James Patrick Kelly is back with another Story Doctor article, this time about Jamie Wahls’s “For the Children.” This is a special treat because JPK has edited an anthology on the Singularity and readily shares some of his expert knowledge on the subject.
The Story Doctor Is (In)
by James Patrick Kelly
In a 1993 essay provocatively called “The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era,” Vernor Vinge asked the world in general – and science fiction writers in particular – to contemplate a dire future. “Within thirty years,” the abstract of his paper warns, “we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended.” Forget what that might mean for the New York Stock Exchange and Major League Baseball, think about what it would mean for hardworking writers like Jamie Wahls and me! “More and more, these writers felt an opaque wall across the future. Once, they could put such fantasies millions of years in the future. Now they saw that their most diligent extrapolations resulted in the unknowable … soon.” Now it is true that Vinge didn’t develop the concepts behind the Singularity all by himself, and that current thinking about the Post-Human Era, by Vinge and others, has evolved. For one thing, Vinge’s timetable seems a bit optimistic these days. But nonetheless, the Singularity has become a touchstone controversy in our genre. Those who believe in the Singularity have created a thriving subgenre of fiction exploring its implications while many of those who doubt feel compelled to account for why it isn’t part of their futures.
If you’re going to write about the Singularity, you need to figure out how to tell stories on the far side of Vinge’s “opaque wall.” Brilliant writers like Charles Stross and Hannu Rajaniemi have risen to the challenge with stories that approach the informational density of neutron stars, stories which some readers find … well … daunting. In “For the Children,” Jamie finds a more accessible narrative strategy, one that provides handholds for the reader and locates the essential humanity of these characters in their sense of humor.
Wahls establishes this strategy in the opening lines:
The explosion rocked the ship. Air gushed from the hole, salting the cold vacuum with fire and oxygen and fish. Riva was squeezed out the hole, her body pulped and frozen and in a hundred other ways destroyed in ways evolution hadn’t planned for.
She woke up.
“Dammit,” she said.
Memory loss 0.003%, apologized the ship. New body ready in four minutes.
“Ugh,” groaned Riva, exasperated. One thing after another.
Jamie makes so many wonderfully deft moves here that I could spend the rest of this column pointing them out. Narrative hook? Check. Start with action? Check. Introduce POV in first paragraph? Check. Sense of wonder? Check. (She died. She woke up.) Sense of humor? Check. While there are no laugh out loud lines here, appreciate the sly irony of the ejecta from the ship being “fire and oxygen and fish.” And then there are the comic juxtapositions of the extraordinary and the commonplace, as in Riva’s reaction to being reincarnated (Dammit) or her thoughts about losing .003% of her memory (One thing after another).
These last are what I call “handholds” for the reader. For if the opening of this story promises us Strange Adventures in Singularityland, it also gives us Riva, who even though she uploads and downloads at will, can exist as pure consciousness and is functionally immortal, is someone we can relate to. Consider that while she actually enters the ship’s sensorium to deal with the collision with the diamond and is about as post-human as it is possible to be, we read:
The vector of thrust was going to be hideously misaligned…and they’d have to keep that whole section unpressurized. But Riva pushed, and the ship obeyed, engines grousing like a mother-in-law and then sulkily firing to life. It was like walking into a strong headwind, but they were moving.
Again, the smart juxtapositions: thrust vectors and unpressurized sections cheek-by-jowl with a grousing mother-in-law and headwinds. No, there are no headwinds in space, but Riva uses similes that we understand because she was once just like us.
But Riva’s engagement with the world of this story is incomplete and for Jamie to leap the opaque wall and show us the other side, we need Momo.
Momo experienced fifty lifetimes, was born and died more times than that. He experienced untold carnal delights and saw every grain of dust in Tau Ceti in perfect faithful detail. He met and loved and hated ten thousand different humans, and some other beings divergent enough from humanity that they may as well have been aliens. He became a father, a mother, a great-to-the-24th-grandfather. He had two hundred careers and failed spectacularly at one hundred and eighty of them. He was a counselor and a professional assassin and a rock idol and a firebrand of a pundit.
Clearly not the guy in line behind you at Walmart! But Momo is not merely a (pun alert!) embodiment of the Singularity setting, he functions as a key plot element, at least in the plot I’m reading.
Understand that the plot I’m reading is not the one foregrounded in the story. That’s about Riva navigating various catastrophes like the collision with the diamond and the encounter with the supergiant star. Nor is it about launching Humanity to Tau Ceti and thence to parts unknown. No, the plot that speaks to me is about the problem of who is still human in this future. Because if an outlier like Riva is the only one we can identify with, then maybe she isn’t the best model for what it means to be human, because she’s crazy:
But she was regarded as basically an insane hermit, or, at best, a religious fanatic. It was only because of the unifying charter of Humanity–“Freedom is the right of all sentient beings”–that she wasn’t being gently uploaded and taken to the wacky future-culture equivalent of a mental hospital.
Even though Jamie doesn’t spell out in so many words, it seems to me that Riva is lonely and that she needs someone like Momo — first, to acknowledge the validity of her life and second, to join her in it.
We live in an era of genre mashups and I’m not just talking about paranormal romance or classic novels plus zombies. You don’t have to look very hard to find crime-solving wizards and magical spaceships. Is it just me, but given the witty banter decorating this clever posthuman canvass, hasn’t our Jamie Wahls written a kind-of, sort-of Singularity romantic comedy? Go ahead, tell me I’m wrong!
Jim Kelly has won the Hugo, Nebula and Locus awards and teaches at the Stonecoast Creative Writing MFA program at the University of Southern Maine. He has written a fistful of Singularity stories himself and with John Kessel is the editor of DIGITAL RAPTURE: The Singularity Anthology from Tachyon Books.
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