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Thursday, July 28, 2011

Reading List: Accelerando

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!

Posted at July 28, 2011 21:26