Accelerando by Charles Stross. Review by Andrea Johnson
I never thought I would say "recently published" and "one of the best science fiction books I've ever read" in the same sentence. Then I found Accelerando. Not only is this book up for an Arthur C. Clarke Science Fiction award, but I can honestly say it is one of the best science fiction books I have ever read.
I am typically enamored with older science fiction. I complain incessantly that modern science fiction is unoriginal, written like a bad movie script, contains too much visual imagery and action and not enough philosophy and politics—my list goes on. Accelerando has nearly everything I ask for in a science fiction adventure: plausible technology, philosophy on the future of humanity, deep characters, smart dialogue, aliens, artificial intelligence, clones, and cameos of and references to Miyazaki, Rick Santorum, George Soros, The Borg (I can't believe Stross & Co. didn't get sued by Gene Rodenberry), Richard Stallman, vague references to Sept 11th, obvious references to "The Mote in Gods Eye," and likely others I missed.
And it all starts with Hello Kitty—an A.I. cyberpet. The opening chapters give us squirrel-on-crack free enterprise technology broker Manfred, his rocky relationship with dominatrix girlfriend Pamela, their Hello Kitty A.I. pet Aineko, digitally uploaded lobsters who have hacked into an older version of KGB.ru, and a killer sense of déjà vu. Déjà vu? Then I finally remembered, I had read this when it was just a dreamy short story, called "Lobsters" in a tome of The World's Best Science Fiction. Nice to know there is more where that story came from!
The book is divided up into three parts, each one following a generation of Manfred's family tree. Manfred's life is a tornado of virtual online day trading companies and technology upstarts, his disastrous relationship with Pamela, and the Hello Kitty Aineko that they pass back and forth—a virtual child for which they share joint custody. When their daughter, Amber, is born, Pamela endeavors to keep Manfred and his new partner, Annette, away from Amber. To counter her efforts, Manfred creates a virtual company for which Amber is the primary stock holder. He then convinces her to sell herself into indentured servitude to this company, getting away from her overpowering mother, until the day Amber turns 18 when she will be a free entity, and live off her stock options.
By the time Amber reaches adulthood, it is possible to fully upload a human (remember the lobsters?) in a Matrix-like environment. Good timing on this technology becoming available, as an alien communication has recently been picked up, and we don't have light speed travel yet. The quickest way to contact the aliens is to send virtual uploads on a beam of light. Amber and her crew, and of course Aineko, upload versions of themselves, and head down the beam of light toward an ancient brown dwarf star, and the alien router which orbits it. Alien router? Routing to what? The alien internet?
Suffice to say that Amber and crew (and cat) go through the Router, to see if there is anything other than a nervous white rabbit on the other side. By the time they return, 28 years later, the solar system has changed for the worse, Amber's original entity has given birth to a son who is now a teenager, her father is dead, and the majority of earth's population has uploaded themselves without a real-life version as a back-up. And oh by the way, the alien white rabbit has followed Amber and crew back to the solar system, and we're still not sure if he's friendly.
Are you getting all this? Because it's just a fraction of Stross's hallucinogenic concepts. Thankfully throughout this space opera on speed, Stross provides us with little news tidbits, an outsiders voice telling us what's going on in society and technology, how many decades have passed since our uploaded downloaded characters last felt solid earth, etc. Every ten pages or so I was laughing out loud at some blatant reference to a modern movie or celebrity, or at one of the rules at the Saturn colony. While the humor is great, it points to one drawback. In ten or twenty years, is anyone going to remember the Hello Kitty craze, have even owned a tape playing walkman, know who George Soros is, get the "President Santorum" joke, or remember the African businessman who needs your bank account e-mail scam?
That aside, I can't give this book anything but our highest possible rating. May we be ready for the future, may we handle it wisely, and may we keep track of who is hacking into our virtual pets' programming!
Andrea Johnson lives in beautiful southwestern Michigan with her husband, and spends as much time as possible reading and enjoying science fiction and other speculative fiction. She is an administrator and book reviewer at Worm's Sci Fi Haven and an official reviewer at Multiverse.