Trying to See Past “The Singularity”: Accelerando and Glasshouse

By Terry Calhoun

“How do you cope with a universe in which human scale thoughts are about as significant to the real course of events as the barking of dogs is to air traffic control?”

As I write this, I am putting down the book I just finished at the downtown Washington, DC, airport: Glasshouse by Charles Stross. I recommend it, as well as a previous book by Strosser, Accelerando. I finished the last 100 pages or so of Glasshouse while sitting up against the glass in the terminal on a very gray day, hogging the single working electrical outlet on a two-outlet panel, listening to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (with headphones).

“It’s hard to say who you are these days, but you ride on anyways . . . don’t you, baby?” was an appropriate phrase to hear as I finished this book, and the uncertainty created by human-designed modifications to bodies, brains, memories, and personalities certainly makes it hard for the characters to know who each other is. Here are some comments by Strosser regarding the singularity an Accelerando:

The singularity isn't my brain child (that honour g'es to Vernor Vinge) but since Vernor introduced it to general circulation in the hard SF field, people have been scared of exploring it. It was one of those immensely powerful structural magic wands that destroy traditional fictional plots. How do you cope with a universe in which human scale thoughts are about as significant to the real course of events as the barking of dogs is to air traffic control? I decided that I was going to go and do a head-first exploration of the issue, by writing a generational saga following three generations of posthumans right through a hard take-off singularity in the mid-twenty first century. (Comments in their entirety can be found here.)”

I didn’t expect to race through this book, but it was a surprisingly good read. Something interesting on every page, and the characters resonated with where I’d like to see our culture headed. Not specifically the technology at work, but the attitude. The design of the technological substrate for the culture hints at a world where humans can honestly say that they do in fact live in a world created by intelligent design: Our own.

You know already, of course, that we’ve gotten to the point where humanity continues to live inside the biosphere but has now gained the power to inevitable modify the biosphere, whether we want to or not, which is the basis for concerns about climate change. Only time – the next couple of decades – will tell whether we get past this point in our species’ evolution. If we do, then The Singularity becomes a likely possibility.

Many people see a “technological singularity” coming in our future, after which the human world will be a place so dramatically different as to render those who come after “posthumans.” I’m not sure that’s useful labeling, but I would very much like to be around when the singularity happens. Here’s one reviewer’s take on this:

But do not squander your pity on a few precocious undergraduates contemplating a 40-year-old television series — save it instead for the contemporary science-fiction novelist, whose job requires him not only to reflect perpetually on technology's philosophical consequences but to create such technology ceaselessly out of pure imagination. It is a job made more complicated by some scientists' predictions that mankind is rapidly approaching a moment of singularity: a time when technology will have advanced so dramatically and so thoroughly that, in the eyes of our offspring's offspring, our Power Macs, Xboxes and BlackBerrys will seem as antiquated as water clocks, astrolabes and dignified political discourse now seem to us. Thus it falls upon the future-minded sci-fi novelist to envision a world consistent with the present day and yet different from it in every way possible, and when he's done playing God, to perform the more astonishing miracle of actually producing a novel.

These two novels both take place during or after “the singularity,” and there is a mind-rush of ideas and perspectives in every paragraph and sentence. I found it exhilarating. But Glasshouse can be hard to read on occasion because your mind wants to fly over here, and over there, but he brings the human story down to modern terms in a way that lets you have plenty of motivation to keep on following the story line.

I think Accelerando is the better book, but I think I enjoyed Glasshouse even more. Without giving away too much, I will just say that in Glasshouse the circumstances the characters are put in make for some very entertaining – sometimes subtle and sometimes not – analogies and references to the world we live in. Very timely. Probably the most obvious was when a gaggle of pregnant Stepford-type wives head out to “fix” things with the phrase, “Let’s roll.”

If the events of the day are getting you down, here in the waning years of “pre-singularity” times, then spend a few hours with Accelerando or Glasshouse this weekend. I guarantee you a drug-free exhilaration, an escape into a wonderful future that I hope we all get to experience for “real” some day.

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