Where no (transhu)man has gone before…

Writing about the singularity – the technologically transcendent kind, not the black hole kind – is OK when it is arguing about whether it will happen, and when. But science fiction writers  want to write about what happens afterwards (of course!). This is liable to make no sense – that is the whole point of calling the putative exponential explosion in intelligence which leads to a new order the singularity.

So, seeking some recommendable stories for one of the “further reading” bits of the Guide, I’ve been pondering attempts to deal with this. They seem to fall into a few classes.

You can write about the people left behind –much the same as writing about those Left Behind after judgment day, or survivors of any garden variety apocalypse. Those left behind after a singularity are still liable to run across magical things happening now and again, but basically get on with their mundane business as best they can like any other people-in-a-novel.

You can write through the singularity, as it were, and (usually) end up not making much sense. Naming no names, this does happen, and while it reinforces the point above, does not reinforce it any more with repeats of the same experience. They are merely dull to read. So, for me, are all the stories where this is just the cue to descend into fantasy. Yes, I know what wise old Arthur said about any sufficiently advanced technology being indistinguishable from magic, but it tends to be fantasy of a peculiarly undisciplined kind. Fantasy which works (hardly any of it, for me, but I daresay that is my problem) needs rules. After the big S, there aren’t any (are there? I guess laws of physics apply, but any science fiction  writer with the multiverse at their disposal can easily change them).

More subtly, in some ways, you can write through the singularity and pretend it makes no real difference to the people you started with. This is often because they are now simulacra in some artificial world, and can be reproduced so perfectly they are indistinguishable from their pre-singularity selves. This also seems kind of pointless, in narrative terms, as the main fresh possibility it opens up is whether the characters in question realise they are now inside a simulation, and whether they care/what they try and do about it. (A suitably chilling early answer to that question was Harlan Ellison’s classic I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream. The hapless characters who do the bidding of Ellisons’ all-powerful, human-hating supercomputer aren’t actually inside a simulation, but their situation has many of the same qualities. It is a kind of pre-emptive response to Frank Tipler’s vision of heaven being located at the Omega Point. There are copies around on the web if you haven’t read it…  but the author is, er, keen on defending his copyright.)

Or, you can have your characters live through the singularity, and take advantage of lots of bizarre and fantastic possibilities, but retain essentially the same personalities and temperaments they had before. This, I think, is what Charles Stross does in Accelerando. His people get incarnated inside machines, killed and reborn, travel through the galaxy in miniaturised computers, and comment on all these things. But they don’t really change, in their essentials. This is a bit of a cheat, but a necessary one to avoid the main trap of loss of sense. It still has the problem that, once no-one need ever die and can essentially have anything they want if they play their cards right it gets harder to care about the contingencies of their story – a danger Stross was presumably aware of when he called the singularity the equivalent of pixie dust.

There is a final variant, a kind of left behind, which I quite like. This involves the advent of self-amplifying artificial intelligences which grow so clever and powerful, so fast, their newly-created virtual worlds immediately interest them far more than any interaction they could possibly have with their human progenitors. They essentially disappear, rather like stuff going on behind the event horizon of the other kind of singularity.

A nice example is a story I just came across by the Bristol writer Gareth Powell. The title story of his collection The Last Reef, depicts people having unpredictable encounters with reefs – the accumulated detritus from nodes of a bootstrapped artificial intelligence network which has left such remnants lying around the solar system. Some harbour weird but useful technologies they made along the way, which scavengers can try and work out. One, encountered on Mars, is still open to human interaction, but absolutely anything can happen. It turns into a characters-saved-inside-a-simulation story after a bit, but the image of the artificial reef is a striking one.

Don’t know if this inventory is exhaustive, but so far it seems to confirm that an actual vision of the singularity is an impossibility. All you can do is make meta-statements like Damian Broderick’s: “By the end of the twenty-first century, there might well be no humans (as we recognize ourselves) left on the planet – but, paradoxically, nobody alive then will complain about that, any more than we bewail the loss of Neanderthals.”

Like he says, this assumes no-one like us is left behind, so rules out the other post-S narratives too. It also seems a bit hard on the Neanderthals, a sub-species whose loss some people, at least, do bewail, and who it would be good to know more about. But still, you get the point. And in time, if we are in some way recognised – even, maybe on a good day, venerated – as worthy ancestors, our actual lives might seem as curious to those to come as, say, meercats seem to us. Cute, amusing, worth a well-made documentary every now and again but not, you know, especially relevant to our own culture.

As I say, doubtless not exhaustive. What have I missed?

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3 Comments on “Where no (transhu)man has gone before…”

  1. […] post:  Where no (transhu)man has gone before… Leave a […]

  2. Oliver Says:

    “naming no names” — for shame! chicken….

  3. jonturney Says:

    trying to be nice…

    But I did think the narrative of Queen City Jazz got well out of hand long before the end of volume 1 (of 3!). P’raps the J-word raised my expectations.

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