Back in February I got a grant through the extended set of ACX grants to write this. I now have a draft that is sufficiently polished that I’m comfortable showing to the community, though I suspect there will be a lot of things that I will want to change based on feedback here before I start publishing it in venues that aren’t part of the EA memespace.
I’m planning to post this one chapter at a time here for the next month or so, though depending on what sort of feedback I get, I might at some point stop or just make a post that has the rest of the book in one chapter. The whole thing is also available in a google doc which I strongly encourage anyone who wants to give me detailed feedback to go to and leave comments on.
I especially would like feedback on the philosophical arguments in the text, with an especial emphasis on criticisms of EA ideas that you think are important to be addressed, but that aren’t brought up by any of the characters in the text.
My plan is that after I’ve revised the book based on feedback received here, is that I will start publishing it serially on Royal Road and in the Spacebattles.com forums. After it is about half published on serial fiction websites, I plan to publish it on Amazon and make a website with the whole text posted. However this is a provisional plan — if anyone has good ideas on how I can help this novel find audiences that will like it and hopefully be influenced by it, I really want you to give me any advice or help that you can.
I did set up a discord to talk about the project, but I’m really not a discord person, and while I’ll participate in any conversations that happen there, I’m probably not going to start them. The best way to talk to me privately about the text is to send me an email at timunderwood9 at gmail. Or leave long comments on the google doc.
Anyways, everyone, tell me what you think, and I hope that this work is at least entertaining for some of you.
“Even if we ignore the possibility of a glorious techno-utopian future, everybody alive today dying at the same time would be really, really bad for the people alive now as individuals.”
Isaac grinned at his new friend. “Sorry, but can we finish this argument later?” A quick pull of his phone from his pocket, and he checked the time. “I’m going to eat fish and chips while on this side of the pond. There’s this place that Tripadvisor recommended that I can grab before the next session starts, and —”
The other man grimaced. “High trip advisor ratings are if anything a signal of low quality, I wouldn’t —”
“Later!” Isaac grinned. “I know. But they have to mean something.”
He jogged down the street to the intersection light, his mind full of arguments, ideas, and questions raised by the conference he was attending. The light was red when Isaac reached the intersection, but he looked to the left, and didn’t see any traffic approaching.
Without further thought he stepped fully out into the street.
Squealing brakes. A loud honking horn. Sound of wheels.
Isaac had a fraction of a second to see the big yellow van with the words ‘We Deliver!’ and a phone number hurtling towards him from the right.
There was a fraction of an instant when his brain recalled that the British drove on the wrong side of the street, and he should have looked in the other direction before stepping out.
Pain, but only for an instant.
Nothingness. An infinite eternity that did not last a single instant.
And then he woke up.
So I’d made a bit of a mistake.
Eh, kids, your parents gave you good advice when they told you to always look both ways before crossing a road.
Otherwise you might end up dead, and then wake up in a fantasy world with cool magical powers, lots of new things to learn about, and a couple of unpleasant problems. If there is one lesson I want you all to take away from my story it is: Look both ways.
But primarily in a metaphorical sense. You should always consider the possibility that you are wrong, and making a mistake. I’ve always tried to do as much as I could to help other people, and one important thing about doing as much as possible to help others, is that you, or at least we (the collective, not the royal we) should not simply start doing the first thing that sounds compelling and looks good. Sometimes the idea doesn’t even do anything good at all, and almost always there is something that is equally cool, but that does ten times as much good.
I consider missing opportunities like that to be sort of like getting hit by a three ton yellow delivery van.
Anyways I woke up again.
I sat upon a mountaintop high and craggedly peaked. Very high. Like, planes in the sky high.
And I was naked.
Now, at this point, to the extent I was thinking anything, ‘hospital fever dream’ was of course the number one guess. I was not cold, not shivering, not really feeling anything about the weather except an awareness that it was low thermometer type weather. Given that I was naked and sitting on the very top of a frozen, snow covered mountain top, with gusts of wind blowing around me at tens of miles an hour, and I wasn’t cold — uh… that’s not how getting cold is supposed to work.
I could see incredibly clearly, details of brown craggy rocks on other mountain peaks dozens of miles away, snow leopards wandering around, goats, all the birds circling in the sky for a hundred miles. I mean wow.
Once I’d read that Tiger Woods could see better than twenty-twenty after he got laser eye surgery. I suppose that is sort of like what this was like, except at least a thousand times more intense.
Also, really, really high up.
I mean we were really high up. From how far down below me the green valley beneath the mountain was, I felt pretty confident that I was far enough above sea level that I shouldn’t be able to even breathe without help.
Something in my brain was aware that there was a low oxygen content to the air, and there was some other process, that by now had become as automatic as breathing, that I was using to… maybe multiply, or intensify, or something the sustaining substance in the air so that I was safe at this height.
And yeah, that is the awkward phrase that went through my mind, instead of ‘oxygen’. ‘The sustaining substance in the air’.
I think that was when I realized that something much weirder than a dream might be going on. I was pretty sure that I’d never invent a made up scientific phrase that was that awkward for ‘oxygen’, even in my dreams.
Anyway, around me, in a very magical mumbo jumbo array was a particularly complicated folded ninth shape runic spell circle.
And despite the fact that I had no idea consciously what the hell that description meant, or what I was looking at, I felt like I understood the weirdly entangled and braided giant circle drawn in what I also instinctively knew was my own blood around me on a flattened and cleared path of ground.
The drawing was sort of like a circle with a nonagram — nine sides — inscribed in it. The lines were made up of braided circles like Celtic necklaces, or the endless geometric forms of Islamic mosques. And then embedded in this were tiny letterings, symbols, pictograms, and endlessly intricate and fascinating structures that overlapped, and yet each was somehow perfect in its own way.
My own fucking blood?
Or anyways the blood of the dude who'd been running this body then — since I was starting to realize that I had memories from this person before I was the one in control.
The whole ‘painting the snow with my own blood for a powerful magical ritual’ weirdness made it hard for me to properly appreciate the intricate artistry.
I mean, objectively impressive. His memories were starting to nicely be available to me. The guy had spent two weeks preparing parts of it in his lab in his mage tower, because of course he had a tall mage tower, built out of a pale marble with pink veins. Then all of the intricate runes and spell work were magically folded into a tiny space, and then splotched out, and infused with his blood — that he could regenerate arbitrarily fast as a powerful cultivator, and then he made his own little mistake that had killed him.
Funny how we all seemed to be doing that sort of thing.
His error had been forced by a bad situation. It seemed like this island was going to be invaded by the ‘Celestial Emperor’, and he planned to kill the dragons that were the symbol of the island, and that everyone really loved. Also strip them of independence.
It was clear to the fellow that he thus had no choice but to do anything that might give him the power to face him, such as a dangerous ritual to open his fourth dantian, and gain the power of a celestial, even though he thought the ritual would kill him.
This reminded me about the idea that arms race dynamics could force us into technological disaster.
Sometimes research that is super dangerous, such as nuclear weapons research, or bioweapons research, or insufficiently careful AI research feels like it has to be done, because if you don’t do the research someone else will do it anyway and then they will win.
You don’t want them to win, even if you need to risk destroying everything to stop them.
According to legend, the builders of the first atomic bomb thought there was a bit of chance that the explosion would start a chain reaction in the atmosphere that ignite all of the oxygen, and kill everyone on earth.
They decided to do the test anyways, because after all, that was what they were being paid to do, and the Germans or Japanese might get an atomic bomb first, and they weren’t going to be stopped by any sissy concerns like possibly blowing up the world.
Strategic arms race dynamics are bad, but we don’t really know how to fix them, and back before I died, I hadn’t felt confident enough about any solution to try donating my money to pushing it.
This guy thought he’d had no choices, he’d guessed that there was at best a one in three chance that he would survive this attempt to open his fourth dantian, and to become a celestial like the emperor. But that was the only way to defeat this enemy.
Even if he’d succeeded, the odds would be against his success, since the emperor had vastly more experience and resources behind him.
So the man had come here, used materials that I’d guess were worth the equivalent of between a ten million and a hundred million dollars to power the vast ritual, used magic to paint with his own blood the ritual circles, and then blew his mind apart.
I had read enough of these stories to not be surprised by the consequence: A body with no soul attracted a soul with no body.
I looked down at the hands. The hands were — to be honest — pretty similar to my own hands, except with a weave of extra scars and a faint glow from within a network of tattoos so thin that I would not have been able to see them with ordinary human eyes.
Doubly sad because I didn’t have the slightest intention of trying to fight in his war.
Risky bets often fail.
The former owner of this body had made such a failing bet.
Even if this body had successfully ‘opened the fourth dantian’, I was pretty sure that a sorcerer who'd spent a thousand years warring and conquering would be better at it than me, and I didn’t have any particular reason to care about the fate of the island, or the survival of the dragons. They weren’t my personal project.
I mean I do care. I’m unhappy when I hear about anyone suffering, failing to achieve what they want to, and simply not flourishing. But I have no particular reason to care more about helping people in Kenya than people in Singapore — it just was that I could do more good with the limited amount of stuff I have for people in Kenya, and they also needed more help.
I figured it was sort of like that here.
It would be best if I didn’t die. Not dying again… in a part of my mind that was completely untouched by philosophical concerns, matters of optimizing the world, or even how I looked in front of others, I was desperate not to die again.
And, fortunately, it didn’t rationally seem like it would be a good idea to stick around here.
This island was going to lose its war — with or without me. But I could grab everything that he’d owned that was valuable and easily portable, and then scram, flee, make a cautious withdrawal — get the hell out of dodge.
It was not my war.
I mean I wasn’t a pacifist or anything, but it just wasn’t my war.
At this point I will freely confess that I had a sense with some part of my mind that I was supposed to despite all of those considerations care about this war and fight in it. But I wasn’t going to do that, unless someone gave me a clear explanation of why this was a necessary thing to do, from a point of view that considered the well being of everyone on this planet — possibly even everyone who ever might be born — equally.
Anyway, this guy had been ridiculously rich, and this body had a set of epic capabilities that were extremely valuable and with which I could make vast amounts of money — somewhere suitably far away.
Maybe dying and waking up here wasn’t the worst possible thing that could have happened to me: I’d spent the last years in the trying to earn as much money as I possibly could, and now I was going to do what I’d always planned to do if I ever got properly rich: Give it all away.
Without making the effort to recall the details from that fellow’s — Sesako had been his name — memories, I got a distinct sense that this world was at least as fucked up as earth was.
Maybe even a bit more.
There would be plenty of ways here to make the lives of impoverished, unhealthy, and underused human individuals better with the huge pile of gold coins and the giant store of expensive refined pills, power stones, finely enchanted artifacts, magically infused clothing, and just generally expensive stuff — much of which had no actual purpose at all except to show that the owner could possess ‘the best’.
Now my heart was beating.
This was more exciting to me than now having magical powers and being immune to the cold, and able to keep my place easily despite the winds that were gusting over the mountain top at probably a hundred miles an hour.
And what about those other, more uncertain issues — what were the things that might destroy this world entirely, and what were the ways that it could, slowly and over the very long term, be turned into a true utopia.
This was a chance to really, and personally make a vast difference for a vast number of other people.
That was better than the eyesight that let me see anything I focused on in detail, a small city far in the distance at the foot of the mountains, the orchards, the fields of wheat around the feet of the mountain, a snow leopard climbing on an icy ridge after the track of a mountain goat ten miles away, the very curvature of the earth underneath the vast oceans.
Oceans that were bringing a mighty invasion force — spotted, tracked, detailed by spies.
Eh, no time to waste, no rest for the wicked, idle hands are the devil’s playthings. Also haste makes waste.
My mind held a clear map of the whole island, and while I couldn't see the capital city and my, or his… the tower, I knew exactly what direction to go. The capital city was almost five hundred miles away from here — which was the tallest mountain on the island, and also near the valley where the great dragons made their home.
It was an hour and a half trip for this guy when he flew and pushed himself, and about two and a half at what he thought was a comfortable pace.
I wasn’t sure how much of the valuable stuff I could actually carry from the storerooms, but I caught from his memories that there were extra dimensional storage systems where anything that wasn’t magically delicate could be stuffed in great quantities.
Of course the stuff that couldn’t be stuffed in such superdimensional pouches was the most valuable, I’d have to figure out some way to take all of it with me.
Maybe a big crate that I could hold up while I flew away.
This guy was big on magical flying, though I bet I pretty soon would be too. A large fraction of his memories focused on flight.
In the air, chasing down birds, outpacing hawks as they swooped down at hundreds of miles an hour to snatch their prey, hurtling through clouds, flying calmly along next to the flapping wings of a fucking gigantic dragon.
It turned out that leaping off a cliff wasn’t quite as easy as simply knowing that I could safely do it. When I tried to leap off the craggy side of the mountain into the air to fly away from the mountainside, my own instincts stopped me.
I was so high up.
I imagined the fall all the way down the ridges and cliffs to the valley far, far below — broken body tumbling.
Crack. Crack. Bounce. Crack. Ba-ba-bounce. Crack.
And then as though it reflected some sort of contempt for ordinary mortals, an instinct from Sesako overroad that anxiety, as though his mind was still there, and still active somewhere in my new brain — how the fuck did that even work? — and I leapt off the mountain side.
With a series of loud whoops I soared higher, and higher, hurtling upwards towards the sun.
The instincts honed by more than a century of life controlled the motion.
My stomach leapt. The mountain receded beneath me. Everything became smaller.. I could see further and further, the world curving out beneath me as the point of the horizon went further and further away. The whole path of water around the island, many cities.
The island itself was shaped rather like Britain, except that the side that reminded me of Scotland was nearly as wide around as the other. There were two giant circular clumps of mountains, and in between was a low fertile isthmus, that was big enough for large cities on either side, separated by incredibly thin roads and thick farmlands.
And then glancing down at the mountains behind me, I saw the dragon.
Sleeping, huge, the tail curled around the giant body, and the wings pulled in, but it looked to be at least a thousand feet in length.
That dragon figured prominently in Sesako’s memories, with a mix of fond affection, religious awe, and actual friendship.
The dragons were the symbol of his island, they were the gods they worshiped, and whose blessings they begged. They were fed off a fraction of the proceeds of a million farms and a thousand prosperous trading expeditions.
An odd sensation of guilt rose in me while looking at the dragon sleeping far below.
It had been the knowledge that the emperor meant to hunt and kill the dragon’s in the mountains of Yatamo after he had reconquered the island which drove Sesako’s reckless attempt to force open his fourth dantian.
This was his body. It was his wealth I intended to appropriate for my own purposes. His people, and all that he cared for was going to be abandoned by me, and left to be destroyed.
It did not feel like the right thing to do.
There was that difference from the memories in my body that said the fourth dantian was open.
I might be able to fight this invasion to a stop.
A proper storybook hero would stay and fight no matter what the odds were.
If I was in a novel or a web serial, I’d stay and fight.
I ought to fight, and…
And if I succeeded, I would kill a lot of people. Most likely I would kill a moderate number of people, and then just die because having the memories and instincts of Sesako was not in fact at all the same as me being a great battle cultivator with a hundred years of honed skill and tested brutality?
So yeah, I could try to kill a lot of people so that food that could feed tens of thousands of humans would continue to be fed to a group of ancient, overgrown lizards — even if they were sentient lizards that didn’t make it necessarily a good use of resources. It was like the way that billionaires on earth would vampirically suck up the labor of tens of thousands of people so they could compete to have the biggest yacht, the biggest mansion, and the biggest example of disgusting decadence.
Let me be clear: I personally think free markets are a useful tool, and that using government policy to eliminate billionaires, or even reducing their ability to spend their money the way they want to would probably cause worse problems than it would solve. But my objection was practical, not principled. If we could redistribute all giant piles of wealth without causing nasty side effects, I’d say we should do it in an instant without caring about questions of natural property rights.
There had always been a part of me that was simply disturbed by the existence of people who could spend so much money on themselves, while people were starving, dying of malaria, dying due to lack of antibiotics and doctors to prescribe them, and dying due to lack in general.
Of course relative to a very poor person in a third world country, having a hundred thousand dollars in savings was already a giant pile of money that ought to be redistributed by the same logic — so I didn’t expect this to ever become politically popular.
I kind of was disgusted in this way with Sesako — as one of the seven most powerful cultivators in this country, he was as wealthy as a billionaire on earth. He seemed to have no concern whatsoever for poor people in general, and especially poor people who weren’t Yatamo. But the important thing was not whether someone was a billionaire: Anyone with a job that didn’t actively suck in a rich country had enough money to do something for those who were way poorer than them.
It had always been my serious and considered belief that everyone should do something for the common good, for everyone alive. And Sesako was just focused on what was good for Yatamo, for his nation, and his friends, and those who he personally cared for.
Really though, I was just thinking this through again and again to try making excuses for myself and for my plan to abandon the place.
But whether I felt guilty or not, I was going to leave.
Author Note: Please tell me how I mangled the core ideas of EA, and said things that are potentially horribly offensive, etc :). Especially tell me anything that you think is accidentally offensive or crossing some line that some people have. In some cases the topic might be a hill I want to die on, but it probably can be removed or changed or moderated to be less offensive -- and also importantly, if you think this project if worth encouraging people outside of the community to read, and have some idea about how to help me find those audiences, please tell me!
Also here's the link for the google doc with the whole novel in it
And my email address is timunderwood9 at gmail