My science fiction short story “The Successors” is out today in Shoreline of Infinity 33!
Sandarac knew he should call himself lucky to watch his human die and reawaken. Most androids never got a human at all, let alone the chance to lose one.
A short story about grief, and transformation. About the impossibility of human immortality, and what the AIs will do after we’re gone.
This is one of my most neuroscience-inspired stories. The explanation isn’t very spoilery: it only “spoils” the premise, which is fully spelled out in the first page or two. Nevertheless, I’ve hidden the details under the fold just in case.
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Neuroscience of The Successors
A few times in my life, I’ve been sitting at a rehabilitation neuroscience conference and thought, “That idea would be the perfect central metaphor for a story.” This is one of those stories!
Some years ago at the meeting of the American Society for Neurorehabilitation, some speakers were talking bout the “critical period” after someone suffers a stroke: when the brain is still plastic and modifiable, able to be retrained. (Analogous to the critical periods in childhood development, when the brain is primed to learn and change.) Rehabilitation doctors want to work in this critical period, but it rarely happens because the patient has recently been through a life-altering traumatic medical event. Neurologists want to extend the critical period, so that there’s more time for effective rehabilitation. Can it be extended?
In rats, it can be. The critical period ends as interneurons mature, and create peri-neural nets that stabilize the existing connections between cells. It’s possible to target those interneurons for destruction, break down their peri-neural nets. The rat then becomes better able to recover from a brain injury – and also develops behavioral disorders, the rat equivalent of schizophrenia.
As the story says:
Aging was a process of creation. A feature, not a bug. The only way to rejuvenate a brain was to unmake it.
I’ve tackled this idea in a couple of different stories, but this is the first one to be published. If immortality is impossible for an individual, what would it be like to try? To get this bad immortality, the kind that rewrites and rewinds your brain? And in The Successors: what is it like for those who love us?
Philosophy of The Successors
Another key aspect of this story is its philosophy: about what it means to be a person, to have continuity. When I attended the Social & Conceptual Issues in Astrobiology (SoCIA) conference in 2018, one recurring theme was that there are different ways to determine identity: classes are defined by properties, and individuals are determined by their history. You can read my livetweet thread of the talk (here is where the class/individual discussion begins), for as long as Twitter yet lives. It’s a super interesting distinction, which inspired Sandarac’s argument in this story, and other impacts across my fiction.
ACTUAL SPOILER WARNING: Sandarac applies this to the human, to convince her that she’s still herself, even after changes. Is that true? Maybe. But if an individual is defined by their history, then we are part of our AI successors. They can claim our ancestry every bit as much as children of our DNA could.
Errors of The Successors
I’ll close off my author notes with some bonus shame trivia: Some early editions say, on page 46, paragraph 5: “The shock faded from Sandarac’s expression. In its wake came mortification, resignation. Acceptance.” That name was an error. (Entirely mine, not the editors’.) It should be the woman not Sandarac. The text has been fixed, so unless you bought & downloaded your copy in the first 24 hours, you’ll never see the error!