Home » Uncategorized » Review: Digital Rapture, ed. James Patrick Kelly/John Kessel

Review: Digital Rapture, ed. James Patrick Kelly/John Kessel

digitalraptureThe Singularity Anthology. I had to get this one.

Most people outside of the science fiction and futurist loop are not acquainted with the Singularity Theory. That’s a shame. It’s a very real entity, not just some fabulist’s dream. It’s even a way of life for some people. We should all be discussing it because, although the Singularity will probably never happen, the ideas it is based on will impact us sooner or later. One way or another we’re all eventually going to deal with some component–be it advanced artificial intelligence, designer genes, or the digitized mind–of this nutty theory.

This anthology, aptly entitled “The Digital Rapture,” has little new information for regular students of the Singularity. We’re already familiar with Kurzweil, Vinge, and Stross. However, with its mix of fact and fiction, the book rocks for those who need a primer on the subject. The facts explain the thinking, the fiction illustrates what it means. For anyone who has stumbled across some whacky science fiction lately and decided it was just too implausible, take a look at this book. It might explain a few things. A lot of the science fiction coming out now assumes the Singularity is a foregone conclusion. SF authors capriciously use Singularity precepts, no questions asked. You do well to figure out where the visions of this strange future are coming from and this book spells it out.

Often Singularity Theory starts with Vernor Vinge’s essay, “The Coming Technological Singularity” published in 1993. The inclusion here of stories by Isaac Asimov, Olaf Stapledon, and Frederik Pohl, however,  indicates just how old these ideas actually are. The first section, “The End of the Human Era,” illustrates this nicely with stories predating Vinge’s essay by decades. The works from Asimov, J.D. Bernal, and Pohl do not deal with the Singularity specifically, but envision its precepts: the sentient universe, the downloadable mind, existence in virtual reality.

The second section deals with “The Posthumans.” Posthumans being the humans that will exist after the “Human Era.” A chapter from Olaf Stapledon’s Odd John shows how prescient that writer was. This section also includes Vinge’s seminal piece mentioned above, as well as stories by Rudy Rucker/Eileen Gunn and Bruce Sterling.

The third section, “Across the Event Horizon,” has chapter one of Ray Kurzweill’s soon to be classic The Singularity is Near, and stories by Greg Egan, David D. Levine, Vernor Vinge, and Justina Robson. The event horizon, being the actual point of singularity, rests  between The Posthumans and the Other. Which is a bit surprising because I assumed we would be posthumans after the event horizon, but apparently that’s not true. Not here anyway. I suppose I need to brush up on my theory.

The final section, “The Other,” deals with beings, non-human for the most part, on the other side of the event horizon. This is the realm for science fictionists only. No facts in this section. One of the assumptions of the Singularity is that we can’t know what life will be like on the other side of the event, so no one who deals in fact is going to make a prediction. But not for nothing was the science fiction author invented. In this section we have projections from Charles Stross, Robert Reed, Cory Doctorow/Benjamin Rosenbaum, Hannu Rajaniemi, and Elizabeth Bear.

There’s also Rudy Rucker’s non-fiction piece “The Great Awakening” in the final section. Rucker gives clear-headed analysis on post-Singularity possibilities and questions some of the theory’s more outlandish ideas. For instance he brings up how nanorobots will supposedly one day be able to ingest and restructure entire planets (Earth for example) for their own ends. Here’s his take: “My guess is that this could never happen. Every existing plant, animal, fungus, and protozoan already aspires to world domination. There’s nothing more ruthless than viruses and bacteria—the grizzled homies who’ve thrived by keeping it real for some three billion years.”

“Homies.” Don’t you just love it?

Anyway, I’ll not comment on every piece in the book, but I do have some favorite moments to share.

Starting out the book with Isaac Asimov’s classic “The Last Question,” was both brilliant and dumb in my opinion. Dumb because the story is so great that everything after it sort of pales in comparison. Brilliant because if anyone thinks the ideas of the Singularity are anything less than deeply profound, this story sets them straight. And this story can be enjoyed by anyone: sf fan, Singularist, romance reader, or other. It’s short and has an optimistic ending reminiscent of that Eastern religion that says the universe is born, exhausted, and then reincarnated cyclically forever. I almost understand infinity when I think about that. And Asimov’s ending hits like a ton of bricks. Beautiful.

Reading J.D. Bernal’s story, “The Flesh,” I get the feeling the most fanatical of the Singularists must have stumbled on the text a few decades ago.  In this story, the mind alone is the seat of humanity. We have no need for our bodies. Any ol’ tin can will do. Surely this is the original inspiration for the ultimate promise of the Singularity: immortality via a series of never-degrading mind uploads.

Bernal describes it thusly:

“Instead of the present body structure we should have the whole framework of some very rigid material, probably not metal but one of the new fibrous substances.* In shape it might well be rather a short cylinder. Inside the cylinder, and supported very carefully to prevent shock, is the brain with its nerve connections, immersed in a liquid of the nature of cerebro-spinal fluid, kept circulating over it at a uniform temperature. The brain and nerve cells are kept supplied with fresh oxygenated blood which connect outside the cylinder to the artificial heart-lung digestive system—an elaborate, automatic contrivance. This might in large part be made from living organs, although these would have to be carefully arranged so that no failure on their part would endanger the blood supply to the brain (only a fraction of the body’s present requirements) and so that they could be inter-changed and repaired without disturbing its functions.”

I’ll bet it would take as much energy to run this “body” as it would take to run a regular human body. Considering mechanical parts don’t usually last as long as a human body’s does, there’d be much inter-changing and repairing. That takes energy and money right there.

Bernal does offer this advantage:

“…the locomotor organs would not be much used because the extension of the sense organs would tend to take their place.”

So presumably we could do away with those wasteful, energy-sapping organs. A savings right there. I’m guessing this contraption will not be too good at racquetball, though. I guess Mr. Bernal doesn’t care about such things.

People are paranoid when it comes to powerful AI. We’re all worried that robots with superior intelligence—superior to humans’ that is—will eventually have no use for us lesser thans. They’ll dispose of us tout de suite. I’m guessing Olaf Stapledon’s “Thought and Action” has been the inspiration for that fear. In this particular story, a young boy, John, is a being with superior intelligence (not a robot at this point, more like a posthuman). John has a disarming lack of compassion for other humans as a result of his apparently engineered intelligence. The inference is that having a big brain means you no longer have feelings, you become inhumane. Apparently you don’t care about others unless you’re dumb.

I don’t think intelligence necessarily results in pathological people. I’m pretty sure compassion has to be taught to dullards as well as the super smart. Another thing: John has an inordinate curiosity. There again, I don’t believe it’s because he has been engineered to be bright. I have a horse with an inordinate curiosity. Kittens are inordinately curious. It’s a trait of childhood, I think, not necessarily increased brain power. I might have missed the point, though. Maybe super smart people are a danger only when they’re young and curious. And because they are super smart it’s hard to teach them compassion. Maybe.

An interesting phenomenon occurred with Rudy Rucker’s work in this book. I didn’t particularly care for the Rucker/Gunn story, “Hive Mind Man.” I kept searching for a mechanism for the hive mind to work. Reading this story, I discovered what it is I don’t like about much of Singularity fiction. I can never grasp how the fantastic phenomenon works. I discovered later while reading Rucker’s essay “The Great Awakening,” an explanation for some of the Singularity tropes and gimmicks and terms. The earlier story doesn’t bother me so much now. That is the way with science fiction. You have to know the secret handshakes. The fans consume everything that’s out there. They’re familiar with all the tropes, theories, and gimmicks. They don’t need plausible explanations. To enjoy much of sf, you have to be a rabid fan. I get that now.

For Bruce Sterling’s story, “Sunken Gardens,” thankfully no knowledge of a secret handshake is required. I totally understand it. Here a competition between gardeners terraforming Mars will determine who gets to move up the social ladder in the oligarchic culture. I’m not sure I buy the premise that competition, rather than cooperation, will conquer the galaxy. For instance,

“The Regals themselves had started as dissidents and defectors. Their Posthumanist philosophy had given them the moral power and the bland assurance to dominate and absorb factions from the fringes of humanity. And they had the support of the Investors, who had vast wealth and the secret techniques of star travel.”

Posthumanist philosophy endowing moral power? I buy that. Reminds me of how smug the people at the help desk are. They know how to fix your machine but first you gotta dance, cowboy.  But the idea of the techniques of star travel being kept a secret? Okay, sure. Like how we kept the formula for the A-bomb a secret.

And then there’s Brother Ray. Ray Kurzweil. What can I say that I haven’t said in countless other reviews and blog posts? Nothing. Let’s move on.

Okay, I will say this: I took Brother Ray’s health test at the website he set up to hawk his life-extending pills and regimes. The test suggested I start on fish oil pills. I did that. They worked. The man knows something, I’ll give him that. Don’t just read the chapter in this anthology. Go get his whole book. Read it. It’s scary and eye-opening.

I really liked David D. Levine’s story, “Firewall.” I put lots of notes in the margins of that one.

And I also enjoyed Robert Reed’s Coelocanths which I will reread now that I’ve looked up the word and know what it means.

I fell asleep during “True Names” by Doctorow and Rosenbaum and didn’t wake up until it was over. Just in time for Hannu Rajaniewmi’s “The Server and the Dragon.” A beautiful tale that illustrates just what can be done with the Singularity if you’re creative. The same is true of Elizabeth Bear’s “The Inevitable Heat Death of the Universe.” There’s more to be done with the Singularity tropes than having entire planets consumed by nanorobots. Good job guys and gals!

Now if you’ll excuse me, I see a signal lighting up on my artificial heart-lung digestive system. It’s an elaborate, automatic contrivance you know, and I should see to its needs. The fact that it’s automatic should preclude any need for interference on my part, but there is that “elaborate” part of its nature. You noticed that, right? You know how Murphy loves elaborate.

Thank’s for reading.

Sue Lange
The trailer for Sue Lange’s “Princess Dancer” is now available for your viewing pleasure.

This essay was first posted on December 16th at the Book View Cafe blog.

* I’d suggest Spanx.

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