Aliens and consciousness – Karl Schroeder’s ‘Permanence’

Karl Schroeder’s Permanence has some intriguing ideas – it gets to different evolutionary strategies (generalists vs. adapting to niches), and how consciousness ties in to all of that. But unfortunately the writing’s choppy and superficial, and doesn’t quite do the ideas justice.

One of the questions at the centre of Permanence is this question about how evolution happens in the very, very long run. And whether consciousness is actually useful in the very long run, or only in the medium term. I actually ended up reading Permanence because it was mentioned by another fiction author writing about consciousness, Peter Watts.

But whereas Watts’ writing is taut, and his ideas are rich, Permanence just doesn’t get to the same level. There’s something superficial about the novel, the writing – it feels a little like something that got cranked out over nanowrimo, and tidied up without ever being really re-written. And because the writing isn’t quite polished, it detracts from the novel; it’s a little harder to lose yourself in a story when clunky writing reminds you semi-constantly that this is fiction.

At points Schroeder’s characters seem to step out from the page, to become a little ’rounder’. Rue is a protagonist who’s very easy to like, and her enthusiasm helps carry the story. But often the writing gets bogged down in detailed descriptions that felt more like manuals than part of a story, and plot points felt unnecessarily convoluted; as though the narrative was mapped to meet a set of specific technical points, without any regard for a story-teller’s needs.

The question Schroeder gets at is interesting, but it’s really not that complex a question – what are the evolutionary advantages of niche specialisation vs. generalisation (the ability to adapt flexibly, but less efficiently, to multiple environments)? And he takes it to interesting places, but without giving it the emotional depth that it would need to make a compelling story.

So it was fun at points, but probably not worth it unless you’re very into sci-fi.


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