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Book cover art by Danilo Ducak (left).
Review © 2003 by Thomas M. Wagner.

The "Singularity" referred to in the title of Charles Stross's often exhilarating debut novel is a postulated moment — which some, like Vernor Vinge, claim could happen while this century is still young — when technological advancement becomes so rapid that, if you were to graph it, you'd basically see a line shooting straight up without stopping. (The process is called "hyperbolic growth.") It is thought this could take place with the advent of the first AI that outpaces human intelligence, and that has self-replicating abilities. Such an AI could create an even smarter AI, and so on, and so on, to the point where no mere mortal can keep up with it all and we enter a truly posthuman age. This could either be everyone's Matrix/Terminator nightmare come true, or it could usher in a transhumanist technotopia where humans have potentially immortal lifespans and the universe is suddenly at our doorstep. Or — most likely — it will change things in a way no one can possibly predict.

Of course, not everyone believes the Singularity will transpire as the transhumanists envision it, and one of those skeptics is Stross. Singularity Sky is a novel that speculates on what a post-Singularity future might look like, and Stross's execution is literally all over the place. His book is a bizarre hybrid of political satire, religious allegory, future-shock jeremiad, and shoot-from-the-hip space opera. Stross's story trades on virtually every idea the transhumanists and extropians are batting around right now, but I'm not sure that this is a book likely to make them happy.

The backstory involves the advent of the Eschaton, a vastly powerful AI that barged into humanity's affairs in the early 21st century as advances in quantum computing were starting to pose a threat to causality. The Eschaton says it is from humanity's future, and it intends to impose draconian punishments against any causality violation (the kind which the Eschaton itself clearly used to get to us) to safeguard its own existence as well as the fabric of the universe itself. It then forcibly migrates 9/10ths of the human race to distant ready-made colony worlds in order to retard the rapid growth of technology.

Right away you can pick out a Matrix-sized paradox here: clearly the Eschaton exists, which means it was eventually developed, and so is it really trying to prevent its own creation and possible destruction at the same time? It's a curious inconsistency that Stross actually could have played with thematically in a fun way. But he has other fish to fry.

One of the colonies is the New Republic, which has formed a feudalistic, Luddite culture in which all advanced technologies are banned — except if you're in the ruling class, and even they frown upon the really advanced nanotech from Earth. Into this backwater arrives the Festival, a spacefaring upload civilization whose origins Stross intriguingly never fully explains. The Festival are like the Borg, yet oddly both benign and destructive at the same time. A race of disembodied "infovores" traveling through space seeking knowledge and communication, the Festival promises the downtrodden peasants of the New Republic whatever they want (making initial contact by raining telephones, an unknown technology, down on them) in exchange for "entertainment."

Overnight, the New Republic experiences a Singularity of its own that its people are wholly unequipped to handle. Chaos ensues, and the Republic's leaders, completely failing to understand the Festival in any way, assumes a military posture. They plan to attack the Festival, and do it using proscribed, causality violating technologies that could put them at risk of retribution from the Eschaton. But in their ignorance, they just don't know what they're up against, nor do they take the consequences of their actions seriously.

Stross has got more ideas brimming in his head than most people get in a lifetime, but I wish he were a little better at organizing them into his narrative. As I stated, the story is all over the place; Stross wants this to be a book of Big Ideas, but he also wants kickass space battles. He's good at the idea stuff, but doesn't write the space opera content with nearly the confidence of such contemporaries as Peter Hamilton or Iain Banks. In fact, the battle scenes are the book's most tedious, simply consisting of bridge crews shouting things like "Torpedo range in six-zero seconds" and "Minus zero-three seconds" back and forth. He's much better at the political satire, though occasionally his humorous allusions are a bit self-conscious. I picked out obvious pop-culture references to Monty Python and Dr. Strangelove, but it will be a savvy reader indeed to whom the name Ilya Murametz means something.

The scenes on the beleagured New Republic planet of Rochard's World, where the excesses of a populace having gone from horse-and-buggy technology to unrestrained advancements without any of the intermediate steps have literally wrecked the landscape, are a tour de force of imagination. I particularly got a kick out of the Critics, fringe members of the Festival who take odd physical forms and wander about commenting on all they see.

I would have liked to have seen stronger characterizations. Rachel Mansour, a UN representative from Earth with a hidden agenda, and Martin Springfield, an engineer who is actually a spy (whose employer is dead easy to guess) get all of Stross's attention in the characterization department. Other characters are drawn out only as far as the story needs them, and a few, like the senile Admiral of the New Republic's attack squadron, are pure caricatures (though they are funny). As eye-opening as the scenes on Rochard's World were, from a "what's he gonna do next?" perspective, they still could have engrossed me more had I known and cared more about the real people involved. An example of this sort of thing done very well would be the plight of the colonists of Lalonde in Hamilton's The Reality Dysfunction, though I can well forgive Stross for not wanting to turn in an 1,100-page book.

It seems there are a couple of ways you could interpret Stross's themes in Singularity Sky. On the one hand, with the Eschaton looming over humanity like a wrathful God (and it never plays a major role in the story, a smart choice), it seems as if Stross is doing a cutting-edge hard SF redux of the biblical tale of the Tower of Babel: if we try to overstep our bounds, move too far too fast, we stand to get smacked down. But in the end, I think all he's trying to say is that the Singularity, if there's even a chance of its happening, would not be the gateway to utopia some dream of; that there's a reason for technology to have a learning curve; that to give just anyone the chance to have anything they want without any thought to value or consequences is not really the best thing you could do for them. It's a point well taken.

So even though Singularity Sky is a problematic book in more ways than one, it's still one you should add to your reading list. Charles Stross is an author who is going places. And I'm eager to see where he leads us next, especially after he's smoothed over some of his rough edges.