Review of Accelerando by Charles Stross
by Charles Stross
We’ve just entered the tail end of 2013, fast approaching the middle of decade the second of the twenty-first century. Few of the changes Charles Stross lays out in this book have come to pass, which isn’t surprising. Many of them are still possible within our lifetime, though, which is interesting.
I’ve felt rather burnt out when it comes to posthuman SF ever since my last foray into the subgenre. Postsingular just left me feeling quite cynical about the potential for such stories. I had an epiphany that I swore, in my hubris, I would never experience. Others wiser than me in the ways of posthumanism have written about it before, and I should have listened. But I was too enchanted by the siren song of nanotechnology, mind uploads, and strong AI. I had been lucky, in that I had read several great posthuman stories and very few poor ones. As I read more widely, I began to understand the conundrum that many science-fiction writers face.
Stross addresses this problem in an essay that, I believe, made it into the afterword of my edition of Scratch Monkey (I don’t have my copy at the moment, so I can’t double-check, and I don’t know if it’s available online somewhere). He remarks that, after a certain point, nanotechnology essentially becomes magic in a Clarkian, sufficiently-advanced kind of way. It’s perhaps a corollary to that adage: sufficiently advanced technology can let you escape any plot hole. (This is particularly evident in episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation.) Once you have the ability to manipulate matter at the subatomic and quantum levels, you are essentially a wizard. This makes you very powerful, and thus from a story perspective, somewhat uninteresting. How do you threaten your protagonist when the answer to everything is, "Nanotechnology!"?
Then there’s the other side of the posthuman coin: the Singularity. Now, I don’t necessarily believe the Singularity will happen (and I think that is rather beside the point), nor do I particularly agree with the concept that the Singularity is a boring or unrealistically utopian vision of the future. It’s a mistake to refer to the Singularity in earnest as the Rapture of the Nerds, and Singularitarians who remain convinced that the Singularity will bring about the eternal prosperity of a post-scarcity economy are kidding themselves. The whole point of the Singularity is that it is a massive paradigm shift in the way humans relate to the world, to the extent that we cannot predict what society will be like after it occurs. No one mentioned the shift would make the world perfect. It’s entirely possible the Singularity could leave humanity worse off, endangered or extinct, particularly if it involves a strong AI.
This is the path that Accelerando treads. Even though Stross’ blithe use of nanotechnology frustrates me, his grounded notions of what a Singularity could mean for the human species are very appealing. This is a posthuman novel that is fun and optimistic in one sense but also twisted and dark in another. In short, it’s a posthuman novel for the postmodern age. It has flaws—particularly, I think, because of its nine-part novella-like structure—but it still packs enough punch to make it worth reading.
Accelerando, as the title implies, aptly demonstrates how certain technological innovations within the next few decades could combine to create a snowballing effect of accelerated change—a rolling Singularity, if you will, with no clear beginning or end. To name a few such innovations: simulation of consciousness, to be followed by mind uploading; weak AI based on primitive neural networks; easier and more reliable cryptography becoming tied to one’s identity, which will in turn become distributed through nanotechnology and wearable computers on one’s person. Stross demonstrates how, over the course of a single lifetime, so much can change that the world—and humanity—becomes unrecognizable.
As I said before, I’m not too impressed by the book’s near-future setting (at least for the first part) or some of Stross’ specific predictions. I’m not one to complain when an author gets such predictions wrong, but I’m wondering what motivated Stross to make such predictions about a world only twenty years from the time he was writing. Did it really seem like we would advance to that point by then? Or was it just a convenient length of time?
The specifics, and indeed the speed at which these changes and innovations occur, are immaterial to the actual point of the book. Even if it took longer for everything that happens in Accelerando to happen, the result is still the same: Earth being disassembled for computing power by the "Vile Offspring" of humanity.
Because that is the paradox of posthumanism. By definition, we cannot become posthuman until we give up that which makes us human. But if we don’t, and we elect to remain human (or even mostly human), we risk being left behind in the cognitive arms-race, so to speak, of self-enhancement. Having reached the point where we effectively control our own evolution, it is difficult for us not to walk down that path. Stross makes some interesting observations about some of the "most logical end points" for such evolutionary decisions.
It might be difficult for some people to comprehend, this idea that we would disassemble moons and entire planets for use in computing. That’s a byproduct of the public misconception of what computers are—all silicon and electrons whizzing about microprocessing units. Even though I’m aware of some of the deeper theories that underpin the subject, the various Turing this-and-thats, I admit that a lot of the jargon used in this book is beyond me. However, if you can work past this obstacle to understand that, yes, hungry posthuman intelligences will probably disassemble some or all of our solar system, then you start to realize how humanity as we know it might be threatened. If we’re not careful, we could build, design, and simulate ourselves to death.
And then there’s the cat, Aineko. It isn’t a cat so much as an AI in a cat’s body. It has become self-aware and started modifying its own programming. It has also discovered that it can manipulate humans, particularly by using its physical form’s adorable nature to catch them off guard. At the beginning, Aineko is an ally, then a trickster, and finally a thorn in the characters’ side. By the end, with its true power and nature more apparent, we can see that it has been manipulating the characters for the entire time. Once again, Stross points out that any AI, whether created by us or an accidental amalgamation of algorithms, is not necessarily going to be our friend. At worst it will be Skynet; at best it will be a helpful, God-like protector (as if we could trust it). But it will probably be like Aineko or the Vile Offspring, two examples of "amoral" and disinterested intelligences who will use humanity if it suits their purposes or ignore it as long as humanity isn’t in the way.
With Accelerando, Stross plays with a lot of high-concept ideas about the future. Not all of them will come to pass, but some of them might, if we make it long enough. Designer babies are on the way, and with Europe and the United States both investigating the secrets of consciousness, mind simulation and uploading remains a possibility for now. I’m not in love with the story that Stross tells with these concepts. The characters aren’t great—I never really sympathized with any of them, and I found the behaviour between Manfred and Pamela practically bizarre and inexplicable, shenanigans with AI cats notwithstanding. And this is by no means a "feel good" flick that will leave you burgeoning with hope for the future of the human species. But I think it has restored some of my faith in Singularity-driven posthuman fiction. It’s demonstrated that the Singularity by no means removes the obstacles facing our survival as a species. The problems we currently face might seem daunting, but we can probably overcome them. And then we’ll face more.