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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Singularity

Dino Buzzati

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To purchase The Singularity

Title: The Singularity
Author: Dino Buzzati
Genre: Novel
Written: 1960 (Eng. 2024)
Length: 127 pages
Original in: Italian
Availability: The Singularity - US
The Singularity - UK
The Singularity - Canada
L'image de pierre - France
Il grande ritratto - Italia
El gran retrato - España
from: Bookshop.org (US)
  • Italian title: Il grande ritratto
  • Translated by Anne Milano Appel
  • Previously translated by Henry Reed, as Larger than Life (1962)
  • Il grande ritratto is the basis for the 1977 TV movie, A nagy képmás, directed by Rajnai András

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Our Assessment:

B+ : somewhat flawed in its conception, but very good in its execution

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Le Monde . 1/7/1961 Michel Brion
The NY Times* . 5/8/1967 Thomas Lask
The NY Times Book Rev.* . 20/8/1967 Martin Levin
The Washington Post . 7/6/2024 Michael Dirda

(*review of a different translation)

  From the Reviews:
  • "To come to the point quickly, Dino Buzzati's new novel, Larger than Life, is not quite of the order of his memorable and beautifully fashioned The Tartar Steppe, though it does possess the same atmosphere of something threatening, frightening and mysterious. This does not mean that the new story is not a good one. It is, surpassingly so, with an ingenious idea and impressive climax that will keep you rooted to your chair until the end. It is, in a way, a better told story than The Tartar Steppe." - Thomas Lask, The New York Times

  • "(It)t's science fiction, kind of, con amore. There's also a touch of the Frankenstein tradition with a brilliantly original twist." - Martin Levin, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Gradually, Buzzati threads together several themes: lost love (similar to that in Rodenbach’s novel), the nature of identity, muted eroticism and the development of what we would now call artificial intelligence. The book climaxes in a scene that recalls the ancient myth of the prophetic Sibyl of Cumae, who was granted immortality but not perpetual youth." - Michael Dirda, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Singularity begins in April 1972 -- not the past but, when the novel was written (it was first published in 1960), the near-future, as it is a work of speculative fiction -- one whose premise happens to be very current and topical again.
       The novel begins with a professor of electronics, Ermanno Ismani, getting an offer from the Ministry of Defense, "to participate in a mission of vital national interest, as well as extraordinary scientific value". He'd have to relocate to an isolated military zone and commit to at least a two year-stay -- but he'd be well compensated, and could bring along his wife. The catch is that they can't tell him what the project he would be working on is -- they literally can't: it's so top secret that no one in the ministry even knows .....
       Ermanno is too curious to pass up the opportunity -- and his young wife, Elisa, is gung-ho -- so off they go, to military zone 36. It's very well-protected, with a clear divide with the rest of the world -- and with no one outside having a clear idea of what's going on there: "A mystery. Everything is a goddamn mystery". It's a lovely setting -- idyllic, even -- though, of course, rather isolated. And it is very well-guarded -- though the patrol dogs they used to have had to go: "They didn't bark at all, no, that's what's curious. Instead they wailed. They were itching to go up there".
       Ismani assumes that the project has to do with atomic power or weapons --perhaps it's an atomic plant, an obvious thought in those nuclear-arms-race times. But it's not.
       The title of the new English translation is an appropriate one -- even if the term 'singularity' would only come to get its current widespread usage much more recently. (The earlier translation was titled Larger than Life, and both differ from the Italian original, Il grande ritratto ('The great portrait' or 'likeness'); the French had trouble with it, too (L'image de pierre; 'The stone image').)
       Buzzati's story is of an experiment -- on the grandest scale -- in Artificial Intelligence. The scientists definitely do not take a large language model-approach to AI; indeed, among Buzzati's most interesting choices is that, despite wanting to make: "A machine made in our likeness":

It doesn't know any languages. On that score we've been categorical. heaven helps us if we had taught it a language. Language is the worst enemy of mental clarity. In his desire to express his thought in words at all costs, man has ended up making such messes.
       Buzzati's conception of the invention -- and how it functions and develops -- is a fascinating one. A significant bit of what went into the design is unscientifically personal -- lead scientist Endriade unfortunately has a sentimental weak spot, and he let it get the better of him; unsurprisingly, the result is ... problematic. (Elisa sums it up well: "'You're all insane,' Elisa Ismani says. 'Couldn't you have foreseen this ?'" .....)
       As it turns out, Elisa comes to play a much more significant role in the story and the project than her engineer-husband -- if, in no small part, because of a rather contrived coïncidence -- and it is she that is at the heart of the dramatic and cinematic conclusion.
       Buzzati relies a bit too much on the melodramatic and sentimental, but The Singularity is nevertheless an excellent exploration of Artificial Intelligence, and what forms it might take, and the consequences of the decisions made in how it is programmed and functions. In particular, Buzzati has his scientists make some interesting choices, including not teaching the AI any languages, as well as arguing that man's 'sense of freedom' comes from the possibility of suicide, and endowing the AI with "the capability of annihilating itself", as:
     "What I mean," Endriade said, "is that life would be unbearable, even in the happiest conditions, if we were denied the possibility of suicide. No one thinks about it, you understand. But can you imagine the what the world would be like if one day we knew that no one could dispose of his own life ? A terrifying prison. Crazy, we'd become."
       While there are some weaknesses in the premises of the novel, The Singularity is still a remarkable and well-worthwhile thought-experiment -- and a very timely one as well. It is an impressive novel of ideas, but Buzzati also vividly and eerily evokes and sets his scenes; it's often cinematic in the richness of its description (and it's surprising this hasn't been made into a film more often).

- M.A.Orthofer, 26 May 2024

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The Singularity: Reviews (*review of a different translation): A nagy képmás - the TV movie: Other books by Dino Buzzati under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Italian author Dino Buzzati lived 1906 to 1972

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© 2024 the complete review

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