Ever discover an author through another medium, like TV or Twitter or the author’s blog, and realize you want to read everything this author has written and you want to read it yesterday? That’s how I feel about Charles Stross. It’s similar to my evaluation of William Gibson in my last review; Stross writes about the present changes facing humanity in such an interesting way. I don’t always agree with him, and his stories don’t always grab me as narratives, but he is definitely near the top of the heap when it comes to authors of posthuman fiction.
Toast is an intense but somewhat uneven collection of Stross stories. Perhaps the introduction, “After the Future Imploded” is the most valuable part of the book: it has exactly the type of lucid futurist speculation I was talking about above. Stross plays his “what if” game fancifully but also with some sincerity. He sees not only the capabilities that we have today but the capabilities we might have tomorrow, and where that might lead us—not only the issues that we’ll confront, like the rights of uploaded personalities, but what will happen when the present becomes our past.
The two technologies that Stross emphasizes in most of his fiction are nanotechnology and artificial intelligence. The former will be a revolution in computing, because we’ll truly free computers from the “dumb terminal” model we use now. In Toast stories, people’s clothing and coffee cups—everything—are computers. Humanity is wetwired, part of the grid and the Web in an entirely new way. The latter technology is a lot more controversial and amorphous in its definition. Trying to determine what exactly “artificial” intelligence denotes is a difficult chore. But if it, too, happens, then it will be another revolution—and not just because of the possibility of the Singularity. As far as we know, we are the only intelligent beings on the Earth—and perhaps in the observable universe. An artificial intelligence would be something new, something alien and strange. That would be fascinating and frightening.
After coming off the high of Toast’s introduction, I was excited by the first story, “Antibodies”. The moment a character exclaimed, “Someone’s come up with a proof that NP-complete problems lie in P!” I grinned and knew the story would be good. Many science fiction authors are also physicists, or have a strong science background, which makes them comfortable talking about the physics that underlies their plots. Stross’ background is in computers, and it shows in these stories. He speaks the hacker lingo, but more interesting for me, he draws in the deeper mathematics upon which algorithms rely. Plenty of science fiction stories talk about neutrinos and exotic matter, but how many reference P versus NP in a meaningful way? So “Antibodies” was a big hit with me.
I wish I could say I was as impressed with the rest of the stories. I was really excited when I started reading, and some of the stories are good, but they don’t hit my buttons the way “Antibodies” did. “Bear Trap” is set in Stross’ Eschaton universe (best known for Singularity Sky). It’s good, but the conflict and the way Stross depicts the wider universe are both so vague and ill-defined that I never got invested. Similarly, “Extracts from the Club Diary” was enjoyable—despite Stross’ questionable faux-Victorian diction—but its direction was somewhat predictable and never quite paid off. “Lobsters” is slightly better, because it raises the intriguing questions surrounding uploaded personalities—both human and non-human. I also like the main character, who is a study in how the Internet is changing the role of the deal broker. Finally, “Big Brother Iron” examines what might happen to the world of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four if Big Brother invented a computer to run the government. Like the other stories I’ve mentioned, it has a really neat premise against which the story doesn’t quite measure up.
Stross writes mostly in the first person, and as a consequence his narrators often sound the same to me. (That might just be me or the mood I was in while reading the book.) It probably doesn’t help that his characters are often the same mould: middle-aged male stuck in a mid-level position, usually has some technology expertise of some kind, who gets into trouble because of external events and has to use his wits to survive. I really need to read one of his novels with a female protagonist, like Halting State. But I suspect my complaint emerges from the similarity in themes among the stories of Toast. They are, in a sense, about looking back during or just after the transition between our current era and whatever comes next (Singularity or not).
Toast isn’t the book I would recommend for a newcomer to Charles Stross (Singularity Sky is pretty good in that respect). Yet if, like me, you are fascinated by ruminations upon our potential posthuman prospects, this anthology might be right for you. It isn’t as amazing as I had hoped. However, it still has that dose of lucid speculation that I’ve come to regard as a hallmark of Stross and of great science fiction in general.