A New Year, a new Crooked Timber book event. But instead of one book, we’re covering a dozen or so, all written by Charlie Stross, exploring different forms of the SF genre from postcyberpunk to alternate history and beyond. For this we need an all star cast, and, in addition to several CT regulars (Henry, both Johns and Maria), we have contributions from Paul Krugman, Brad DeLong and Ken MacLeod. Between us, we’ve managed to cover nearly everything. Glaring exceptions include the Laundry series, which every fan of Len Deighton and HP Lovecraft should read, and Glasshouse. I’ve added an open thread at the end of the seminar, for those who want to discuss what we missed.
For those who haven’t read Stross, start off with Maria Farrell who shows why you should. As Maria says, “Charles Stross has more ideas than is probably healthy for one man”, and her essay shows some of this amazing range. With that to whet your appetite, it’s probably best to jump randomly to whatever sounds most interesting, but for those who prefer some order, I’ll give a summary of the seminar, mainly in chronological (reverse blog) order.
Starting off with a heavy hitter, we’ve got Paul Krugman writing on The Merchant Princes, considered as a thought experiment in development economics. Of course, as Paul points out, these books are first, and foremost, great fun. But, unlike others in the ‘between alternate timelines genre’ Stross focuses on the big question: how does an agrarian society respond to a sudden irruption of modern industrial technology?
Following this up, John Quiggin on a problem more directly relevant to most CT readers: how does a modern industrial society respond to a sudden irruption of electronically accelerated financial technology? Accelerando provides the best imagination of possible paths to a Singularity that I’ve read. Of course, as current events tell us, there are different kinds of singularity.
Next, another star of the SF movement’s Scottish fraction, Ken MacLeod, on Stross’ latest venture, Saturn’s Children, a piece of Heinleiniana set in a post-human future, where femmebots, rendered effectively redundant in the absence of human males, intrigue with robot gigolos. Brad DeLong riffs off Ken’s reference to Asimov’s Three Laws to discuss the constitutional status of robotic ex-slaves and that less concrete but more powerful form of artificial/fictive humanity, the corporation.
John Holbo writes, as expected, at Holbonian length, with no possibility of a summary. As a teaser, I’ll quote his second para “Someone should rewrite Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit as a Wodehouse novel, with the title Absolutely Jeeves! (Alternate, Kierkegaardian version: Beer and Trembling.)” Read on and all will be explained (sort of).
Coming back to a more classic mode of SF review, Henry Farrell writes on Halting State, which he argues is the best novel Stross has written. In comments, I favour Accelerando and invite all comers to lost their Fave Five. Still, as Maria says it’s hard to beat a novel that includes the line “Nobody ever imagined a bunch of Orcs would steal a database table…”. And as Henry’s post shows, there’s more to be learned about post-sovereignty and the erosion of political authority in Halting State than if you spent the same time reading pontificatory opinion pieces about the inevitable breakdown (or triumph) of the EU.
Finally, Charlie Stross replies, in two parts. To my mind, this is usually the best bit of a CT book event, when we get to understand some of the author’s motivations and look behind the finished product of a book, and Charlie doesn’t disappoint. I won’t try to summarise, but encourage readers to jump straight in.