All fiction, it’s been said, boils down to two plots: Either a stranger comes to town or someone goes on a trip. Gatsby lands on Long Island, drawn like a luna moth to Daisy’s green light. Huck and Jim raft away in an idyll of racial amity that today seems, in a term dear to Mark Twain, a stretcher.
Christopher Bryan’s third novel, Singularity, set in a slightly futuristic England, brings together both plots, one inside the other—in effect, a travel brochure tucked inside the pages of the Apocalypse. Bryan, emeritus professor of theology at Sewanee, is not so well known for his fiction as for his lucid biblical studies, notably The Resurrection of the Messiah (2011). His novels, which take faith seriously, are ideal antidotes to the crypto-farces of Dan Brown.
In the larger plot of Singularity, a country town in North Devon is torn by the coming of U.N.I.T.E.D.—the United Nations Institute for Technology and Development—and its monolithic new headquarters, likened to the Tower of Babel. The head of this feral bureaucracy, Sir James Harlow, is a respected negotiator on behalf of Britain with canny governments in the Middle East. He serves also as a lay reader in the Church of England and observes that diplomatic negotiation is “a lot like hearing confessions, at least in the Anglican tradition.” The mission of U.N.I.T.E.D.—regarding “the environment, world health, and the problem of renewable fuels,” inter alia—is anyone’s guess.
The locals get on poorly with U.N.I.T.E.D., resenting its armed security force and its consumption of a chunk of that manicured farmland of which the English are so fond. A vicar rhapsodizes:
Nothing could be more beautiful than walking home on a cold evening with cows—feeling their breath warm on your back and hearing them snort with interest at things they’ve found to chomp in the hedgerows.
This homely sentiment, easy to mock, points to the real trouble with U.N.I.T.E.D. The loss of cow pasture is the least of it; the deeper program, we discover, is the purging of sentiment itself.
To spot the clues, it’s not necessary to have read C. S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength (1945), but it helps. That book lurks always in the shadows of Bryan’s story: Both are set in the fictional town of Edgestow, and one of Bryan’s fidgety townsfolk mutters that U.N.I.T.E.D. reminds him too much of N.I.C.E.—the sinister agency set up there in the Lewis tale.
A police detective, Cecilia Cavaliere, sniffs trouble while investigating the highway deaths of two Nigerian illegal immigrants en route to U.N.I.T.E.D. Learning too much, she’s seized and subjected to the grim experiment of which the Nigerians were to be victims. The men at the top are perfecting computers “capable of removing much of the uncertainty and pain of human life, of creating something like paradise.” The sole beneficiaries—no surprise—are the bureaucrats themselves, who mean to become immortal by downloading, in due time, the entire contents of their consciousness onto silicon chips. They’re paragons of pure scientific rationalism: heartless types that Lewis, in a famous essay, called “men without chests.” In their hyper-progressive view, all emotion, ethics, and transcendent values are mere fallbacks for the weak-minded.
In the inner plot, it’s Cecilia Cavaliere who takes a trip. Hooked to a computer in an upper room of the U.N.I.T.E.D. tower, she’s abruptly transported, in virtual reality, to Rome on September 8, 1943. As commander of the Italian forces—an apt role, given her ancestry—she faces the challenge of turning back the would-be German occupiers at the gates, a reversal of history if she succeeds. That, and the lesser challenge of somehow escaping the computer’s lethal clutches alive. In this, she’s aided by a 17th-century priest who turns up as a living entity, existentially distinct from the rest of her cyber transport. He offers a hint, not quite a hand.
The title, Singularity, refers to the theoretical point at which computers become more intelligent than men and subsequently take over. It is also when men, trying to make themselves immortal, manage only to make themselves inhuman. Enter Cecilia’s IT expert, who puts things in perspective: “Computers are idiots whose only virtue is that they can count up to two extremely fast.”
Harlow, it develops, is not the worst evil in U.N.I.T.E.D., yet he’s ready to blow up a busload of schoolchildren so that humanity—his own—can survive. He comforts himself with fictions, keeping two contrary plots going at once. In that, perhaps, he’s the rest of us, writ large.
Parker Bauer is a writer in Florida.