Entry updated 12 August 2018. Tagged: Theme.
If the Singularity represents the point at which the complexity of human, Computer or hybrid human/AI intelligence soars (by definition) beyond the comprehension of pre-singularity minds, transcendence can be considered as a wildcard symbol for what comes after. Thus the general sf consensus is that transcended beings and their affairs cannot be comprehended. That final image of the Star Child in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), both familiar and chilling, hints at much but reveals nothing. Such classic sf treatments as Arthur C Clarke's Childhood's End (April 1950 Famous Fantastic Mysteries as "Guardian Angel"; much exp 1953; rev 1990) or Greg Bear's Blood Music (June 1983 Analog; exp 1985) – whose transcendent climax is a clear homage to Clarke's – show humanity departing or evaporating into unknowable realms amid a general aura of Sense of Wonder. Charles Stross's Accelerando (fixup 2005) shows a similar mass exit into the less mystical transcendence of Upload, seen from the viewpoint of "outsiders" who despite radical changes remain more or less plausibly human. In Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep (1992), the character who is owned or operated by a transcendent entity must fall – lose his direct connections with transcendence – to become a humanly credible player on the galactic stage.
Iain M Banks's Culture stories give the cumulative impression that the long-term destiny of any intelligent species which fails to destroy itself is to Sublime, passing beyond the confines of mere matter; the action of The Hydrogen Sonata (2012) takes place during a countdown of the final days before a race's long-planned Sublimation. Banks is reticent about the supposedly glorious aftermath, though not every Sublimed race vanishes entirely from the scene: the immaterial Dra'Azon of Consider Phlebas (1987), for example, maintain an inscrutable guardianship over their "Planets of the Dead". David Brin suggests in his Uplift-sequence novel Heaven's Reach (1998) that the route to transcendence lies through the literal singularities of Black Holes – escape hatches from the universe – with a sly hint that, in keeping with themes of galactic-scale Ecology and conservation, the process may in fact be a recycling of aspiring races into basic cosmological mulch. Not every story of escape from the bonds of matter achieves transcendence: in Isaac Asimov's "Eyes Do More Than See" (April 1965 F&SF), humans who have attained Immortality as energy beings mourn the loss of bodies and bodily sensations.
One notable sf attempt to describe an indescribable galactic unity – in fact a joyous Hive Mind – appears as the climax of Theodore Sturgeon's The Cosmic Rape (August 1958 Galaxy as "To Marry Medusa"; 1958). Another, more modestly scaled, is Greg Bear's drastic Biological transformation and unification of Earth's life in Blood Music (June 1983 Analog; exp 1985), which flips a seeming global Disaster inside-out to reveal transcendence.
A tonal shift towards transcendence can be a convenient way to conclude a story whose narrative crescendo can increase no further. Alfred Bester, interviewed by Charles Platt in Dream Makers (coll 1980; exp vt Who Writes Science Fiction? 1980), said of his novel Tiger! Tiger! (October 1956-January 1957 Galaxy as "The Stars My Destination"; 1956; rev vt The Stars My Destination 1957; rev 1996): "... you build to a certain climax and there's no way to go to finish it off, except mystic [...] you gotta go mystic". Other authors, perhaps distrustful of mysticism, offer cautionary tales of fake transcendence. In Wolfbane (October-November Galaxy; 1959; rev 1986) by Frederik Pohl and C M Kornbluth, those who blank theirs minds with meditation may abruptly disappear – "harvested" as components for an alien Cybernetics system (although this exploitation eventually allows a group mind to awake). In John Brunner's Listen! The Stars! (1963; rev vt The Stardroppers 1972), decoders of Alien messages physically vanish, having acquired the frequently fatal power of Teleportation. A final, mystical blaze of glory is not necessarily a safe option.
Cinema treatments of the theme are relatively rare; the transcendent state at the close of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) is implied rather than actualized. In Transcendence (2014) the upward path is via Upload, while Lucy (2014) makes use of Intelligence-boosting Drugs. [DRL]
- Alexei and Cory Panshin. The World Beyond the Hill: Science Fiction and the Quest for Transcendence (New York: Jeremy P Tarcher, Inc, 1989) [nonfiction: hb/Deborah Daly]
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