Charles Stross‘ Accelerando (available for free download here) is a science fiction novel about the Singularity, the hypothesized point when radical increases in computing power — expressed both in neurological enhancements to our brains, and in the development of autonomous artificial intelligences — lead to an absolute discontinuity in history (the word was first used in this sense, as far as I know, by Vernor Vinge). Stross bases his novel on the “strong AI” hypothesis, and the arguments of such enthusiasts as Hans Moravec (who sees the human race as shortly to be surpassed and rendered defunct by artificial intelligences) and Ray Kurzweil (who similarly contends that “within 25 years, we’ll reverse-engineer the brain and go on to develop superintelligence”). Stross doesn’t question these dubious premises, but runs with them in the best SF manner, pushing them to their most delirious consequences. The book is an experiment in thinking through what it might mean to be human in a posthuman world; and beyond that, what it might mean to be (merely) posthuman in a world (or, I should say, solar system or galaxy) in which the development of computation on a massive scale has left anything ‘human’ far behind.
I think that Ken Macleod was the first SF writer to describe the Singularity as “the Rapture, for nerds”; but Stross uses the phrase on several occasions. And indeed there is much of adolescent-boy wish-fulfillment fantasy in the ideas of Moravec and Kurzweil. Getting rid of those pesky bodies, eliminating all of the resistance of materiality to the immediate fulfillment of our desires, guaranteeing us omnipotence and immortality… Stross concedes all of this, in a charmingly offhanded manner. All of information space is wired directly into people’s brains; you can always run subprocesses to consider alternate possibilities (should I have sex with this person? I’ll just run a simulation and see what it will be like); thanks to “programmable matter” and nanomachines, any object you want (food, clothing, shelter, furniture) can be instantaneously produced with just a snap of your fingers. Yet much of the humor of his book comes from the fact that, even with all of this, people are still hopelessly neurotic and confused. As Accelerando traces the history of three (or four, depending on how you evaluate the existence of clones furnished with the memories, as well as the phenotype, of their ancestors) generations of a single family, it keeps on looping back through the same manias, tics, and obsessions, from masochistic abasement to puritanical fear of sexuality to an almost hysterical lust for novelty. Perhaps this is only a longwinded way of saying that, no matter how outrageously manic the plot gets, with sentient lobsters running spaceships in the Oort Belt, and characters who are older than their own mothers, and people who decide to shed their human form and download their intelligence into a flock of pigeons (which gives a whole new meaning to the computer-science idea of “distributed intelligence”), everything seems to fit quite sensibly and ‘naturally’ into the course of things. Stross maintains the idea that human beings are so culturally flexible, so able to adapt to new circumstances, and to imagine alternatives, that almost anything is possible; while at the same time also proposing a vision of human-all-too-human nature stubbornly refusing to give up its primordial instincts, no matter how altered the circumstances and no matter how self-defeating the refusal. His narrative gains its flexibility and fun by walking the tightrope between these contradictory cliches, and refusing the Nietzschean pathos that might come by embracing either.
Accelerando also stands at an odd angle to the ‘utopian’ strain that so many critics (like Fredric Jameson) have seen as central to science fiction. The novel envisions a society of abundance rather than scarcity: but this seems to be the inevitable result of new, powerful technologies, more than it comes from any determined political vision. The only political issue that really seems to trouble the novel’s characters (at least in the earlier stages of the story) is in what circumstances artificial intelligences should be given the right to vote (and relatedly, whether multiple copies of the same personality should be allowed one-instantiation-one-vote). In Stross’s post-Singularity world, everybody is provided free with the basic necessities (which include neural implants and information access, as well as a reasonably comfortable supplies of food, clothing, and shelter). This would seem to be all gain and no pain: poverty is eliminated (as are wars and ethnic and religious conflict) with no need for a corresponding change in our fundamental capitalistic ethos. Relative scarcity, and money, still seem to exist when it comes to luxuries over and above the basic needs; people continue to scheme and plan and compete and act all “entrepreneurial,” even though there doesn’t seem to be much of anything for them to compete about. Actually, this shifts towards the end of the book — since “progress” and ease continue to be projected exponentially onward, eventually we find ourselves in a ‘world’ without State or commerce, and where “life is rich… endlessly varied and sometimes confusing,” but still recognizably grounded in communities of human beings “living in small family groups within larger tribal networks” (359-360). Again, Stross is playing with the paradox of everything changing and yet, fundamentally, nothing changing: a sort-of utopia achieved on the basis of abundance alone, confounding both those conservatives who believe that the fixed nastiness of “human nature” makes any hope of amelioration illusive and even dangerous, and those progressives who pin their hopes of improvement on the need, as well as the capacity, for human beings to fundamentally alter who they are. One of the most brilliant strokes of the book is that, though the Singularity undoubtedly occurs sometime during the course of the narrative (which extends from the year 2010 to what would be, in old Earth terms, the 23rd century), we never ‘see’ it happening, and cannot pin down precisely when it took place. Continuity and radical discontinuity are thus, like these other paradoxes, affirmed simultaneously.
But for me, the best parts of Accelerando have to do, not with its florid imaginings, but with its presentation of what really cannot be imagined. That is to say: its representation of posthuman artificial intelligences, those whose computing power is not limited by our carbon-based biology. These superhuman entities force the remaining enhanced human beings further and further away from the sun, to Jupiter, then to Saturn, then to the Oort Belt, then finally out of the solar system altogether. There isn’t room for both them and us; once they have simulated and assimilated us, they have no further use for us. It isn’t just that we don’t know what they want; beyond this, it is literally impossible for us to imagine what they might want. The scientific and philosophical reason for this is that these entities possess a higher-order consciousness than we do: “a posthuman can build an internal model of a human-level intelligence that is, well, as cognitively strong as the original. You or I may think we know what makes other people tick, but we’re quite often wrong, whereas real posthumans can actually simulate us, inner states and all, and get it right” (376-377). (So much for “the problem of other minds”).
But in terms of the narrative, these posthuman intelligences are like nothing so much as transnational corporations. . Remember that, already today, corporations are “persons” according to the law, even though they are not themselves conscious. Accelerando simply takes this legal fiction to the next level. The posthumans are “slyly self-aware financial instruments” (168) that have freed themselves from merely human parameters. No wonder that, in the course of the novel, they dismantle the solar system, pulverizing the planets and asteroids in order to convert them to computronium. For they strive to extract the maximum value (in the form of computational power) from all matter; their focus is on efficiency, and on the endless expansion and accumulation of computation, with no goal external to this accumulation itself. Money to them is “quantized originality — that which allows one sentient entity to outmaneuver another” (295). No measure of abundance can squelch their drive for competition. They are continually crunching data; for instance, they use all available historical traces to simulate as many as possible of all the human beings who have ever lived; after they’ve extracted what surplus-information they can by running the simulations, they download the “resimulated” (313) human beings back into flesh, where it seems they function as “cognitive antibodies” (340) programmed to keep the remaining augmented humans in line.
The posthumans have upgraded the old-fashioned “free market” to “Economics 2.0,” a system that is “more efficient than any human-designed resource allocation schema” (303). Economics 2.0 “replaces the single-indirection layer of conventional money, and the multiple-indirection mappings of options trades, with some kind of insanely baroque object-relational framework based on the parametrized desires and subjective experiential values of the players” (321). Human intelligence is incapable of participating in Economics 2.0 “without dehumanizing cognitive surgery” (315). In the framework of Economics 2.0, we can only function as “sapient currency units,” stockpiled for trade in “species futures” options (210). And all this seems to be the case, not only in our own solar system, but throughout the galaxy, which is littered with the ruins of superintelligent civilizations that have pushed the mania for accumulation to the point of implosion and extinction. Indeed, when the human protagonists of Accelerando finally meet an alien entity, not only does it take on the material form of a gigantic slug, but it turns out to be, rather hilariously, a “parasitic organism… the Economics 2.0 equivalent of a pyramid scheme crossed with a 419 scam” (295). Never has the classic SF scenario of First Contact with alien life been so deflated. Accelerando suggests (though perhaps not fully intentionally) that, not only is the Singularity near, as Ray Kurzweil maintains, but in fact it has already happened: less through the exponential increase in computing power and telecommunications networking (though that has certainly played a role) than through the neoliberal transformation — the deregulation of corporate activity, and the dismantling of the welfare state — of the last thirty years or so.