The Stone City

Words Made to Last

Wednesday, August 24, 2005


[Contains spoilers for the novel Accelerando, by Charles Stross.]

It is necessary, when reading this novel, to realize that its nine chapters were written as independent novelettes. These are based on the decades of the twenty-first century, and the first few draw heavily on the corresponding chapters in Ray Kurzweil's The Age of Spiritual Machines. This latter is remarkable for being two books in one: both a grand and excited look ahead at transcendent technology, and an immediate favorite in any Bulwer-Lytton contest. Mr. Kurzweil's weird blend of unconvincing pseudoscience, tired literary devices, and cheerful shallowness mean that his book will inevitably fill any non-technophile with contempt for geeks, and their Rapture too. [That is, he tempts readers toward Disproof by Fallacy.]

Before going on, I should note two salient positives of this novel. First, it is free. Second, it enabled Mr. Stross to publish a story called "Nightfall" (chapter six)... in Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine. Those who do not appreciate the magnitude of this accomplishment, please go play in traffic.

Mr. Stross's fictionalization, then, brings Mr. Kurzweil's timetable to life -- albeit a juddering, revenant sort of life -- in prose which, while more energetic than Mr. Kurzweil's, shows scarcely more skill. Mr. Stross's is sometimes capable of a surprising or entertaining phrase, but his aesthetic sensibilities mostly resemble those of soft porn and bodice-ripper novels. Consider his prelude to the Death of Copyrights, near the end of the second chapter ("Troubadour"):
"Expecting company?" Pam asks, one brittle eyebrow raised in Manfred's direction.
"Not exactly –"
Annette opens the door and a couple of guards in full SWAT gear march in. They're clutching gadgets that look like crosses between digital sewing machines and grenade launchers, and their helmets are studded with so many sensors that they resemble 1950s space probes. "That's them," Annette says clearly.
"Mais Oui." The door closes itself and the guards stand to either side. Annette stalks toward Pam.
"You think to walk in here, to my pied-a-terre, and take from Manfred?" she sniffs.
"You're making a big mistake, lady," Pam says, her voice steady and cold enough to liquefy helium.
A burst of static from one of the troopers. "No," Annette says distantly. "No mistake."
She points at Glashwiecz. "Are you aware of the takeover?"
"Takeover?" The lawyer looks puzzled, but not alarmed by the presence of the guards.

If I could write like this, I'd do something else for a living.

Mr. Stross's novel is, of necessity, highly allegorical. Thus Pamela represents Social and Biological Conservatism; Manfred, Human Innovation; and so forth. In the process of describing posthuman evolution, Mr. Stross brushes against important concepts; but the relentlessly shallow writing permits no exploration, or even recognition of their presence. He accidentally describes a Nirvana, in which posthumans have eschewed capitalism and competition for resources; but changes his mind. Around chapter seven, the instability of such a system must have become clear.

In his elegy for Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald lamented the passage of time since man had
... for a transitory enchanted moment... held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.
The approaching Singularity is cause for discussion, inquiry and awe. In even the most sober predictions, it reverses Mr. Fitzgerald's plaint: it is incommensurate to us. But extracting this from Mr. Stross's novel is like accompanying a Labrador to an art museum, its wagging tail knocking all unknowing against incomprehensible wonders.

[Update 22 September: Mr. Kurzweil is more rational and convincing in this interview with technophile Glenn Reynolds than in his book.]