[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
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Themes in Factoring Humanity

by Robert J. Sawyer

Copyright © 2000 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved

An academic teaching Factoring Humanity asked me in January 2000, to present my own thoughts on the themes of the book so that his students could debate about authorial intent. Here's what I had to say (WARNING! SPOILERS AHEAD!):

Factoring Humanity is, above all else, a celebration of the value of real, biological life, and a condemnation of the transhumanist movement and the quest to create AI. Yes, real life is painful — Kyle Graves (his last name chosen to underscore his mortality) goes through hell in the novel — but it is reality that gives life that pain. As the novel implies, any form of real human life is more valuable than any form of simulated life:

[Heather] continued to journey, sampling here, tarrying there, enjoying the smorgasbord of the human experience. Young, old; male, female; black, white; straight, gay; brilliant, dull-witted; rich, poor; healthy, sick — a panoply of possibilities, a hundred billion lives to choose from.

The novel takes pains to show that the value of being human is not tied up in some ineffable spirituality: our current mode of living is not better to proposed uploaded future modes because of some divine spark or soul; as Heather discovers when she access the dark hexagons in the Overmind, death is absolute (one can view this as a reworking of the theme of The Terminal Experiment; this version is closer to the author's own beliefs). Rather, our real life is significant because of the interconnectivity of our own lives with that of others (the Overmind being this metaphoric concept made concrete).

Real life has value because when you hurt or help another human being, that other person feels sadness or joy as a result of your actions; simulated interactions are meaningless, nigh on masturbatory, but real life, painful and tragic thought it can be, matters.

The warning Josh Huneker received from Epsilon Eridani is absolutely explicit: creating artificial intelligence is a mistake. It's a mistake overtly because mentally superior AI might will have no interest in being our slaves — but it's equally a mistake, as the novel makes clear thematically, because it cheapens what it means to be alive.

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