Tuesday, April 21, 2015

CYBERPUNK REVISITED: Accelerando by Charles Stross

Dossier: Stross, Charles. Accelerando (Ace, 2005)

Filetype: Book.

File Under: Cyberpunk Legatee

Executive Summary: Accelerando is a generational story, starting with Manfred Macx and following his descendents. Welcome to posthuman Earth. Macx is an idea man who gives it all away to escape his ex-fiancee. He lives half inside his own mind, and half through his computer agents, that are always bringing him fresh information through the internet. He lives on the cutting edge of computing, AI, corporate structure, and law. He’s always connected and he is the future of humanity. However, the future learns that exchanging humanity for efficiency comes at a cost.

High-Tech: From the start, Macx is simply more connected. His computer is wearable, and he receives all his information through a visor not unlike a souped up Google Glass. He’s largely accompanied by his cat, Aineko, which is an artificial cat that becomes increasingly intelligent. However, the story moves quickly into external minds, collective intelligences, wetware implants, artificial intelligences, simulated human existence, living corporate entities, nanoconstruction, planetary terraforming, the singularity and weakly godlike intelligences.

Low-Life: While most of humanity is riding the posthuman train to the singularity, there are some holdouts, largely concentrated in the highly religious populations. They reject implants and genetic manipulation. They prefer to do things the old fashioned way. There aren’t many of them, and their numbers diminish as the decades pass.

Dark Times: Early on, Macx learns that having your memories stored outside your own mind, such as a wearable computer, makes them susceptible to larceny and leaves Macx utterly helpless. However, this is a small problem when compared the challenges of uploading an entire race into the cloud. To say more would give it away, but let’s say that the challenges we face with our computers (not enough hard drive space, internet too slow, hardware out of date before you unpackage it) apply to humanity.

Legacy: Accelerando is a visionary depiction of the future as envisioned by Stross following the dot-com bubble. Reading it today feels as if he wrote it yesterday, and it’s a decade old. It’s a dinosaur in technology time. It won a Locus Award in 2006, and was nominated for best novel in the Hugo Awards, an Arthur C. Clarke award, and a BSFA award. His novel, The Rapture of the Nerds, is a not only a phrase that appears in Accelerando more than once, but a continuation on some of the ideas. Though its legacy is shorter than most novels we’ve discussed, it’s clearly a book that will be relevant for quite a while.

In Retrospect: I did this backwards. I read The Rapture of the Nerds a year ago, and Accelerando for the first time this month. Still, Accelerando is dense with jargon and buzzwords. It’s kind of hard to read unless you’re a real dork for computing and information technology. Fortunately, I am a real dork and the ideas don’t escape me even if the descriptions do. Stross has somewhat infamously cancelled a pending novel for being too close to reality after the Snowden files started being published, and I think he would’ve done the same for Accelerando if he wrote it today. 

For some perspective, this is the augmented reality future to Neuromancer's virtual reality future. The world Stross builds is instantly recognizable when you read about people who feel like they can't live without their cellphone, or how a smart watch is going to change their life. Most people don't want to stick their head inside a heavy virtual reality visor. They're fine with just having their life generally improved by having information at their fingertips. Don't get me wrong, I love the cyberspace, meta reality future as much as anyone, but Accelerando's future seems much more plausible.

Unlike most novels that would dump someone in an unfamiliar world, there is no reader avatar in Accelerando. This isn’t a problem though, as the near future Macx lives in is so close to our reality that it’s not hard to get on board. As the story progresses, it takes leaps and bounds by decades. We’re filled in, as readers, by a narrator that gives us a timedate stamp and brings us up to speed with the world as a whole. However, when many of the characters can exist in emulated realities, it can be hard to keep track of when, where, or what they are.

And even though the galaxy is on its fast ride to utter consumption, this isn’t the dystopian hellscape that most cyberpunk futures depict. It’s bright and sunny in its own ways. The dark clouds over it are dinosaur legal infrastructures, the economy and your mom. If you can get past the jargon, it’s a story that’s more relatable than some science fiction as it picks you up gently, and throws you into the sun.

Accelerando is available for free in many, many formats under a Creative Commons license.


For its time: 4/5
Read/watched/played today: 4/5
Cybercoefficient: 8/10


POSTED BY: brian, sci-fi/fantasy/video game dork and contributor since 2014