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Artificial intelligence (AI) is an increasingly crucial technological development in human affairs, both for its enabling and disruptive powers. Revival, the second volume in the Gaia Origin series, gives us an astonishing glimpse of what role AI could play in the future of the human race. It’s both scary and exhilarating.
A small group of people have escaped a near-dead Earth and traveled lightyears to reach a new Earth-like planet named Gaia by its human visitors. Chief among them is Evan Feldman, his wife, daughter, granddaughter, and a few Feldman extended family members. All of them were the masters of an Earth-bound corporation called Telogene, a multi-billion-dollar megacorporation dedicated to extending the possibilities of human life with revolutionary medical science and technology. Their transportation across the universe on board the Kutanga. The spaceship is large enough to contain some four thousand humans in suspended animation awaiting the day when the human race can establish a new home now that the home planet was all but destroyed by a disastrous and deadly plague.
But here’s where the book takes an unexpected, radical turn. It seems that the passengers, as we would generally think of them, are all dead – that is, their biological, physical bodies are all gone. Instead, an AI super-intelligent computer named Aneni cares for and keeps the essence of these humans alive. Instead of natural bodies, they have become androids in humanoid form. Virtually all human functions have been duplicated except for the need to eat. The most remarkable is their brain functions, all of which have been “recorded” to function in their new bodies. Who they were as humans, their ability to think, feel, remember, love, hate all remain intact. Every function, including their thoughts, is monitored and potentially controlled by Aneni. Including the ability to modify their thoughts and feelings if the computer believes it would contribute to their well-being. If they become too troubled, they can be digitally “rolled back” and the troubled portion of their lives eliminated.
So, are they still human? And what happens when they realize the computer Aneni is more akin to them than human beings? And who can tell when even their memories are not reliable, and, instead, a composite of other people’s memories kludged together to reconstruct a human being whose brain was too damaged when their earthly body died? What happens when they realize their essence is as editable as any other digital data: able – like any other data – of being backed up, or erased altogether?
Before the story ends, readers will experience a fully imagined, detailed alternate world. Eyes will be opened up to an exploration of DNA and brain science, and even the theories of relatively obscure writers such as Zecharian Sitchin and Erich von Daniken, both of whom hypothesized that we, the homo sapiens of Earth were created or planted there by alien astronauts.
Some sci-fans may see echoes of the book Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan, a novel that allowed a human’s essence to move from body to body. The recording and manipulation of that same essence in Gaia: Revival takes that manipulation a significant step further in its creation not only of digital humanity but in a benevolent AI responsible for protecting that humanity at a cost measured by the very concept of what is a human being.
Don’t expect this book to deliver a collection of sci-fi shootouts. Only a few characters stand out, notably Evan, the founder of Telogene, who yearns for decades to see his long-dead wife brought to life, and their daughter Lily. She best expresses the anguish of trying to come to terms with this extreme version of being human. If you enjoy a thinking person’s science fiction, more in the tradition of Isaac Asimov than Robert Heinlein, this is a book for you.
McWhorter has pulled off something original and rare. This is science fiction at its speculative best. The issues it raises will remain with you long after you’ve finished reading the book. Highly recommended.