Thursday, 2 December 2004

Charles Stross: Singularity Sky (2003)

Edition: Orbit, 2004
Review number: 1276

There are several science fiction writers who are particularly fashionable at the moment and whose novels have a fair amount in common. The authors I have in mind include Ken MacLeod, Alastair Reynolds, Richard Morgan and, pre-eminently, Iain M. Banks. With his first novel, Charles Stross makes a clear bid to add his name to this list. The familiar elements are all here - the post-modern ironic take on traditional space opera clich├ęs, an interest in philosophical ideas (in this case artificial intelligence and time travel), a smattering of references to classic genre stories, the construction of post-capitalist economic and political systems. To me, though, it doesn't quite gel together to become as convincing as the writing of any of the writers I've mentioned.

The background to Singularity Sky is the emergence of a powerful artificial intelligence in the telephone networks of twenty first century Earth; in an event known as the Singularity, the Eschaton basically becomes a godlike figure, transporting nine tenths of the human population to distant planets instantaneously and leaving behind new technologies such as the cornucopia machines, capable of recreating any object and so rendering all economics up to that point null and void.

Several centuries later, the resulting chaos has stabilised, leaving the Earth with an anarchic society in which the only cohesive entity is the United Nations. Elsewhere, in one colony known as the New Republic, the solution to the problem posed by the cornucopia machines has been to create a society apparently modelled on Tsarist Russia in which such technology is strictly prohibited. On one of their outlying planets, a space travelling object - a self replicating machine called the Festival, not in itself intelligent - arrives in orbit, and drops a large number of mobile phones which offer to grant wishes in exchange for information in the form of stories. The New Republic leaders cannot conceive of this type of entity, and assume that this is an invasion from some interstellar power that they didn't previously know of (and in terms of the disruption to the state's power structures, the arrival of the Festival has a similar effect to an attack, so this is not as strange a misconception as it sounds).

This idea seems like a reasonable basis for a story, but the elements never seem to come together. (For me, at least - Charles Stross has plenty of fans). The problem is the writing style; while Banks, Reynolds and Morgan all produce prose which draws the reader in and is full of atmosphere, much of Singularity Sky is dull and leaden. The best bits are the references to other writers; I particularly liked the high-tech version of the Luggage from Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels. It is nearly not enough - the idea is sufficiently interesting that I wanted to find out the ending, but the temptation to leave out the intervening pages and skip to the last few was strong.

The characters too are a bit of a problem. Some come from the backward feudal New Republic, while others are products of the post-capitalist Earth - and yet they both come across as pretty similar, late twentieth century humans. Even the beings who hitchhike with the Festival, some of which are described as extremely alien, have human characters, by and large. A group of intelligent burrowing animals, for example, are far less convincingly non-human than the rabbits in Watership Down.

This is a novel likely to confirm readers who are not fans of the science fiction genre of the stereotypical view of it that puts them off: strong on ideas, weak on execution, particularly poor in style and characterisation.

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