Fiction Reviews


Accelerando

(2005) Charles Stross, Orbit, 6.99, pbk, 433 pp, ISBN 1-841-49389-9

 

It is the early 21st century and Manfred rides the technological and science boom dispensing free (or for favours) entrepreneurial ideas in his wake as he tours the World. But he is not an altruist for he is playing the long-game, setting the stage helping the 'singularity' of development unfold. Then his robotic cat unravels a message from the stars while Manfred himself prepares humanity for a push to get the economy into space. The consequences of all this will transform the World, the solar system and even humanity...

Accelerando is a new wave, hard SF, post-cyberpunk tale right at the cutting edge of the genre that has, in case you did not know it, already attracted considerable critical acclaim. It has already been short-listed for the 2006 Hugo, the BSFA Award, and the Locus Award for Best SF novel which it won. Consequently it will not be too surprising if, by the time you read this, it will be a 2006 Hugo Award winner, though it is up against stiff competition. So you do not need to take my word for it that this book is a masterpiece, as each of the afore awards are voted on by a mass of readers (not a tiny panel) be they members of the Worldcon, the BSFA, or Locus readers.

Having said this, Accelerando is not for the faint-hearted. It is so jam packed with concepts and ideas by the page that the plot almost, but never quite, gets submerged. Here a warning to the potential reader, don't get lured on by the feast of sense-of-wonder; you need to take your time in reading this one to get the full benefit. Easing matters, each of its 9 chapters is virtually a self-contained story, indeed some of these I've seen in print before in Asimov's SF and also in some anthologies such as The Mammoth Book of Best New SF 16: I suspect that nearly all these chapters have been in print before, but with Accelerando the whole is most definitely greater than the sum of its parts.

As for the whole Accelerando is in effect a take on the idea of a singularity in human development. A concept whose peripheries Vernor Vinge explored in his 1984 and 1986 novels that were later compiled into Across Real Time (1994). The idea is that technology advances to such a level that it takes off by itself. An example might be computer circuitry design being first assisted using computers (as it is now), and then later actually designed by computers themselves. Ditto computers assembled with robotic assistance (as now) and then in the future completely assembled by totally automatic systems. Humans become increasingly sidelined and ultimately can become out of the equation altogether. Apply this across all technology and science, including biology, and you have development at such a rate that society can barely keep up. (This is arguably already beginning to happen as we struggle to find an appropriate ethical stance to applying biotechnology, genomics, data protection vs. freedom of information, etc., etc...) This is the singularity being explored (and not 'black holes', which in SF terms is so 1970s). However Vinge hid his singularity in mystery with his protagonists riding through it (in stasis) to come out the other side in a world absent of indigenous humans. With Accelerando Charles Stross takes us through the singularity and it is quite a ride of Stapledonean proportions.

Having said that, Accelerando is a take on the singularity and its implications regarding what it means to be human. For example, is a person uploaded into cyberspace human? What rights to they have or even artificial intelligence especially if they are our intellectual superiors and the fate of biological humans depends on them? If you are the sort of reader who seeks meaning and social relevance in SF books then this is where much of it can be found in Accelerando. As for the idea of humans transforming themselves, the planet and the inner solar system within the 21st century is, of course, pure SF.   Or is it? In music 'accelerando' means to play at an ever-increasing rate. Certainly in the 20th century a number of things such as global population growth, energy consumption, and the number of university science graduates grew at an ever increasing or exponential rate. (In fact the early 20th century saw population grow at a super-exponential rate -- the log of population was not a straight line (which would mean exponential growth) but itself an upward curve!) And as for changing the planet, well a reading of current biosphere science academic literature points to our planet approaching 'thresholds' (what Americans call 'tipping points') that can broadly be considered as points of no return. (My strong suspicion is that in a few years time (certainly within a couple of decades) this will be both publicly and politically acknowledged, but I digress...) What this means is that there is allegorical social relevance to Accelerando. However for me the joy is in the thematic journey through a wealth of ideas and hard science, whimsical speculation (if this last is not oxymoronic).

Aside from the densely packed plethora of concepts, there are a number of references to SF.   '"To boldly go where no uploaded metahuman colony has gone before" has a certain ring to it, doesn't it? Manfred nods to himself.'   to take but one obvious example. Accelerando has its fun moments. The cat too is great.

The science is also well researched, though remember it is SF and Stross is not shy in speculating where discoveries might be made. For example he talks of species and evolution making a speculative statement about insects. In the run up to this he cites a number of perfectly correct facts which I know he must have either spent some time checking or had a biologist on tap, but then seamlessly runs into the speculation. Unless you really know the specialist subject you'd be hard pushed to tell where the fact basis ends and the speculation begins. (Which reminds me I really must Google 'Beckenstein' to see if there is any basis to the 'Beckenstein limit' he cites. (Perhaps you can tell I'm not a physicist.)) This blurring of science fact and fiction is the stuff of science fact and fiction concatenation. (As opposed to the ghastly practice of portraying of science fiction as fact: you know, with aliens abducted my neighbour blah, blah, blah). Such detail takes time, so not surprising in the book's introduction the very first thing Charles Stross says is that this novel took him five years to write and that that was a personal record. Well all I can say is that it was well worth it. No rush with the next one now...

Jonathan Cowie

A shortened version of this review has appeared in the SF Contact newsletter.

Click on the following link for a previous review of the earlier hardback edition: Accelerando .


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