A Month of Writers, Day Fourteen: Catherynne M. Valente
Catherynne Valente is having a pretty good year: Her novel The Orphan’s Tales Vol I: In the Night Garden was nominated for the World Fantasy Award and won the James Tiptree, Jr. Award, and its follow on, The Orphan’s Tales: In the Cities of Coin and Spice, is getting rapturous praise as well (“a thought-provoking storytelling tour de force” — Publishers Weekly). It’s nice to do well. She’s a lovely person as well, so that’s a bonus.
But as Ms. Valente’s Month of Writers contribution shows, even writers who produce thought-provoking storytelling tours de force are sometimes surprised at their own stories, and how they have unfolded. All I have to say to this, from my home in snow-blanketed rural Ohio, far away from my suburban southern California roots, is: I hear you, sister. But as for the rest of you, pay attention now to what she has to say.
CATHERYNNE M. VALENTE: The Singularity
I was linked to this article by Vernor Vinge the other day, which involves some (rather arbitrary) comments on what might happen if the “singularity” does not occur. For those who do not live in our house and therefore do not have conversations involving said term at least once a month, the singularity refers to the technological revolution beyond which we cannot really imagine the state of our anything: daily life, rate of change, social patterns. Usually this means functional AI, and the resulting technologies: nanotech, FTL, etc. In short, it is the point at which “now” becomes that nebulous THE FUTURE.
I don’t have all that much to say about the tech singularity, because by definition we can’t really extrapolate–sure, we can talk about what the singularity might be, but to imagine life beyond it you need SF lit, and even there, one is always cautioned to Remember Leningrad–in Star Trek IV Starfleet headquarters reports the loss of power and plummeting temperatures in Leningrad as a result of the whalesongs (OMG SPOILERS). Of course, Leningrad was re-re-named St. Petersburg just a few years later, and is thus a nice shorthand for how the things which seem today like they will safely last forever can be gone by the next sequel.
So Vinge’s singularity–and he coined the term–will most likely occur, and I’m not really convinced by the article, where he says that if AI doesn’t develop, people will eventually more or less give up on computers. The singularity does not actually have to take the form of AI, much as we, raised on Data and HAL, might like to think it must. Our world as it exists today would be unimaginable to even someone from 300 years or so ago. Computers themselves comprised a singularity, as did flight and electricity. As did the breakup of the Soviet Union. There is no one singularity, and I believe that if AI doesn’t wake up one day and rub its cyber-eyes and ask for coffee, humankind will still manage new and to-us-unfathomable technologies if we don’t blow ourselves to shit first. I’m not really worried about it.
But because of the article I started thinking about the word “singularity” and what that has come to mean. While sitting at the breakfast table discussing the Big Scary S-word, I poked at my eggs-in-a-basket (which we, because we are dorks, generally call V-eggs or Vendetta in a Basket) and said:
“The thing is, I’m living in my own personal singularity, a point beyond which I, even right now, cannot imagine. I am post-marriage, post-publication, post-Navy, post-post. I don’t know how to live my life right now, I’m past the edges of my own maps.”
And that’s true. I did not have any tools with which to build a mental model of a life which did not include being married, which did not involve being moved around by the Navy, or returning to graduate school. Which rested heavily on writing and publishing for my bread and board and a rather unorthodox living arrangement in the American Midwest. All these things were well beyond the threshold of imagining for my 23-year old self, which was not all that long ago.
I think everyone has these personal singularities. When you’re a kid, it’s that nebulous state of being GROWN UP, at which point everything will be more or less awesome and make sense, and you will not have to deal with the issues you have to deal with being eight and grounded. Marriage is another one–we are taught that everything will somehow evolve into kids and a house and grandparenthood after that, though the process is vague and involves a lot of handwaving. Some of us are still struggling to live in that singularity of adulthood in their twenties, thirties, forties. Probably in their fifties, too, but to my spring-chicken mind, that age is as unimaginable as driving used to be, or being able to buy any toy I wanted, so I can’t testify. I realize, oh post-50 friends of mine, that that makes me suck. I accept this.
When you grow up, they often have to do with work: the site launch, the book, the promotion, tenure, going into business for oneself. Or children, the biggest singularity for most people.
What were yours? What are yours? What is the part of your life you cannot imagine yourself living beyond?
But the real nature of singularities is that they can’t even be predicted. In some sense AI is such an easy answer to what the singularity will be. In actuality it will probably be some advance we can’t even think about right now, as incomprehensible as the internet to a potato farmer in 17th century Ireland. He would not even have the tools to begin to understand what it was, let alone, and maybe more importantly, what use anyone could have for it, and why anyone would care. There are potatoes to pull, goddammit, leave me alone with that shit.
And it’s like that in fleshy, messy singularities, too. In 2002, when I stood in front of a minister and had a ring put on my hand, I fully expected that by 2007, I’d be living in Greece, still married, still in the Navy. Maybe pregnant. If I was very lucky, I could almost imagine the slim possibility of having a book published by a very, very small press. Maybe self-published. And maybe in 2009 I could go back to grad school. I was comfortable with that timeline, I knew it very well. It was Life, and maybe I didn’t like it so much, but you can’t really change it, right?
Didn’t happen. The books were the first singularity, Ohio was the second. And here I am, divorced before 30. I’m happy in my singularity, happier than in the analog, pre-quantum theory universe I inhabited before. But it does mean that I can’t even project what my life will be next month. I have no maps here. Part of my late depression and existential crises are the growing pains, I think, of trying to form an accurate model of my life trajectory, and jettisoning the old one. That process is no joke, not for the weak of heart. Remember Leningrad.
The word singularity is a lie, both in SF and in life. There is no one singularity. You keep pushing through them, and it’s fucking terrifying, and fucking amazing. You wake up and one day the USSR is gone and the tech boom crashed and you’re divorced and you sell tires instead of playing professional soccer and your toaster wants to talk to you about pork futures and the size of your penis and your sofa wants to have a serious conversation about the works of Vernor Vinge. You wake up and you’re making independent movies instead of selling tires and Europe up and got themselves a common currency and you had twin girls when you thought your birth control was top notch and the Supreme Court threw an election and gay marriage is so old-fashioned when there are four sexes and flights to Saturn leave daily.
You just keep moving. And in the middle of the night the blue glow of your intelligent sofa tells you it’ll be okay, eventually. Singularities exist to be lived in, to be lived beyond. Embrace them. Embrace love in the midwest. Embrace AI. Embrace Vernor Vinge. Face down the new world–and don’t flinch first.
(original entry, with comments, is here)