Sunday, March 01, 2009

Recent Reading: Singularity Sky

by Charles Stross

Yes, I've only just got around to Charles Stross's first novel, from 2004; terribly disorganised of me. Anyway, I'm doing some catching up.

For those who are further behind than me, a little scene-setting. Some time in the 21st century, humanity's computer systems apparently bootstrapped themselves into a state of nigh-godhood called the Eschaton. Being a near-god, the Eschaton is evidently ineffable and barking mad, but friendly to authors looking for plots; it promptly scattered most of humanity onto habitable worlds across thousands of lightyears, and also across thousands of years of time. Faster-than-light travel is thus shown to be possible, and therefore so is causality violation, but the Eschaton, apparently understandably worried that someone might use time travel to prevent its own emergence, declares an absolute ban on the sort of dangerous misbehaviour that it's just shown to be highly feasible, and drops large rocks on people who don't follow its rules.

(Characters in this book keep saying that the Eschaton isn't really a god, but blimey, it acts like one, doesn't it?)

Anyway, a couple of centuries later (in their frame of reference), we meet the New Republic, one of the ad hoc human colonies created by this event. It was founded by a bunch of future-shocked Central European technophobes who go in for place names like New Austria and New Prague, but whose style is pretty solidly Czarist Russian - all else aside, they perform a pretty fair re-enactment of bits of the Russo-Japanese War in the course of this novel, and we get a brief appearance by a Colonel von Ungern-Sternberg, which is of course a bad sign. Despite their rampant technophobia, the New Republic has somehow vaguely sustainable imperial ambitions, and a small handful of conquered or colonised worlds. In the prologue, one of these is invaded by the Festival, a peripatetic civilisation-thing which evidently originated in a human culture which the Eschaton dumped thousands of lightyears from Earth and thousands of years into the past, and which travels between the stars in small packages of computer technology, reconstructing itself as a wacky ultra-tech parody of the Edinburgh Festival whenever it arrives in a new solar system. The Festival starts granting wishes for the inhabitants of the colony world, scattering ultra-technological gifts around in exchange for new information (stories will do); the New Republic, objecting to having its colony occupied and forcibly kicked up by a millenium or so's worth of technological progress, launches a counter-invasion fleet, and the novel's plot is underway.

Except that Stross despises the New Republic too thoroughly to allow any of its citizens to serve as story protagonists on the fleet, so a couple of people from Earth attach themselves to it for various purposes - one engineer from an arms cartel which sold the New Republic some spaceship technology, and one diplomat/military observer. Both have hidden agendas, the engineer's being more arcane (for a very experienced agent, the diplomat/observer doesn't do much of a job of secrecy; she appears to be using her own, well-known name much of the time, even when she needn't); they also rapidly become a couple. Actually, they represent Stross's default protagonist-couple-type, as seen in Halting State and some of the "Laundry" stories, among other places - a geeky but technically competent man, and a tough, self-assured, sexy woman who can handle any butt-kicking that's required. Frankly, it looks like fan service, if not wish fulfillment, and hearts being in the right places doesn't excuse it.

But anyway... It should be said that there's a decent comedy somewhere inside this book, looking to get out; just for a start, the New Republic is a pretty good parody of the quintessential political reactionary mind-set. The trouble is, the book would like to say a bit moe than that, but it isn't sure how. The New Republic is a portrait of a bad society, crippled by its reactionary impulses, but once we've seen the secret police in action, the poverty in the streets and military stupidity - and once our protagonists have been repelled and appalled by the place for a paragraph or two - there's really nowhere more for that strand to go, and the joke has turned slightly sour. So we follow the military expedition as not a huge amount happens, except that some obnoxious products of the system plot not very effectually against the heroes and worry about the technological superiority of the enemy they're supposed to fight - albeit not enough, as it predictably turns out.

Meanwhile, the invaded colony world is going through a technological singularity - an explosion of wishes come true and strange and sometimes nightmarish things happening. But because the population suffers from their New Republic upbringing, they fail to handle this at all well; not one single inhabitant of the world thinks to ask for information rather than material goods, not even the relatively clued-in revolutionaries who've been dumped there as exiles in best Russian style. The trouble is, I'm not at all sure that Stross has a very clear idea of what's happening here either. So we get a string of scenes, some of them funny or macabre, and occasional conversations, but no great sign of changes that can't be folded away in an instant.

Then the New Republic's fleet shows up, and gets casually defeated, but some people make it down to the planet, and then the book shambles to an end of sorts in a flurry of speeches and very minor revelations, leaving a clutch of unresolved plot strands and unexplained stuff. It isn't a disaster, or even a disappointment; it just fails to gel.

I think I'll look at the sequel (Iron Sunrise) sometime, though, if only to see if Stross refines his technique a bit in that. Too much like this would lead me to give up, but one book might lead on to better things later - and the later Stross books I've read do also have their moments.

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