Singularity Sky, Charles Stross

Ace, 2003, 313 pages, C$36.00 hc, ISBN 0-441-01072-5

These reviews are often written to share my joy at coming across fine examples of genre fiction. Dull books I ignore and bad books I warn about, but it’s the good ones that keep me going month after month. While I won’t try to pretend that Singularity Sky is a classic for the ages, it’s a damn good example of what modern SF should be, and a fine way to spend some quality reading time.

It starts with phones falling from the sky in what looks like a pre-industrial world. No, it’s not a Nokia stunt: These freebies from heaven are the first signal of an alien invasion. Answer the phone and you’ll be asked to entertain the mind at the other end of the line. In return, your wishes can be granted, with an emphasis on materialistic possessions. Within days, the tranquil bucolic existence of that particular planet is shattered through centuries worth of future shock all hitting at once. Imagine going from horses to nanotechnology in a single day for a taste of the trauma.

There are much bigger forces at play here, though. The assaulted planet is part of an Russian-styled empire that isn’t too thrilled by the sudden technological spike. So, completely misunderstanding the nature of the invasion, they answer with an attack force and a plan to futz around causality through judicious time-travel.

But wait! It gets better, because in Stross’ imagined post-singularity universe, the Eschaton has become a force for causal enforcement. Twiddle with time too much and you’ll wake up to your sun going supernova. So Earth itself has put special agents in place to enforce compliance before the Eschaton does… and that’s where protagonists Rachel Mansour and Martin Springfield come in, two agents with hidden agendas. Expect the usual boy-meets-girl stuff (well done) and graft on to this plot the traditional complications.

Obviously, plotting isn’t the main attraction here, not when we’ve got a vigorously imagined future to kick around. One of Singularity Sky‘s most satisfying aspect is how it reconciles once more the space opera genre with the increasingly probable eventuality of a singularity. By focusing on the left-behinds, by showing different levels of technology interacting with one another, Stross creates tension from above (the threat from the Eschaton) and manages to fit all the good old space battles of golden-age SF with what we now suspect from the universe. It’s canny world-building, and one of the most obvious proofs that Stross is a hard-core SF writer with an easy familiarity with the genre. He certainly can talk the talk, what with the easy sprinkling of technological jargon, future technologies and nifty ideas. (As an added attraction, I’m not sure that the novel is even intelligible to anyone who doesn’t know already a lot about science-fiction) He’s from the Internet generation and it shows, through the novel’s ideological message and the various in-jokes hidden here and there throughout the novel. Make no mistake: this is a deeply amusing book, filled with well-placed silliness (MP-3 missiles?) and compulsively readable despite an impressive density of ideas.

Still, some of the plot points weaken the overall impact of the novel. Viewed from afar, the novel is a shaggy dog story that, despite the amusing plot developments, ends pretty much exactly as could be deduced from the first fifty pages. It’s also filled with tangents of dubious interest, the worst of which has to be the “Felix” plot thread and the gratuitous space combat scenes. Parricidal elements of the ending stretch plausibility, even in the context of a light-hearted science-fiction story.

Not that I’m seriously complaining: Anyone who has read more than a few of these reviews already knows that for me, fun trumps structure six days of the week. And so Singularity Sky easily finds a spot on my short list of the year’s best novels. It’s vivid, imaginative, fresh and dynamic. It deftly mixes science and politics. It’s one of the best examples of twenty-first century science-fiction. It reaffirms my growing admiration for Stross’ work and tells me that not all is lost for the genre.

In fact, I’m so jazzed-up about Singularity Sky that I’m looking forward to the sequel (Iron Sunrise, due Any Time Now) with some trepidation. And that, for someone who doesn’t usually like the whole idea of sequels, is really saying something.

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