Singularity Sky is one of Charlie Stross’ first and most famous works, and therefore predates the other books of his that I have read—namely Accelerando and Halting State. If the two, Singularity Sky more closely resembles the former, being something of a treatise on the economic, political, and cultural effects of a point when technology essentially makes humanity part of a post-scarcity economic; Halting State, by contrast, was a narrower work looking more immediately into our future.
Accelerando was, I think, technologically oriented, taking the reader to the further reaches of the technically possible and back again, with all the ramifications of said technology being simply assumed, alluded to, or—at best—covered briefly. Singularity Sky strikes me as more of a political or cultural commentary made possible in the context of fantastic futuristic technology, or in other words a more classical science fiction novel along the lines of Heinlein.
By way of plot setup, the rapid expanse of both technology and population on Earth led to a singularity and the arrival of a power post-human intelligence called Eschaton, which scattered humanity throughout the galaxy, and whose only basic rule is that you cannot violate causality. In other words, any civilization that attempts to travel back into its own past will be stopped, somehow, by Eschaton, even if that means obliterating the entire civilization.
One far-flung colony on which the story focuses is the New Republic, and essentially a transplant of pre-Soviet Russia, right down to the serfdom, Russian names, and fomenting Marxist resistance movement. The colony is comprised mostly of Luddites who consciously rejected that technology that came with Eschaton (i.e. no economic scarcity) in favoring of regaining the “old ways”. The irony, of course, is that in the course of reestablishing tradition, they also reintroduce death, destruction, and misery for a goodly portion of the population. As we open, a planet called Rochard’s World is visited by a roving band of “infovores” known as Festival: basically, a giant space-faring hard-drive with the uploaded consciousnesses of past civilizations that seeks new information (“Entertain us” with stories, they tell colonists) in exchange for pretty much whatever the colonists want, including Cornucopiae Machines, which are powerful matter generators much like the replicators of the Star Trek universe. This generosity is seized on by the Marxist revolutionaries, who with this new information and technology manage to overthrow the planet’s government….. with the help of an artificial technological singularity occurring within the span of a month. Basically, Rochard’s World is put into the technological and cultural equivalent of a meat grinder.
Meanwhile, our two protagonists are a spy named Martin Springfield and a spy named Rachel Mansour end up on a New Republic ship which attempts to break interplanetary (and Eschaton) law by used closed time-like curves to travel into its own past to arrive at Rochard’s World before the festival gets there. I need hardly tell you that chaos ensues, as well as some romantic subplots.
Aside from the interactions of our heroes, there are a number of themes in the book, all of which are interesting and, I would argue, more important than the character-centric plot (typical Strosser).
A fixture of Stross’ more far-out works is the concept of a singularity, usually of the technological sort but of other varieties as well. Briefly put, a singularity is a point at which recursive self-improvement has made progress so fast as to be unimaginable to us today. The singularity-as-imminent-event meme is most closely associated with the crackpot Ray Kurzweil , but in Stross’ books it tends to refer to a point in time where the collective technological intelligence outpaces collective human intelligence, and by extension the idea of scarcity of information becomes an antiquated notion.
Though Stross may or may not label himself (unlikely) or his books (more likely) as “futurist”, that tendency appears to me in his books. The growth and spread of information is little more than a function of time and energy: hence the inevitability of technological singularities in these worlds. Since the arrival of a singularity also ushered in an era when technological made the whole idea of economic scarcity a laughable one, you could argue that this represents an “economic singularity” as well, in the fast-flowing parlance of Stross’ world.
“Information wants to be free”
Some editions of Singularity Sky include the tagline “Information wants to be free”, the famous half-quote by Stewart Brand, the full text of which is “Information wants to be expensive[.] On the other hand, information wants to be free”. A recurring theme of this book is that information and by extension progress are inexorable: the conflict between the neo-luddite/monarchist New Republic and the post-singularity transhuman culture that contacts them is utterly devastating for the status quo of the former, and our spy heroes are world-weary enough to realize this, exasperated not only by the provincial mindset of the New Republicans (whose various martial bumblings comprise an entire subplot), but their apparent inability to understand that one can no more avoid change than one can avoid breathing. Information is, by whatever mechanism, the phlogiston of said change, providing its vital energies.
In this respect, Singularity Sky, like other books by Stross, contains no real heroes in the traditional sense. Generally speaking, any “protagonist” in such a book is not a virtuous, heroic person (though they may have these qualities), but rather someone cynical enough to realize the indefatigable push of information to spoil our conservatism. Similarly, the young secret policeman, Vasily, is not evil just because he’s a member of the secret police of a repressive dictatorship, but rather because he is patently unable to accept that his chosen beliefs about the nature of technology and cultural do not match either what is common or what is possible.
The Good, The Bad, and the Causal
In fact, it would be difficult to describe “good” and “bad” in this post-singularity world. Stross indicates that only provincial planets such as the New Republican still maintain a religion (a Bible-based one, by the look of it), and that the rest of the galaxy has largely given it up. The Eschaton, the transhuman consciousness I mentioned earlier, disseminated this message after scattering humans across the galaxy:
I am the Eschaton. I am not your God.
I am descended from you, and exist in your future.
Thou shalt not violate causality within my historic light cone. Or else.
It was a message that some took, despite its explicit denials, to be from God-with-a-capital-G; others, more pragmatic, assumed it to be a post-human entity from this future which took advantage of time travel. In order to maintain its power, it kills or otherwise dissuades any other civilization looking to use time travel, and by these methods maintains its superiority.
One could go so far as to say that the issue of causality is the central theme of the book—that is, technological progress is what it is, but violating causality has the potential for disastrous consequences, either because the Eschaton obliterates your planet with an asteroid, or because you temporal meddling rips apart the fabric of spacetime. It’s an overall great book; it’s clear that Stross’ talent for pacing has improved since he wrote this book (his first real novel), but even for a debut work, it’s an impressive bit of hard sci-fi.