Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Viva Extropia

What would happen if a black hole formed in your ass? It's a fun little question to ponder - what with tidal forces and the curvature of spacetime interacting with the curvature of yo' big fat ass - but it's strictly theoretical. A black hole is not going to form in your ass, so while the question is interesting it's utterly meaningless.

Similarly, there's Singularity Sky by Charles Stross. I picked it up in the library while looking for more Dan Simmons to drool over and while it has some pretty glaring issues I want to talk about the fun stuff first.

Set some billions of billions of miles from Earth in a future where the far future had its posthuman way with the past, a backwater planet ruled over by a star-spanning empire gets a surprise uplift from visiting space cyborgs. And while that's the big picture of what happens it never feels as confusing because Stross has mastered that most elusive skill of speculative fiction writers - he only tells the reader what they need to know of his ginormous imaginary world to appreciate this one specific story. For the most part... There's some dips into infodumps later on but they're in the context of characters explaining themselves to other characters so it goes down a little easier.

What stands out - and is quite clever - is how Singularity Sky contrasts two of the most popular subgenres of science fiction: the transhuman singularity - in which increases i n computing power turn everyone into immortal Olympians - and the battles of deep space navies, where all the malarkey of the Age of Sail gets recycled in spaceship form. The heroes come from a transhumanist Earth where everyone is augmented to Hell and back and super science has made traditional hierarchies at best quaint... But then they're dropped into the universe of Honor Harrington taken to its logical and terrible extreme. Royalty, misogyny, and cultivated ignorance rule the New Republic, complicating matters for the two leads as they wish to bone without first getting married. They have other motivations of course - plot motivations - but the romantic comedy aspect is a little overt...

Fortunately, that all gets shoved aside once The Festival arrives. A really brilliant creation - alien and familiar all at once, wreaking havoc without understanding, laughing god children like in the opening sequence of Robot Carnival. It drops super-science replicators down on the feudal backwater I mentioned earlier, turning the strict social order inside out and terrifying the leadership back on the homeworld enough to launch a time-jumping expeditionary fleet so that the outer space cyber-psychosis doesn't get out of hand and inspire something crazy like women's suffrage. The heroes are along fro the ride, providing snarky commentary as a traditional Space Navy encounters a force that operates on more modern understanding of physics.

But what holds Singularity Sky back is that it is at heart evangelical writing. It's trying to win converts to a particular Theory of Everything - and not the fun physics sort. Rather, the book and Stross himself present an argument for a sort of post-scarcity technolibertarianism which while appealing relies too much on fantastical hardware that doesn't exist and so is currently untenable. Whatever message could have been conveyed about the freedom of information and how an informed citizenry terrifies governments - like how access to Wikipedia has smashed the two party system - is lost in so much speculation on the level of what I opened this post with.

Stross also fires off standard libertarian boilerplate, like taxation being slavery, as a matter of course. Now maybe that's the way it feels to him, living under the tyranny of a functional and free health care system, but us rugged individualists in the free market frontiers are more likely to get squeezed dry by a private bank - or our own employers - than by a public institution.

It's a very 1984 thesis in a brave new world where 1984 never happened. And it's a real shame because Stross has a better prose style than Alastair Reynolds. His ideas are just bollocks.

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