Charles Stross, 2005
Accelerando is the quintessential singularity novel. Strap yourself in, and prepare for lobsters, agalmic economies, coke-can computronium spaceships, hive minds, altruism, a solitary imam ensconced in his own virtual reality/hell, terraforming, and the Vile Offspring, aka sentient corporate contracts.
Stross threw everything and then some into this connected series of novellas, written between 2001 and 2004. It’s not for those who like normal fiction – for example, after the singularity, one of the main characters shows up as an orangutan, and another as a flock of pigeons.
Periodically throughout the novel we are treated to a future-history explanation of the times, a condensation of the events of the last few decades. You may still need a working familiarity with SF/singularity terms to get through these. For example, here is the moment of transition, the spike, the takeoff where humanity turns into something else:
“Welcome to the moment of maximum change.
“About ten billion humans are alive in the solar system, each mind surrounded by an exocortex of distributed agents, threads of personality spun right out of their heads to run on the clouds of utility fog…
“The ten billion inhabitants of this radically changed star system remember being human; almost half of them predate the millennium. Some of these still are human, untouched by the drive of metaevolution… They cower in gated communities and hill forts, mumbling prayers and cursing the ungodly meddlers with the natural order of things…”
On the origin of the book, Stross writes that he was working in the late nineties on financial software, not unlike most Silicon Valley jobs today, where “workload is always growing faster than the budget for hiring minions to do the donkey-work. At first it’s fun, a buzz like a caffeine high: but it goes on too long and you get old and feel stupid, and at some point you find you can’t stop running because your feet are locked to the treadmill and there’s a wall of spikes right behind you.”
He was having a combined vacation/layoff/satori, at the end of which Stross asked himself “the classic science fictional question, what happens if this goes on? What happens if you keep piling on the changes? What kind of person can actually live on the edge of a singularity, keeping pace while all around them the world is melted down and re-forged monthly, daily, hourly?”
The first chapter begins in a world not far from the present, in technological time. The main character, Manfred Manx, sits on a stool and meanwhile “His channels are jabbering away in a corner of his heads-up display, throwing compressed infobursts of filtered press releases at him.” Very quickly, however, we wander into the strangeness of semi-sentient neural nets, along with the lobsters. And then there is Aineko, his enigmatic artificial cat, “the young post-human intelligence over whose Cartesian theatre he presides signs urgently to him while he slumbers.”
And so begins the story, and the transformation of individuals, the human species, the solar system, and the future. Just as with Manfred, ideas in the book clamor for attention, chirping away in your mind with semi-sentient insistence. Positive-sum transactions race along petaflop processors, and we feel just a wisp of the anxiety that even the EU is beginning to understand about high-speed algorithmic trading. “Money is a symptom of poverty,” Manfred says, as he tries in Rosewater fashion to spread universal good. He enbodies the cosmist philosophy (see The Cosmist Manifesto, by Ben Goertzel, for a book-length meditation on the topic), god bless his early adopter soul.
Manfred is also a champion for rights, a new definition of personhood (to include artificial intelligences), and all the thorny questions that this begets: how many votes does a distributed consciousness get? Should an AI have the right to make copies of itself — and then “kill” the copies if it chooses? Should an AI be allowed to marry, own property, have financial relationships?
Murky waters indeed. Go swimming at your own risk!
Identity itself is up for grabs in Accelerando, as much as anything else. When Manfred temporarily loses his metacortex (and hence gets dumbed down to something like an IQ of 70, or the average late-night drinker), he’s talking with a woman about whether to report identity theft. “Yeah, yeah, I know. Identity is theft, don’t trust anyone whose state vector hasn’t forked for more than a gigasecond, change is the only constant, et bloody cetera.” At this point, even as we’re just starting the novel, “the weirdness coefficient is above average.”
The middle of the book takes us into new territory, exploring ideas that are just now peeping out from real-world blogs, conferences, and prophets with plastic pocket protectors. Amber, Manfred’s daughter and the proto-typical young rebel/transhumanist-in-waiting, has “grown up with neural implants that feel as natural to her as lungs or fingers. Half her wetware is running outside her skull on an array of processor nodes hooked into her brain by quantum-entangled communication channels – her own personal metacortex. These kids are mutant youth, burning bright: Not quite incomprehensible to their parents, but profoundly alien – the generation gap is as wide as the 1960s and as deep as the solar system.”
One reason to read singularity fiction is that it can throw you smack dab into the middle of squabbling entities, be they parents and children, virtual copies of oneself, threads/processes/bots/agents chatting or reintegrating into your consciousness. All the brain enhancers in the world won’t ensure that you agree with your neighboring transhuman; experience doesn’t guarantee point of view, much less philosophy. You may disagree violently with yourself, or selves. Later in the novel, a character notes “I just woke up one morning to find I’d been resurrected by my older self. He said he valued my youthful energy and optimistic outlook.”
Ever more intricate scenarios will arise – or are already here. What happens in a world where your augmented offspring can model and anticipate your behavior? What is life like when you can create “threads” that go off to do a task, then later re-integrate into your awareness? Will we ever have “concept filters” that implant (or block) a belief, so that it seems unconsciously natural? Will we soon be able to send memories to another person, like an email? Can ideas modify themselves? Do the colorless green ones sleep furiously?
In Accelerando, consideration of such ideas zips along lightly, unburdened by the usual academic pontification. As the point of inflection nears and genomic augmentation becomes routine, “The biosphere has become surreal: Small dragons have been sighted nesting in the Scottish Highlands, and in the American Midwest, raccoons have been caught programming microwave ovens.”
The notion of a physics model constraining the activities of an avatar, and that of interacting with other species, had a proof-of-concept recently when researchers at UCLA “beamed” human movements to a rat-sized robot, and conversely translated the rat’s movements to a human-shaped avatar, so that both could interact in real time, at their own scale. Will future rats “hack” their avatars, and surprise us by asking for their freedom?
If awareness can be simulated, then time, space, identity are all up for grabs, and J.B.S. Haldane was right: “The universe is not only stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine.” We can’t imagine it because our future selves will have modules, tools, implants, processes, memories, perceptions that don’t exist yet.
Although he plays fast and hard with ideas, Stross is not a singularity true-believer. Far from it. Here’s a conversation in a virtual bar, as one character is being interviewed by another. “‘The singularity is a bit like that old-time American Christian rapture nonsense, isn’t it?’ he says. ‘When we all go a-flying up to heaven, leaving our bodies behind.’ He snorts, reaches into thin air and gratuitously violates causality by summoning a jug of ice-cold sangria into existence. ‘The rapture of the nerds. I’ll drink to that.’” (This year he also co-wrote a parody novel of these ideas, titled, unsurprisingly, The Rapture of the Nerds).
The characters go on to debate when the singularity happened – what does it date from? One person offers an intriguing possibility. “It happened on June 6, 1969, at eleven hundred hours, eastern seaboard time. That was when the first network protocol control packets were sent from the data port of one IMP to another – the first ever Internet connection. That’s the singularity. Since then we’ve all been living in a universe that was impossible to predict from events prior to that time.”
As the novel moves into the final stretch, we encounter beings who literally can’t be named – they’re too weird, too different. Like Yahweh, or the pointing finger of Zen, these future beings cannot be spoken of: no words can describe them. They’re referred to as “untranslatable entity signifier,” neither animal, vegetable, nor mineral, but simple other. They may be so advanced, as Aineko has become by this point, that they can edit themselves out of a scene altogether, so as not to be seen. Or perhaps edited out of memory; mind out of time.
Meanwhile, back on Earth 1.0, Stross paints two contradictory visions. One, of the untransformed humans left behind after the transcension of the rest into smart utility fog: “Two billion or so mostly unmodified humans scramble in the wreckage of the phase transition… Enclaves huddle behind their walls and wonder at the monsters and portents roaming the desert of postindustrial civilization, mistaking acceleration for collapse.”
And then the uploads, transhumans, their apotheosis: “minds a trillion or more times as complex as humanity think thoughts as far beyond human imagination as a microprocessor is beyond a nematode worm…. Death is abolished, life is triumphant. A thousand ideologies flower, human nature adapted where necessary to make this possible. Ecologies of thought are forming in a Cambrian explosion of ideas, for the solar system is finally rising to consciousness, and mind is no longer restricted to… fragile human skulls.”
Running our “selves” outside our bodies, on quantum-computing specs the size of rice grains floating at the L1 point is unthinkable, even abhorrent to most of us who relish our meter-sized evolutionarily-tested wetware. We don’t relish a time when “The thought-cloud forming in orbit around the sun will ultimately be the graveyard of a biological entity.”
Yet we’re never far from the novelist’s main concern: human nature, human life. Sirhan (the imam), who has become an historian, recording not just facts but entire civilizations, observes that “The more people you are, the more you know who you are. You learn what’s it’s like to become other people.”
An apt description of the art and purpose of any novel.
And then Manfred’s wife Pamela gets it: “You intend to write [a book].”
“I’m thinking about it. An old-fashioned book covering three generations, living through interesting times. A work of postmodern history, the incoherent school at that – how do you document people who fork their identities at random, spend years dead before reappearing on the stage, and have arguments with their own relativistically preserved other copy? … Anyway, with so much of human history occupying the untapped future, we historians have our work cut out recording the cursor of the present as it logs events.”
Accelerando is available as a free download, through Creative Commons