“What If the Singularity Does NOT Happen?” Vernor Vinge, Cowell Theater, Fort Mason, San Francisco, 7pm, Thursday, February 15. The lecture starts promptly at 7:30pm. Admission is free (a $10 donation is always welcome, not required).
Science fiction writer Vernor Vinge invented the concept that dominates thinking about technology these days. He called it “the Singularity”— the idea that technology (computer tech, biotech, nanotech) is now accelerating so exponentially that it will lead to a massive, irreversible, and profoundly unpredictable transformation of humanity by mid-century.
This Thursday evening Vinge will challenge his own idea for the first time: “I have some plausible, non-singularity scenarios that get us into a human-scale world with long time horizons. I’ll describe the near-term peculiarities I see for such scenarios and then discuss what such a world might be like across ten or twenty thousand years. Finally, I’d like to talk about dangers and defenses related to these scenarios.”
Put on by The Long Now Foundation, with info on seminars (and downloads of previous ones) here. We saw one of the best presentations I’ve ever seen – Will Wright and Brian Eno – at a previous Long Now Seminar.
A few months ago I read The Collected Stories of Vernor Vinge. Now, I grew up reading Golden Age science fiction (Asimov, and others who I can no longer name on a whim), and then moved into Heinlein, Silverberg and the like. I read those books when I was young and the books were old. Even if Heinlein was challenging sexual mores (i.e., Time Enough For Love), it was more about the novel than the ideas for me. The ideas seemed secondary. Maybe I just liked stories about robots, spaceships, and planets.
This changed for me about 10 years ago when I read Snow Crash, a book that took the ideas of right now (or right then) and played with them, taking some things to an extreme, but always with a clear line back to today. Given a lifetime of reading science fiction, this was a sea change. Indeed, much of the sci-fi I’ve read or watched since then has been along those lines (just like I posted yesterday).
But where’s that balance between being a visionary and being a storyteller? I tried to read Accelerando a few months back, but the story merely served as a carrier for the torrent of ideas/social commentary Charlie Stross wanted us to think about. It was fun for the first 50 pages, trying to keep up with it all, enjoying the stimulation, but after that it started to get annoying, then ultimately untenable. I hurled the book across the room, giving up in frustration.
Vinge’s collection of stories didn’t provoke such a strong reaction, and I was easily able to finish it. But it left me cold. The older stories seem more about current ideas, now dated, and less about the characters and the plot. I didn’t care about most of it and I couldn’t connect with most of it. Only the most recent story had any cultural or technological currency (in both senses of the word) and was therefore entertaining to read.
Obviously much of this has to do with where I’m at in engaging with the world when I come across these stories. Comments or ideas about culture are obviously more resonant than when I was 10. But I wonder if this is always how science fiction was read and written, or if the landscape has changed?