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March 2017



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S1ngularity, and why I won't be going on the rapture of the geeks. (Keeping up with the future)

David Moles (who, I must say, I deeply respect--and not just because he pays me) made a comment in Jed's blog that "but if you don't address the Singularity (declaring its impossiblity by fiat doesn't count), you're living in the 80s" SF right now, and I'm like what? You are? Why, because it's SFnal consensus reality this week?

Because last week, SF consensus reality was cyberpunk, and the week before, it was Galactic Empires spreading Mom and Apple Pie to the stars. I don't buy Singularity--I've said it elsewhere--because I think it's an inherently naive concept, which (as SF, historically, has) ignores the fact that Much Of Humanity Ain't Like Us. Besides, I also kind of think Singularity is being worked pretty hard right now, and it's more interesting to address other things.

And I think the most interesting work done after the cyberpunk wave crested was the work that moved away from cyberpunk and toward something else--the work, in other words, that wasn't the trend. (there's also some interesting discussion of this over in nihilistic_kid today, which is why I went back and read the comments section today)

In other words, the rapture of the geeks is all very nice for the geeks, but what the hell do you do with all those telephone santizers? (Remember those telephone sanitizers? Remember the moral of the story? The moral of the story is, systems break down in unexpected way.) (In a related note, the more conservative definition of Singularity--the one where we can't keep track of the technology any more in any kind of a meaningful fashion? That happened in... 1993. Or thereabouts.)

What do you do with all the people who, for one reason or another, don't want to/get to go?

Very interesting to me, especially since one of the things I wanted to do with Worldwired is deconstruct Singularity a bit. Hammered is not-cyberpunk, or post-cyberpunk, in that I like to think it challenges some of cyberpunk's basic assumptions. Worldwired (and I don't think, given the title, it's too big of a spoiler to mention) does discuss the concepts of Singularity and Transcendent AIs; I wonder if I can claim it as post-Singularity the same way Hammered is post-cyberpunk?

Heh. Well, I probably could. But it would be awfully arrogant to presume I succeeded in what I was attempting, with regard to the genre dialogue. At the very least, I tried to take a few chips out of the monolithic idea.

(I sometimes think I'm a bit at the edge of the bell curve for being an SF writer who grew up working class. My parents and their parents are/were tradesmen and soldiers and white and pink collar workers, immigrants and the children of immigrants. And artists, and thinkers. My dad's a cabinetmaker and a luthier; my mother's a medical unit coordinator and a poet and a breeder of champion show dogs; my grandfather was a plumber and an incredibly talented sketch artist. And all of us were and are science fiction readers, and popular science readers, and mad speculators about the universe. I think it's a strength; makes me a bit suspicious of the middle-class assumptions that a lot of SF makes.)

Transcendent AI, I have different problems with. Which basically boil down to--why do we necessarily assume that thinking faster is thinking better? And what makes us assume that our problems would just be fixed if we were smarter and had smarter, friendlier AIs to look out for us? That's a big assmption right there, and it ignores such things as differences in individual motivation and the fact that the brightest of us can make mistakes. Or be monsters, for that matter.

My name is Ozymandias, king of kings--

I think Alan Moore put paid to that one already.

So yes, to me, a lot of the thought behind Singularity (and the search for it as a positive thing) reminds me of the charming sort of naivete that gave us the Organians and Q. (Which isn't to say that the *work* being done by various SF writers in Singularity-based universes is naive. Some of it is brilliant. But I think it's a wave that's crested already. And I think the idea that a Singularity can be expected in our lifetimes... well. That's unlikely at best.)

Very very smart people aren't necessarily right more often than anybody else. They're just wrong faster, and in more innovative ways. So again, the speed ofchange picks up, and the future becomes a blur, ad things happen before they get started? We're living that now. A science fiction novel I finished editing a year ago is already dated; it used to be you got a decade if you were lucky. Soon, it'll be a week. We can't keep up with the future now.

S'okay. We squint at the target and squeeze off a shot. What happens next is anybody's guess.

Which is cool, really. I didn't get my flying cars, and I didn't get my neural jacks, and I didn't get my galactic federation of Mom and Apple Pie, and I'm not getting the Matrix either. It doesn't matter. Science fiction isn't about predicting the future.

Science fiction is a useful form of allegory. It's is about discussing the now.


Apologies for the slight incoherence of the previous comment - I was writing in a rush before I left work. Now I'm home I might be slightly less frenetic. :)

Because SF seems to me to have been about change continually since about the time we stopped spreading Mom and Apple Pie to the stars.

Yes, ok, that's absolutely true, but I think what's (relatively) new and (most fully) expressed in singularity fiction is the idea that we might not even be able to understand the future (and by metaphorical extension, that we can't understand the present). If you look at it this way, it's the extreme forward edge of sf-about-change. You say you don't equate singularity with change; that's all I equate it with. Change to the nth degree.

I'm happy to express skepticism about the actual historical inevitability of a Vingean singularity. One of Norman Spinrad's book review columns in Asimov's, a while back, made the point that the period 1850-1925 arguably experienced more and more fundamental changes than 1925-2000. That said, I think the general concept of singularity - one-way historical gates - is sound. Another example Vinge gives is the development of agriculture, arguing that once you move from hunter-gathering to crowing crops you literally cannot go back again, and people on either side of the divide probably will think differently to each other. That seems likely to me, and the idea that something similar could happen in our future is plausible. Whether or not it involves AI is definitely up for debate.

(It's been pointed out, can't remember who by, that alien colonisation fits one of the classic definitions of singularity: humans will no longer be able to anticipate historical development because it will be out of their hands.)

And I don't really mean to suggest that non-singularity sf is inferior, only that it's different. Space opera, most of it, is basically an orphan future now; nobody really believes any more that it can happen that way. But I'm not ready to give up space opera - it's a useful set of furniture for writers to play with. And hell, the novel I'm reading at the moment, The Snow by Adam Roberts, is a global apocalypse novel that at least partly reads like it's coming out of the sixties - Wyndham, Ballard, all of that.

So, I don't think we disagree all that much, actually! And thanks for the welcome. Seems interesting here. :)
Sungularity as not just change, but phase change.

That said, I think the general concept of singularity - one-way historical gates - is sound.

You won't get any argument from me there.

I agree with your concept of 'furniture for writers to play with.' And some conversations--if you want to contribute to them, you de facto sort of have to shrug on the conventions by means of which those conversations have been carried out, even if you deconstruct them a little.