Hold on to your brain. Accelerando may cause cognitive overload.
Trying to “understand” Charles Stross’s latest novel starts with something called the Singularity. The Singularity is a point in the future where technological progress and societal change produce such superhuman intelligence that those who precede the event are unable to comprehend it. As elucidated by mathematician and science fiction author Vernor Vinge, this superhuman intelligence may arise from computers or computer networks that awake to consciousness and/or individual computer/human interfaces that allow humans to be continually connected to computing power and information.
This is the rarified stage upon which Stross follows three generations of the highly dysfunctional Macx family in the 21st century. We meet Manfred Macx in the opening decades of the 21st Century. He is an idea man. He uses his human/computer interface to assimilate more than a megabyte of text and several gigabytes of AV material every day, staying current on ideas, trends and news as he develops concepts for new businesses, patents and other intellectual property. But Manfred isn’t a billionaire, he’s a venture altruist. He gives his ideas away, eschewing money to live off the favors and benefits his clients bestow upon him.
In Manfred’s world humans can work and reside in two places separately or at the time time—cyberspace and “meatspace.” Part of Manfred’s ideas and efforts involve freeing lobster “intelligence” uploaded into and meshed with a computing system that runs an asteroid mining project space and his seemingly off the cuff discussion of dismantling the planets and moons in the solar system to convert them into computronium for use in a system-wide nanocomputer network.
These are just the surface of the ideas Stross explores. Trying to grasp some of them will force you to seriously engage your frontal lobe. Moreover, some of the more difficult concepts can only be described in language that does not easily flow. For example, here is Stross’s description of a “3D printer” in action:
It hisses slightly, dissipating heat from the hard vacuum chamber in its supercooled workspace. Deep in its guts it creates coherent atom beams, from a bunch of Bose-Einstein condensates hovering on the edge of absolute zero. By superimposing interference patterns on them, it generates an atomic hologram, building a perfect replica of some original artifact, right down to the atomic level—there are no clunky moving nanotechnology parts to break or overheat or mutate. Something is going to come out of the printer in half an hour, something cloned off its original right down to the individual quantum states of its component atomic nuclei.
Similar detail applies to many of the central concepts, perhaps indicating why some innovative souls have created a wiki technical companion to the book.
But Stross doesn’t focus solely on technological and scientific ideas. He also raises some of the multitude of significant societal issues they create. Here is just one, “here’s another potential ramification” example:
A religious college in Cairo is considering issues of nanotechnology: If replicators are used to prepare a copy of a strip of bacon, right down to the molecular level, but without it ever being part of a pig, how is it to be treated? (If the mind of one of the faithful is copied into a computing machine’s memory by mapping and simulating all its synapses, is the computer now a Moslem? If not, why not? If so, what are its rights and duties?)
The issue and ramifications of dealing with minds loaded into computers becomes highly relevant in the next generation. Amber is the next Macx on the stage. She may be the first to qualify as “posthuman.” As a teen, she goes to Jupiter as part of a mining and colonization effort. She ends up creating her own society on a rocky asteroid orbiting that planet. Ultimately, she becomes part of a group of explorers who seek out an alien router. That’s right, a router like that used for any computer network. Humanity, such as it is at this point, is realizing that the universe may be just one vast computer network. The question is how humans can connect to that network, especially since work to dismantle planets to turn the solar system into a nanocomputer network is getting underway.
How do the explorers search for the router? They upload their “brain states” to a “Coke-can-sized slab of nanocomputers” which is launched toward the a brown dwarf star that is the suspected site of the router. These uploads reside and live in “simulation space” throughout their journey, although their people whose minds were uploaded remain at Amber’s asteroid and continue to live their own lives. If and when the uploads return, the plan is to download them into newly cloned bodies, meaning one person may have two separate lives, memories and experiences.
Macx Generation 3.0 is Sirhan. Sirhan enters the scene as part of a group terraforming, so to speak, Saturn in the last third of the 21st Century. Most of the inner planets are gone, converted into computronium, and someone or something is pushing completion of that task in the solar system. Much of what comprises “humanity” today resides near the system’s central core, wanting to be near as much bandwidth as possible.
The posthumans terraforming Saturn call those in the central core the “Vile Offspring.” They are “weakly godlike intelligences” who no longer need or want physical bodies. The activities of the Vile Offspring, combined with artificial and intelligent financial instruments operating on the basis of “Economics 2.0,” pose a dire threat to Saturn’s posthumans. Yet they and an increasing flow of immigrants—memories of human “ghosts” the Vile Offspring are uploading to the planet and that are being placed in bodies created from accompanying genome information—differ as to how to deal with the threat.
Yet all of this just touches the surface of the ribbons of ideas Stross unfolds in this work. Given the number of ideas and the complexity of some, Accelerando can drag at times. This may also be due in part that the book basically brings together nine novelettes Stross published in Asimov’s Science Fiction from 2001 to 2004. Each novelette was nominated for recognized science fiction awards, with four earning Hugo nominations, but they won no awards.
Accelerando itself may be a publishing version of the “open source” ideas Manfred Macx exemplifies. Not only are the nine short stories upon which it is based available online, Stross has made the complete work available for free online in various electronic formats under a Creative Commons license.
Undoubtedly, Stross owes much to other thinkers and visionaries of the predicted Singularity. Yet in years to come, Accelerando may be recognized as a seminal work of science fiction. It certainly is deserving of a Hugo nomination for best novel. Someone may even have to create a new award for the work of science fiction that most makes the reader’s brain hurt so good.