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Digital Rapture: The Singularity Anthology Paperback – July 17, 2012
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There are a few things I always look for in a high-quality anthology: First, it should have a wide range of selections that yet epitomize the theme of the anthology. Second, it should be a diverse collection of author and genre. Third, it should have a well-written introduction that acts as a thesis of sorts and adds to the literature on the subject. Digital Rapture has all these things....”
Nerds in Babeland
Even those in the know will be enthralled by the visions of post-biological futures in this collection of short stories and essays. Sci-fi stalwarts James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel have assembled a definitive primer on the singularity, with contributions from top-tier scientists, futurists, and science-fiction writers.”
...this book rocks for those who are looking for a primer on the subject. The facts explain the thinking, the fiction tries to figure out what all that thinking could mean. The strength of the book lies in this mashing together of the theorists’ theories and content creators’ creations.”
Book View Cafe
It’s the kind of anthology that opens your mind so far that your brain feels like it’s going to fall out.”
About the Author
John Kessel is a Nebula, Sturgeon, and Locus award winner and the author of Corrupting Dr. Nice, Good News From Outer Space, and The Pure Product. He teaches courses in science-fiction, fantasy, and fiction writing at North Carolina State University. His criticism has appeared in Foundation, the Los Angeles Times Book Review, the New York Review of Science Fiction, and Science Fiction Age.
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"Digital Rapture" is the type of anthology where the order of the selections conveys a greater meaning. The book explores the concept of Singularity, or the idea that humanity might one day be replaced by robots, taking the idea of evolution to a unique but still logical conclusion. The book is broken into four distinct sections: The End of the Human Era, The Post Humans, Across the Event Horizon, and The Others. Each section explores the idea of Singularity in greater depth and at a later point in time. It was interesting to be able to see the progression of the idea of Singularity, beginning from the notion that superhuman intelligences could exist and culminating in "The Inevitable Heat Death of the Universe."
As with any anthology, there were stories in this book that I loved as well as some that were rather "meh" or just went over my head. I'm going to talk about some of my favorites in the collection. It was hard for me to decide which to discuss here because so many were excellent!
"The Last Human" by Isaac Asimov is written in Asimov's typical style. Rather than focusing on specific characters, we see the progression and exploration of an idea as different humans throughout history ask a computer whether entropy can be reversed. I loved the ending.
"Thought and Action" by Olaf Stapledon is a selection from his larger novel entitled Odd John. The story explores whether beings with superhuman abilities will be bound by the same morality that we are. In this story, John rationalizes committing a murder, and we see that he truly doesn't believe that it was wrong.
"Sunken Gardens" by Bruce Sterling is set on Mars. Humans have taken several different evolutionary paths, and each sect has its own strengths and weaknesses. Small sections of Mars are terraformed in a competition in which different offshoots of humanity are in the running for an elevation of rank for their entire faction. The protagonist, a woman named Mirasol, must think outside the box in order to achieve victory.
"The Cookie Monster" by Vernor Vinge begins as a mystery. A new tech support staffer named Dixie Mae gets a message containing information that should theoretically only be known by her, causing her to start asking questions about where it came from. She begins to realize that she's not real, but rather a conscious simulation in a larger computer program. This story fascinated me because we got to see in detail how a computer could evolve consciousness and yet maintain the patience to communicate with itself after a multitude of life cycles and re-boots. This was one of my favorites in the collection.
Another favorite was "Cracklegargle" by Justina Robson. Also a mystery of sorts, it tells the story of a man who enlists the help of a post-human gargoyle creature to help him find his missing daughter. One of the ideas present in the story is that strong emotions leave a tangible mark on the world, but our own perception is so limited that we can't see it. The idea of material consciousness was intriguing, and I liked the way that the story played with the kind of ideas found in ghost stories and translated them into sci-fi.
"True Names" by Cory Doctorow and Benjamin Rosenbaum intrigued me, but at the same time was difficult to understand. The story focuses on three primal forces, Beebe, Demiurge, and Brobdignag. Each of those entities is capable of running simulations of the others, and each also contains multiple smaller beings that are capable of self-replication. The story focuses on those self-replicating beings, and how different iterations of the prima donna Nadia, the philosopher Paquette, and Alonzo, the man that they both love, interact with each other. If it sounds complicated, it is, but it was also fascinating, and may merit a re-read or two so I can understand it better.
Overall, I enjoyed this "Digital Rapture" tremendously. It was the kind of anthology that could entertain, but at the same time made me think and ponder the possibilities that the future could hold. I recommend it.
The first and last of these stories, Isaac Asimov's ''The Last Question'' and Elizabeth Bear's ''The Inevitable Heat Death of the Universe,'' imagine a future so unimaginably distant that the universe has begun to wind down to the point of complete and total inertia. It is then ''rebooted'' through human technological agency. Such a view of the universe, that it is cylical, self-creating, and self-sustaining. would appear to be a necessary consequence of a secular culture - a universe that was not created by some external agency must be self-sustaining in some way. However, this notion is not easily squared with the observation that the universe is becoming, and must become, less organized and less energetic over time - so human agency gets introduced in order to resolve the difficulty. Elizabeth Bear's story was the more appealing of the two, at least to me. I enjoyed its sparse and lyrical weirdness. Of course we cannot really say anything meaningful about how the universe might wind up so many billion years from now. No doubt all our present notions will have to be radically revised in light of new discoveries at some point, and quite possibly within our lifetimes.
Day Million was fun, and it's written in Pohl's usual conversational style. If I can nitpick a bit, I think Pohl underestimates just how much of our modern world would, in fact, be comprehensible to the ancients. The Babylonians certainly knew what a bureaucracy was. But he's certainly right that humanity will look very different indeed in a couple thousand years.
Olaf Stapledon's story, ''Thought and Action,'' asks us to consider the moral implications of the emergence of a post-human being. I think his conclusions here are fairly tame. He imagines that such a being might flirt with criminality a bit, but will in the end return to what we would regard as ethical behavior. I don't think that's right. What we regard as ethical behavior is demonstrably a consequence of our economic conditions, of our social conventions, of the existence of a strong state that is capable of punishing criminals, etc. It seems pretty obvious to me that a being that has been freed from those constraints will, sooner or later, conclude that it is not bound by the ethical norms that arise out of them either. It will simply do what it wants, and it will not, in the last analysis, have to justify or explain its behavior to us. I think that emergence of such a being would be frankly terrifying. Only other beings like it would be capable of imposing ethical norms upon it, and these norms probably would not be concerned in any fundamental way with the treatment of people like you and me. We would simply become insignificant.
Rudy Rucker's story, ''The Hivemind Man,'' was weird, but not really implausible. At least not in the beginning. Toward the end it drifts off into the realm of fairy tale - whether you appreciate that or not depends, I suppose, on what you expect of the genre. It does bring up the question, however, of whether or not all this interconnectivity is turning us into mere nodes in a vast information-processing network. There's something to be said for that point of view, I suppose. It's an interesting way to think about people.
Bruce Sterling's ''Sunken Gardens'' is really more biopunk than transhumanist in outlook, but it does bring up some interesting ideas about how we might modify ourselves in the future.
Greg Egan's Crystal Nights was, I thought, the first really excellent story in this volume. In it a billionaire decides that whoever develops AI first will become a god among men, and so he had better develop it before anyone else does - a very sensible assessment, in my opinion. The Darwinian struggle for survival is on, and only the super-rich and the super-intelligent have a snowball's chance in hell of winning it. A couple of different approaches are mooted, but the inventor decides that the best of all possibilities is the same approach that created actual sentience - evolution. The billionaire decides to create an electronic ecosystem in which very simple, self-replicating programs will compete for scarce resources, and, with a bit of tweaking, he hopes, evolve to the point where they are sentient. Something like that happens, but there are some snags that the billionaire does not quite foresee. Needless to say these creatures do not turn out to be quite as malleable as he had hoped. At a certain point, they develop a culture that is so alien to anything that people have experienced that the billionaire and his team are no longer able to really understand it, and that's where they slip the leash. I won't give away the ending, but I thought it was, like the premise of the story, entirely convincing in its effect.
David Levine's ''Firewall'' is about a systems security expert who has to keep a sentient virus out of his moonbase. It was ok, but there wasn't anything really new here. His characters seem to take the end of humanity as they have known it just a little too calmly, in my opinion.
Vernor Vinge's ''Cookie Monster'' was excellent, and again starts from an entirely believable premise. If you could upload your mind, would you? Maybe. But why not upload other people's minds and turn them into your slave labor force? With such a force at your command, capable of running its processes at thousands or millions of times the speed of real events, you could be a genius in a dozen fields at once, amass huge resevoirs of power and money, do whatever you want. Would you really want to exist as a computer simulation rather than as a real-life god? However, slave economies create their own special problems. No one wants to be enslaved, after all... Vernor Vinge doesn't get into the specifics of how they might escape or resist - do they even have bodies anymore? how can they know what's really real? - but he does make a plausible suggestion about how they might plot their escape. I thought this story was wonderfully clever.
I skipped Justina Robinson's ''Cracklegackle'' and the Doctrow/Rosenbaum collaboration ''True Names'' - both for the same reason. The writing style of the first few paragraphs was extremely off-putting, and in my experience stories that start poorly usually don't recover. I gave up on Robin Reed's ''Coalecenths'' and for a similar reason. Here the story just became too difficult to make sense of - the author throws out alot of far future concepts without really bothering to explain what is happening or why. After 15 pages of struggling to make sense out of what I was reading I decided it wasn't worth the effort.
Charle's Stross' ''Nightfall'' was weird, but not incoherent. When both the characters and the world they inhabit are computer programs I get a definite sensation of weightlessness and disorientation - there's nothing firm to hold onto in such an environment, no reality to anchor oneself to. The computer which one inhabits either continues to exist, in which case all sensations are equally real, or it ceases, in which case all of them come to a halt. It's a realm of pure phantasm. I'm not sure that Charles Stross's idea of sentient corporations makes alot of sense, at least the way it's explained here, and It doesn't really make alot of sense to use sentient life forms as a form of currency either. But then again I guess it doesn't make much sense to use wads of gold, paper, or sea shells as money either - yet people do. Anyway the story is so far future that I guess at some point you have to just stop asking questions and enjoy the ride.
Hannu Rajuneimi's ''The Server and the Dragon'' was lyrical and strange and kind of fun. It didn't really challenge me to think in a new way, but it was enjoyable.
The non-fiction contributions were, on the whole, much stronger than the fiction. The introduction is a thoughtful overview of the field, and in it the editors ask - I think very reasonably - why so many commentators assume that mindlessly ramping up processing power will inevitably lead to the emergence of AI. We ought to be paying at least as much attention to neuroscience as to computational science, if we want to develop AI. They also point out - again I think with good reason - that transhumanist/singularity stories have a certain tendency toward plain incoherence, which can easily get out of control if the author is not careful. That seems sufficiently demonstrated by several passages in this volume, and I'm sure in an even more pronounced way by stories they chose not to include.
JD Bernal's ''The Flesh'' is a discussion of cybernetics from the 1930's. It's interesting chiefly for its historical content. It certainly demonstrates that the idea of using machines to transcend the limits of biology has been around since the 30's at least, and it vividly illustrates the vast chasm that separates our notions about the future from those available to an author writing almost a hundred years ago. I don't think that it adds much to current discussions around this topic, but I'm glad the editors included it.
Vernor Vinge's 1993 talk to NASA about the singularity is reprinted here, and is, I think, an excellent discussion of the central topics of AI/singularity/transhumanism. Anyone who is interested in science fiction at all should give it a read.
Kurzweil's ''The Six Epochs'' I could take or leave. When people who clearly do not have a background in history start dividing it up into neat little epochs they lose me. But I'm probably just being territorial here.
Rudy Rucker's non-fiction contribution, ''The Great Awakening,'' is sheer theological fantasy, and, at least to my mind, underscores how deeply intertwined the transhumanist/singularity movement is with an essentially religious conception of the universe and of human life. I don't have a problem with theological thinking per se, but I don't think many transhumanists, who, at least in my experience, are almost all atheists, would be comfortable to realize just how deeply saturated their worldview is with the language and assumptions of theology. Instead of locating the central nexus of history in the past, as theologians do, they locate it in the future. Instead of hoping for divine miracles to solve their problems, they hope for incredible technologies. Instead of looking to salvation to defeat death, they look to mind-uploading, etc. etc. The outward form has changed, but the same basic set of concerns, and the same basic psychological approach, is at work in both instances. People don't really stop believing in God - they just trade in the old gods for new ones. Anyway my criticism of this essay is at bottom the same as my criticism of ''The Hivemind Man'' - he goes too fast, assumes too much, and in the process his ideas devolve into fairy tales. Maybe an orphid net really will turn us into a race of omnipotent telepaths (i.e. of angels and devils) in the future - but there's really no good reason to think that it will. Or at least there's no really convincing argument here to that effect. At bottom it's just fantasy.
I think this book is worth picking up for the half dozen or so gems in it, and I certainly don't regret my time or my purchase. I think the editors performed a service to the genre by collecting this material, and I think it will be of great value to anyone who is interested in posthumanism and the singularity. I do think, however, that there is enough unevenness in this volume to vindicate Gardner Dozois' remark, that the post humanism/singularity genre has not quite hit its stride yet. There's still plenty of work to be done to turn the core of genuinely thoughtful ideas which underlay this genre into a really compelling body of fiction.