Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Accelerando; Stour Head

I have been a long-time Accelerando rejectionist. I guess I bought into all the reviews like this.
I describe a book that I admired immensely but didn't enjoy, a book that's impressive but not very entertaining. Accelerando is an exemplar. The imagination that concocted this future comes from the percolating skull of one of SF's most striking talents. But this is a classic case of idea fiction in which the ideas overwhelm the sense of wonder. While intellectually stimulating, there's no emotional connection. And the combination of reams of tech-talk and a dearth of relatable characters makes this a book whose appeal will be limited to a particular phylum of SF geek.
OK, so who wants to read very clever but soulless writing by a bright guy who's familiar with programming, AI, economics, quantum physics, cosmology, relativity, molecular biology, ...?

A lot of critics don't want to, that's clear. But on impulse I grabbed the novel from the library last week and eventually got round to it: and it's amazing! Here is the plot outline (from the same hostile review) - but it surely doesn't do the book justice.
The story presents us with three generations of the Macx family, throughout the full run of the 21st century, at the end of which nothing recognizably human exists any longer, and the solar system itself is home to thousands of space-borne processors in which billions of posthumans live in a uploaded state. Bodies are merely meat machines, obsolete at the best of times. In the first three chapters, Manfred Macx, working in the early part of this century as a "venture altruist," has come up with a way to liberate himself from what he terms scarcity-based economies. He comes up with one brilliant idea after another, and just gives them away to companies to do with what they will. This enables him to live anywhere free, off the goodwill of those whom he's enriched. While Stross makes a number of dire economic predictions that are entirely valid (even uncomfortably relevant in this day and age of two-dollar-plus gasoline), what I found interesting was an undercurrent of naivety in Manfred's ethos: to wit, that nothing he gets is actually free, though it's free to him. Somebody must still be paying for it.

Manfred's goal is to free the entire human race from outmoded economies and make everyone filthy rich so they can enjoy the Singularity when it hits. He also wants new laws in place to protect uploaded humans, which can only exist if old ideas about ownership, copyright, and intellectual property go the way of the dodo. When a group of lobsters (!) serving as test subjects for uploading somehow achieve sentience via the process, Manfred helps them to escape the Earth by beaming them in the direction of a signal emanating from deep space, thought to be of intelligent extraterrestrial origin.

This segues us into the middle third of the novel, in which Manfred's daughter Amber, fleeing from a nasty custody battle between Manfred and her neo-Luddite mother (via the clever use of new pre-Singularity corporate paradigms initiated by Manfred) ends up in Jovian orbit amongst a group of orphans working to decode and respond to the alien signal. This section of the book is where some structural problems blemish the plot, possibly related to its compiled-novellas nature. When Amber's mother tries a tricky legal maneuver to get her back, Amber — within about the space of a page — sets herself up as empress of something called the Ring Imperium, and promptly sends uploads of herself and the rest of her crew in the direction of the alien signal.

Amber should have been a fantastic character, but I could never warm up to her. And her section of the book, despite being no less suffused with spectacular ideas than anything else from Stross's pen, was one I simply couldn't get into — suprising, as it contains an amusing riff on first contact tropes and one or two pointed spoofs of 2001. (Not to mention its last chapter, "Nightfall," was a Hugo nominee.) The final section, involving Amber's son Sirhan, is interestingly the most engaging of the book, considering that it takes place in the twilight years of the century, when only a few "meatbody" humans remain in the solar system. In some of the story's most trenchant observations, we see that posthumans have much the same petty problems as their flesh-and-blood precursors. A dysfunctional family is pretty much the same, whether living today or in the accelerated future.
Actually the characters are interesting and their plot-relationships draw you in: it is a page turner. What I was truly impressed by though was the care with which Stross has really thought about the Singularity. Suppose the process of runaway intelligence was via the conversion of more and more of the 'dumb matter' of the solar system into "computronium" (i.e. dust-sized distributed processors). Why wouldn't a new Darwinian paradigm emerge? Why wouldn't the post-human intelligences cluster near the sun for power and to minimise speed of light delay. Why wouldn't it all go terribly wrong? So like everyone else, I'm blown away by the torrent of worked-out ideas, and swept along by the story. It's time to read some more stuff by Charlie Stross.


We spent the afternoon today at Stourhead. Clare was determined to give her mitochondria a thorough airing and set off relentlessly from the "Spread Eagle" complex of shops and cafes, through the gardens and woods to the far end of the estate near King Alfred's Tower (four and a half miles uphill and back).

I marvelled.

Here are some pix of the lake and gardens.

Clare appreciating the honeysuckle

The ducks - that's grass they're eating?

The author occluding the Rhododendrons