Diaspora - by Greg Egan

Once a psychoblast became self-aware, it was granted citizenship, and intervention without consent became impossible. This was not a matter of mere custom or law; the principle was built into the deepest level of the polis. A citizen who spiraled down into insanity could spend teratau in a state of confusion and pain, with a mind too damaged to authorize help, or even to choose extinction. That was the price of autonomy: an inalienable right to madness and suffering, inseparable from the right to solitude and peace.

The conceptory checked the architecture of the orphan’s mind against the polis’s definition of self-awareness. Every criterion was now satisfied. The conceptory reached into the part of itself which ran the womb, and halted it, halting the orphan. It modified the machinery of the womb slightly, allowing it to run independently, allowing it to be reprogrammed from within. Then it constructed a signature for the new citizen — two unique megadigit numbers, one private, one public — and embedded them in the orphan’s cypherclerk, a small structure which had lain dormant, waiting for these keys. It sent a copy of the public signature out into the polis, to be catalogued, to be counted.

Blanca sent Yatima a different kind of tag; it contained a random number encoded via the public half of Yatima’s signature. Before Yatima could even wonder about the meaning of the tag, vis cypherclerk responded to the challenge automatically: decoding Blanca’s message, re-encrypting it via Blanca’s own public signature, and echoing it back as a third kind of tag. Claim of identity. Challenge. Response. Blanca said, “Welcome to Konishi, Citizen Yatima.”

Learning was a strange business. Ve could have had vis exoself wire all this raw information straight into vis mind, in an instant — ve could have engulfed a complete copy of the Truth Mines, like an amoeba ingesting a planet — but the facts would have become barely more accessible than they already were, and it would have done nothing to increase vis understanding. The only way to grasp a mathematical concept was to see it in a multitude of different contexts, think through dozens of specific examples, and find at least two or three metaphors to power intuitive speculations. Curvature means the angles of a triangle might not add up to 180 degrees. Curvature means you have to stretch or shrink a plane non-uniformly to make it wrap a surface. Curvature means no room for parallel lines — or room for far more than Euclid ever dreamt of. Understanding an idea meant entangling it so thoroughly with all the other symbols in your mind that it changed the way you thought about everything.

When Carter-Zimmerman polis was cloned a thousand times and the clones launched toward a thousand destinations, the vast majority of citizens taking part in the Diaspora had sensibly decided to keep all their snapshots frozen until they arrived, side-stepping both tedium and risk. If a snapshot file was destroyed en route without having been run since the instant of cloning, that would constitute no loss, no death, at all. Many citizens had also programmed their exoselves to restart them only at target systems that turned out to be sufficiently interesting, eliminating even the risk of disappointment. At the other extreme, ninety-two citizens had chosen to experience every one of the thousand journeys, and though some were rushing fast enough to shrink each trip to a few megatau, the rest subscribed to the curious belief that flesher-equivalent subjective time was the only “honest” rate at which to engage with the physical world. They were the ones who required the most heavy-handed outlooks to keep them from going insane. Blanca had privately dubbed the citizens who used this outlook — most, but not all of them Star Puppies — “the Osvalds,” after the character in Ibsen’s Ghosts who ends the play repeating senselessly, “The sun. The sun.” The stars. The stars. When they weren’t speechless with joy over parallax shifts, they were mesmerized by the fluctuations of variable stars, or the slow orbits of a few easily resolved binaries. The polis was too small to be equipped with serious astronomical facilities, and in any case the Star Puppies stuck slavishly to their limited, mock-biological vision. But they basked in the starlight, and reveled in the sheer distance and time scales of the journey, because they’d reshaped their minds to render every detail of the experience endlessly pleasurable, endlessly fascinating, and endlessly significant.

The scape was full of birds and insects, rodents and small reptiles — decorative in appearance, but also satisfying a more abstract aesthetic: softening the harsh radial symmetry of the lone observer; anchoring the simulation by perceiving it from a multitude of viewpoints. Ontological guy lines.

Paolo was relieved to be back to normal. Ceremonial regression to the ancestral form every now and then kept his father happy — and being a flesher was largely self-affirming, while it lasted — but every time he emerged from the experience he felt like he’d broken free of billion-year-old shackles. There were polises where the citizens would have found his present structure almost as archaic, but the balance seemed right to Paolo; he enjoyed the sense of embodiment that came from a tactile surface and proprioceptive feedback, but only a fanatic could persist in simulating kilograms of pointless viscera, perceiving every scape through crippled sense organs, and subjugating vis mind to all the unpleasant quirks of flesher neurobiology.

infotrope. A structure within Konishi citizens responsible for detecting complex, imperfectly understood patterns and coordinating attempts to make sense of them.

outlook. A non-sentient program which runs inside the exoself, monitoring a citizen’s mind and adjusting it as necessary to maintain some chosen package of aesthetics, values, etc.

polis. (1) A computer or network of computers which functions as the infrastructure for a community of conscious software. (2) The community itself.

psychoblast. An embryonic software mind, prior to the granting of citizenship.

psychogenesis. The creation of a new citizen by running a mind seed, or by other methods such as the assembly and customization of pre-existing components.