by Kyt Dotson
At its core, science fiction is a speculative look at how technology and futurism affects humanity. Are we the same people we were in the early 1900’s when entertainment meant going out and accompanying one another in a venue versus now when we can simply jump onto a game console like an Xbox and join our friends in their virtual games? Culture can be viewed as just another volatile human technology; it morphs and adapts with every other innovation we adopt. Societies are defined by the very tools they embrace—from language to computers—and framed by the tools they reject—from bioengineering to infanticide.
Accelerando by Charles Stross is a generation-spanning, longitudinal narrative that follows a beginning much like our world of the 21st century into the deep strange technology of the future where humanity transcends their bodies and finds the Singularity. The very name of the book is suggestive of the thesis that it presents: that once a culture starts adopting its way up the technological ladder it begins to gain momentum. It accelerates towards something.
The story begins with the first generation of the family that will change the world. Manfred Macx lives in a 21st century world where augmented reality is just beginning to change the way that people think. As an anchor point it’s an excellent start because it gives a place for readers like you and me to attach to the story. Of course, it’s a bit fantastic and includes things that we don’t and cannot currently do. Such as the introduction of an A.I. network generated from the brain scans of a colony brood of lobsters, a family pet that’s more machine than feline, and the notion of real copyright mafia sending g-men to enforce their intellectual property rules.
Even at this juncture Manfred is more cyborg than he is human (although he doesn’t have any implants) like much of modern Internet-connected humanity, a great deal of his memories and ambitions are tied up in the cloud—vast interconnected storage networks accessible by WiFi and Ethernet connections that augment our everyday lives by permitting us to offload staggering amounts of information so we don’t have to keep them in our heads. Manfred’s technology takes it a step further and even implements his own personality in his augments.
Stross is a great lover of the culture as technology meme and it flows through the entire book. With Manfred, it happens to be the fact that he’s a man with absolutely no income but staggering personal worth—as self-described “venture altruist” he wields his connections to other human beings and knowledge of corporations and the programmable code of international law to make other people billionaires overnight. Here Stross introduces concepts such as dynamically self-owning, self-organizing corporations capable of spawning and incorporating new corporations in real time in order to stay ahead of lawsuits generated by their activities.
As the story progresses, so does the technological savvy of humanity as Manfred’s daughter, Amber, gets caught up in family politics that propels her away from a quickly transforming Earth and into the solar system at large. Where, in order to gain her own sovereignty, she is forced to found a new empire where she can make her own laws. The idea of self-owned nations that use their very laws to generate revenue and attract investors into their economies becomes a big event overnight as the world of Earth spins inexorably towards the Singularity.
Stross asks a lot of questions about what para-Singularity humans might look for in their personal economies within the fractal-deep relationships between superhuman artificial intelligences and soon-to-be-posthuman societies. As the world collapses under the weight of its technological acceleration, evolving ever towards whatever momentum their decisions drive them, he keeps the story human by creating a character-driven narrative of the Macx clan. Amber, of course, has a child, Sirhan, who is born into a universe where the human consciousness has been divorced from biology and instead lives almost entirely virtual lives inside of vast computing environments.
Sirhan al-Khurasani finds himself thrust into his own adventure that sends him looking for humanity’s place in a universe potentially full of other super intelligences much like those being birthed back where Earth used to be.
The vast ecology of science fiction ideas as they pertain to human development provide the sheer kinetic mass of this story. The longitudinal narrative draws the reader from the near-21st century technological level of Manfred’s world into the scintillating posthuman universe of Sirhan of clan Macx. As their very world changes around them, the reader gets to see how culture and technology mix to change not just humanity and society as a whole but the place of individuals in that brave new universe.
Of course, it’s only in a Charles Stross book that I could have expected to see a Nigerian 419 scam slash pyramid scheme hybrid grown so complex that it became sentient. Also, one might take away from this novel an uncanny moral story about not modifying your adored pet AI cat so long and so often that it eventually becomes a weakly-godlike intelligence that exceeds your wildest imaginings.
We have seen entire families build cities and global spanning corporations. Acellerando suggests that one family, generation after generation, could be part of humanity’s unbroken chain of building its own transformative future and forging its place in the crown of stars that rings all sentient life.
As with any excellent science fiction, the story has stayed with me years after first reading the book.