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Accelerando by Charles Stross
Review by Sam Lubell
Ace Books Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 0441012841
Date: 01 July, 2005 List Price $24.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /

Accelerando is a reworking of the Manfred Macx stories that appeared in Asimov?s Science Fiction starting in June 2001. The book can best be read as a collection of linked stories; it does not really work as a novel since it includes three generations of the same family and years, even centuries pass between stories. The ending also seems a little forced, as if Stross was struggling to provide some sort of closure to the sequence that was in some way more final than the endings of the individual stories. Still, those quibbles aside, the stories themselves are a brilliant depiction of how strange the universe, and the people in it, will become after the Singularity. They go from a world just slightly removed from our own to a far future that we really cannot begin to understand. But this is what real science fiction is all about, not space operas that are just fairy tales or spy thrillers with a few scientific terms thrown in.

The hero of the first generation of stories, Manfred Macx is a genius who is plugged into the super-internet of the future, spotting trends one step ahead of everyone else, ?fifteen minutes into everyone else?s future? and creating companies, patenting ideas, and brokering deals. But it is always to make someone else rich, Manfred believes in making money obsolete, and, because he gives everything he creates away, has no need to pay for anything. This post-capitalistic lifestyle drives people at the IRS crazy, including his wife who does not understand why he will not provide for his family in the traditional way. In the first story, ?Lobsters?, after he helps a bunch of lobsters who achieved sentience when their consciousness was downloaded onto the internet, he temporarily reconciles with his wife and they have a baby girl, Amber, who becomes the subject of some of the middle stories. The new economic system is further developed through a story about a messy divorce involving organized crime pursuing Manfred?s property rights in music that could easily have come out of recent Supreme Court rulings (one of the goons even says, ?Remember dose MP3s, dey bad for you health!?). Another story, ?Tourist? shows how identity becomes increasingly computerized. When Manfred?s computerized glasses are stolen, he cannot remember who he is, while the thief is compelled to act like Manfred.

One generation later, companies employ children (whose computerized implants create a huge generation gap) to work in space. One of these children is Manfred?s daughter Amber who escapes her overly controlling mother with the help of Manfred?s computerized cat and a legal contract that sells herself into slavery to a holding company she herself controls. But her mother declares herself a Muslim and takes advantage of Islamic law to have a local imam overrule the contract. When Amber asks for advice from a member of the Franklin Collective, people who agree to let their minds be run by the computerized consciousness of a deceased billionaire, she is told to think outside the box, like her father. And she proves herself a worthy heir, inventing a way out of the dilemma. Meanwhile the cat, who proves to be a more important character than first apparent, has deciphered a message from aliens. Amber and her friends download themselves into cyberspace to meet the aliens. After some adventures and some trouble escaping, they return home, only to learn that their real world selves had created a third generation of the family. And that?s where things really become weird.

Stross does careful world building, each story builds off the advances of the prior one, creating a universe in which reputation matters more than money, people can launch computerized ghosts of themselves into space, and people long dead can transfer their consciousness into a flock of birds. Changes in technology prompt changes in politics and economics. The background in which the characters live and problems they face gradually become less and less familiar to people in the present. This is not a book in which people in the far future act just like humans of today. Yes, they still have the same emotions and family squabbles figure prominently. But Stross has clearly put a lot of thought into what would make the future different from the present and, while careful not to create stories that are incomprehensible to present day readers, he makes the stories more and more alien as he goes along.

Accelerando is a rare find, a book that will change how readers see science fiction. It makes most of science fiction seem outdated. Just as stories about canals on Mars seem invalid now that Earth spacecraft have explored the planet, stories set in the future will seem invalid unless they explore the questions that Stross sets out here. The book, whether you read it as a novel or a set of linked short stories, is a dazzling assortment of speculations about the future and how the future will change people and humanity as a whole. Accelerando is very highly recommended to those who like serious speculation about the future. Fans of mindless action and adventure may not find this quite their cup of tea (or scotch, considering Stross?s background.)

But don?t just take my word for it. Following the post-capitalist example of his own hero, Stross has put the entire book up on the Internet for free under a Creative Commons license. You can download the book although the author requests readers to use bittorrent to save on bandwidth. He is going to compare the number of readers who download the book to the number who buy it through Amazon to see how Internet books spread and who reads them.

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