To (mis)quote Russian Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, “I looked and looked but I didn’t see God.” Humans are cunning little monkeys, though, so even if at present we assume there are no gods as such, it’s within the realm of possibility that we might someday build something (or somethings) functionally equivalent to gods.
We could even turn ourselves into gods (via tech assist or magic). Would this be an unmixed blessing? Um, not really. We already know that humans can be monumental dicks; deified humans could be just as nasty.
- In Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light, having clothed themselves in the trappings of the Hindu pantheon, the humans-turned-gods amuse themselves by oppressing mortal humans.
- In Alan Moore’s Watchmen, a singular event transforms Jon Osterman into the godlike Doctor Manhattan. It strips him of his essential humanity in the process. Result: he is a terrible boyfriend and a potential trigger for World War 3.
- Ser Noris, the magician who is the big bad in Jo Clayton’s Duel of Sorcery series, has managed to grant himself godlike powers. He resolves to test his abilities by first ruining, then destroying, the world. Wouldn’t therapy have been a better solution?
- Human children in Clarke’s Childhood’s End are guided towards powers their parents cannot comprehend. The cost: the children’s humanity, plus a surprising amount of environmental damage.
- In Greg Bear’s Blood Music, researcher Vergil Ulam’s successful effort to smuggle the results of his bold biotechnical research out of his lab leaves him—and quite soon millions of others—infected with biological computers. At first simple, the noocytes evolve rapidly, modifying their hosts in the process; fine when this involves correcting eyesight, but not quite so fine when it comes to reducing humans to goo and reshaping reality itself.
Or maybe we could build godlike computers. While it is comforting to believe that the builders can program ethical constraints into their creations, it would be unwise to trust in the wisdom of programmers. (Just take a look at the news in any given week for stories involving hackers and malware. No system is without exploitable defects.)
Even if we were to create computers which would, as good utilitarians, aim at the greatest good for the greatest number, their perspective would not be ours. What they see as a long-term good may not be so…for us. The computers may even be hostile. Consider AM, the Allied Mastercomputer, in Harlan Ellison’s “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream.” It’s powerful, but in no way benign. AM hates humans and can indulge its whims. Or consider Skynet or HAL.
Perhaps we’ll be get lucky. Perhaps deified humans or godlike computers won’t be monsters.
Deified humans? No doubt there are examples of stories where humans were enhanced without becoming monstrous, but none come to mind at this time.
Godlike computers? Iain Banks’ Culture setting is ruled by the super-intelligent Minds. Rather than being relegated to irrelevance or tortured for the Minds’ amusement, the human-level citizens of the Culture appear to live rewarding, enjoyable lives. Of course, given the scope of the Minds’ abilities, the mortals may have no real choice in the matter.
Maybe making gods will turn out fine. Most SF predicts grimmer outcomes, but you never know… Shall we try it and see?
In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews and Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He was a finalist for the 2019 Best Fan Writer Hugo Award, and is surprisingly flammable.