Review of Singularity's Ring by Paul Melko
by Paul Melko
I know the line between science fiction and fantasy, if one exists at all, is tenuous, as is any genre brinksmanship one cares to play. I do try, however foolishly, to draw one, if only for my own personal cataloguing efforts. And I could go more into how I agree with the camp that views science fiction as a setting rather than a genre, but that’s not pertinent to my point. In science fiction, what happens is a result of science—albeit science that doesn’t quite work in our world—and, hence, is reproducible and reliable. There is no willpower or faith involved. In contrast, fantasy usually means magic of some kind, which is science if science played favourites, required innate ability (other than intelligence), and changed the rules when you weren’t looking.
But there are times, as the venerable Sir Arthur C. Clarke noted, when the science depicted becomes so “advanced” that it starts to look an awful lot like magic. Few subgenres embody this as well as posthumanism, with machines altering us on a cellular level and artificial intelligences helping us to upload our minds to a computer—or into a nice, new body. So posthumanism is like fantasy, and the more I think about it, posthumanism most resembles urban fantasy. Both involve “magic” in an environment that resembles, at least in some fashion, the urban-oriented civilization of today. Both have characters who are transhuman, either because of technological advances or because of mutations, magic, and mythology. Finally, I feel like the most common tone and pacing in urban fantasy—slightly gritty, fast-paced—translates well to posthumanism. Posthumanism is thrilling when done well.
Singularity’s Ring made me think about this correlation. It feels a little like a fantasy thriller. Our protagonist, Apollo, is actually five individuals who can share memories and thoughts chemically, to function as a single “pod”. After attempts on Apollo’s life, he becomes a fugitive, returning to the fold only to learn he has to help hunt down a psychopath. So, not your ordinary protagonist, and not exactly a great day to be the protagonist! Aside from a brief by enjoyable jaunt into orbit, the action in this book is confined to the surface of the Earth, which is a refreshing change from most posthuman fiction. Apollo even spends some time trekking up the Amazon, as well as several days in the woods with semi-sentient bears.
Yeah, it’s that sort of book.
Paul Melko demonstrates the successful recipe to good science fiction. Take one or two Big Ideas and drop them front-and-centre. In this case, it’s the pod humans like Apollo. They are now the dominant life-form on Earth after the departure of the Community, with singleton humans relegated to ghetto-like enclaves where they can’t cause as much trouble. So, the Big Idea is the first ingredient. Next, take several additional science-fiction concepts and scatter them through the background, midground, and foreground. That’s the setting I was talking about—science fiction makes it happen. Here, we have the eponymous Ring, the concept of a Singularity and a Nerd Rapture, and the Community.
At first the Community sounded like some kind of weird alien species that befriended humanity, then left. But no: the Community was a group of humans who joined together by “jacking in” with neural interfaces. They planned a technological ascension to a higher stage of being—a Nerd Rapture!—and subsequently disappeared. Well, their consciousnesses did. Their bodies just died. No one really knows what happened to the Community, whether they did ascend or just died or whatnot. Only one member of the Community is left; he missed the Exodus because his body was in suspended animation aboard the Ring, being repaired, and he becomes Singularity’s Ring’s principal antagonist.
So there is a lot going on here, but it never becomes overwhelming. As much as Melko mentions Singularity-type events, it’s not the principal focus. Any other book, any other day, and that might disappoint me. But the main plot of Singularity’s Ring is more than enough to make up for that. This is a story of survival, but it has a very unique protagonist. I suspect that one’s enjoyment of the book hangs almost entirely on how much one likes the multiple-persons persona of Apollo Papadopulos: Strom, Meda, Quant, Manuel, and Moira. Melko tells the story in chapters from the point of view of each of these constituents of Apollo, and while the concept seems confusing at first, you get used to it.
Then there are the bears. The bears are delightful. After escaping certain death a few times, Apollo winds up back in the same area where they had some near-fatal survival training. Strom, the tactically-oriented member of the pod, rescued the rest of the pod with the help of some very intelligent bears, whom he believed had been a pod themselves. Of course, the idea of a pod of bears was dismissed. But Apollo decides that if he is going to be a fugitive, he might as well look for these bears—and he finds them. It’s just a great part of the book, and like most of the book, so very fun.
Singularity’s Ring was almost five stars for me. Sometimes the pacing seemed to get bogged down in certain details—or maybe I just wasn’t paying enough attention to what was happening. Similarly, there are times when Melko departs from his convention of narrative to delve into memories or play with who is narrating. He always does this for a reason, but it is another way in which he interrupts the coherence of the writing. So while Singularity’s Ring had a great story, there is definite room for improvement in how it was put down on the page.
That’s a bagatelle, though. Really, I could see the argument for giving this book five stars, because the ending is amazing. It is utterly predictable yet so poignant and emotional. Somehow, Melko manages to turn a moment that should have been trite into something that made me shed tears—probably because of the strength of his characterization of Apollo’s pod members. Moreover, the ending truly exceeds the otherwise intimate scope of the novel to become epic. Although tragic for Apollo—and thus for the reader—it is also extremely hopeful. It leaves an opening for more novels in this universe, and I want them. I will pay good money for them. Or, you know, use gift cards people give me when they realize I like books. Or borrow them from the library. Or steal them from tiny, science-fiction reading babies in lieu of candy theft. (I am a terrible person, yes, but what is a baby doing reading science fiction in the first place? Huh? Think about it!)