Dual Singularity

In a way, I feel I was present at the birth of the careers of Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross. It’s just a sensation that is inevitable when you’ve been around in this game for a while.

In 1998, my friend Scott Edelman was editing a magazine titled Science Fiction Age, and I was contributing book reviews there. Naturally, when each issue arrived I eagerly read Scott’s fiction selections — after, of course, first relishing my own undying prose, reified antiquely with actual ink on actual paper. And so in March 1998, I found myself grinning like a loon while reading “Craphound,” a droll yet affecting story about aliens coming to Earth and coveting vintage tchotchkes. I noted that the tale was written by some young newcomer named Cory Doctorow.

A few years later, in the issue of Asimov’s for April 2003, I reviewed the first book by Charles Stross, a story collection titled Toast. (And given the long lead time that Asimov’s mandates between submission of a column and its printing, I must have read Toast in the last quarter of 2002, just after its publication.) I recall experiencing a shock of recognition when I realized that all these mind-warping stories — “Dechlorinating the Moderator” featured a fandom based on amateur particle accelerators — had first passed before my eyes during the 1990s in the pages of Interzone. I just hadn’t linked them all mentally to the same originating brain.

I need hardly tell aficionados of cutting-edge SF what enormous achievements and widespread acclaim these two writers have racked up since the world was quietly introduced to their visions a relatively short time ago. Both men are big-thinking prodigies with high public profiles — especially Doctorow, whose jointly curated blog, Boing Boing, is a major Internet presence. They both embrace high-quality productivity, winning awards left and right.

Earlier this year, Stross released the fourth book in his “Laundry” series about U.K. occult bureaucrats, The Apocalypse Codex. And this month comes a new solo YA novel from Cory Doctorow, Pirate Cinema, and also the first collaborative book from these two authors, The Rapture of the Nerds. A genuine wealth of Doctorow & Stross.

Pirate Cinema follows previous novels from Doctorow, like Little Brother, that have been aimed at “Young Adults” but which almost reflexively brush past such age-centric categorization in tone, content, and sophistication. True to form, only the age of this book’s protagonist and first-person narrator, sixteen-year-old Trent McCauley, has any relevance to such a marketing label. Trent is a bright young fellow from Bradford in Yorkshire*, a relatively unlettered prole, with one passion: mashing up videos. The raw material of his art? Digitized film clips on the Web, many of which are copyrighted material. In the day-after-tomorrow U.K. where Trent lives, unauthorized downloads of such material come with a three-strikes Internet ban — for the entire offending household! Trent precipitates such a life-destroying modern curse on his family and, in despair and shame, runs away resourcelessly to London.

There, he fortuitously falls in with a canny homeless guy named Jem, who initiates him in various survival skills. Soon Trent, Jem, and some others street folks are squatting in an abandoned pub, cobbling together a new life for themselves. But when Trent attends an outlaw outdoor film festival and meets a charming young woman who dubs herself “26,” or “Twenty” for short, things get political. New legislation aimed at further limiting online freedoms, with harsh penalties, is approaching Parliamentary reality, and Trent and his new girlfriend set out to change history. But can satirical amateur YouTube videos trump the might of Hollywood studios and their political lapdogs?

Having set up this engaging and rich plot apparatus, only broadly sketched here, Doctorow does any number of wonderful things, all organically integrated into a compelling and naturalistic narrative.

First comes the creation of Trent. The author nails his teenage voice, half knowing, half naïve, sometimes potty-mouthed, sometimes idealistically reverent. Trent’s no superman or whiz kid, just a moderately talented, good-hearted lad trying to exercise his creative instincts. (This very averageness or ubiquity relates to a theme explored below.) He’s every kid in the 1970s who went out with his buddies and Dad’s Kodak Brownie 8mm camera to make a neighborhood film. But he’s simultaneously the exceptional Little Tailor figure who steps up to challenges brought on by his own boastful ambitions, growing into a larger-than-life role. This transformation of Trent from Everyman to hero is believable and engrossing.

The supporting cast is brilliantly assembled as well, from Jem on down to the lesser players. Trent’s relations with Twenty are pure postmodern teenage Romeo and Juliet, a mix of tenderness and comedy, and his interactions with his estranged family are heartbreakingly vivid.

Having built a strong cast, Doctorow uses them and their concerns and struggles to explore a host of hot topics, from economic inequality to censorship to “maker” tech to sustainable lifestyles. He’s never didactic, but manages to come up with fresh insights into these issues and prefers to render them in shades of grey rather than the high contrast that ideological partisans might expect.

Doctorow has a great time depicting 21st-century London in quasi-Dickensian terms. (Any book that features a character named Dodger tips its hand right away.) But as for big themes, two stand out. The first owes its substance to an underground cult classic, now twenty years old: Peter Lamborn Wilson‘s T.A.Z.: The Temporary Autonomous Zone. This handbook for creating transient bohemian utopias has inspired any number of SF authors, but Doctorow especially, I think. Some echoes of Samuel Delany’s earlier communities of self-affiliation also play a part, as does the general hipster vibe of the Love & Rockets graphic novels.

Perhaps the most original theme, however, relates to the definition of creativity. Such a rethinking of this central and eternal trait of our species lies at the heart of this book, which strives to find a place in the over-regulated world for maximal expression of individual human spirit. When, midway through the book, Trent generously defines creativity in its baseline form as “doing something that isn’t obvious,” the book explodes into new philosophical realms. The outcome is less strident and melodramatic than Little Brother, more balanced and accepting of an imperfect world — while still holding aloft an idealistic torch.

The Rapture of the Nerds could not be more different from Pirate Cinema. Not just because a co-author is onboard with Doctorow this time, although Stross’s unmistakeable voice is indeed in full recognizable Tarzan yell here. But also because this book features the two men in their distinctly left-of-center roles as wild-eyed, blue-skying techno-prophets, testifying to the manic, absurd, liberating, stultifying vistas far ahead of us. If you loved Stross’s standard-setting Accelerando, you’ll be smitten with this new novel.

The title, for those not hip to every latest meme, is an affectionately derisive synonym for the Singularity, that moment of posthuman transcendence supposedly just around the corner, which will be ushered in through a mighty confluence of software, hardware, wetware, and vaporware.

Science fiction has been suitably enchanted by this idea for some time now; the problem with the concept has always been how to stage humanly empathizable stories in the Singularity realm, which, by definition, is ineffable to mere mortals. Stross and Doctorow neatly get around that by mostly employing the setting of a comprehensibly weird Earth populated by one billion of the left-behind, those humans who never made the jump to godhood.

But then, just to ramp up their game, they show us life in the virtual-reality simulation enjoyed by the uplifted ones!

Unfortunately for the humans left on Earth, the solar system is filled with mischievous techno-demiurges, and Earth is their sandbox. This scenario is tight-beamed to us in an unabashed one-page infodump early on — much in the same manner that the humans get zapped with deadly chatter from above. In this book — intended to represent a world where “your world is inverted six times before breakfast” — form fully follows function. Every sentence is info-dense and unrelenting, an assault on our 2012 consensus reality. For instance, here’s their description of a technique employed by the inhabitants of the digital world to reconcile their multiple selves:

Arbing refers to a perverse practice whereby deviant software entities serialize their cognitive frameworks and subject them to differential analysis to identify points of dissonance. When it’s read-only, it’s perfectly safe for consenting sapients to engage in without risking their worldview — but it highlights differences and hauls memetic ruptures into sight like nothing else.

If you are not willing to parse a dozen sentences like that on practically every page, The Rapture of the Nerds is not likely to make rapturous reading. But for those canny SF veterans and bright and willing newbies raised on the Internet’s complexities and postmodern cognitive dissonance, this book offers untold mind-shattering bomblets of delight. It’s one of those SF novels where the authors seemed to have injected every single idea they had during its composition.

Our point-of-view character is the hapless Huw Jones, Welsh by birth and rejectionist by choice: someone who tries to live in an antique manner, disdaining most of the weird gadgets and philosophies that abound. His passion is making ceramic pots the ancient way. In the first third of the book, the section titled “Jury Service” (sections one and two previously appeared solo, with number three original to this incarnation), Huw is summoned to serve on a legal case. He will be transported to Libya, where Judge Rosa Giuliani is adjudicating a case of illegal download of an invasive entity from the Singularity cloud. Subject to one indignity and insult after another, Huw finds himself carnally hosting said entity, and on the lam.

“Appeals Court” picks up immediately upon Huw’s flight from the Middle East. He finds himself at the mercy of a slick operator named Adrian and henchwoman Bonnie (who has the intermittent hots for Huw). They are delivering Huw to the USA, which, at least in the Deep South, has become a regime where Jesus-besotted evangelicals duke it out with the Hypercolony, a sprawling superorganism of mutant ants. Still hosting his parasite, Huw finds himself humiliatingly driven from pillar to post in what turns out to be another attempt at manipulating life on Earth by the Singularity minds.

The new part, “Parole Board,” nearly half the text, raises the stakes for Huw and the planet and ties up all the threads. It’s full of life after death, sex changes, treachery, love, hate, hedge funds, smart-ass djiniis, and — just to get a little spoilery — that great SF power chord, “one human representative nominated to defend the entire species before superior galactic beings in a life or death trial.” Whew!

For all its pleasantly in-your-face novelty and continually rethought freshness — Stross and Doctorow even update for a post-broadcast era William Gibson’s famous metaphor about the sky being the color of a TV tuned to a dead channel — The Rapture of the Nerds proudly incorporates many classic SF ancestors into its lineage. Robert Sheckley’s bold wackiness (Huw’s magic lamp AI guide is surely derived from the Prize in Dimension of Miracles, an evident touchstone for Rapture); Henry Kuttner’s comedies of technology gone wrong, found most notably in Robots Have No Tails; Douglas Adams’s droll cynicism; John Varley’s blithely accommodating societal attitudes; Rudy Rucker’s gonzo speculativeness; the kitchen-sink bricolage of Alejandro Jodorowsky and his Incal graphic novels; Bruce Sterling’s sardonic hip omniscience; even a kind of C. S. Lewis quasi-theological bantering at times.

But surely Fred Pohl’s and Cyril Kornbluth’s Galaxy magazine–era satire rides herd over all. Could this book have been titled The Singularity Merchants? Here’s S&D on politics:

Even before the singularity, the pursuit of political power through elections to high office had become more of a ritualized status game than an actual no-shit opportunity to leave a mark on the increasingly hypercomplexified and automated global ecosphere…. By the takeoff itself [the launch of the singularity], most of the WTO trade negotiators had borgified, and the resulting WorldGov, with its AI-mediated committee meetings, had become the ultimate LARP for aspirational politicians…. (Also, uniquely among live-action role-playing games, the costumes sucked.)

And I could quote similar passages at length, especially one in which Huw notices the banality of a silicon paradise.

In this milestone novel, Stross and Doctorow have risen to the perpetual SF challenge of portraying a world utterly estranged from our present, yet still somehow our must-be-acknowledged illegitimate bad seed spawn. They’ve raised the bar for all who follow in their footsteps.

*Editor’s Note: As a perspicacious reader has pointed out, an earlier version of this article mistakenly identified Trent McCauley as a resident of Scotland. The Barnes & Noble Review apologizes for the error to the author, our readers, and residents of both aforementioned regions.