Thursday, November 24, 2022

Computer God

Something I've observed is that, if you look at the totality of a creator's work, you'll sometimes notice patterns in their creations. By "patterns," I mean subject matter or themes that keep cropping up again and again. Sometimes, this is done deliberately, with the creator explicitly embracing this, while at other times, it's done subconsciously. There are plenty of exceptions to this, of course; not every creator is given to this behavior. Indeed, one could make a reasonable case that the best creators are those whose works are genuinely varied in their subject matter or themes. 

Yesterday, I posted a story about an "AI agent" that had supposedly become very adept at playing Diplomacy. In reflecting on it, I realized that one of the reasons the story so intrigued me is not simply for its connection to a game I enjoy, but because it connects to a recurring subject within my own creative endeavors: computers as gods. I was suddenly struck by the fact that, without my specifically intending to do so, I'd been playing around with this idea under a variety of different guises. Clearly, it's something that has fired my imagination, hence the prevalence of it in my works to date.

The initial intention behind my Dwimmermount campaign setting was to create a setting for D&D that was outwardly fairly ordinary and traditional but with a secret science fiction background. Part of this background is that the gods of the Great Church were, in fact, artificial beings created by technological advanced Men in the ancient past and whose civilization was ultimately destroyed as a consequence of their hubris. None of this was ever revealed in the course of the campaign, but it provided the intellectual frame by which I understand the setting.

In my House of Worms Tékumel campaign, the characters have spent a long time, both in game and in the real world, interacting with several strange cultures of the mysterious Achgé Peninsula. Among the many ways these cultures differ from those of the characters' homeland of Tsolyánu are the gods they worship. One of the most important is called Eyenál, who is generally depicted as a war god. Some months ago, while interacting with a device of the Ancients, the characters learned of the existence of "ANL/1043," described as being "a 301st generation strategic agent" – in short, Eyenál is some sort of artificial intelligence, possibly charged with Tékumel planetary defenses.

Likewise, in the Secrets of sha-Arthan, I've imagined many different artificial beings created by "the Makers" whose ruins are scattered across the True World. Some of these beings are mere automatons without much in the way of individual will or intelligence, while others are closer to Men. Others still possess vast and alien intelligence utterly unlike that of any other intelligent species. Some of these direct and guide cities or even entire nations, ruling them as gods, though, of course, few on sha-Arthan understand this. 

In each case, knowledge of the true nature of the gods as artificial beings is largely unknown within the setting. Naturally, I know the truth and occasionally the players (as opposed to their characters) catch on to what's really going on. The reaction has been universally positive, so far as I can recall. I distinctly remember the revelation about Eyenál being met with pleasure by several of the players, who felt it provided a clever and unexpected re-interpretation of many of the details they'd already collected about the Achgé Peninsula and its history. 

I presume regular return to the subject of artificial gods is rooted in my lifelong love of science fiction. Stories of "computer gods" or, at least, computers viewed as gods are commonplace in the genre. I wonder, though, if there's more to it than that and, if so, what it is. Clearly, I'm trying to grapple with something through the vehicle of my imagination, though I'm not yet sure what it is. Regardless, I find it fascinating that I continue to revisit this idea and wonder if others find that they return to the same ideas over and over within their own creations.

14 comments:

  1. kind of like how Star trek had a religious background, and separately, a western?

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    1. that is a good idea, I think because, like randomness, it gives your work a "Pull" like gravity in an unplanned direction. sure, this is a fantasy idea based on the aztecs, but there is this other center of gravity that stops it from just progressing straight ahead...

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  2. This is what drew me in to the New World of Darkness setting with its God Machine chronicle. It's kind of tech-gnostic in nature. I'm currently attempting (emphasis on attempting) to cobble together a cyberpunk version of that world. I've found an old GURPS book, Cthulhupunk, as a great resource. I can almost use it wholesale and just replace any mention of a great old one with a machine god.

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  3. I'm not sure that I'm aligned with your post's point but while reading it the first thing which popped into my head was Deep Thought from Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and the second was the Wizard of Oz.

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  4. Was Eyenal inspired by Ardneh from Saberhagen's "Empire of the East?" If so, you are in time-honored company; Mycr the One from the Wilderlands of High Fantasy was essentially formed from the same mold.

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    1. Not intentionally, but I might well have been influenced by Ardneh unintentionally.

      Tell me more of Mycr. I had no idea he was supposed to have a similar pedigree.

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  5. From a Fighting Fantasy perspective there were repeating elements in the gamebooks of both Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone, some deliberate, some possibly due to unconscious bias.

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  6. If you can find it, check out the Anomalous Subsurface Environment or ASE. It's a megadungeon mini campaign where the gods are sentient satellites

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    1. I'm a big fan of ASE. It's one of the great dungeons of the OSR.

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  7. Gene Wolfe explored this idea a couple of the times. He wrote a short story titled "The God and his Man" on the subject, plus the deities of the Whorl in the Short Sun books were AI computer programs in the colony ship's mainframe.

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  8. thanks to all you who researched and documented the 1970's rpg culture, i think the science fiction/science fantasy is the standard and not the exception for worlds like Greyhawk. the 'AI as a deity' trope fits very neatly in a fantasy setting.

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  9. Reminds me of "the last question" by Isaac Aasimov. Even though I find the concept fascinating I've never actually used it in a campaign.

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