Accelerando by Charles Stross
Reviewed by Paul Kincaid
Orbit, London, 2005, 433pp, £16.99, h/b, ISBN 1-84149-390-2
Welcome to the science fiction of the twenty-first century. On the whole it's pretty much like the science fiction of the twentieth century; there's an alien encounter, the end of the world, and even posthumanity has been around for twenty years at least. But where Charles Stross invests his novel with a gloss of hypermodernity it's catching the wave of the zeitgeist in at least two places.
The first is what I shall call the paradigm of humanity. We have always constructed our images of who and what we are according to our models of prevailing technology. In a Newtonian universe, we saw the human being as a machine, a mechanistic model that held sway, with refinements, from the seventeenth century to the Second World War. Post-War, that model became the computer and then, as our understanding of computers became more sophisticated, the software. All of these are unitary models, but the paradigm that Stross has made his own in this novel is the internet. What this does is allow for a dispersed humanity, there is no one focus of consciousness but rather it is spread among however many instances of 'I' there might be. Greg Egan and, more recently, Cory Doctorow, have been building towards this paradigm of humanity for some time now, but in this novel I think Stross gives it its finest expression.
The second novelty which makes this book feel fresh is what I suppose you might call the operating system of civilisation. Again we always use metaphor for this, and again it is usually drawn from technology. In science fiction, at least, the system has almost always been cast in terms of the sciences, most often physics though with a fair smattering of chemistry and, over the last couple of decades, ecology. For Stross the system is economics. This is not Marxist economics, although there is a measure of historical determinism according to which the fate of entire solar systems is played out, but neither is it straight capitalism. (Actually, in economic terms it doesn't make a great deal of sense: Manfred Macx's money-free lifestyle, presented as an ideal in the early stories, can only work if everyone around him is busy earning money in order to support him.) Again this is not an entirely original way of presenting how the world turns, Neal Stephenson, for instance, has just spent three rather large volumes exploring a rather more sophisticated understanding of the economic model of the world. Nevertheless, in terms of hard sf, which is what this novel essentially is, it opens startlingly fresh vistas.
I keep talking about Accelerando as a novel when in fact it is that rather old-fashioned science fiction staple, the fix-up, a sequence of linked stories brought together, given a quick polish to ensure they join together smoothly, and presented as a unified whole. Given the inconvenient shortness of the human span, it is a convenient way of carrying a story across long sweeps of time or space or, as here, both. We begin with Manfred Macx in the very near future, already wired up to be in constant contact with the rest of the world. The first three stories explore the gradual growth of digital technology, and the resultant spread of information, in economic, geopolitical and personal terms (in one story, where Macx's digital connections are stolen, it is as if part of his mind is wiped away: he becomes autistic). In the next three stories we follow Macx's daughter as she travels first to the orbit of Jupiter then, in digitised form (authors of posthuman fictions are always convinced that our humanity resides solely in our thoughts and not at all in our bodies), to a 'router' discovered orbiting a distant star. The final set of three stories bring Amber back to Saturn where she encounters the son she never knew she had, and finds herself caught up in a struggle for what we might call the soul of humankind. It should be noted that the choice presented here seems to be between enclosing the sun in successive Dyson spheres to give ourselves unlimited bandwidth, where we will stagnate in digital plenty; or travelling to other stars in digital form. The human body seems to be a decidedly short-term option in this view of the future.
It is a world where digital manipulation allows beings to take on any form, to become larger or smaller at will. To give him credit, Stross recognises that there is a long extant science fictional model for just such a world, and he acknowledges this by making the Cheshire Cat one of his prime characters. He also loads the book up with off-hand references to a host of other texts: keep score while you are reading it, see how many other science fiction works you can spot! The most curious thing about these stories, however, is that Stross repeatedly stops the action for incredibly long info-dumps, and these perennial irritants of science fiction are actually the main charm of this book. His plotting is rudimentary at best, dramatic situations are always being resolved by unlikely authorial fiat which pays no regard whatsoever to dramatic logic or what characterisation we have. You do not read this novel for story. What you read it for is the world, which is hip, glossy, startling, ludicrous and convincing, and that is mainly contained within the info-dumps.
Welcome to the science fiction of the twenty-first century. It is much like the science fiction of the twentieth century, but with rather less story.
This article first appeared in Vector 244. Back issues of Vector are available from