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Off On A Tangent: F&SF Style
by Dave Truesdale

Through The Singularity Glass:
The Emperor's Rice Revisited

The Singularity is a term well known to the science fiction community. Though the term is not new, it is now being applied in ways much broader from its original meaning. Its generally understood designation is derived from a mathematical concept, that of the gravitational singularity, whereby a gravitational field becomes strong enough to alter the very nature of space-time, which in turn leads to a black hole (the creation of said black hole is precipitated when an ageing white dwarf star of certain mass degenerates in certain ways—look up the Chandrasekhar limit for the particulars), and is named thus because the force of gravity has become so great that nothing can escape from this singular point, not even light (i.e. electromagnetic radiation). The point at which the accumulated force of gravity becomes so great that anything and everything is sucked into its maw, this tipping point if you will, is known as the event horizon. A black hole cannot be directly observed because it swallows the spectrum of visible light which the human eye is capable of observing. It is most commonly detected from the movement of visible objects beyond its event horizon, such as orbiting stars affected by the gravitational pull beyond the event horizon—or point of no return; the gravity is strong enough to alter the stars' usual orbits, but not yet strong enough to pull them within the black hole's gravity well. Thus, we view the singularity known as a black hole indirectly, from its effects on surrounding objects.

While this general singularity theory began with the mathematics of geometry, it has been adapted and applied to many other disciplines. A brief mention of but one will suffice to illustrate that singularity theory engenders many applications in the "real" world. One such is catastrophe theory. It derives from the aforementioned general singularity concept, but is devoted to the study of dynamic systems and is a subset of bifurcation theory. And within this ever more esoteric area of study there are even subsets of catastrophe theory. There are fold catastrophes, cusp catastrophes, and even swallowtail and butterfly catastrophe subsets. The ways in which the basic singularity theory is now being explored are seemingly endless.

The most recent popular aspect of the Singularity phenomenon was first brought to the field's attention twenty-five years ago by award-winning hard SF author Vernor Vinge; it has now become a commonplace. The concept of the computer-generated Singularity (which manifests itself as transhumanism in numerous SF stories) is now long one of the staples in the SF writer's toolbox; a trope even, at its numinous core, yet flexible enough to admit countless avenues for exploration by the field's more ambitious, imaginative practitioners. While having nothing to do with the singularity involved with black holes, it nevertheless extracts from it the fundamental, defining predicate of (what I call) the Tipping Point theory.

For those new to modern science-fiction and to Vinge's reapplication of the Singularity concept, a brief explanation is in order. Though Vinge coined the term for his specific usage, it was British mathematician I. J. Good who came up with the theory in 1965. Good's initial ideation was put forth in the following quote (emphasis mine): "Let an ultraintelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultraintelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an 'intelligence explosion,' and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus the first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make." Agree with Good's last assertion or not, his core idea of a machine intelligent enough to make an even more intelligent machine, which could then create an even more intelligent machine, which would eventually give us a true Artificial Intelligence (AI), is what the initial hubbub is all about.1 While this process may begin so slowly that we may not notice the signposts, the speed at which it accelerates is geometric, to the point where once this rapidly onrushing tide of technology is visible, or apparent by other means (by indirect effects, as in the original black hole scenario), it may be too late to forestall. A tipping point will have been reached over which we (the individual in the micro view, or governments in the macro) will have little (if any) control, much less be able in a rational or practical way to deal. Our world will be altered in innumerable unforeseen ways: the genie of Machine Intelligence will be out of the proverbial bottle for good (or ill), and there will be no returning it to its subservient home, once again under its masters' firm (and hopefully, ethical) control. This state of affairs, should it be reached, is known—in science fictional terminology—as a post-Singularity world. A world in which humanity will be transformed irrevocably, in many instances physically, due to the latest generation of computer (AI)-generated technologies (increasingly miniaturized brain chips able to perform all sorts of functions as yet undreamt of, body modifications [internal as well as external] due to the rise of microscopic nano-machines, with which we could alter our human form, or live greatly extended lifespans . . . the list is frighteningly endless, limited by our own imaginations, ethics, and egos). Enter the post-Singularity term of transhuman. (For those interested in exploring some of the speculations of what it may mean to be 'transhuman' in a post-Singularity world, we are given Transhuman, edited by Mark L. Van Name & T. K. F. Weisskopf (Baen, hc, Feb., 2008). Of the eleven stories, you'll find entries by such as Wil McCarthy, David D. Levine, Dave Freer, and James P. Hogan, not all of whom agree that we are approaching this computer/AI-generated post-Singularity world. Many of the scenarios—pro and con—make for thoughtful reading.)

But Good's original epiphany of a machine-created "intelligence explosion" has spawned several variations—or interpretations—since 1965. There are two basic, primary schools of thought evolved from the original concept, both having strong adherents and detractors.

One branch of Singularity theory is perhaps the more popular with SF readers, and is the one advanced by Vernor Vinge. Vinge essentially holds with Good's theory that the Singularity will happen following the point in time at which a sufficiently powerful AI is "born," and/or can possibly interface with the human brain, creating a sort of superhuman intelligence.

The branch of Singularity theory espoused by well-known futurist Ray Kurzweil has it that the onset of Vinge's singularity event is but part of a more all-encompassing technological, geometrically exponential series of developments (i.e. there are bound to be "tipping points"/singularities in more than just Good's and Vinge's post-Singularity/transhuman scenario, that exponential growth is not limited to one area). Kurzweil goes so far as to predict that this geometric acceleration of technology (not just computer technology) will hit its singularity tipping point in the year 2045.

For those desiring further information on the Singularity and all of its fascinating (both positive and negative) implications, I heartily recommend the following website: singularityhub.com. Its most recent article is a summary report on the 2008 Singularity Summit, held October 25, 2008 at the Montgomery Theatre in San Jose, CA. Among the approximately 500 attendees were Ray Kurzweil and Vernor Vinge.

To illustrate the basic "tipping point" predicate of Singularity theory, as acknowledged and expressed by both Vinge and Kurzweil's interpretations, as well as fundamental black hole event horizon theory, the following classic story nails the basic principle (however arrived at or achieved; tipping points are uncovered in surprising ways once the principle is applied):

["The Law of Accelerating Returns," by Ray Kurzweil, March 7, 2001; www.kurzweilai.net/articles/art0134.html?printable=1]:

"To appreciate the nature and significance of the coming 'singularity,' it is important to ponder the nature of exponential growth. Toward this end, I am fond of telling the tale of the inventor of chess and his patron, the emperor of China. In response to the emperor's offer of a reward for his new beloved game, the inventor asked for a single grain of rice on the first square, two on the second square, four on the third, and so on. The Emperor quickly granted this seemingly benign and humble request. One version of the story has the emperor going bankrupt as the 63 doublings ultimately totaled 18 million trillion grains of rice. At ten grains of rice per square inch, this requires rice fields covering twice the surface area of the Earth, oceans included. Another version of the story has the inventor losing his head.

"It should be pointed out that as the emperor and the inventor went through the first half of the chess board, things were fairly uneventful. The inventor was given spoonfuls of rice, then bowls of rice, then barrels. By the end of the first half of the chess board, the inventor had accumulated one large field's worth (4 billion grains), and the emperor did start to take notice. It was as they progressed through the second half of the chessboard that the situation quickly deteriorated. Incidentally, with regard to the doublings of computation, that's about where we stand now—there have been slightly more than 32 doublings of performance since the first programmable computers were invented during World War II."

And also from Kurzweil (italics mine):

"This 'law of accelerating returns' applies to all of technology, indeed to any true evolutionary process, and can be measured with remarkable precision in information based technologies. There are a great many examples of the exponential growth implied by the law of accelerating returns in technologies as varied as DNA sequencing, communication speeds, electronics of all kinds, and even in the rapidly shrinking size of technology. The Singularity results not from the exponential explosion of computation alone, but rather from the interplay and myriad synergies that will result from manifold intertwined technological revolutions. Also, keep in mind that every point on the exponential growth curves underlying these panoply of technologies represents an intense human drama of innovation and competition. It is remarkable therefore that these chaotic processes result in such smooth and predictable exponential trends."
Much as Sun Tzu's definitive 5th century B.C treatise The Art of War outlines timeless stratagems and theories for conquering one's opponents on the field of battle, the same over-arching philosophy as embodied in specific tactics has been applied to such diverse arenas as modern business and even sports, to name two. Any cursory check of a bookstore will find numerous disciplines (some rather bizarre) adapting Sun Tzu's basic tenets for achieving one's goals. The same would seem to apply to the myriad ingenious ways basic Singularity theory is being applied: from the tipping point of gravitational forces leading to the event horizon of a black hole, to the tipping point in the evolution of computers to self-replicating computers, leading to an AI powerful enough to transform humanity itself with its capabilities, to an already occurring paradigm shift in the size of computer chips which will lead to nanomachines (which will make these little wonders able to perform . . . magic), to Kurzweil's application which includes all technological change, and even unto Catastrophe theory and its subsets, which are at this moment in full exploratory swing.

The possibilities for application of basic ("tipping point") Singularity theory are seemingly endless. Below are a few taken from just the scientific point of view:

 •  Gravitational singularity, a point in spacetime in which gravitational forces cause matter to have an infinite density and zero volume
 •  Prandtl-Glauert singularity, the point at which a sudden drop in air pressure occurs
 •  Singularity (climate), a weather phenomenon associated with a specific calendar date
 •  Technological singularity, a theoretical point in the development of a scientific civilization

(The above are cited at: www.answers.com/topic/singularity)

Some of the more abstract, higher mathematics involved in showing how its effects impact our here-and-now society are fascinating, if rather arcane and incomprehensible to the lay person. But some of the ones I have looked at (briefly, before my eyes glazed over with the graphs and charts and hieroglyphic-inspired math symbols) do seem to hold water and do open one's eyes to things never before imagined. What today's mathematician-magicians are wringing from Singularity theory can almost be seen as a quantum leap in itself when it comes to predictive science.

Which leads me now to pose a question as it concerns recent trends in the world of science fiction awards, namely the Nebula and/or Hugo awards for short fiction. It has occurred to me as a somewhat more than armchair observer of these things (and the following has been brought to my direct attention by several others, as well as general grumblings along these lines from assorted blogs and message board posts scattered far and wide), that over the past five years or so (no one has a precise date, but all agree that something in the five-year time frame seems about right) there have been more than the usual number of less than award-worthy choices making the final ballot(s) in the short fiction categories—and some even winning, raising more than the expected number of eyebrows.

Is there something to these observations, or are they naught but the perennial dissatisfactions voiced since the Hugos were first given out in the 1950s and the Nebula's in the mid-1960s, and thus to be dismissed out of hand?

No one seems able to get a handle on this, by way of a viable all-encompassing theory. I've come across those who toss out bumper sticker answers: the field is changing (what does that mean, exactly??), people don't read short fiction as much these days (we've heard this one for many years now, so it doesn't explain the "five-year" complaint), or, lacking an easy bumper sticker answer, some simply shrug, offering that it's no big deal (which is perhaps the most exasperating non-response of all).

It would appear a given that all of the above responses are at least partially correct. The SF field has always been changing (and with it the stories and the tastes of its readers, award-nominators, and voters). If magazine circulation numbers for the past three-plus decades are any indication, then people aren't reading as much short SF/F as they used to (it doesn't appear that those reading exclusively online are in significant enough numbers to account for the loss in magazine readership, which began their steady decline as far back as the 1970s). And yes, there have always been those who have shrugged it all away, either from not-caring about the issue or at least not enough for it to bother them.

With the advent of the computer revolution and the internet, however, a huge X-factor has now entered the equation. Many of the usual number of startup SF/F magazines who would have, in years gone by, folded, have simply moved to the web; there to struggle to find their particular niche audience much more cheaply and immediately (in terms of availability). As well, new magazines in numbers never before seen, debut directly on the web. An interesting phenomenon if looked at closely enough, is that most (not all) attempt to cater to an ever-fragmented (and therefore smaller) niche audience. Most new online venues run to the current, popular genre du jour: "spec fic." More often than not emphasizing "literary" quality and character pieces, with slight sfnal or fantasy elements, they nevertheless comprise a voting bloc. Never mind that most of these folk wrongly equate "character" stories with "literary," for very much of current SF is written just as eloquently and with as much elan and insight as the so-called "best" of the literary mainstream.

There are a few online magazines with an encyclopedia's worth of writer guidelines (as opposed to the usual helpful, shorter guidelines offered by the more professional markets, which are much less restrictive). These more restrictive online markets, through their guidelines, serve to fragment the SF/F field even further. For example, one such startup market, in its guidelines, pronounces that it specifically seeks "Speculative Fiction For The Rest Of Us." Feeling alienated, and finding the web (a new development and avenue in SF history when given the long view of things) a ready place to find their SF/F audience, they reach out in an effort to print stories they feel address under-represented ethnic, gender, and sexual minorities only. (They even refer, through a link, to the online magazine with the encyclopedic writer guidelines, asking writers to read their guidelines thoroughly, while disavowing any official connection to them, for this new magazine's name is quite similar). But let's get real here. No one is fooling anybody. This new magazine is just a more strict, even less-inclusive version of the former—all under the guise of under-represented diversity, and truthful representations thereof . . . or whatever euphemistic phraseology floats your boat. All of which is fine and dandy for their small readership, but does nothing for the vast potential readership they choose to actively ignore. The reverse of which philosophy (any top magazine market actively discouraging tales about ethnic, sexual, or gender minorities), in writer guidelines, I've never seen, ever, in one of the major SF/F markets. To be delightfully politically incorrect, this new magazine's guidelines could easily be spun/interpreted as reverse discrimination when it comes to white heterosexual males. Go on, read their guidelines. But more power to them . . . though their readership votes for the top awards just like anyone else.

But the point is this: the SF/F field, because of a variety of factors, some long in evidence and others now in progress (including, but not limited to, social and political change since the 1960s which drastically affected what and how SF/F was written, and now the advent of the computer and the internet) has become much more balkanized than ever before. To close observers this is a startling event when stepped away from and the larger picture seen in its entirety; perspective is a wonderful thing, lack of it most assuredly harmful. Lines are clearly drawn along social, political, and gender considerations on the one hand, and on the other there are those (newer writers and editors) writing and editing SF/F today who grew up and into SF at a time when the so-called "revolution" in SF—when issues of gender and politics were predominant (the 70s and 80s and mostly of a liberal persuasion)—are such that they have no real knowledge of the history of the SF field, its origin and function in relationship and counterpoint to traditional "literary" mainstream, non-genre fiction. But they too are a voting bloc, one which, in the aggregate, cares not a twit for science fiction as a unique, vital form of literature born of the 20th century, one which addresses the rapid technological change (and the social, philosophical, and religious upheavals brought about by the technological revolution) the last century bequeathed us, and how it affects society as a whole and individuals in the specific—in direct opposition and outlook to non-genre mainstream literary fiction, which is a static, backward-looking fiction concerned with how people feel about current quotidian, mundane problems and relationships. But this is where a great many of the new "spec fic" writers feel they must go in their fiction, to the small, the quotidian, the mundane, the thinly veiled mainstream piece written as SF or Fantasy. Be that as it may, they also vote for the top awards.

As far as award nominations and winners are concerned, we see more mediocre stories coming from these niche groups (or an overlapping combination therefrom), with just enough votes for their preferences to make the preliminary ballots (remember that the readership for short fiction has dwindled alarmingly over the years, and those who vote are an even smaller number, so it doesn't and hasn't taken all that many votes to get to the final ballot; and there is always that faction who shrug and don't care that much anyway, and will vote for anything if it looks popular from scanning major review venues, or is written by one of their friends). These stories may be the best of any particular little group, but won't truly be of award caliber by any reasonable, even semi-critical standard—stories worthy of showcasing to the outside world as representative of the best SF/F has to offer, and which might convince a newcomer to SF/F to buy more.

So is it any wonder that SF proponents feel it incumbent upon themselves to rally forces, to make sure at least one story from, say, Analog makes it onto a short fiction final ballot each year? Whether it's really a top notch piece or (once in a while) not? They've been reduced to niche status as well and feel it acutely. I realize how odd this may sound, but traditional science fiction fans feel just as marginalized as those many other factions now competing for SF's top awards, when the past five years or so have seen five stories win Nebula awards, where one story was a self-referential recursive exercise about an honored SF writer (Karen Joy Fowler's "What I Didn't See," short story 2003 Nebs), two more where it was hard put to find any real fantastical element of note without bending and stretching the imagination to its breaking point (Karen Joy Fowler's "Always," short story 2007 Nebs, and "Kelly Link's "Magic for Beginners," novella 2005 Nebs), and yet two others with almost negligible sf or fantasy elements to them, and which concentrated heavily on a single first person narrative describing internal ruminations and feelings (Ellen Klages' "Coming to Terms," short story 2004 Nebs, and Elizabeth Hand's marginally SF "Echo," short story 2006 Nebs; in this one the background is our {very near future} contemporary world in trouble, and concerns one woman's thoughts as she lives in isolation with her dogs; no problems are overcome or solved, it is her feelings and private, mundane thoughts taking center stage here). In fact, looking at the Nebula short fiction winners since 2003, we find that twelve have been either fantasy or mainstream, and only six have been SF. As the record clearly shows, fully two-thirds of the short fiction Nebula winners since 2003 have been fantasy or mainstream stories and only a third SF. A trend is definitely emerging, one away from SF and more toward fantasy and the mainstream. As well, of this predominant number of Nebula winning fantasy stories fully a third of them veer to the marginally genre or straight mainstream.

By contrast, the Hugo awards in the short fiction categories since 2003 show almost a total mirror image, with fourteen SF winners and four fantasy winners. Arguably, one or two of the SF winners might be tossed into the fantasy category since they straddle the line, but even with a new alignment we still show an exact reversal of numbers with twelve SF winners and six fantasy winners for the Hugos.

Statistics show for the past six years that two-thirds of the short fiction Hugo winners have been science fiction, while two-thirds of the short fiction Nebula winners have been fantasy (with a handful—nearly a third—having slight or no genre element to them at all). Truly amazing numbers.

While there are still readily observable examples of true SF on the ballots, one nevertheless notices, gradually and over time, a shift in those winning the top awards. It mightn't have been too noticeable at first and could've easily been explained away as a one-time quirk for such a story as any of the handful mentioned above to win, or of statistical irrelevance. But of late there have been a few more "weak" stories (weak in the sense of their SF or F element) on the final ballots (Andy Duncan's "Unique Chicken Goes in Reverse," 2008 Nebula finalist for short story, just to name a recent nominee, and add to this the stories cited above—the numbers are increasing). Can all of these stories be cavalierly attributed to the view that "the field is just changing?" Or can it be attributed to a confluence of forces combining in a balkanization of voting blocs the likes of which the field has never faced (clearly one large voting bloc within SFWA holds sway for now). Some of these forces are traditional (voting for friends, voting for the best from what little one has read, voting for a story one has only heard good things about, etc.), and some forces are relatively new: the internet/web, web publishing reaching a more niche-oriented target (but smaller) audience, and without doubt the fractious divide brought on by politics (liberal vs. conservative, strongly held views on gender, race, and political correctness, etc.—all issues allowing for no middle ground). It's utter folly at worst, and naivete at best to say real world issues don't impact SF, the stories written under its banner, and how people vote. Politics in one form or another is everywhere, and the SF field and its practitioners, readers, and voters are not immune. Analog voters (and other like-minded voters reading the other major magazines who desire to read true SF), it appears to me, feel threatened. Too many Nebula voters (read Active SFWA writers) don't seem to care if a story is of any particular kind (much less science-fiction in its umbrella sense), as long as it is, in their estimation, well written. Smacks of style over substance to my jaundiced eye, but that's just me. . . . Or is it? Are there others who still care and aren't intimidated by powerful book editors or the current "in crowd" to speak out? There may be a few, with any luck. There's nothing like a good old knock-down, drag-out "discussion" on private SFWA message boards I say. But I dream in futility, for I doubt such a meaningful, philosophical discussion along the lines of: Why are the Nebula short fiction awards being given to fewer and fewer SF stories and more and more to mainstream and fantasy-lite stories will ever happen.

But until then . . .

While the term Singularity lends itself to more disambiguation than almost any term I've ever run across, it does seem to explain many mysteries of the universe, including the approaching (or already arrived by stealth) singularity of the Nebula-award finalists (and alas, some probable future winners). Don't believe we've reached any sort of singularity yet? I beg your indulgence as I prove that a specific singularity theory is absolutely relevant to the breakdown of the (sometimes) Hugo and (much more in evidence) Nebula award voting process—or mechanisms for such, if you'd like—and is quite valid, pretty much clearing up the entire matter of the recent prevalence of weak and/or mainstream-shifted stories once and for all:

 •   Mechanical singularity, a position or configuration of a mechanism or a machine where the subsequent behavior cannot be predicted.

So there. But that's rather too easy, isn't it?

But seriously, for those who think I stretch the "final nomination" problem a bit too far by attempting to attribute it to the "tipping point" defining predicate of Singularity theory, I ask only that you remember a few words culled from above. As Ray Kurzweil notes (emphasis mine): " . . . keep in mind that every point on the exponential growth curves underlying these panoply of technologies represents an intense human drama of innovation and competition. It is remarkable therefore that these chaotic processes result in such smooth and predictable exponential trends."

Human drama, competition, and chaotic processes being the ultimate operative words.

Recall also the Emperor's Rice story, again from Kurzweil: "It should be pointed out that as the emperor and the inventor went through the first half of the chess board, things were fairly uneventful. The inventor was given spoonfuls of rice, then bowls of rice, then barrels. By the end of the first half of the chess board, the inventor had accumulated one large field's worth (4 billion grains), and the emperor did start to take notice. It was as they progressed through the second half of the chessboard that the situation quickly deteriorated."

Maybe, just maybe?, we're close to SF's imaginary chessboard being filled to the first 32 of its 64 squares, and it's hard to see anything amiss . . . yet. But it just might be worthwhile to keep an eye on that chessboard. As the Emperor learned to his dismay, tipping points happen before you know it.

All that said, and with a twinkle in my eye and tongue in my cheek, I offer the following bit of frivolity—

The Nebula awards, by way of the above definition of a Mechanical Singularity, are now officially in a post-Singularity era, and it's time for a change to reflect the type of award SFWA now seems to relish.

Though SF awards may be at a post-mechanical singularity tipping point, there's still good old SF for the Hugos. We would maintain the traditional Hugo rocket ship (tricked out in various cool designs every year as they have been since the mid-1950s, with rare exception), but I propose SFWA remake the Nebula award trophy as a true objet d'art: a giant navel, but with a really exotic winner's nameplate every year, with elegant script, rife with exotic flourishes and all (SFWA would spend endless months of heated debate on each year's typeface). The design of the navel each year would be ethnically, sexually, and politically correct, of course, depending on the prevailing club membership clique or dominant clique members in office. But it would look really, seriously, important in any case. The only real problem, or sticking point that I am concerned with, is how SFWA/SFFWA will be able to arrive at a consensus every year as to whether their new Navel Award will be an outie or an innie, and how the individual wrinkles will reflect the nuances of the various winners' works (Navel, Navella, Navelette, Short Navel). It'll drive the new designer bonkers . . . and will probably cost a bit more during the transition from the old design to the new one.

Of course, the new SFWA/SFFWA Navel Award designer would have to travel cross-country and take plaster navel casts each year to guarantee authenticity and for that highly personalized touch (no two navels are exactly alike as well, cutting down on theft, yet another plus). In the case of someone winning more than one SFWA Navel award (in the same or subsequent years) the award designer would perforce have their navel casts safely stored from a previous win, thus reducing travel time and expense (the awards would get cheaper every year). It might drive him (the generic pronoun in English) navelplectic at first, but would probably involve less work each year, and would make for great human interest articles for the SFWA Bulletin, especially in the giant annual Navel Awards Issue each Spring. What SF publisher wouldn't want to spend mega-bucks advertising in that issue.

November 27, 2008


1 The fundamental, seminal idea of an intelligent machine able to create an identical copy of itself (or even a more intelligent replica), it should be noted, is not (as has been reported) original to Good's 1965 ideation. Though he was speaking to intelligent self-replicating machines toward the end game of a true Artificial Intelligence leading further to a Singularity, the idea of an intelligent, self-replicating machine AI goes at least as far back as 1944, predating Good's basic idea of a self-replicating machine by some twenty-plus years. It took form as a half-hour radio drama written by the team of Robert A. Arthur and David Kogan for the long-running radio program The Mysterious Traveler. The specific episode was titled "Beware of Tomorrow" and aired April 9, 1944. In this radio story a scientist creates an intelligent "mechanical machine' in the form of a human being. He names the entity Beta (following an unsuccessful prototype named Alpha). In Beta's own words, he (Beta) is out to "construct mechanical men, tireless, indestructible, who will be mankind's willing servants, who will solve for man problems he can't solve for himself." (Emphasis mine.) Beta further explains that he "wants to build a master race of superior robots so intelligent that men would seem as children to them." Thus are sown the very seeds for Good's 1965 idea of "an ultraintelligent machine [that] could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an 'intelligence explosion,' and the intelligence of man would be left far behind." While true that the visions of Good and Arthur & Kogan's self-replicating machines diverge toward different ends, it is also true that super-intelligent replicating machines are at the core of each. Good's self-replicating machines are of a certain form and lead to his vision of a Singularity. Arthur & Kogan's self-replicating machines are of a different form and entertain a different outcome. That being said, it is nevertheless a much earlier instance of the idea of a superior, intelligent, self-replicating machine from a 1944 radio play that predates Good, and this primal element of Good's eventual Singularity theory is certainly not original to him—only the outcome, or consequences as expressed by his Singularity notion.

The narrator of 1944's "Beware of Tomorrow" closes the drama with these words: "Do you suppose that somewhere, a strange individual who was really a robot is making other mechanical men to rule the world?" One might just as easily suppose that today, in the year 2009, there are strange individuals hidden somewhere (a super-cooled laboratory in a university basement perhaps?), intent on creating a machine that will make other, more intelligent machines, that just might end up ruling the world—as in I. J. Good's version of the Singularity. But credit where credit is due: Robert A. Arthur and David Kogan were there decades before Good, in an all-but-forgotten little half-hour science fiction radio drama from 1944.

And how's this for a wonderful slice of irony: Robert A. Arthur and David Kogan not only produced, directed, and wrote the The Mysterious Traveler episodes for many years (among other projects during the Golden Age of radio), they also wrote stories for the venerable Weird Tales magazine so beloved of genre fans. The irony? Weird Tales is about as far as one can get from anything dealing with hard science, yet with stories such as "Beware of Tomorrow" their unfettered imaginations gave their listening audience intelligent self-replicating machines, which are now considered at the forefront of cutting-edge hard science fiction.

*     *     *

Dave Truesdale began the short fiction review magazine Tangent in 1993. Since then, it has been honored with 4 Hugo nominations and 1 World Fantasy Award nomination. For several years in the 1990s, he was deeply involved with the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, and in 1998 was a World Fantasy Award judge. He edited the Bulletin of the Science Fiction Writers of America from 1999-2002. Tangent Online can be found at www.tangentonline.com.


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