Postsingular Is Rudy Rucker's Wildest Ride YetS

It's not much of a spoiler to say that the Singularity happens in Rudy Rucker's new novel Postsingular, since the title gives that development away. But what happens after the Singularity will surprise you. People usually define the Singularity as the moment when artificial intelligences improve themselves to the point where they surpass us, but Rucker's singularity takes many more forms, and is much more confounding, than that. Here are the ten things that will surprise you about Postsingular. It's all spoilers from here on out!

In Postsingular, a maniac named Jeff Luty creates self-aware nanomachines called "nants," which are programmed to strip the world of all organic matter to reproduce themselves. But the nants don't just kill everyone, they "scan" you and put you into a virtual world, called "Vearth." The nants nearly succeed in absorbing the whole planet, but a rogue engineer, Ond Lutter, manages to plant a code that makes them reverse their actions, by making his autistic son memorize it before the nants absorb him. So the nants unravel all of their actions, back to the beginning, and restore everything on Earth to the way it was.

But Ond fears that Luty, or someone else, will try again to create nants that absorb the whole world. So he creates self-replicating nanites called "Orphids," which quickly cover everything in the world, tagging objects and turning them self-aware. Everybody becomes connected to each other via a kind of nano-internet called the Orphidnet. The Orphids guard against another nant incursion. But the Orphids also "tag" some techno-phobic giants from a higher dimension who have been visiting Earth secretly for decades, and these giants are willing to do anything to protect their dimension from our science. And the Orphidnet quickly gets overrun with spam and malware, just like the real Internet.

That summary barely scratches the surface of all the wild ideas Rucker throws out in Postsingular, which has enough inventiveness for ten good-sized science fiction novels.

Both versions of the Singularity suck in some ways, which feels much more realistic than the candy-floss vision some futurists want to feed us.

The first version, with the nants eating everything, leads to a virtual world that we learn would totally suck, late in the novel, thanks to a simulation one character experiences. The suckiness is partly because only certain people, who belong to the right political party, will actually get uploaded as consciousnesses in the new Vearth — everybody else is just an A.I. simulation. But it's also because there's not enough processing resources to simulate everything, and trees and other features become just crude pixellated shapes. People start "having children," meaning they merge their programs to create a new simulated person, who never existed in the real world. And these "newborns" take more and more processing power away from "real" people. Class divisions in the "Vearth" turn out to be worse than the ones in the "real" Earth, with some people stuck in crappy low-res living situations.

The second version, with the Orphids covering everything with a layer of intelligence, is sucky in a different way. Political candidates launch pop-up ads in the middle of your reality, bugging you while you're trying to take a walk. (Sort of like a Philip K. Dick story I read years ago.) Viruses cover you with "bugs" that prevent you from doing anything and make your Orphidnet access crash. And because everybody can see everybody else all the time through the Orphidnet, there's no more privacy. Everybody knows what you look like naked. (The wife and friends of Ond, the Orphids' creator, become stars of their own private soap opera, which zillions of people "tune into" via the Orphidnet.The soap opera's "stars" know more people are watching when the ads floating around them get bigger.) And people get addicted to "the big pig," a giant A.I. that forms in the Orphidnet and uses people's brains for extra processing power, which gives you a sort of high.

The novel's other main plot, about the giants from the higher dimension Earth (the "hibrane,") is a bit less fleshed out than the Orphids vs. nants stuff. It does make sense, because the Orphids "tag" the "hibrane" people, but I never quite got a complete sense of what the hibraners' world was like. We really only see it at the start and end of the novel. (And the hibrane people provide the solution, in the end, to Luty's second attempt to overrun the world with nants and create a new Vearth.) The alternate version of San Francisco that we glimpse, in the technophobic hibrane, feels a bit like it's still the 1960s, which may be part of the point. (The Orphidnet is a kind of turbo Internet, and so it uncovers a weird subculture that nobody knew about, just as the Internet has uncovered lots of previously obscure subcultures for us.) In the end, the hibrane feels like just another bizarre idea-spike in a novel that's spiked with tons of them.

But in general, Postsingular actually pulls off the ambitious multilayered story it sets out to tell. Along the way, we discover a new form of meta-storytelling, thanks to the Orphidnet, and that in turn leads to a new way of looking at reality. (One of Rucker's main characters, Thuy, is writing a meta-novel using the Orphidnet to assemble all her experiences. This turns out to unlock the hidden means of travel to the "hibrane" higher dimension.) After reading a novel about a meta-novel, in which everything gains significance from its connection to everything else, you're left feeling as though the Singularity is a lot more complex than you'd previously guessed. And, maybe, just a tad closer than you'd expected.

You can read the novel for free on Rucker's site, but you'll probably want to break down and get a hard copy at some point, so you can dog-ear pages and skip back and forth. [Postsingular]