Why you should read Charles Stross

by Maria on January 27, 2009

Science fiction is, more than anything, a literature of ideas. And Charles Stross has more ideas than is probably healthy for one man. How many writers truly grapple with what it is to be human, with or without post-human technology? Accelerando bravely risks alienating you from the characters by propelling them off into multiple iterations far removed from the original meat-space versions. It reminded me of the second half of Wuthering Heights, when the original cast of characters is dead or unrecognizable, and a set of translucent copies play out the same drama. Less satisfying emotionally, but it makes you grasp intuitively the big questions beneath; what is free will? Am I the same person I was before puberty, when I left home, or even this time last year?

Stross often writes about life on the other side of that black hole, the Singularity, a world that is by definition unimaginable. How can we imagine what consciousness, pain or joy might be like after we digitize our brains? Post-singularity writers remind me of Saint Paul trying to explain the transcendental nature of Christianity to a colonized under-class who’d expected the Messiah to literally smite the Romans (and the Egyptians, Persians, and Mesopotamians). There’s a distinctly religious echo to the implication that the ways and thoughts of post-singularity existence are far beyond ours. Who, in their right mind, would even try to write about this? Stross for one. But not only that, he brings on the funny. Stross is a superb comic writer, an absurdist on a par with Terry Pratchett who never slips fully into slapstick: A.I. lobsters, talking telephones, a pitch perfect send-up of communist factions, and my favourite line in perhaps any novel:

“Nobody ever imagined a bunch of Orcs would steal a database table…”

Stross’s stories are always about politics. His characters inhabit fully imagined universes where easily recognizable groups of people grapple with issues and contend for power. They don’t mope around describing the scenery either. Instead of taking half a book to figure out the implications of hopping between universes, Miriam Beckstein is packed and ready for her second trip, and trying to blast a medieval society into the information age by her fourth. Which is great because what’s interesting about fantasy worlds is not ‘how will the lead character get her head around this’ but more ‘but how would it work?’ What’s the plumbing like? Why would Ivy League schooled world-walkers keep their homeland in a feudal state of development? This is more than a fascinating conceit. It makes me understand the House of Saud a little better and reminds me of William Gibson’s famous quote; “The future’s here already. It’s just unevenly distributed.” So is the past.

But while Stross litters his universes with jewels of ideas other writers would lavish novellas on, I wonder if there’s something peculiarly leftist about the revved up short-handing of human progress. Civilizations are tagged pre and post-contact by a technological determinism that drives political, economic and social development on a linear track, albeit at the speed of a geometric progression. Stories abound where future-shocked characters say things like:

“But the UN is a government-“

and are told;

“No it isn’t,” Martin insisted. “It’s a talking shop. Started out as a treaty organization, turned into a bureaucracy, then an escrow agent for various transnational trade and standards agreements. After the Singularity, it was taken over by the Internet Engineering Task Force.* It’s not the government of Earth; it’s just the only remaining relic of Earth’s governments that your people can recognize.”

Iain Banks’ Culture novels are the epitome of the idea that if you magic away resource constraints, politics is about individual identity and the exercise of free will. It’s quite fair to argue that a society where technology has developed so far as to make scarcity unknown, and where digitized humans are impossible to murder, or even, really, to harm; this sort of society would be organized in a radically different way, if it’s organized at all. (Such a society could be described as ‘organized’ only insofar as emergent patterns and associations can be identified, rather than being structurally determined by design or consent.) How useful is it, politically, to speculate about what post-singularity life might look like? The description of elections in Accelerando as the acme of brand-driven, micro-marketed memetics isn’t all that satisfying. It’s politics as we know it, with more processing power and faster cycles. In the post-singularity politics of the Eschaton, people fight for liberty, not resources, because freedom is the only thing there’s a shortage of. But on closer inspection, the main struggle in Stross’s near-future writing is not for survival but for freedom, too.

Halting State is set in a pre-Singularity near-future where the commonest application of AI is as a spam filter that summarises an email as “job offer, vaguely menacing”, 70% likely to be spam, but probably worth a look. Halting State does what near-future SF does best; extrapolates current trends and technologies into a recognizable scenario that critiques the present day. It’s a Britain I certainly recognize.

We still have bendy buses, but the Republic of Scotland is the new Celtic Tiger and uses Euros instead of sterling. The band-aid covered Computer Misuse Act is still going, though with Scottish revisions post-independence in 2014. The lumbering infrastructure of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act has shaped society, but the local PC plods are still as hopeless with IT crimes as they are today. The appearance of Euro-spook Mehmet indicates that Turkey may have joined the EU and the present-day power grab of the EU Council of justice and home affairs Ministers paid off. Britain’s slid further down the slippery slope to a surveillance state. Law enforcement have always lived in a different world, and now they inhabit a data-rich version of reality called CopSpace. The Tube is dirtier, and even more screwed up by under-investment and the skewed incentives of public private partnerships. Global warming has made London sweaty from April to November and driven up the cost of flood insurance. Going behind the school bike shed at the age of fifteen with a younger girl puts you on the sex offenders list for life. But at least the cops take Paypal.

It’s all a bit depressing, really. (Especially if you’ve spent a good chunk of your career fighting the expansion of state surveillance and still can’t understand why the UK has the best thinkers, writers and activists on this stuff, but some of the worst policies by far.) But in Stross’s oeuvre, the Singularity will somehow give us a pass on Big Brother’s Brave New World. I’d love to hear how. Of course, the singularity is a qualitative change about more than just faster processing power, and a self-replicating cornucopia machine will put a lot more than the means of production in the hands of the workers. But in a fictional universe where technology drives the politics, how might we get from a pre-Singularity panopticon to a world of free-floating and interchangeable individual, corporate and government identities?

I love that towards the end of Singularity Sky, Rachel channels John Perry Barlow:

“We’ve been trying for years to tell your leaders, in the nicest possible way: information wants to be free. … Then along comes the Festival, which treats censorship as a malfunction and routes communications around it. The Festival won’t take no for an answer because it doesn’t have an opinion on anything; it just is.”

I got involved in Internet policy in the first place because I thought this kind of escapist rhetoric was precisely how the cyber-libertarians were going to sell the farm to big business and repressive governments. The Internet has massive ability to spread knowledge and ideas, and it was designed to route around and rout out single points of failure. Many early adopters, of a decidedly libertarian outlook (what with being young, white, affluent and male), took this to mean the Internet is antithetical to centralized control. The evolutionary ideal of the Internet had it developing antibodies to censorship and undermining authoritarianism in all its forms.

The reality, though, is that the Internet and its associated tools are developing as the ultimate technology of control. Far from being much able to influence developments in the opposite direction, my professional life has just given me a bird’s eye view of the coming train wreck. So, eh… read Charles Stross. (and Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear and Kim Stanley Robinson.) His books help us think through these issues, follow current trends to their logical conclusions, and make it clear that some worst-case scenarios are anything but fiction.

But I’ll leave the last word to Harald Alvestrand, a former chair of the Internet Engineering Task Force who I’m lucky enough to know through my work. A few months ago I asked Harald what he thought of the singularity and when we might reach it. We defined terms, and agreed the singularity might mean the exponential increase in technological progress that takes in computing, nanotech and cognitive science. Harald said the singularity’s already here, it has been for quite a while, and that it’s an exciting time to be alive.

* I especially loved this since so much of my daily work is affected by the efforts of a UN body to take over some Internet numbering/naming functions.



Greg 01.28.09 at 12:11 am

When can we expect a post on this?:

Eagerly awaiting minds want to know.


Greg 01.28.09 at 12:12 am

bloody html.

‘This:’ refers to this:

“The reality, though, is that the Internet and its associated tools are developing as the ultimate technology of control. Far from being much able to influence developments in the opposite direction, my professional life has just given me a bird’s eye view of the coming train wreck.”


Paul Guinnessy 01.28.09 at 3:28 am

I suggest checking out books by Richard Morgan as well.


Cannonball Jones 01.28.09 at 10:31 am

Also read him because he has written the best homages to HP Lovecraft outside of Neil Gaiman’s short story, “A Study In Emerald” i.e. The Jennifer Morgue and The Atrocity Archives. Utterly delicious reading if you’re in the mood for some cranial downtime involving sercret services and Ancient Ones…


HH 01.28.09 at 1:06 pm

The logic of increasingly serious collisions between Internet-based governance (de facto) and conventional sovereign states (de jure) is inescapable. It is fairly easy to posit an emerging Netstate, whose citizens enjoy a common currency, laws, rights, and duties that overlap (and may ultimately transcend) those of the geostates. Yet this transition is so profoundly disruptive to most existing concentrations of political power that speculation about it is relegated to “science fiction.”


Zora 01.29.09 at 5:53 am

I’ve interacted with Charlie online; he’s a great person and a heck of a good writer. I buy his books when I can afford them, and library them when I can’t. But …

That beginning sets up the “but”, doesn’t it?

His worldvisions are so convincing that I believe them while I’m reading. It’s only when I’m out of the book that I see huge lacunae.

Charlie isn’t all that fond of environmentalists, whom he tends to see as scaremongering Luddites, so there is no environmental crisis in his books.

Charlies isn’t all that fond of religion — indeed, he loathes it — so there are no sympathetically-depicted religious folk in his books. Hardly any mention of religion at all, IIRC.

Charlie is a tech whiz and sees a technical future. A future in which everyone is Westernized. There are no other cultures. Or if they’re there, they’re peripheral.

I think it’s possible to imagine very different futures starting with the NOW, futures that don’t shut out environment, religion, and cultural differences. I’m not demanding that Charlie do the imagining; he does a bang-up job with the elements floating about HIS brain. But if folks here are taking Charlie as some sort of future guide, then I’d advise them to beware of the lacunae.


Brad Holden 01.29.09 at 7:40 am

I think that I could argue that the Laundry series, the HP Lovecraft homage, deal with many of the same issues as Halting State but in a much less direct way. In those books, the technologies of surveillance and control are frequently co-opted. It seems that in many of Charlie’s books, the secret agents spend half or more of their time cleaning up the messes that their own technologies have caused.

That those technologies are suppose to deal with shambling horrors from the great beyond just make the books REALLY fun.


Maria 01.29.09 at 11:54 am

Ian McDonald does a great job imagining less westernised futures. River of Gods and Brasyl, especially.

But while we’re accounting for lacunae, I don’t think Charlie gets enough credit for having clever, no-nonsense women as leading characters, and also for not making a fuss about them. The detective in HS is a case in point.

You’re right, Greg. It’s a long while since I’ve written anything about the train wreck. I’ll get thinking about it. Not always easy to parse out the stuff I can write about work-wise, but very important nonetheless. Thanks.


Ilya 01.30.09 at 9:10 pm

Charlie isn’t all that fond of environmentalists, whom he tends to see as scaremongering Luddites, so there is no environmental crisis in his books.

Excuse me? In “Saturn’s Children” runaway greenhouse effect had caused oceans to boil, and all eukariotic life on Earth is extinct. I would say this qualifies as “environmental crisis”

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