the backup copy dying to save the real living, breathing person.

Spoiler alert--

In Egan’s Hot Rock, personal digitization is commonplace among members of the Amalgam, the galactic arm civilization that forms the political backdrop for the story. The two explorers, Azar from Hanuz, and Shelma from Bahar travel to Tallulah as digital packets in high energy gamma ray bursts. The benefit of traveling virtually lies in the lower cost of sending information instead of bodies that require supplies. The machine Azar resided in was, “ smaller than a grain of sand.”

Their home planets had sent ships three years earlier that combined to form the Mologhat Station to receive and support them. The station had on arrival sent insect sized robot probes with nano tech to the surface to perform the advance work, and the two explorers load their consciousnesses into one of these with room left over for part of their station library. They experience separate subjective milieus, but share information feeds, which can be fine tuned and provide information beyond the range of their natural senses. They gather large amounts of information about the rich and varied life on the planet, but learn nothing that explains why the planet is warm enough for liquid water and plant life. As Shelma puts it, “A billion years in deep space, and not an iceberg in sight.”

On an emotional level, they take backups for granted., without any qualms over merging consciousness. Perhaps because they leave their backups dormant until needed. There is no mention of whether they , like Vasli in Michael Swanwick’s Stations of the Tide, experience grief in learning of the death of their original selves. Vasli had been copied and the copy transmitted to Prospero System. Prospero Sysem Vasli is bereft when he learns of the death of his original self back in Deneb System. Azar does regret the disconnection from her life due to the time lag. 1500 years out. 1500 years back. Similarly, Vasli grieves also for the loss of his home world. He could send back a copy, but it would not be him. Prospero System Vasli would still be there. In the Amalgam, as with Neal Asher’s Polity universe, backups are commonplace and just make sense. They've left backups at home and make more after it becomes more urgent to locate any sentient inhabitants lurking under the water.

After making contact, they learn from natives how to harness the power that warms the planet to return home. They also learn that the energy source leaves a residual that supports digitized life, and that there is room for billions of civilizations. Shelma opts to continue exploring this possibility while Azar prepares to return home with a digitized delegation to the Amalgam. Personal digitization seems like a wonderful idea. Certainly it makes a story more interesting. It ensures personal survival (or the illusion thereof) should the original make an untimely demise, or the copy can go out and die for you. The only question is, as Thomas Wolfe puts it, is whether or not you can ever go home again.


  • Digitization of the human personality. Philipp Michel Reichold. UL 20TH, 2017
  • Annals of the Heechee. Frederick Pohl.
  • Godlike Machines. ed. Johnathan Strahan. "Return to Titan." Stephen Baxter.
  • Godlike Machines. ed. Johnathan Strahan. "Hot Rock". Greg Egan.
  • Godlike Machines. ed. Johnathan Strahan. "There's a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow / Now Is the Best Time of Your Life." Cory Doctorow.
  • Stations of the Tides. Michael Swanwick.
  • Various Polity stories. Neal Asher.
  • You Can Never Go Home Again. Thomas Wolfe.