Review: Accelerando, by Charles Stross

Publisher: Ace
Copyright: July 2005
ISBN: 0-441-01284-1
Pages: 390

If you've been reading current science fiction, and particularly if you've been reading the discussion around current science fiction, you've probably heard of the concept of the Singularity. If you haven't, briefly, it's the idea that technological development is an exponential curve, which means that technological change will keep getting faster and faster until it vertically spikes. This is the Singularity, since beyond this point whatever exists afterwards will probably be incomprehensible to those of us who live on this side of the spike.

The Singularity is an interesting idea in future extrapolation. It's a difficult idea, however, for fiction. The author is postulating inhabitants of their fictional world that the reader is, by definition, incapable of understanding. Even more challenging, it's a science fiction setting that's indescribable. Normally, science fiction thrives on description, extrapolation, and explanation, but since the Singularity is incomprehensible, there is no hope of a pay-off through final explanation of the world after it. Fantasy deals with this sort of situation routinely, but usually relies on mythic resonance and poetic justice to help the reader understand creatures and situations that may not have a literal explanation. It's hard to apply those techniques to science fiction and not have it end up feeling like Star Wars.

In this fixup novel of nine short stories previously published in Asimov's, Charles Stross tackles writing about the Singularity head-on, runs into many of these problems, and only partly overcomes them. He does steadfastly avoid going mythical with the story and keeps Accelerando in the realm of relatively hard science fiction the whole way, which wins points for effort. On the other hand, he dodges writing about the Singularity directly, taking the same route Vinge did in Marooned in Real Time and writing about the people who were left out of the Singularity for one reason or another. The result is a lot of fun in places, a great speculative romp, but also unsatisfying.

This is not the sort of fixup that feels like it naturally could have been a novel. It's very obvious that each chapter of this book was originally a separate short story; I've not read the original stories, and I'm sure they've been integrated somewhat, but Accelerando is more a collection of tightly linked short stories than a single story. This has some advantages: the novel as a whole retains the much faster pace of short story fiction. The ideas and speculation come fast and fierce, and Stross knows computers, information theory, and science well enough to write some engaging speculation. He also doesn't think small: computer-assisted thought, ubiquitous AIs, uploading of human and non-human personalities, post-Singularity economics, runaway intelligent corporations, interstellar travel in a tiny probe, multiple copies of the same person, and alien civilizations fill this book at short story density. It's a wild ride, but characterization suffers. Stross does three generations in less than 400 pages, and while some of the characters are interesting and likeable, none of them get more than short story characterization; the supporting characters don't even get that.

The weakest part of this book is definitely the first three chapters. Manfred, a gift-economy inventor and contributor to the free patent foundation, has a variety of mostly meaningless adventures that serve primarily to illustrate a slowly increasing rate of technological change and introduce the reader to computer-assisted cognition. Manfred isn't a bad character, but his life is driven by disfunctional and not particularly interesting romantic relationships and some of the plot devices are a little too blatant. (For example, given the personal identification technology that's clearly available, how could his cognitive assistance device be stolen and used by someone else that easily? It sets up a story that makes interesting points about identity, but the setup is hard to swallow.)

Thankfully, once the focus shifts to Manfred's daughter Amber, Accelerando becomes far more interesting. I enjoyed the middle section of the book the most by far, even if the resolutions still betray their short fiction origins with their abruptness. She's the most interesting and most fully-fleshed character of the book, and I was engrossed by her attempts to get free of her mother and her mission to a nearby router of a galactic network. Her chapters also have the best interactions with the AI Aineko (enigmatic post-Singularity AIs make excellent cats).

Unfortunately, the end of the book falls apart a little. The political struggles surrounding Amber's return aren't as engrossing, and I found the last chapter distinctly unsatisfying and burdened by an ending that made no emotional sense to me. Stross also sets up multiple mysteries that are directly related to the Singularity -- what the post-Singularity intelligences around the Sun are doing, where the alien router network came from, what's going on in the distant galaxy with its strange heat output -- all of which are left unresolved at the end of the book. This may just mean that sequels are coming, but one of the serious problems with the whole Singularity theory is that it's likely the answers to those questions should be incomprehensible to the reader. Unsatisfiable curiosity isn't a great ending note for this sort of book.

Many reviewers have raved about Accelerando, and it does do some things well. Amber is an excellent character, Stross's future speculation is genuinely interesting and hangs together well, and his style and the constant references to information theory and ubiquitous computing create the sense of alienation, of looking at the world in new and fresh ways, that characterizes radical technological change. Even with the roughness from being a fixup, it's a good bit of hard sf. Still, I think Stross's earlier Iron Sunrise was a better novel, despite being less ambitious. Accelerando also falls well short of the standard set by Karl Schroeder's exceptional Lady of Mazes, which contains less technological speculation but more philosophy, stronger characters, and a much more coherent story. Accelerando is still worth reading, and I expect it will garner a Hugo nomination, but both fixups and Singularity fiction are hard. Trying hard things is a hallmark of good writers, but even good writers aren't always successful.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Posted: 2006-01-08 16:30 — Why no comments?

I don't know why i view the concept of the Singularity with such skepticism. I don't find it interesting, and i can't imagine how it could even be ascertained in a meaningful sense.

Posted by rone at 2006-01-08 18:18

Yeah, it's not horribly interesting to me either in basic concept. Some of the bits of speculation that come with it (uploaded personalities, the social aspects of accelerating technological change, the question of whether one can always understand one's children) I find interesting, but the basic concept of a discontinuity in our ability to understand ourselves I find inherently unappealing at some aesthetic level.

Sometimes I think that means it's an idea I should challenge myself with more, but novels and stories based on the idea have been very hit or miss with me.

Posted by eagle at 2006-01-09 15:08

Last spun 2013-07-01 from thread modified 2013-01-04