Survivor

Jun. 4th, 2005 06:03 pm
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The final part of Accelerando has, at least compared to the previous two frenetic installments, a peaceful, almost elegaicl feel. Time and place are uncertain and possibly irrelevant now; we might be ten years further on, or a hundred, and humans live in the spaces between the stars, in the shadow of posthuman grandeur. The cast is thinned: various family members are off exploring or dead.

But Aineko--now a fully-fledged posthuman, so sophisticated that it can fully emulate a dead human just by remembering her--is back, because it needs a copy of Manfred to virus-check some suspicious communications. The catch is that after performing this task, the copy will be destroyed.

So the cycle comes full circle, focusing the moral issues of personhood that it's been circling for the past four hundred pages onto a simple choice. Given that Stross has spent much of that time granting increasing equivalence to the many life-variants that populate his future, it's no small deal. In a real sense, Manfred is being asked to condemn a person to death. And so, to the last, Accelerando refuses the easy options. This choice provides a sense of closure, but it's explicitly acknowledged to be artificial; anything else, for this story, would be inappropriate.

Elector

Jun. 4th, 2005 04:37 pm
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Manfred is back, and with him an eye on the big picture: not the preservation of life, of course, but the preservation of information. The talk in Elector is of escape, from the posthumans who would dismantle what remains of the solar system. It's particularly pleasing that the characters ask the obvious question: if they leave, isn't it all just going to start over? Isn't singularity - change - simply a quality of human life?

Much of the entertainment in the story comes from the insanely complex world. Stross' characters small-talk about high math because it's sometimes the only language they have to describe their lives (it's very literal writing; not much in the way of metaphor). They are a soup of personality offshoots, reconstructions and clones, and it's impressive that they never become a blur. Even when there are many versions of a character in play, the relationships between them are clear.

Elector is the most political of the stories, and in many ways also the most melodramatic. At this point most of the Macx alan are present, correct, and physically human, bringing with them the whole mess of biological tries and confusions that characterise that state. Living in the world is messy, and Elector reflects that mess. Events are too complex even for Manfred; there's too much history, too many networks, and too much that's now outside of human control. It's good work, but I'm surprised it garnered a Hugo nomination - if it stands alone, it does so only barely.
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From the FAQ in Elector, p314-5:
Money exists, and is used for the usual range of goods and services, but the basics - food, water, air, power, off-the-shelf clothing, housing, historical entertainment, and monster trucks - are free.
None more zeitgeist!

Curator

Jun. 4th, 2005 02:41 pm
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Meet Sirhan: Macx generation three, son of Amber-that-stayed, living on a floating city in the upper atmosphere of Saturn, arranging a family reunion - and to sue Amber-that-went for a couple of decades of maintenance.

Accelerando is a future history on a compressed timescale, in which earlier generations are still around to heckle their descendents. Nowhere is this clearer than in Curator. The whole story has a feel of taking stock; the fastest transition period is over, and we're in a fully-imagined future.

Each story looks backwards as well as forwards; history happens on the interface between old developments and new ideas. Sirhan himself is more interested in preservation than innovation. To survive, he proposes to sell history to the future; and in the process, he plans to create a family history.
"An old-fashioned book covering three generations living through interesting times," he suggests. "A work of postmodern history, the incoherent school at that - how do you document people who fork their identities at random, spend years dead before reappearing on stage, and have arguments with their own relativistically preserved other copy?
This is the start of the real meat of the book; the ideas dancing towards conclusion. Not just how can you record this type of world, but how can you live in it at all?

Nightfall

Jun. 2nd, 2005 06:17 pm
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It's the 2050s, but there isn't a recognisable world to describe. Most of the inner solar system has been dismantled, converted to computronium to provide digital playgrounds for posthumans. A version of Amber watches this from Jovian orbit and the relative safety of her Ring Imperium. The other version of Amber, the alien-chaser, has woken apparently far away and downstream of her previous incarnation. Her alien hosts want her to defuse a hostile intelligence - which turns out to be Aineko, Manfred's robotic cat, many upgrades down the line.

Nightfall is probably my least favourite of the stories. In the context of the novel it improves, but not that much. It trades too much on its virtuality (Matrix riffs and all - how sf will eat itself!) and never overcomes the lingering suspicion that none of it matters that much.

The answer to the Fermi paradox is neat, and the implications for narrative in a world of inconstant identity are interesting, but in this story neither is fully explored. Perhaps the problem is that events back home, in the belly of the singularity, seem more interesting, but are given less time.

But here, in a lull, ends part two. And here ends my posting for the day, probably, since I'm almost at Glasgow. I should get through the last three stories over the weekend.

Router

Jun. 2nd, 2005 05:09 pm
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Router is the midpoint of the sequence. It's trying to do more things, and as a result is the longest story so far. Amber has gone exploring; meanwhile the solar system has reached the moment of maximum change. There's definitely some flab, but also some passages where the scope of the narrative really hits you:
"Here we are, sixty-something human minds. We've been migrated - while still awake - right out of our own heads using an amazing combination of nanotechnology and electron spin resonance mapping, and we're now running as software in an operating system designed to visualise multiple physics modules and provide a simulation of reality that doesn't let us go mad from sensory deprivation! And this whole package is about the size of a fingertip, crammed into a starship the size of your grandmother's old walkman, on its way to plug into a network router created by incredibly ancient alien intelligences, and you can tell me that the idea of a fundamental change in the human condition is nonsense?"
The amazing thing is that the journey is so smooth. Everything does knit together, and you don't realise how far you've travelled. You just accept things like the complete irrelevance of biological sex because you've seen the steps that lead to it. It's a rare achievement.

Halo

Jun. 2nd, 2005 03:40 pm
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In most books, you'd have a sense of the world by this point. You might not know all the rules, but you'd have a general idea. But then, most books aren't trying to provide the sort of historical perspective that Accelerando is. In this book, the rules keep changing, and you have to learn again.

Meet Amber, Manfred's daughter by his estranged wife Pamela. At this point, shortly into decade three, she's a teenager; and she lives, with a bunch of other postindustrialists, on the orphanage ship Ernst Sanger, en route to Jovian orbit. Things are changing faster now. Halo is the story of how Amber escaped her mother's custody, and how she maintains her independence.

So it's about separating the new from the old. Amber is native to this future in a way that even Manfred wasn't - she grew up with the sort of metacortex he developed over time. And so, asserting independence from her parents goes with asserting independence from their systems; adapting or discarding them as she needs, to make the world her own. This is Amber's coming of age.

Tourist

Jun. 2nd, 2005 02:21 pm
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Tourist may be my single favourite part of the Accelerando sequence. Another few years, another jump: now we're in Scotland, just shy of the start of decade three.

On one level, this is a book about the relationships between humans and the systems we create and embed ourselves in. Economic, emotional, political systems. By this point Manfred has become a broker between ideologies, but he's also something new himself. His identity is distribute, large amounts of his processing power located outside his skull. In his glasses. And at the start of Tourist, he gets mugged.

The most fascinating thing is not so much watching what Manfred loses as what his mugger gains. In a real sense, he starts to become another Manfred. This is the way Accelerando moves one of its key themes to center stage for the first time: what is an identity, when you can be copied, distributed, rebooted?

By the end of the story, Manfred is confronting his own obsolescence. He's exhausted, on the edge of conceptual burnout - as are the systems he spent his life trying to escape. It's time for something new.

End of part one.

Troubadour

Jun. 2nd, 2005 12:38 pm
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I'm at King's Cross, eating a bagel and waiting for my train. Manfred is in Milton Keynes, and Rome, and three years further into the future. He's struggling through a messy divorce and trying to stay ahead of the curve.

Let's talk about language. This is a book written in geek idiom. It's idea-dense; jagged; never a short word where a longer but more precise one will do; and funny. It's hard to read without an involuntary grin spreading over your face. If cyberpunk was noir, this is brilliant technicolour.

And there's that omniscient voice, the source of mysterious explanatory interjections into the narrative, our guide -
Welcome to the early twenty-first century, human.

It's night in Milton Keynes, sunrise in Hong Kong. Moore's law rolls inexorably on, dragging humanity toward the uncertain future. The planets of the solar system have a combined mass of approximately 2x10^27 kilograms. Around the world, labouring women produce forty-five thousand babies a day, representing 10^23 MIPS of processing power. Also around the world, fab lines casually churn out thirty million microprocessors a day, representing 10^23 MIPS. In another ten months, most of the MIPS being added to the solar system will be machine-hosted for the first time. About ten years after that, the solar system's installed processing power will nudge the critical 1 MIPS per gram threshold - one million instructions per second per gram of matter. Beyond that, singularity - a vanishing point beyond which extrapolating progress becomes meaningless. The time remaining before the intelligence spike is down to double-digit months ...

Lobsters

Jun. 2nd, 2005 11:44 am
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Accelerando, if you don't know, is the umbrella name for a near future short story sequence, written by Charles Stross and published in Asimov's over the past few years. Now the stories have been edited together to make a novel.

The first thing that strikes about it is how absurdly, unashamedly cool it is. Vernor Vinge has blurbed it as 'a sustained work of radical optimism' and, at least at first glance, he's right. This the future as a good place, as geeks might want it to be.

Meet Manfred Macx, meme-broker. He gives away ideas for a living, and as a result doesn't need money. He thinks 'very long term - at least twenty, thirty years' (and in the process anticipates the overall plot of the novel). The rest of the world might be hung up on capitalism, but he's living in a whuffie economy already. That, and the glasses, is probal why, in my head, he looks like Cory Doctorow.

The novel begins with Manfred arriving in Amsterdam to make someone else rich. He has a busy couple of days; among other things, he establishes a legal precedent and helps a bunch of uploaded lobsters escape from humanity's light cone. And this is just the start.
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Today, an experiment. Or as the Blues Brothers might put it:

It's 406 miles to Glasgow. I've got a proof copy of Accelerando, a full day of travel ahead, I'm a geek, and thanks to my futurephone I can post to the internet whenever I finish one of the stories.

Hit it!

P.S. If anyone could explain to me what Vin Diesel is doing on the cover of the UK edition, that'd be grand. All told, I think I prefer the US cover.

P.P.S. I think 'This is the kind of science fiction that scares normal people' is an even better blurb than 'This book was super-awesome super-good'.
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Everyone knows what space opera is. Right? It's the public face of science fiction, for starters: spaceships and space battles, exotic planets and alien peoples. Star Wars and A Fire Upon The Deep. In short, it's one of the most traditional forms the genre can take. In the past couple of years, though, there has been some fuss about something called 'new space opera'.

definitions )

farscape: the peacekeeper war )

iron sunrise by charles stross )

exultant by stephen baxter )

the algebraist by iain m banks )

battlestar galactica: the mini-series )

conclusions )

Some people eat ice-cream as displacement activity, you know. Me, I write four and a half thousand words about space opera. Go figure.

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