Wednesday, December 21, 2011

2006 Locus SF – ACCELERANDO by Charles Stross

Am I really supposed to take this singularity thing seriously?  Really?  Advanced AIs and a proposal to Von Neumann factory the moon out of existence, set in the 2010s? Like theology, the sort of techno-optimism that proponents of singularity back is fun to talk about, but it can quickly and effortlessly segue into the ridiculous. Stross’s saving grace is that he doesn’t seem to take the singularity seriously either. I get the impression that he is a believer, but this novel is about 30% serious speculation and 70% running wild with speculative concepts. I do like that Accelerando embraces the ridiculous. I just wish it had embraced plot and character with equal fervor.

This is especially true in the first part, where we have at least some contemporary reference points to ground us. The novel begins with Manfred Macx, a man filled to the brim with tech ideas, but, due to a general dislike of wealth, he usually gives them away to make other people rich. He also has a lot of conflicts with his dominatrix/wife Pamela. He helps to kick off the rapid push towards singularity by sending software copies of lobster brains that have collectively achieved intelligence into space. From there, we get this accelerating technology developing through singularity. Stross occasionally interjects with a summation of the latest changes; by the 2030s, the solar system and the human lifecycle begin to become unrecognizable. From there we get a generational epic. Manfred’s daughter Amber explores an alien wormhole network, his grandson Sirhan works with other family members to try to find an independent niche in the new solar system, copies of the original generation pop up, and the family robocat, Aineko, has a fairly big role to play in everything.

Where does all this wacky speculation leave character and plot? Nowhere to be found, really, as might be fairly obvious from that vain stab at summarizing them. Manfred has some presence (though even he’s straight out of a Warren Ellis comic). Everyone is either so dull, on the one hand, or so wild unpredictable, on the other, that I couldn’t really tell you anything about them. The fact that there’s no plot is underlined by the fact that there’s no end. Maybe the sequel Glasshouse carries things to a more satisfying conclusion, but this novel just peters out.

Also, going back to our old accessibility discussion, this book . . . no. Not at all. Stross throws out concepts at a dizzying speed, and he rarely stops to explain them. Do you know what a Von Neumann machine is? A Matrioshka brain? I did, but I barely kept up. I don’t really see the reason to not define terms like these. One of the great things about sf is the “sense of wonder,” and I guess that’s what Stross is shooting for with this assault of Big Ideas. However, Big Ideas have dimishing returns, as far as I’m concerned, and the Idea-per-page highwire act in this book got boring for me by the mid-point. When the characters spend all of their time discussing how much computing power there is in the solar system and how very impressive that is, it’s hard to care about anything.

A whole lot of writers in this decade, and, from what I’ve seen, Stross may be the worst offender, are working to make science fiction a more insular conversation. If you don’t have a solid grounding in foundational texts and you don’t follow the right science news sites, don’t bother showing up. And people wonder why readers are turning to fantasy and steampunk?

So, if you are the type of reader who’s up-to-date on sf terms and concepts, especially relating to the singularity, and you’re more interested in Big Ideas and being amused than plot and character, I think you’ll have a great time with this book. Obviously, lots of readers have. Otherwise, go nowhere near it.

Grade: C+

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