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severalog

Self-aware weddings

J. Harry Caufield

I first read David Marusek's The Wedding Album in 1999 in an issue of Asimov's Science Fiction. As the title implies, Marusek's novella concerns weddings and marriage, two concepts as distant to me fifteen years ago as the advent of single-serving coffee pods (I would have scoffed at the idea at the time, anyway. They're awfully wasteful, right?). It's now the future and I've had a wedding photographer booked for months. We also have the ability to read entire e-books of compiled post-cyberpunk* without digging through musty old issues of Asimov's.**

The Wedding Album begins with the premise that folks don't just save memories in photographs and video, they map them at the atomic level and use those maps to create virtual constructs of memorable moments on a whim. It's like a holodeck, but for notable yet trivial times like graduation ceremonies and birthdays. The killer app*** for this technology is its ability to create near-perfect AI constructs of any mapped humans. The AIs, despite their inherent humanity, are treated worse than slaves: they're as disposable as email and their re-creation could be moments away. Problems arise when folks finally have to confront the inevitable questions about whether AIs are really self-aware and whether that makes them human. Unlike in many stories, political and logistic issues also have to be addressed. Who gets to decide who's self-aware and who's just an organized bunch of electrons? If self-aware beings have the right to The Pursuit Of Happiness, where do they get to do so?

It's possible that The Wedding Album, due to its broad scope and refusal to adhere to any single post-singularity viewpoint, exudes a nearly pure cyberpunk ethos. Cyberpunk was never really about streetwise hackers and all-neon-everything any more than Tolkienesque fantasy is about forest-wise elves and rune-engraved weaponry. Cyberpunk was always about the transformative power of technology. Sometimes, it's even about how technology transforms itself (a purely metaphorical situation, at least until self-aware AIs pop up). Post-cyberpunk is cyberpunk for an age when we're both painfully aware and blissfully ignorant of technology's multitudinous effects on humanity. To that extent, The Wedding Album also sits squarely within post-cyberpunk. We may not have the ability to make perfect AI copies of ourselves yet, but we certainly have online identities and they are better reflections of ourselves than any physical mirror.

William Gibson, widely considered one of cyberpunk's Founding Fathers and credited with the term "cyberspace", began setting his works in increasingly more imminent futures more than a decade ago. His novels always had a near-future atmosphere but didn't age well as the prefix cyber- grew tired. In a 2012 interview, Gibson describes it as feeling "...haunted by a feeling that the world itself was so weird and so rich in cognitive dissonance, for me, that I had lost the capacity to measure just how weird it was." Speculation can be a gamble, but works like The Wedding Album may be just strange enough to show us how weird we've always been.****

*Rewired: The Post-Cyberpunk Anthology, edited by James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel. Kelly's quite-literally-fantastic Wildlife has always stuck with me as one of the most resonant and touching bits of transhumanist science fiction of the last few decades. He suggests in Rewired that post-cyberpunk (or in his potentially-misleading acronym, PCP) is the natural evolution of a genre so cutting-edge it ended up sliced to ribbons.

**All my issues were recycled ages ago. They were probably musty from the beginning.

***I think the term "killer app" predates adoption of the term "app" (that is, when used to refer to any piece of software) so perhaps the true "killer app" in the information age is the ongoing concept of discrete pieces of software in an era increasingly dependent upon interdependent code, APIs, and so on. I mean, my TV has Apps. It really doesn't need them but I suppose there's an intended illusion of control that way.

****That's not to say that it's anywhere near the strangest fiction you'll ever read, or even that it's genuinely odd. It's just weird enough to provide some tantalizing reflections of What Happens Now.