Books, Clips

Workers Unite! The Singularity Beckons.

The Singularity is that moment in the near future when artificial intelligence will surpass that of our own. We don’t know what that will look like, but folks like futurist, Ray Kurzweil, tell us that it’s when human beings and machines will merge effortlessly.

In “Singularity Sky,” Charles Stross equates it with what sounds remarkably like an alien invasion. “Out of the blue, one summer day, in the middle of the 21st century,” strange objects, mostly tetrahedrons, “silvery and massless,” appear on Earth. These are the manifestations of Eschaton, a god-like agency. The bulk of the population vanishes within the blink of an eye, and is exported to alien worlds.

One of them is the New Republic, a conservative, technophobic monarchy, 250 light-years from Earth, whose aristocrats lounge on oak furniture, while they’re served by majordomo in bottle-green frock coats.

After that overture, Stross doesn’t expand on the nature of the Singularity until the very end. A hard science-fiction, the book throws elements of steampunk aesthetic and Marxist thought into a 24th century galactic setting. Yes, it’s a strange fusion, but it’s a pretty dope one.

Rochard’s World, a backwater colony of the New Republic, has been invaded by an obscure, dark entity, known as the Festival. A non-human, data civilization, its citizens have no corporality, existing only as “minds.” Peripatetic, they roam the vast wilderness of space, dropping in on Luddite societies.

By providing this province with “forbidden technology,” the so-called “cornucopia machines”—devices that can produce any article you want, when you want it, and once produced, can be replicated endlessly—have shifted the means of production into the hands of the people. (Karl Marx would be pleased as punch.)

By shaking up manufacturing, it has upended the region’s economy, and sparked a revolution, whose scope is beyond anything even its leftist revolutionaries ever wanted.

Back in New Prague, New Republic’s capital, the Lord Vanek—a grand battlecruiser, lit with “baroque, red LEDs,” and navigated with “brass levers”—is setting sail to confront a foe they know nothing about. On board are three civilians, two of whom are Terrans: Martin Springfield, an engineer; Rachel Mansour, a U.N. weapons inspector; and a rookie intelligence officer.

The journey from New Republic to Rochard’s World—a hike of 40 light-years—would ordinarily, take them about four weeks. Incredibly swift as that is, with war looming on the horizon, the flotilla of warships can’t afford to wait that long to get to its destination.

This is where the plot begins to move into the denser territory of the two theories of relativity.

To reduce flight time—oddly—they don’t fly to Rochard’s World directly, but by a bizarrely circuitous detour, one that will plunge them into the future, and then return them, by a different route, to their own past.

For one, the maneuver enables them to take the enemy by complete surprise. For another, along the way, they pick up a time capsule containing historical analyses of the battle they’re yet to fight. Armed with foreknowledge of the outcome, they’d be better prepared with strategy.

That time travel can be used as a weapon is a rad, firecracker of a concept. It had me amped up. But the novel loses its mojo soon enough. Stross isn’t a talented storyteller. His focus is less on entertaining with a captivating piece of fiction, and more on showing off his encyclopedic knowledge. He also assumes that his reader is inside his head.

Baking in hardcore science into the narrative is all very good, but clogging it with redundant jargon, lifted perhaps straight out of the Journal of Mathematical Physics and computing textbooks, makes it leaden and unentertaining. Incoherent in places, with passages erupting without context, Stross’ style is off-putting.

Lord Vanek’s doddering and senile admiral tells his commodore that much as they’d have liked to, they aren’t permitted to land before the incursion because that’d break a cardinal rule of nature: “causality,” the law that every effect must have a prior cause.

Mansour’s job as a diplomatic observer is to ensure that the imperial space-navy refrains from employing any technology—a “causality-violation device”—that exploits time travel as an ammunition. But by reaching almost immediately after the distress call from the local government, they’d still be creating a paradox: they’d be arriving at Rochard’s World even before they’d left New Republic.

That, of course, is their plan.

In reality, “time” is a one-way street. We can only move forward along it. And that’s because we can’t move faster than light, no matter what. If, however, we could outrun it, we could hop backward to meet our younger selves. Superluminal travel and time travel are flip sides of the same coin.

Only a “tachyon” is believed to be quicker than light. But such as a particle doesn’t exist, probably because its existence would fly in the face of cosmic logic.

For its outbound voyage, the Lord Vanek, like all physical objects, moves along a “time-like path” though space-time—that is, it moves at speeds slower than light. During that stretch, it moves along both space and time, traversing a distance of 20 light-years from the New Republic as well as jumping some 4,000 years into the future. Continuing on in the same manner, it’ll cruise to a location very near Rochard’s World.

From there, it’ll embark on its homeward journey—“homeward” in the temporal sense—to Rochard’s World, as it was some 4,000 years ago, to that moment when it’d just sent out a mayday call. On this leg, it’d follow a “space-like path”—that is, it’ll move at speeds faster than light.

It proposes to make a miraculous appearance on Rochard’s World hot on the heels of the Festival’s onslaught, by taking a “closed time-like path”—that is, a trajectory that enables an object to return to an earlier moment in time. The Lord Vanek intends to go back to an instant more distant than the one it departed from. This would enable it to embark on the expedition earlier than it originally had.

In the wake of its encounter with the Festival, Rochard’s World leapfrogs from feudal agrarianism—reminiscent of the bucolic Russia Ivan Turgenev describes in “Sketches from a Hunter’s Album—to a Singularity-struck society. Progress of an entire millennium is collapsed into the space of three weeks.

Two-thirds of the population transcends humanity. Peasants pulled up stakes, and floated to the skies in gigantic geodesic spheres, leaving behind their biological shells, to migrate to the “upload afterlife” of the Festival. The wise, grew wiser; the old, younger.

The landscape is altered. Crops, forests, and vegetation are destroyed. A sleepy, gingerbread market town loses its charm, and sprouts a clump of cold, skinny, white skyscrapers that extended to space.

Where clear and crisp prose could’ve painted a far more vivid picture of the transformed world, Stross inserts streams of jabberwocky. Reading it left me exhausted.


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