This is an excellent “big picture” sci-fi novel, which is available for free online – but it’s not one for the faint hearted (owing to a certain amount of disturbingly graphic content – of which more later).
Caroline – along with the rest of human race – “lives” in a virtual environment where she can do almost anything. But being something of a contrary sort, Caroline most wants what she can’t have. She is a so-called “death jockey”, who spends much of her time arranging for herself to be “killed” in the most painful, bizarre and, frankly, perverted ways possible (which is where the disturbingly graphic content comes in). Whilst she is permitted to sign a “death contract” allowing her to experience appalling pain and mutilation right up to the moment before death, Prime Intellect, the artificial intelligence which is in charge of this virtual world, will not allow her to “die”. It acts this way because it is programmed to obey Asimov’s three laws of robotics – which essentially require it to put human welfare first (hence its willingness to fulfil Caroline’s desire for pain, but not her desire for death).
Those same laws also explain what drove Prime Intellect to engineer a “technological singularity” so that humans can live forever and do whatever they please in a virtual world. In the course of the book we discover how this “metamorphosis” happened (which is very ingenious) and meet Prime Intellect’s inventor, Lawrence - who now appears to have serious misgivings about the whole enterprise and has become a recluse. We also discover the central role that Caroline played in this process – which was initially a somewhat passive one, compared to Lawrence. But in the latter stages of the book, it is Caroline who takes the initiative and seeks Lawrence out, with a view to goading him out of his seclusion and taking Prime Intellect to task.
All this might sound a little bit like the plots of “Terminator,” “The Matrix” and other similar films/books, where a sinister artificial intelligence decides that it is more important than human beings and takes control (although the book predates “The Matrix” by some years). But in this case, Prime Intellect takes matters into its own hands precisely because it is programmed to look after human beings and regards them as paramount – not because it considers them to be subordinate to its own interests. In that respect, I found the premise very intriguing – because from the best of intentions emerges a world which turns out not be quite the paradise that you might imagine it to be at first. The problem is that in a world where you can do anything and live forever, nothing matters any more - but humans need to feel that something is at stake, otherwise everything becomes meaningless.
This aspect of the book reminded me of “Why Things Bite Back” by Edward Tenner, which explores the idea of technology having “revenge effects” – that we invent things expecting them to make our lives easier and better, only to discover that things frequently don’t turn quite as intended. One example would be computers and the paperless office – it was thought that one key advantage of computers was that we wouldn’t need paper any more, but I can tell you as a lawyer that we probably use more paper than before we had computers (because word processing technology makes it so much easier to produce those whopping doorstopper legal documents that we lawyers just can’t get enough of). And computers were also supposed to allow us more time for leisure by doing more of the drudgery, yet by speeding up communication and shortening everyone’s expectations of how long things will take, they have in fact produced a situation where many office workers spend longer at work than they ever did before the advent of computers. Anyway, you could say that what happens with Prime Intellect is the ultimate technological revenge effect – because despite the best of intentions, things don’t turn out as Lawrence, its inventor, would have hoped.
As for the disturbing content, it certainly made for some uncomfortable reading – but ultimately, I didn’t feel it was gratuitous. It is true that Caroline’s desire for pain and death appears to make little sense at first. However, as the book progresses, I felt it was understandable by reference to what happened to her before Prime Intellect’s “transformation” – and also as a manifestation of her frustration with the meaninglessness of her virtual existence.
Some of the most disturbing aspects are the strong sexual element to Caroline’s masochistic urges and the fact that people like her friend, Fred (a serial killer) are permitted to indulge their desires by, for example, torturing people like Caroline. But here I would see the novel as standing in a longer tradition of literature operating at the limits of “good taste.” It made me think of other books which have explored links between technology, sex and death, such as “Crash” by JG Ballard (apparently one publisher's verdict was: "This author is beyond psychiatric help. Do not publish!") and various novels by Michel Houellebecq. I was also reminded of DM Thomas’ “The White Hotel” which is partly based on theories Freud had begun to explore towards the end of his career about a “death instinct.” For example, writing to a friend about a patient (who is the central character in “The White Hotel”), Thomas’ fictional Freud says the following – which could equally well be applied to Caroline’s “death jockey” activities:
“I have also found myself drawn back to my essay Beyond the Pleasure Principle, […], with a strengthened conviction that I am on the right lines in positing a death instinct, as powerful in its own way (though more hidden) than the libido. One of my patients, a young woman suffering from a severe hysteria, has just ‘given birth’ to some writings which seem to lend support to my theory: an extreme of libidinous phantasy combined with an extreme morbidity.”
As for the morality of whether Prime Intellect is right to tolerate the activities of people like Fred, this is a question that we as a society are probably going to need to address at some point, whether we like it or not. I was reminded of a play I went to see last year called “The Nether” (by Jennifer Haley) which was about what paedophiles would be likely to get up to in an advanced virtual reality – and whether society should stop them or just let them get on with it on the basis that they are all consenting adults (the “children” they “abuse” are not really children – they are other adult paedophiles inhabiting the virtual bodies of children).
And if all this seems a bit highbrow, you only need to look at horror movies or the recurrence of serial killers in fiction, TV or films to find a more widespread manifestation of society’s fascination with sex, pain, “deviant” behaviour and death. So unless you are particularly queasy about the subjects discussed above, I wouldn’t let them put you off reading this book – because there are good reasons why some parts of it are disturbing.
Some reviewers have expressed reservations about the ending, characterising it as “luddite,” because (without wishing to give too much away) Caroline seems determined to discourage the development of sophisticated technology for as long as possible. However, I didn’t necessarily feel that she was being held up as having all the answers – but merely as responding in a very human way to her own experience (see also this commentary from the author - but note that it contains some spoilers). Indeed, you suspect that by discouraging interest in technology, she merely piques the curiosity of others – because, just like her, they are likely to lust after what they’ve been told they can’t or shouldn’t have. And as the author has pointed out, one interpretation of the ending is that it serves as an alternative creation myth – or as he puts it, a kind of “shaggy God story” (be warned, contains spoilers).
"The Metarmorphosis of Prime Intellect" is available as a free online novel here or as an ebook from Amazon for a small charge. A good selection of other reviews can be found on goodreads and Web Fiction Guide and Roger Williams’ website is here. Writers may also be interested in his thoughts on self-publishing.
Posted by Paul Samael. Posted In : Book reviews