Godlike Machines by Johnathan Strahan

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Godlike Machines is an anthology edited by Johnathan Strahan that explores the concept of "big dumb objects," or "Godlike Machines." My introduction to the concept was Harlan Ellison's "I Have no Mouth and I must Scream." Of course, his Analytical Menace" inspired the SkyNet of the Terminator franchise. So seemingly all-powerful, enigmatic, and in so far as AM or SkyNet was concerned, inimical. But to create something fresh, you need to let go of old concepts and imagine something that fits the bill of particulars in a different way. So though these machines are enigmatic and potentially deadly, they need not be inimical or particularly menacing. All of these authors are masterful and masterfully write compelling stories that should inspire tomorrow's generation of writers imagine original stories of their own. Certainly well worth the price and well worth reading, I would not be surprised to see them as springboards for discussion in workshops for new writers. 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. The contents in order of appearance are:


Alastair Reynolds Troika is the first story. It tells of a Russian space mission to to an enigmatic artifact, the Matryoshka, that has appeared suddenly in the Solar System. But the real godlike machine of the piece is the even more enigmatic (and deadly) Soviet bureaucracy that Gulag's the cosmonauts for bringing home an unpleasant truth. The Matryoshka plays Prokofiev's Troika from Lieutenant Kizhe, just to let you know what's really going on, though this story is not a comedy. The twist at the end is splendid. Return to Titan

Return to Titan

Stephen Baxter's Return to Titan, one Baxter's Xeelee stories, is about development/progress/exploitation thwarted by those pesky environmental protection laws. The inhabitants of the Solar System use tame wormholes to travel through the system. And there's a wormhole at Titan. But the laws against intruding where there may be sentience prevent development/progress/exploitation on Titan and beyond. This is a great inconvenience to Harry and Michael Poole, who've gotten rich building wormholes and fueling development, and whose continued prospects depend on further expansion. So they induce Jovik Emry, who's in charge of protecting Titan, to take them down on an expedition to prove there's no sentience. What they find is a marvelously imagined world-- an engine that makes life on Titan possible. But even godlike machines can be vulnerable to that most destructive of forces-- human greed.

Jovik Emry may well be the most despicable viewpoint character I've ever read. While one could argue that the Pooles are even more so, and that the only differences between him and them are matters of degree/opportunity/ability, the moral difference lies in motivation. Greed is a factor for both, but the Pooles' failings are mitigated by their goals. They have built something marvelous and are possessed by an overweening drive to go on building, regardless of what obstacles they need to remove. At least backup Michael Poole has the courage and integrity to sacrifice himself for the cause. Emry is motivated solely and admittedly by the desire to prolong his own worthless existence as comfortably as possible. He approves of the Pooles' plan to remove the Titan obstacle, but rails against them over the ultimate results. He is the most despicable character in the entire anthology. No other character matches him. No, not one.

There's a great big beautiful tomorrow/now is the best time of your life

Cory Doctorow takes the reader on a richly imagined romp through a post-apocalyptic landscape involving machines that turn cities into forests, a UNC commune where happiness is hardwired, superb fighting suits and zombies that uplift you into virtuality. The viewpoint character, Jimmy, has been genetically engineered by his father to be virtually immortal. This sounds really great until you consider the protracted puberty. But then, reversing all that engineering causes its own problems. Jimmy is a character the reader can really empathize with, and being uplifted to a virtual existence makes for a happy ending, right?


Alone is among the most enigmatic of the travelers on Robert Reed's Great Ship. He does not have any memory of a time before he was on the ship and does not know how he got there or what he is doing there. For ages, he has walked the surface of the ship, eschewing contact and remaining alone. As activity on the surface increases, he travels for more ages within. The captains of the Great Ship don't lie mysteries, and he escapes capture. After a time he goes through the personal affects of a murder victim and takes his place among the passengers. Things then get a little weird at the end, and we find out something the passengers of the Great Ship would not suspect.

A Glimpse of the Marvelous Structure and (and the Threat it Entails)

Sean Williams' Structure tells the story of a spy, Donaldan, sent to gather information about the Mines of the planet Gevira. They produce an incredible amount of raw material and are the basis for the planet's economy. He's infiltrated the local police, and takes part in the investigation of a mysterious death. The deeper one goes into the Mines, the greater the likelihood of inexplicable death. The victim in this case is also still alive-- an investigator named E. C. Cotton. She takes Donaldan on a tour of the Mines, as the answers to the questions of her death and of the secrets he has been sent to uncover both lie deep below the surface. The "godlike machine" is of course the Structure-- the mines are more than just deep. Temporal mechanics are involved, and Donaldson is shaken to the core of his being by what he uncovers. The story is structured as a series of reports back to his controller and mentor, and is tense and compelling. (He carries an uplink to a Guild satellite in his head.) The Structure is a unique approach to questions of time and space.

Hot Rock

Greg Egan's Hot Rock is about the exploration of the planet Tallulah by two travelers from the Amalgam, a galaxy spanning civilization. Tallulah is an orphan-- it orbits no sun and travels among the stars. What makes the planet unusual is that its surface temperature is warm enough to support life. Members of the Amalgam commonly digitize themselves, a fine solution to mass/energy problem of space travel. They upload themselves into an insect sized drone and they're of. Egan creates a variety of bases for life in the story-- the commonality being life on the planet uses chemical and/or thermal sources as there is too little starlight to support photosynthesis. They become stranded and seek out the planet's inhabitants to learn how the planet is heated and to get help in returning home. Their arrival does not create happiness among the faction of inhabitants that intends to fight of any new arrivals and that does not believe they are merely explorers. This nearly sets off a civil war among the three factions and provides a bit of distraction from the marvelous technical aspects of the story. The godlike machine is the means by which the crust is heated and the planet steered. It has served as an Ark for eons and can continue to do so for eons more.