Toast, Charles Stross

Simon & Schuster, 2004, 227 pages, C$37.10 hc, ISBN 0-7432-3591-6

Well, this is it: the state-of-the-art of the science-fiction genre at the turn of the twentieth century. Perhaps even its future. While other authors are reluctant to face the new possibilities offered by the information revolution, Charles Stross not only embraces strange new tomorrows, but revels in them. Lives in them, one could say. The result of this vision is Toast, a brilliant anthology of short fiction that doubles as one of the best example of what cutting-edge SF has to offer.

If you’ve never read anything by Stross before, be prepared for some concept overload. The title of the book says it all; if the only thing you can think about when you say “toast” is lightly-burnt bread or banquet platitudes, then you may not be the ideal public for this book. Stross’ hacker-jargon “toast” is all about severely damaged hardware or humans shell-shocked by change. Much like your brain once you’ll be done with this collection.

It starts out with a bang, with “Antibodies”, one of the neatest stories of the past decade. Here, a yawn-inducing statement (“someone’s come up with a proof that NP-complete problems lie in P!”) ends up being the harbinger of the end of the world. Our narrator knows this because he’s from somewhere else. Too bad; he had such hopes for this universe.

Other standout stories in the volume include “Big Brother Iron”, a computer-heavy follow-up to George Orwell’s 1984 in which the day-to-day job of sysadmins makes them natural revolutionaries. Clever, much like “Extracts From the Club Diary”, a series of letter chronicling the evolution of a very special group of addicts. Both of those stories skirt the edges of strictly science-fictional content, but their detail-heavy execution, packed with concepts and consequences, is straight from the Science Fiction school of thought.

Direct echoes of Stross’ longer-work resonate through the collection. “Bear Trap” is loosely set in a variant of the Eschaton universe explored in Singularity Sky and Iron Sunrise. “A Colder War” is recognizably from the same imagination that came up with The Atrocity Archives, though in a much darker vein. The same fascination for the H.P. Lovecraft mythos carries through material like “A boy and his god”, a light-hearted story where the title really says it all.

Stross has been an active member of SF fandom for decades (you can find mentions of him in David Langford’s Ansible as far back as October 1984) and it may be no accident if two of the stories in the book take the form of convention reports. “Dechlorinating the Moderator” is amusing if not quite believable, but “Toast” is the stuff pure SF is made of: at a convention of technical enthusiasts, boredom may be the first stage of transhumanity.

It’s not all so cutting-edge, mind you. “Yellow Snow” (1990) has visibly aged, set in an obviously cyberpunk setting with a few extra twists. Not bad, not dull, but its kick now has more to do with nostalgia than anything else. A similar fate is reserved for “Ship of Fools”, a Y2K story that probably worked well when it was published in 1995, but seems overly talky now that this particular crisis has been worked out. The last line is a lovely inside-joke, but it’s a slog getting there.

To be fair, both of those stories are singled out by Stross himself in his fantastic introduction “After the Future Imploded”, a presentation piece that reads like a manifesto for current SF writers. If you’re not convinced that this is an author on the leading front of the SF field, this essay will remove your last doubts. Stross knows the genre, understands what it can be used for, and not-so-secretly delights in the possibilities at his fingertips.

Toast may not be widely available in bookstores, but in terms of impact it’s a welcome throwback to the heady days where single-author short-story collections ruled the SF world. Here we’ve got a collection of excellent stories, unified by a unique vision that masters the tools of the Science Fiction genre and it willing to nudge it forward. It’s heady, brainy, funny stuff: another success for Charles Stross.

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