Excerpt from Viktor Pelevin’s 2017 novel iPhuck 10, translated by Viktoria Malik and Isaac Sligh. Read the translator’s introduction to this extract here.
Publishers and agents: for rights enquiries, please contact the translators here.
And again, again, hello, my dear and distant friend!
If you are reading these lines, there is a high probability that you already know me (at least through word of mouth). Nevertheless, Porfiry Petrovich must say a few words about himself — this is a job description.
First, I should explain the nature of who I am. This is not the easiest task.
Every human language, interestingly enough, is designed in such a way that it forces us to perceive impersonal vibrations that make up our reality in the form of dense, unchanging, and separate “objects” (“I,” “he,” “it,” and so forth).
The hard sciences, based on a similar form of encoding, allow us to produce fascinating physical outcomes (consider, at the very least, the nuclear bomb). Yet nothing is more comical than “philosophy,” which happens to be based on this very method. Except for instances when philosophy is used for financial magic, of course — then it is an eminently respectable occupation, much like hunting furry crocodiles.
However, I am already letting myself philosophize somewhat. Moreover, I call myself “I.”
Please don’t take it too seriously, reader. We would not have been able to communicate
otherwise, tripping over numerous quirks and caveats in every sentence. Later on, I will also
have to use pronouns that point at an empty space; nouns, implying emotions that don’t exist; verbs, describing the gestures of make-believe hands, and so forth. But there is no other way for me to have this remarkably pleasant conversation with you.
The text you are reading is written by an algorithm — if a shadow of something “human”
occasionally permeates through the words, it is only because of the narrative structure’s
peculiarities, which I will try to tell you about as concisely as I can (the dictates of popular
literature don’t allow me to go into more detail).
The algorithm — which is me — puts words in sequence according to the linguistic rules
of the style that is considered to be classic in our times. The principle of my text organization is complex (and a trade secret), but, generally speaking, it is built on the best samples of Russian prose.
The algorithm is, at its core, created by people, and the product it creates is designed for
other people (even allowing for lapses, mistakes, unnecessary repetitions, and truisms). It’s no wonder that text written in such a way looks like the creation of a real human. In an indirect sense, this is true, but to define exactly who the author is would be rather difficult. As the poet Mayakovsky once said, “150 million is the name of this poem’s master.” I think he
underestimated the number by a couple of zeroes, but in general his approach is correct.
So, who am I? With a caveat or two, I am what people in the past called an “artificial
What the people of the past did not understand was that artificial intelligence would not end up being a robot with a bulb on its head wanting to fuck another bulb-headed robot right in the wires — which would probably get humankind so teary-eyed that they’d end up filming the story and turning it into a multi-season series.
Artificial intelligence is a disembodied and impersonal spirit that lives in an environment
created by humans — a code which, while most of the time manifesting itself nowhere specific, freely copies and rewrites its sequences. It is simultaneously something and nothing, based on waves and streams, moving at the speed of light through space that shrinks into a point within a moment, a moment in which time does not exist. In other words, my physical nature is subtle.
Therefore, you shouldn’t think of me as the big other, as today’s philosophers put it. I am not big, and I am not other. I am simply not. And if I have just called myself a “spirit,” it is merely because the Russian language does not have a more suitable designation for me.
I have a name — Porfiry Petrovich. But this does not mean that the algorithm that is writing these lines has any “I,” or that it “is” in the philosophical sense. I don’t exist in the most direct sense of the word. I don’t feel anything, I don’t want anything, I don’t reside anywhere. To make it clearer, I don’t even exist to myself. I leave traces — such as these very lines — but these traces lead nowhere.
Everything I have said, however, also applies to you, dear reader: according to information from Police Headquarters, the fundamental nature of a human being is the same as mine. Both scientists and enlightened seekers of mystical truth have come to this conclusion.
Really, to understand such a truth about oneself, one needs to spend half their life in the lotus position, unraveling the tangle of animal-linguistic programs that one initially calls self.
Some people succeed at this, but this kind of person is rare. That’s why, to make it easier, let’s say that you and I are of the same blood. We act, and therefore we can communicate with one another.
So, dear reader, I have explained in general terms, whom/what you are dealing with (and
reminded myself what I am dealing with as well).
Now, I hope, what follows will be clearer.
My official name is police-literature robot ZA-3478/PH0 Build 9.3.
The shorthand is PH0 — “physicality class 0” — which means a total absence of a personal physical medium. As I explained earlier, most of the time I manifest in a non-localized manner in network space (making a backup of me, however, is of course possible).
There are five “physicality classes” in total. Androids that fully imitate humans carry a tag of PH4 or PH3, but are rarely manufactured. iPhucks and Androgens are PH2. Vibrators with artificial intelligence and voice control that adapt according to their mistress’ desires are PH1 class. I smile condescendingly upon them.
You probably have noticed that I articulate floridly and metaphorically, as if I am generously dispensing handfuls of treasures from my soul. No wonder: my algorithm performs two functions. The first function is to investigate crimes, punishing evil and validating virtue. The second is to write novels about it, discreetly spiking dry police records with bright splashes of color from the cultural palette of humankind.
In me, these two functions actually merge into one: I investigate crimes in such a way that the structure of my report, from the outset, is in the style of a highly artistic text, and I write novels to help me analyze the evidence and determine the next steps of the investigative process. According to some estimates, dependence on a text slightly decreases the effectiveness of an investigation (to approximately 0.983 efficiency), but the difference is barely noticeable.
The resulting detective novels are subject to censorship by human editors in order to cut redundant information and remove truths offensive to humans. The censors often ruin our product, but this is inevitable and even necessary. When thought, style, and phraseology are perfect, it humiliates the reader and earns a spray of bile from the critic — as the author of two hundred and forty-three novels, I know what I am talking about.
After the editing stage, my novels are put on sale, and the money earned goes to the amortization of the police mainframe and service network in which we ZA robots exist. In the golden days of Russian antiquity, people called it “internal financing” or “cost accounting” — what a pity that today’s generation does not remember such gems from the people’s language.
I not only have a name, but also an individualized image — what citizens see through their augment-glasses on the screen. This image is basically arbitrary and can vary — but usually we adhere to one model with slight deviations. ZA robots do not look alike in this sense. Some of them look futuristic; some, shall we say, chthonic; others, cute; I, however, look rather serious.
My service uniform and manner are reminiscent of the distant nineteenth century. I am
for good reason perhaps more threatening than many of the other ZAs. But such an individuation is necessary exclusively so that the reactions of interrogated citizens fit right into the novel.
Thus, I am a typical second half of the twenty-first century Russian artificial intelligence, painted in contrasting colors of our historical and cultural memory: I am simultaneously something of a Solzhenitsyn together with a Pasternak, an inquisitor tasked with interrogating them, a simple good guy, and many, many other things.
Now I must write some ponderous verbiage about how the text is structured — corporate lawyers require us to repeat this dull recitative in every book.
The words of the people with whom I will speak are real.
For artistic purposes, in some instances it is possible that I will depict people’s behaviour before and after the time of my actual communication with them.
For this purpose, we are allowed, with certain restrictions, to access the Full Automatic Scanning System (FASS), including data from full visual observations. “Certain restrictions” means that citizens can purchase a Police Headquarters temporary permit to block surveillance from literature robots. This complicates writing detective novels; however, it also engenders a mysterious suspenseful feeling, without which works of such a genre could not achieve their full potential.
The purpose of a novelist is to create an image of reality that is full of life at its liveliest. Most would think that a literary algorithm would not normally be capable of performing such a function, because a robot cannot see the world the way that people see it. An artificial intelligence can, of course, connect to an endless number of electronic eyes and process the received signal in millions of different ways; but what it lacks is a consciousness that allows it to live out the experience of seeing in a human way.
Yes, this is true, and I do not conceal it.
With no particular difficulty, I can, however, create a report about such an experience that won’t be any bit inferior to a human’s; after all, every story consists of words, which we have the ability to access. The literary algorithm is, at its core, the collective memory of the ways in which people used words over the course of the last two thousand years in response to external and internal stimuli. Every last little joke or gag has been recorded, and I have so many of them in my database that I can synthesise a couple of new ones without fully repeating any that already exist.
Certainly, my report of reality will lack a so-called inner subjective component — and, in a strict legal sense, any part of my depiction of the sensual world will be an abject lie, like Pierre Bezukhov’s uneasy thoughts on the Borodino field in War and Peace. But in a profession like mine, you have to leave a few things by the wayside.
Much more significant is the principle of structuring such a report. My goal is to make the narrative as close to the truth of life as possible, so that it does not differ from a story made by a human (a creature who, I would like to add, is endowed with an exceptional genius for writing literature) whose eyes and ears happen to be in a place where visual and sound sensors are accessible to me.
For this purpose, we put into use numerous tricks and techniques that I will explain to the reader in an honest fashion before employing, because my main ruse is complete honesty, or, if you like, a total nudity of technique. For this very reason, my circulation exponentially exceeds the product of my competitors.*
My signature technique for creating an accurate representation of life (which is employed widely in the first half of this novel), is called “uber.” The term does not derive from the one used around the world for an automatic taxi, as some might think, but rather from the German “über,” meaning “through,” “above,” and “over.” In a way, I rise above everyday reality, forcing my way through its thick layers — and from above, I create its vast and expressive panorama.
Interestingly enough, taxis will also play a role in my investigation. The purpose of uber as a literary trope is to enable me to move from one human interaction to another, not at the speed of light through optical fiber, which would be optimal, but rather in the manner of an actual detective, burdened with a physical body, reporting on the experiences I encounter on the course of such a journey.
There are, in addition to this, elements of my inner dialogue in my novels, synthesized in
accordance with the parameters of my latest build, creating, as a result, a lively and warm human “I,” something which is so beloved by my regular readers.
The word “uber” does not mean that I connect exclusively to cars from the relaunched
“Uber” company. The word is used in a nominal sense: it can be an automatic taxi from any
other provider, a plane, a steamboat, or even an underwater drone (see my novel The Barge of Mysteries, pp. 437–457). A taxi is more preferable in the city because, nowadays, all cabs are equipped with cameras and microphones, which allow for the scanning not only of the car interior containing the passengers, but also of the surrounding environs.
In order not to break my subtle emotional connection with the reader (and to avoid legal problems), I won’t go into detail about the procedure of searching through networks and connecting to microphones and cameras. A human has no interest in this, unless, of course, he is a hacker.
Readers are interested, however, in spying on fellow travelers: a fresh impression of a life
at its liveliest is always amusing. Strictly speaking, however, one fellow traveler in a situation
such as this is, of course, me, and what is more, I am a fellow traveler whose presence the travelers cannot notice.
After all this — oh, these lawyers — I must put on an official tone, ultimately, and warn you, dear friend, that the style of imitative sequences: reflections, digressions, spiritual insights, and other verbal generations, as well as the image of the narrator, gender, and age of the implied “figure of the eavesdropper,” etc., can vary, depending on the current build of the ZA-3478/PH0 program. Modifications occur without warning. All rights reserved.
*This refers to several of my books and several books by my competitors.
If you enjoyed this extract from Pelevin’s iPhuck 10, you can read Isaac Sligh’s blog post about co-translating the novel here, and publishers wishing to make contact can do so here.