September 11, 2004

The One Hundred Seventy-Ninth Reserve Regiment offers its Unanimous Support of the Traditional Extropian Revolutionary Front!

Charles Stross’ Singularity Sky starts with a ring, not a bang – the ring of telephones falling from the sky, asking for entertainment in exchange for anything you want. That is certainly a louder threat than any cannonade to the economy of the backwards New Republic, and it scrambles to strike at this threat.

What happens when a technological singularity literally falls from the sky into a backwards society? That is basic story of this fun novel.

Singularity Sky is to some extent a space opera – interstellar empires, grand spacefleets with epauletted officers, strange aliens and good versus evil. But it is a modern space opera in the kind of Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep, Iain M. Bank’s Culture novels and Scott Westerfeldt’s The Risen Empire. The technology matters, not as some kind of backdrop but as an active factor that twists the story, characters and ethics out of the traditional human mould. Classic space operas like Star Wars could easily be turned into fairly tales with little loss (prince Skywalker on a quest to save a captured princess from the evil magician in his flying castle, gathering a fellowship…). But even if a strong fairy tale theme of Singularity Sky is the recognizable “be careful what you wish for” it is a broader story about the meeting between utterly incompatible cultures and modes of existence. While one could certainly try to make a mapping of the story into a fairy tale, it would become a very unorthodox fairy tale.

Perhaps a better description would be comedic military sf. Stross makes a believable job of describing interstellar warfare given the underlying technological assumptions – relativistic speeds, full-ship lidar used for detection and to power missiles, gravity control using small extremal black holes and limited FTL. Above this foundation he describes the complexities of a traditional military command structure, made ornate by coming from a backwards society insisting on equipping the control systems of their off-world bought warships with brass knobs and decorative dog’s heads. And it is here where comedy strikes. There are plenty of control room scenes that could be from any military sf novel: the shouted jargon filled commands, uneasy waits for missiles to reach their targets and brilliant tactical decisions. But they are all irrelevant: for all its might, his majesty’s battlecruiser Lord Vanek is an utterly inefficient relic compared to the kinds of conflict that occurs in the post-singularity universe. It is the Russian Baltic fleet from the Russo-Japanese war 1904-1905, blundering around and eventually doomed. The dark comedy lies in the complete inability of the Republic navy to realize this. Despite ample warning and evidence, they refuse to think outside the box and still charge on in the name of his majesty. Who cares about nanoweapons when you are defending the crown?!

The outside observers – a tongue-tied engineer and an UN disarmament agent – are smug in their condescending yet frightened view of the claustrophobic Republic. At the same time they are nearly as vulnerable to the alien threat of the Festival. But unlike the Republic they recognize that there are more than one way of dealing with threats. This seems to be an underlying trait among the advanced powers of the novel. Even the Eschaton, the godlike post-singularity offspring of Earth civilization, shows that it knows how to make omelette without breaking eggs.

Stross manages to sketch a truly alien system in the Festival, a description that gradually unfolds across the novel until it seems entirely plausible and logical. It is the Republic that is parochial and odd for all its comedic humanity. But people love to cling to what they are used to, no matter how bad it is. They can always hope the singularity might be a passing fad.

Posted by Anders at September 11, 2004 08:56 AM

If you liked _Singularity Sky_, there's a sequel (_Iron Sunrise_) out. Stross will also be Guest Of Honor at ConCeive, a SF convention in Gothenburg next year (June 17-19).

Posted by: cd at September 12, 2004 10:47 PM

Good to see you blogging, we were chatting on the list the other day, wondering what you are up to these days.
I just read Singularity Sky a few weeks ago, and I agree entirely with your assessment. This is a fantastic novel, worthy of Hugo consideration, IMHO. Our mutual friend Charlie deserves accolades for this one, and it was nice he mentioned us extropes as a movement, but I'm still waiting to be a character in someone's novel... ;)

Posted by: Mike Lorrey at September 13, 2004 07:17 PM

Hi Mike!

Would anybody believe a novel character like you? :-)

Posted by: Anders at September 13, 2004 08:24 PM

Oh, I'm trying hard to become a historical figure worth characterizing, between the Free State Project and Killington secession.

BTW: A person on the anarcho-capitalists community on is looking for an ancap massive multiplayer online game to try out ancap theories. Do you have any recommendations? Feel free to email me...

BTW: we are getting the Bostropians restarted up here in NH, between myself and David Lubkin, and are encouraging transhumanists to look to NH as a >H homeland. If you are ever in the area, please let us know.

Posted by: Mike Lorrey at September 23, 2004 02:06 AM