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The Singularity Q&A

Q: How can anyone write good science fiction if the Singularity is so mysterious?

A: Imagination has always been an important feature of science fiction -- even among authors of so-called "hard" sci-fi that strive to stay solidly grounded in known science.  One must take out a sizeable artistic license when creating extra-terrestrials, for example, since actual species cannot be predicted with any expectation of accuracy.  Even so, aliens are usually much more believable when they are explained scientifically, and behave in ways harmonious with the kind of environment they supposedly evolved in.  If a race of muscular aliens with sharp claws and fangs is portrayed as inherently docile, the author had better have a good explanation.

The Singularity definitely gives hard sci-fi writers trouble, however, because it is near enough in the future to figure into any story taking place more than a few decades from now, and because the kind of reality ushered in by superintelligence is so very hard to imagine.   Attempts to be specific about superintelligent life tend to come across as inadequate musings of a limited pre-singularity intelligence.  Nevertheless, human imagination is still formidable, and some forays into the Singularity can be as thought-provoking as they are entertaining -- the trick, as in any fiction, is to be consistent enough to avoid drawing attention to the dubious nature of any speculations.  (Many writers advocate a "1 or 2" rule: One major speculation is often the core of a story.  A second major speculation can work, but is unlikely to strengthen the story unless it adds an especially interesting twist.  Additional major speculations are unlikely to do anything but disrupt the flow of the story and undermine credibility.  This is, of course, a major obstacle to Singularity fiction, where so many seemingly hard-and-fast rules about human existence are likely to have been broken.)

Writers who choose to write stories set in non-Singularity futures must either ignore the Singularity entirely or explain why a Singularity did not occur.  It is much easier to do the former and, some would argue, more effective; as this Q&A attempts to demonstrate, there aren't very many plausible arguments against a Singularity in our future -- provided we have a future.  Explaining why a Singularity didn't occur can have value, though, particularly if the reason is directly relevant to the story. 

Writers who do acknowledge a Singularity often minimize dubious speculations by tip-toeing around the superintelligent details.  The main characters may be "classic" humans.   The settings may be primitive stomping grounds for such people.   Superintelligences may have important roles but work behind the scenes.  Or, the results of the Singularity may remain a mystery for protagonists "left behind."  Vernor Vinge is particularly skilled at these kinds of Singularity treatments.

Another technique is to ignore the superintelligent aspect of post-Singularity life and instead assign characters "merely" superhuman abilities on top of very human sentiments.  The main characters, after all, must share some of our own emotions and motivations if we as readers are to empathize with them.  Greg Egan is perhaps the most successful at this approach, taking such characters into settings saturated with the most radical technologies now believed to be possible.

In any case, there will probably always be stories that include the Singularity and those that don't -- even after the Singularity.  The best stories stand out because of how they are told, not because of the science or speculations they include.  Acknowledging the Singularity and using it to propel a story is about as safe and easy as lassoing highway traffic from a skateboard.  But for those writers who pull it off, Singularity-aware sci-fi makes for some pretty wild rides.




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