Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: Accelerando, by Charles Stross

Charles Stross is one of the most prolific and popular science fiction authors of this generation whose books I've never read. So, I finally dived into Accelerando, and a couple of headache-inducing weeks later, finished it, and got another headache trying to decide how to rate it. I liked it, I hated it, I thought it was brilliant, I thought it was really @$%#!ing annoying. There were parts of it that reminded me of Heinlein at his best and Heinlein at his worst. It reminded me most of Neal Stephenson's cyberpunk novels (notably Snow Crash and The Diamond Age), which I enjoyed a great deal.

Accelerando is cyberpunkish, but it's really more in the transhumanism genre, with most of the novel revolving around the coming of the Singularity, and what happens to humanity afterwards. It starts in approximately the present day, and spans about a century of "wall clock" time, but because of all sorts of tricks with relativism, wormholes, and people being "uploaded" as state vectors into super-intelligent machines in which experiental time is highly variable, some characters experience centuries and multiple lifetimes over the course of the novel.

If this sounds like the sort of story you'd like, then you'll probably enjoy Accelerando.That said, it had a lot of drawbacks for me.

First, the style: Stross is a clever writer who throws ideas and popular science terms at you at a velocity that will make your eyes cross. In fact, the structure and style of the novel is meant to convey the sense of humanity hurtling forward at dizzying speed, rapidly accelerating beyond the ability of future-shocked homo sapiens to keep up. One of the ways this manifests is Stross's choice to use present tense throughout the novel. Another is liberally salting the text with techno-geekery: if casual references to Bayes' theorem, small-world networks, and Serdar Argic go over your head, then you're likely to get lost reading Accelerando. It's hard to tell whether in twenty years, this book will seem prescient or just horribly dated, but I suspect the latter.

Second: the story. The first half of the novel is the years leading up to the Singularity. The second half is what happens after that, when posthumans and then the AIs they created rapidly evolve into intelligences who no longer have anything in common with humanity at all. They start literally dismantling the solar system, and the remaining humans have to figure out what to do now that their godlike offspring have no use for them. The story gets very confusing at this point, since Stross is juggling a bunch of different sorts of intelligences, societies, and technologies, most of which is incomprehensible to human beings, but he still has to make the story relatable to the human characters, and the readers. I found the ending, in particular, abrupt and unsatisfying. (Once you have established that posthuman AI intelligences exist on a level as far above humanity as humans are above tapeworms, it's hard to convince me that they would care about or interact with humans at all, much less need and/or threaten them.)

Third: the characters. The Mancx family is the thread of continuity that is woven throughout the novel. They are the humans who are proximal to the ongoing acceleration of civilization; they are a family of dysfunctional geniuses whom we're supposed to care about, but because they're so super-competent yet dysfunctional, none of them are likable. They are all given motives and personalities, but not very deep ones. I didn't find myself empathizing with any of them, so it was hard for me to relate to the ongoing saga of the Mancx family as something I am supposed to identify with (as they represent the fate of humanity).

So, this may sound like a pretty negative review. On balance, though, I did like the book. It was not a light or easy read, and my biggest problem was that the story doesn't really move the way the world in the novel does. Most of the time, what happens in the world is the story. This isn't an adventure or a character-driven story, it's grand, Big Idea science fiction.

It was worth reading, but I don't think I'd dive into a book like this again any time soon. If anyone has read anything else by Stross, I'd be interested to hear what you thought of his other works.

My rating (based on the Inverarity rating system):

Plot: 4 (it has a grand, epic scale, but the human-level story is a bit flat)
Characters: 3 (interesting but unlikeable, and they are secondary to the tech)
Style: 4 (brilliant, witty, headache-inducing)

My weighted score: 3.65 stars (out of 5)
Tags: books, charles stross, reviews, science fiction

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