Which brings us to Permutation City, which I went ahead and finished and then promptly tossed against the wall. It was a toss rather than a hurl; I certainly wouldn't recommend it, but I don't regret the time invested either. It was okay. (Although it got some extra oomph in the throw for also misspelling "balk" as "baulk.") It does have some interesting thoughts about identity mixed in, but mostly revolves around these issues of patterns and information and medium and whatnot and quite frankly I think that Iain M. Banks dealt with the whole topic much better in four pages of exposition in the middle of Excession. (p. 152-155, just in case anyone ever needs to look it up.)
Technically, it was a branch of metamathematics, usually called metamathics. Metamathics; the investigation of the properties of Realities (more correctly, Reality-fields) intrinsically unknowable by and from our own, but whose general principles coules be hazarded at.
Metamathics led to everything else, it led to the places that nobody else had ever seen or heard of or previously imagined.
It was like living half your life in a tiny, stuffy, warm grey box and being moderately happy in there because you knew no better... and then discovering a little hole in one corner of the box, a tiny opening which you could get a finger into, and tease and pull at, so that eventually you created a tear, which led to a greater tear, which led to the box falling apart around you... so that you stepped out of the tiny box's confines into startingly cool, clear fresh air and found yourself on top of a mountain, surrounded by deep valleys, sighing forests, soaring peaks, glittering lakes, sparkling snowfields and a stunning, breathtakingly blue sky. And that, of course wasn't even the start of the real story, that was more like the breath that is drawn in before the first syllable of the first world of the first paragraph of the first chapter of the first book of the first volume of the story.
Metamathics led to the Mind equivalent of that experience, repeated a million times, magnified a billion times, and then beyond, to configurations of wonder and bliss even the simplest abstract of which the human-basic brain had no conceivable way of comprehending. It was like a drug; an ultimately liberating, utterly enhancing, unadulterably beneficial, overpoweringly glorious drug for the intellect of machines as far beyond the sagacity of the human mind as they were beyond its understanding.
This was the way the Minds spent their time. They imagined entirely new universes with altered physical laws, and played with them, lived in them and tinkered with them, sometimes setup up conditions for life, sometimes just letting things run to see if it would arise spontaneously, sometimes arranging things so that life was impossible but other kinds and types of bizarrely fabulous complication were enabled.
Some of the universes possessed just one tiny but significant alteration, leading to some subtle twist in the way things worked, while others were so wildly, aberrantly different it could take a perfectly first-rate Mind the human equivalent of years of intense thought even to find the one tenuously familiar strand of recognisable reality that would allow it to translate the rest into comprehensibility. Between those extremes lay an infinitude of universes of unutterable fascination, consummate joy and absolute enlightenment. All that humanity knew and could understand, every single aspect, known, guessed at and hoped for in and of the universe was like a mean and base mud hut compared to the vast, glittering cloud-high palace of monumentally exquisite proportions and prodigious riches that was the metamathical realm. Within the infinities raised to the power of infinities that those metamathical rules provided, the Minds built their immense pleasure-domes of rhapsodic philosophical ecstasy.
That was where they lived. That was their home. When they weren't running ships, meddling with alien civilisations or planning the future course of the Culture itself, the Minds existed in those fantastic virtual realities, sojourning beyondward into the multi-dimensioned geographies of their unleashed imaginations, vanishingly far away from the single limited point that was reality.
The Minds had long ago come up with a proper name for it; they called it the Irreal, but they thought of it as Infinite Fun. That was what they really knew it as. The Land of Infinite Fun.
It did the experience pathetically little justice.
There was only one problem with the Land of Infinite Fun, and that was that if you ever did lose yourself in it completely -- as Minds occasionally did, just as humans sometimes surrendered utterly to some AI environment -- you could forget that there was a base reality at all. In a way, this didn't really matter, as long as there was somebody back where you came from minding the hearth. The problem came when there was nobody left or inclined to tend the fire, mind the store, look after the housekeeping (or however you wanted to express it), or if somebody or something else -- somebody or something from outside, the sort of entity that came under the general heading of an Outside Context Problem, for example -- decided they wanted to meddle with the fire in that hearth, the stock in the store, the contents and running of the house; if you'd spent all your time having Fun, with no way back to reality or just no idea what to do to protect yourself when you did get back there, then you were vulnerable. In fact, you were probably dead, or enslaved.
It didn't matter that base reality was petty and gray and mean and demeaning and quite empty of meaning compared to the glorious majesty of the multihued life you'd been building through metamathics; it didn't matter that base reality was of no consequence aesthetically, hedonistically, metamathically, intellectually, and philosophically; if that was the single foundation stone that all your higher-level comfort and joy rested up on, and it was kicked away from underneath you, you fell, and your limitless pleasure realms fell with you.
It was just like some ancient electiricity-powered computer; it didn't matter how fast, error-free and tireless it was, it didn't matter how great a labor-saving boon it was, it didn't matter what it could do or how many different ways it could amaze; if you pulled its plug out, or just hit the off button, all it became was a lump of matter; all its programs became just settings, dead instructions, and all its computations vanished as quickly as they'd moved.
It was, also, like the dependency of the human-basic brain on the human-basic body; no matter how intelligent, perceptive and gifted you were, no matter how entirely you lived for the ascetic rewards of the intellect and eschewed the material world and the ignobility of the flesh, if your heart just gave out...
That was the Dependency Principle; that you could never forget where your off switches were located, even if it was somewhere tiresome.
All of which is a very roundabout way of bringing up the fact that the power went out at work today, and I can't do anything productive without my computer. ANYTHING.
So I came home and got a haircut.
(Plus, they didn't want people in the building without the lights and fire alarms working. But still! No work!)