Charles Stross is an anomaly, of sorts. His genre style borrows more from American formula than British intuition, yet his stories contain just enough “pints” and jokey references to English socio-geographies to be unmistakably British. Yet his popularity among US sci-fi readers is undeniable, and I’ve gotten the impression, from interviews and his blog, that he purposely designs his books for the American genre market, because that’s where the money is.
So it’s no wonder that Stross is not one of my favorite writers, but it’s also no wonder why he is one of the most popular working SF authors today, and why he remains on solid footing in the American market. He contrives far-future universes populated with super-intelligent aliens, exciting tech advances, and charismatic characters based on familiar molds. Readers who whine about the death of the SF genre at the hands of a literary invasion should be perfectly pleased with Stross’ success. (And if they’re not, then those complaints must derive from other agendas.)
The third book in his Singularity universe, Accelerando, introduces the character of Manfred Macx, a philanthropist of ideas who lives off the charitable kudos of grateful corporate entities in a post-capitalist universe. Due to the wiles of his on-again, off-again dominatrix partner, Pamela, they produce a daughter named Amber. The book follows the family through three generations of economic and political dealings within the post-singularity universe, namely through, and sometimes against, the guise of their pet AI cat, Aineko.
Stross abandons his cookie cutter main characters of Singularity Sky and Iron Sunrise for some slightly less cookie cutter characters, though they seem to be a mash up of his previous two novels: the prosaic, cardboard guy; the feisty, dangerous woman; the sassy, independent girl. It’s sit-com casting, though Stross adds a racier edge—booze, drugs, sex, general hedonism— also present in his previous books, but slightly more developed here, though, as in the previous two books, more cartoonish than raw or revelatory.
More interesting are the ideas at play, which mostly dart across the page for cameos and go unexplored to their full extent: Matrioshka brains, privatized sovereignties, galactic routers, post-human politics, viral economics, altruistic capital, uploaded and fragmented consciousness—essentially applying computer science principles to meatspace. Any one of these concepts would be a sufficient platform for storytelling, but Stross’s universe glitters with post-singularity tech, post-capitalist consumption, and post-human identity and he can’t abide to sacrifice any of it. A reader of Stross must be quick, impressionable, and willing to abandon a Strossian tangent for another because Stross is a prideful, hyperactive host, and he wants to show you ALL of his cool things. This show-and-barely-tell habit is amusing, but it conveys a sense of conceptual insecurity, as if the ideas couldn’t possibly survive a devoted narrative.
It is also possible that this is a constraint of the book’s original publication format, serialized in Asimov’s for several years before its release as a novel. The content is jerky and abrupt at times, the most common symptom of serialitis.
In order to support the serialized style and leaps in linearity, Stross bookends each section with a Star Wars-like narrative scroll, encapsulating universal history and advancements over several pages. Akin to Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men (1930), these textbook summaries reveal a grander vision of futurism: darker, unstable, philosophical, uncertain. This is where the Stross’ limitations as a writer best serve his active, well-informed imagination. Ditch the silly characters and stitch these together and I would read it in a heartbeat. (But is that something most American Hugo voters would buy?)
But the silly characters remain, and while reading these three books, it becomes apparent that female characters are Stross’ other Achilles heel. Throughout the Singularity series, the casting suggests an attempt to subvert sexism (and considering the guiding AI and the protagonist’s name “Manfred,” is it a stretch to wonder if this is response to Heinlein?), yet his Strong Female Characters are firmly ensconced in their sexuality, at least one woman has criminally-sociopathic parental urges, and, well hell, they’re just so goddamn naggy and manipulative. (And I’m sure, 10 years later, we don’t have to discuss the use of the word ‘catfight’ and why it’s totally not cool.) Add Accelerando’s blank protagonist’s lack of agency at the smothering hands of his wives and daughter, not to mention an Ellisonesque ex-wife resentment that screeches from the pages*, the glaring but unintentional sexism is perhaps the most idiosyncratic aspect of Stross’ work. Because his geographical peers can be racy, edgy, and controversial without sliding into the trap of male gaze and male resentment, these insertions are interruptive and conspicuous.
There is a corrective interpretation of this, however, though something that might have been influenced by reader feedback throughout the serialization process. As events unfold, the characters of Accelerando gain more nuance and often break gender molds. The younger generations of Amber and Sirhan acquire more complexity and become less gender-predictable than Manfred and his female cohorts. In terms of gender and ethnic stereotyping, the latter half of the book is not perfect, but it seems as though Stross is trying. In terms of human depth, well, he is Writing For The American Market. There’s nothing more American than eagles, apple pie, and comfortably shallow SF characters.
However, this evolution in characterization is echoed in Accelerando’s evolution in form, where the techno-optimism espoused by Manfred in the earlier chapters (overlaid by a broad, but jokey cynicism, mind you, but by the gods, humanity survives that long and life is kind of easy!), later takes on a grim, destructive note, particularly in the previously mentioned historical narrative breaks. This change in tone suggests a narrative dialectic, the tempo-laden title being a hint at the subtle techno-pessimism that hides inside. Certainly the ending makes it clear that life in the hyper-tech universe isn’t so great:
But I think at this point we can agree that Dawkins was right. Human consciousness is vulnerable to certain types of transmissible memetic virus, and religions that promise life beyond death are a particularly pernicious example because they explore our natural aversion to halting states. (ch. 9)
So, perhaps humanity should embrace its limitations, before stumbling upon a regrettable kind of progress. In other words, slow down. (In other words, technope.) (Sorry.)
(And “wait ‘til their dead before putting them in your book” reason #1: “Dawkins was right”)
On one hand, it’s an absurdist look at the promises of human immortality in a post-singularity universe, though much of the darty content might distract readers from that point. On the other hand, though the better of the three Singularity novels, it still exhibits that routine genre style (setting-dialogue-setting-dialogue-setting-dialogue-dialogue-dialogue) that separates it from truly impressive SF, though Stross’ handling of the setting part is more alive than in previous installments. Readers seeking only cool ideas and a shady robot cat won’t mind.
*He also hates bailiffs. Like, a lot.