The metamorphosis of Prime Intellect 2005-03-06

The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect is an engaging science fiction novel available for free online.

It explores a concept that is fairly well explored in Science Fiction, namely the idea of a computer powerful enough to create a virtual or semi-virtual world where humanity can live without the problems of 'reality'.

Most recently we've seen it in the Matrix trilogy, but the idea is far older. Of stories covering this idea, Arthur C. Clarke's City and the Stars and Dennis Danvers Circuits of heaven rank as my favorites, but Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect isn't far behind.

Imagine a society where nobody can die, and death ends up as an art form for an avantgarde group consisting of people who's oh so bored with all the "normal" stuff humans could think of to spend eternity doing. Of course, death isn't quite death when Prime Intellect will bring them right back to life again.

The main character, Caroline, was the oldest person alive when Prime Intellect came online and transformed the world, and she's bored. She was the one who turned death into art, but she's still not content. The story follows her on a quest to learn more about Prime Intellect and the basis for its decisions, and to change the world from what it has become into something just a bit closer to what it once was.

It is a compelling read that intersperses a quickly moving and unusual story with a gradual explanation of the creation of Prime Intellect.

Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect owes a lot to Isaac Asimov, both because Prime Intellect is based on his three laws, but more importantly because the story to a large extent is structured around exploring the consequences of the three laws or a manifestation of it in a computer in much the same way as Asimov used his robot stories for the same purpose.

The most original aspect of the novel is that it goes into a lot more detail about the practical aspects of implementation than Asimov and most other writers dealing with this problem, who tend to resort to handwaving and explore the laws purely in the abstract, asuming a "perfect" implementation.

The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect in many ways exemplify how difficult software design is, where any implementation decision can have profound implications on the actual behaviour of the final system without any change to the original requirements.

The novel is fairly unique for well written S.F. in that it contains some fairly strong sexual imagery that could be upsetting to some readers.

Sex in SF is nothing new, but it tends to either be relatively tame, or be contained to trashy works with few other redeaming aspects. This book is by no means pornography, though, - you'd have to be pretty disturbed to get turned on by it, and the sexual content feels natural for the general premise of the story. Clearly the novel could have been written without it, but the graphic sex and violence create a far more disturbing image of the "perfect" world created by Prime Intellect than I think most other descriptions would.

Matrix, for instance, fails miserably there, by presenting a virtual world that seems perfectly ok for most people, and while a non-virtual dystopia such as This Perfect World by Ira Levin is effective, it is a lot less effective today than when it was written.

All in all, I warmly recommend The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect, provided that you can stomach the sex and violence.

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