Game Write: Sheldon Pacotti’s Demiurge (2000 / rev. 2014)

Game Write is a recurring series dedicated to the fiction of game industry veterans. From the best-selling titles of Drew Karpyshyn and Austin Grossman, to the obscure classics of Jane Jensen and Sheldon Pacotti, this series hopes to unearth both the gems and the trash we tend to leave buried in the credits. In this entry, we look at Sheldon Pacotti’s 2000 novel, Demiurge, set in a distant future where the creation of the demiurge, a sort of 3D printer of limitless potential, has made anything and everything possible — including immortality.

GW_Demi_EB.pngFans of the ground-breaking video game Deus Ex — with which Sheldon Pacotti served as lead writer — will find a lot to love with Demiurge. Its world is of a far-future (really far: like, 2997 far) where significant social problems such as overpopulation and food shortages have been ‘solved’ by the breakthrough technology of the title, and humanity lives in a coldly mechanical world of limitless potential.

Demiurges are capable of instantiating anything — including biological materials — at next to no cost. Our own consciousness can be stored by these devices, and placed in the body of our dreams. With any degree of travel, our bodies are reinstantiated to be the ideal (whether that be 30-year-old model you, or 6-year-old boy you, or chimpanzee you — possibilities are as infinitely explored as the tech allows), effectively extending our lifespans indefinitely. The future of the ‘net is also quite transformed, and digital lives, families, vacation homes, &c., are frequently stored online.

It makes for a complex world of evolving, confusing social problems (seemingly born from immortality’s malaise). Global society, e.g., is biased against breaking the traditional western family structure, but Demiurge‘s families are reaching a strained point of incompatibility after hundreds of years together. Generations are so separated by decades or even centuries that there’s little to no connection between parents and their children.

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Ion Storm’s 2000 video game, Deus Ex, broke new ground for video-game narratives. Released just prior to 9/11, Deus Ex heavily delved into philosophical themes about our relationship with technology — particularly through the guise of surveillance and government. Pictured is an optional conversation with Morpheus, an early AI prototype.

There’s a lot to the world of Demiurge, but that’s never its focus, just wonderful worldbuilding. The focus of this cyberpunk-noir tale is Detective Paul Cramer’s search to understand why he himself — an ‘original’ instantiated body — went rogue while working a woman-in-red case. The woman under investigation has been populating the world with illegal copies of herself, all clueless as to their own origins or the meaning of their copies.

The mystery lightly dances around the Ship of Theseus idea and human consciousness without ever being too obvious, while also exploring transhumanist notions of our evolution. With an online civilization, we have the potential to script our own consciousness, controlling happiness and accomplishment through narrative ‘self-help’ software. There’s even a suggestion that those behind the woman-in-red mystery are pawns in a larger organism’s attempt to unite humanity under the banner of a single-organism civilization. (This should sound familiar to Deus Ex fans!)

Few things bothered me. Despite providing an interesting mystery, Demiurge falls back on some negative, outdated female stereotypes. It’s not just the seductive woman in red — there are barely any female characters, period, and they are either devoid of personality or nagging, cheating caricatures.

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The cover for the 2000 first edition (yeugh) was thankfully dropped for the gorgeous 2014 art.

Similarly, for such a globe-trotting adventure, the world of Demiurge feels like a wasteland. There are only a handful of characters populating every scene, and every scene feels utterly isolated from the world. We, as readers, are told that the woman in red is instantiating herself thousands upon thousands of times in every major city, but we never feel like a human civilization even exists outside of Paul Cramer’s immediate family and two or three friends from work. Paul Cramer is also famous — famous enough to have an action figure and be the figurehead of the world’s police force, but this adds nothing to his character, and contributes nothing towards any social interactions because there is no one to interact with!

But despite those issues, Demiurge is a wonderfully-written, grossly under-appreciated cyberpunk mystery. Pacotti’s writing is brimming over with technological and philosophical ideas, making Demiurge easily comparable to the best of Philip K. Dick and, of course, the quality Pacotti & co. delivered with Deus Ex.

Pacotti has his earlier short story collection, Experiments in Belief, available for free on his website. While it’s a bit hit-or-miss thanks to the inclusion of juvenilia, cyberpunk fans owe it to themselves to give his mature stories a shot (e.g., ‘Evil Spirits Travel in Straight Lines’; ‘Conversations with the Noösphere’).

His second novel, γ (Gamma), was released this year after nearly two decades of revisions.

Demiurge is available to purchase from Amazon as an affordable e-book.

8 / 10

While Sheldon Pacotti is best known for his work in video games, he’s also been quietly publishing fiction for over 25 years. His writing includes Experiments in Belief: Stories 1990 – 2000 (2013), Demiurge (2000 / revised 2014), and Gamma (2016). His video game credits include Deus Ex (2000), Deus Ex: Invisible War (2003), America’s Army: Rise of a Soldier (2005), Cell: emergence (2015), and the upcoming System Shock sequel.

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