Accelerando by Charles Stross is a wild ride. Stross is part of a growing band of sci-fi writers who subscribe to the notion of a singularity. In their terms, a singularity is the point at which convergence of technology and biology and every other discipline becomes so pronounced that the future beyond it is unrecognizable and cannot be forseen. Many of these writers are predicting a singularity within the next twenty years. Stross and his band of merry futurists are dedicated to doing exactly what they say can’t be done… they’re pulling back the veil on the unknowable future. Stross’s post-singularity society is one where consciousnesses are uploaded to the ‘Net regularly and the computing power of all the computers built in a year as finally outstripped the computing power of all the babies born that year.
We meet up with the protagonist, Manfred Macx, in pre-Singularity Europe. Manfred is a data-miner who patents ideas and then gives the patents away. He is anti-capitalist, in that he has no money, but everything he needs is paid for by grateful corporations and organizations he’s helped out. Manfred is being stalked by his dominatrix fianc?e, who leaves him dead kittens on his doorstep. Manfred has come up with a plan to turn solar bodies into computronium, because he’s convinced that most of the mass of the solar system is being wasted. He’s also convinced that if the market is replaced with an expert system, it would spell the end of capitalism by eliminating scarcity. He thinks it’s a good plan.
Twelve years later, Manfred’s daughter sets up a kingdom in the Jovian system to escape her mother’s clutches. When an alien signal arrives in the solar system, Amber Macx uploads a copy of her consciousness into a Coke-can size supercomputing spacecraft and sets off to explore the origins of the signal. Meanwhile, closer to Earth, self-aware corporations have started to dismantle the inner solar system to form computronium, a type of “smart matter” which allows for previously intractable computing problems to become trivial.
Twenty-eight years later, Amber’s son Sirhan, living on a huge floating platform on Saturn, witnesses the return of his now-dead mother’s uploaded alter-ego’s interstellar spacecraft. She has returned with a tale of Russian-doll-like semi-solid nested Dyson spheres of computronium inhabited by super-intelligent corporate entities. Three generations of Macxs must now save what’s left of the human race from the same fate, as the computronium-powered post-human intelligences of the inner solar system turn their gaze outward to the bounty of the gas giants. Can they convince the refugees of humanity that their hope lies out in the stars? And what does it all have to do with Manfred’s pet robotic cat?
Stross seems to be commenting on humanity by looking at what it takes to be post-human. While confusing at times (he assumes a great deal of knowledge on the part of the reader), the novel is a good mix of the probable, the possible, and the way-out-there future. In the end, even when talking about super-intelligent self-aware corporations, this novel is about humans. Through three generations of incredible change, one family is forced to confront their own humanity and find that which makes them similar, despite all their obvious differences.
To those who dream of futures beyond the comprehension and ability to adapt of the present generation, I recommend this book. For those who simply want a romp through future worlds without an examination of the nature of humanity, you may want to look elsewhere. This novel is heavy with implications that we are not as evolved as we think we are, and those entities which we now consider our servants may rise up to supplant us in a future so different from our own that we can only catch a glimpse through Stross’s writing.