Postsingular by Rudy Rucker
As of this writing Postsingular can be downloaded at: http://www.rudyrucker.com/postsingular/
This may not last indefinitely.
Postsingular provides food for thought on topics related to nanotech, AI-based future descendents of the internet, pervasive data about any place on Earth, and, generally, the future of hi-tech. Whether the people and places portrayed are on the other side of a "singularity" is another question. Its literary merits may be another question.
The book actually started rather promisingly. The first few of chapters were the ones that held the most appeal for me. Those chapters could stand on their own - and I suspect they probably did. Postsingular may be one of those "novels" that is a stitching together of a few short stories. That first story tells of such extraordinary events and resolution that I couldn't help asking, "What do you follow that with for the other 80% of the book?"
I'd say the answer to that question is: you raise fascinating issues in inter-related, but less enthralling, stories. We see the potential and trade-offs of an all-pervasive "data about anything anywhere" network. What would most people really do with it? How would culture change? Possible pros and cons of a superintelligence that isn't "malevolent" but is not strictly benevolent. The role of the rich and powerful in trying to direct these technological forces to their goals. Issues about replacing the world with a virtual world.
The story was another matter. I couldn't identify so much with the main characters in the rest of the book. The characters, as first presented, were punky countercultural kids living on the streets and addicted to a kind of connection to the AI. I couldn't quite see them taking on the roles they did. One of the youths, Thuy, saw (over the network) a method for traveling between universes. This attracts the interest of those who want to know it and those who want to prevent it. Circumstances also bring them into contact with the wife of the developer of the nano-network. A man from the other universe works to get them to take on the bad guys who threaten the world with bad nano. The bad guys are also interested in them because they have made a counteragent for malware spread by the bad guys. At first they act in believable youthful expectation they can just stare down the bad guys. Later they become a four-person army.
A presidential election is about to happen in which the winner may decide the future of nanotech in the world. The head of a technology company wants to replace the world with a virtual Earth. Bad guys are trying to kidnap Thuy to learn the way to the other universe. Another of the youths is held at the company headquarters and told they will harm his family if he doesn’t make animated attack animals for them. Another of the youths, Jayjay, discovers how to self-teleport to anywhere on Earth. The bad guys are planning to release nanos to make the Earth virtual. The nano-network’s AI gives the youths shocking news, which sends one of them to the other universe to find an alternative…
Part of the plot provided a means to raise the questions about the tech. Taken as a story (ignoring the food for thought), I wouldn’t rate it that high. . Part of the plot went off in other directions with questionable scientific foundation. The story of events on Earth becomes intertwined with a parallel universe. That wouldn't have to be bad, but there seemed to be big science issues. The ultimate significance of the other universe to the story took the implausibility to another level.
It shouldn't give too much away to say there are two main types of nanotech alternatives presented in the book. One type uses nanomachines to eat up a planet and use the material to create a vast network of nano-computers. That vast computing system would be capable of running a virtual world to simulate the one that has been converted into nanos. The other option is a pervasive network of nanos covering all surfaces (people, plants, ground, buildings, books, etc.) This network interacts with people to provide access to any data the network has stored and anything the nanos can observe from being everywhere. Nanos designed for the different alternatives can conflict with each other. We are faced with issues of what typical people want, what certain powerful individuals want, and what the nano networks might want.
This is enough material, with enough potential perspectives, to fill quite a few books. In that sense, Postsingular is a good thing. I just don't think it approached its potential as a story.
The pervasive presence of nanos feeding audio, video, etc. into the global net from all locations is an idea that has lots of potential uses. Imagine driving a car and being able to access live info on all potential routes for traffic issues, and having the nanos do some of the work for you trying to figure out the best way to drive. On the other hand, there are periodic references in the book to lots of people watching anything and everything the main characters do. More people watch them because they have celebrity status, but the same happens to most people to a lesser degree. Strangers can view anyone anywhere anytime. Since the nanos are everywhere, including all over everyone's skin, strangers can view anyone's naked body - even when they have clothes on. This side of it makes the tech like an extremer version of "reality TV" - and in this case you don't even have privacy while having sex or using the toilet.
In the book, one of the protagonists (in fear for his life) asks the nano-network not to include him in the audio-video available for all locations - and the network explains that is not allowed by its programming safeguards designed to act consistently. On the other hand, the bad guys find a way to shield their activities using expensive technology. Designing rules for such powerful tech will need a lot of thought.
It's been said that Postsingular was Rucker's response to Charles Stross' Accelerando. The two books deal with similar subjects. Much of Accelerando portrays people who are not in "the singularity" - these are people who have chosen not to join the "computronium" network. Yet, the "postsingular" network is out there increasingly taking over the solar system and otherwise impacting events. Rucker's Postsingular mostly describes flesh and blood people living in a very hi-tech society - but not incomprehensibly different from today. There's a threat of the world being transformed as most of the solar system was in Accelerando. In that sense, Postsingular seems more about the possibility of a singularity than describing one from the outside.
Looking at it from the other direction, what is a "singularity"? Rucker's world of a nano-based super-internet with a vast central AI is a fantastic, amazing place from a 2008 point of view. But 2008 would be a fantastic and amazing place from a 1978 perspective. Back then (at least for the vast majority of the population) there were no PC's (to say nothing of notebooks), internet, cell phones, voice mail, PDA's, music CD's, DVD's, DVR's, video game systems, MP3 players, digital cameras, satellite radio, GPS, radar detectors, remote controls for most home electronics, programmable air conditioners, etc. If you showed a 1978 person a notebook computer that could play music CD's, show DVD movies, do word processing (helping correct your spelling and grammar), do databases, design graphic presentations, edit music files, etc. they'd probably assume you came from another planet. What is a "singularity"?
While much of the book dealt with interesting tech, there were elements that rubbed me the wrong way. Such as:
(1) We're told it's possible to travel between here and a parallel universe. How this is done sounded partly mystical and partly technobabble. There's talk about encryption, which apparently was part of the process of traveling. I couldn't make sense of that. I can send encrypted data over the internet, but the encryption plays no role in making the data move. Transporting oneself to the other universe also required controlling one's thoughts so one is not thinking of oneself for a moment - this sounds on the mystical side to me. One character finds a way to go between universes by mentally visualizing a certain kind of knot - again, this sounds like mystical "mind powers" to me.
(2) People self-teleporting more-or-less at will. (See Teleportation section of this site for general teleportation issues.) In this book, it was necessary to mentally picture the originating and destination locations to teleport. At first, I assumed Rucker meant some nanotech was involved, although that was inconsistent with what we were told. However, in an article in Asimov’s, Rucker claims some mental / quantum method that uses no tech. What’s in the book seemed like mystical mental powers to me. What he says in Asimov’s sounded to me like pseudoscience technobabble – see Rudy Rucker’s Teleportation.
(3) The other universe is depicted as having different physical laws, resulting in non-tech "smart air" and universal telepathy. I won't argue other universes can't have different laws of physics that would permit this. However, the book takes seriously the idea our universe's laws could be altered to match those of this other universe - thus giving us the advantages of nano without the tech. Changing the physical laws of an existing universe without catastrophic harm to life there??? Hard for me to believe - and a mighty big gamble even if it's not entirely impossible. Plus, it seems pretty fantasy-like that this change of physical laws would be induced by musical vibrations.
(4) Communications between individual nanomachines in the nano-network are often described as using quantum entanglement. Physicists believe meaningful communications can't occur solely by means of quantum entanglement. A second (non-entangled) means of communications is needed to make use of the quantum entangled data. Quantum entanglement might add secrecy to messages, but isn't a means of communication by itself. See: Quantum Entanglement Communications
The book refers to those who have nanos assisting them with mental tasks as being people with increased intelligence. I don't know whether this is accurate or plausible - but it did raise interesting questions. What does it mean to be more intelligent as a result of tech assisting you? If your PC gets you quick answers via the internet, calculates data for you in spreadsheets, corrects your spelling and grammar in word processing, etc. - does that mean you're smarter? Psychologists can't agree on exactly what constitutes intelligence or how to test for it on IQ tests. And even if everyone agreed on that, when does a device assisting you become considered part of your intelligence?