Manfred pauses in mid-stride, narrowly avoids being mown down by a GPS-guided rollerblader. This is getting weird enough to trip his weird-out meter, and that takes some doing. Manfred's whole life is lived on the very edge of strangeness, fifteen minutes into everyone else's future, and he's normally in complete control - but at times like this he gets a frisson of fear, a sense that he just might have missed the correct turn on reality's approach road.
Behold part the third in an increasingly pressed-for-time series of four: here's Accelerando by Charles Stross for all your posthuman, Economics 2.0 and Rapture of the Nerds needs. Lost? You will be.
Accelerando is a novel of ideas rather than of character or plot. It examines humanity's progress up to and beyond the 'singularity'. The singularity a hot-button concept in genre circles, generally signifying an imagined episode of change (cultural and intellectual, prompted by a technological leap) so profound that it constitutes a complete break with human history up to that point, a new configuration of humanity inconceivable to those who lived before it. The result is a populace of post-humans (or rather posthumans, since the future apparently has no time for hyphens). Otherwise known, following Ken MacLeod, as the Rapture of the Nerds (a phrase Stross himself uses - SF writers love their genre injokes...). In Stross' chronological framework, this Rapture may or may not correspond to a period in which the computing power of the solar system reaches such levels that human beings are able to escape their bodies - partly or entirely - and upload themselves into an unimaginably huge and complex network. In the process, they leave behind death and other such paltry fleshly concerns, and presumably float around thinking Really Big Thoughts.
All this said, we never actually get inside the heads of the ultimate posthumans (figuratively speaking, since they no longer possess heads, I suppose) during the novel. Instead, we stay with partially-modified, less radically different future-humans, for whom the posthumans are variously background detail and, at times, a threat (in the same unthinking way that a man might be a threat to an ant in his path that he doesn't even see). These are humans with much more complex brains and go-faster stripes but still, largely, human; disappointing on some level, perhaps, given Stross' evident breadth of imagination, but at the same time something of a relief. The ideas he does share with us - and the prose they're couched in - are dazzling and confounding enough; from the small - bags that scream when they're stolen, toilet paper that checks your health as you use it, implants for instant language learning - to the world-shaping - the impact of advances in computing technology upon individual identity (and legal culpability), when everyone can digitally clone themselves and lead numerous unique lives simultaneously.
All this is narrated in a breathless present-tense voice that falls over itself in a disorientating cascade of technical jargon, pop culture references, futureslang, brand names and convulted syntax. Stross likes his high-impact imagery: one character doesn't merely wake up hungover but "screams into wakefulness", "his tongue feel[ing] like a forest floor that's been visited with Agent Orange." Here is our main character reflecting on his ex-fiancee's desire to have a child:
She's trying to drag him back into her orbit again, he thinks dizzily. She knows she can have this effect on him any time she wants: She's got the private keys to his hypothalamus, and sod the metacortex. Three billion years of reproductive determinism have given her twenty-first-century ideology teeth: If she's finally decided to conscript his gametes into the war against impending population crash, he'll find it hard to fight back.
Or another, conveying information:
Amber dives inward, forks her identity, collects a complex bundle of her thoughts and memories, marshals them, offers Annette one end of an encryption tunnel, then stuffs the frozen mindstorm into her head.
Our human points of contact are early twenty-first-century guy Manfred Macx and his variously dysfunctional descendants. Manfred is the very model of a postmodern entrepreneur, surfing the tidal wave of technological development and liberally bestowing the fruits of his fertile mind upon the world - for free. Later, having found his political mission, he is described as
a posthuman genius loci of the net, an agalmic entrepreneur turned policy wonk, specialising in the politics of AI emancipation. When he was in the biz he was the kind of guy who catalyzed value wherever he went, leaving money trees growing in his footprints. [...] There are microcams built into the frame of the glasses, pickups in the earpieces; everything is spooled into the holographic cache in the belt pack, before being distributed for remote storage. At four months per terabyte, memory storage is cheap.
His mission begins as complete freedom of information via the net; it evolves into something much more far-reaching. For Manfred, when he isn't having blazing rows with his dominatrix partner, Pamela, has seen the future, and it looks not unlike the abruptly sentient lobsters recently uploaded to the neural net. Information must be free - but when that information is, or once was, a sentient being, what then? As the years go by and technology leaps forward, he sees the need for not only freedom but autonomy: human rights for digital beings. The alternative is glimpsed in the increasingly extreme protectionism of the music industry, now controlled by the Russian Mafiya, which monopolises - with brutal force - the licences to the songs of dead artists, long past asserting their rights. The danger of sentients being similarly enslaved, once they are without their physical bodies, is something Manfred sets out to fight. From here stem the novel's themes of divergent identity, the nature of humanity, and the role of memory in both these things.
As the twenty-first century rolls on, our window on the world is taken up by his estranged daughter, Amber, a precocious teen even by the standards of her time; and by Sirhan, Amber's not-son, conceived by a different version of herself while 'our' Amber was away chatting with aliens. Through all this, the family's pet sentient robot cat, Aineko, observes, makes suitably sardonic comments, and makes mysterious plans of its own.
Of all the characters, Sirhan is perhaps the most interesting - Manfred and Amber both live in interesting times, but are themselves rather difficult to get a handle on as people, as truly memorable characters. Sirhan, however, is a fun mess of of parental issues, cultural imperatives (his father was a Muslim) and a love-hate relationship with technology. It's hard to begrudge affection (and humour) for someone whose life is summed up thus:
His mother is campaigning on an electoral platform calling for a vote to blow up the world. Annette is helping run her campaign, his grandfather is trying to convince him to entrust everything he holds dear to a rogue lobster, and the cat is being typically feline and evasive.
Talk about families with problems...
He's deeply annoying, at times, but at least he's something for us to relate to, something for our responses to bounce off and kick against. Manfred and Amber fulfil their roles, get the cool lines and have remarkable minds; they're also, often, simply vehicles for ideas. Sirhan, however, made me alternately squirm, roll my eyes, and - as his character arc got going - sympathise and smile. Living in the most posthuman age, he's easily the most human; the rest are broad-stroke collections of quirks, rather than living creations. It's coming to something, too, when Stross seems to lavish more attention on a single description of the robot cat washing itself than he does on the rest of his characters' mannerisms combined.
Much the same may be said of the book as a whole. It's dazzling, but hard to be truly absorbed by; there's little to anchor oneself in or care about. In truth, I'm not entirely convinced that Accelerando is a novel in any conventional sense. It was first published as a series of nine novellas in genre stalwart Asimov's, and it shows; while the conceptual arc spans each chapter of the story, and most of the characters are carried over, there is clear overlap on the scene-setting (we get essentially the same physical description of Amber on two occasions separated only by a chapter break, for example). Plotlines start and finish within chapters, which isn't inherently bad, except that some stories feel rushed and slightly superfluous to the whole, even if rich in tone; characters sometimes disappear entirely (whatever happened to Pierre?).
Thus: Accelerando is bewildering and exhilerating as an exploration of concepts; as a novel, however, it left my decidedly now-human literary desires unfulfilled. More fun as a series of novellas, methinks.