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June, 2006 : Review:

Beyond Singularity ed. Dann and Dozois

Beyond Singularity
Edited by Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois
Ace, 2005
304 pp.
ISBN 0441013635

"The Singularity" was first popularized by Vernor Vinge more than ten years ago, in a lecture that begins: "Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended."(1) In the years since, the meme has been furiously replicating in the minds of SF and popular science writers in books, articles, web sites, listservs, etc.

Once humanity reaches the fabled Singularity, technology will progress unimaginably fast, at an almost infinite rate. Centuries of change might occur within a year, month, or a day. Future shock is relentless, much beyond Toffler's imaginings, and new paradigms rip through human consciousness. Superhuman intelligence, either augmented humans or AIs, initiate these dramatic changes using GNR (genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics) technology.

In the anthology Beyond Singularity, editors Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois have collected stories that venture beyond speculation and extrapolation into visions of worlds almost unimaginable: life after the singularity. Though the stories themselves explore bizarre worlds, the narratives remain rooted in our own. Most of the stories here rely on a human who experiences or lives after the singularity as the narrator, which creates a reference point between the events and the twentieth century reader, much in the same way that writers such as H.G. Wells relied on contemporary narrators to ease the cognitive dissonance on readers who were not familiar with the genre (see The Time Machine for an example).

A mundane narrator can reinforce the strangeness of the stories, such as in Brian Aldiss' "Old Hundredth," which depicts a bizarre future in which man's descendants are genetically engineered animals, the moon has plunged into the Sun, Venus orbits the Earth and humans have uploaded their consciousness into Involutes, spatial projectors which merge human consciousness into the universe's pattern and contain thousands or millions of personalities. The story is related by an uplifted animal—a giant intelligent sloth—who is in awe of the post-humans. But we can relate more to the sloth than to the incomprehensible posthumans.

Tales of transition are also common here, such as Greg Egan's influential hard science tale "Border Guards." The story depicts a person who lives through the singularity and learns to adjust to the changes—most particularly the transcendence of death. There is a long philosophical tradition based on the idea that you can judge the value of a person's life by how well they die. Do they fear death, gasp, and moan? Then they have lived an unjust life and fear the afterlife. Much religion and philosophy views death as life's meaning, suggesting that life may become trivial and tiresome without death as its culmination. Egan's story disputes that philosophical position, concluding: "Death never gave meaning to life; it was always the other way round. All of its gravitas, all of its significance, was stolen from the things it ended. But the value of life always lay entirely in itself—not in its loss, not in its fragility." Egan's singularity creates a utopia which expands human possibilities and makes death and extinction unnecessary.

Paul J. McAuley's "All Tomorrow's Parties," another influential story, is named after a Velvet Underground Song, and the title evokes the decadence of a far-future world. After living for centuries, the narrator, an immortal who is bored with her eternal life, has copied her personality into computers, cloned herself, spread her personality into hive minds and become a clade. When the remaining humans wage war on the Posthumans, the narrator is jarred out of her complacency and ennui because she has to fight for survival.

The story portrays one of the Singularity's more intriguing possibilities: humans becoming god-like if they refuse to accept limits. The treatment here is ambiguous, though: Who should we sympathize with? The posthuman who will accept no limits, not even death? The humans who believe limits and death are necessary for evolution? The themes in this story—that the basic meaning of life and death remain in question after the singularity—overlap with Egan's "Border Guards," though the story ultimately sides with the posthumans because human science and striving has struggled against limits. Accepting limits creates stagnation.

"Naturals" by Gregory Benford offers a less positive spin on the Singularity. The posthuman Supras, who are not malicious but rather condescending, keep the protagonist as essentially a pet, sexually and otherwise. After all, once posthumans have surpassed unaugmented humans, of what use is the old model? In this tale the humans are productive because they work in the Library of Life, a vast archive of knowledge which contains information from every branch of humanity. Thus every type of human can have insight into some of the knowledge. In the story's central episode, most of the naturals—unaugmented humans—are destroyed by accidentally released nanotech. The narrator has to depend on the Supras to recreate humans, and realizes that there is little place for humans in the posthuman world.

Michael Swanwick's "The Dog Said Bow-wow" details a lowtech future in which homicidal AIs have forced humanity into a worldwide destruction of electronic devices. AIs and uploads embarked on a genocidal war with humans; years later the surviving humans view electronics, computers and the Internet as evil magic controlled by demons. I know at least one other example of this style of fiction, Ken Macleod's The Sky Road, in which civilization is preserved thru nonelectronic Babbage machines. Humans use genetic engineering to create large-brained freaks to think and calculate, in effect nonelectronic, living computers.

"Flowers from Alice" by Charles Stross and Cory Doctorow depicts a wedding; apparently the Singularity makes even planning a wedding more complicated. The narrator's old girlfriend, a posthuman who has replicated herself, ends up colonizing the couple for computronium. But that isn't as bad as it sounds, since the narrator seems happier at the end. He has been in denial, not coming to terms with his need to transform himself into posthumanity; after all, his bride is a female copy of himself. This story, like much of Stross's work, gives a sense of how weird the future is likely to be.

"Rogue Farm" offers more from Stross, and once again gives us an unaugmented human narrator: a drop-out who hates the net, technology, and anything new. The story's setting is a near-future Europe in the midst of a population crash, with keyword trawling police bugs monitoring public speech for conspiracies, and network terminals that are flea sized self-replicating bots. The Rogue Farm of the title is a colony mind that settles near the narrator's land and wants to launch itself to Jupiter—an act that would destroy the narrator's land. The Rogue Farm—a symbol for the singularity blasting away traditional human life—wants to escape the confines of a limited life on earth, as opposed to the narrator who tries to maintain his old certainties and limits.

In Mary Rosenblum's "Tracker" the city man Amaster designs humans and uplifted animals which he then owns as property. Amaster orders Tracker and his Seeing Eye dog Jesse to locate another of his creations who has escaped among the kite fliers (also Amaster's creations), a tribe of people in the desert.

Eric Brown, "Steps Along the Way," involves a posthuman engulfed in ennui who is considering a quietus or period of death at the beginning of the tale. After he awakens, he hopes to be rejuvenated by the new events and information created during his sleep. The narrator's plan is interrupted when he is reminded of the things that make life valuable. Brown's far future society resurrects historically significant people from the past, who tend to suffer from severe future shock and must be "psycho healed." The narrator—a resurrection of Galileo—is given the task of helping a newly awakened Neil Armstrong adjust. The narrator has become too conservative and safe, spawning copies and never taking risks, and Armstrong helps awaken the narrator's will to live by reminding him of the ambition to explore, face death and risk.

"Osmund Considers" by Timon Esaias portrays humans as a protected few, maintained by machine servants that carefully control them. Humanity's successors pretend to be obedient servants, an illusion which Osmund deludes himself into accepting.

Walter Jon William's "The Millennium Party" depicts a far future society in which life seems trivial and meaningless. The narrator has been married for a millennium, but he and his wife only see one another once a year. They edit their memories so they only remember the positive events, creating a pointless life without stress or conflict.

Beyond Singularity contains many excellent stories, some of which may someday become classics of the genre. Its myriad imagined futures provide many approaches to a post-Singularity world. Although some of the futures here are nightmarish, they tended not be as powerful as the utopias. Charles Stross's recent novel Accelerando, though not exactly dystopian, shows some of the harsh realities of post-Singularity society; more of that type of cautionary tale would have been welcome.

The anthology as a whole attempts to bring us to terms with a wholly unfamiliar fate for our race, and in so doing must address significant themes such as death and ennui that a Singularity inevitably transforms. Humans, posthumans, and AI intellects all need meaning in life. These stories engage readers with demonstrations of the importance of facing dramatic technological changes that will occur over the next centuries, as we try to find ways of living with massive changes that technology poses to not only our lives but everything we know about being human.

Footnotes

  1. From an article presented at the VISION-21 Symposium, March 30-31, 1993, available at http://mindstalk.net/vinge/vinge-sing.html. [Back]

Copyright © 2006, Robert Bee. All Rights Reserved.

About Robert Bee

Robert Bee is a freelance writer living in New Jersey. For his dayjob he manages a library in Trenton. He has published over 30 short stories and a dozen book reviews in magazines, e-zines and anthologies such as Outer Darkness, Parchment Symbols, Letter Magazine, Blue Murder, Parageography, Alienskin, Glyph, Cabal Asylum, Welcome to Nod, Nocturnal Ooze, Dark Krypt, Kings of the Night.

COMMENTS!

Jun 5, 20:53 by IROSF
A thread to discuss this anthology or Robert Bee's review.

The article can be found here.
Jun 5, 22:07 by Gregory Benford
Ah, but what of aliens who've long ago gone through their Singularity? They should be here by now, you'd think.
A new twist on the persistent Fermi Paradox... Does an absence of aliens imply no Singularity, or no aliens?

Gregory Benford
Jun 5, 22:43 by Bluejack
No singularity.

Although it's a fascinating concept and a compelling mathematical metaphor, I think there are material limitations to "infinite intelligence" that preclude any such thing.

We're already seeing the end of Moore's law in processing speed, and we'll hit the ceiling on other things as well. The sci-fi hype of quantum computing is almost certainly vastly overrated. Assuming the limitation of lightspeed, even solar-system wide networks in which all matter is dedicated to information processing are going to have a fairly low processing ceiling compared to the brute force power required of singularity style transcendence.

Moreover, every large corporation is a testament to the information processing limitation when it comes to economies of scale. The manufacturing overhead diminishes, but the management overhead is exponential. Coordinating networks of networks of parallel processing towards a single goal -- for problems in which quantum logic does not apply -- becomes a logistical (and logical) problem larger than brute force problem solving.

At least that's my opinion. How about yours?
Jun 8, 19:45 by Ron Dwyer
I don't like these Singularity theorists. Some believe in The Rapture. Others believe in the Classless Society. And others believe in the Singularity.

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