The Singularity Backlash

Are you sick of the shiny, high-tech future where humans evolve into superbeings? Join the club. The latest trend is for anti-singularity futures, where tomorrow looks like yesterday.

Singularity science fiction follows a Moore's Law of the future, where science improves our lives exponentially over time. Eventually human life is so radically transformed that it's unrecognizable to those of us living in the relatively crappy present.

Scifi author Vernor Vinge is usually credited with coming up with the idea of the singularity. He wrote explicitly about it in an early 1990s essay, but was obviously toying with the idea in his 1980s novels The Peace War and Marooned in Realtime, where a "bobble technology" has the power to freeze objects, people, and even towns inside time-stopping fields that evaporate after a set amount of time has elapsed. Anti-nuke activists use the technology to bobble weapons research facilities and military industrial strongholds. This results in a short conflict where anyone with weapons gets bobbled, and the world quickly returns to a semi-agrarian state where technology is regarded with suspicion.

In Marooned In Realtime, people who were bobbled for thousands of years - including the employees of weapons labs - emerge from their bobbles to discover that the entire population of the planet has gone through a singularity and disappeared. Nobody knows where they went, but a few people who got bobbled directly before the singularity recall that humans had seemed on the verge of developing a collective consciousness using an internet-like communication system. Left behind, the remaining humans try to scrabble out a life on the planet, rebobbling themselves for millions of years in the hope that humans will return or another life form will evolve intelligence and keep them company.

In Vinge, then, there are two kinds of singularity: the kind made possible by bobbles in The Peace War, which create an unexpected future by vaulting everyone back into the past; and the kind that makes the human race as such get so complicated that they completely vanish.

For many years, however, most stories about post-singularity cultures have favored the latter type, where everybody becomes a mega-being and beams out of existence. You can find this sort of singularity everywhere from Rudy Rucker's latest novel Hylozoic, to JJ Abrams' shiny re-imagining of Star Trek with its effortless time travel and undefined superpowered "red matter."

The Singularity Backlash

But now we're starting to see the bleeding edges of a backlash against this kind of "everybody disappears" singularity where the human future is unimaginably awesome. Partly this backlash is coming from history-obsessed authors like Jo Walton and Robert Charles Wilson. Wilson's novel Julian Comstock imagines a 22nd century United States sapped of its energy resources and returned to 19th Century levels of technology.

But this trend is also coming from post-apocalyptic TV series like Jericho and the upcoming Day One, where people must learn to live without their Moore's Law-driven technologies.

The Singularity Backlash

Steampunk is another major anti-singularity subgenre. In steampunk, the future looks like the 19th Century (or vice versa). Humans can't get bio-rejiggered, souped-up, and uploaded into the incomprehensible noosphere: Instead, they've gone back in time to an easily-recognizable age. The zombie craze is part of this trend, too. Zombies are the opposite of post-human. In zombie stories, humans turn into proto-humans, mindless or nearly mindless hoardes of brain-eaters. The zombie is what humans might have been like hundreds of thousands of years ago in the salad days of homo erectus.

Does the singularity backlash mean that people are seeking out darker stories? Not at all.

There are plenty of optimistic anti-singularity tales. The TV series Firefly, for example, is about a world divided into the singularity haves and have-nots: If you live on the "inner planets," your technology is advancing exponentially; if, like our heroes, you stick to the outer planets, you're smuggling cows in a spaceship for cash. Nevertheless, the show is about people remaining loyal to one another and prevailing against injustice.

Neal Stephenson's latest novel Anathem is about a society that has rejected the singularity, and how this choice has not only saved their civilization but put them in a position to advance far more than they would have otherwise. And countless steampunk stories deliver adventure and happy endings, despite the fact that the future looks more Model T than Enterprise.

The Singularity Backlash

In an era of reduced economic expectations and green politics, the bobble-style singularity Vinge imagined over 30 years ago is starting to seem more realistic and even desirable. Not the bobble tech so much, but the "going back to the pre-information age" part.

Maybe this fantasy has become more attractive because we want to be more choosy about which technologies we use to change the future. Or maybe we're just sick of shiny tomorrows that seem unreachable. Either way, science fiction is taking refuge in the past for a while. Expect steampunk zombies living among fallen civilizations, but not necessarily in a depressing way. If you do see people beaming up into a high tech utopia, I'm willing to bet that's because you're watching something set in a retro scifi universe like Star Trek. The past is the new future - at least for the present.

Top image is of Stephen Martiniere's cover for Marooned In Realtime.