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.


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)

27 Comments on “A Month of Writers, Day Fourteen: Catherynne M. Valente”

  1. I guess it depends on what one means by “singularity”.

    If one means — as I understand Vinge and Kurzweil to mean — a point in time beyond which technological change is so fast and widespread that nothing we take for granted today will have any meaning, then I think you’re making a mistake in analysis. We could just as easily be on a logistics trajectory (s-shaped curve) as a parabolic one (j-shaped curve). If the former is the case, a time could come — and relatively soon — in which the pace of change slows down drastically and we just live with what we’ve got into the far future (a state Vinge calls the “Long Now”). The important point, IMO, is that you can’t tell from inside the process, partway through its history. That is and always has been a big hole in in the Vinge/Kurzweil assertion of a technological singularity.

    If one means a point beyond which one can’t reliably predict results — what I take Miss Valente to mean — then one has to ask whether or not we’re discussing a rhetorical conceit. It’s always been the case that the further one looks into history, the less reliable one’s predictions become.

    So I agree with Miss Valente that talk of a technological singularity can be meaningless, but for analytical, not philosophical reasons.

  2. I’m tempted to point out that if St. Petersburg was named to Leningrad once and then back to St. Petersburg, it could well be renamed again.

    But that would just be silly

  3. I think it’s because Cat (who is excellent, BTW) is confusing the Singularity with Paradigm Shift. Paradigms shift all the time, but there is a plateau on the other side that allows society to adjust. The Singularity, as I understand it, means that change keeps coming at such a pace that society can’t keep up. It’s like being a Walkman in an iPod world.

    Personally, I equate the Singularity with a Gernsback Continuum kind of world. Much of what we think of being shiny and cool will end up looking like crystalline cities with skycars do now. This is also why I think steam-punk is so hot right now, it’s a “days of future past” kind of gosh-wow.

  4. The point of contact between “I am” and “right now” is the singularity.

    And it can never be predicted.

    We only think it is predictable because we ignore so much….

  5. I can’t really quibble with her ruminations on terminology; I’m more interested in her deeper point about change, depression, and life going in unexpected directions.

    Through experience and my own depression a number of years ago, I learned to adopt an approach where I set general goals in life, but stay flexible in how I achieve them. It took a while, but now I’m far less concerned about making sure life is predictable, and far more relaxed when I need to adapt to the unexpected.

    That’s not to say I’m unconcerned or totally relaxed. I’m just less concerned and more relaxed. Things can still get hard.

  6. I could care less about what the heck Singularity means. The people debating whether or not she missed the point about Singularity seemed to miss the point about her post.

    I enjoyed her post and can’t wait until I have a couch that can talk. Speaking of couch technology…why can’t they make a couch that is heated? You know, like the seats of a Cadillac.

  7. I’m remembering a Kids in the Hall sketch where a man is told he’s been in a coma for “one hundred and fifteen… oh, let’s just call it two hours.” But it then turns out his wife has remarried, the aliens have landed, and he’s missed the most eventful afternoon in human history.

  8. Kelsey, because most people have their couches in heated rooms, so having the couch warm your butt isn’t necessary. Although there are seats with heat and massage, and there are also “lay over” products that do the same. And as Max said, the cats would horde such technology to themselves, so it would never see the light of day.

  9. Interesting …

    I wonder if there isn’t some sort of retroactive singularity – the point in your life you can’t believe you made it past. Somedays in my head, I’m 22, alone, ignorant and wondering what’s going to happen next. On the bad days, I’m thirteen and … well, you know what that’s like. But in reality, I’m more than twice 22, a competent professional, wife, mother, etc. And I’m still wondering how I got here. Maybe this is just a slightly different way of describing the same thing …

  10. 6. “I could care less about what the heck Singularity means. The people debating whether or not she missed the point about Singularity seemed to miss the point about her post.”

    10. “Too bad about the weirdly literal-minded, point-missing comments.”

    Yes, yes, yes — standing up in the face of change and embracing it is a self-affirming policy. I get it. That doesn’t mean that’s all one can or should extract from the piece.

  11. Sergeant E, I think it’s more about how life itself really is the Singularity, that changes eventually come too fast to absorb and where you thought you were going isn’t where you end up being (for that discrete moment) at all. That life is an adventure/journey you’re not really prepared for and that while you think you can see the journey’s path, life has a way of changing that path, but you need/should keep going none the less.

    But, yeah, it’s not the only thing one can take from her piece.

  12. 14. “Sergeant E, I think it’s more about how life itself really is the Singularity, that changes eventually come too fast to absorb and where you thought you were going isn’t where you end up being (for that discrete moment) at all. That life is an adventure/journey you’re not really prepared for and that while you think you can see the journey’s path, life has a way of changing that path, but you need/should keep going none the less.”

    But isn’t that just assigning a new name to an old principle? (Which, BTW, I don’t believe for a moment was the author’s aim.)

  13. Steve, whenever I get a chance to ride in a car with heated seats I use them even thought the car itself is heated. All I want is a big ol’ soft leather couch with heat. It doesn’t exist! I want it! Massage chairs don’t count – they aren’t cushy enough. Don’t even get me started on “lay overs.” I’m on to something here and you all know it. If you send me three easy investment installment of $19.95 maybe, just maybe, I’ll cut you in on the deal.

  14. Sorry, Kelsey, I’ve got my own thing going with attachable hand cranks that people can put on their printers, modems, or computers to give them a sense they’re helping those things go faster. All my money is going into that invest, but I’d be willing to cut you in for a small investment.

  15. Speaking of Singularity (or whatever) in a writer’s life. I just received my first ever offer from a publisher for a book!

    This post couldn’t have been more timely.

    This morning I woke up and couldn’t imagine what it would be like to receive such an offer and here I am — still in my PJ’s — having just received it. Woohoo! “Hello” to everyone from the cusp of Singularity.

    And no Steve, I will not be investing part of my advance in hand cranks.

  16. Kelsey@18: Well done, you!

    What a remarkably wise essay.

    My husband and I work in the software industry, and have hacked around with software since (gulp) 1977 in my case, 1974 or so in his. Every damn time we’re in the computer store, we point at … say … a Palm Pilot and say “The whole Honeywell 6600 mainframe didn’t have that much power.” And it didn’t. For computer people, we’ve survived a Singularity and it’s still happening. Moore’s Law exploded our skulls and continues to do so. Nothing — nothing gets so good, so cheap, so fast, as computer chips. Every single year I am experiencing new technology that would have blown my tiny mind five years earlier.

    And the Web is a singularity all by its lonesome. I can’t remember the last time I reached for my Bartlett’s, for instance.

    Somebody (on BoingBoing?) said that the single most-discarded book he sees is Future Shock. I can’t guess all the reasons why, but I suspect part of it is that we turned out to adapt just fine, by and large.

  17. Cat Valente rocks more than the hall of minerals at the NY Museum Of Natural History.

    Also, her books have soundtracks. Soundtracks by SJ Tucker.

    Listen to clips of the soundtracks

    Pray that one day you get to see SJ Tucker live.

    Until then, buy the soundtracks. Also buy her other CDs. I recommend Sirens.

    If Athena has not yet heard SJ’s Wendy songs, John, she should.

    Also, Cat’s books are really really really cool. I mean it. If anyone ever tells you they’re tired of elves and dragons and stuff, and want something “literary”, hit them over the head with these two books.

    Also, Kaluta’s illustrations are damn fine. They always remind me of the Lange fairy books.

  18. When Vinge’s Singularity happens, it’s more than “What the–where did all the Trapper Keepers go?” or “My flying skateboard needs to be overhammerschnizteled.” It’s more like the Left Behind series, except the writing is much better and pretty much no one is left behind. It showed up just before his novel Marooned in Realtime took place.

    Neal Stephenson’s brief critique (question 3) of the Singularity, is worth contemplating, though. Brieflier, it’s just like Left Behind… come on!

    Yes, anti-pedants, I also get the point of Valente’s post: predicting the future is as dumb as predicting the weather.

  19. Also sprach #24/Djscman:

    Yes, anti-pedants, I also get the point of Valente’s post: predicting the future is as dumb as predicting the weather.

    The future is what we predict; life is what we get. ¹ Overall, that’s still a really good deal.

    ¹ w/ apology to S. Clemens.

  20. I love this author’s thinking. Her take on such a sweeping term really brings the idea home for me. I would posit that one of the grand singularities of all time took place in the high summer of 1945, over Japan. Notwithstanding what K.Vonnegut may have said about Dresden. Frankly after surviving the Reagan era winnable nuclear wars and all that, its been all singularity cake from then on. No A.I. is going to scare me as much as that period of recent history.

  21. Ms. Valente is my favorite new author of the year – I entirely enjoyed both halves of the Orphan’s Tales, and seek to own them at some future point. Given that I almost never actually pay cash money for books (I borrow them from the library) this is quite something.