Singularity Sky - Charles Stross

Reviewed for Usenet (or see Google archive).

Singularity Sky
Charles Stross
Ace Publishers
ISBN: 0441010725 (Amazon link)

I've been hearing Good Things about Charles Stross for a while now, but have never read (or even seen) any of his short fiction. His collection Toast: And Other Rusted Futures has been languishing in my on-line shopping basket for while now, but has been consistently pushed out by familiar authors. After reading Singularity Sky, I think I may have made a mistake in not paying earlier attention to those saying Good Things, and I'm look forward to picking up not only Toast, but also Iron Sunrise and The Atrocity Archive when they appear this summer.

Singularity Sky is based in a post-Singularity future that will appeal not only to Vinge fans, but also in particular to those who like Bank's Culture stories, or the future histories of Ken MacLeod - for reasons I'll come to. The story is predicated on two things: practical close-enough-to-FTL travel and the emergence of the mysterious Eschaton, a sentient AI of scary capability.

The Eschaton, in its own words, is descended from man, exists in the future, and is not a god, but The Big E has a commandment nonetheless - "Thou shalt not violate causality within my historic light cone". The punishment for violating this commandment isn't possible fire and brimstone in the future, but immediate and total destruction by super-nova or asteroid bombardment.

Of course, such draconian reprisal against anyone who might interfere with its own emergence causes the Eschaton a problem; a punishment may, at some time, have to include Earth, and wiping out your own ancestors isn't smart. Accordingly, the Eschaton has provided mankind with an instant diaspora. One day much of the Earth's population vanished. Much later, the first interstellar missions were surprised to find colonies waiting for them - the Eschaton had seeded innumerable colony worlds, and for reasons of its own, didn't always provide a broad cross-cultural population.

One such colony is The New Republic, a decadent pre-revolution Russian world. Whatever the origins of its population, The New Republic is now much closer to Grand Fenwick than their historical ideal, complete with the sort of military where admirals don't retire, even in their advanced dotage where they worry about their legs turning to glass, or being pregnant.

In a world that has deliberately turned their back on modern galactic civilisation and all its benefits it's obviously a threat to be visited by The Festival, an alien interloper of uncertain provenance or purpose, which appears in orbit one day and starts granting wishes in exchange for entertainment. The best entertainment is information, stories, songs, science, art, anything. In return the downtrodden peasantry are catapulted into the post-Singularity modern world courtesy of the orbiting Cornucopia machines. Merely speak into one of the millions of telephones that fell from the sky and, after some bargaining, anything can be yours.

This is particularly relevant to one revolutionist cadre, whose leader, Burya Rubenstein, has the wit to ask for his own cornucopia machine in exchange for, "a post-Marxist theory of post-technological political economy, and a proof that the dictatorship of the heredity peerage can only be maintained by the systematic oppression and exploitation of the workers and engineers, and cannot survive once the people acquire the self-replicating means of production?" Naturally, this overnight post-scarity revolution of the economy and entire social structure scares the hell out of the nobility and a fleet is at once dispatched to deal with the orbiting menace to the status quo. Pity that the New Republic bought its ships more for their militaristic appearance than their effectiveness, something that's made clear to us by the opinions of Martin Springfield, an Earth engineer contracted in to tune their fleet's jump engines. Martin is in the employ of Shadowy Figures with A Hidden Purpose, although he really is an engineer and just plays James Bond on weekends.

Things get more complicated when the UN 'diplomat' Rachel Mansour arrives on the scene, she really is a special agent type, and has been despatched in order to ensure that The New Republic doesn't use Springfield's adjustments to the jump engines to consider doing anything silly, like trying to use a Causality Violation to even the playing field with The Festival, and thereby drawing the unwelcome attention of the Eschaton.

While Stross doesn't exactly play this for laughs, he does play for broad grins, and I found the constant stream of smart, snappy prose, littered with references to other SFnal works, irresistible. Almost every page has a quotable line or dozen, and the author has a fine line in hapless side characters and petty officials. Stross has particular fun with the politics of his situation - I particularly enjoyed Springfield's endless explanation of his political allegiances - and when he's not having fun with that juicy field, Stross is off poking fun at those who delight in techno-babble, with his New Republic's fleet showing itself to be not entirely useless . Of course, these flashes of competence by the fleet only heightens the risk of The Big E needing to take direct action, something Mansour & Springfield are desperately working to avoid, when they can keep their hands off each other! Further manic side-plots about when The Festival is revealed to have Critics, a Fringe and even Bouncers.

Stross' many-stranded plot threatens to get out of control at times, and the breakneck pace never flags, but he has a tight grip on the reins of his story and I was disappointed to find I'd finished this in a single sitting. There's room, but no need, for a sequel (Iron Sunrise?) and while checking for one, I was surprised to see a few reviews saying that this is far from Stross' best work, and even a few misguided souls [1], who didn't like this novel. All I can say is that if this is Stross far from his best, I'm even more excited by his upcoming titles!

Singularity Sky is a hilarious riot of ideas, highly recommended.

[1] Because in any matters of taste, I hold to the sensible view that I am right, and everyone else is wrong!

Posted: Sun - February 15, 2004 at 03:03 PM