Department header
Bewildering Stories

Bewildering Stories Discusses

“Living in the Singularity”

Tom Borthwick’s “Living in the Singularity,” in issue 550, has occasioned some discussion. Herewith is a compiled summary. Readers, please feel free to send your own interpretations.

“Living in the Singularity” raises a lot of questions, depending on how you read it. For example:

Why does anybody undergo “Integration” anyway? In particular, why does Mary leave Tim?

The consensus: Tim doesn’t know and neither do we. For all practical purposes, Mary may as well have died, but nothing suggests that she has. Integration might serve as an alternative to assisted suicide for the terminally ill, but we don’t get the impression that Mary was suffering from anything in particular other than, perhaps, boredom.

What is the “Singularity”?

The Singularity feels Matrixy. But in the Matrix, you at least thought you were living a life. In this Singularity you just go away. I might have been bought off with steaks and female attention but not with a “heaven” that’s a lot more ambiguous and less clearly explained than the one my great-grandfather and my first dog supposedly inhabited when I was a child.

What happens to people when they join the Singularity? What does it mean that “the me that I am becomes lost in the we that we are”? How can there be a “we” when there is no “I”?

The clerk explains it somewhat differently:

“Since I’m not in there, I can’t speak with authority, but as far as I know, you’ll feel yourself begin to meld with the Singularity and become one with it. Technically, it’s not a collective consciousness but a single dwelling place. Kind of like a big apartment building made up of all who undergo Integration. Without walls, of course.”

How did the creators of the process know what was really happening on the other side? You can’t sample it and then come back and give a report. Once you’re there, you’re trapped, neither dead nor alive. So there are logical problems, which is also the case with many sci-fi blockbuster films.

The clerk may be lying, or he may just be repeating what he’s been told, and nobody at the Solacium Corp. really knows what the Singularity is like. However, Tim does give us a report:

Thoughts pulse at me, with me, from me: We are powerless... we are trapped over and over until... These are not the voices of 10s or 9s or 8s... Where are you... where are you... where are you...

It’s all I feel, like I’m being thought at, or thinking with the collective feeling of loss and misery of all who come to this place... It’s all mind... We are trapped... I am...

Tim’s experience seems to bear out what the clerk has told him.

Does “Living in the Singularity” remind you of any other works?

Ayn Rand’s Anthem is set in a totalitarian society. The first person pronoun has been abolished. Two people fall in love and discover that the expression “we love you” isn’t quite going to make it. The woman comes up with her own: “We who are one, alone, and only, love you, who are one, alone, and only.”

The idea is to satirize a culture that doesn’t allow the pronoun “I.” But why satirize the pronoun itself? Why not just say “this person” or — like the Borg — “this subunit” or whatever? I’d say Ayn Rand created a bit of grammatical comedy.

In “Living in the Singularity” there’s a bit more to it than killing the singular pronoun. People will give up their lives to become a singular mind. That’s a serious choice to be considered, and I didn’t really see this man struggle to make that decision.

Yes, there is definitely that I-We dilemma that makes us think of a fascist regime. But this story speaks more of the advance of science and technology. In this day and age, people are starting to turn science into a religion as more and more people embrace atheism. Maybe Tom Borthwick’s dystopia shows the end product of that process.

Ayn Rand’s novella appears to have been influenced by her experience of growing up in the Soviet Union. The dystopian “we” is the communist collective, where private property and the life of the individual are discouraged as bourgeois and egocentric. I don’t see a communist theme in “Living in the Singularity.” In fact, the operation is run by a private company.

Google futurist and director of engineering Ray Kurzweil has announced that we will be uploading our minds to computers by 2045, and he calls this process “singularity” in his book The Singularity Is Near. Tom Borthwick may be referring to and expanding upon Kurzweil’s idea. He may also be criticizing Kurzweil’s theories, which have received a fair amount of flack from other scientists.

How does “Integration” affect society?

The net result seems to be depopulation.

“Integration” is the buzz word these days. It’s on the news stations. In the papers. On the ads in the subway. Even the guys at work are dropping one by one, it seems, because, hey, Integration. I haven’t been in for about a week, not that there’s much to do there what with the decrease in demand, but when I get back, I’m sure some more of them will be gone.

Do we know who owns Solacium? People go along with changes and one day find themselves in a different place. It may be good or it may be bad, they just hadn’t thought about it.

Once these streets had life. People going for runs, walking dogs, pushing strollers. I haven’t seen a baby in years, it feels like. Mary never brought up having a kid and I was okay with it.

One day it dawns on him that he hasn’t see a baby in years. By the time he realizes it, the change is complete. By the time it all hits people’s awareness, it’s too late.

We have two problems in the story:

• Solacium makes no sense economically. We have no idea why the Solacium Corp. promotes Integration. What’s in it for them: their customers’ property? Solacium does seem to make off with the money and belongings of the “Integrated.”

That’s pretty thin gruel; what’s the point in being filthy rich when there’s no one else to lord it over? In other words, if the Solacium Corp. consists of the last ones on earth, how could they know they were rich? They’d have no basis for comparison.

The fewer people are left in the world, the less Solacium’s accumulated capital will be worth; there’ll be nobody left to put it to use. Tim himself notices the problem taking shape, although he thinks more in terms of loneliness.

• Solacium makes no sense culturally. The corporation’s advertising is a disaster; it seems to consist of infomercials that promise some vague, transcendent bliss. Why doesn’t everybody have the same doubts as Tim?

If Mary is any indication, the customers are not so desperately poor that they simply can’t go on. Are people checking out in a fit of existential angst? That does not seem to be the case, and it would be very hard to believe anyway.

Or are people signing up for Integration because they’re unhappy? The clerk says Tim is required to declare himself “happy” pro forma, but the clerk makes it clear that Solacium doesn’t really give a hoot whether Tim is happy or not.

Those who choose Integration apparently do so because they aspire to some happiness they feel they can’t achieve otherwise. Tim has a powerful motivation: he’s grieving the loss of his beloved Mary and wants to rejoin her at all costs.

What is the story about, then?

Living in the Singularity makes sense only from Tim’s point of view. He faces a disconsolate future of increasing loneliness. He hopes to rejoin Mary in the Singularity, and others have volunteered to be Integrated into it for reasons of their own. Tim follows a kind of contradictory logic: Integration has caused his unhappiness; now he’ll repeat the process in hopes of undoing that unhappiness. Big mistake:

It’s all I feel, like I’m being thought at, or thinking with the collective feeling of loss and misery of all who come to this place... It’s all mind... We are trapped... I am...

The clerk’s description does appear to be accurate: the Singularity is a prison in which disembodied souls are incarcerated. And that is what they seem to be telling Tim as he begins to experience it.

What is the moral of the story? One is certain: “Be careful what you wish for.” Another: “Buyer beware.” Or another: “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid.” The most important seems quite likely: life is good in and of itself; deny it at your peril.

Copyright © 2013 by Bewildering Stories

Would you like to join the discussion? Please drop us a line.

Return to the Readers’ Guide

Home Page