Friday, July 5, 2013

Cyberpunk Book Review: Accelerando

Source: Joonas Sildre
This novel, which was originally a series of short stories, contains so many far-flung concepts that culminate into full-fledged galactic vistas by the time Charles Stross decided to stop writing that I have to believe even the most hardcore tech-savvy nerds looking for a stimulating read would be impressed. Actually, if the nerds of Earth could crown a king, it'd probably be this dude. Aside from hard sci-fi novels and stories, he's invented Advanced Dungeons & Dragons monsters and published articles about the game, used to be responsible for the monthly Linux column in Computer Shopper magazine and has also been both a successful programmer and pharmacist. Lock up your daughters.
Source: Locus Magazine Online

But wait, the title of this post looked vaguely interesting, you say to yourself, but you're not really into that kind of stuff. Well, friend, neither am I. I don't claim to know anything about anything about Dungeons & Dragons OR Linux. I'm not good enough at math to make it beyond basic calculus, either; that's for sure. I'm an art and language kind of person. But that's the beauty of it: this guy is also a fantastic writer with a strong, clear voice and the ability to effortlessly string together more choice words than you recall ever having to look up with a constant stream of innovative concepts and highly technical jargon without coming off like a pretentious jerk. After reading this novel, my ego isn't even in pain after having been unequivocally bested at not only what I'll never even attempt to fully understand, but also at what I thought I was good at. If everyone was as smart as this guy, we'd be a lot further along as a species. I feel sure of that.

The most concise plot synopsis I can muster in my excited state is going to contain some spoilers, but something that introduces revolutionary ideas every other paragraph as a form of plot progression can't really be ruined by the premature introduction of comparatively mundane details.

First of all, there are 9 short stories divided into 3 parts, and the name of the first part, "Slow Take-Off", lulls you into a completely false sense of security. Manfred Macx is a venture altruist who thinks so far into the future that most everyone else in what is supposed to be this decade can't even wrap their heads around how he exists. He's altruistic in that he comes up with patentable ideas as often as every few seconds, uses a dense smokescreen of shell corporations, aliases and legal knowledge to protect them and himself, and makes them available to the public for free via the Internet. Companies and individuals - even the Italian Socialist Party - seek him out when they need his help solving a complicated problem, and in return for what he usually sees as a simple solution that requires minimal effort, these entities fund his life. Plane tickets, hotel rooms, hardware, drinks, clothes, whatever. He doesn't pay for anything. He thinks in terms of a post-scarcity economy in which resource allocation and capitalism are obsolete, so he doesn't work or pay taxes, just lives comfortably on the gratitude of his clients as somewhat of a legend. 

Pamela, his severe, dominatrix IRS official of a significant other, really hates that. It pisses her off. This is an era in which America is no longer an influential superpower, but some people - like her - try to hang on to the old ways of doing things, I guess in an attempt to go down valiantly with the idealistic ship. Pamela's extremely intelligent, but just believes that Manfred is obligated to use his gifts to contribute something concrete to the relatively free market capitalist society that spawned him. They've got an odd relationship that, for a couple hundred years anyway, ends in a divorce Manfred settles financially outside of court by signing over the rights to the (probably countless) corporations he's created to freely distribute all of the 20th century music he could find that wasn't spoken for by the Mafia, which stringently and violently controls it now in place of obsolescent record companies. Being a high-level government employee, there's no legal or ethical way for Pamela to get around this and actually collect the billions of dollars being passively taken in, though it's totally legit on paper. Trololol.

Later on, through means I won't reveal, those two lovebirds have a daughter named Amber who uploads herself onto a starwisp - an ultra-lightweight unmanned space probe - whose mission involves space mining, to escape the suffocating clutches of her mother. This is where it really starts speeding up and getting weird. You're going to miss Manny and wish he was still skullfucking you. Amber and the other kids aboard the Field Circus - who are technically slaves but will be handsomely compensated for their service once they come of age - are exact, thinking, functioning, informational copies of people. I'm not even sure where their "meat bodies" even were or what they were doing on Earth for the duration of the starwisp's lengthy voyage through the solar system. As time goes on, though, the technology that Manfred once used in the form of an extremely expensive pair of glasses (Google Glass, anyone?) to rapidly collect, process and display information upon thought request becomes a standard series of brain implants that become increasingly sophisticated through the stories. People can appear as whatever they please: clothing is an act of will and whim, and the Russian kid on the starwisp even favours a velociraptor as his avatar for quite some time. 

Later, people can spawn ghosts, or alternate, intelligent, searching selves, to work out all of the probable and possible outcomes of situations for them before they make decisions. It's never again certain how much real, "wall clock" time is passing; everything is measured in kiloseconds, megaseconds, gigaseconds, etc. Whether or not a technological sigularity has occurred and when, if it has, are debated for the rest of the sojourn as the solar system becomes more intelligent and microprocessors outnumber and eclipse the processing power of all the human neurons in existence. 

Amber remains in space for the rest of the story, never returning to Earth in any form the reader's acquainted with. She lives a fantastically bizarre life around Jupiter before Manfred finds out about and informs her of an alien signal received from a point adjacent to a brown dwarf, a type of super low mass celestial body. It turns out to be a router, built and left behind by an alien civilisation of unknown origin and intent. Amber and a number of others decide to upload themselves into the router, leaving behind copies for backup. 

Source: ITSF
The relationships she has with a French-Algerian boy who was also aboard the Field Circus and an Iranian holy man are a little too complicated to get into, but Amber finds out when she returns that her backup entity, or eigenself, has a child named Sirhan with the stoic, philosophical Middle Easterner, which completely throws her for a loop. What's even worse is that he's really bitter and suing her and what's left of the empire she had constructed before leaving, having lived through many full lifetimes before he was even a teenager as his parents simply hit the 'reset' button over and over hoping to get a result that more closely matched their preconceptions. It's not like Amber doesn't already have enough problems: they've brought back a copy of an extinct alien slug parasite with them from the router, and all they managed to find out was how ill-prepared humans are to participate in what they come to call Economics 2.0, in which life forms and information are used in too-complex-for-unaugmented-humans-to-fathom trade agreements that further status and access in the universe. It's turns out we're not alone, anyway; we just didn't have enough bandwidth to communicate with demigod extraterrestrial intelligences before we started dismantling the planets to turn their dumb mass into computronium. 

Geeze, I haven't even mentioned the cat. The robotic cat is the key to all of it.

Honestly, while reading about the voyage of the Field Circus and Amber's Ring Imperium, I wished the story of Manfred Macx had been its own novel entirely. It's not so much that the whole thing became too crazy for me to enjoy so much as I as just thought that the first part was the best one. It's the closest to our current time and the most relatable, but completely amazing. I had to read the first chapter in two sittings and found myself constantly putting down the book to pause and absorb what I had read. A reference to "President Santorum's America" placed in this decade, for example, seemed more shockingly prophetic and less coincidental than it should have given the visionary abilities of the author, and I stared at the wall for a while wondering if it would be possible for a British man to actually call something like that ten years before. I know it's not even remotely likely, but I still wouldn't put it past him. 

If you're looking for a mind-expanding departure or challenge that, as my favourite review snippet on the back cover so accurately pinpoints, "makes hallucinogens obsolete", you've got to read this. And the best part is, in the true spirit of his first protagonist, Stross has made this epic work available for free online, so you have no excuse not to.

Check out the various free eBook formats of Accelerando on Charles Stross' blog, as well as the back story of the novel.

(Originally published 3.28.12)

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