Wednesday , February 21 2024
Perhaps, in the future, human life as we know it might change so fundamentally that nothing we use to conceive of the world today will make sense anymore.

Book Review: ‘Digital Rapture: The Singularity Anthology’ ed. by James Patrick Kelly & John Kessel

Science fiction is the literature of ideas.

I don’t know who originally said that; I saw it on the wall of a science fiction museum in Seattle, Washington. Like a number of great scientific discoveries, (like the wheel), it’s pretty fundamental even if it can’t be attributed to someone.

Science fiction is the literature of ideas, and therefore of possibility. When you think about it, we human beings exist on a relatively small rock, spinning through space at a breakneck speed, in a galaxy that’s flying through space at an even more breakneck speed, in a universe whose size we can’t even estimate and which is likely made up mostly of dark matter that we can’t even detect. We likely evolved from single-celled organisms and, somewhere along the way, developed consciousness and sentience that is so complex that the best scientists don’t completely understand it, and in that universe there might be a whole host of other life forms so bizarre and different we can’t even imagine them.

It’s a little mind-boggling to think about, but science fiction deals precisely with thinking about it. It deals with the bigger picture of all the indescribable possibilities, innumerable potentials, and uncountable what-ifs that are a product of our against-the-odds existence in this universe. Its stories can span from the dawn of time to the end of time, repeat that cycle again and again, connect the very edges of the universe, draw the links between events that span millennia and ones that span milliseconds.

digitalraptureDigital Rapture is an anthology that does this particularly well. It deals with one of the most mind-boggling of mind-boggling scientific questions: the question of consciousness, of our humanity, of what we used to be and what we might one day become. In short, it deals with the Singularity: the possibility that through technology, artificial intelligence, biological enhancement, or a combination of them, human beings will gain greater-than-human intelligence and exceed their capacities today. After all, there was a time when we weren’t even human, before we evolved to be what we are today. Who knows what we’ll be one day?

Perhaps, in the future, human life as we know it might change so fundamentally that nothing we use to conceive of the world today will make sense anymore. That sounds like a trite over-generalization, and that’s the thing with science fiction: sometimes it’s so epic in its questions that describing it makes it all sound like trite generalizations. In this case, though, it’s no exaggeration: the capacity to create or upload consciousness could mean that so many of the concepts we use to understand our lives, from mortality and physical bodies to individuality, falling in love, or performing quotidian tasks, might be completely gone from our lives.

It may very well be that the Singularity never happens; we might never create artificial consciousness or figure out how to digitize our brains, but the possibilities are always there, and the brilliance of science fiction is that it creates a framework for thinking about those possibilities and understanding them before they become fact. In a way, the Singularity is something that’s almost impossible to imagine in its implications, because how are you supposed to imagine a world where nothing that you know and are familiar with has any meaning? It’s almost as impossible as writing aliens that are truly alien, because everything will be based on us.  Still, we wouldn’t be human if we didn’t try.

And Digital Rapture does a pretty damn good job with imagining the unimaginable. It’s the kind of anthology that opens your mind so far that your brain feels like it’s going to fall out. Collecting both stories and non-fiction from a number of scientists, science fiction writers, and thinkers, including luminaries Isaac Asimov, Olaf Stapledon, and Vernor Vinge, as well as Cory Doctorow, Charles Stross, and Ray Kurzweil (among many others), it speculates on the myriad possibilities of the Singularity. It delves into more issues than could be named, among them questions of individuality, human responsibility, and human identity – and does so with depth and feeling.

The anthology is divided into four parts: “The End of the Human Era,” “The Posthuman,” “Across the Event Horizon,” and “The Others,” though I have trouble telling what the distinction between the texts in all the sections actually is – aside from the fact that they get progressively more dense and abstract, until the final handful of stories becomes so complex, confusing, and convoluted that it requires either a degree in physics or a downloaded version of Wikipedia to one’s brain to decode them. In short, these final tales are exactly the opposite of good airport reading. Even having read most of the anthology, and thus having become familiar with a good portion of the science and terminology involved in these concepts, I had difficultly parsing the final few tales.

Still, despite the density of the final set of stories, this is an excellent anthology, scoring many more hits than misses.  It draws together an incredibly wide variety of possibilities, from the rigorously scientific to the mystical, from the humorous to the deadly serious, from the epic to the miniscule. In addition to stories, there’s a couple of non-fiction pieces as well which, excellently written, provide perspective on the stories and offer a framework for thinking about the fictional versions of these scientific possibilities.

Furthermore, in addition to all the intellectual depth and the exploration of ideas that many of these stories provide, there’s also quite a bit of good fun, humor, and suspense to them. Many a story kept me reading late into the night, engrossed by the mystery, adventure, or just plain wit and verve of many of the tales. With the exception of the aforementioned dense and abstract tales, the majority of the offerings in this anthology combine the best of science fiction – the thoughts, ideas, and possibilities – with excellent storytelling.

The entire anthology is also held together by an excellent introduction by James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel, who provide an overview of the ideas and issues tackled in the book. They have more than outdone themselves in collecting together this wide variety of stories from authors living or dead, and in doing so, created an anthology that stands out from the myriad compilations focused on science fiction, fantasy, steampunk, and horror published by Tachyon.


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About Anastasia Klimchynskaya

My mind rebels at stagnation. Find the rebellious thoughts of that constantly racing mind at my blog, Monitoring the Media.

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