I swear I missed the class on the technological singularity when I was matriculating at Nerd University. Actually, come to think of it, I probably didn't so much miss the class as fell asleep the second they got to time travelling sentient whatnot transhuman exhuman time-like wave forms of skimming technobabble that exists in a quantum loop fix over the cornucopia ansible machine....zzzzzzzzzzzz...
What? This is not an interesting or new critique, not at all, but Lord, is the prose associated with hard sf boring as shit. I've been reading this as an antidote to crafted prose, the kind of reading one does in ten minute chucks while too sleepy to consider engaging with the emotional upheavals of a woman going out to buy flowers for a dinner party. I may sound like I'm making fun of Mrs. Dalloway
here, but I'm not. Singularity Sky
is chock-o-block with space rays and battles and hair-breath escapes and all manner of vorpal snicker-snack, but the almost gleaming optimism one finds in sf, even the stuff that's ostensibly more darkly imagined, sits in very strange contrast with the quiet lapping oceans of emotion that Woolf conjures in her almost relentlessly prosaic fiction. Dalloway is all depth, and this is all surface. But I read for all kinds of reasons, and sometimes those reasons are “entertain me with space-rays” and sometimes those reasons are “break my heart” and sometimes those reasons create one another.
I'm not trying to set up an unfair contrast between writers of obviously different skill levels and concerns, and I'm not trying to straw-man Stross here at freaking all. Stross is pretty good at what he does, and there were tantalizing moments of great peppered in the mix, and also tantalizing moments of shit. (Er, you know.) I was grabbed like hell at the beginning: the phones falling from the sky, the smart commentary about technology bearing ideology, the ways that cultural wish-fulfillment goes pear-shaped once those wishes are fulfilled. Mostly, these sort of narratives crush their stick-thin characters like the matchsticks they are, but there were exactly two characters in here that weren't see-through as rice paper, and two is usually two more than these sorts of fictions contain. It may sound as though I'm faint-praising the hell out of Singularity Sky
, and I guess I am, but these characters are emblematic of Stross's frustrating skill set against his weaknesses. He can write real characters – you can see them right there – but then he doesn't for anyone else in the book, and several characters go to caricature in stupid ways, and it seems a shame and a waste.
It's especially true when you look closely at Rachel. Stross writes compellingly her frustrations of being an intelligent, educated woman in a society that wants her to be pretty and have babies. Plus, she's a spy! With wicked cool spy gear! Early in the book, she reminded me a little of Cordelia from Bujold's books, especially because there's a competent little love-story with the other fully realized character. Maybe I don't even need to say this, but I've found that most love stories make me want to strangle everyone I can get my hands on, starting with the authors. Sci fi love stories often amount to no more than an excuse to write about sex in zero-g, and this story never got my hands itching for the garrote or the eyemuffs. Put more positively, I was pulling for those kids, especially because I never did see them have sex in zero-g. If that's your thing, try Heinlein.
But dammit, why does Rachel have to be the only woman in the entire freaking universe? She's not, of course, but you wouldn't know it from the cast of characters. (I'm ignoring the slug thing with tusks that's given a female pronoun, because, did I mention it was a slug thing with tusks? I'm not even going to engage in arguments that this is a female character, because that is stupid.) See what I mean? Stross can write a female character who isn't a set boobs bouncing without the constraints of gravity, but then he completely wanders off into the all-male playset of space opera like he didn't get what he himself was saying. I'm hesitant to get out my handy feminist ray-gun and cut Stross down, because I really do not want to disembowel writers just for getting something half-right. But it makes me super sad, because half-right means that it is still half-right, but then it's also half-wrong.
Okay, back to the singularity. This story doesn't deal head on with the singularity – which, as I learned from cribbing from my husband's notes, because he managed to stay awake in class, is the moment when technology goes sentient in this big post-human event, and then people are obsolete, but then they still exist or something, and it's a big deal. His notes were really hard to read, but he definitely said “Matrix” a lot. Then I fell asleep again while doodling “Mrs. Ceridwen Mieville” in the margins. What this is all coming back to is that I don't get the singularity, and I'm the wrong person to ask about the whole thing. Anyway, I didn't understand what the singularity was doing here in this story, because it seemed like this big unknowable distraction from the much cooler story that was going on in the space opera. The central conflict was between a bunch of aristocratic asshats, and how they declared war against the intergalactic telephone system because they didn't understand that the intergalactic telephone system was not a government or an ideology in any way they could ever understand. There's actually a lot of fun stuff in here about the U.N., oddly enough, and also a couple of really glaring infodumps & sermonizing about information wanting to be free and terrorism, infodumps that I seriously enjoyed, I'll have you know. But then, why the eff bring up the technological singularity at all? I mean, it was structurally important, in that the Eschaton, the singularity in question, was the big boogyman. But, um, could someone explain this again? I'll work very hard at staying awake, and if I close my eyes, I'm still listening. Really.