Charles Stross
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Cosmos Books, TPB, © 2002, 240 pp, ISBN #0-8095-0025-6
Reviewed December 2004

Toast is a collection of Charles Stross' early short stories, mostly published between 1995 and 2000. As you'd expect, it's rather uneven, but shows definite progress from earlier to later stories. Oddly, the later stories appear first and work backwards.

"Antibodies" concerns a world on the edge of the technological singularity due to a major breakthrough in algorithmics, resulting in massively powerful computers. The setting involves one of Stross' favorite tropes: The anti-terrorist cell - people working covertly for a greater good. It has a neat kicker which I suppose should have been obvious, but was a pleasant surprise and natural conclusion anyway.

"Bear Trap" is the one really high-tech futuristic piece in the book, concerning a financier on a voyage aboard a starship who suddenly finds that his memories seem to have been tampered with, along with those of a woman who's also on-board. It's an old gimmick wrapped in new clothes (people whose memories partly exist on the computer net), but what makes it work is the reason both of them have been affected, and what it means when they reach their destination.

"Extracts from the Club Diary" is exactly that: Excerpts from the diary of a secret club from 1889 to the near future. The reason for the club's existence is gradually revealed (it's only walked around in the early entries). It's a fun read, but is a little too cutesy for its own good, with an ending like a 60s B movie. Which I guess was the point, but so much effort to obscure the lighthearted premise was a bit disappointing.

"A Colder War" is similar in spirit to Stross' novel The Atrocity Archives: It's a melding of Lovecraftian horror with a modern day genre, in this case the government misdeeds during the Reagan administration. Also slightly too clever for its own good, unlike "Extracts" this one is serious-to-grim through and through, and I'll admit that figuring out the clever touches was rather fun. The Atrocity Archives is a better effort in the same territory, but then it's got more space to work with.

The book takes a downturn here as we get to the earlier stories. "TOAST: A Con Report" is a pretty straightforward fictional con report written closer to the edge of the singularity. It mostly felt like an exercise in high-tech chops without a whole lot of story hung on it.

"A Boy And His God" is, quite literally, a shaggy-god story. The sort of thing you'll either thing is really cool, or kind of dumb. I fall into the latter camp. Seems like Harlan Ellison has also written a lot of this sort of story, so take from that what you will.

"Ship of Fools" is a very dated tale about the Y2K scare with an ending recalling an early Arthur C. Clarke story. "Dechlorinating the Moderator" is another tech-chops piece much like "TOAST". "Yellow Snow" is the oldest story in the collection, a late-era cyberpunk/time travel yarn with the obligatory kicker. Finally, "Big Brother Iron" is Orwell's 1984 updated and brought into the information age. It's reasonably successful on its terms, mostly showing that Orwellian social constraints tend to fall apart under the pressures introduced by high tech.

None of these pieces are strong on character, and the first two are easily the most provocative and nuanced in terms of ideas and plotting. Overall Toast is a valuable counterpart to Stross' novels, but much of it feels redundant already. He's done much better work since.

Singularity Sky

Ace, HC, © 2003, 313 pp, ISBN #0-441-01072-5
Reviewed September 2004

Stross is the latest hot writer inspired - at least in part - by Vernor Vinge's vision of the technological singularity and mankind living on the edge of an extremely high-tech universe. Singularity Sky is his first novel, and it works all of this territory closely.

In the 21st century, something called the Eschaton appeared above Earth and somehow dispersed 90% of its population to other worlds around the galaxy, warning them that they should not violate causality - time travel - in such a way as to threaten its existence, as it proves to be a high-tech intelligence from the future, somehow descended from humans. The Eschaton enforces this edict mercilessly, but otherwise allows humanity to develop naturally. Following the dispersal, humanity developed into enclaves, some more enlightened than others.

Rochard's World is a planet of the New Republic, a small, chauvenistic, repressive regime which believes in keeping the tech level low. One day the Festival - a mysterious entity from elsewhere - arrives and starts granting the wishes of the citizens of Rochard's World, resulting in a huge increase in the tech level, and a revolution. Believe it is being invaded, the New Republic musters its battle fleet and sends it on a journey to Rochard's World hoping to arrive there shortly before they heard of the Festival's arrival.

The story's protagonists are Martin Springfield, an engineer from Earth who's been contracted to upgrade the New Republic's fleet's engines to allow them to jump backwards in time to surprise the Festival. And Rachel Mansour, an agent, also from Earth, working to help overturn the entrenched, backwards government of the New Republic. Both get caught up in the New Republic's showdown with the Festival.

The book is filled with trippy ideas: The Festival and its "gifts" of technology to Rochard's World, and how the planet gets pushed through the technological singularity in a few months; the "timelike loop" the New Republic fleet takes to attack the Festival; the clash of tech levels when the encounter finally happens.

What makes the book work, though, are Martin and Rachel, who are both engaging characters, and who both have secret agendas and capabilities which are only revealed over time. Despite a budding romance, they have to play off each other to accomplish their aims, stay true to their beliefs, and navigate the hazardous atmosphere of suspicion in the New Republic. And making the story about these two and the humans around them rather than a big mystery about the nature of the Festival (whose nature is revealed) is key to the story's success.

The book does contain some filler, such as what happens to the Duke of Rochard's World and other extraneous scenes featuring peripheral characters. They feel more like Stross showing off his creative chops than bits which are necessary to the story, during which I wished we'd get back to the action. But that's a pretty mild criticism. Overall the book is polished, clever, witty and fun, and Stross is definitely an author to watch if you enjoy hard science fiction.

Iron Sunrise

Ace, HC, © 2004, 355 pp, ISBN #0-441-01159-4
Reviewed September 2004

In the sequel to Singularity Sky, our heroes - Rachel Monsour and her husband Martin Springfield - are dispatched to deal with a thorny piece of planetary murder: Someone detonated an iron bomb inside the star of the planet New Moscow, triggering a nova-class event. As a result, a planet in a nearby system is threatened with retaliation unless New Moscow's doomsday bombers can be stopped, but someone is killing off the diplomats who might be able to stop them.

Years earlier, as the last space stations at the edge of New Moscow's solar system were being evacuated, a young teenaged girl named Wednesday is urged by her "invisible friend" Herman to return to the station just as her ship is leaving. She's successfully retrieved back to the ship, but she learns some crucial information about the destruction of New Moscow's star which she carries with her to her new home in the stations of Septigon, information which those responsible for the disaster want to kill her to keep it secret. Naturally, this carries Wednesday on an interception course with Rachel and Martin's mission, with warblogging reporter Frank the Nose who's also investigating the New Moscow disaster, and with a strange group of humans called the ReMastered, who want to eliminate the godlike Eschaton and replace it with a godlike posthuman of their own creation. And it all comes to a head on the starliner the Romanov.

While not as rife with exciting ideas as Singularity Sky, Iron Sunrise is a much better-written book, and has a much stronger and more believable human component than its predecessor. (In this regard it's somewhat similar to Alastair Reynolds' first two novels.) Gone are the brief asides of fantastic strangeness which don't really contribute to the story, and in are people with more complex motivations and personality quirks that grow from their individual situation rather than because their society in general is damaged or backwards.

While Rachel gets several moments to shine (Martin is not a lot more than a sidekick here), the story truly belongs to Wednesday, who is a goth girl in a future you'd think might be filled with them, but isn't. Brooding, sarcastic, and dressed in black, Wednesday is nearly an adult by the time the bulk of the story occurs, but she's still emotionally unstable and has a hard time dealing with her situation as the story progresses, though she comes through when the chips are down.

The motivations of the ReMastered are intriguing, and I'm sure we'll see more of them in future novels in this universe (if any). They're more human than Star Trek's Borg, but no less chilling in their way. We also - satisfyingly - learn more about Herman, and how he operates (his identity will be familiar to readers of Singularity Sky). It seems there's a larger story arc being set up here - I hope so, anyway.

As I said, the book is a bit lower in "gosh wow" tech than was its predecessor, though to some degree that's to be expected since there's a lot less general posthuman activity going on here - it's mostly high-tech human activity, and thus fairly well comprehensible to us mere mortals. So if it's just a parade of wild ideas you're looking for, then you'll be somewhat disappointed. But for my money the stronger character hooks more than compensated.

Stross is close to crossing over from "writer to watch closely" to an established hard SF star. I'm looking forward to his next novel.

The Atrocity Archives

Golden Gryphon, HC, © 2004, 273 pp, ISBN #1-930846-25-8
Reviewed November 2004

The Atrocity Archives is a book consisting of a introduction by Ken MacLeod, a short novel The Atrocity Archive, a novella "The Concrete Jungle", an afterward by author Stross, and a glossary of terms. I have little to say about the forward and glossary, so to tackle the other parts:

The Atrocity Archive introduces us to the Laundry and agent Bob Howard. The Laundry is a top-secret agency within the British government which guards the nation and the world against the threat of otherworldly terrors from this and other universes. Despite their Lovecraftian nature, these terrors are rooted in science and mathematics, thus making the milieu one of science fiction rather than fantasy. People who unearth the formulae and technology to access these horrors are peremptorily recruited into various governmental agencies around the world when discovered, which is how mathematician Bob got involved. Unlike his peers, though, Bob - who is in his early-to-mid 20s - aspires to becoming a field agent and not simply coasting through the Laundry in an office job until retirement.

He gets his chance and is sent to America on a mission to meet and case a scientist named Mo, who is a British citizen co-opted by the United States government and effectively held prisoner as a professor in Santa Cruz, California by (one infers) the Laundry's counterparts. The Laundry wants to help bring her back to England, and Bob is making first contact to help assess the feasibility of this task. Things quickly go wrong when a Middle Eastern terrorist cell kidnaps Mo, thus setting into motion a series of events where Bob steadily takes on more responsibility as a field agent, investigates the possible leftover remnants of a Nazi Germany supernatural research organization, and ends up with a lengthy excursion through a dimensional gate.

"The Concrete Jungle" expands on a small detail of its predecessor as Bob is asked to investigate a rogue use of some matter-transforming technology, during which we learn a lot more about the inner workings of the Laundry and the tension between those who do the Real Work and those who push paper and make sure everything is properly stamped and filed.

As Stross notes in the afterword, these stories owe much to both Cold War spy thrillers (Len Deighton and John le Carre and the like), as well as to the authors of nameless-horror stories (H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith and so forth). I am not myself a fan of spy novels, but my feeling is that it owes a lot more to the former than the latter, as the words of the day tend to be "humor" and "action": The conflict between spying and bureaucracy creating much of the humor, and the plot being driven mainly by a chain of clear-and-present-dangers rather than the lurking fears in the background (said lurking fears tend to evoke more humor than horror, as the characters joke about them at great length). The story also has a hacker sensibility akin to Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash (though with more credible, less ludicrous setting), but also owing much to the James Bond films (though more low-key). In short, it's a richly textured setting which might appeal to a wide variety of readers - but those hoping for the next Lovecraft will likely be bitterly disappointed.

Bob is a protagonist chosen for maximum entertainment value: Self-motivating, sarcastic, passionate, and frustrated by almost everyone around him (even people trying to help him), his first-person narrative moves right along at a brisk clip, only slightly implausible in the depth of arcane (literally) knowledge he carries in his head (though again, no less so than James Bond). He's the superhuman agent at the early stage of his career. The supporting cast is mainly there as foils for Bob; almost everyone plays an obstacle at some point (sometimes just to test him), as Bob's journey into the depths of the Laundry becomes our own.

The stories work because of the breadth and depth of research and imagination which Stross puts into them, rather than being character-driven. This isn't a bad thing, as many authors have had entertaining and fulfilling careers based on their imaginations and with far less skill in other areas than Stross has displayed. It's sense-of-wonder fiction updated for the 21st century, with occasional backdatings to earlier days. Bob's research into the Ahnenerbe-SS - with clearly-depicted monuments to the horrors they created and others they failed to create - are the centerpiece of the short novel, along with his unraveling of the clever plot in which he and his comrades have become entangled.

The afterword provides some interesting insight into how Stross wove together the main premises of his universe, and their roots in earlier fantastic and adventure literature. Would that more authors provided material like this for their fans.

While the book overall fell short of my hopes - I think there's just not much market for real Lovecraftian horror these days - but it's still funny and exciting, and I'd enjoy reading more adventures of Bob Howard and the Laundry.

(For a different take on similar subject matter, you might want to read Declare by Tim Powers.)

The Family Trade

Tor, HC, © 2004, 303 pp, ISBN #0-765-30929-7
Reviewed September 2005

Readers of my web site may not know that I got into science fiction through the writing of H. Beam Piper. Sure, I'd read other SF authors before him, but discovering Piper when I was 17 was what set me on the skiffy road. The Family Trade is clearly strongly influenced by Piper's Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen stories, and also by Roger Zelazny's Amber series (both are mentioned in the acknowledgments). It's Piper's influence that looms largest, though, at least in this first of the two-volume novel.

Miriam Beckstein is a journalist whose life falls apart when she's fired - along with her friend Paulette - from her magazine for investigating a story too closely. Visiting her adoptive mother, she's given some keepsakes from her birth mother, who had mysterious died unidentified in a park thirty years earlier. Among these effects is a locket with a strange pattern inside, and Miriam finds that when she focuses on it, she both gains a bad headache, and shifts into an alternate world. This world seems stuck in the middle ages, with rampant poverty and an aristocratic class, as well as nothing in the way of industrial technology.

Or so it seems: Miriam proves to be the lost heir to a noble family, with the genetic talent to shift between the two worlds. Her uncle - the chief of security for the Clan of world-walkers - kidnaps her, but impresses on her how her life has changed and that her mere existence throws a wrench into her family's line of inheritance. Agreeing that assassins appearing out of nowhere would be difficult to defend against, Miriam plays along and travels from her home in the vicinity of Boston to the capital of the small nation encompassing Boston on the other world, in the vicinity of New York.

Miriam becomes acquainted with the primitive conditions most people live in on the other world, while making a few allies: Earl Roland, a several-times-removed cousin of hers; Olga, a young debutante engaged to Roland; and Brilliana, another relative who's assigned as one of her servants. The Clan makes its money by transporting illegal drugs in our world, and uses the gains to bring technology and comforts over to theirs. Despite their exposure to modern technology and education, the Clan is still tightly bound by its family obligations. Miriam learns that someone is trying to kill her. She also finds herself falling in love with Roland.

The Family Trade is a decidedly idea-light novel compared to Stross' earlier books (although there are hints that the ramifications of the fundamental idea will be explored in more depth in the second book). After all, parallel worlds and shifting between them is nothing new. However, by constraining the scope of the story, Stross spends more time than his precursors in exploring the society that is set up by those who can shift between worlds. So there are natural precautions taken to protect against world-walkers, and natural efforts taken to circumvent those protections. Of course, a security violation can work to the benefit of more than one party, and as Miriam is not on any "side", she takes advantage of this. Her detective efforts and deductions are among the most entertaining parts of the novel.

The book actually has the strong feel of a spy novel: The young spy (Miriam) being dropped into a strange land, her goal being to stay alive and effect change, the catch being that everyone knows she's a spy, and that some people are on her side (though she's not sure who). So it has some of the feel of The Atrocity Archives in that respect.

Fundamentally, though, the story engages because Miriam and her friends are interesting and entertaining, and because the plot is a pressure-cooker. It strikes that right balance between sheer fantasy and dangerous adventure. Miriam also embodies another Piper cliche: The self-reliant hero. Though Miriam can't do it all herself, she's strong-willed and resourceful, and the reader is confident that she's not going to go down quietly, or because she's stupid.

The Family Trade is not essential reading - yet. The story concludes in The Hidden Family, so check back once I've read that one. However, as a straight-ahead adventure yarn, this is a good start.

The Family Trade

Tor, HC, © 2004, 303 pp, ISBN #0-765-31347-2
Reviewed November 2005

The second half of the story which began in The Family Trade, The Hidden Family picks up with our heroine Miriam investigating the assassination attempts on her life. With her friend Paulette (from our world) and aide Brilliana (from the medieval parallel world of the Gruinmarkt) she drops out of sight of the Clan of her family who have been running a clandestine economic business between the two worlds for decades.

In short order, Miriam discovers that there's a third parallel world out there, this one with early Industrial Revolution technology, and an America with a rather Victorian social system. Being no dummy, Miriam reasons out a pair of interesting things: First, that there's a secret breakaway branch of her world-hopping family who are playing a clever game against the Clan and its larger group of Families. Second, that this world of New Britain represents an opportunity to set up a really nifty import/export business among the three worlds, making Miriam and the Clan rich while raising the technology level of the two lesser-tech worlds.

In the meantime, though, Miriam has to play the political games of the Clan while trying to ferret out the hidden family and deal with what looks like at least one traitor within the Clan...

The Hidden Family is very much like its predecessor: Political intrigue punctuated with action, but not a lot of technological or fantasy ideas. In short, it's an adventure story. I found it slow going, as the mechanics of setting up shadow companies to run a business outside the bounds of the local technology just doesn't grip me. (Maybe I burned out on that genre in my days of H. Beam Piper fandom.)

What did I enjoy? Well, Miriam is a fun everywoman, but the supporting characters are even more fun: Mr. Burgeson, her contact in New Britain, is a combination of pawn broker, subversive, and crusty old man. Her stepmother Iris is definitely a willful sixties radical all the way. And her friend Olga - another member of the Clan - may act like a dizzy blonde, but is actually pretty sharp, albeit a bit prone to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The history lessons of New Britain and of the hidden family were both entertaining. And there's some tension surrounding the ongoing shadow war between the two families.

But ultimately this duet was a disappointment: Not enough happens. Although the status quo is somewhat disrupted, the basic ties among the main characters are much the same (although there is one nifty revelation of one character's status). The hidden family is still mostly hidden. Miriam's business plan is just barely getting off the ground. So while there have been some revelations and some movement, it feels like the characters are not too far from where they started, 600 pages in from the start.

The probable reason for this is that apparently this is going to be a series of novels, of which these are just the first two. Which is rather disappointing, as I just don't feel so far like there's enough material to keep this going as long as it sounds like it's going to (four, five, six or more volumes). It doesn't feel groundbreaking or Earth-shaking, and it doesn't have that otherworldly charm which L.E. Modesitt's Columbia series possesses.

So these two volumes have been a decent little ride, but I think I'm probably going to get off the merry-go-round after this one.


Ace, HC, © 2005, 390 pp, ISBN #0-441-01284-1
Reviewed November 2005

Once upon a time it was common practice for a science fiction novel to be a "fix-up" of a series of short stories or novellas originally published in SF magazines. As the novel market overtook the short fiction market, this practice dwindled and is nearly nonexistent. Charles Stross' novel Accelerando is the closest to a fix-up I've seen in a while: It originally ran as nine short stories in Asimov's Science Fiction, which have been somewhat edited into this book. It's an ambitious story, focusing on humanity's journey through the technological singularity in the mid-21st century. It's told in three sets of three chapters, each focusing on a member of a generation of a rather quirky family.

The first third focuses on Manfred Macx, who in the early decades of the 21st century is an uber-entrepreneur, coming up with dazzling ideas and giving them to deserving people to make them rich and to advance human progress. Manfred patents his ideas and assigns patents to free intellect foundations, deriving no income from them but living the good life because of the goodwill he generates through his actions. However, his former lover, Pamela, loathes him for this as she is a collector for the IRS who believes Manfred is shirking his civic duty to support the poor and infirm. In this first section, Manfred and Pamela have a daughter (somewhat against Manfred's will), and the two of them have a hand in upgrading an ever-more-sophisticated robot cat named Aineko, while humanity generally lurches towards the superhuman.

The second third concerns their daughter, Amber, who escapes the domineering clutches of her mother to become the ruler of a small-but-rich empire near Saturn. More importantly, with Aineko's help she discovers evidence of extraterrestrial existence at a nearby brown dwarf star, and sends a small computerized probe containing personality uploads of herself and her friends on the three-light-year voyage to visit whatever's out there. While they're gone, humanity passes through the singularity, and evolves into a fast-thinking form of mostly-uploaded individuals, impossible to be fully understood by mere humans.

The final third follows Manfred, Amber, and Amber's son Sirhan as they address the question of what future ordinary humanity can have while most of the species has upgraded into something altogether different, which is busy dismantling and converting the solar system.

Accelerando is sweeping and ambitious. It's written in the language of the technologically adept, with sentences which encompass revolutionary new ideas we can barely even imagine today, and it doesn't shy away from big words. This isn't a book for the neophyte science fiction reader, it's for the reader who likes big (as opposed to "high") concepts and lots of them.

The novel's structure is one of its hooks, but it's a hook which doesn't fully deliver - disappointing to me since I love stories with a clever structure which manage to bring it off. Accelerando's problem in this regard is that the meat of the story is in the middle third. The first third, entitled "Slow Takeoff", is indeed slow, and its first chapter comprises most of what's interesting about it: Manfred's interesting (if implausible) line of work, his place as a representative of the first generation of posthumans, and the accelerating pace of technological development. Despite all of this content, the whole part concentrates primarily on Manfred's eventual - and inevitable - obsolescence, which by its very nature is a story which removes the reader from the overall development of the world.

The second part, "Point of Inflection" belongs to Amber, and after an oddly unsatisfying chapter regarding how she ends up as the queen of a small empire concentrates on the interesting first contact which she and her crew initiate. This is the part where questions are most satisfying raised, even when they're not answered (and to some extent the first chapter of the third part feels like merely the denouement to the second part): How do post-singularity species develop? What are their concerns? How do pre-singularity entities interact with them? What happens centuries down the line in the development of such entities? I think it's very much to Stross' credit that he draws some general outlines of answers to these questions, not necessarily because he's boldly violating the notion that the posthuman is unknown and unknowable (a line which I think is worth challenging), but because in doing so he advances the general thematic and conceptual matter of this realm of science fiction.

The final third, "Singularity", would ostensibly be Sirhan's part, but it's not, really, since thanks to postmodern technology his ancestors are still around, and the part ends up belonging to them. Sirhan ends up being something of a non-character, which largely demolishes the generational structure of the story. The story itself primarily builds on the second part, arguably because the creatures that humanity has become are so advanced that there's really no way for the human survivors to regard them as anything other than a huge wave of energy and information blithely rolling over the economy, property and social structures of lesser beings.

The very premise of Accelerando forces Stross into an interesting dilemma: Are his heroes - who have to remain human in order for the readers to empathize with them - going to die out, end up in the thrall of their descendents, live apart from them, or find some other route? Arthur C. Clarke took the first route in the seminal Childhood's End, in which normal humans realize that they're an evolutionary dead end in the sense that the next step in their evolution is something not really human at all. Stross naturally takes a different route - the last one, since in this particular future humans (with the help of one particular posthuman) are able to reason out an existence which takes advantage of the fact that they have different concerns and interests from their descendants. Plausible? Maybe, maybe not. It's a satisfying way out, however.

Accelerando in sum is a significant addition to the body of high-tech futuristic science fiction. I don't think it lives up to all of its ambitions, but like Manfred, Stross throws out some many threads and ideas and story elements that it's almost certain that quite a few of them would miss the mark in one way or the other. But quite a few of them hit their marks as well, which makes the book a thought-provoking read. Whether or not you agree with the projections served up herein, it's a valuable example of looking at humanity's development to either build on or rail against.

hits since 14 September 2004.

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