The Postmodern Sublime and The Singularities of Science Fiction


As a popular genre, science fiction is prone to replicating the philosophical and cultural paradigms that exist in the world at the time they come into fruition. The inevitable approach of the singularity is one such trope in science fiction, as a topic that is widely discussed in popular culture and researched in scientific and technological communities. In his paper Singularities, Neil Easterbrook brilliantly criticizes a singular definition of singularity. However, he does not sufficiently argue for an aesthetic form. Although he does attempt to broach the topic of how the postmodern sublime (as defined by Jean-François Lyotard) is relevant to science fiction works, his argumentation falls flat, and he describes this section as an “veiled, enigmatic [...] gnomic epigraph.” (23-24) This text will extrapolate on Easterbrook’s work and discuss the postmodern sublime as an aesthetic strategy to critically approach singularities. Arthur C. Clarke’s The nine billion names of God and Don DeLillo’s Human Moments in World War III will be analyzed as short literary works that utilize this method. 

Vernor Vinge first defined the singularity in 1983 as the moment that will effectively end humanity as we know it, when machine intelligence will advance beyond plausible extrapolation or prediction of future occurrences. (Easterbrook 16) Singularity themes are typically explored in sci-fi as an exponential increase of accelerated change, reaching a critical threshold of technological advancement and approaching an event horizon. This singular vision of singularity in sci-fi often becomes “grand gadget stories with an engineering paradigm.” (Easterbrook 17) Easterbrook approaches the concept of singularity as having many differing, sometimes incompatible definitions. He says of singularity, “that celebrated shibboleth, that generic event horizon, that dissembling crux of so much contemporary discourse [...] I want to turn the term singularity towards the wider, more ambivalent useage now common with ‘slipstream.’” (Easterbrook 15) Through this pluralization of singularities, Easterbrook challenges the technocratic fantasy of science leading us towards a perfectly unified, whole existence. 

Much like Easterbrook, Lyotard would view the homogenous, determinate version of singularity to be nothing more than a recapitulation of other historical efforts to overcome the subject/object divide. In The Inhuman, Lyotard revisits Kant’s theory of the sublime as it is proposed in his enlightenment-era treatise, The Critique of Judgement. The decision to work from a Kantian perspective should alert readers to Lyotard’s resistance towards Hegel’s absolute idealism and monism (Lyotard 114). Thus, Lyotard’s postmodern sublime challenges a vision of singularity which brings humanity into a technological whole. 

Lyotard considers postmodernity as inseparable from modernity. This rejects attempts to carve up passages of time neatly as a form of periodization, which “is a way of placing events in a diachrony, [as]diachrony is ruled by the principle of revolution.” (25) As such, Lyotard suggests that the sequential temporality and periodization necessary for a unifying singularity is a flawed concept. Lyotard’s conception of the temporality of the sublime is described as one of ecstatic timeliness that interrupts the flow of linear time. (90) This experience embraces the progressive modern anxiety of presentness; Nothing is happening, nothing is progressing. Yet, this presentness is associated with higher consciousness and contemplation, and thus a mixture of pain and pleasure is created. This the contradictory state, in which the viewer is subjected to pain and pleasure defines the sublime experience as an indeterminacy which remains eternally unresolved. (92-93)

Like Kant, Lyotard defines beauty as “free harmony between the function of images and a function of concepts occasioned by an object of art or nature” (98) which relegates  beauty to a status of mastery of taste and of technical achievement. The sublime differs as a dualistic “cleavage within the subject between what can be conceived and what can be imagined or presented.” (98) According to Kant, the sublime accounted for forms of expression that bear witness to the inexpressible; that which can only be grasped conceptually through its fragments as it is is too enormous to be understood in its totality. Of this Kant says, “now when we judge such an immense whole aesthetically, the sublime lies not so much in the magnitude of the number as in the fact that, the farther we progress, the larger are the unities we reach.” (Kant 113) By this, it is suggested that there is an interconnectedness of the sublime and that which is mathematically beyond the timely scale of human comprehension. 

A mathematical magnitude beyond human cognition is achieved in The Nine Billion Names of God. In the story, progression in Western computer science leads to the ability for Tibetan monks to complete a centuries-long process of  “compiling a list which shall contain all the possible names of God.” (Clarke) This story is one of singularity; As the monks complete their task of generating the names of God, God’s purpose is achieved and it brings about the end of the world. This narrative aligns eschatology with the event horizon of singularity.  It is expressed through the aesthetic sublime, and is most clearly illustrated when Chuck comes into contact with this force in the last lines of the story: 

He could just see Chuck’s face, a white oval turned toward the sky. “Look,” whispered Chuck, and George lifted his eyes to heaven. (There is always a last time for everything.) Overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out.
— Clark

Ending the story at the moment of sublime experience is a textual strategy that suggests that human understanding reaches a barrier as this incomprehensible event occurs. Rather than concretely speculating about what might exist once singularity has been achieved, Clark chooses to explore this theme from a limited human perspective, rather than a privileged omniscient viewpoint. This imposed limit in cognition (of both the characters and the reader) reveals the fragility of the human mind and it’s inability to grasp totality. The usage of sublimity allows this fiction to meditate on the topic of singularity without satisfying the fantasy of technological revolution. 

Another sci-fi short story, Human Moments in World War III by Don DeLillo explores the relationship between sublimity and singularities. Human Moments exposes the already existent (yet rarely acknowledged) singularity of the totalizing reality of earth-bound life, rather than using the convention of approaching a technological singularity. A realization of the “wholeness” of Earth dawns on Vollmer as he slowly becomes accustomed to his privileged vista in orbital rotation. 

In the beginning of the story, Vollmer claims that although, while in orbit, him and the narrator do not experience the earthy passage of time, he can still intuit days on Earth. When he expresses his distaste for the shapeless routine of Sundays on Earth, in particular, he says, “orbital routine is different. It’s satisfying. It gives our time a shape and substance.” (DeLillo 74) Later, he claims that he is content with his current frame of reference. (79) This marks a shift in Vollmer as he chooses an ecstatic timeliness (one of temporal unity and presentness, according to Lyotard) over terrestrial attachments to the passage of time. 

Vollmer asks at one point, “Don’t you sometimes feel a power in you? [...] An extreme state of good health, sort of. An arrogant healthiness. [...] One day you feel it, the next day you are suddenly puny and doomed.” (81-82) This passage indicates that the character is beginning to enter a state of intense pleasure and pain, the markers of a sublime experience. This is confirmed in the final pages of the story, when his contradictory condition leads him to spend most of his hours silently looking at Earth through a window. The narrator describes this phase as one that:

satisfies every childlike curiosity, every muted desire, whatever there is in him of the scientist, the poet, the primitive seer, the watcher of fire and shooting stars, whatever obsessions eat at the night side of his mind, whatever sweet and dreamy yearning he has ever felt for nameless places far away, whatever earth sense he possesses, the neural pulse of some wilder awareness, a sympathy for beasts, whatever belief in an immanent vital force, the Lord of Creation, whatever secret harbouring of the idea of human oneness, whatever wishfulness and simple-hearted hope, whatever of too much and not enough, all at once and little by little, whatever burning urge to escape responsibility and routine, escape his own over-specialization, the circumscribed and inward-spiralling self, whatever remnants of his boyish longing to fly, his dreams of strange spaces and eerie heights, his fantasies of happy death, whatever indolent and sybaritic leanings, lotus-eater, smoker of grasses and herbs, blue-eyed gazer into space – all these are satisfied, all collected and massed in that living body, the sight he sees from the window.
— DeLillo

This excerpt describes the mental effect of attempting to express the inexpressible. The narrator’s rambling list of fragmented concepts grasps to describe the enormity of the totality of Earthly existence. This singularity – the always present oneness of humanity – challenges the primacy of a technologically precipitated singularity in sci-fi. Rather, it depicts the totalized human experience as a fragile paradigm that can be broken through the trauma of a war, or philosophical contemplation. 

Accounts of singularities in science fiction are far from a rarity. As such, it is important to challenge the standard usage of such a powerful device. Easterman’s Singularities counters the degradation stories of singularities in sci-fi from becoming cliché “grand gadget stories.” He proposes Lyotard’s postmodern sublime as an aesthetic strategy to temper the technocratic belief in scientific progress achieving a unified whole. Both Human Moments in World War III and The Nine Billion Names of God provocate the routine acceptance of eschatological beliefs present in culture and art through their complex engagement with the postmodern sublime. 



Works Cited

Clarke, Arthur C. “The Nine Billion Names of God.” Star Science Fiction Stories No.1. Ed. Frederik Pohl, Ballantine Books, 1953. 
DeLillo, Don. “Human Moments in World War III.” The Secret History of Science Fiction. Ed. James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel. San Francisco: Tachyon, 2009. Print. 73-86.
Easterbrook, Neil. “Singularities.” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 39, no. 1, 2012, pp. 15–27. JSTOR,
Kant, Immanuel. The Critique of Judgement. Trans. Werner s. Pluhar. Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, 1987. 
Lyotard, Jean-François. The Inhuman: Reflections on Time. Trans. Geoffrey Bennington and Rachel Bowlby. Stanford: Stanford University, 1991. Print.