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.