BOOK REVIEW: Singularity Sky by Charles Stross
Bottom line: This is the kind of science fiction I want to write, which is pretty much my highest compliment.
I used to read tons of science fiction, nothing but for long stretches. Then I grew up and realized that most science fiction sucked. I look back on the time spent reading anything by Piers Anthony and know I'm going to be wishing I had those hours back when I'm older. Writers like Charlie Stross are the reason I know most SF sucks, he just does it so well. He fills this somewhat slim book with more ideas than any 10 other books from the section his work inhabits at the bookstore. The main idea of the story, semi-sentient information gathering alien system called the Festival comes to a backward farming planet and begins granting wishes in the form of advanced technology in exchange for stories and information, is only the seedbed for the larger exploration of the societally backward planetary system and what happens when the revolution you hoped to lead finally comes and it doesn't need you.

As a lifelong reader of science fiction and as a futuristic thinker myself, I hate that most SF is just as backward-looking as Fantasy. Part of the problem with recent SF work is that we've come to a point in science where a lot of what made science fiction new has been done and what's coming is almost impossible to imagine, which I'll get to in a second. Space exploration can still be exciting but most new space stuff has been infected with the Star Trek Syndrome, as I call it, where everyone is boring and has no flaws, and the status quo rules. People just don't look to space exploration as exciting in real life so that translates to the SF work that people do. Real life science is changing so fast that it leaves even science fiction people in the dust. The result is the rise of 'Fantasy with robots and aliens' and 'Space Opera', two facets of SF that seem to be dominating the landscape. Even Neal Stephenson, who was at the forefront of real technological future SF with The Diamond Age and Snow Crash has gone backward with Quicksilver and to a lesser extent Cryptonomicon.

The issue is The Singularity. This is Vernor Vinge's idea that technological progress proceeds at an exponential rate until there is a complete break with what came before. The End Of History, as people call it. This comes with the creation of a human-level AI that quickly proceeds past human-level, the invention of Upload technology that will allow us to live in computer systems and artifical bodies, something of that nature that we can't imagine. The problem with writing futuristic work in the time before a Singularity is that you can't see beyond it. Everything is different, so much so that all we can hope for is the fire up our imaginations to the point where we can begin to think in new ways. One of the main goals of science fiction as I see it is to prepare us for the future. You can't hope to cope with the future if you've never been innoculated with new ideas. Singularity Sky is one of the first post-Singularity novels I've read that takes the idea seriously and examines it, allowing us to open our minds to the vast possibilities. Stross doesn't shy away from it like so many others. He uses the Festival's coming to show the speed of the change that comes with a technological Singularity and what happens to people in the aftermath. He also shows a culture trying desperately to hang on to old ways and the futility of doing that in the face of such rapid change.

There are problems with the book, mostly in terms of character development, but the rush of ideas glossed over that for me. This is only Mr. Stross's second book, I believe, the first being a collection of short stories called Toast: And Other Rusted Futures, that is high on my Must Read list. Charles Stross is a name that you will hopefully hear a lot more from in the coming years. His imagination is up there with the best and brightest and with his work as an accelerant my mind can't help but burn with new ideas. I hope more science fiction writers see this book and decide to move forward to meet him.