Singularity Sky by Charles Stross

July 3, 2005 at 12:00 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | Leave a comment

Lately I’ve been reading a lot of fantasy or science fiction so literary that in a more just universe it would be stocked with mainstream books in the store. After this, it is a somewhat refreshing change to read some nice, hard, science fiction. It would be a disservice to Stross’ novel to say it is wholly without literary pretensions, for Singularity Sky does aspire toward the same sort of respect that Neal Stephenson garners in some circles for his prose. Basically, however, it is an update of the space opera to modern science fiction tropes. In particular, as the title implies, it looks at Vingean singularity. If the phrase “Vingean singularity” means nothing to you, it might be better to give this novel a pass, because it makes only a limited effort to explain it. Likewise, it seems to expect a basic knowledge of quantum entanglement and some other bleeding edge futurist concepts. Ultimately, Singularity Sky has few new ideas, but it represents a consolidation of many far flung ideas into one story.

As such, it is a brave effort, and perhaps doomed by its own aspirations. There are three problems with the novel. First, it has a boilerplate space opera plot and off-the-shelf characters that will do little to interest a reader well-read enough to not be lost in its futurist assumptions. Second, and this is a problem with most far-future stories, while Stross does an admirable job incorporating those concepts he is highlighting, the rest of his future feels a little…parochial. It is a bit of a contradiction to write a novel about the transformative effects of high technology but have characters whose attitudes, social mores, and (minus the gadgets) very way of life would not be at all out of place in, say, New York City in 2003. Yes, I know true extrapolation is a lot easier said than done, and I know if the characters are too removed from the present the reader is alienated. Still, it caused his future to ring false in my ears. A post scarcity economy where people work 9 to 5 jobs because they need money? A person who is described as being effusive “face to face” but terse in e-mail? And, sorry Charles, I know you are British, but while I can accept one guy in 2250 who has heard of Yorkshire, I just can’t believe he would have any right to expect that someone else from Earth would have as well. The third problem is related and by far the worst. As a means of limiting the culture shock experienced by the reader, Stross sets the story in a pre-Singularity colony that has an enforced technological stasis. This is a tried and true technique familiar to, say, readers of Banks’ Culture novels among many others. That the civilization is this lame straw man dystopia (secret police, misogynist, etc.) is disappointing, but salvageable. What wrecks the book and comes close to knocking down to two stars for me is the infuriatingly smug attitude the narrative takes toward the whole business. The two main characters walk around wrapped in warm blankets of superiority, for they are from an enlightened libertarian pseudo-anarchy. Naturally, just as the reader is expected to have a basic familiarity with the technological singularity, the reader is also expected to accept the (a) feasibility and (b) superiority of this society without defense. Meanwhile, for a book with remarkably little exposition devoted to its science fiction trappings, pages upon pages are spent arguing with the poor, deluded souls who have been brainwashed into believing the idiocy of their straw man tyrrany. These arguments don’t even go anywhere, because Stross is too afraid to make any of them sympathetic enough even to be convinced of their errors. I can only assume the society would only be dissected in such boring detail if Stross felt it was relevant to current day politics, but as I said, it is a straw man. Perhaps this is another case of assumed conceptual synchronicity between author and reader: yes, of course our current governments are sliding down that slippery slope to imperialism.

In the end I can give the book three stars mainly because of the skill Stross exhibits in weaving modern SF tropes together into a single universe and the occasional humorous moments. This was his first novel to be published by a major publisher, and he’s definitely a promising author. Hopefully experience will give him the subtlety to produce more satisfying novels in the future.


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