Monday, May 7, 2012

Accelerando by Charles Stross

Sorry about the lack of material, but I’ve been on vacation, which means that I actually had a chance to do some reading, but I’ve also been trying to dig my way into and out of my work obligations and haven’t had a chance to do a lot of writing, either.

Anyway, this was one that I read during my lovely and relaxing trip (to Ireland, which I’d recommend visiting; even their talk radio is awesome.  I could listen to those people speak all day long).  I’d been meaning to get around to it for a while and it seemed like good traveling literature, in the sense that I figured it was the sort of thing to read when I didn’t have just a whole lot of other options about what to do.  Not to harsh on Stross here or anything, but this material was pretty difficult to work with and I can’t really say that I really enjoyed it as such.  Nonetheless, I’m happy that I did stick with it because it was actually quite rewarding.  Eventually.

As it turned out I’d read the opening chapter of this book before in one of the Dozois collections, although I think it had been slightly modified for flow purposes.  After returning, I discovered that it had originally been published as nine separate short stories which do have something of an overarching narrative structure.  However, there is occasionally a bit of variance in the characterization between the stories and it can be a little bit hard to keep up.  For instance, Sirhan, the main character of the last three stories, is the son of Amber Macx and Sadeq Khurasani, major protagonists of the middle three.  However, the versions of Amber and Sadeq that we follow in their narratives didn’t get involved in any relationship, as they were forked versions of the individuals in question who were off doing galactic exploration in digital format while their physical bodies stayed home.  The explorers didn’t even really like each other all that much.  Imagine the surprise to come home to child support demands.

In the Singularity, this sort of thing happens all the time.

The characterization is also all over the place from chapter to chapter; sometimes characters really won’t like each other, and other times they will.  There’s also quite a bit of tension between different variants of people, for instance one version will be successful and another will be a failure.  Family reunions in the Singularity are no easy task either.

Describing “what happens” in this book is actually sort of pointless, since there is actually an amazing, outlandish amount of stuff that occurs.  Since I’ve been keeping this blog I find myself outlining reviews as I read novels now, and about halfway through I realized that summarization would be not only pointless but would cause my brain to explode.  So let’s just say that over the course of this novel the entire solar system with the exception of the sun is disassembled to form a computational framework called a Matrioshka brain, which is powered by the entire output of the sun, and is inhabited by various weakly-godlike intelligences.  These intelligences amuse themselves by constructing simulacra of people like H.P. Lovecraft and perpetrating complex financial schemes against each other.  After about the fifth chapter no one even bothers explaining what these entities want or what their objectives are, it becoming apparent that anyone who doesn’t want to become a digitized entity in the Matrioshka systems better get the hell out of Dodge.

The first couple of chapters could basically happen in the world we’re familiar with, even if everyone is a bit wired up and by the second chapter folks are keeping their memories outside their bodies to an increasingly large extent.  Still, the ideas just get thrown out there left right and center just to see if anything sticks; sentient lobsters running on old Soviet NT servers! Dominatrixes with encyclopedic knowledge of the Internal Revenue Code! Mind-jacking through tooled-up spectacles!  It just keeps coming.  Even the dismantling of the Solar System is just one of those things, it's happening in the background, nothing to see here.

In some senses this is rather silly.  In other ways the metatext is much more interesting than what’s actually on the page.  I’ve mentioned the Fermi paradox before – with all the planets, where’s the life?  Alastair Reynolds answered this question by postulating that there’s a malevolent force out there that wipes out the life, and the life that does survive ends up hiding as a consequence.  In this book it’s suggested that the end result of tool-using is the creation of the digitized environment, and that it’s more of a bandwidth issue that it’s not detected.

The post-humans who are running in virtual format don’t like to leave home, you see.  Everything’s going so fast in there that they have to keep going full out to not get left behind entirely, which means that they aren’t really interested in exploration.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that the purpose of this book is actually a veiled critique of a lot of other post-scarcity utopian SF.  We don’t know what the digitized entities are up to exactly, but we do know that they’re running something called Economics 2.0 in there, which to an unaugmented sort of person is like Charles Ponzi crossed with every fictional riverboat gambler.  Some of the space explorers run into something similar in an alien computational framework and are lucky to escape without themselves being turned into a sort of virtual currency and obliterated.  It’s implied that the end state of a bunch of tool-using civilizations is to eventually be engulfed by their trading programs, since the processing power of the Matrioshka brain isn’t infinite, and these programs manage to trade for computational cycles and storage space.  What they want with that is to obtain more cycles and storage.  There’s no real end goal, it’s just that they’re really good at doing that, so they keep on going until they acquire it all.  Then they have nothing to do but wait for other rubes to show up and try to cannibalize them.

It would be easy to dismiss that as silly, but think of all the people right now on non-fictional Earth who die every day for lack of clean drinking water while computers trade stocks at one another.  The idea that similar programs might simply dismantle the planet out of pitiless indifference and different priorities isn’t that silly.  Also the idea that we’ll ever be able to have “enough” of any resource is questionable, and I’m interested to see Stross challenge that thought.  I'm not sure it's exactly a "take that" to anyone in particular, but I think it's quite reasonable to see it as a counterpoint to some stuff by Iain Banks, Vernor Vinge, or Greg Egan, which deal with similar sorts of scenarios in slightly more positive lights.

So I’m glad that I read this before some weakly godlike intelligence caused a vacuum metastability event, but it wasn’t the easiest read ever.

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