[Accelerando by Charles Stross, Ace, 2005. 389 pp. ISBN 0-44101-284-1]
Accelerando is the latest novel from Charles Stross, the novelization of a series of nine stories that appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine between June 2001 and December 2004. Reading this multi-generational story of post-humanity in dense but digestible chunks every few months was one experience. Reading it all at once is quite another. When I read my first Charles Stross novel, Singularity Sky, I found myself mildly disappointed that the exuberance of his short fiction was somewhat diluted in the longer form. In Accelerando, I got my wish, and the result is both exhilarating and exhausting.
Stross displays a cynicism and absurdist humor comparable to that of Douglas Adams. And, as with Adams, the former attribute is tempered by his appreciation of the latter. Comparing Stross’ science to Adams’, however (and the late, great Mr Adams might appreciate the comparison), is like comparing a shiny new interstellar drive to an electric pram. Adams was no scientific slouch, but he tended to make fun of science. Stross makes fun with science. Think of the hard-SF cred of Stephen Baxter, Damien Broderick or one of the Gregs (Egan, Benford, or Bear) channeled through the gonzo hallucinations of Lewis Carroll or Samuel Taylor Coleridge — or Frank Zappa, for that matter.
Readers of Stross’ earlier “Eschaton” novels (Singularity Sky and Iron Sunrise) will recognize the same big concepts at the core of Accelerando: the various possibilities of post-humanity, both in “meatspace” and virtuality, and the technological singularity at the end-state of human affairs. In the universe of Singularity Sky, both the post-humans (such as the uploaded civilization called the Festival) and the post-singularity entity known as the Eschaton are externalized and largely incomprehensible Others. In Accelerando, the reader is thrown right in with the post-humans and left there to sink or swim. (Mind you, if you want to read one of the most meticulous accounts of relativistic warfare available, pick up Singularity Sky).
In Accelerando, even the most recognizable actors are several iterations more advanced than humankind as it stands today. Almost everyone in Accelerando is post-human, not only physically augmented and permanently online, but mentally integrated with virtuality and able to create and reintegrate virtual avatars that increase their processing power exponentially. Accelerando’s humans are more alien than most authors’ aliens. (Many of them are more alien than Stross’ aliens, in fact.)
The Eschaton of Singularity Sky is styled as an Old Testament-style God: omniscient, interventionist, and generally benevolent (at least where its interests coincide with its human antecedents’), but not averse to a bit of striking-down-upon-thee-with-furious-anger and turning people into pillars of salt. The Vile Offspring, the wonderfully named post-singularity entities of Accelerando, are off-stage actors and only really explored by proxy, but they are far more complex and far more disturbing than any self-fulfilling wannabe Yahweh from the future.
While the Vile Offspring remain off-stage, the sequence of events leading to the singularity, as well as its aftermath for those remaining outside, aren’t. These are the heart of Accelerando and, post-human actors notwithstanding, it is a thoroughly human story — with all the angst, betrayal, irrationality, misunderstanding, selfishness, love, lust and general weirdness one might expect.
While Accelerando has a broad streak of evolutionary determinism in its narrative of civilization — and the author’s cynicism about humanity’s present condition notwithstanding — Stross displays a Promethean optimism for our species’ future. Namely, that human ingenuity will overcome humanity’s problems. Unlike many technophiles, though, Stross is aware of the whole Promethean myth. (While the mortal Prometheus stole fire from the gods and thus kick-started human civilization, the man himself got nailed to a mountain so vultures could rip out his perpetually renewed entrails.) Accelerando can therefore be seen as a complete Promethean tale.
Accelerando is not an easy read. Stross had me reaching for the dictionary a number of times. And I still don’t know what “steganographic” means, or even if it’s a real word. Before starting, I recommend brushing up on your quantum physics, statistics, neurology, psychology, astronomy and the pointy-ends of information, communications, and artificial intelligence technologies. And read Damien Broderick’s The Spike. And some Vernor Vinge. And maybe George Dyson. And Susan Blackmore’s The Meme Machine, or at the very least, Chapter 11 of Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene. . .
Or, (like me) you could just dive in and be delighted and befuddled in roughly equal parts.
Stross displays a maestro’s disregard for writerly conventions (and either a similar disregard or a very high regard for his readers). Whatever “expanding” may have been done to turn this series of shorts into a novel, it hasn’t tempered the episodic nature of the narrative. Huge chunks of the characters’ lives and Stross’ future history are skipped, then backfilled with shameless infodumping. Like Adams, when Stross is funny, this works. When he isn’t, the infodumps read like a futurologist’s grocery list.
Stross technobabbles more densely (but more credibly) than the crew of the Enterprise confronted by a subspace anomaly. In places, the jargon, acronyms, and geekspeak fly faster than bullets from a minigun. He switches POV all over the place and picks up and drops characters as if they’re Bond girls. He holds didactic conversations on the definition of singularity and the anachronism of the economics of scarcity (for example). He withholds critical information from the reader (he gets away with this one because the withholder is a cat, and it’s the sort of thing a weakly-godlike cat would do). He writes in the present tense.
And that’s just the style. As to the content, at times, Stross bounces all over the place like a demented racquet ball. At other times, he dissects ideas and issues with the precision of a surgeon’s scalpel. And, very often, these two different times turn out to be the same time. A plot thread in which uploaded sapient lobsters seek to defect from human-dominated virtuality digresses in rapid succession into the nature of the very-long term (20 to 30 years), why the Russian government persists with Microsoft (because it’s convinced that if you have to pay for software, it must be worth something) and cat food advertising. It then turns out to be a deeply ethical discussion on the rights of uploaded consciousnesses (copyrights or citizenship rights?).
Accelerando sucks you in and drags you along for the ride. Why? First: for the sheer exuberance of it. Second: for the ideas. Stross scatters ideas through his work the same way lesser writers scatter adjectives. Etherware metacortices, sapient pyramid schemes, atomic holography, interstellar travel powered by Jupiter’s magnetosphere, cloud cities on Saturn. . . okay, George Lucas did this one already, but he just made it look cool, not plausible. Admittedly, I use the word “plausible” advisedly. Stross’ speculations are often so out-there one isn’t certain where the boundary lies between scientific possibility and confidence tricks.
Stross answers the Fermi paradox and explains how one might travel between the stars in a spaceship the size of a Coke can. The ideas aren’t all his, but he pursues them with verve, originality and, generally, considerable rigor. (One curious omission is the author’s lack of engagement with the physiological consequences of long-term habitation in zero or micro gravity.)
I’ve seen both Singularity Sky and Iron Sunrise referred to as space opera — including by Stross himself. If that’s the case, then Stross’ approach to space opera is much the same as Terry Pratchett’s approach to sword and sorcery. One might similarly accuse Accelerando of being cyberpunk. Certainly, it has a punk heart — even if one isn’t sure how much to read into the use of “mirrorshades” in one of the early episodes. I find it difficult, though, to append such a relentlessly innovative work to a literary movement that burned brightest 15–20 years ago. Perhaps it’s reasonable to say Stross is a cyberpunk like Jackson Pollock was a painter.
Segueing cleverly: Accelerando warrants comparison with its cyberpunk predecessor, Neuromancer. Like Neuromancer, it may well turn out to be a genre-changing work. But, also like Neuromancer, in 10 or 20 years time, people may well be reading (or uploading) it and responding with: “Yeah, I can kinda see what all the fuss was about, but it’s not that great as a book.” By then, everything Stross is writing now will be conventional parlance or even (if his Prometheanism is justified) lived reality. Right now, to paraphrase the author himself, Stross is writing 30 seconds ahead of the future curve. Now is the time to be reading this book.
Of course, with Accelerando, Stross stands on the shoulders of Vinge, Egan, Gibson, Bear, Broderick, Dyson, Neal Stephenson, Ken Macleod, and others. Perhaps most of all Ray Kurzweil, in the way his singularity unfolds. He acknowledges them with the language of “computronium,” “Matrioshka brains,” “Dyson spheres,” “future shock” and (my favorite, from Macleod) “the Rapture of the nerds.” And he does what one should when standing on the shoulders of others: reaches further. Stross takes the concepts of those who have come before and bangs them together to get new and interesting sparks. Few other authors have, I think, speculated so graphically about the ultimate evolutionary fate of post-singularity intelligences.
Accelerando is exhilarating because of the yawning gulf between it and much of the rest of the SF genre. Stross is one of a handful of current authors (some of them named above) who are genuinely pushing the boundaries of what it is possible to imagine in science fiction. He has liberated, here, a substantial space for other writers to populate and seeded it with fertile ideas. Accelerando is audacious, flawed, brilliant and hard work to read. But not nearly as hard as Ulysses. And it’s a lot more fun.