Books by Stross, Charles

Stross, Charles. Accelerando. New York: Ace, 2005. ISBN 978-0-441-01415-6.
Some people complain that few contemporary science fiction authors work on the grand scale of the masters of yore. Nobody can say that about Charles Stross, who in this novel tells the story of the human species' transcendence as it passes through a technological singularity caused by the continued exponential growth of computational power to the point where a substantial fraction of the mass of the solar system is transformed from “dumb matter” into computronium, engineered through molecular nanotechnology to perform the maximum amount of computation given its mass and the free energy of its environment. The scenario which plays out in the 21st century envisioned here is essentially that of Ray Kurzweil's The Age of Spiritual Machines (June 2011) with additions by the author to make things more interesting.

The story is told as the chronicle of the (very) extended family of Manfred Macx, who starts as a “venture altruist” in the early years of the century, as the rising curve of computation begins to supplant economics (the study of the use of scarce resources) with “agalmics”: the allocation of abundant resources. As the century progresses, things get sufficiently weird that even massively augmented human intelligences can perceive them only dimly from a distance, and the human, transhuman, posthuman, emulated, resurrected, and multithreaded members of the Macx family provide our viewpoint on what's happening, as they try to figure it all out for themselves. And then there's the family cat….

Forecasts of future technologies often overlook consequences which seem obvious in retrospect. For example, many people predicted electronic mail, but how many envisioned spam? Stross goes to some lengths here to imagine the unintended consequences of a technological singularity. You think giant corporations and financial derivatives are bad? Wait until they become sentient, with superhuman intelligence and the ability to reproduce!

The novel was assembled from nine short stories, and in some cases this is apparent, but it didn't detract from this reader's enjoyment. For readers “briefed in” on the whole singularity/nanotechnology/extropian/posthuman meme bundle, this work is a pure delight—there's something for everybody, even a dine-in-saur! If you're one of those folks who haven't yet acquired a taste for treats which “taste like (mambo) chicken”, plan to read this book with a search box open and look up the multitude of terms which are dropped without any explanation and which will send you off into the depths of the weird as you research them. An excellent Kindle edition is available which makes this easy.

Reading “big idea” science fiction may cause you to have big ideas of your own—that's why we read it, right? Anyway, this isn't in the book, so I don't consider talking about it a spoiler, but what occurred to me whilst reading the novel is that transcendence of naturally-evolved (or were they…?) species into engineered computational substrates might explain some of the puzzles of cosmology with which we're presently confronted. Suppose transcendent super-intelligences which evolved earlier in the universe have already ported themselves from crude molecular structures to the underlying structure of the quantum vacuum. The by-product of their computation might be the dark energy which has so recently (in terms of the history of the universe) caused the expansion of the universe to accelerate. The “coincidence problem” is why we, as unprivileged observers in the universe, should be living so close to the moment at which the acceleration began. Well, if it's caused by other beings who happened to evolve to their moment of transcendence a few billion years before us, it makes perfect sense, and we'll get into the act ourselves before too long. Accelerando!

July 2011 Permalink

Stross, Charles. Singularity Sky. New York: Ace, 2003. ISBN 978-0-441-01179-7.
Writing science fiction about a society undergoing a technological singularity or about humans living in a post-singularity society is a daunting task. By its very definition, a singularity is an event beyond which it is impossible to extrapolate, yet extrapolation is the very essence of science fiction. Straightforward (some would say naïve) projection of present-day technological trends suggests that some time around the middle of this century it will be possible, for a cost around US$1000, to buy a computer with power equal to that of all human brains now living on Earth, and that in that single year alone more new information will be created than by all of human civilisation up to that time. And that's just the start. With intelligent machines designing their successors, the slow random walk search of Darwinian evolution will be replaced by directed Lamarckian teleological development, with a generation time which may be measured in nanoseconds. The result will be an exponential blow-off in intelligence which will almost instantaneously dwarf that of humans by a factor at least equal to that between humans and insects. The machine intelligences will rapidly converge upon the fundamental limits of computation and cognition imposed by the laws of physics, which are so far beyond anything in the human experience we simply lack the hardware and software to comprehend what their capabilities might be and what they will be motivated to do with them. Trying to “put yourself into the head” of one of these ultimate intellects, which some people believe may emerge within the lifetimes of people alive today, is as impossible as asking C. elegans to comprehend quantum field theory.

In this novel the author sets out to both describe the lives of humans, augmented humans, and post-humans centuries after a mid-21st century singularity on Earth, and also show what happens to a society which has deliberately relinquished technologies it deems “dangerous” to the established order (other than those, of course, which the ruling class find useful in keeping the serfs in their place) when the singularity comes knocking at the door.

When the singularity occurred on Earth, the almost-instantaneously emerging super-intellect called the Eschaton departed the planet toward the stars. Simultaneously, nine-tenths of Earth's population vanished overnight, and those left behind, after a period of chaos, found that with the end of scarcity brought about by “cornucopia machines” produced in the first phase of the singularity, they could dispense with anachronisms such as economic systems and government, the only vestige of which was the United Nations, which had been taken over by the IETF and was essentially a standards body. A century later, after humans achieved faster than light travel, they began to discover that the Eschaton had relocated 90% of Earth's population to habitable worlds around various stars and left them to develop in their own independent directions, guided only by this message from the Eschaton, inscribed on a monument on each world.

I am the Eschaton. I am not your god.
I am descended from you, and I exist in your future.
Thou shalt not violate causality within my historic light cone. Or else.

Or else” ranged from slamming relativistic impactors into misbehaving planets to detonating artificial supernovæ to sterilise an entire interstellar neighbourhood whose inhabitants were up to some mischief which risked spreading. While the “Big E” usually remained off stage, meddling in technologies which might threaten its own existence (for example, time travel to back before its emergence on Earth to prevent the singularity) brought a swift and ruthless response with no more remorse than humans feel over massacring Saccharomyces cerevisiae in the trillions to bake their daily bread.

On Rochard's World, an outpost of the New Republic, everything was very much settled into a comfortable (for the ruling class) stasis, with technology for the masses arrested at something approximating the Victorian era, and the advanced stuff (interstellar travel, superluminal communication) imported from Earth and restricted to managing the modest empire to which they belong and suppressing any uprising. Then the Festival arrived. As with most things post-singularity, the Festival is difficult to describe—imagine how incomprehensible it must appear to a society whose development has been wilfully arrested at the railroad era. Wafted from star to star in starwisp probes, upon arrival its nanotechnological payload unpacks itself, disassembles bodies in the outer reaches of its destination star system, and instantiates the information it carries into the hardware and beings to carry out its mission.

On a planet with sentient life, things immediately begin to become extremely weird. Mobile telephones rain from the sky which offer those who pick them up anything they ask for in return for a story or bit of information which is novel to the Festival. Within a day or so, the entire social and economic structure is upended as cornucopia machines, talking bunnies, farms that float in the air, mountains of gold and diamonds, houses that walk around on chicken legs, and things which words fail to describe become commonplace in a landscape that changes from moment to moment. The Festival, much like a eucaryotic organism which has accreted a collection of retroviruses in its genome over time, is host to a multitude of hangers-on which range from the absurd to the menacing: pie-throwing zombies, giant sentient naked mole rats, and “headlaunchers” which infect humans, devour their bodies, and propel their brains into space to be uploaded into the Festival.

Needless to say, what ensues is somewhat chaotic. Meanwhile, news of these events has arrived at the home world of the New Republic, and a risky mission is mounted, skating on the very edge of the Eschaton's prohibition on causality violation, to put an end to the Festival's incursion and restore order on Rochard's World. Two envoys from Earth, technician Martin Springfield and U.N. arms inspector Rachel Mansour, accompany the expedition, the first to install and maintain the special technology the Republic has purchased from the Earth and the second, empowered by the terms under which Earth technology has been acquired, to verify that it is not used in a manner which might bring the New Republic or Earth into the sights of the Big E.

This is a well-crafted tale which leaves the reader with an impression of just how disruptive a technological singularity will be and, especially, how fast everything happens once the exponential take-off point is reached. The shifts in viewpoint are sometimes uneven—focusing on one subplot for an extended period and then abruptly jumping to another where things have radically changed in the interim, but that may be deliberate in an effort to convey how fluid the situation is in such circumstances. Stross also makes excellent use of understated humour throughout: Burya Rubenstein, the anarcho-Leninist revolutionary who sees his entire socio-economic utopia come and go within a couple of days, much faster than his newly-installed party-line propaganda brain implants can adapt, is one of many delightful characters you'll encounter along the way.

There is a sequel, which I look forward to reading.

February 2011 Permalink