the Little Red Reviewer

Singularity Sky, by Charles Stross

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Singularity Sky, by Charles Stross

published in 2003

where I got it: borrowed

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I used to read a ton of Charles Stross, I couldn’t get enough of the guy.  Over a few years I managed to burn myself out, and recently I’ve really gotten back into him with his Laundry series.  And then I realized, I’ve never read the man’s Hugo nominated debut novel, Singularity Sky.

First off, what the heck is a singularity, and why should you care?  It’s important to know, if you’re interested in understanding the importance of Stross’s singularity themed science fiction.  Broadly defined, a singularity is when the rate of change reaches infinity, it’s the event horizon, the moment when artificial intelligence reaches beyond human comprehension.Those graphs that show a curved line going up and up and up? when that line is perfectly vertical, that’s the singularity. When computers and nanomachines and AIs are crunching information at a speed that’s faster than we can measure, that’s singularity. Some folks are pretty freaked out about the idea of computational ability being stronger, larger, and faster than the combination of all the human brains on the planet, and Stross? He’s the guy dancing on the razor edge of the event horizon.

Singularity Sky takes place in the aftermath of a singularity event which caused humanity to be scattered among the stars.  Martin Springfield, an engineer from Earth, has been dispatched to an out of the way star system called The Republic.  Overly aristocratic and trapped in their neo-luddite ways, the common people of The Republic are ripe for revolution, and in fact, a small rebellion in a little colony on Rochard’s World has already begun, thanks to an entity that calls itself The Festival.

The Festival is granting wishes by trading in information. After a rain of ringing cell phones, pick up a phone, answer it, and entertain The Festival. With stories, information, recipes, it doesn’t care, it simply wants any information it doesn’t already have, and in trade it will give you anything you want, like gold, or weapons, or food for your povery stricken  family.

The fearful government of The Republic would rather Rochard’s World burn to the ground before allowing it’s citizens freedom of anything, so they send their warships to destroy The Festival. Martin has been hired to ensure their warships are capable of travelling faster than light, which breaks the cardinal rule of the AI ruling powers of the human Empire – thou shall not  violate causality (travel through time).

Or at least, that’s what The Republic thinks they’ve hired Martin for. And The Festival? a classically SFnal situation of an epically disastrous moment of first contact with an entity that isn’t at all what humanity thinks it is.

Sounds a little complicated, doesn’t it?  And it is. Singularity Sky most definitely reads like a debut cyberpunk hard scifi post-singularity novel, and it is so very Charlie Stross. The Terran characters tossed out of their comfort zone, the culture shock, the superhuman AIs that benevolently keep humanity from imploding, a changed humanity that sprawls across the galaxy, these are all the hallmarks of a far future Stross novel.

Although Singularity Sky has the flaws that often come with a debut novel, such as either faster-than-fast or slower-than-slow pacing, infodumps, and some less than smooth transitional scenes, there were many good reasons it was nominated for a Hugo.  For a hard scifi book, the characters are surprisingly well developed, from Martin and the other agent, Rachel, to the crew of a Republic warship. The battle at the end feels like a good ‘ole cold war submarine chase, complete with tension and claustrophobia.  The science and the tech are phenomenal, along with the impressive mass quantity of ideas crammed into this book.  The book may not be smiling unicorns on every page, but it’s surprisingly optimistic, for a future where humanity is ruled by a mysterious (and sometimes murderous) AI.

If you enjoyed Blindsight by Peter Watts, or Faith by John Love, Singularity Sky feels a little bit like those, except bigger, faster, and crazier.

Is humanity headed towards a singularity? Will our computing power eventually overtake the computational power of our brains? Will nanomachines eat the outer planets so to have feedstock to make other things? Will we respond with a butlerian jihad, of sorts? I haven’t the foggiest, but I do know it’s fun to read about!
Never read Charles Stross? I’m not sure I’d recommend Singularity Sky as a starting point, readers new to his style would probably do better starting with Accelerando or Glasshouse.  If you like your scifi a little more esoterically urban, give his Family Trade series (also known as The Merchant Prince series) or Laundry series a try.  However Singularity Sky is a must read for Stross fans who want to see where all this insanity began.

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