NESFA Members' Reviews

Charles Stross

SF reviews by Mark L. Olson

This review is a bit of an oddity for me: I'm reviewing a writer rather than a book. Primarily because Stross has not yet had non-small press publication.

Charles Stross is a youngish English writer who I've just started read and who has a remarkable talent. The stories that I've read can be loosely divided into three groups: The Atrocity Exhibit (a novel), a series of stories showing the approach to the Singularity, and several miscellaneous stories.

The Atrocity Archive

The Atrocity Archive was serialized in Spectrum SF a small UK publication. It's sorta like cyberpunk and sorta like Tim Powers' Declare and sorta like nothing else. Essentially, the premise is that H. P. Lovecraft actually wrote near-future techno-SF thrillers disguised as fantasy/horror. All of Lovecraft's stories reflect plausible extrapolations of the near future of our world.

The main character of The Atrocity Archive is a young computer geek (Stross frequently uses computer geeks as his main characters and shows a wonderful sympathy for their culture and a terrific knack for using their jargon effectively in his stories) who discovers a remarkable theorem and is contacted shortly thereafter by a shadowy British governmental organization known as The Laundry. The Laundry, it seems, is responsible for handling the UK's dealings with what we think of as the occult....except that it isn't all that occult. The Platonic realms of mathematics are real – most mathematicians believe that anyway – and can influence and be influenced by the physical world. The right theorem, the right geometric construction, can cause detectable effects in physical reality.

Unfortunately, the easiest attainable effect is to create a bridge between vastly different physical realities (the universe consists of an Everett-Wheeler ensemble of histories) and the earlier the branch point, the easier it is to create a bridge. And the earlier the branch point, the more alien the world reached.

Many of these distant universes are dead, but many aren't. And some hold ancient intelligences, horribly intelligent beings still barely alive as their universe gutters towards heat-death. Horribly intelligent beings eager for a younger universe to exploit. Other universes have time running much faster and contain fast-thinking, but stupid, entities which are more like self-aware computer viruses than anything -- and which can infect human nervous systems.

The Laundry's job is to prevent people from discovering these theorems, and to clean up afterwards when they do.

The story starts out fairly light-heartedly, (a nice touch is when a newly-recruited geek is visiting the main character's apartment and sees a copy of Vol 4 of Knuth. She's amazed until he explains that the Black Chamber (the US's equivalent of The Laundry) has a deal with Knuth: He doesn't publish it and in return he gets to keep on living) but slowly becomes grimmer as the apparently simple problem he is working on turns deeper and darker.

It's beginning to look like someone may be violating the Dresden Protocols, a secret treaty negotiated in the 30's where all of the major nations – Nazi Germany included – agreed not to use occult weapons. Even the Nazis had never actually violated it, though as the story unfolds, they tried.

The story is a good, solid piece of SF based on Lovecraftian horror. It's quite an accomplishment – I understand that a revised edition will be published in 2003 in book form and I'm really looking forward to it.

Approaching the Singularity

The next Stross grouping is the Lobsters/Tourist/Halo/Router series which has all appeared in Asimov's and is a truly remarkable job of showing the approach to and passage through the Vingeian Singularity.

I'm not going to detail each story, but they form a series with a particular, rather strange, family at the center of it. Probably my favorites so far are "Tourist" and "Halo".

"Tourist" is set around 2020 and follows a man (whose name I forget, but who is the father of the girl who is the center of the next several pieces) as he tries to contact some very peculiar people in Edinburgh. Unfortunately, he loses his glasses and stumbles through the story in a daze. His glasses are the hardware which provides his direct link to his computers and to the world networks – he's a bit old-fashioned in keeping them in an external object, most people have moved to implants. Like anyone on the cutting edge, huge chunks of his memory and even pieces of his personality are now diffused out into his supporting hardware – without it, he's worse off than you or I because so much of what he is has been lost to him.

This is a good story and a remarkable job of picturing a society which is just starting to get beyond our ability to understand.

In "Halo" it's ten years later and things have gone a lot farther. His daughter (who is in her hated mother's care) escapes and winds up on the first Jovian expedition. (She's still in her early teens and the expedition is entirely private.) The girl is still pursued by her crazed mother, but fights back using the bewilderingly complex law that has grown up as businesses don't just use AIs, but become AIs.

A clever stroke on her mother's part forces the girl to grab her nano-assemblers and park on Jupiter's inner moon Almathea, declaring herself to be an independent state. Half the fun in this story is Stross' absurd (and, I fear, realistic) extrapolations on how legal and business organization would change as we approach the Singularity.

"Router" is a few years later and the girl is now Queen of Jupiter. She settled down on Almathea and spent her time replicating her nano assemblers and building up an amazing amount of computer power and by the time the next person thought of doing it, she dominated Jovian space, important as a source of Helium-3 which is essential to fusion engines. She's one of the most important people in the Solar System.

In the mean time, alien transmissions have been discovered coming from what appears to be a router on the galactic internet. She launches an expedition to it and ever greater wonders unfold.

You'll notice that I'm getting skimpier and skimpier in my description of each story. This is because as the stories move into the post-human future they are harder and harder to describe in a few words. Prior to reading Stross' stories, I'd have said that they're impossible to write, but I think he's doing it. Not only is he doing it, but he's doing it well.

I highly recommend the stories. ("Halo" is up for a Hugo in 2003 and definitely deserves it. Frankly, Stross should have several nominations.) I do recommend that you read them in order of publication, since they do build on each other, but they're perfectly good stand-alone stories.

Stand-alone Stories

Stross has also written a number of excellent individual stories.

"TOAST: A Con Report" is an article written about the Ninth Retro-Computing Conference at Boston's Copley Marriott in about 2015. It's written by a 30-year-old who has dropped out of the geek-race because he just isn't interested in continuing the augmentation needed to keep pace. It's yet another look at the approaching Singularity – from below, this time, so to speak. In many respects, it felt a lot like an updated version of Fred Pohl's brilliant "Day Million" which describes a day in the life of a person on the other side of a quite different Singularity.

"Big Brother Iron" is a wonderful story set in Oceania about twenty years after 1984. The main character is a programmer on one of the mainframes which IngSoc uses to keep control of its dictatorship. The programmer is third generation Party and has grown up in luxury and is, of course, loyal. Well, so IngSoc thinks. Actually, he hates his true-believer father and everything his father stands for. He's not a revolutionary, of course, but he does like to hack and chat secretly with all the other disaffected geeks, but otherwise avoid notice. Then one of his friends is rounded up and executed as a traitor.

How can Big Brother stand up to the computer jocks who keep his dictatorship going? Stross has looked at the lessons of the decline of the Soviet Union and applied them to 1984. Nice job.

"Dechlorinating the Moderator" is almost-but-not-quite a joke. It takes place in the near future where Big Physics has crashed and the big accelerators and huge, multi-billion-dollar physics projects are no more, but where Moore's Law has made computing so cheap and available that hobbyists can build tabletop accelerators which exceed today's' best equipment. This is a report of a convention for high-energy physics hobbyists and it's a brilliantly funny parody of an SF con report as well as being a clever piece of extrapolation.

Stross is a remarkable talent. Read him.

See also my review of Stross' Singularity Sky and The Atrocity Archives

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