Monday, 15 June 2015

Crimson Kings: Conclusion

I have read to the end of SM Stirling's In The Courts Of The Crimson Kings (New York, 2008) but confess to some confusion. Gates have opened to other worlds. How and why? Before that, I could not really engage with the unpleasant conflict for the Martian Imperial succession.

When an author makes a new contribution to an old theme, in this case the idea of an inhabited Mars, he should make us feel that his narrative is the true account whereas earlier stories or novels were at best approximations. Stirling does this. His characters must find their way through dark passages under a Martian city. On ERB's Barsoom, such passages were prowled by banths, the many-legged Martian equivalents of lions - although the banths too closely resembled African lions in one comic strip adaptation. Stirling's underground passages are inhabited by quite horrible and physically disgusting predatory life forms that I do not want to describe here and we feel that they have evolved as integral parts of the planetary ecology, unlike the unaccountable banths.

ERB, I think through a mere failure of imagination, did not indicate the presence of any children when describing Barsoomian society whereas Stirling can rationalize a Martian society with fewer children: Martians are long-lived, have dwindling resources and can control their fertility. The first two of these three points also applied to Barsoomians although ERB did not derive any conclusions from such premises. On the one hand, Barsoomians lived indefinitely without aging unless killed by accident or violence. On the other hand, they had a lot of violence all the time so they would have needed to keep replacing their population.

The Ruby Throne contains "...protein computers..." (p. 296). Protein, not electronic. Thus, maybe capable of duplicating, not merely simulating, brain functions? It would appear so. The Throne stores the conscious memories of previous Emperors. In fact, not mere memories: personalities that can converse with each other and with the current living ruler(s) in a virtual environment. Jeremy, the Terrestrial consort of the new Emperor, thinks:

"The people in front of him didn't exist, really. They thought they existed, and they had all the subjective experience of being alive; but all they really were was, as she'd said, memories - stored in the vast protein computers that were part of the Ruby Throne. One day he'd be nothing but memories here himself - or he'd be immortal, depending on whether you thought a perfect copy of something was the something or wasn't. He supposed it depended on the soul and that sort of thing. Most Emperors apparently died in communion with the Throne, and didn't experience any discontinuity; they went unconscious there and 'woke up' here, wherever here really was..." (p. 296)

Multiple issues here:

(i) Immortal? How long will the Ruby Throne last? Will its stored memories then be transferred somewhere else?

(ii) For a conscious being to think that it exists is for that being to exist, at least as a conscious being. Otherwise, it would not be able to think anything. When Jeremy thinks that they do not really exist, what he means is that their material basis is a protein computer, not a psychophysical organism. So they exist in a different way.

(iii) To have a subjective experience is to be a subject of consciousness and thus to exist as such a subject. "...alive..." is ambiguous. They no longer live as biological entities in the Martian environment although they are inside something composed of proteins. But "...being alive..." also means experiencing human life, i.e., seeing, hearing and interacting with other people. They are still doing this.

(iv) Since they are experiencing and responding to a present moment, they are not merely remembering past moments so they are not just memories - except insofar as each of us already is little more than the sum total of our conscious and recallable memories. To suffer complete and perpetually renewed amnesia would be to cease to be a conscious individual.

(v) Is a copy of something the something? A copy of Hamlet is Hamlet but not the original manuscript. If a dead Emperor had a soul, then that soul has entered the hereafter while his conscious memories have been recorded in the protein computer. But, if the existence of consciousness entails the existence of a soul, then a second soul has been generated in the computer just as the living Emperor's soul was generated in his body some time between its conception and its birth.

(vi) If an Emperor dies while away from the Throne, then there is discontinuity. He is revived with his memories until the moment when he left the Throne and has to be told what he did after that and how he died. Duplicates diverge, as Poul Anderson demonstrates in Genesis.

Next: NESFA Vol 4 has been ordered. Does anyone know how many such volumes there are?


  1. Kaor, Paul!

    I noticed your puzzlement about the "gates" to other worlds opening on Mars, Earth, and Venus. S.M. Stirling tends to leave teasers like that in many of his books, to leave room for him to write continuations if and when the inspiration strikes him.

    I see your point about the struggle for the Imperial succession on Mars being unpleasant. But, I thought the politics and intrigues were fascinating. It's not any different from the disputed succession following the death of Josip, and later, Merseia's using Magnusson as a puppet for usurping the throne in the Terran Empire of Anderson's Technic History. Or, for that matter, the countless coups we have seen in Latin America or Africa, where gov'ts get overthrown with wearisome regularity.

    I might be wrong, but I think I have seen Burroughs writing in some of his Barsoom stories that some Martians DO live to old age. I think to about 1000 Earth years. Unless, of course, these Barsoomians are slain in one of the frequent wars of the Barsoomian states.

    Interesting, your comments about the "protein computers" incorporated as part of the Ruby Throne. I would need to think it over before adding further comments.

    NESFA Press has published six volumes of THE COLLECTED SHORT WORKS OF POUL ANDERSON. I have the sixth volume: A BICYCLE BUILT FOR BREW. I'll check the NESFA website to see if a seventh volume is planned.


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  3. Yes, VIOLENTLY is said to be probably the most common way for Barsoomians to die, but approximately 1000 years is what they CAN live to. *The Master Mind of Mars* was an elderly doctor who specialized in transferring the brains of aged Martians into young bodies. Hard luck on the "donors" of those bodies. Potentially, that could extend a Barsoomian's life by another several centuries (apparently, nobody before this one doctor had ever been a good enough surgeon to use his technique).

    Previous version of this comment removed because I caught an error only AFTER posting it.

    1. Dear Mr. Birr:

      Ha! That was exactly the example I had from Burroughs works of a Martian living to an UNUSUAL old age. And, obviously, if John Carter could, implausibly, beget children with Dejah Thoris, then other children had to exist on Barsoom.

      Yes, THE MASTER MIND OF MARS must be an early SF example of the idea of surgically transferring minds from an aged body to a young one. Robert Heinlein used the same idea for his novel I WILL FEAR NO EVIL, a book with a fascinating premise ruined by his wearisome obsessions with sex.