Accelerando, Charles Stross

Ace, 2005, 390 pages, C$35.00 hc, ISBN 0-441-01284-1

(Also freely available online at accelerando.org)

This book should come with warning labels.

This book could melt your brain (and that would be a good thing.)

Caution! Content requires some mental assembly.

Warning: High density of ideas. May explode.

Danger: This book dissolves outdated assumptions about science-fiction.

Do not put in contact with people unable to cope with new things.

This, I’m convinced, will be the defining SF novel of this decade. The closest analogue would be Bruce Sterling’s Schismatrix, the unheralded best SF novel of the eighties, the one that blew away a generation of influential readers and writers, the truest shift between SF as it was and SF as it became. Charles Stross’ Accelerando, after five years in the incubator, has finally emerged to sweep away the dregs of old-style Science Fiction and show us how things will be done from now on. This is the first true SF novel of the twenty-first century.

High praise indeed, but this novel is liable to inflame even the most jaded SF critic. Accelerando is a fix-up of nine short stories (a trilogy of trilogies) charting the evolution of humanity through a twenty-first century marked by a technological singularity, through the eyes of a cat who’s not a cat —and three generations of a dysfunctional family. It’s almost unimaginably big and it does what few SF writers are even willing to do: stare the Singularity in the face and say “bring it on.”

The first three stories of the book are those of Manfreld Mancx, a genius whose day job is to bring humanity, kicking and screaming, into a turbulent new future. He’s so far ahead of the curve that he is essentially living in the future. The second trilogy of stories sticks close to his daughter, Amber Mancx, as she (and then a copy of her) travels away from Earth as humanity lives through the Singularity. The last three stories follow her son, Sirdhan Mancx, as he confronts the cold reality of a post-Singularity humanity that may be headed toward an existential dead-end.

As a novel, Accelerando is hardly perfect. Stross’ prose owes more to brute-force hacks than to elegance: His story requires so much bandwidth that stylistic flourishes take too much space. So he dumps information any way he can. The result requires you to pay attention, keep going forward and try not to drown under such a torrent of material.

Heady, heady stuff. If you’ve read Stross’ fiction before, you may be ready for his onslaught of ideas. Others may give up in frustration as every sentence needs to be uncompressed for understanding. A.E. Van Vogt used to say that real SF ought to throw a new idea every eight hundred words. Improbably, Stross doubles that average. As if that wasn’t enough, he’s got the sheer guts, the insane audacity to imagine his way through the Singularity and come up with post-Singularity issues. (What’s more, he also manages to deliver a neat solution to Drake’s paradox, a solution that presumes that information science, economics and evolutionary biology all boil down to the same thing.)

To hack a quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes: Your mind, once stretched by Accelerando, will never regain its original dimensions. Neither will Science Fiction as a genre. This novel destroys the comfortable futures of old-school SF and redefines the picture we’ve got of the future. I don’t think that SF fans could tolerate a steady diet of novels like Accelerando. But then again, I don’t think that most SF writers could write such novels.

One further word of praise and warning: This is not a Science Fiction novel to put in mundane hands. In order to make sense of it, you will have to either hold a CS degree, overdose on Wired and Slashdot and/or be a time-traveller. As Rick Kleffel has memorably put it, “This is the kind of science fiction that scares normal people” to which I’d add “and those merely pretending to like Science Fiction as it should be.” It’s hard stuff, and all the more exhilarating for it.

But what a trip. If this isn’t the SF novel of the decade, I can’t wait to read what will beat it.

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