Friday, July 15, 2005

Singularity Sky

[Book cover image]
I like science fiction, but don't read enough of it. I don't know where to start. There's aisle after aisle of the stuff at the local bookstore, written by people I never heard of, all with very similar looking covers. That's why I jump on any recommendation from a good source. When Tim Bray, who I know only by reputation, mentioned on his blog that he loved Charles Stross's Iron Sunrise, I bought a couple of the author's books immediately, including his first, Singularity Sky.

Singularity Sky, published in 2003, is based on a concept a lot of people take seriously. I'm probably greatly oversimplifying, but the basic idea seems to be that technology will advance at an accelerating rate until artificial intelligence, nanotechnology and other advances fracture societies, blur the distinction between humans and machines and make governments and economies obsolete. As part of the resulting upheaval, a higher alien civilization intervenes, scatters humanity around the galaxy and lays down a basic commandment -- no messing with time travel. The aim is to a) keep humanity from extinguishing itself and b) prevent it from screwing up the rest of the universe. Each of the remnants develop separately over a couple of centuries while staying in intermittent contact with each other. The offshoot at the focus in this book has rejected technology and adopts a roughly 19th century society, enforced by an authoritarian government.

That's the background. The plot is that one of the backward, outlying colonies of the anti-technology empire is invaded by something called the Festival. It's like an interstellar traveling circus that, instead of providing entertainment, asks new societies to entertain it -- provide information, tell it stories, whatever. In exchange, it grants wishes using essentially unlimited technology. The result is catastrophic. All hell breaks loose and society breaks down. The Empire decides to try and bend the no-time-travel rules, without actually breaking it, to wrest the colony back from the Festival. A man and a woman from earth try to stop them.

It's very entertaining, but this first effort isn't as well written as some of Iain M. Banks' or Neal Stephenson's best. The social commentary is laid on a little thick -- one of the Festival's hangers-on is a group called the Critics, for example. They're cold blooded, covered with scales and look like giant sausages with tusks. No message there, then.

Still, Stross touches my geek heart. The UN, for example, has been taken over by the Internet Engineering Task Force. Cellular automata even shows up around page 250. The only thing left out (unless I missed it) is a reference to Slashdot.

I'm looking forward to reading his Iron Sunrise and Accelerando next.

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