I’m terrible at explaining orally what books are about. Two people, the sort of people who don’t read books like this, asked me what Scratch Monkey is about while I was reading it, and I stumbled over my reply. “It’s a far-future posthuman story featuring nanotechnology and strong AI,” I mumbled, knowing that this explanation would make no sense to them and is more an over-generalization of the setting than any useful description of plot or story. This is why I write reviews, but unlike Oshi, I cannot simply beam the content of my review into someone’s wisdom implant. (I have been known, when asked what I thought of a book, to look up my review on my phone and shove it at someone’s face—but this has not exactly become an acceptable social convention yet, so I do it sparingly.)
Scratch Monkey is a far-future posthuman story featuring nanotechnology and strong AI. Specifically, it’s the spiralling narrative of Oshi Adjani, a human agent of an AI she calls “the Boss”, which belongs to a category of AIs called the Superbrights. As humanity spread out at sublight speeds across the stars, colonizing worlds in advance through the judicious use of Von Neumann probes, they used planet-sized processors to create a cyberspace afterlife: the Dreamtime. As the Dreamtime became more complex, it gave rise to AIs—the Superbrights—who have gradually co-opted it for their own survival. Humans are thriving, and in most cases functionally immortal, but their destinies are no longer their own.
Oshi begins to see through the veil of the Superbright beneficence, so she becomes expendable data—a scratch monkey. Her Boss dispatches her to a system under threat by the Ultrabrights, AIs expanding outward from the old core of human civilization whose processing power is far superior to that of the Superbrights—and, hence, they are that much more alien. Oshi’s ordered to figure out what’s happening and report back. Or, you know, die trying. Oshi’s job sucks.
Like a lot of its ilk, there aren’t any concepts in Scratch Monkey that haven’t been seen so many times in posthuman fiction. We’ve got AIs, mind uploading, nanotechnology, fast cloning of human bodies, etc. The Gatecoder is a nifty idea as a mechanism by which minds travel between systems (similar to the idea of “needlecasting” in Altered Carbon, but with a clone of your body grown when you arrive instead of being downloaded into any old sleeve). I can also see echoes of this plot in some of Stross’ other works, notably Singularity Sky, where the main character is an agent of the Eschaton. Despite his conclusion that strong AI will be so advanced it will essentially start running the show, Stross seems fairly confident that humans will always be necessary as intermediaries and physical agents. It’s interesting to see the direction he takes with Oshi.
Oshi is really quite a damaged person. It all goes back to her childhood as a blind beggar—blind because her uncle gouged out her eyes to make people more sympathetic for her. After being rescued by some of the Boss’ agents and put into a training program, her graduation mission goes awry. We get treated to some fairly extensive flashbacks (and these seem more like a strategy of padding out what was originally a novella into a novel-length work of fiction than meaningful parts of the narrative) that detail what goes wrong and why it’s screwed up Oshi so badly. After arriving in the Ridgegap-47 system, Oshi finds herself in the middle of a crisis even her Boss couldn’t predict: the system’s Superbright has gone mad, setting itself as an Egyptian god, and a lethal Ultrabright probe is on its way.
I’ll hand it to Stross: for all his obsession with infodumping, he still manages to keep the story moving at a clipping pace. The last third of Scratch Monkey is a harried race against time for survival, first as Oshi and her ragtag band of untrained resistance fighters square off against Anubis, then as they attempt to hijack the Ultrabright probe and use it to evacuate their minds from the system before the Ultrabright itself moves in. The stakes just keep getting higher and higher, the situation worse and worse, with each plan of Oshi’s madder than the last.
It all seems very exciting. I just wish I knew what the hell was going on. As the book raced to its abrupt, somewhat dangling denouement, I felt like comprehension was increasingly slipping away from me, growing further out of reach with each page. I think this happened because, despite the constant exposition, I never did develop a good sense of what the rules were in this universe. Stross is keenly aware of and loyal to the realistic, relativistic mechanics that would govern space travel and space warfare—but, you know, I admit I’m not. So Oshi would say, “We have to do x,” as if it were obvious that x is the only correct course of action in that situation—and to anyone in her universe, it would probably make sense. For those of us who regard relativity as a nifty scientific theory but don’t actually comprehend how it applies to everyday life, Scratch Monkey requires a great deal of nodding and smiling, much more than I remember in Singularity Sky.
Perhaps this roughness comes from the book’s origins as a novella that Stross initially did not sell then dusted off and expanded into this story. I can’t really speculate. In his afterword, Stross discusses how he’s glad the book didn’t sell when it did, because the manuscript needed a lot of work. And I can see that. The first chapter, “Year Zero Man,” which I think was the original novella, is my favourite part of this book. It’s a very satisfying vignette that shows Oshi kicking ass against fairly substantial odds, with an antagonist who sufficiently challenges Oshi’s sense of moral superiority. But “Year Zero Man” is just the prologue for the main plot of Scratch Monkey—and that, sadly, is not as interesting.
My edition is a limited edition published by the NESFA Press and purchased through Subterranean Press. It also includes Stross’ series of blog posts/essays on the subject of common misconceptions about publishing. As a writer who entertains the notion of one day producing a story worth publishing myself, I found the posts interesting and informative to a degree. Stross is certainly a very opinionated writer. While I don’t always find myself agreeing with the positions he takes, I like that he tries to support his arguments using coherent appeals to hard data, rather than appeals to pathos or ethos.
Charlie Stross is really cool, though, and made this available online. You can read Scratch Monkey online in its own entirety. Or just read “Year Zero Man”. Up to you. I’ll recommend this one for Stross fans, but unless, like me, you’re really into posthuman SF, this story probably won’t do much for you. In conclusion, Scratch Monkey provides another fascinating glimpse at Stross’ particular flavour of posthuman SF. But it doesn’t really add anything to the party or say anything compelling that isn’t in his other works. It was, at times, entertaining, but it never really got exciting.