BOOK: _Transcension_ by Damien Broderick

From: Eliezer S. Yudkowsky (
Date: Tue Feb 19 2002 - 12:22:29 MST

_Transcension_ by Damien Broderick
(Science fiction novel, currently available in hardcover.)


Okay, I'm not an unbiased reviewer: The novel quotes one of my Extropians
posts as a section epigraph and has a small plug at the end for the
Singularity Institute. Nonetheless, "Transcension" is good old-fashioned
entertaining SF, and comes as close to taking a poke at the Singularity as any
SF is likely to manage.

"Transcension" goes on the bookshelf of that odd and distinct genre of
"explicitly Singularity-aware science fiction". On the metaphorical left end
of this shelf is apparently Singularity-aware SF that nonetheless manages to
somehow dance around the Singularity: "Excession" by Iain M. Banks, "War in
Heaven" by David Zindell, "Heaven's Reach" by David Brin, "Mother of Storms"
by John Barnes. On the right end of this shelf are the reigning monarchs, "A
Fire Upon the Deep" by Vernor Vinge and "Permutation City" by Greg Egan. I
would basically rate "Transcension" as about two-thirds of the way toward the
right. I hope that Damien Broderick goes on to write more Singularity
literature and knock Greg Egan off his perch to become the new Lord of Future
Shock (a planetwide post which in nonetheless always held by an Australian).
But if not, "Transcension" is probably still as good as Singularity-aware SF
is likely to get, right up to the moment of the actual Singularity.

Don't let my basic inability to deliver unmixed compliments get in the way of
the fact that this is a darned good book. Other reviewers give five-star
reviews with flying neon banners, but no, I have to measure everything in
fractions of "Permutation City". Just remember that 0.67 PC is a heck of a
high rating. says that this is a 2-3 day book and that UPS shipping will take
3-7 days, but I ordered it on Wednesday and it was there on Thursday. It
actually arrived before I got the email saying that it had shipped. (And yes,
I checked, and this really was the specific book I had ordered and not a
coincidental gift from someone else.) How things do accelerate, these days.
I mention it because I think it's pretty funny, considering the book's subject

(caution: do not read if you are spoiler-allergic)

Here's a statement that will come as absolutely no surprise to anyone who's
read this book: I have issues with Aleph. In fact, the first time I
encountered this entity, I said something along the lines of "No, no, no, no,
no!", accompanied by repeatedly banging the palm of my hand against my
forehead. Followed by: "Who is this 'Aleph' character? None of my work,
I'll tell you that." But hang on until the end of the novel. It does get
better, although certain earlier events are never adequately explained.

I also worry that, although the book is easily comprehensible to we jaded
transhumanist folk, it may leave substantial other sectors of the planet
totally confused. The truth is, I have absolutely no idea how the average SF
fan is likely to react, or whether current SF critics are emitting rave
reviews or complete incomprehension. But this audience, at least, should be
able to track the novel easily enough.

I'd like to thank Damien for putting my epigraph in a novel where it sounds
wise rather than silly, and would also like to praise him for his totally
accurate one-line description of the Singularity Institute.

Unsurprisingly, this novel is also more aware of certain advanced concepts
than any other Singularity literature. There are certain points in the book
where you can hear the SL4 mailing list talking (though not necessarily me).

If your model of the Singularity is such that today's humans end up making
individual decisions about whether to become transhuman, and you don't want to
fall in love with someone you'll have to leave behind, then buy a copy of
"Transcension" and loan it to the prospective loved one in question. Of
course this may not be the best book to use as an *introduction* to the
Singularity, but once the basic concepts are there, it's a good way to raise
the issue.

It should also be fun to loan this book to someone and then casually say,
"Gee, don't you think it's odd that there's been so little progress in AI for
the last fifty years?"

-- -- -- -- --
Eliezer S. Yudkowsky
Research Fellow, Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence

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