In astrophysics, a singularity is the heart of a black hole. It is the remnant of a collapsed star with a gravitational field so intense that not even light can escape. A singularity is also the place where our understanding of the laws of physics break down completely. In other words, it is the gateway to the completely unknown.
Not surprisingly, the term Singularity (note capital "S") has in the last decade and a half been co-opted by a number of future visionaries and postmodernist prophets to describe a theoretical point at which our understanding of future technology and society breaks down utterly—i.e., it is the point where the future becomes utterly incomprehensible to those that came before it. It can also be used to describe the point where the rate of technological progress accelerates to near infinity, where science and innovation build upon themselves exponentially to the point of no return.
The theory is controversial to say the least, but it is nevertheless a fascinating enough premise to fuel a number of cutting-edge science fiction novels, starting in 1988 with Vernor Vinge's classic Marooned in Realtime and continuing into its modern form in the new novel Singularity Sky by Charles Stross.
In fact, one may more accurately describe the world of Stross's novel as post-Singularity fiction. The titular infinity point of the techno-prophets happened in the late twenty-first century, creating an artificial superintelligence called the Eschaton. The Singularity happened so quickly that humanity wasn't even aware of it until the Eschaton-entity announced its existence in a very dramatic and terrifying way: in the blink of an eye it scooped ninety percent of humanity from the face of the Earth and spread them out over thousands of light years of space and across millennia of time into the past.
The Eschaton asserted that it was not God, but did leave humanity with one divine commandment: no one was to ever utilize closed timelike paths—i.e., time travel into the past—for any reason. Any planetary civilization that so much as experimented with the ability was promptly obliterated by the Eschaton to protect the integrity of its own time line.
In the novel's present, some three hundred years after the Eschaton's emergence, FTL travel has been developed and a loose community of human-inhabited worlds established. A colony world of the New Republic—techno-rejectionists who run a rigid class-dominated society patterned after Victorian England—encounters a mysterious entity from the depths of interstellar space that calls itself the Festival.
On a backwater world where most people live at a 19th-century-level and advanced technology is restricted to the ruling class, the Festival begins giving anyone any technology or material possession asked for in exchange for stories or information. Soon chaos reigns, techno marvels and horrors sweep across the planet, and all contact with the colony is lost. The New Republic quickly assembles a battle fleet to confront this techno-plague.
On board this battle fleet are two citizens of Earth, our protagonists. One is Rachel Mansour, diplomatic envoy from the United Nations, and the other Martin Springfield, civilian contractor and drive specialist. Hidden agendas and secrets abound aboard the battle fleet but all that pales in comparison to the horror that may await them when the fleet confronts the Festival.
Singularity Sky is rife with a great many twists and turns and surprises, and at its heart is an old-fashioned science fiction romp crammed full of new and fascinating ideas. It manages to successfully marry the old genre of the space opera to the newer memes of cyberpunk, nanotech, and 21st-century physics.
For example, the New Republic's main point of contention with the rest of its brethren in the interstellar community is with so called cornucopia machines—nanotech assembler factories that can break down matter into its component atoms and then reassemble them into any material good imaginable. The rulers of the New Republic, like many autocratic governments in the real world, can maintain their iron grip on a populace without this technology by controlling the material resources people need for day-to-day living. But when rebels on the besieged world obtain cornucopia machines from the Festival, the old order breaks down within days as the citizens' every material want is instantly satisfied, and the population has to suffer through its own social and economic Singularity.
In fact, Stross paints the New Republic as a bit slow-witted. The ruling class uses high technology where necessary, but rejects the cutting edge of it, mainly cybertech and nanotechnology. And worse, because they come from an unyielding Victorian-style class system, they have an even more conservative mind-set that doesn't allow them to see the full potential—and danger—of those technologies in the hands of their assumed enemies.
Compare this to the two protagonists from Earth, who come from a society that makes full use of both nanotech and all-pervasive data nets. They are free from the constraint of not only big government, but of any real government at all. They're enlightened, smart, and capable, while the New Republicans, while individually portrayed as capable, are collectively rigid, myopic, and backward-thinking, the far-future equivalent of country bumpkins. Its pretty clear where Stross's sympathies here lie, especially in a brief exchange where our heroes discuss whether a free society with the threat of terrorism is better to live in than the invasive totalitarian state a completely safe culture would require.
Unfortunately, that's about as deep as the characterizations go, Stross's only true weak point in the novel. The heroine is stereotypically resourceful and courageous and the hero is quiet and reserved, and though their back stories are well-detailed, the reader will find it hard to get emotionally involved with either beyond seeing what Neat Thing they're going to encounter next.
Stross also thumbs his nose a bit, in a somewhat more fun way, at the conventions of "classic" space operas like Star Trek, Star Wars, and such. The New Republic ships, technologically, are patterned after the space fleets of those works, but using Stross's more realistic take on their technology and tactics. Needless to say, in the novel they are badly outmatched by the nanotech-equipped AIs the Festival uses to defend itself. This is also Stross's point of view showing through, I think. Despite the fact that miracles such as gravity control, quantum particle engineering, and FTL travel would probably have just as much of an effect on human society as nanotech and artificial intelligence, the former are given no more than casual mentions while he expounds for pages upon pages on the latter.
This brings up a technical nitpick I have with Singularity Sky and many other recent works of science fiction that portray nanotech as this unstoppable, invulnerable force. At one point in the novel, the New Republic ships are under attack by what basically amounts to a wide-angled spray of nanotech dissemblers and is seemingly helpless against them as they literally eat through the hull.
But the thing is, nanites, while they may be much hardier than bacteria, are basically still just microbes. There should be a whole slew of ways to defend against them if the defender has at least some idea of what's coming, as the New Republic forces did. Electrifying the hull, for example. Using wide-beam lasers or masers to ionize the nanite molecules as they approach in conjunction with a powerful magnetic field to repel them. Employing an army of disassemblers yourself to attack the incoming nano-invaders on the hull and prevent them from doing their job. Even chemical sprays and powerful disinfectants like those we use nowadays to destroy microbes should have an effect.
But those are a few minor complaints about an otherwise very enjoyable hard science fiction yarn. If you think science fiction should be more about cutting-edge ideas than blaster beams and rubbery aliens, then Singularity Sky is definitely for you.
Paul Lucas grew up on the shores of Lake Erie just a few snow drifts away from Buffalo in the sleepy little town of Dunkirk, NY. He currently resides in Erie, PA, where he freelances as a writer and artist. You can send him e-mail at: email@example.com.