Neal Asher on transformation, darkness and choice in Infinity Engine

Infinity Engine’s Neal Asher writes about the light and dark sides of the future

Inside the Darkness

Science Fiction author Neal Asher if renowned for erring on the side of darkness in his books. He tells us how he uses his AI creations to explore utopia and dystopia, and what he thinks about the future.

The future our technological and social development is taking us to could be a wonderful utopia or it could be a dystopia. I played with the idea of a dystopia in my ‘Owner’ trilogy, extrapolating on what I saw as some of the worst trends in our current society in concert with developing technology. Hey, I’ve seen the human population of Earth double in my lifetime. Hey, you can stick location chips in people, so what would a dictator do with that? And so forth. It had to be done. Every SF writer should have a crack at a dystopia.

But do I believe the future will be so horrific? Not really. Nor do I believe in that wonderful utopia, and when it comes to that ‘rapture of nerds’ the AI singularity I tend to give it a body swerve. The future will be better than now simply because of that developmental curve that purportedly leads to singularity. All our tech will be more advanced and we’ll live longer and easier lives and certainly we’ll see some amazing things. It will be utopian but not an absolute utopia. Am I writing about that future? No, I don’t claim to be prophet. I’m an entertainer enjoying some interesting extrapolations.

The Polity, in which the Transformation trilogy is set and ending now with Infinity Engine is, however, a mixture of the horrific and the sublime. The milieu in which eternal life is a possibility can sometimes make death preferable. Where body and mental alteration can extend the possibilities of what you are and how you can live, they also increase the number of terrible ways to die. Included in the latter are the dangers of space travel, and from the nightmarish life forms on alien worlds. Technological development can put more power in the hands of the individual to change his environment, and to have power over those around him. Contrast here the Stone Age man with a club and the terrorist with an AK47 or a bomb. And, of course, this kind of stuff can get real interesting when the individual concerned is an AI with no limitations on its mental and physical growth, and its accrual of high tech toys.

An AI, during a war against vicious aliens, apparently turned on its own side and annihilated eight thousand human troops. It went rogue after this, its personality fractured and its moral compass broken. However, even in this state, its power to influence its environment and those around it extended way beyond our abilities to build or destroy now and into the realm of super-science. It also has a dark grotesque sense of humour and a twisted perception of right and wrong. This is Penny Royal. This is also one of the deities in various pantheons around our planet, past and present, but with more in the way of imagination.

The darkest horror can arise from this as can be something supernal. But of course this is fiction and following the dictum ‘conflict on every page’ to an extreme tends to result in more of the former. Penny Royal became the demon offering a contract. Sure you would get what you wanted but payback is a bitch. Or, alternatively, its dealings resulted in an extreme case of ‘be careful what you wish for.’ But what is Penny Royal now? Is it righting the wrongs of its past or preparing to commit a paradigm-changing atrocity? Ultimate power leads to a multitude of choices about what you do, what you do to others, and what you are. You have the power to change all these; to transform them.

Transformation is the key word here in this venture into the darkness of an AI mind, and similar darkness in the minds of humans. Penny Royal has the choice to accept the darkness or not. As do the humans and other non-human characters who are changed both by the AI and the events around them. Isn’t that always the way? In the future our sciences will give us the power to be anything we want to be, to alter our environments or select from burgeoning options. But what will we choose?

‘Transformation’, ultimately, is what the future is all about.

Infinity Engine is published by Tor on 23/03/17 in HB. Follow Neal on Twitter @NealAsher.