Accelerando Accelerando by Charles Stross
Publisher: Ace
Year: 2006
Pages: 432

I was recommended Charlie Stross after my less-than-exemplary experience with Daniel Suarez’s Daemon. The commenter in question figured that Stross had better bona fides and wrote a better technical piece of fiction. I’m quite pleased to say that he was right.

Accelerando is actually free: you can download it in a variety of formats here. Because I stare at a computer screen long enough as it is, I opted for the paperback after about 15 pages of the PDF. The book is unlike anything I’ve read before; I see ghosts of other writers, but the end result is unique to me. Mostly, it’s like a bullet train barreling past; you reach tentatively out and get yanked out of your shoes and carried, screaming, for several hundred miles.

It’s difficult to give even a shallow summary of the book’s whirlwind events, but we start with a man named Manfred Macx, at some point in a near-future. Brain power is augmented by technology, and pretty much everything is connected via the Internet and persistent wi-fi. I say it’s a near future, but of course it’s still science fiction insofar the the technology described has very effectively bridged the brain-computer gap in a way that we’re only beginning to understand now.

Manfred has very little money, but he’s a mover and a shaker, always coming up with new ideas and patenting them; then he assigns the patent to foundations modeled after Richard Stallman’s Free Software Foundation, except they deal with hardware, infrastructure, &c. Essentially, it’s describing a future where IP has very much moved into the shared domain, and the entire economic model is in flux.

Despite the advance, the beginning of Accelerando is very coherent (if verbose and fast-paced); it’s also beautifully written. Consider this excerpt:

In IP geek circles, Manfred is legendary; he’s the guy who patented the business practice of moving your e-business somewhere with a slack intellectual property regime in order to evade licensing encumbrances. He’s the guy who patented using genetic algorithms to patent everything they can permutate from an initial description of a problem domain – not just a better mousetrap, but the set of all possible better mousetraps. Roughly a third of his inventions are legal, a third are illegal, and the remainder are legal but will become illegal as soon as the legislatosaurus wakes up, smells the coffee, and panics. There are patent attorneys in Reno who swear that Manfred Macx is a pseudo, a net alias fronting for a bunch of crazed anonymous hackers armed with the Genetic Algorithm That Ate Calcutta: a kind of Serdar Argic of intellectual property, or maybe another Bourbaki math borg. There are lawyers in San Diego and Redmond who swear blind that Macx is an economic saboteur bent on wrecking the underpinning of capitalism, and there are communists in Prague who think he’s the bastard spawn of Bill Gates by way of the Pope.

One can see the comparisons to Neal Stephenson forming already.

But much like its name would suggest1, this brisk pace is a slow start, and soon Stross has taken us decades into the future, where “Economics 2.0” has completely eliminated human necessity in controlling markets, mankind has mined the solar system, the distinction between human consciousness, AI, and computer-corporate entities is blurred, and it’s all enough to given an ethicist nightmares. It’s both a thrilling and terrifying view of the future, exquisitely sci-fi but surprisingly realistic in its execution.

I mentioned Neal Stephenson, but I see hints of other authors as well (limited though my sci-fi reading is): the latter half of the book reminds me very much of Dafydd ab Hugh’s Endgame; as well, it’s heavy on Heinlein, with The Moon is a Harsh Mistress coming immediately to mind. I’d nod (grudgingly) to William Gibson and the cyberpunk genre, from which this book appears to borrow, but it doesn’t have quite the same dinginess that most cyberpunk does; Accelerando is all steel and glass, whereas most cyberpunk that I’ve read tends toward gritty dystopias.

By the end, Accelerando has taken four very confusing left turns—which, if you’re keeping track, brings you back to where you started—and some rather gallingly convenient plot devices. Still, once the bullet train comes to a stop and you can stand up, dizzily brush yourself off, and pick the insects out of your teeth, you realize that it was quite the amazing story. It’s a demonstration not just of Stross’ writing abilities, but of his keen grasp of technology (real and imagined). It’s definitely enough to make me read more by him.

  1. For those of you who aren’t musically inclined, accelerando is a music term meaning “pick up the pace” as its similarity to “accelerate” would imply.[]
§3715 · March 28, 2009 · Tags: , , , , , , ·

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