POSTSINGULAR by Rudy Rucker (BOOK REVIEW)
“Orphids are quantum computers. They don’t observe; they entangle.”
“’We’re alchemists,’ said Thuy. ‘Transmuting our lives into myth and fable.’”
Rudy Rucker’s Ware tetralogy is an essential cyberpunk series that over the course of its four volumes redefines the limits of the genre. Over the period of time that he was writing the Ware novels, Rucker was also writing everything from the transreal fiction of The Hacker and the Ants (1994) to the bonkers genre pastiche of The Hollow Earth (1990) to the unfiltered Ruckerian brilliance of Master of Space and Time (1984). Whilst all of these novels share Rucker’s love of the Beats, his surreal humour and his fascination with mathematics and higher dimensions, many of them are far from the genre boundaries of cyberpunk, even to the extent that the Ware novels play by the rules of the genre (which is to say, not a lot). However, with Postsingular (2007) Rucker returns to many of the themes and ideas that run through the Ware novels that link them to cyberpunk. Building on the idea of the technological singularity that was hinted at in Realware, the final Ware book, Postsingular imagines a world where the technological singularity has taken place. Rucker swaps robotics for nanobots, and rises to the imaginative challenge of the singularity with his own unique aplomb. The end result is an essential work of speculative fiction and arguably Rucker’s single most satisfying novel.
In the near future, Jeff Luty, CEO of computer company Nantel, almost causes the end of the world by releasing bio-memetic self-reproducing nanomachines called nants, which are programmed to consume the world and everyone in it, and recreate it as the virtual environment Vearth. Thanks to the quick thinking of Ond Lutter, one of Nantel’s most promising researchers, and his autistic son Chu, the destruction of the planet is reversed. Nantel rebrands as ExaExa and the disgraced Luty goes to ground. Five years later, Ond releases the orphids – sentient, nondestructive nanomachines that coat the entire surface of the Earth and form a network via quantum entanglement. The orphids change everything – they learn how to interface directly with people’s bodies and brains, linking them up to the orphidnet. Superhuman AI, intelligence amplification and travel between neighbouring quantum universes become possible overnight. But Luty is still determined to release the nants. It’s up to street punks Jayjay, Thuy, Sonic and Kittie to rescue Ond and Chu from a higher dimension so that together they can foil Luty’s plan.
Postsingular explores a world transfigured by the orphidnet, in which matter itself is becoming smart. The orphidnet operates a lot like Augmented Reality, somewhere between traditional depictions of cyberspace and the way we experience the world through mobile smart devices. The orphidnet is accessible anywhere by everyone. Like the internet, it creates a media-saturated environment in which humanity becomes enmeshed. People are hounded by aggressive personalised adds, which require “filter dog” antivirus programmes to stop them. People can tune into reality shows like Founders, where they can vicariously experience other people’s lives. They can use AIs to augment their intelligence and memory – the boundaries of the mind are no longer determined by the limits of one’s wetware. And like Thuy, they can use the orphidnet to write a metanovel – an immersive multimedia combination of words, videos, sounds and links. Rucker uses Thuy’s metanovel as a reflection on his own writing experience, the way he uses his own experiences to create his science fiction. This forms an emotional core that grounds the novel even as it engages in outrageous flights of fancy. As such, it’s possible to read Postsingular as a reflection on Rucker’s own approach to writing fiction and creating.
Postsingular wouldn’t be a classic Rucker novel if it didn’t also explore ideas around higher dimensions. The orphids reveal that our dimension is frequently visited by Hibraners, inhabitants of a higher dimension who have strong feelings about how humanity is messing up its world. Previously the Hibraners would be glimpsed out of the corner of the eye and mistaken for angels, aliens or fairies, but the orphidnet allows travel from our realm to the Hibrane space for the first time, much to the Hibraners dismay. However, the Hibrane’s advanced configuration of space inspire Jayjay and Thuy, who unroll the eighth dimension on returning to our world, a change which allows everyone to “use a cosmic vanishing point for a universal Web server” and so realise the dream of the increased computational power of Vearth without destroying the real world.
Much of the power of Postsingular comes from its exploration of the dark side of Silicon Valley’s techno-utopainism. Rucker worked in Silicon Valley during the 90s, and clearly came to understand that mindset very well. Luty, the disgraced head of ExaExa, is a truly chilling villain because he is so recognisable. He is someone who buys politicians and the media so he can get what he wants, a paranoid sociopath who is happy to play to the apocalyptic urges of the far-right, as can be seen from his response to the President finally standing up to him:
“I can make the media remember whatever I want them to remember. Facts are revisable. History is hackable. I can unelect you. You’re a temporary variable.”
In a world where media manipulation via social media has shaped the political landscape, Rucker’s characterisation of Luty seems downright prescient.
Postsingular is a bold, ambitious book, one that harnesses Rucker’s wild imagination to portray a world transfigured beyond recognition by digital technology. With its unique mix of surreal humour, rock and roll aesthetics and mind-boggling mathematics, it couldn’t have been written by anyone else. At the same time it is a deeply personal meditation on Rucker’s own relationship to his art, as well as a timely warning about the dangers that were just around the corner as Rucker was writing. As such it is an excellent example of everything that speculative fiction can and should be, the crowning achievement in the career of one of our most audacious writers.