"A robot, or a person, has two parts: hardware and software. The hardware is the actual physical material involved, and the software is the pattern in which the material is arranged. Your brain is hardware, but the information in the brain is software."
Spoiler Warning for Software by Rudy Rucker.
As one of the formative novels of cyberpunk it is somewhat surprising to see a more nuanced take on technology. Another surprise was equating freedom with psychotropic drugs reminiscent of the mindset in the mid 60's hedonistic hippy youth movement instead of a more punk aesthetic. This, for me, ends up being the most interesting aspect of this cyberpunk fiction… and the worst.
"after fifty years her responses to the music were all but extinguished"
Cobb Anderson, now old and dying, created sentient robots that can evolve. These robots, called the "boppers", have formed an anarchistic society on the moon having freed themselves from their enslavement to humanity. The big boppers are convinced that the inevitable, perfected state of being for both human and machine alike is to form one being. One consciousness. As a result, a civil war, of sorts, has broken out on the moon between the big boppers with this goal, and those little boppers who don't agree with this plan.
"We boppers use human organs to seed our tissue farms. We use brain-tapes for simulators in some of our robot-remotes. Like me. And we just like brains anyhow, even the ones we don't actually use. A human mind is a beautiful thing."
As time grows short in this conflict the original big bopper, Ralph Numbers, decides to offer Cobb immortality by taping his brain, destroying his body and mind in the process and placing his "software" into a remote robot body.
While there is some technophobia in that the boppers instigating the removal of autonomy with their plan to tape humans, they themselves vary in personality and will as much as humans. When Cobb finally does end up in a remote body he has as much autonomy as he ostensibly did in human society; he just wasn't aware of it. He's free only within confines and immediately becomes a target for Mooney, a detective who suspects robots are being sent to earth from the moon but has no actual proof of this.
"It doesn't have to go into the program, Sta-Hi. It is everywhere. It is just existence itself. All consciousness is One. The One is God. God is pure existence unmodified." Cobb's voice was intense, evangelical. "A person is just hardware plus software plus existence."
Where the book really shines is this diversion from the way it explores selfhood from other cyberpunk books, which typically use cybernetics or cyberspace. This is the first time I've read a first wave cyberpunk book that directly explores selfhood by transferring the consciousness of someone else into a different body entirely, and permanently.
This notion that the influx of the baby boomers resulted in an America that could not pay out retirement and so instead gave this old generation, called "pheezers" the entire state of Florida; resulting in a bunch of old hippies living a strange retirement lifestyle for the rest of their days is also quite novel to me.
"It is sad that you choose not to understand what you yourself have created."
Ironically, in their anarchistic society the big boppers have managed to fetishize the human mind which created them. In unlocking the ability to read and record the data within the brain they believe they are able to replicate something they don't truly understand. This parallels Cobbs own decisions and revelation in the book except that he knows that some things are unknowable, which is why he knew the key to the boppers development was to unlock their potential to evolve and grow on their own. The Boppers ability to replicate something and therefor commodify it, have resulted in them dehumanizing the thing they claim to be beautiful: the human mind.
"Cobb Anderson's brain had been dissected, but the software that made up his mind had been preserved. The idea of "self" is, after all, just another idea, a symbol in the software."
Cobb feels like his same self even as a manufactured robot and despite uncanny experiences that follow. He's not able to get drunk or have sex without a subroutine that simulates it; isn't nourished by food, merely holding it within his body like refuse. Cobb can't tell the difference between emulating his selfhood, believing his thoughts and memories are his own and so he must be the same. Though that may well be the case, they are also compromised by the manufacturers of his body in that they are able to turn him on and off, yet say they cannot modify his free will. It's "all or nothing"... But what is the value of free will in this context?
We don't want you to feel . . . " "Like a remote?" "Right. You're designed for full autonomy, Cobb. If you can help us, so much the better. But there's no way we would have edited out your free will . . . even if we knew how. You're still entirely your own man."
In the end, there is no actual freedom to be obtained. His immortality becomes a hollow existence shared with the other bopper entity in his machine body; just as humans must contend with societal structures and norms on a daily basis dictating their navigation through life, so must Cobb feel the hand of this Artificial Life on an override switch that could displace his consciousness at any moment. In the end, his perception of freedom leads to him furthering only the goals of the bopper. The only gain is a perpetual state of enslavement. Forever.
"It was hard to read the emotion in Mr. Frostee's even voice. Was revenge the motive? Or was it just a collector's lust for ownership?"
The pheezer generations' freedom is not framed in a desirable light either. They have Florida and get food distributed to them... but no one seems to be truly happy with this outcome. Mostly, they are aimless; more resembling children than adults. They are devoid of responsibility and seem to have no goals or drive in the twilight of their years.
Another character, Sta-Hi (stay-high) has no ambition or dreams at all; though he's a younger generation than the pheezers, his idea of life does not extend beyond staying in a perpetual chemical bliss. While this "no win" depiction of life is normal for cyberpunk… the made-up futuristic colloquial terms used by this generation sound as stupid as the life Sta-Hi leads. Whether this is intentional was not clear to me because the narrative continually reiterates these things in both positive and negative lights. I assume because it is attempting to frame drugs in a neutral light as well; ostensibly to comment on humanity rather than the technology itself. These large swaths of the narrative were always annoying to me, however; almost like being the only sober person at a party where everyone else has been drinking.
Had the fiction been centered on the philosophical aspects and done away with Cobb's counterpart Sta-Hi, this would have been a much more enjoyable book for me; even if these sections are used in the narrative structure to display the facile nature of both existences the characters lead. The latter half of the book, containing almost all the philosophy is the "meat" of the book for me and revealed how little the first half I had actually enjoyed.
However, overall it was a positive experience with the ending being a strong one.
"It's like waves, Cobb. Waves on the beach. Sometimes a wave comes up very far, past the tide line. A wave like that can carve out a new channel. The big boppers were a new channel. A higher form of life. But now we're sliding back . . . back into the sea, the sea of possibility. It doesn't matter. It's right, what you told the kids. Possible existence is as good as real existence."