Book Review: Singularity Sky by Charles Stross

Singularity Sky

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By Kyt Dotson

The subtitle of this book tells it all: “In the far future, information demands to be free.” It evinces a sense that sentience isn’t simply an effect of material but an end-product of information and thus information can have intelligence, self-awareness, and even make demands on its own. This an affect of the Singularity—a science fiction concept that crops up extremely often in contemporary 21st century literature. In his 2003 book Singularity Sky Charles Stross introduces the concept of Singularity-by-force.

In this story a civilization runs afoul of a robotic travelling sideshow that exists to make sure that everyone in the Universe is connected. Not in the LSD-trip sort of way that old hippies seem to believe that everything in the Universe is connected; but in the sort of way that they find themselves in contact communication and contact with other sentients. This hypertechnological enforcer heralds its arrival at a planet by bombing it with the most peculiar of items: telephones.

“Hello? Will you entertain us?” asks a tinny voice to anyone who answers the phone.

They are the Festival. They exist for one purpose: to release life forms from their dependence of material and energy and permit them to enter into the real Information Age. They’re not looking for material goods from the citizens, nor labor, nor work: they want stories, inventions, ideas, and thoughts…the immaterial and abstract. The Festival isn’t thoughtful in the way that anyone expects aliens to be—they’re more or less a giant telecommunications robot who arrives in a system, establishes the hypertech equivalent of a telephone pole, repeater network, and lays the wiring to connect them to everyone else.

This is not a version of They Are Made of Meat—the aliens in this Universe desire that nobody is alone.

In the story, the Festival arrives at the world on the outskirts of an interstellar Empire that artificially restricts technology for particular civilizations. As a result, the citizens have backwards (and oddly mishmashed technological advancements) and also have a resistance who desire only to be able to move forward to a higher level of tech. They’re also primed to ascend out of their bodily shells and discover the Universe beyond them.

Of course, this is a threat to the established order. They cannot control citizens who have access to such high-technology that they’re beyond human boundaries. After all, that telephone asking for entertainment grants wishes—anything you want for a simple story or a new creative thought, anything and the Festival can give you something that will allow you transcend the very nature that it is to be human.

Although the first character in the book to receive a telephone, a young child, only asks for a bike.

Not everyone can expect someone who never encountered this telephone, slightly-melted from atmospheric entry, to be all that creative. However, there are others on the planet who do make due.

As the story progresses, more is revealed about the Festival. The narrative breaks itself between several different actors visiting the rapidly changing political and social landscape of the planet. One in particular is conscripted by the Imperial Navy to fight this new threat to their established power base—mostly the threat seems to do so by emancipating humanity from the entire idea of traditional power establishments. They, of course, locked into their old ways of thinking see the arrival of the Festival as a direct affront to their authority (and it is) and decide to take military action.

The action they intend to take may in fact violate interstellar law (or, in this case, temporal law.) While the citizens on planet happen to be knocked into a sort of weird technology base that uses mostly 22nd century technology with 20th century infrastructure; the military that supports their stellar empire is capable of faster-than-light travel that can allow them to jump into system before the Festival attack began. In fact, some military engagements have been fought and won through causality violation.

However, the powers-that-be disagree with this sort of behavior and have very special rules on how it can be done without severe sanction. So much of the story is written as preparations to violate causality in order to get an attack fleet in system before the Festival started bombing the planet with telephones.

This segment of the story plays a fun juxtaposition to the forced social evolution to the Singularity by the Festival on the planet by running a sort of spy noir story. The parallel stories develop a foil between the what-was and the what-the-future-holds sort of anthropological narrative growth as the story unfolds and more bizarre notions of how the Festival functions and how humans react to being handed capabilities that are nigh-onto-magic and what they do with them.

This is a fun read. Although it comes across as less than hard-science fiction, it has a space opera epic quality to it that kept me turning the pages and enjoying the interactions between characters. I especially found the concept of the Festival to be internally compelling and even the way the spy-noir segment ended for the military strike felt weirdly satisfying.

Come on then, pick up the phone. “Will you entertain me?”

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