Review- Stross, “Accelerando”

Charles Stross, “Accelerando” (2005) (narrated by George Guidall) – One thing that has struck me lately is how, outside of the “New Wave” of scifi in the late sixties through the seventies, scifi will depict the most outlandish developments — often transcending the merely human plane — in fairly conservative ways, literarily speaking. Probably this is a good thing- I’m generally more interested in inventive concepts and gripping plot than I am in literary experimentation. But it is interesting, beyond prose, how often old tropes find their way into these stories of dashing future exploits.

Both family/lineage stories and, to a much lesser extent, monarchy find their way into the posthuman explorations of noted blogger and novelist Charles Stross in “Accelerando,” arguably his flagship work. “Accelerando” started life as nine short stories, linked together by three generations of the Macx family, who experience (and affect) the rapid changes of the twenty-first century. We start with Manfred Macx in a recognizable near-future and as a recognizable near-future (or present) type- the peripatetic internet entrepreneur/techno-hobo, wandering around Europe drinking beers and coming up with “six ideas before breakfast” about how to hack normal economics into post-scarcity, AI-and-human-upload-friendly forms. He makes some deals with some uploaded sentient lobsters to start mining in space, and takes real hell from his dominatrix tax lawyer wife Pamela. Their kid, Amber, does some shenanigans to divorce from her mom, moves to a Jupiter orbital platform as a teen where she eventually makes herself queen, and before long leads a group of other space-teens to an alien communications portal just outside the solar system, or uploads of their brains anyway. The son her left-behind body has, Sirhan, meanwhile tries to write the history of the post-singularity future as assorted post-humans and AIs turn out to want to make the solar system unfriendly to biological life.

There’s a lot going on here. What starts as a hippie-ish dream of “ajambic” post-scarcity gift-economy economics becomes a nightmare of sentient corporations creating “Economy 2.0” and dismantling the planets to make “matrioshka brains,” concentric rings of massive super-computers to run simulations of intelligences forever. This supposedly solves the Fermi paradox of why aliens haven’t come knocking- at a certain point, most advanced civilizations basically upload themselves up their own asses and don’t want to bother exploring away from the good bandwidth. Despite having been on the cutting edge of technology for a century, the Macx clan winds up helping to lead a relatively-technologically-backwards group of humans who want to keep their bodies into forming colonies in deep space, away from their “vile offspring.”

Probably another reviewer would want to geek out over the other technological gee-whizzery Stross comes up with, and there’s plenty of it, much of it very creative, but I want to talk about the underlying paradigm a little. Beyond the family lineage stuff and the space-monarchy (potential birthday lecture topic in future years- a brief history of space monarchies), everything is very rules-based. Getting ahead means hacking the rules. Amber essentially hacks both corporation and sharia law to liberate herself from Pamela, and Pamela hacks sharia right back to try to retrieve her. Manfred’s whole career is finding strange loopholes, creating automated corporations and doing other shenanigans. Sirhan is more conservative, more rules-attached, and by that time the “rules-based order” to borrow a phrase from international relations has gone pretty distinctly anti-human. Force seldom seems to decide anything. Hacking and shenanigans does. When parasitical aliens hijack Amber’s crew in a simulation space, they don’t just threaten to blow up her spaceship once she starts maneuvering against them, which would be pretty easy because it’s just a flying canister with computer-stuff in it. It’s a consistent vision of the future, but one that clearly gelled pre-9/11 and came into full form pre-Trump, and is more than a little eye-roll-worthy. Stross is every basically decent technie nerd that cannot, will not, understand structural conflict, especially between classes, and thinks progress is basically finding the right systems to render conflict irrelevant. He’s far from the worst in that clade and has a sense of humor about the “rapture of the nerds” — it doesn’t really work out — but still. An entertaining yarn with a lot to think about, down to both Stross’s vision and his limitations. ****

Review- Stross, “Accelerando”

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