Novel Review: Accelerando

Some years later, two men and a cat are tying one on in a bar that doesn’t exist. (146)

Charles Stross’s latest novel, Accelerando, puts the quirky author in the running for the 2006 Hugo Award. The plot concerns a technological singularity, posthumanity, alien contact, and a sentient pseudo-cat. It’s a fascinating read, and one which likely could not have been written before the age of the internet.

Those with little interest in computers and SF will likely find it irritating and incomprehensible. As for the rest of us….

Title: Accelerando

Author:Charles Stross.

ISBN: 0-441-01284-1

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We follow a early twenty-first century maverick and his descendants into a future affected by unrestrained developments, which include the downloading of consciousness, nanotechnology, artificial and posthuman sentience, and alien contact.

High Points:

Stross makes his bizarre world comprehensible through clever and often entertaining computer-related analogies. Software, hardware, routers, downloading, internet and gaming avatars et cetera all become analogues for the futuristic technology he envisions. I doubt this book could have been written before the present era, and it certainly would not have had an audience of any size.

This novel examines a possible future and comment son current and long-standing aspects of the human condition. What is identity? The thought of actually separating ourselves into multiple individuals provides opportunities to think about our real-life notions of identity, while speculating on a situation which may one day come to pass.

At one point, the character Manfred Macx loses his glasses, which function as external computer support, and he can barely function. Doubtless this would happen if we became dependent on implants— but does anyone else, in 2006, find their mind functioning differently, perhaps even failing, because these cool things called “computers” can access so readily the answers to most factual questions?

The thug who takes the glasses thinks he’s got a golden ticket to riches beyond his imagination. The problem, of course, is that he doesn’t have much of an imagination. He fails to understand the technology and his base assumptions are ridiculously out of date. While events such as this could happen in the future, they relate it to any number of current events.

Low Points:

1. Stross, like Dan Simmons, throws around more ideas than many writers have in a lifetime, and he follows through on their implications. Naturally, one might expect and excuse a certain amount of Infodump in this novel. The regular updates on the human race’s future history I accepted and enjoyed. However, Stross uses the bolded sections later to explain motivation and backstory, and he frequently tells us things about characters we should have been shown, and in some cases could already guess. Some lengthy dialogues take place (see 172-73 of the hardcover edition) to explain and clarify. He’d do better to tell a smaller part of the story in greater detail. Accelerando is the first of two parts, but by itself it could have been a trilogy.

2. For much of the novel, our protagonists face opponents who are easily defeated.

The Scores:

Originality: 5/6. Other books have addressed the same speculative elements as Stross, but he does so like no one else. Compare, for example, his handling of downloadable consciousness with recent works such as Robert Sawyer’s Mindscan or David Brin’s Kiln People, both of which place artificial restrictions on the technology in order to make their stories work. Stross creates societies where people copy, download, and reboot themselves as we do computer files, and follows through on the implications. He also presents an interesting, if not wholly original solution to the Fermi Paradox. Vernor Vinge and others have postulated the same solution, but Stross pushes the answer further than anyone else I’ve read. He takes us through a singularity, and explains why certain things happen.

First contact happens frequently in SF, but rarely looks as it does here.

The Tuileries are full of confused lobsters.

Aineko has warped this virtual realm, implanting a symbolic gateway in the carefully manicured gardens outside. The gateway is about two meters in diameter, a verdigris-coated orouborous loop of bronze…. Giant black lobsters—- each the size of a small pony—- shuffle out of the loop’s baby blue field, antennae twitching. They wouldn’t be able to exist in the real world, but the physics model here has been amended to permit them to breathe and move, by special dispensation.

Amber sniffs derisively as she enters the great reception room of the Sully wing. “Can’t trust that cat with anything,” she mutters. (180-81)

Imagery: 4/6 Stross creates some strong and memorable imagery. There just isn’t enough of it, relative to excessive exposition.

Story: 4/6. It’s remarkable that Stross successfully handles so many elements of this society and this story without getting hopelessly lost. At times the narrative becomes overly fragmented, but I suppose that reflects the novel’s future-shocked reality. It also reflects the fact that, originally, this was a series of connected stories.

Stross has, however, not completed his tale. He brings about a resolution of sorts, but major plot strands lack a conclusion, because he intends to complete these in his next novel.

Characterization: 4/6 Stross presents many characters and keeps them credible despite pressures and circumstances that conventional writers don’t face. It takes talent to plausibly handle characterization in a world where people have multiple incarnations. Much more could have been done with these characters, and Stross misses opportunities. When the downloaded crew of the Field Circus return, we learn the fascinating fates of their originals in a few paragraphs of infodump. Those stories and their reactions could have been a fascinating, developed part of this novel.

Aineko is the most-developed character, and he/she/it obviously will play a major role in the next one. I don’t know if Aineko’s plotting, revealed in the final chapter, would actually work, but it is in character.

Amber has a lively personality, and the book works well when she becomes the focus.

Emotional Response: 5/6. Accelerando provokes thought and entertains. Stross also includes his expected nerd jokes, including a cameo by H.P. Lovecraft: “some boringly prolix pulp author from the early twentieth, with a body phobia of extropian proportions,” according to Rita (337).

Editing: 5/6.

Overall Score: 5/6

In total, Accelerando receives 32 out of 42

Additional Comments

Stross has never quite lived up to the promise of Singularity Sky, though I enjoyed this one more than Iron Sunrise, and Iron Sunrise wasn’t a bad read. I may have to revise my opinion, however; this book feels incomplete in part because there is a sequel, and the two together may prove stronger than either individually.

The Hugo nominees may be found here. Of the nominated novel, the only other one I’ve read (and am likely to read before the awards go out—with the possible exception of Scalzi’s Old Man’s War) is Robert Charles Wilson’s Spin. Stross’s book has more ideas. Wilson’s book is better written and has more fully developed characters. Given my record on calling the Hugos, it seems most likely that someone I haven’t read will win this year.

The Timeshredder’s reviews may be found here.

One reply

  1. Good Read
    When I read this, it really reminded me of Sterling’ Schismatrix, Ken Macleod’s Fall Revolution sequence and most of Alastair Reynolds’s works. Whereas they all write from a (mostly) post-singularity viewpoint, Stross is exploring what happens right up to the singularity with Manfred (who is arguably the person who created it) and the fallout is experienced through Amber.

    For those of you interested in Accelerando, Stross offers it for download at his blog here (it’s on the right side a little ways down).

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