“Accelerando” by Charles Stross: FACT reading group discussion in January of 2007

On January 23, 2007 the FACT reading group discussed “Accelerando” by Charles Stross. Here are the main observations made at the discussion.

“Accelerando” is too discontinuous to be called a novel. The stories that make up “Accelerando” revolve around the same set of characters, but there is no plot arch to unify them. That can be a good thing, too. The characterization was mediocre. But it was offset by innovative ideas, which “Accelerando” is chockfull of. The readers were most impressed by: Charles Stross’ portrayal of the technological Singularity; his answer to the Fermi paradox; his humorous treatment of lawyers, spam, pyramid schemes and other life’s small annoyances.

Some people thought that parts of Stross’ futuristic vision were too sketchy. Especially Economics 2.0, which, many readers agreed, was explained in no more than a hand-waving fashion.

Everybody in the reading group has read at least some part of “Accelerando”. About 2/3 of the people finished it. Others were planning to finish. Everybody has read Charles Stross before.

The common opinion is that “Accelerando” is too discontinuous to be called a novel. The stories that make up “Accelerando” revolve around the same set of characters, but there is no plot arch to unify them. Some readers didn’t like this. Others found unexpected advantages in this structure: it made the novel as a whole not predictable. A reader said “You had no idea where Stross was going [with the story]. It was not predictable. It was a slow read, because you don’t want to flip to the end. It wouldn’t make any sense. It’s not like it all comes together.” This unpredictability may naturall follow from the fact that the overarching narrative of “Accelerando” is, in the words of one reader, a narrative of ideas. It had hardly anything to do with any of the characters. And because of that, some readers thought the “infodumps” — the passages in bold print where the technological revolution taking places in the Solar system is recapped in a format of a popular science essay — were some of the most interesting passages in the book, and contained the most beautiful writing.

Yet everyone agreed that the characterization in “Accelerando” was nowhere near as good as in Charles Stross’ some other work. One reader said it was a sad comment that by far the best character in some of the later stories was Aineko, the AI cat.

But the mediocre characterization is more than compensated by innovative ideas, which “Accelerando” is chockfull of. The readers were most impressed by:

  • Charles Stross’ portrayal of the technological Singularity. A reader said: “He’s taken a good swing at the issue that a couple of other writers have taken a stab at. There’s a running debate among writers and readers whether it’s possible to write about the Singularity. Vernor Vinge explored in how many different ways we can postulate the possibility of Singularity, and then write around it. Like in Marooned in Realtime, where some people stepped out for lunch and weren’t there when it happened. Some other people have tried writing about posthuman cultures living on the edge of transcendency. Karl Schroeder has taken a stab at it a couple of times. Some of Stross’ other works were about humans living in a shadow of transcendency. This was writing from the experience of the people who lived through it, not from the innermost core — you can’t really write that story, but about humans who lived more or less human lives in the shadow of that event.”
  • Stross comes up with an answer to the Fermi paradox. If alien civilizations are out there, how come we haven’t seen signs of any? In “Accelerando”, as the humankind goes through Singularity and converts the Solar system into computronium, they discover that if they were to travel in space, they won’t have enough bandwidth. So they stay where they are.
  • On a lesser scale, people were amused by Stross’s lawyer humor. A reader said: “I thought one little detail was really wonderful: when Amber was a queen of her little piece of rock around Jupiter, and her legal system required combat to solve lawsuits. And Pierre was, thank God, I don’t know any martial arts! We’re gonna upload some martial arts thing and kill each other. And she said, no. You get to choose the weapon, and the weapon I want you to choose is some kind of economic profit-making scheme! I thought it was a cute point.” Stross provides similarly humorous treatment of various today’s annoyances, such as spam, pyramid schemes, and IRS. Another person said: “[Stross] really must have a thing against taxes, because the IRS agent, Manfred’s wife, is the most horrible human being, the worst character I had run into in a long time. There’s nothing good about her, except that she’s good at her job.” Pamela’s character must be memorable indeed, because another reader said she asked Stross (when he was in Austin for ArmadilloCon) “if his potrait of Pamela was how he saw the US and the American people. At that time America was engaging in activities sort of like Pamela was: if you don’t give it to me, I’ll take it!” But Stross said, no, that wasn’t what Pamela was supposed to represent.
Charles Stross in the British SF panel at ArmadilloCon 2007
CIMG0178 Charles Stross in the “Current Trends in British SF panel” at ArmadilloCon 2007

Some people thought that parts of Stross’ futuristic vision were too sketchy. Especially Economics 2.0, which, many readers agreed, was explained in no more than a hand-waving fashion.

Paradoxes of Economics 2.0

Economics 2.0 and its implications seemed to me some of the most inconsistent aspects of the book, and trying to discuss them with other readers did not help to clarify things much. Questions that puzzled me — e.g. how it is possible to be poor in a post-scarcity economy, and why would the transcendent beings living in the Solar system core sue Amber (what would she have that they want?) — were met with no more than speculation. It seems that where the author did not do a good job painting a consistent picture of Economics 2.0, most readers filled in the gaps with their own imagination.

What sense does it make for transcendent beings to sue humans?

For example, who is suing Amber in the story “Curator”, and what sense would it make for transcendent beings to sue a human? (OK, so Amber was technically posthuman, but despite being uploaded, her personality was still very much human.) Were the lawsuits originated by the post-singularity entities that lived in the Matrioshka brains surrounding the Sun? Consider this: the post-singularity entities are as far ahead of us intellectually as we are ahead of a cat or a dog (or even a tapeworm, as Charles Stross himself says in Chapter 8, Elector). For them to sue us would be as meaningless as for to sue a cat or a dog, wouldn’t it? Even if we are mad at a cat or a dog for something they did, there’s no point in taking them to court because they can’t compensate the damages in a way that’s meaningful to us.

If not the transcendent entities, who is suing Amber? When I posed this question, one reader said that it was actually the lawsuits themselves. The lawsuits were conscious entities. Still I asked, where did they originate? Someone must have started them? Someone in the group thought that maybe those were the same lawsuits that initially attacked Manfred. They continued to live through Singularity, or maybe they lay dormant, to be triggered in the event of Amber’s return from the interstellar space. While this interpretation is feasible, I don’t think it follows from the text. So it seemed that readers had to fill in the gaps in the explanations with their own imagination. There was a sentence in the text that sounded like Amber was being sued by limited liability companies, implying that those companies were conscious entities. And that may be true, but it still doesn’t explain what sense does it make for them to sue a creature that’s so beneath their level of intellect as a tapeworm is beneath human. I suppose it could be partially explained that the lawsuits were just a thin veil over an attempt to take Aineko, Amber’s AI cat, by force, since Aineko was what they were really after.

What does it mean to be poor in post-scarcity economics?

There was also some discussion about what it meant to be poor in the Economics 2.0. In what sense Amber was “poor” after returning from interstellar space? The post-human colonies ran Economics 1.0, and by the standards of Economics 1.0 — a post-scarcity economics — everyone in those colonies was obscenely rich. So if they were poor, they were poor by the standards of Economics 2.0, but Amber should not have been concerned with Economics 2.0, as she wasn’t a part of it. That’s what I don’t understand.

On the other hand, inconsistencies may be inevitable when you are attempting something as ambitious as writing about a future that’s beyond our wildest abilities to foresee. A world with no scarcity is a radical and beautiful idea, but if everybody’s every need can be met at no cost to others, this eliminates a major source of conflict, and conflict is almost always necessary to drive the plot. Most literary works are based on the premise that a protagonist can’t have what he or she wants, or grew up without being able to have what he/she wants, and it colors their perception of life.

Of course, I’m sure that in the post-scarcity economics there are still things people compete for — such as influence and prestige. It’s mentioned in the book that originality is the currency of Economics 2.0. So maybe, given that Amber, or any human, can’t offer anything original to the participants of Economics 2.0, you could say that Amber is poor in the sense that she is not a major player — not a player at all — in the projects undertaken by the transcendent beings (Vile Offspring?). But given that she does not participate in Economics 2.0, she can’t be sued and forced to repay damages in the currency of Economics 2.0, can she?

(To be fair, it turns out that she indeed had something that proved very valuable even by the standards of Economics 2.0, and indeed that object turned Economics 2.0 on its head, but she had stumbled upon it accidentally. She didn’t even know its capabilities until the end. And it is completely unclear how the said object wreaked havoc in Economics 2.0.)

The book’s excessive “geek quotient” may unnecessarily narrow down the audience that may enjoy it

Everybody acknowledged that this book is not for mass audiences. Its extremely high “geek quotient” prompted such comments as these:

  • It definitely is rapture of the nerds.
  • You have to have a background in sciene fiction to understand it. Mainstream book clubs shouldn’t read it. Stross is not pandering. Well, he’s pandering to a geek audience. If you’re not reading science fiction and you’re not getting any of this, he doesn’t care.
  • It’s definitely written for a SF computer nerd. Specifically, computer science SF nerd. 90% of reference he makes are computer science references that’s he’s playing around.

Somebody also observed that despite being set in the future, Accelerando is very closely tied to today‘s technological and pop-culture landscape: “I’m not sure you can understand if you don’t read Dilbert and Slashdot. I’m not sure if a bright person who’s not from that community would understand it.” Which may be seen as a drawback for this book, as it unnecessarily narrows down the audience that might be able to enjoy it otherwise. For the same reason the book may not age well, as in 20 years Dilbert references may be obsolete.