You know what? I'm over the Singularity. I really am. As a potentially real, imminent emerging phenomenon, I think the whole "Rapture of the Nerds" thing is a load of pie-in-the-sky technodweeb bullshit. Yes, computing power is going to increase to insane degrees, but there's no evidence that artificial intelligence, which some wag once described as an attempt to get computers to act the way they do in movies, is going to advance to anywhere near the degree it will have to within the 30-year time frame most transhumanists are lustily predicting for the infinite acceleration of society to begin. When I hear Singularity talk, I'm reminded of the futurists fifty years ago who were all predicting that by 2000 we'd be flying our personal jetpacks to our jobs on the moon while the robot maid stayed home and did the laundry. Whatever.
But moreover, as a premise for science fiction, it seems like Singularitarian SF has tapped itself out after only a few short years. We have, in essence, gotten two basic story scenarios out of it, endlessly repeated. In one, computers get smarter than us, turn evil, and either oppress, kill or enslave us (vide The Terminator, The Matrix). In the other, from a slightly more optimistic perspective, we all upload ourselves into unspeakably fast computers and live virtually ever after in a kind of Libertarian technotopia that's just enough like a bitchin XBox game to avoid being boring. Charles Stross has done both the former, with his Eschaton novels, and the latter, with Accelerando.
Stross, who I would like to go on record once more as saying kicks mad ass when he's on his game, is in reality a Singularity-skeptic like myself, but in Singularity Sky and especially Iron Sunrise, he imagined such a future in a fresh, relentlessly invigorating, and (most importantly) funny way. Accelerando is not set in those novels' same future, however. Originally released as a series of nine novellas in Asimov's beginning in 2001, the full novel is a curious entity: a compendium of often brilliant stories which, when put together (and they're intended that way, which is why I'm not reviewing this as a story collection), often felt aloof and alienating. I read many of the installments in Asimov's when they first come out, in fact. I recall enjoying them then. But taken as a whole, it left me cold.
Much of this, I imagine, is due to the aforementioned ambivalence I'm feeling towards this whole subgenre. There is also the "insane hype" factor; Stross is one of today's most admired writers — I've heaped my own share of praise right here — and Accelerando, as one of his most eagerly awaited books, has already been lauded by virtually every critic in the field as the Dune of Singularitarian SF. Once again I'm the guy swimming against the tide. This is undeniably blisteringly intelligent work. There's a healthy amount of wit as well, something Iron Sunrise and the Merchant Princes trilogy has led me to expect from Stross as a matter of course.
But like so much SF of this type, there's not much of a human heart to grab hold of. Not surprising, I guess, in a story about the accelerated evolution of humanity into a posthuman state. But there's no warmth to Stross's hyperfuture, in which anything in nature is simply a raw material to be consumed and the only meaningful existence is artificial. I can see how this fiction would have great appeal to programmers, math geeks and slashdotters, as well as people generally turned on by jargon-heavy prose and dialogue like "...Sufficiently complex resource-allocation algorithms reallocate scarce resources." You see, I think, for all of us, the appeal of SF is that it presents, for the most part, an optimistic vision of the future. But Accelerando illustrates, if nothing else, that different people certainly have different ideas of what constitutes an optimistic vision. The future this book presents, while some folks' idea of a good time, somehow just isn't mine. Thing is, I don't think it's Stross's either. But it still makes for a book as cold as it is stimulating.
The story presents us with three generations of the Macx family, throughout the full run of the 21st century, at the end of which nothing recognizably human exists any longer, and the solar system itself is home to thousands of space-borne processors in which billions of posthumans live in a uploaded state. Bodies are merely meat machines, obsolete at the best of times. In the first three chapters, Manfred Macx, working in the early part of this century as a "venture altruist," has come up with a way to liberate himself from what he terms scarcity-based economies. He comes up with one brilliant idea after another, and just gives them away to companies to do with what they will. This enables him to live anywhere free, off the goodwill of those whom he's enriched. While Stross makes a number of dire economic predictions that are entirely valid (even uncomfortably relevant in this day and age of two-dollar-plus gasoline), what I found interesting was an undercurrent of naivety in Manfred's ethos: to wit, that nothing he gets is actually free, though it's free to him. Somebody must still be paying for it.
Manfred's goal is to free the entire human race from outmoded economies and make everyone filthy rich so they can enjoy the Singularity when it hits. He also wants new laws in place to protect uploaded humans, which can only exist if old ideas about ownership, copyright, and intellectual property go the way of the dodo. When a group of lobsters (!) serving as test subjects for uploading somehow achieve sentience via the process, Manfred helps them to escape the Earth by beaming them in the direction of a signal emanating from deep space, thought to be of intelligent extraterrestrial origin.
This segues us into the middle third of the novel, in which Manfred's daughter Amber, fleeing from a nasty custody battle between Manfred and her neo-Luddite mother (via the clever use of new pre-Singularity corporate paradigms initiated by Manfred) ends up in Jovian orbit amongst a group of orphans working to decode and respond to the alien signal. This section of the book is where some structural problems blemish the plot, possibly related to its compiled-novellas nature. When Amber's mother tries a tricky legal maneuver to get her back, Amber — within about the space of a page — sets herself up as empress of something called the Ring Imperium, and promptly sends uploads of herself and the rest of her crew in the direction of the alien signal.
Amber should have been a fantastic character, but I could never warm up to her. And her section of the book, despite being no less suffused with spectacular ideas than anything else from Stross's pen, was one I simply couldn't get into — suprising, as it contains an amusing riff on first contact tropes and one or two pointed spoofs of 2001. (Not to mention its last chapter, "Nightfall," was a Hugo nominee.) The final section, involving Amber's son Sirhan, is interestingly the most engaging of the book, considering that it takes place in the twilight years of the century, when only a few "meatbody" humans remain in the solar system. In some of the story's most trenchant observations, we see that posthumans have much the same petty problems as their flesh-and-blood precursors. A dysfunctional family is pretty much the same, whether living today or in the accelerated future.
Longtime readers of this site will know what I mean when I describe a book that I admired immensely but didn't enjoy, a book that's impressive but not very entertaining. Accelerando is an exemplar. The imagination that concocted this future comes from the percolating skull of one of SF's most striking talents. But this is a classic case of idea fiction in which the ideas overwhelm the sense of wonder. While intellectually stimulating, there's no emotional connection. And the combination of reams of tech-talk and a dearth of relatable characters makes this a book whose appeal will be limited to a particular phylum of SF geek. I personally think Stross is doing a far superior job conveying his fascination with economics and market forces in his Merchant Princes trilogy. But I confidently anticipate future novels from him that will knock my socks off.
For now, though...the Singularity, dude? Come on. That is so five years ago.