Singularity's Ring by Paul Melko
Reviewed by Gwyneth Jones
23 June 2008
If you are reading this you're almost certainly a fan of the ever-shifting interface between science and human life, so you'll have heard that the single, indivisible self is arguably an illusion. We are many. Animal-you (e.g., motor responses) is constantly "making decisions" and taking actions (hit the ball, fend off the blow, run for your life), independent of conscious thought. Data-processing-you has no known limits, could be capable of taking in and ordering everything about everything, and is incapable of switching off. Unless you are very unlucky, the rest of the gang keeps this savant sedated. Social-you negotiates with other body-bound packets of mind: reading chemical and other signals, establishing status, making alliances. Memory-you interferes with everyone else, constructively or destructively, by recalling previous states of play. Self-awareness-you, the latecomer, so far seeming to have no special home in the grey mush, puts it all together, after the fact, into a plausible and reassuring narrative. . .
Singularity's Ring is not about neurology, but it's as well to keep the science in mind, if you want to grasp both the strangeness and the validity of Paul Melko's concept. Strom, Quant, Meda, Moira, and Manuel, who make up the "pod" Apollo Papadopulos, are not a close-knit team of normal and not-so-normal gifted teenagers—crêche-reared so they'll bond with each other, not with a parent; not with the irrelevant past. They are the components, individual and sometimes at odds, of a single mind. In this future, in the dominant form of human society, pods of two, three, four, or even five genetically engineered "body-bound packets of mind" make one human individual. The challenge for the reader is to remember that it's not just our team: every character (unless we're among the singleton underclass) has several bodies. The challenge Paul Melko has set himself is to explain why this would be a good idea. Apollo is in training for deep space exploration. What is the advantage gained when a starship captain has five bodies? Especially since, as soon becomes clear, the five bodies need to be in close proximity, if not physical contact? And what has this to do with the notorious Vernor Vinge Singularity, the "technological rapture" that's supposed to mark the end of human history?
In the opening chapters, each voiced by a different member of the pod, strangeness and the bigger picture fall victim to the short story form (only the first two chapters were published previously as short stories, but they set the tone), and arguably to the SF writing class dogma of the single viewpoint. Strom's adventure (Strom is Apollo's muscle power)—a survival exercise in the Rockies, a mysterious encounter with a pod of sentient, telepathic bears—stands up well as the opener of a highly readable teen sci-fi novel, with a sympathetic hero and hints of mysteries to be solved. Meda's episode (Meda is the pod's social interface), a more adult story, emphasises the puzzling vulnerability of the pod form—acting independently, Meda is raped and suffers what seems irreperable brain damage. The single viewpoint narrative, the fact that we can only know what the teenage protagonists know about their world, surely worked much better in the short form. Expecting to be led into a novel, I found that the introduction of the plot elements—failed Singularity-survivor Malcolm Leto; an avalanche that may have been engineered—felt rather arbitrary. What happened to those bears? I wondered. Why should the wicked survivor of the world's previous dominant society suddenly turn up, in a cabin in the woods, like a poisoned apple delivered to a naïve Snow White?
In the third episode Apollo is in space at last, serving a hard vacuum internship that goes horribly wrong; and now things start to get moving. Quant, the autistic savant, ironically proves to be a skilled narrator, conveying the poetry, the depressing hazards (a lot of vomit), and the thrills of spacelife. A standard YA sci-fi debacle—unjust superior officer, virtues of our hero recognised by those who really know—reveals that Apollo has a very determined enemy, and inexplicably this enemy seems to be their own government. They escape to the Ring—the giant space station circling the Earth, forbidden and abandoned since the catastrophe that wiped out its inhabitants—and are forced to use Meda's illicit brain jack, awakening the sleeping Ring AI. The hidden origin and secret destiny of pod society is about to be revealed, and Apollo will become the catalyst of a revised, perfected Singularity.
The chapters that follow the flight to the Ring are much richer in plot, exposition, and character, not so strong on coherent extrapolation. Maybe it would have been better to restrict Apollo's adventures—when they've returned to Earth via an abandoned Space Elevator—to North America: which seems to be where they belong. There's plenty of space for neo-primitive rainforest, staggering high-tech renewal, and dustbowl desolation between Mexico and the Arctic. I was disappointed that evil genius Malcolm Leto remains a poisoned apple, never becoming a character. Singularity's Ring is rather short of bad guys. Even the Overgovernment turns out to be paternally well-intentioned, apart from a few bad apples. Still, the futuristic world tour (whether the plot needs one or not) is a powerful temptation, and Paul Melko succeeds in tightening the screws to reach a satisfying—if rushed—science fictional conclusion.
I like books and stories that address the question of how "we" got there from here, tackling the transition rather than the fait accompli of a post-human society. By repositioning his pod-people as hopeful monsters—not merely a cumbersome variant posing as a great leap forward—Paul Melko restores the logic of his tale. I also like the suggestion that the apotheosis of humanity—not a new kind of human, but a cloud of shared mind—could emerge as the ally of life on Earth, instead of vanishing, crypto-Biblical style, to Realms Beyond Our Understanding.
"Babies do not want to hear about babies," said Samuel Johnson. "They like to be told of giants and castles, and of somewhat which can stretch and stimulate their little minds. . ." Excellent eighteenth century advice, just as true today. Singularity's Ring's episodic style may be slightly frustrating, but it's easy to read. Apollo's progress provides plenty of giants, castles, and mind-stretching ideas, and the protagonist(s)—it's an old trick—whatever their alleged age, are clearly young teenagers, doing "grown up" things. The adventure might be a little vanilla for some of the target audience, not half cynical enough about the adult world; while at the same time a little racy for their more conservative mentors (there's nothing graphic, but there's definitely group sex). But for many teens, and for many adult fans, this fresh, unassuming treatment of the Singularity story will be a happy discovery—and Melko has certainly made a promising debut. A writer to watch, a book to enjoy.