Vernor Vinge has a sequel out to A Fire Upon the Deep, which I am quite excited about (though marginally less excited than I might have been for a sequel to A Deepness in the Sky, c’est la vie). As I prepare to plop down a couple of sawbucks to purchase this novel in old fashioned paper (take that computer God!), I have been ruminating on one of Vinge’s great gifts to the world of science fiction writing: THE COMING TECHNOLOGICAL SINGULARITY. This is the notion that, at some possibly near future point, machine intelligence will develop and then be bent on designing better machine intelligence, on and on, ad infinitum. Of course I paint this in the simplest of terms and the subtleties and variations on this idea are legion, but what it gives us (the writers of sci fi) is a sort of future BC/AD event which we must deal with, even if our method of dealing with it is to ignore it completely. Don’t knock that last method- space operas are largely built by ignoring the possibility of the TS.
Warning!!! Spoiler Alert!!! The following paragraph will ruin Peter F. Hamilton’s Night’s Dawn Trilogy if you have yet to read it!!! It is like 6ooo pages long, so I don’t necessarily recommend it unless you are just into that type of masochism in your reading, but if you are and you want to read it someday- don’t read on!!!
About six months ago I read Peter F. Hamilton’s Night’s Dawn Trilogy, a space opera of such heft and detail that I had to stop using Listerine as a mouthwash (and switch to… wait for it… Scope [ha!]). AI in this world of nanonically enhanced brains is the merest automation- really classy data mining. So there are no self-aware programs… except for maybe the one… the one that ends the story. The whole thing is resolved (annoyingly) by this machine god floating by itself in space that just fixes everything. I’m not kidding, 6K pages only to have a machine singularity go “your wish is granted, everything is now okay!” That might have left a bad taste in my mouth, though the novels did stick with me and I like his old school writing style, but I digress. Peter F. Hamilton dealt with the Singularity by saying, “it will happen, just not for a long, long time.” Vinge deals with it a different way in his far-future space operas by having “Zones of Thought,” i.e. regions of the galaxy where the rules of physics differ making basic thought in the center of the galaxy impossible while at the outer edges mortals transcend to godhood. Whatever your recipe- you must deal with the Singularity. Here is a very short, informal list of ways to write science fiction without trying to “write for God.”
1. Iiiiiiiit’s The Apocalypse!: Yes, nothing gets you away from pesky transhumanism than a good old fashioned collapse of society. Plague, nuclear annihilation, cosmic disaster- all will be your friends when the only rocket ships you need to write about are the burnt out husks that your protagonists hide in near Huntsville while passing through the Northern Alabama Free Simpletons Kingdom on there way back home with the very last copy of Paradise Lost. (that’s actually pretty good… hands off)
2. I Know Kung-Fu!: Thanks to the Matrix films, even soccer moms can’t shake the feeling that the world they are living in is just some sort of complicated simulation in which they are forced to comply. The idea goes way, way back of course. The
earliest form of it I know of is Descartes’ Evil Demon argument of systematic doubt (which leads to the famous dictum “I think, therefore I am”). In a simulation, you have a quite infinite playground that is perfectly compatible with a post human world!
3. Quest for Fire: Mark II!: All the people are gone, turned into machine/human meta-beings, but a few zygote bearing individuals stayed, got stuck on, or were left behind on good old Earth. They rebuild on the abandoned ruins of the former inhabitants, perhaps seeing them as gods. This works well for another intelligent species that might rise up on Earth, or perhaps you can go really retro and make it about the discovery of a former intelligent species that has been singularityized.
4. Well Isn’t This Disappointing?: There just isn’t a ghost in the machine after all. Vinge calls this scenario, “The Age of Failed Dreams.” It is a proposed alternative to the TS in which all our greatest technological postulations turn out to be hooey. Things plod on in a fairly linear way from where they are now, with lots of people going “where are the flying cars?” and considerably less people going “where is the silicon messiah?”
5. Steam Punk.: I want this sub-genre to go away really badly. I’ve always viewed it as the triumph of style over substance. Fantasy masquerading as a form of sci-fi. But the shit seems to sell and the cos-play kids at the conventions show no sign of giving up brass gears as earrings, so this is a surefire way to write free of the Singularity. I exclude China Mieville from my loathing as he is a self-proclaimed fantasist, his novels work, and I’m pretty sure that he can, would, (and one day will) kick the living snot out of me. Really, have you seen this guy? He’s like a cross between Che and Mr. Clean.
6. I won’t tell if you won’t!: In other words- ignore it. Make happy, super-intelligent AI piloting everything from star ships to coffee makers and make their existences occur completely free of greater consequences. If the story telling is good, the cute cat is in a particularly precarious tree, then many readers will ignore the problem. Fewer publishers will do the same, but then again, if the cat is really cute…
7. I don’t have to tell!: Just write around it. Even Ray Kurzweil, the great TS popularizing prophet thinks that we have several decades before the coming singularity. With all that time and potential for stories, you should never really run out of room to write. Really, if you are writing a cyber-sleuth or biomedical thriller set in 2037, California, what ground do you need to concede to some postulated- even inevitable- human event? None.
8. Behold brothers and sisters, I give you Utah!: (space Mormons) Fed up with the advances in human/machine interface, colonists move to the fringes of space to start anew in Luddite splendor. Fill in story where needed.
That is this. I hope you are all keeping up with your reading. Cheers