The “Soft Takeoff” Singularity

Many venerable and excellent games such as Metamorphoses: Alpha, Gamma World, the Morrow Project, and even Twilight: 2000 are set in a post-apocalypic world. So, too, television shows and films such as Arc II, Logan’s Run, or Earth II. By definition, these all posit a devastating cataclysm of some sort, usually a war or man-made ecological catastrophe.

In Transhumanist terms, such a devastating war would be termed a singularity. Singularity in this context is a term coined by science fiction author Vernor Vinge, to describe an event in the future beyond which it is impossible to predict anything about society, history, technology, etc. Usually, the term is used in conjunction with the development of artificial intelligence, nanoassembler technology, etc., but a nuclear war would fulfill the definition just as well.

These are what are known as “hard takeoff” singularities. They happen suddenly and jarringly, with little or no warning. You don’t know it’s coming until you see the radar tracks of the missiles arcing over the polar ice cap, or until the supercomputer announces that “Action will be taken” unless its demands are met…

There is another sort of singularity, however, that I think would make for a spiffy campaign setting for this sort of game. This is the “soft takeoff” singularity. This is the singularity that takes its time coming; it may even be consciously planned as a singularity, but need not be. And it might not necessarily be a move “up”.

What brings me to this topic is a re-read of two excellent books from my college days; Phaid the Gambler and Citizen Phaid by Mick Farren. These books are set, as many such books are, an indeterminant number of years in the future, where all knowledge of our modern world is lost, and what high technology there is, is left over from a golden era in the past. There’s weather control, but it’s out of control, leaving alternating bands of scorching desert and icey wastes. There are androids, and blasters, and the like, but nobody knows how to build them, and precious few remember how to repair them. It’s not savagery; there are cars, and trains, and nightclubs. But it’s all so very… tired. Civilization is winding down, and everyone can feel it.

But the world they describe is not the result of a war. Rather, it’s the tail end of a long, slow decline in human civilization. And what brought about this decline from an apex of technological grandeur? (Highlight to reveal invisotext spoilers) All the best and brightest people left Earth for the stars, and are now only remembered in half-mythological terms as “Lords”. Those who were left behind, the second-rate folks who didn’t have the drive to innovate and create, gradually lost their knowledge as a result of laziness and complacency as much as anything else. I think this would make an awesome background for a campaign, perhaps focused on restoring human civilization to something approaching its zenith.

Just a thought for those who like post-apocalypic games, but might want to shake up the nature of the apocalypse. I’m thinking Gama World with large, functioning cities, a transportation infrastructure, and the like. Could be neat!

Written by 

Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

12 thoughts on “The “Soft Takeoff” Singularity

  1. I actually really dig this. Even with a hard takeoff, I often have a hard time getting how knowledge can be lost so completely. Surely there would be *some* motivated and intelligent survivors in the aftermath?

    But this kind of slow devolution (precipitated by what's in your spoiler text) makes sense. I've been pondering a possible post-apoc game and this definitely gives me food for thought.

    Great post.

  2. Oh, "the second-rate folks who didn't have the drive to innovate and create, gradually lost their knowledge as a result of laziness and complacency as much as anything else."

    Gee, sounds like most of my former students when I taught t a few major universities…

    It's Going to College 2010 the RPG!

  3. It would be an interesting campaign world; but, I think this notion of a mass "Going Galt" of humanity to the stars is just as unbelievable as the rest of Rand. I couldn't sustain the world as plausible to any degree as a referee for the campaign.

    That might be unfair to Farren's books to compare them to Ayn Rand, though. So I may be way off base.

  4. There's a great RPG called Yellow Dawn that is vaguely based on a "soft takeoff" – instead of the spoiler, society is somewhat modestly decimated by a global plague, with wild, zombie-ridden wastelands between otherwise functional, but threatened cities.

    A fun game set in a Cthulhu-esqu cosmos, with a ton of variants of play.

  5. As an aside, I LOVE Mick Farren. Well, I love MOST of Mick Farren… those vampire novels he wrote are awful. But his sci-fi stuff and near-future armageddon stuff is IMPECCABLE. In addition to the Phaid books, I would recommend DAY OF FESTIVAL (I think it's called?)

  6. I've been considering a post-peak-oil setting, drawing inspiration in part from the ongoing free online novel Star's Reach, as well as some notes in GURPS Y2K and other post-apocalyptic stories. The idea of "soft takeoff singularities" is fascinating to me, in no small part because I tend to think that they are (as abstractions) a significant part of real-world historical processes.

  7. Interesting stuff– I'd love to see a campaign along those lines. Also, keep in mind that the original Bladerunner novel (Do Androids Dream..) was all about this premise– that all the elites split Earth and left the second-rates behind.

    Mick Farren is one of the most underrated authors to ever work the SF terrain . . his LONG ORBIT was particularly awesome.

  8. See the movie Cherry 2000 for an interest "soft takeoff" possibility.

    Also this reminds me of the bit from Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. In that case, the "useless third" of a planet's population was shot off into space.

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