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Singularity's Ring by Paul Melko2.5 stars

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsSingularity’s Ring tells its story just interestingly enough to make me wish it had been Paul Melko’s fourth or fifth novel — written at a career point where one expects most writers’ talent to have matured into a smooth and confident storytelling voice — rather than his first. I give it all props for being a story that actually does something creative with the already-played-out premise of the Singularity. But it’s also an uneven tale, indulging in a narrative that is both fast-paced but rambling, its plot lacking focus until its final chapters. It grew from a novelette, which probably explains a lot of its episodic start-stop character.

Still, it has the appeal of old-school nuts-and-bolts SF, a genre that, whether you’ve noticed or not, is rapidly fading into the mists as fantasy of all stripes — epic, young adult, urban — continues to crowd out science fiction in bookstore racks labeled “science fiction.” For reasons of traditional SFnal partisanship alone, I’ll cheerfully recommend that Melko deserves your support, even if I think a lot of those who read this debut will probably come away with one gripe or another. 

My gripe is that Melko never sells the concept upon which his story is built as successfully or convincingly as I would have liked. Following the Singularity — in which the majority of the tech-enhanced human race, having become an ominously-named Collective (a “synergistic human-machine intelligence”) living aboard an orbital ring accessed by space elevators, all at once experienced an Exodus that suspiciously resembled dying — the rest of humanity are now bred into “pods.” These are groups of two, three, four, or rarely five people both mentally and biochemically linked into a single meta-person, so to speak. The idea is that two or more heads are better than one, and that a pod is better through consensus thinking at decision-making than a “singleton,” who are treated as undesirables and relegated to ghetto-like enclaves. There’s an axiom the pods have — “A consensus of one is always false” — that sounds a little too much like propagandist indoctrination for comfort. But Singularity’s Ring never chooses to interrogate the danger of groupthink and the value of the individual as themes. It is much more concerned with how people might live in a world where it’s already been decided that individuality has no value. 

Our protagonists are a rare quintet. Five people — Moira, Strom, Quant, Manuel and Meda — together known as Apollo. They are in training as the novel opens, as candidates to captain a ship out to the edge of the solar system, where a rift awaits to take them deep into space for reasons I never entirely grokked. It’s hinted they hope to find out where the Collective disappeared to, though we’re never really given a good reason why they should think the rift will lead them there. 

Melko makes his quintet likable. But in developing them as characters he’s always at loggerheads with the concept of pods altogether, and it’s never clear if this is intentional or simply an inherent difficulty in creating a wholly convincing groupmind character. We are always cognizant of the five individuals who make up the supposedly-one-person that is the pod Apollo, not the least because for most of the book, Melko treats each of the five in turn as a viewpoint character on a chapter-by-chapter basis. Result: I always thought of them as five people in a team, never as one collective identity, even in the final chapters where Melko finally makes Apollo the viewpoint character. 

Moreover, from its first chapter, which originally saw print on its own in Asimov’s, Melko demonstrates — and I’m not certain it’s his intent — that pods are not any better, and sometimes demonstrably worse, at making decisions collectively than they are when one of their members uses his own initiative. The book opens when Apollo, along with other pods, are undergoing survival training in the Rockies. When an avalanche buries the tent of another pod, Strom, defying the consensus of the rest of his own pod, goes out to look for survivors. “Consensus” here is repeatedly dramatized as everyone telepathically bickering before coming to a decision about anything, which seems to me far less efficient or effective at achieving good results than you’d get from a well-trained individual accustomed to summing up a situation and making quick decisions on the fly.

It turns out that Strom’s pod is quickly swept away by a second avalanche, and would have died, had Strom not tied the rope connecting him to the tent so he could find his way back in the falling snow to the nearest big tree. So, had the consensus held sway, they’d have all died. Strom, using his individual initiative, kept them all alive. 

This scene alone, though it made for good drama, prevented me from ever fully suspending my disbelief for the idea of the superiority of pods and consensus thinking that the story continued trying to sell me. And though the rest of the book had quite a number of good, suspenseful scenes, in addition to impressively gritty if never wholly original world building, it also missed some good opportunities, such as letting us see anything of the inside of this amazing abandoned Ring circling the globe. Instead, Melko favors a chase story. We get an arch-villain, Malcolm Leto, the only remaining member of the Collective, who has some suitably nefarious plans all about using the Ring to conquer the world, towards which he seduces and compromises Meda. Soon all five members of Apollo are racing here, there, and everywhere, from geosynchronous orbit, down along the Amazon, up through the Rockies, and eventually all the way to the Congo. Along the way they meet intelligent engineered bears and a Mad Scientist from the Ernest Thesiger gene bank.

It’s never boring, often fun, moves like greased beans through a pigeon, and forever stops short of letting you take it seriously despite its being played entirely straight on every page. Thematically, Melko flirts with letting the book be a parable about hubris — that in becoming nearly godlike, the Collective brought about its own fall. But mostly I think Singularity’s Ring is best taken as imperfect popcorn reading by a promising newbie. As Singularity stories go, it’s pretty singular.