As Neil Easterbrook noted in his talk at the 2011 Science Fiction Studies symposium, current science fiction seems to be obsessed with 3 S’s — steampunk, slipstream, and singularity. The first two signal the genre’s openness to other literary and cultural practices — to the historical novel, alternate history, and retro-visuality in steampunk and to mainstream fiction in slipstream. The last of the three is SF’s internal affair. At first sight, in its interest in cutting-edge digital technologies, emergent machinic intelligence, and cognitive science, singularity SF — if I may be so bold as to coin such a provisional moniker — seems to represent conceptually the hardest of hard sf. Alas, “seems” is a key word here as the singularity imagination in SF continues to be negotiated between hardcore rationality and almost-spiritual transcendence.
The history of the term is probably familiar — it was first used in 1958 by Stanislaw Ulam in the account of his conversation with John von Neumann, in which singularity was described as a state of affairs in which, thanks to the accelerating progress of technology, human life as we know it could not continue. In later years, most definitions narrowed down this progress to the idea of machines surpassing human beings in intelligence. Although many SF texts predicated on such premises had been written since the 1940s, the concept gained significant traction following Vernor Vinge’s talk at a NASA-sponsored conference in 1993. Vinge, along with several other authors with academic jobs in the sciences, has for years acted as a bridge between the genre and the world of science, facilitating traffic in both directions. Real-world A.I. research and nanotechnology have been permeated with science-fictional ideas, as, for instance, Colin Milburn has superbly demonstrated in Nanovision: Engineering the Future, while hard SF has often sought legitimation as the most “proper” kind of SF precisely because it draws on the predictions of science.
The problem with this approach is that the very concept of singularity assumes the extreme difficulty, if not impossibility, of rigorous extrapolation beyond a tipping point. Embedded in singularity thinking is the conviction that the aftermath of a singularity is separated from our imaginative gaze by what Vinge calls “an opaque wall across the future.” Because of this, each vision becomes as good as any other and singularity narratives may demonstrate the most and the least disciplined application of rationality in SF. The word that appears in the titles of both books reviewed here is another symptom of the complexity of singularity imagination. The description of the singularity as “the Rapture for nerds,” first used by Ken MacLeod in his novel The Cassini Division, was clearly dismissive and ironic. One of the two titles reuses it in the same sense, but many texts do in fact posit singularity as an event of almost eschatological proportions. Furthermore, hard science fiction is not the only cultural site fascinated by the promise of greater-than-human intelligence — various transhumanist philosophies have also conceived of singularity in terms that are by turns quasi-religious and pornographic.
In any case, given SF’s long-standing interest in the concept, we have been long overdue for a thematic anthology, and who better suited to publish it than Tachyon Publications, which has previously curated a n...read more