Attack of the Singularity

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 number of similar collections, including those for the other two S’s — Feeling Very Strange: the Slipstream Anthology and three Steampunk anthologies: Steampunk, Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded, and Steampunk III: Steampunk Revolution (due out in December 2012). Digital Rapture: The Singularity Anthology shares with some of them a similar structure: it incorporates both nonfiction and fiction; it is divided into several sections, each of which includes stories and one theoretical essay — here these sections chart the historical contexts of the concept; and it does, largely successfully, attempt to present a whole spectrum of narrative applications of the concept. Older texts such as Isaac Asimov’s “The Last Question” or excerpts from Olaf Stapledon’s Odd John are mixed with stories published in the last decade. Some of the choices are slightly arbitrary — Sterling’s “Sunken Gardens” does not really inhabit a post-singularity universe although Mechanists and Shapers remake themselves using singularity technologies. The same issue concerns Vinge’s “The Cookie Monster,” a great story in its own right but one that hardly assumes machinic super-intelligence. Fortunately, no story here feels out of place quality-wise — as a whole, this is a very solid collection, and one that aptly demonstrates the dynamic of writing about singularity.

What else it demonstrates is the predicament of any author writing about what lies beyond the event horizon of imagination — how to present the new world order in a way that would both convey the sense of alienness and remain comprehensible. This is perhaps the reason why there are so few texts in the collection that can really put the readerly mind through its paces. Of course, the selection of texts for any anthology is first of all governed by financial and logistical circumstances (which must be the reason why Greg Bear’s mind-burner “The Judgment Engine” is not included), but what is somewhat surprising is that there are so few stories that truly convey at least some of singularity’s ultimate estrangement — definitely Charles Stross’ “Nightfall,” which later became a part of his novel Accelerando; probably Cory Doctorow’s and Benjamin Rosenbaum’s “True Names,” which obviously pays homage to Vinge’s classic story of that title; maybe Justina Robson’s “Cracklegrackle,” set in the same universe as her novels Natural History and Living Next-Door to the God of Love. Almost ironically, Robert Reed’s “Coelacanths,” a story of our world with a marginal human presence is one of the easiest to follow, while Greg Egan’s “Crystal Nights” is for once a relatively easy read despite his fame for intellectually challenging prose.

Like all SF scenarios, singularity is ultimately a tool for thinking about other things. It can serve as an excuse for heady Gedankenexperimente. It can channel thinking about the unknown. It can also propel pure unadulterated entertainment, which is where Cory Doctorow’s and Charles Stross’ The Rapture of the Nerds comes in. Because, I would like to suggest, The Rapture of the Nerds is the literary equivalent of Transformers. No, it is not as politically reactionary and juvenile as Michael Bay’s three productions, but its affective method has much to do with the films’ gung-ho visual frontal assault. The Rapture of the Nerds dazzles with wit and sparkles with in-jokes in the same way in which the Transformers movies attack their viewers’ sensory faculties.

The novel’s future is “fractured”— only a billion hominids are left on Earth while everyone else has joined “swarming densethinker clades” (the term whose use in SF can be most likely traced back to Sterling’s Schismatrix) which inhabit “nested Dyson spheres built from the dismantled bones of moons and planets.” Cloud dwellers are literally cloud dwellers. Sex changes are commonplace, as are genetic and somatic alterations and enhancements. The global market is fully global, which has led to the collapse of air travel but allows Libyan customs officers to moonlight for Burmese banking cartels as security bot supervisors. Buildings are inflatable and constantly reconfigure themselves — the threat of becoming “trapped in a mutating bathroom by a transgendered atheist Pakistani role-playing critic” is in The Rapture of the Nerds very real indeed.

The novel’s protagonist is one Huw Jones, a Welsh traditionalist, technophobe, and misanthrope whose parents have ascended to the cloud. He prefers to stay behind in a small house in which he makes pottery. In short, he is a dirtside refusenik whose most advanced piece of technology is a bike. As the novel opens, he is called to serve as a Tech Juror in Libya, where he becomes infected with a nanovirus that transforms him into a “remote sensing apparatus” for an alien ambassador — mostly because native Welsh vowels and glottals have exercised his articulatory system sufficiently well. This is only the beginning of a bullet-speed train of events that takes him first to North America and then into the cloud, where he must testify before the galactic tribunal that considers the complete elimination of the fleshers.

Doctorow and Stross are relentless in their deliciously acidic remarks about various aspects of our own culture. The U.S. has become the backwater Sovereign Christian States of America, in which old missile launch computers speak “in a thick gubernatorial Austro-Californian accent.” Fortunately, the memory of some other public personas, such as “a twenty-first-century situationist artist or politician called Sarah Palin,” is even more vague. In general, however, the “American continent is a very Grimm fairy tale that the cloud dwellers review whenever one faction or another doubts its decision to abandon Earth-bound humanity.” Elsewhere, corporate mergers have led to the creation of the likes of “Facebook-Goldman-AOL.” The authors do not pull punches against ordinary people, either — social digerati are described as “personality types that are driven to volunteer to contribute to collective informational resources [that] are prone to a number of cognitive disorders” while Second Life is “a sandbox for recently uploaded primitives.”

Mixed with such hilarious interventions are numerous references to books and films — some more transparent than others, although I suspect a decently well-read and well-watched SF fan should recognize most of them. Among the most obvious are quotations from Mission Impossible, a reference to the armory scene from The Matrix, and the invocation of SS Death Star. Literary gestures include “ghosts of microprocessors past” and parrots crying “Pieces of eight,” a mention of Vogon poetry, and the phrases “the heat death of the universe” and “He, She and, It” — obviously name-checking texts by Pamela Zoline and Marge Piercy respectively. The image of “sucking signal from a dead channel” should still ring Neuromancer bells, but the cloud clade “bouncing messages off Alpha Centauri,” an alien delegate from Doctor Who or the star where Neuromancer’s newly-emergent super-A.I. found its counterpart, is probably not so transparent. Even less obvious are the court scene in Libya, which clearly owes much of its tone to Frederik Pohl’s novella “Gwenanda and the Supremes,” or the description of the consul as “an infinitely hot and dense dot of eyeball-warping fuzz,” an almost verbatim phrase from Mark Leyner’s short story “I was an infinitely hot and dense dot,” later included in his My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist. Finally, the manner in which the virtual Huw can adjust his moods and mental faculties using sliders is clearly reminiscent of the manner in which players construct or modify their avatars in many computer role-playing games (and probably alludes too to Greg Egan’s “Reasons to Be Cheerful”).

All of this is certainly extremely funny and engaging — reading The Rapture of the Nerds is an experience studded with grins, chortles, and knowing smiles. Which is great, but bear in mind that the novel has little else to offer. While both authors’ individual texts, such as Doctorow’s Eastern Standard Tribe or Stross’ Singularity Sky, have offered interesting insights into the character of online communities or meditations on information and progress, their joint effort is a playful affair whose constant absurd humor makes it hard to accept even where it can potentially convey more serious ideas. (The novel’s tone reminds me strongly of Rudy Rucker’s Software/Wetware/Freeware trilogy, which also balanced on the verge of satire in its coolly detached descriptions, but Doctorow and Stross take the off-handedness with which they present the most absurd situations much further.) By the standards of plotting and psychology current in science fiction, The Rapture of the Nerds is pretty thin, to put it mildly — an effect that I am confident was entirely intended. I cannot quite fathom the authors’ motivation, but this does not make the novel any less funny. Perhaps they wanted to poke fun at the high and cold style of some singularity narratives. But it is also possible that they decided that tension, suspense, and drama are qualities that work well in the representations of human and maybe early posthuman life and not so well in singularity stories. If the form of the text is supposed to reflect its message, as many sf masterpieces do (think Gibson’s Neuromancer or Kim Stanley Robinson’s sprawling novels), perhaps the late posthuman world in which personality is slider-dependent cannot be propelled by emotional depth and meaningful conflict, and the peregrinations of the well-meaning but slightly cloddish Huw are about all humanity we are going to get.

In the introduction to Digital Rapture, the editors note that any discussion of singularity stories “seems quickly to devolve into a debate about the nature and plausibility of the Singularity.” They are certainly right — there are few SF topos and parables that open themselves so readily and so immediately to a consideration of the ideas behind them and the state of their real-world development. The stories in Digital Rapture certainly do that, and not only because they are placed next to theoretical essays that frame them. I am not sure this is true for Doctorow’s and Stross’s novel, but it’s ok. Science fiction can always use a good chuckle.