Posted by : atcampbell | On : January 23, 2007

Accelerando by Charles Stross

On January 23, 2007 the FACT reading group discussed Accelerando by Charles Stross. Everybody in the reading group has read at least some part of Accelerando. About 2/3 of the people finished it. Others were planning to finish. Everybody has read Charles Stross before.

The common opinion is that Accelerando is too discontinuous to be called a novel. The stories that make up Accelerando revolve around the same set of characters, but there is no plot arch to unify them. Some readers didn’t like this. Others found unexpected advantages in this structure: it made the novel as a whole not predictable. A reader said “You had no idea where Stross was going [with the story]. It was not predictable. It was a slow read, because you don’t want to flip to the end. It wouldn’t make any sense. It’s not like it all comes together.” This unpredictability may naturall follow from the fact that the overarching narrative of Accelerando is, in the words of one reader, a narrative of ideas. It had hardly anything to do with any of the characters. And because of that, some readers thought the “infodumps” — the passages in bold print where the technological revolution taking places in the Solar system is recapped in a format of a popular science essay ! — were some of the most interesting passages in the book, and contained the most beautiful writing.

Yet everyone agreed that the characterization in Accelerando was nowhere near as good as in Charles Stross’ some other work. One reader said it was a sad comment that by far the best character in some of the later stories was Aineko, the AI cat.

But the mediocre characterization is more than compensated by innovative ideas, which Accelerando is chockfull of. The readers were most impressed by:

  • Charles Stross’ portrayal of the technological Singularity. A reader said: “He’s taken a good swing at the issue that a couple of other writers have taken a stab at. There’s a running debate among writers and readers whether it’s possible to write about the Singularity. Vernor Vinge explored in how many different ways we can postulate the possibility of Singularity, and then write around it. Like in Marooned in Realtime, where some people stepped out for lunch and weren’t there when it happened. Some other people have tried writing about posthuman cultures living on the edge of transcendency. Karl Schroeder has taken a stab at it a couple of times. Some of Stross’ other works were about humans living in a shadow of transcendency. This was writing from the experience of the people who lived through it, not from the innermost core — you can’t really write that story, but about humans who lived more or less human lives in the shadow of that event.”
  • Stross comes up with an answer to the Fermi paradox. If alien civilizations are out there, how come we haven’t seen signs of any? In Accelerando, as the humankind goes through Singularity and converts the Solar system into computronium, they discover that if they were to travel in space, they won’t have enough bandwidth. So they stay where they are.
  • On a lesser scale, people were amused by Stross’s lawyer humor. A reader said: “I thought one little detail was really wonderful: when Amber was a queen of her little piece of rock around Jupiter, and her legal system required combat to solve lawsuits. And Pierre was, thank God, I don’t know any martial arts! We’re gonna upload some martial arts thing and kill each other. And she said, no. You get to choose the weapon, and the weapon I want you to choose is some kind of economic profit-making scheme! I thought it was a cute point.” Stross provides similarly humorous treatment of various today’s annoyances, such as spam, pyramid schemes, and IRS. Another person said: “[Stross] really must have a thing against taxes, because the IRS agent, Manfred’s wife, is the most horrible human being, the worst character I had run into in a long time. There’s nothing good about her, except that she’s good at her job.” Pamela’s character must be memorable indeed, because another reader ! said she asked Stross (when he was in Austin for ArmadilloCon) “if his potrait of Pamela was how he saw the US and the American people. At that time America was engaging in activities sort of like Pamela was: if you don’t give it to me, I’ll take it!” But Stross said, no, that wasn’t what Pamela was supposed to represent.

Some people thought that parts of Stross’ futuristic vision were too sketchy. Especially Economics 2.0, which, many readers agreed, was explained in no more than a hand-waving fashion. You can read more about it in this review on my web site.

Everybody acknowledged that this book is not for mass audiences. Its extremely high “geek quotient” prompted such comments as these:

  • It definitely is rapture of the nerds.
  • You have to have a background in sciene fiction to understand it. Mainstream book clubs shouldn’t read it. Stross is not pandering. Well, he’s pandering to a geek audience. If you’re not reading science fiction and you’re not getting any of this, he doesn’t care.
  • It’s definitely written for a SF computer nerd. Specifically, computer science SF nerd. 90% of reference he makes are computer science references that’s he’s playing around.

Somebody also observed that despite being set in the future, Accelerando is very closely tied to today‘s technological and pop-culture landscape: “I’m not sure you can understand if you don’t read Dilbert and Slashdot. I’m not sure if a bright person who’s not from that community would understand it.” Which may be seen as a drawback for this book, as it unnecessarily narrows down the audience that might be able to enjoy it otherwise. For the same reason the book may not age well, as in 20 years Dilbert references may be obsolete.

–Elze Hamilton