In his New Book, Douglas Lain Asks if the ‘Singularity’ will Bring Man’s Salvation–or Endless Rounds of Mario Kart

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The technological “singularity” is a popular topic among futurists, transhumanists, philosophers, and, of course, science fiction writers. The term refers to that hypothetical moment when an artificial superintelligence surpasses human intelligence, leading to runaway—and unpredictable—advances in technology.

Among the biggest unknowns is whether or not the superintelligence will turn out to be benign of malevolent.

Douglas Lain

“All sorts of visions arise, one of which might be the total annihilation of humanity by [artificial intelligences] and robots. Another might be that we all get to live forever as the robots and A.I.s overcome aging and help us launch into space,” Douglas Lain tells me in the new episode of New Books in Science Fiction.

To some, Lain’s vision of the singularity in Bash Bash Revolution might sound benign. It involves an idealistic government scientist, who designs an artificial intelligence named Bucky to prevent the apocalypse; in short order, Bucky decides the best way to do so is by enticing people to play augmented-reality video games.

But things turn dark when people abandon their ordinary lives—including jobs and families—to don virtual-reality headsets and become their favorite characters in retro video and arcade games.

Told through the social media posts of the son of Bucky’s inventor, Bash Bash Revolution is set in today’s America, with Donald Trump serving as Bucky’s most urgent problem. “It’s a race between Trump’s stupidity and the A.I.’s ability to transform society to make Trump irrelevant. That was certainly how [Bucky’s inventor] conceived of it. His task was to help the A.I save us from ourselves and save us from Trump,” Lain says.

Lain was a guest on New Books in Science Fiction in 2016 to talk about After the Saucers Landed, which was nominated for the Philip K. Dick Award. He is also the publisher of Zero Books, which specializes in books about philosophy and political theory.

A student of philosophy, Lain was partially inspired to write Bash Bash Revolution by philosopher and Marxist Guy Debord who argued in The Society of the Spectacle that images had become the ultimate commodity. “I thought ‘What if you really took that to heart?’” Lain says. “This concept of the singularity and being absorbed into virtual reality and video games and augmented video games is what I came up with—what the society of the spectacle would really be.”

Another inspiration for the book was his frustration with always losing to his son at video games. “I wanted to tell a story about a middle-aged father who could beat his son at Super Smash Bros. Melee,” he says.


Podcast with Douglas Lain: ‘I Think Therefore I’m an Alien’

I’m planning to interview on New Books in Science Fiction all six nominees for this year’s Philip K. Dick Award. First up is Douglas Lain, whose After the Saucers Landed (Night Shade Books, 2015) is set in the early 1990s, when aliens, with the theatrical sense of B-movie directors, land flying saucers on the White House lawn.

At first, the visitors seem fit for a Las Vegas chorus line; they’re tall, attractive and never leave their spaceships without donning sequined jumpsuits. Even the name of their leader–Ralph Reality–is marquee-ready.

But is Reality as real as he seems?

That’s the question that Lain poses for readers and his first-person narrator, Brian Johnson, who confronts the alien invasion head-on when one of the interstellar travelers assumes the identity of his wife. This propels Johnson into an examination of reality through various prisms: popular culture, science, philosophy, art, and even fiction.

A kaleidoscope of personalities, artists and thinkers are name-checked as Johnson and his colleagues search for the ultimate truth. There are as many nods to mainstream culture (think Elvis Presley, Arsenio Hall and David Letterman) as there are to high-brow (e.g., René Magritte, Marcel Duchamp and Jean Baudrillard). And topping it off are the writings of ufologists, including the work of one of the characters, Harold Flint, who is so disappointed by the aliens’ tackiness that he decides to stop studying UFOs altogether.

“The big challenge is try and take sometimes abstract ideas and philosophical concepts and bring them to life in the story while not losing any of their complexity,” Lain says. Far easier, he found, was conveying the narrator’s sense of unease and growing paranoia as he learns more about the aliens. “I’ve spent far too much of my life in that kind of state, so it comes naturally me to write about that feeling.”