Spring has sprung and I’m settled back into my job.
With Spring comes turning things around, and I am inaugurating Science Fiction Spring.
As a teenager I threw myself into some of the best of Science Fiction – Star Trek of course, but also 2001: a Space Odyssey and its sequel 2010: the Year We Make Contact were far and away my favourite things to watch.
I tried to get into some of the literature as well: Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End was the Book of the Year for me in Grade 7. I chanced upon C.S. Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet as well, and was introduced in Grade 9 to John Wyndham’s the Chrysalids.
Eventually this slid into my adolescent fondess for dystopia literature, and for many years I was a full-time fantasist. No bad thing, but lately I feel I’ve been neglecting science fiction, excepting Space Opera like Honor Harrington, so I’ve been harrying the interlibrary loan system to make up for this.
Oddly enough, my first destination was one that had a little common ground with Space Opera, and written by the only other sci-fi author I’ve been reading the last few years: Charles Stross, of the Laundry Files. The book is his standalone novel Accelerando.
In the advancing twenty-first century, three generations of the Macx family take it in their turn to live through the huge and rapidly snowballing changes in technology and society. As humans begin to live more and more in virtual worlds and nanotech networks, the Macx’s and their comrades struggle to stay ahead of the wave and forsee the consequences of the upcoming Singularity, the unification of human consciousness and computerized intelligence.
Accelerando does take place in space and at the same time serves an example of a particular genre of science fiction which I’ve never previously had much luck with: Cyberpunk.
In a family solidly populated with avid readers of cyberpunk godfather and part-time oracle William Gibson, I’ve never been able to acquire a taste for it. Partly this is because the genre tends to lean heavily on a combination of future-slang and computer jargon that is at best difficult to make sense of unless you have a far greater grounding in the technological sciences than I can claim.
As I’ve sat here thinking about it, I find that the problem I’ve had with the little cyberpunk I’ve experienced to date – “Shards of a Holographic Rose,” Blade Runner, Johnny Mnemonic, and “Burning Chrome” – is that I seldom have a sense of a ‘big picture’ as anything more than a backdrop for a protagonist to do things that only mean anything to themselves. They have a bleak sense of a society that has become so advanced that it has paradoxically stagnated and nothing the protagonist achieves ever seems to matter in the big scheme.
An unfair perception, I’d imagine, but one that’s made it that much harder to develop any emotional investment in cyberpunk, and I end up staying in the more idealistic if less plausible franchises like Honor Harrington and Star Trek.
Stross does have the benefit of a very clear and accessible writing style, and unlike Gibson he doesn’t intentionally make the dialogue into a puzzle. He also has brief expository segments interspersed through the text to establish the larger context of what is happening around the characters (these usually also mark a timeskip) before zooming in and seeing their progress.
It also isn’t confined to the gungy, nigh-apocalyptic megacities I usually associate with the genre. It starts in vital old cultural centres on Earth like Amsterdam (I’m beginning to suspect that Amsterdam and Russian-accented malaprops named Boris are things Stross puts in all his books) and migrates into the outer Solar System and beyond.
More importantly, as posthuman intelligences proliferate, the characters race to keep their independence from the expanding ‘Matrioshka Brains’ swallowing the inner planets. They even venture out to the stars seeking clues as to what humanity might risk by this path.
Like many sci-fi classics like Nineteen Eighty-Four or Foundation, the book is meant in large part as an essay about the possible future of humanity. Stross is more adept than most at making sure that interesting characters are the ones relating these ideas to us, and making us care that they make it and succeed. At the same time, it isn’t a stodgy, conservative anti-technology tract, being much more moderate and merely against allowing our advancement to plateau out and stagnate.
That said, the characters are not exactly ‘normal’ humans by today’s standards. They begin by maintaining internet ‘exocortices’ that let them expand their brain’s processing power and mentally surf the internet. By the end, it becomes difficult to tell, even for them sometimes, whether they’re living in a virtual envrionment or a flesh-and-blood body, and even whether they are really the person they think they are, or merely a construct or a self-made copy of that person.
Like a lot of cyberpunk I’ve encountered, it doesn’t present a particularly comfortable vision of the future, but unlike the sense I get from, say, Blade Runner, I don’t feel with Accelerando as if it’s too late to do anything. Indeed, the ending note is one of the triumph of human feelings and free will.
Part of the power of the story is that, while I suspect even our rapidly advancing technology will take longer than the timeframe of this book to approach ‘Singularity,’ if one were to happen, it nevertheless feels disquietingly possible. Would we ultimately cast aside our very humanity in the quest for ever more bandwidth?
I still struggle with the jargon at times, but because some of the subject matter deals with posthuman entities, it’s probably fair to say that you’re not meant to understand some of what’s happening, because it’s essentially unknowable.
Stross, then, has created a story where voyages through space and interesting characters merge with a cyberpunk morality tale to create a story which has broadened my horizons while being so kind as to meet me partway. Unusual, memorable, challenging, a good reentry into science fiction literature!