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Digital Rapture: the Singularity Anthology
edited by James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel
Tachyon, 432 pages

Digital Rapture: the Singularity Anthology
John Kessel
John Kessel was born in 1950 in Buffalo, NY. He received a B.A. in English and Physics from the University of Rochester in 1972, an M.A. in English from the University of Kansas in 1974, and a Ph.D. in English from the University of Kansas in 1981. From 1979 to 1982 he worked as an editor for Commodity News Services in Leawood, Kansas. Since 1982 he has taught American literature, science fiction, fantasy, and fiction writing at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. He is a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA).

John Kessel Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Corrupting Dr. Nice
SF Site Review: The Pure Product

James Patrick Kelly
James Patrick Kelly has been a full-time writer since 1977. He has won Hugo Awards for his stories "Think Like a Dinosaur" (1995) and "1016 to 1" (1999) and a Locus Award for short story "Itsy Bitsy Spider" (1997). He has also published a number of novels, the latest being Wildlife (1994). He lives in Nottingham, New Hampshire, with his wife and children.

James Patrick Kelly Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Nebula Awards Showcase 2012
SF Site Review: Kafkaesque
SF Site Review: The Secret History of Science Fiction
SF Site Review: Rewired: The Post-Cyberpunk Anthology
SF Site Review: Feeling Very Strange
SF Site Review: Feeling Very Strange
SF Site Review: Strange But Not A Stranger

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Paul Kincaid

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The period between the two world wars was the heyday of the autodidact, and publishers responded by producing books by eminent thinkers and scientists like Bertrand Russell and J.B.S. Haldane aimed at the general public. One of the oddest and most influential of these was published by Cape in 1929. It was written by the pioneer of X-ray crystallography, J.D. Bernal, but his slim volume was far more wide ranging than that specialisation might suggest. His book addressed the three enemies of humanity's future, and was thus entitled, taking a line from the Bible, The World, the Flesh and the Devil. It was an extraordinary exercise in what we would now call futurology, during the course of which, among other things, he proposed a form of space habitat. But what is of particular interest here is his second chapter, "Flesh." Here, more than a decade before the first computer and much longer before anyone started thinking in terms of digital futures, he discussed posthumanity. After an extended lifespan, he suggested that people might experience a form of immortality by having their brains preserved in a special container. This would communicate with the world through a variety of radio and televisual links, and use a whole range of specialist mechanical devices to manoeuvre and manipulate things. He even proposed that direct brain-to-brain contact might bring a whole new level of human understanding.

It was an extraordinary work, especially when you consider the context in which it was written. Certainly it is safe to say that no subsequent writer on posthumanity has been anything like as radical as Bernal. And Bernal's influence can be traced, directly or indirectly, in the work of just about every science fiction writer who came after, from Olaf Stapledon and Arthur C. Clarke to Bruce Sterling and Stephen Baxter. Though Bernal never wrote a word of fiction, and is probably largely forgotten today, he remains one of the most important figures in the history of twentieth century science fiction.

It is fitting, therefore, that Bernal's chapter, "Flesh," is effectively the starting point for this anthology which explores the development of the notion of the singularity, carefully using non-fiction pieces to counterpoint the short stories chosen. But if Bernal's work is the starting point, the hinge around which this whole book turns is inevitably Vernor Vinge's address to a NASA symposium in 1993, "The Coming Technological Singularity." Vinge's paper has a good claim to have been as influential on subsequent science fiction as Bernal's book was. Science fiction writers, especially those raised on cyberpunk, latched on to the idea of the singularity and the posthuman future it promised.

Yet, for all its influence, Vinge's paper is a strange piece of work. He begins by listing a series of achievements in artificial intelligence that computer science may attain within the foreseeable future. (Twenty years later, and right in the middle of the period that Vinge identifies as when the singularity will arrive, I am not sure that computer science is close to success in any one of these areas.) Having said that such and such may be possible, he then goes on to assume that it certainly will happen, and the rest of the paper is given over to considering the consequences of this. All the familiar tropes of posthuman sf -- downloaded personalities, multiple copies of ourselves, digital immortality and the like -- can all be traced back to this essay.

If we take Bernal and Vinge as the yin and yang of this anthology, then the early stories that lean towards the yin tend to be humane, positing a future that, for all its strangeness, will still be comprehensible, will still be guided by human considerations from survival to ethics. On the other hand, the later stories that tend towards the yang concentrate on the weirdness of the future, a dazzling bombardment of oddities and recursion in which all that survives of recognisable humanity feels trapped. The early stories can be mechanistic in their structure (as in "The Last Question" by Isaac Asimov), the later stories can be so crammed with novelty that they become incoherent (as in "True Names" by Cory Doctorow and Benjamin Rosenbaum), but it is the difference between them that is really interesting.

The pre-Singularity stories look forward to change that is every bit as rapid and comprehensive as the post-Singularity stories. But although humanity might change, they remain essentially human figures in a landscape. "The Last Question" traces human life through until the heat death of the universe. The nature of the human characters changes dramatically, they move from the Earth to the other planets and then out into Galactic space, but two things remain constant that would not be the case in the post-Singularity stories. In the first place, the humans remain separate from their computer; in the second, although they might have increasing control of their environment, spreading out across the universe, they never remake the universe, they do not shape their environment at will. The human characters in Frederik Pohl's "Day Million," probably the best individual story in the collection, have changed more rapidly and more comprehensively than Asimov's characters, and they live in a world in which much is taken for granted that is incomprehensible to us. But the sense you get throughout is that they comprehend it, it is commonplace to them; and though they move through a landscape that is beyond our ken, their reactions to it and to each other remains essentially human. In fact the continuing humanity of posthuman beings is one of the characteristic features of these early stories, best typified, perhaps, by the extract from Olaf Stapledon's Odd John in which the superman character is found to be a thief and a murderer, and therefore must explore issues of moral responsibility, issues strangely absent from the post-Singularity stories.

What happens in the stories that come after Vinge's paper is not that the idea of posthumanity begins to appear, as we have seen, that was already a commonplace. But rather, the nature of posthumanity changes. Now we achieve this state by merging, in some way or other, with the computer, the future becomes not human but digital and, although this is never spelt out, one side effect of this would seem to be that the moral issues concommitent with our humanity now seem to be redundant. In stories like "Hive Mind Man" by Rudy Rucker and Eileen Gunn or "Firewall" by David D. Levine, we might be reluctant to embrace this digital posthumanity because the immensity of what is being opened up is akin to madness. But that very mad immensity is precisely what separates this digital existence from humanity, and hence from moral considerations.

The archetypal story here is, perhaps not surprisingly, from Vernor Vinge himself. "The Cookie Monster" is the story of a bunch of students who find they have been replicated inside a computer programme, performing seemingly meaningless tasks that become meaningful through sheer repetition. But they have found a way to communicate with themselves from repetition to repetition until they gradually begin to solve the mystery of their existence. It's a complex story whose central mystery deepens satisfactorily as the story progresses, but what is interesting is that the issue at the heart of the story is one of identity not one of morality.

There is a progression within the structure of the book. The first part, "The End of the Human Era," has one essay (Bernal) and two stories (Asimov, Pohl). The second part, "The Posthumans," has one essay (Vinge) and three stories (Stapledon, Rucker & Gunn, and "Sunken Gardens" by Bruce Sterling). The third part, "Across the Event Horizon," has one essay ("The Six Epochs" by Ray Kurzweil) and four stories (Levine, Vinge, plus "Crystal Nights" by Greg Egan and "Cracklegrackle" by Justina Robson). The fourth and final part, "The Others," has one essay ("The Great Awakening" by Rudy Rucker) and five stories (Doctorow & Rosenbaum, plus "Nightfall" by Charles Stross, "Coelacanths" by Robert Reed, "The Server and the Dragon" by Hannu Rajaniemi, and "The Inevitable Heat Death of the Universe" by Elizabeth Bear).

(Parenthetically, I note with curiosity the way this last set of stories echoes the titles of older science fictions. Stross reuses a famous Asimov title, Doctorow and Rosenbaum pick up on a Vinge title, and Bear comes within an ace of reusing the title of Pamela Zoline's seminal new wave story. I wonder what this might signify?)

The development of the idea of the singularity is obviously building up to those pieces gathered as "The Others," though it has to be said that the rather feeble title, and some of the comments in the otherwise excellent introduction by James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel suggests that the editor's themselves don't really know what to make of this last set of stories. Certainly these stories take us a long way past the stage represented by Vinge's "The Cookie Monster"; humanity is now so far in the past that human concerns like morality are long forgotten, and even identity is no longer an issue, instead the mad immensity of the digital universe has been unquestioningly embraced. The touchstone here, and by some way the longest story in the book, is "True Names" by Doctorow and Rosenbaum. Here we get fractured characters on a fractured worldlet in a fractured universe; there are multiple versions of the same person; and though there is an ongoing war it is impossible for even the participants to know which side they are on or what the actual issues are. Now there are very fine stories in which the characters do not know all that is going on; but here even those who shape events do not know, because they are acting against versions of themselves that they do not know. It is a story in which characters constantly merge with themselves and split from themselves, in which characters may well be at war with themselves. This is, in human terms at least, a mad world, and there are many times when it seems that the story gets beyond the control of the authors also. But then, that is the case with most of these later stories, the singularity is a case in which anything may happen, and more than likely does. It is not, I think, a future that J.D. Bernal would ever recognise.

Copyright © 2013 by Paul Kincaid

Paul Kincaid is the recipient of the SFRA's Thomas D. Clareson Award for Distinguished Service for 2006. His collection of essays and reviews, What it is we do when we read science fiction is published by Beccon Publications.


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