Digital Rapture

Fiction puts us in the middle of a story, a situation, a person’s head and heart, so that we can experience what it is to be someone else. It expands our awareness, engenders sympathy with others, gives us insight. While we are reading, we live and breathe differently, step outside our bodies, are transported forward or backward in time, travel the globe.

Singularity fiction is perhaps the hardest, because it attempts to imagine those who have passed beyond some future event horizon, when people have changed into unknowable posthumans, beings with qualities that are by definition beyond our understanding.

Such imaginings are not new; the most famous writer, arguably the source of much 20th century science fiction, was Olaf Stapledon, whose Last and First Men throws us into 18 future species of humanity, including genetic alterations, “radiotelepathy,” forms designed for other worlds, radical transformations of consciousness, and in the eighteenth men, a group mind that encompasses the entire species.

From the nineteen-thirties, as the unthinkable sciences of space-time and quantum physics were leaking out, writers began to speculate what would be possible, for the first time seriously considering that humanity itself may be fluid, modifiable, unmoored from its current form. Then the world sank into the struggle of World War II, followed by the booming zooming fifties, sixties, and seventies. And then, in the eighties, information technologies burst from their cocoon and populated the world with personal computers, the web, cell phones, and data. Meanwhile, those same technologies began the transformation of the sciences of genetics, materials, manufacturing, medicine, neurology, energy, and robotics.

Now, more than eighty years since the first writers threw themselves into the distant future, we look around and the prospect of a possible “post-human” species is closer than ever. Yet we haven’t figured out how to gaze through the event horizon, and those coming beings are as obscure as they were in 1930.

The recent collection of short stories, Digital Rapture, is well organized to warp the sense of self, tweak your dials, perturb the moral sense, and introduce you to classic writers in this field. The stories are presented in a roughly chronological fashion, both in terms of the publication dates and the postulated transition of our species. The first two sections, “The End of the Human Era,” and “The Posthumans” includes stories where humanity is still mostly recognizable, but is pushing the boundaries. “Day Million,” by Frederick Pohl, written in a single evening, is a tour-de-force of wit, idea, and story-telling. “Sunken Gardens,” by Bruce Sterling, introduces you to his “maker/shaper” series of body-mod with a moral punch.

The last two sections, “Across the Event Horizon” and “The Others” take us into a full-blown Otherness, where humanity, or what may remain of it, is confronted by our mind-children, and sometimes we recoil from the vision. Justina Robson’s “Cracklegrackle” hauntingly illustrates the dilemma: what degree of modification of the human form will be acceptable, and how will we react? “Coelacanths,” by Robert Reed, inhabits a surrealistic (and heart-wrenching) setting where one is not even sure of the status of those we meet – people? gods? artificial entities? – or the range of what is they is possible. “True Names,” by Cory Doctorow and Benjamin Rosenbaum, is a comp-mind novella that pushes the central dogma of our times (that consciousness is essentially computational) to its furthest – and then one step beyond.

Each section includes a non-fiction essay, to salt the mix. We get the seminal essay by Vernor Vinge, “The Coming Technological Singularity,” from 1993 and a rollicking introduction to Rudy Rucker’s mystic-technologic-pantheistic worldview, titled “The Great Awakening.” The introduction to Digital Raptureis a useful ten-page overview and commentary on the singularity movement, explaining in brief the notions of computronium, hard takeoff, or uploads. While acknowledging that the stories “are increasingly abstract and strange,” they also note that “the problem with SF’s depiction of aliens is that our aliens are all too human.”

We look around today, and except for the proto-telepathic buds sprouting from ears, humanity looks pretty much the same as it has for a few thousand years. Yet the tools are in hand for tinkering with the genome, interfacing the brain and nervous system with info and robotic devices, and sending micro/nano devices inside the body to monitor, moderate, and coordinate our innards. Whether we define the human at the level of organs, cells, or awareness, changes are afoot.

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