One from the vaults: From Neuromancer to the Singularity.

This post was originally written over a year ago. It serves as a great foundation for future posts on the cyberpunk genre and technological change. I am republishing it with only a couple of minor edits.


The foundations of cyberpunk were laid in the late seventies (though precursors go all the way back to the fifties - e.g., Alfred Bester). However, William Gibson's Neuromancer, published in 1984, was the archetypal cyberpunk novel. Ironically, as much as Neuromancer was responsible for the development of the cyberpunk genre, it also laid the seeds of its decline; few of the later authors to work in the genre would go beyond the tropes established in Neuromancer, and the genre would become overwhelmed by its cliches.

As much as Gibson wrote the archetypal cyberpunk novel, Neal Stephenson wrote the ultimate one: Snow Crash. Stephenson then wrote the archetypal postcyberpunk novel, The Diamond Age. Unlike cyberpunk, which was typically set in a relatively concrete future, postcyberpunk novels, if set in the future at all, take an ironic approach - e.g., Charles Stross.

Throughout most of the history of science fiction, authors have predicted the future in a very linear fashion. For example, during the fifties, it was commonplace for authors to predict space travel and flying cars as common elements of the future. Forget that flying cars are a terrible idea anyway, and that space travel fizzled out because it was boring; other than these elements, the future for these authors was little different from their present. Even in the cyberpunk of the eighties, the future was still a linear development of the present. However, predicting the future has gotten very difficult.

Alvin Toffler's The Third Wave was the bible of the cyberpunk movement. In this book, Toffler analyzed the history of human civilization and how it was affected by technological development. Each major technological advance set in motion a "wave of change" that radically altered society. The first wave was the Agrarian Revolution; the second was the Industrial Revolution. The focus of the book was on the Third Wave, which would be driven by the development of computers and information technology; the Internet is one of its direct results. The thing was that the waves were occurring at an ever-accelerating pace: the Agrarian Revolution had taken perhaps 200,000 years, whereas the Industrial Revolution happened less than 2000 years later. The Third Wave happened only a couple of hundred years.

What this meant was that the Fourth Wave would likely happen in only a couple of decades; in fact, the Fourth Wave would happen even before the Third was complete. The Fifth Wave would occur almost immediately. It would no longer be possible to predict what the future would look like.

Add to this confusion Gordon E. Moore. Moore's Law states (very roughly) that computers will grow more powerful at a geometric rate, doubling their computing power with every generation, while every generation would last only half as long. Eventually, this rate of development would reach infinity; by analogy with black holes, this event was named the technological singularity. Just as it is impossible to predict what happened beyond the event horizon of a black hole (a gravitational singularity), it is impossible to predict what will happen after the "event horizon" of a technological singularity.

Vernor Vinge (who coined the term "technological singularity") originally predicted its occurrence around 2030. Ray Kurzweil also used this date. However, Eliezer Judkowsky of the Singularity Institute considers this time frame conservative, and predicts that the Singularity will occur around 2021. Thus, we are perhaps only a decade away from the point at which human civilization and human nature itself undergo the most radical change yet.

This, I believe, is responsible for the recent dearth of science fiction dealing with the future. Even pioneers Gibson and Stephenson have turned their sights elsewhere - Gibson to the present, and Stephenson to the past (though both continue to brink a (post)cyberpunk style to their material). It is also responsible for the resurgent popularity of fantasy in literature and film.

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