Caroline Bassett
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Those in love with quantum filth
Science fiction, singularity, and the flesh

This chapter explores singularity as a posited artificial intelligence future, with particular focus on the rise of various forms of post-human or anti-human being and native artificial intelligences, engaging with writings from three waves of science fiction, each of which judges various forms of life.

Science fiction has long dealt in artificial intelligence, singularity, and the computational. Claiming a privileged relationship to the technological future, it explores, invents, and/or speculates on possible forms of life. Further, it can care about these lives in particularly intense ways, making it ideal grounds for exploring claims for and prospects for emerging forms of artificial being.

Recognizing the tendency of utopian and dystopian accounts to reverse their charge, this chapter avoids polemical accounts (of artificial intelligence ‘life’ as simply for the good or as evil, for instance). The chapter explores aspects of the anti-computational, and considers judgements made on new forms of life, through the more ambiguous explorations of fictional future being in works by Gibson, Piercy, Mieville, and Rajaniemi spanning from the 1980s to the contemporary moment.

In this chapter questions about AI that ELIZA foregrounded are explored in new places and times – in science fiction, which has long dealt in AI, singularity, and the computational. SF claims a privileged relationship to the technological future, and the tax on dissenting projections is lower than that for the apostates of computer science and industry. More specifically, it claims the privilege that comes with attention. It attends to the future, it explores, invents, and/or speculates on possible forms of life. Through the form of attention SF pays, it creates, it makes, and that which is made in fiction is made possible through the fictional, the speculative, the fantastical. The philosopher Paul Ricoeur argued that narrative may resolve the aporias of time by making these aporias productive on another order of language. It is plausible to claim for SF, then, that it produces real (possible) futures in poesis. It is in this way also producing accounts of the present. Recognizing the tendency of utopian and dystopian accounts to reverse their charge, this chapter avoids polemical accounts of AI ‘life’ as good or evil and explores aspects of the anti-computational in more ambiguous explorations of fictional future being.

* * *

I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies. We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries – the realists of a larger reality.

(Le Guin, 2014) 1

A widespread popular (and also literary) presumption is (still) that SF is enchanted with technology, dazzled by its shiny promise, its solid materiality, and its capacity for inflicting lethal damage at new scales. For this reason it is often castigated for exhibiting an unexamined technophilia, and/or for adopting crude forms of technological determinism (the judgement pertaining to utopian and dystopian SF). The opposite view was promulgated by the novelist Ursula Le Guin, who near the end of her life declared that SF writers were important precisely because they can see beyond the enclosures of technocratic rationality and its temporal horizons. Warning against what she saw as the ‘obsessive technologies’ of a ‘fear-stricken society’, Le Guin argued that SF (she refused to divide ‘speculative’ and ‘science’ fiction) constitutes a response to an extant mode of technocratic domination. SF practitioners can gain an expert view of the present because as the ‘realists of a larger reality’ they can generate a complexity around thinking the technological that is lacking in a world in which technology is obsessively lauded or relentlessly excoriated. For Le Guin this is why SF can develop real alternatives to ‘how we live now’ – integral to which is what life itself is or might become in the future. It is life and its fictional treatment that is the subject of this chapter. The focus is on singularity, defined as that expected or feared moment when technological advancements mean that humanity augments either to the point of becoming something qualitatively new or is superseded and left behind by the rise of new forms of artificial consciousness. SF has long had dealings with the tensions and paradoxes at the heart of singularity discourse, with its demands to upgrade, augment, arise, upload, to create and/or terminate new and old forms of human and other life.

In this chapter, aspects of changing life are explored in Marge Piercy's He/She/It (known in the UK as Body of Glass), China Miéville's Embassytown, and Hannu Rajaniemi's Fractal Prince series. Between them they span almost twenty years, from early cyberspace and the first AI revival to today's much larger re-emergence. These bodies of work provide insights into how post-standard-human life has been viewed as possible, viable, or desirable, and in what forms, at significant moments in the decades-long processes of computerization beginning around the early public internet/PC era and coming into the near present. In various ways they all exhibit something of the kind of ‘greater realism’ Le Guin advocates. This places them at some distance from the claims of singularity advocates, which lean for their authority on scientific discourse, and often on what Kate O’Riordan terms ‘unreal objects’ (O’Riordan, 2017); speculative future technologies pulled into the present, as if they were already fully functional, or as near as makes no difference. What is made for real in SF, which declares and rests upon its fictionality, it thus allowed to contrast with what is not yet made ‘for real’ but yet claims to be non-fictional in discourses circulating around singularity science. Further, all the works invoked challenge the position that the technologically given augmentation of human or machine intelligence is an automatic good, expressing ambivalence or dislike for, or suggesting the preferability of, particular forms of life. I would argue that bound up with SF's interest in, or excitement around, technology as an instrument of change there is always an impulse that is more ambivalent or even hostile, that hostility as much as avidity is part of its genre identity, an unacknowledged or sequestered part of the broader range – and certainly not confined to fully dystopian SF.


Singularity marks a tipping point. It is defined as that moment to come when the rise of AI means that what it is to be human changes qualitatively. That is, we humans are changed, and/or our position in the world changes as a consequence of the rise of new kinds of intelligences that out-smart us. Singularity stands for the inauguration of that time in which, through the advancement of technology, humans at once become more (because augmented) and less (since further from any baseline – or normative – model) than human. It also refers to the break that occurs as AIs take on more or less conscious (or certainly highly agential) lives of their own. A long-standing argument within transhumanism concerns the relative merits of continued embodiment, albeit in augmented form, versus various forms of uploading in which the human and/or flesh body is left behind entirely (upload fantasies began early in singularity discourse, notably in Ray Kurzweil's writing (2005)). A singularity moment would constitute an extreme transduction. It breaks out of any predictable temporal progression, not only being a matter of scaling up. Max Tegmark explores singularity as Life 3.0 and says it comes about when ‘hardware dependence’ on the human body to support intelligent life is ended (Tegmark, 2018). Another advocate for singularity-delivered transhumanism, Russell Blackford, concludes it will bring about ‘deeply altered people … continuous with us, but unlike us in many ways’. He adds that ‘optimistically’, these new people will be ‘us … greatly changed’; pessimistically, they are humanity's successors ‘a new race, the inheritors of the earth … usurpers’ (Blackford, 2013: 442). For hard singularity advocates the question is not that singularity will come, but what happens when it does: augmentation or new life, expanded human or fully artificial being? A key marker of singularity discourse is its reliance on big science and big industry, on digital, biotechnological, robotics, neuroscience enterprises to deliver on this future. This alignment has consequences; it is not only the crude determinism of singularity science as it is invoked by singularity advocates or believers that jars with critically orientated theorizations of emerging techno-cultural change, but often also its market-driven, neoliberal, or libertarian political orientations.

Critical and cognitive theory and singularity

Critical theory tends to distance itself from singularity science discourses, particularly in their populist forms, whilst itself entertaining a series of somewhat discrete positions. In an article in Existenz Francesca Ferrando (2013) helpfully disambiguates by dividing transhumanist thinking on singularity from forms of critical post-humanism, which begin by decentring technology as the determining cause and then further dividing post-humanism approaches. Notably, anti-humanism is defined directly against transhumanism because it encapsulates approaches to thinking singularity that reach beyond simple technical questions of augmentation/inauguration and its discontents/contents. Metahumanism, defined through the invocation of del Val and Sorgner's ‘A Metahumanist Manifesto’ (2011), is different again. Drawing on forms of more or less Deleuzian 2 entanglement, it is against the prioritization of the shaping limits of the body (that which defines ‘the human’) in thinking about intelligent life, and against the invocation of human ideas of free will, autonomy, and rationality as distinctions that imply the superiority of the anthropoid over future forms of life. The meta-human body is thus regarded as post-anatomical, as marking a ‘development away from humanism’. Such a body cannot be individual. Thus a ‘common relational body’ is postulated; this body is liberated from particular kinds of bodily constraints (or disciplining), but it is also always in danger of (re)appropriation (del Val and Sorgner, 2011).

The burden of Ferrando's argument is that critical post-humanism, particularly the metahuman variety, is better at grappling with emerging questions of human and post-human future existence than transhumanism in any of its political ‘flavours’ (libertarian and/or democratic transhumanism, or extropianism), transhumanism being compromised both by the degree to which it leans on science and technology and by the concealed ultra-humanism, or ‘fit for all’ idea of the human, which it contains. These two issues, which are conjoined, severely restrict transhumanism's perspectives, rendering it unable to grapple with, let alone value, difference – racial, gendered, sexed, aged, or in bodily or cognitive abilities. Metahumanism is not unique in its disdain for the technicist underpinnings of singularity science and its claims (covert or open) that technological transformation will independently determine the post-human, anti-human, or meta-human future. Nor is it alone in envisaging future forms of future life that are less gross and coarse, less mechanically derived, 3 than those of hard singularity. For many these forms are to be preferred.

Katherine Hayles’ more or less cognitivist and literary engagements with singularity and the post-human also begin by problematizing transhumanism as a route to thinking about human futures (Hayles, 1999, 2011). Her assessment of strong transhumanism as reductive and determinist in relation to its understanding of the technological, and too narrow and ideologically fraught (bound up with individualism and neoliberal philosophy) to constitute a basis for fruitful discussion, is a common humanities response. Hayles, however, also acknowledges the pull of transhumanism, finding the basic assumption ‘that technology is involved in a spiralling dynamic of co-evolution with human development … [a] technogenesis’ compelling. The questions the transhumanist community poses about technogenesis in the current era and in relation to human futures are worth worrying about, she declares, not least because they are unresolved. Even so, for Hayles, transhumanism is a catalyst or irritant stimulating more ‘considered’ and ‘responsible’ views. These may be developed by way of ‘deep, rich and challenging contextualizations’ of singularity that ‘re-introduce the complexities it strips away’. In other words, by exploring them through SF and literary theory.

For Hayles, SF constitutes a better resource to think seriously about advanced technologies and the changes in human lives and culture they produce than anything an exclusive focus on technologies themselves can provide (this is her reading of the singularity community's approach). I would suggest that singularity science/singularity discourse is less purely technological than Hayles’ account implies. Partly by virtue of that it is also more important for critical thinking than is often acknowledged. The gung-ho, non-consistent, hubristic, fantastical, heterodox admixture of ideas that circulate as singularity discourse give it a more than catalytic function – at least if the latter means it can stimulate (elsewhere) but not produce (for itself) a singularity imaginary of some force. Indeed, contra Hayles’ declared intention of transplanting these debates into the ‘richer’ grounds of literary theory, her own explorations often evidence an ongoing engagement with singularity discourse formations; this is one of their virtues. Her account of Nancy Kress's Beggars in Spain (1993), a work that deals in augmented humanity arising through sleeplessness and the time riches it produces, exposes brilliantly how Beggars is at once in dialogue with, and in revolt from, forms of the Ayn Rand-influenced libertarianism that pervade transhumanist discourse. My point is that if certain distance from, and disdain for, singularity discourse evident in critical theoretical or literary analytic writing is understandable, given singularity's penchant for declaring the end of any kind of human capacity to make history at the hands of technology, this disdain is also somewhat disingenuous. It is from computing and biotech, and in popular and general-specialist readings of these fields; from a tangle of claims, demands, assumptions, technologies, predications about technology, that an energy fuelling claims of post-humanity is found. Speculative and critical theory respond to this energy and to the urgency of the claims it makes, even if in dissenting ways.

SF itself may claim a kind of expertise in singularity. Suggesting this might invoke genre trouble since SF, peculiarly self-aware as a genre, obsessed with making or breaking its own boundaries, has entertained fierce debates about the degree to which it relies on resources from beyond itself. An argument long influential was that adherence to credible scientific logics provided SF with epistemological gravity, a form of authority and grounding that anchored otherwise only fantastical or incoherent worlds (Suvin, 1979). Those challenging this argument (notably Bould and Miéville, 2009) convincingly argued that magical thinking is at least as important to the constitution of SF worlds as science ‘itself’, something evident given that recourse made to the latter in fiction is always to an imaginary science. 4 Once this is accepted, then the conventional divide between fantasy and SF (discussed further later) is breached, as Bould and Miéville (2009) pointed out, and a standard and entirely inadequate model for explaining how SF relates to technological futures by ‘inventing’ them also falters (Bassett et al., 2013). These arguments have a particular piquancy in relation to singularity discourse, because it is itself, despite its scientism, also and self-admittedly, a discourse partly produced through and as (science) fiction.

However, if it is not tenable to hold that SF has a privileged relation to singularity science because it has a deep knowledge of this science, nor because the latter provides an epistemological gravity to anchor the writing, then I nonetheless assert that there is a kind of privileged or over-determined relation that pertains between SF and those questions with which singularity discourse concerns itself.

To build this case what is first necessary is an acknowledgement that SF tends to have an over-determined relationship with transformed materials, environments, or material conditions, although these materials do not have to be mechanical, artificial, or computational. To accept this is simply to notice that SF is a literature of difference and change. Technology co-constitutes our world and organizes and conditions how we lay hold of it – as may magic. This claim enrols an essential genre distinction that contributes to what makes SF (science, speculative, fiction, fantasy) distinctive (even if we accept that genre distinctions are not absolute). It isn't accidental that SF deals in and with singularity questions; this is consonant with what makes it what it is.

Second, it is to be noted that public discourse around singularity is often as much about the magical and the irrational as it is about hard science or technology (conventionally defined). Here I want to briefly invoke research on SF and influence using digital humanities tools, undertaken with Georgina Voss and Ed Steinmueller (2013). This involved following singularity memes on the internet, starting from their fictional ‘roots’ (e.g. websites of SF authors), through popular science, academic and private scientific communities, and sites promoting alternative belief systems of all kinds. The flow reached singularity organizations, linked the aroma-therapeutic to the extropian, hooked up Wired to aliens, and reached through singularity organization sites far into SF communities. What the trails indicate, amongst other things, is that SF is an actant in singularity discourse networks; its fictional claims condition how singularity issues are taken/taken up, contributing to the strength of the network as operational, and the qualities of its operation. 5

The third leg needed to make the case for SF's privileged relationship to singularity concerns care. A peculiarity of singularity discourse is that key players and insiders declare the stakes to be the highest possible (human existence is in the balance). More, their prognostications are reported in respectable places (the scientific press, for instance IEEE publications) and in mainstream media. Still, however, they are mostly not believed; or, rather, the gravity of their claims is not fully acknowledged or taken on board. Publics in general are not joining the game, committing to the values of the singularity field, which is perhaps why the alarming pronouncements of those who are expert players in the relevant fields (Weizenbaum once, now people like Bill Joy, Bill Gates, Stephen Hawking, and others in AI-related fields) have little purchase, their messages regarded as alarmist or sensationalized or overly speculative. Whether these calls are right or wrong is not the issue here. What matters is that since we don't really believe them, we don't really care – and vice versa.

SF doesn't have this problem. It doesn't have to be ‘taken seriously’ to be taken seriously, or for the forms of life, of being, the possible collective futures that it produces, to be cared about. What undermines serious discussion of singularity, what produces the paradoxically hyperbolic and bathetic discourse of carrots and upgrades, futures and skin care, serious science journals and sensationalism, brutal dismissal and over-eager hype, loose promises and big money – which is the matter of unbelief – doesn't matter, isn't relevant to, SF's explorations of singularity. SF, then, produces grounds in which it is possible to care about a possible future and the material forms that life takes without having to believe in the science that supports the journey towards its implementation, or its feasibility. Routing around the impossibility of caring about what we do not believe in, which produces an ambivalent public response to singularity, SF can provide a place to care and ways to care about singularity futures and about the post or meta or future human or non-human variants it might support. As part of that it can provide ways to explore new forms of being; whether these are then accounted for in critique by way of interpellation, via an account of cognitive estrangement of the novum, the attachments of narrative, or the satisfactions of the game, is of less import – fictionality rather than form is key here. Distinctions between SF and ‘scientific’ accounts of singularity, then, centrally concern how claims to ontological truth or fictional veracity or intensity are articulated.

Recent work by both Donna Haraway and Bruno Latour explores care and technological futures in relation to limits to growth and matters of the Anthropocene (Latour, 2011, 2018, Haraway, 2016). Haraway has long drawn on SF's capacity to reconfigure possible forms of future possibility in her critical science writing; her 1980s cyborg was a mythical being, and the late work, treading less lightly, deploys theory-fiction in more straightforward narrative ways – albeit problematically (see Haraway, 2016). The links I want to develop between (science/speculative) fictional figuration, technology and its limits, and care build on both to some extent but also take a different form. Care can be too easily invoked as a term implying it is its own solution – only care. But the question is how? In work around the unrepresentable (far futures, far catastrophe, far-flung humans, far-out humans), care has to be invoked in a more demanding way, as what must be undertaken despite what cannot be felt, or experienced, or fully comprehended. If care is a responsibility that may be difficult to take on, partly because it cannot purely be a question of ‘knowing’ – an epistemic question – then how might SF, beyond such issues and debates as those that cohere around the epistemological gravity issue, enable forms of care?

A response might be found by turning to explore the ‘greater realism’ that Le Guin identified in SF work and said would be helpful for future thinking – including, presumably, for thinking future forms of post or anti-human being – and was therefore sorely needed. However, responsibility in relation to SF is certainly not a matter of pedagogy (nor does it confine SF to what Benjamin termed operational forms of writing). However, Le Guin's comments function to expose a tension in SF, or perhaps an oscillation; SF may be understood through its engagement with the dynamics of utopia – which entails an escape 6 from the boundaries of the given, and a travelling on, a roving, but it may also be explored for its staying power, its capacity to take seriously, stay with, pay fierce attention to, precisely to take care of the places it finds itself in, or the places and peoples it writes. 7 To say that SF cares is not to discern a specific orientation, utopian or dystopian, left or right. It is, rather, to suggest that care is something SF can do because of what it is; something which might be exploited, or pushed, or engaged with in various ways.

Working through this, I now consider how a series of SF works have taken care with singularity and AI issues and how, in taking care, they have taken sides. These are not technological dystopias, or are not read as such here. There is a long tradition of writing against machine intelligence, from Frankenstein on, and also in film, from the False Maria to Terminator, perhaps, that could be invoked. My intention here is to exploit SF's capacity to attend, to stay with, to explore more ambiguous formations. These enable an exploration of how an anti-computational impulse is tested in the flesh, how language itself can be anti-computational, as well as, in an odd sense, always already post-human, and how questions arising around singularity scale up. The works invoked here are striking for the ways in which they treat and challenge that urgent/unreal matter at the heart of singularity, one that arises and arises again: human existence versus the rise of machine intelligence. This is a matter we are familiar with these days, although we hear it more as a routine exhortation in relation to devices than in relation to ourselves – upgrade or replace?

The difference that makes a difference: bodies of glass in the 1990s

In the early 1990s cyberspace generated and circulated a new generation of upload fantasies. Hans Moravec notoriously proposed a robot bush as a viable new form of body, welcomed the AI singularity, celebrated the end of the human, and looked forwards to the rise of his new overlords (Moravec, 1988). Singularity featured heavily in William Gibson's early fictional worlds, and also figured within a then extant popular imaginary which valorized or feared the coming virtualization of life, but either way was fascinated by it. Of course, cyberspace was not ‘the internet’, and the terms were never simply interchangeable; neither the avant-garde imaginaries of publications such as MUTE, lists such as Rhizome, nor the milieu of the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) nor the popular imaginary and/in its commoditized forms (advertising for the computer industry would be a good example), nor even digital cultural studies, were ever as thoroughly cyber-spatial as has since been suggested. Certainly not if that meant they were gulled by its call to abandon Real Life for the virtual space behind the screen. Nobody jumped in. However, there was the internet itself, and the airy transactions it allowed, fuelling speculation about new forms of being and enabling new ways of exploring it, even if in very partial ways. Further, there was cyberspace as William Gibson wrote it in Neuromancer (1984) and elsewhere. This did include the admittedly ambiguous but nonetheless potent hymn to the virtual network, the new other place whose tangled complexity gave it a peculiar substantiality even in its refusal of substance. This was the consensual hallucination, the unthinkable complexity, the light space ranged in the mind, and it did provide the beginnings of a way to think about how to live, and what new life might be. Cyber and its new or refreshed suffixes – space, time, bodies, punk – certainly came again to be emblematic of a particular moment.

Gibson has since declared his indifference to issues of the singularity, that possible or fantastic future event, believed in, derided, dispatched, revenant, hoped for as salvation, or feared as the end of the human. Deliverance or death, or that event we may simply find ourselves on the other side of one day and wonder what the fuss was all about. Nor did he ever choose between the flesh and the virtual life. However, a cyber preference was how the cultural imaginary read his 1990s works at the time – and with reason. It was ‘meat’ that the despairing hero of Neuromancer fell back into when he lost access to the network; ‘simstim’, which involved the simulation of the flesh was rather despised; and there was the bodiless, the specifically bodiless, exaltation of cyberspace, those lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind (Gibson, 1984). This sensibility was consolidated in more popular cultural arenas, for instance via the later Matrix films. It chose the virtual, the artificial, the mind over the body, which is viewed as, in the end, possible to step over, or set aside.

Marge Piercy's early 1990s novel Body of Glass/He, She and It (1993) was avowedly written 8 as an interested response to cyberspace and the prospect of AI and new forms of life. It set out to rethink in feminist terms what Piercy viewed as the masculine attachments of cyberspace, some of the absolute divisions (on and offline) it appeared to cleave to, and some of its presumptions about technology and everyday life. Responding to cyberspace, Piercy was developing a long-standing feminist engagement with technological societies, artificial life, and gendered possible futures. Her Woman on the Edge of Time, a paean for a woman of colour who makes a choice about the shape of the future, despite the powerlessness of her position in the time she finds herself in, is relevant here. 9

In Body of Glass attention is paid to embodied intelligence, human and machinic, to how a person (artificial or not) comes to be, and to the texture of a precarious but possible domestic life. There is less of the alluringly dystopian darkness of Neuromancer, more environmental degradation, and less of the bittersweet aesthetic appreciation of the ‘television sky’ that is part of cyberspace imaginaries. The network is there, but as now as a birthright for those with rights, become infrastructural, with all the unevenness of distribution and access that the term implies. The prospects for intelligent machines and artificially augmented humans emerge through an overlapping series of connected narratives through which themes of perfection, mastery, slavery, and freedom, are developed. The protagonists include a cyborg named Yod, the tenth in his series, a highly enhanced human woman, a partly sentient house invested in the species-purity of humans (and apparently troubled by the cyborg's ‘improper’ relationship with one of its inhabitants). There is also the golem Joseph, whose rise into life and fall back into clay in an embattled Jewish community is recounted as a tale within a tale, distant from the events of the main narrative, but recapitulating its central dilemma: how may a life be lived, how can a being be, if that life is owned by another, its creator and father; if, by virtue of its constitution, its purpose is not its own?

Body of Glass prefers some forms of life to others, which is to say that some lives appear more viable, in multiple ways but particularly in relation to socio-economic arrangements (sovereignty, ownership). Yod in the end sees viability in binary terms – augmented humanity versus artificial life – but the divisions the work articulates are more complex. First, then, there is the fact that Yod's uncertain status confounds any simple binary ontology: organic or artificial, human or machine. This alive but not-human being, who is neither he, nor she, nor feels himself to be an it, is self-consciously aware of having an uncertain claim to aliveness. Sex and gender intervenes, as it has done from Turing on to underscore the complexity of such questions as: ‘Is it alive?’ ‘Is life enough to be a person?’ ‘Is intelligence enough?’ Yod passes the Turing test – now made flesh, made sex, made love. But the issue is not centrally about simulation, a matter of passing, which is always in a sense a matter of trickery, nor even about ontology. Yod emerges and acts in the universe of the novel as a being both more than human and less. His impervious skin lets him move freely in a polluted environment and his strength and ‘native’ capacity to operate in virtual worlds make him a super-human fighter. He is faster, stronger, quicker at calculating. Simultaneously though, his artificial body categorizes him as less than a fully human being in relation to the common body of the community which judges what kinds of bodies are legitimate within it and are therefore given rights within it. Yod's programming binds him to his father/master, who may command him to destroy himself and to destroy others. This makes him, in his own radiation-resistant, superhuman, but also introspective eyes, either a controllable machine or a living commodity; effectively a slave. He may choose to protect the community in which he lives, but it may simply demand that protection as a consequence of the fact that he is owned. To pay him wages would be to undermine the community's (sense of) its right to make that demand, since it would recognize him as a living being and therefore also as a citizen – and vice versa. But even if it wished to accord recognition, how can an entity unable to make autonomous decisions, by reason of ownership, being legally but also materially defined as the intellectual and physical property of another, be fully part of common decision making amongst a community of other beings, if that community claims it is free, based on each within it having a voice of their own? Yod, then, is subject to the law of a father, and therefore has no legitimate social being. Questions of freedom, citizenship, rights, which might seem to be supplemental to, or come after, singularity itself, are revealed to be central; being part of singularity's making, its materials, its conditions of possibility. Body of Glass exposes ways in which considerations of the viability (or preferability) of new forms of intelligent life that arise cannot rest solely on ontology (human brains, robot circuits, flesh or rubber), nor on the form or substance of a ‘life’ (mud, code, human flesh, for instance), although these are conditioners, but also on that nexus of relations that constitutes a material political economy within which beings come to be.

Singularity's brusque compression of current life to that of the ‘human’, to be either upgraded or replaced by the entirely non-human or non-organic, is countered here by the complex entanglements of the tale, not least its exploration of (gendered) familial as well as social structures and their tensioned relationships. Moreover, the narrative takes a different route to that classically taken by fictional robots who feel the constraints of their chains – that of revolt, the rise of the machines. The lines are not to be so clearly drawn. Yod is well over half in love with (at least one member of) the human race, and is perhaps because of that also half embracing death, that which was thought to be a human call, that which singularity wishes at all costs to delay/evade/overcome. Yod's self-adumbration of himself, in his own suicide note, is ‘I who may not be alive at all …’. In it he explicitly declares for augmented humanity over living robots. In this fable, artificial life is made untenable, not because of its substance (machine not human flesh) but by the forms of control that may be exercised over it through its commodity status. This is a bare life at best, perhaps a half-life. It is, however, a life, and this is symbolized by its capacity to dissent. Unlike the golem of the ghetto in the tale within the tale who is laid down and unmade by his creators when his role is done, Yod does choose. He takes responsibility for the unmaking of his species/series, binding it into his own violent death. He declares against his own form of artificial life and for augmented humanity.

Body of Glass mirrors back the binary options common in singularity discourse – augmented humans or artificial life – and in doing so refracts and diffuses them. It points to ways that in practice even a fully artificial life might also, through training, socialization, and education, have to become at least partly (post-)human, in order to become at all. Insisting that ‘lives’ are made through their conditioning and their struggles and are not simply either a matter of nativity or decantation, Piercy's work disrupts the peculiarly standardized invocations of ‘the human’ in singularity discourse (which are often reflected in more mainstream arenas). Consider that what is to be improved upon or perfected is adumbrated as baseline human (difference thus being laid aside), and also note that what it might mean to invoke perfection as a goal is rarely questioned, neither for what it might exclude nor for what it might make. Disability studies scholars, amongst others, have extensively explored the implications of perfected humanity as a demand in strong AI and have critiqued it in these terms (Brent, 2012). Within singularity discourse itself divisions are evident between those who argue that transhumanism is based on a desire for the final perfection of the human, a ‘more complete victory over human limitations’ either through AI or augmentation, as Blackford has put it (Blackford, 2013: 424), and those who want to think less in terms of outcomes and more in terms of processes 10 whose endings may not be called in advance.

Piercy, asking what might be good enough for form of life, or what form of life is good enough to be counted as life, is clearly interested in the process and evolution of change, and Body of Glass leans towards forms of life that may develop in process, towards subjects able to go with the grain of indeterminacy; the pursuit of perfection in the production of artificial life, notably the robot series of which Yod is a part, is configured as a dangerous and hubristic endeavour. Against this are the successful cyborg adaptations of others figuring in the tale. This is very different from prioritizing a purely human mode of being, but, in the end, I'd argue that Piercy, like her character, prefers the flesh and is, in this sense, anti-computational.

In Body of Glass what it means to fall short of ‘being fully human’, or even having full life, is exposed as deriving from something more complex than ‘how advanced’ a pass in the simulation game can be achieved, or even how much (how perfect an) AI can be cultivated. Being fractures and responses to questions about life's limits, and of its possibilities to expand or grow, take new forms and shapes, or be made in new materials, become partly a matter of perspectives – ideological, normative, contestable. Piercy avoids the cyberspace sublime, but mostly also the explicitly weird promise or threat of monsters. She deals, rather, in quasi counter-factual histories of the future, exploiting a form of realism that resonates with already existing human lives, scales, organizations; this is the thing that might be going to have happened but did not (yet). The twist in the tail (the ‘greater realism’?) comes when it is realized that the ‘factual’ countered in Body of Glass is the less-than-factual cyberspace and virtual life imaginary that dominated public internet discourse of the 1990s.

What language may speak that code may not

Let's talk about monsters. The monstrous is anti-computational. It refuses obvious rationality. Its affordances solicit not attempts to compute but reactions that may include wonder or terror. The monstrous does not offer solutions, but it might raise, make graspable, or embody real impossibilities. Moreover, even if the monstrous is anti-computational, its materials may include everything artificial. Drawing on tensions between flesh and machine, many such monsters have crawled into the horizon of our own experiences; the False Maria Machine mensch of Metropolis in all her robotic femininity and artificial guile stands as an ur-figure for this, and also indicates its conventional gendering – something later cyber-feminists turned around, claiming a ground zero, an uncountable, a not-one.

When the meta-human manifesto declares monsters are promising it aligns itself with visions of a form of post-human life predicated on the dissolution or confusion of human boundaries through their admixing with the computational which also refuses the closures, or the reductions, that this might imply. In the Manifesto (and other similar) theorizations, the monstrous stands as a figure for the coming forms of new life that its authors assume are arising by virtue of computational developments currently being systematically exploited. It's not only flesh monsters, then, but monstrous machines, and the promise of monster machines, orphans in two directions, as Haraway's manifesto (1991) almost put it, that matter.

The fantastic, as a literary form, partakes of this promise, indeed prefigures its theoretical uptake, and certainly produces monsters – from Lovecraft's objectionable weirdness on. Fantasy finds room at least for the weird, the fantastical, and/or the monstrous, which may be explored through creatures that are synthetic as well as organic, machinic as well as fleshy. Sparking off fantasy, and weird, but also going beyond its narrower generic confines (themselves disputed) is the New Weird. It too tends to refuse the abstractions and the closures characteristic of computationally based approaches to artificial life, at least where this stands alone or is valorized for its purity. The underpinnings of Weird as a genre (both considered in historical terms, where Lovelock is an inescapable figure, and in relation to the formal characteristics of Weird writing which inhere in its style and its subject matter) are the unreasonable and the non-comprehensible. Here be monsters, not rational creatures. Here be beings in uncountable/unaccountable dimensions, whose reality nothing can capture; the uncanny and the singularly strange.

The Weird is already a revolt in the flesh and it is hostile to the conventional determinations of the technological/artificial. The New Weird, redefining this genre, constitutes another more or less conscious response to cyberspace as a dominant technological imaginary arising around the net, celebrating the disembodiment of the human soul, and foreshadowing the rise of new intelligence streams in/or as purely informational architectures. However, in contrast to Piercy's careful exploration of new forms of life, which relies on an internal consistency, and on the feasibility of new bodies/new life forms’ actions, the new Weird operates in unreal modalities of body, flesh, brain, engagement, interaction, recognition. In the case I want to explore it also operates through language, in a story in which unknowable ‘monsters’ come to speak in new ways and in doing so celebrate the impossible modalities of human language.

The New Weird resonated with gathering disenchantment with the radical potential of the old net, and the model of disembodiment it offered, found on the left. Frederic Jameson once differentiated fantasy from SF by dividing bodies from machines and declaring the former to be technically reactionary; interesting exceptions, cases where the scent of history could be nosed out even in the fantastical, only confirmed this rule, he argued (Jameson, 2005: 60). Contra to this, by the 1990s cyberpunk was often reactionary because technicist, capable of storing the neoliberal visions of technological futures and transformations that drive the market, but not able to configure other more radical forms of future desire, nor to deal with how these might be organized, developed, and exploited. The New Weird sets the monstrous against the application of computational exactitude and its extensions into probabilistic prediction based on big data as a marketing or behavioural tool. In this way it can be read as a critical response to the enclosing grid and abstractions of the virtual turn.

On the other hand, it wasn't then (and certainly isn't now) only those with a critical view who were dissatisfied with the inadequacies of an informational vision divorced from embodiment and its impurities. Silicon Valley's corporations have long sought to capture the previously unquantifiable and elusive, the impure as well as the determinate, the material as well as the abstract forms of social life, of life itself. A shift in focus towards the inexactitude of the flesh enables critique but also responds to, and relates to, a more general shift in computational developments and industry goals, from digital to bio-digital as the centre of attention, 11 from the capture of the easily quantifiable in zones already virtual, to the hunt for ways to undertake the deep capture operations necessary to enable the extension of the commodification of the social world that pervasive mediation, big data, and machine learning undertake. The New Weird's fascination with the impurity of hybrid bodies, with the incomputable, in this way joins with, is part of, a more general turn.

But this is still too tidy. China Miéville, a notable Weird practitioner and also a left theorist, interviewed in 2011, argued that the New Weird spoke to the (then) contemporary because it could speak to that obscurity in relations, that mystification, that is at the heart of the market: its fetishism. In particular, it responds to that mystification that is promulgated through the various promises of the computational, made in discourse and expressed in its operations, so that the real issue is computational capitalism (McDonald, 2011). Miéville's claim, therefore, which again relates directly to Le Guin's sense of SF's capacity for greater realism, is that the fantastic mode can engage with lived reality of modernity in ways that realist fiction currently can't. It is a ‘default cultural vernacular’ (Miéville, 2002) because it resonates with what is also a fantasy, the fantasy of real life under capital, the fantasy that is at the heart of our material world and its emerging technologies. The fantastic, as a literary form, and in particular the New Weird, can (potentially) get at what is itself a fantastical colonization, and deal with it better than conventional forms of literary realism, because it can better get at ‘things’ beyond natural realism, or empirical realism. Unlike the postdigital, it continues to give technological inauguration and change its full (over-full, impossible, monstrous) attention. Unlike object-orientated forms of new materialism, which have flirted with the Weird (see e.g. Harman, 2010), attracted by its attention to the presence of things, however, Miéville accepts the constitutive and performative force of the entanglement between the symbolic and the real; that indeed is how he builds his monsters.

Jameson explored Miéville's work in relation to Perdido Street Station (2000), but the focus here is on Embassytown (2011), which turns on a war in language, in which language itself, in its materiality and as it symbolizes, is a particular kind of weapon. Embassytown celebrates the incomputable excess that defines (human) poetic language, and it works through ways in which forms of language and forms of embodied life – whether these are human, alien, post-human, artificial – are bound up with each other.

There are three languages and three kinds of being in Embassytown, a human bubble on an alien world. The humans have a polysemic language that refers beyond what it names. The Ariekei have a language that names what is directly and cannot say what is not (perhaps therefore they are enslaved in language, or perhaps they are free of alienation, this is never entirely clear). Then, appearing less often, there is the speech of an artificial being, an automaton whose output sounds human but is also always encoded. Neither of these last two languages may truly inaugurate. One has soul 12 in it, but no capacity to make new worlds, whilst the other enables communication in the formal sense, but does not – perhaps – host life. In contrast, seductive enough to start a world war is human language, exemplified by metaphor, defined in Embassytown as the capacity to make new, to say what is not, or what was not before it was said. The philosopher Paul Ricoeur 13 has considered metaphor's links to what is (able) to be, arguing that metaphor forces together two terms, and does so around the verb ‘to be’ (this is this – even when it is not). It might thus be said to have a kind of ‘ontological vehemence’ (Ricoeur, 2003, Martinengo, 2010). Metaphor is a lie that makes what is made through the impossible couplings it produces real; the City is a Heart, insists the protagonist of Embassytown Avice Benner Cho (ABC), and the ‘heartish city’ is thus made. The Ariekei want to lie. At Bakhtinian-style festivals dedicated to this, the lie which they may not speak is approached via the ecstatic, the glossolaliac, the trance, the glitch, the stutter, the break; a kind of linguistic practice that is, if not anti-computational, then resistant to its operations, alien to its closures, an efflorescence, a making, a cheating, a simulating that seeks to cheat its way into the real.

Avice, who speaks of metaphor, as a child became a living simile for her alien hosts. She is ‘the girl who …’. She has enacted what they may not otherwise grasp, since in their language they may not say what is not. But the enactment undermines itself. Being a simile, Avice is traducing simile's claims to only being like. She is the girl who … The distinction between simile as simulation (like) and metaphor as being (is) is both absolute and thus continuously undermined.

Imitation (being like) and simulation reintroduces the third kind of being, and the third kind of language found in Embassytown. Alongside the alien hosts and the squabbling humans are machines, including the automaton Ershul, who ‘wasn't human, but was almost’. The personhood of Ershul is initially defended by Avice through an appeal to the category of friendship, with its non-fungible demand – ‘spending time with most automa is like accompanying someone brutally cognitively damaged, but Ershul was a friend’ (Miéville, 2011: 43). As the Ariekei fall into the delirium of language Ershul becomes increasingly silent. She loses her place in the story, becomes ‘a character without a plot’, 14 an enigma, an absence, some(thing) already gone. Her liveness itself appears compromised, her two-dimensionality comes to matter – ‘her avatar face froze, flickered and came back on’ (Miéville, 2011: 115). She seems unable to speak of certain things. Ershul becomes a blank or reflecting screen, a television surface. Avice, the alphabetical human, is left wondering if what appeared to be friendship was in the end simply an optimized interface, friendship's communicative affordances affording maximum efficiency for the data-collecting habits of a machine (Miéville, 2011: 188), 15 but amounting in the end only to the simulation of a particularized form of interest; logical enough if the simulator was never more than the simulacrum of a person. Exploring code and language, N. Katherine Hayles invokes Kittler, who argues that the ‘dilemma between code and language’ produces an irresolvable conflict. This means, he says, that ‘the program will suddenly run properly when the programmer's head is empty of words’ (Kittler, 2008: 46). In Embassytown this is inverted. When the humans make friends with the alien hosts, when the vitality of human words becomes an infection, it is the program named Ershul that stops running. When language came, the AI did not speak.

In Embassytown symbolic language with its informing vitality and with the capacity to inaugurate that arises through polysemy is monstrous and excessive. It lets in a new form of life; the city is to be remade, and if the shared language it will speak was originally human the materials of the city are thoroughly alien. The war in language in Embassytown thus produces something that might aptly be explored as a new collective social body, one which is not entirely human. This might be considered as a form of meta-humanism, perhaps, but it gestures towards something different from the version elaborated in Ferrando's account, not least because, whilst post-human anatomically – since in Embassytown symbolic language relies on life itself but not exclusively on any innate human-shaped capacity, cognitive or otherwise, to speak – it remains fleshy and attached to organic being. It comes into being by excluding the only artificial being present. So it is through and in language as it is fleshed and voiced that questions of simulation, simulated life, and (language and) recognition are argued out here. And it is the language of metaphor that is furthest from the restrictions of code that speaks against the computational, offering in the place of code which reduces and places and accurately describes, a language that works by lying, exceeding, by falling short, and over-reaching. Language here becomes revolutionary.

The New Weird with its monsters, and its monstrousness, and its delight in impossible excess, certainly replies to the faded and tattered imaginary of virtuality, and in doing so can question a particular form of modernist rationality. I want to stress finally, here, that there is weird, and weird, and weird. Miéville's Weird is at odds with the kind of weirdness loved by the OOO new materialists, particularly as this was hitched to the new aesthetic with its invitation to luxuriate in the strange objects around us, to listen for the pixels to hum, and to forms of media materialism which repudiate meaning. By contrast, Miéville's is a weird in which meaning and mediation are key, and in which humans are always to be implicated in their environments, part of the promise and part of the threat. This form of Weird contains a contestation for the present. If Piercy's 1990s counter-factual realism undermines or challenges the allure of the computational excess, the artificial as fetishized in cyberspace, Miéville's Weird, as it took shape in the early 2000s, celebrated the dense infolding of the flesh and, continuous with that ,celebrates language and its generative capacity. Embassytown at least prefers the excess of signification to the determination of code, and in this way prefers particular forms of (new) life over others that are entirely mechanical.

Quantum filth, merged minds, residual humans …

Finally I turn to the Fractal cycle of H.R. Rajaniemi, a Finnish mathematician who writes in English. The Quantum Thief, the Fractal Prince, and the Causal Angel (published between 2010 and 2014) explore the stakes of singularity and the transhuman across the grounds of a baroque universe over-stuffed with multiple forms of human and post-human life and after-life. The gravity of terrestrial worlds is mostly set aside in favour of exploring a post-singularity Space-opera universe characterized by the generalized extension of the debt relation to include the literal accumulation of life itself in a universe of multiple intelligence streams.

In the Fractal novels contestation is not over language but, rather, follows the logics of serious gaming; Huizinga peeks in, rather than Ricoeur. A series of warring parties, each adopting their own form of post-human life, strive against each other, or occasionally cooperate, to survive, thrive, dominate, or overcome. This is a game played in the aftermath of singularity. The protagonists include a gaming society, the Zoku, committed to matter and championing a form of entangled existence formally allowing individual consciousness, but also operating through shared and increasingly potent volitional ‘nudges’ modulating individual desires. Against them stand the endlessly acquisitive Sobornost, giant collective brains directed by Primes or the Gods in the clouds and supported by myriad hierarchically (genealogically) organized clones and billions of collected and uploaded Gogol souls. This is the meat hate side and it appears to be winning.

Between these major players are the exhausted remnants of once more or less baseline human beings, who still adhere to forms of embodied and individual life, albeit in forms highly technologized and augmented and involving compromises with the quantum. These include the Aun, hanging on to old Earth, now a desert corrupted with wild code where couplings with other intelligences can maintain a form of human life, and the Oort, ice carvers who embrace the Dark Man of the vacuum in spaceship saunas (the Oort are thinly disguised Finns) or joining the uploaded. Finally, there is society of the Oubliette, where life is lived on two watches and the fully living count down their life credit and amass more through long work as a Quiet. In the Oubliette, to be fully oneself, flesh meeting the memory, a social (time) debt must be paid.

But this is more than a fairy story turned Space opera; a political formation and a form of post-humanity are here tightly enmeshed. Singularity, and its economy, the debts it produces when bodies and minds become tradable commodities (or futures), is both enacted on bodies (or negates them entirely) and becomes a system. Debt is at the heart of social relations in the Fractal universe, and debt relations organize the story arcs of many protagonists. The whole can be read as an inquiry, a series of thought experiments, into how relations of debt scale up, and scale out, how they translate into dimensions and societies far beyond those lived by humans in terrestrial societies, where domination and the forms it may take are remapped. Debt here, defined as a key relationship in computational capitalism, and already relating to biopower, here links very tightly to the capture of, and quantification of, being. This is singularity as a commodity relation.

Central here are the Sobornost, for whom the entanglements of the physical world are corrupt and unclean. Their war is against matter, their endless desire is to salvage consciousness. All that was human shall become ‘gogol’ – and of course it was Gogol who wrote a story about the sale of dead souls, a pyramid/Ponzi scheme dealing in never-to-be-delivered futures. Salvage is commercial. For the Sobornost, the ‘great common task’ of uploading and collecting intelligence constitutes a form of primitive accumulation, one in which a certain kind of immortality is given in exchange for the end of autonomy, individuality, and free will – which is to say the end of the self. Wikipedia tells us that the original Sobornost, a Russian movement that lauded the ‘spiritual community of many jointly living people’ prioritizing the whole over any form of individuality, was defined as a moment of change. In the universe of the Fractal Prince the rise of the Sobornost constitutes that moment, signalling the establishment of a new form of life, the end of embodied and individual existence as default, and the expansion of a mode of primitive accumulation to produce ownership – or an indebted relation – without end.

Work exploring debt and its relation to capitalism has proliferated. David Graeber's (2014) work explores its history. In work exploring (Foucault's) consideration of the relationship between war and governance as strategies of domination, Lazzarato follows some of the same lines but specifically explores war and debt. Lazzarato understands debt/credit to operate both ‘as a dispositif’ or form of governance and ‘as war, that is to say, as a strategic confrontation ground’ (Lazzarato, 2011: 3). His position is that ‘telluric forces’ of ‘deterritorialization’, or accumulation by dispossession, are now continuous. In The Making of the Indebted Man he argues that as a consequence everybody owes (Lazzarato, 2011: 1). This also means everybody is owned, or rather that the vast majority of the population are indebted to, or owned by, the very few who are the creditors. Moreover, they are owned into the future, which is to say their future is owned or foreclosed, because they are in debt for their time to come (Lazzarato, 2011: 32).

In the Fractal universe, credit, debt, indebtedness, and foreclosure operate at huge scales. A new feature, however, is that debt tends to become permanent, singularity terminating that which might have wiped the debt clean (at least for the debtor) by confounding death itself. Through uploading, indebted being becomes a quasi-ontological state (perhaps as well as a legal or heritable one). Subordinate clones are always indebted to their makers; this is an indebtedness without reason, not acquired through inheritance. The cost of uploaded immortality, dividing consciousness and perishable flesh, is the condition of indebtedness going forwards.

Lazzarato's argument is that in the end war is not over territory but population, and if war turns back into a matter of governmentality it is still population that remains the key. Chiming with that, what is at issue in the Fractal universe and the wars it explores is the matter of the population; its consciousness (to be subsumed), its body (to be disposed of), its very life, which is to be accumulated, or brought into the creditor/debtor relation.

The great common task of the Sobornost is to abstract intelligence from its chiasmic grounds in embodied life, as a strategy of domination. The projected/desired fulfilment of this process is, perhaps, the end of war, and the institution of a new form of absolute governance – so absolute as to absorb entirely the minds of planetary populations. The end, then, is not discipline (or love, as it was in 1984), nor even control, which needs after all to be exercised, but terminal recruitment and collection.

In this universe individual players can only try to tilt a board in which massive power is in the hands of the controlling brains powered by their billions of uploads with the cognitive capacities to burn out stars and build them. They include a thief, a goddess (a splinter from a prime), a ship, an ice warrior, an amnesiac child god, and a living ship. 16 They too are entangled in debt relations. The lead is Jean Le Flambeur, a thief much reduced from an earlier more augmented state, personally in debt to the people who spring him from a prison, running endless and endlessly violent iterations of prisoner's dilemma games, who subverts creditor/debtor relations to get what he certainly has not the credit to get. Le Flambeur's machinations are directed not against the particular life forms he encounters but against the disciplinary and regulatory regimes these forms make it possible to impose. This is singularity as political thrill and political thriller.

Le Flambeur exploits the constantly reversing plane of governmentality and war, moving between the scales of conflict and of governance and messing with their relation. He is the cheating player on a game board set out by forces far larger than him, he raises the tactical to the level of the planetary scale. Against the harvesters, finding new moves, or undermining given instructions, he represents the puny, but insistent and tricky, finding strength in matter and its complexities, in its irreducible quiddity, in the unique rather than the cloned. Quantum filth against the Primes and their billions of clones, and their consciousness banks, and the rest. In the Fractal future at least, in the end, hope is (post-)human.

The novels evidence a contempt for the cold fusion of absolutes that is represented by the terminal uploading of human minds, undertaken to build cognitive power and establish an empire. 17 Continually preferring the continued entanglement of matter and intelligent matter against untethered minds, they disturb any presumption that a cosmically expanded consciousness, or even a hugely augmented mind, naturally constitutes progress. On the other hand, the Fractal universe is often joyous. What is rejected is not change or human evolution or new forms of intelligence. Rather, what is mocked is a mode of accumulation producing forms of life capable only of parodic repetition; the absurdity, the hubris, of endless life and endless self, endlessly reproduced, of attempts to exist everywhere and for all time and in a million places at once; absolutely abundant, absolutely the same, and always unfree.

What remains is an affirmation of the non-computable self, still able to surprise, to engage in the exploit, and an affirmation of the way in which this more or less human self has also drawn closer to and is becoming entangled with other forms of being. Le Flambeur and a Goddess who loves him share a form of laughter, a kind of fatalism that frees both to act, that isn't quite human, but isn't entirely inhuman either. In the Fractal Prince series there is always a beautifully ordered archive, a prison for minds and bodies whose barbed wire is secured far into the past and future; this is the shape the debt economy takes in a world where the currency is self and mind. If there is hope, it is because this form of currency may carry an excess charge, something not quite calculable in advance, and therefore not quite fully integrated into the post-human, universe-wide, debt economy, going forwards. To hope for a door is partly to create the possibility that one might exist in a future that is, by virtue of that hope, not entirely owned.


The works explored here span over three decades. They indicate an entanglement between singularity discourse and internet and new media technologies and (increasingly) between singularity and biotechnological cultures. Each is media-archaeologically significant, partly because each complicates or dissents from key narratives circulating around the time of their production. Together they undercut the temporality of the discourse of real singularity with its varied, but strikingly concrete, predictions of coming change. They do this by exploiting the multi-directionality/dimensionality of SF which is both here now and unreal, not only to question what singularity might possibly deliver, but to question the terms, the political economy, of that possible delivery.

They have in common that they exhibit a preference for a continued engagement with matter, and a desire to remain or retain something human. They value matter and/in its relation to consciousness. More than that, they value matter, and human matter, because of its quiddity and resistance to terminal reconciliation. They were chosen to do this, of course; selecting them, I was perhaps treasure hunting, something I have deplored elsewhere. My excuse is that I did it to counter another other form of treasure hunting: that which seeks in SF an endless form of affirmation for the fictional future we are given as real by contemporary technological society, a system that ‘liberates’ certain fictions ‘to rule over the social’, as Mark Fisher put it (see Fisher, 2009: xii), but refuses others as pure fantasy; and that does this in relation to technology ruthlessly and relentlessly. Like Le Guin, I think SF can develop a much-needed critical and realist engagement with what is given to us as the reality of the bio-computational future. This is why, as Mark Fisher noted, it may not only simulate, elsewhere, but also come (back) (here) to act now (Fisher, 2009: xiv).


1 ‘I have had a long career and a good one … The name of our beautiful reward is not profit … it is freedom’ (Le Guin,
2 Ferrando argues for a philosophical, cultural, and critical post-humanism, in her case inflected by Heidegger and versions of appearance (Ferrando, 2013: 27).
3 A key thinker here is Braidotti.
4 Suvin (1979) refers to the importance to SF of epistemological gravity arising through the cognition effect and the Novum (the creation of worlds, and that which produces estrangement).
5 See Bassett, Steinmueller and Voss (2013). Work commissioned for NESTA explored the relation between SF and ‘real innovation’. Our methodology was informed by Franco Moretti and moved between hermeneutic and computational analysis.
6 Oscar Wilde (2001) famously said of utopia, ‘when humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail’.
7 This kind of caring being at its most careful light years away from the dogmatic commitment of overtly pedagogical writing.
8 Piercy invokes Gibson and cyberspace in her acknowledgements in Body of Glass (Piercy, 1993: 583).
9 Women on the Edge of Time (1976) was striking for its engagement with a feminist utopian society in tune with its environment but under threat, and barely sketched the outlines of its dystopian other – a highly techno-celebrant society, the horrors of which are only glimpsed.
10 See, e.g. Blackford who is in favour of a ‘more complete victory over human limitations’ versus Martha Nussbaum's sense that a ‘more than human life would not be a good life’ (Blackford, 2013: 424–425).
11 The rising market for biotechnological consumer products is one indicator of this trend, amongst other things.
12 An impossible, incomprehensible language. When the Ariekei speak, says a linguist in Embassytown, ‘the words have got soul in them’ (Mieville, 2011: 56).
13 A ‘Paul Ricoeur’ is named in Embassytown, one of the philosophers whose linguistic theory might help explain the alien language. If the invocation of a real philosopher constitutes a metafictional appeal to plausibility of the linguistic possibilities explored, then it might be justified to argue that it is linguistics rather than physics that provides a form of epistemological gravity for this novel.
14 As an internet fan noted.
15 ‘I'd been to her home. Tasteful accoutrements, perhaps for mine and others’ benefits: elements of an operating system, designed to make her user-friendly. These ruminations felt disgraceful’ (Mieville, 2011: 103).
16 A living ship, and then a missing ship named Perhonen, which is the Finnish word for a butterfly.
17 If these works are exploring the contest against a rising empire where the odds are stacked in the empire's favour, perhaps this shouldn't be a surprise. This is, amongst other things, a Finn writing about a Russian-named project of absorption, invasion, and empire.


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Dissent and the machine


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