Entry updated 16 May 2022. Tagged: Theme.
This real-world term for the transfer of data to a remote Computer (for example, new or amended web pages to a website host) has taken on a special sf significance as denoting the copying or transfer of a human or other personality to a sentient software representation. Interesting early examples are "Ghost" (May 1943 Astounding) by Henry Kuttner and C L Moore, in which the final despair (if not the full personality) of a suicidal depressive becomes impressed on a supercomputer which rebroadcasts the emotion; "Think Blue, Count Two" (February 1963 Galaxy) by Cordwainer Smith, in which a semi-organic computer based on a "laminated" mouse brain is imprinted with multiple human personalities; "Point of No Return" (July 1963 New Worlds) by Philip E High, where soldiers operating Weapon systems by remote telefactoring suffer inadvertent personality transfer to their machines; The Ring of Ritornel (1968) by Charles L Harness, in which portions of an unwilling human's brain are physically transferred into a Music-making computer – the result being strictly speaking a Cyborg; "The Schematic Man" (January 1969 Playboy) by Frederik Pohl, whose protagonist encodes himself as a computer program; Midsummer Century (April 1972 F&SF; rev 1972) by James Blish; Catchworld (1975) by Chris Boyce; "Fireship" (December 1978 Analog) by Joan D Vinge; and Engine Summer (1979) by John Crowley, whose hero's aspirations to sainthood are fulfilled by upload into a recording device as an exemplary life which others may experience in full.
More recently the notion of uploading human personalities into machinery has been used very promiscuously indeed, being one of the key corollaries of the notion of Cyberspace. It is featured in Vernor Vinge's proto-Cyberpunk story True Names (1981 dos), and became a virtual Cliché in the years that followed. Updating the traditional sf Cyborg transformation, the protagonist of Rudy Rucker's Software (1982) is transferred as pure information to a Computer that transparently operates, but is too large to be built into, his new Robot body. Frederik Pohl's Heechee Rendezvous (1984), Greg Bear's Eon (1985), Greg Egan's Permutation City (1994), Robert J Sawyer's The Terminal Experiment (1995) and Tad Williams's Otherland quartet – beginning with Otherland: City of Golden Shadow (1996) – all propose that various kinds of software afterlife may one day be more or less universally on offer. The attractions of such Virtual Reality versions of Heaven are obvious, if slightly dubious: is copied brain-state information a true representation of personal Identity? Permutation City suggests some more practical drawbacks, including shortage of processing power and lack of real-world depth in virtual scenarios, and further difficulties emerge in David Langford's "New Hope for the Dead" (26 May 2005 Nature). The ship's computer in Red Dwarf (1988-current) can supposedly maintain only one uploaded character (Rimmer), though occasional exceptions are made for the sake of comic storylines. Charles Stross develops uploading on a grandiose scale in Accelerando (fixup 2005), with much of the solar system being dismantled and reprocessed into a Matrioshka Brain (see Dyson Sphere) whose vast computational power is required to sustain the post-Singularity upload of most of humanity. More modestly, the protagonist of Calvin Kasulke's Several People Are Typing (2021) finds himself trapped in his PR company's Slack online-chat network.
David Brin's Earth (1990) offers a somewhat implausible variation on the theme, with Earth itself acquiring an internal "nervous system" of quasi-synaptic pathways into which a single human personality is uploaded to become, as it were, the planetary goddess Gaia. A rare note of intelligent dissent is sounded in Justina Robson's Silver Screen (1999), where the result of an eagerly sought upload is a disconcerting amalgam of static human memories and fluidly alien machine sentience. Much earlier, in Cordwainer Smith's above-cited "Think Blue, Count Two", a character asks whether the upload-carrying mouse brain is dead, and is answered: "No. Yes. Of course not. What do you mean? Who knows?"
Film treatments of the theme include Tron (1982), which fudges the issue somewhat by allowing its laser deconstruction of a human body into a cyberspace entity to be a reversible process; and, more recently, Transcendence (2014). [DRL/BS]
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