A Book: Accelerando

The solar system is a dead loss right now – dumb all over! Just measure the MIPS per milligram. If it isn’t thinking, it isn’t working. We need to start with the low-mass bodies, reconfigure them for our own use. Dismantle the moon! Dismantle Mars! Build masses of free-flying nanocomputing processor nodes exchanging data via laser link, each layer running off the waste heat of the next one in. Matrioshka brains, Russian doll Dyson spheres the size of solar systems. Teach dumb matter to do the Turing boogie!

– Charles Stross in Accelerando

Accelerando by Charles Stross

Accelerando is a hard book to recommend to anyone. At times it reads as if author Charles Stross wrote it by first making a bullet-point list of cool stuff he wanted to include: effective cyclists! Rubberized concrete! Agalmic economies! Corporate regulations written in Python! Distributed Internet reputation servers! As the exclamation points suggest, every mention of the latest and greatest toys is suffused with breathless enthusiasm. Only afterwards is the story worked in and the characters, in this case, three generations of the dysfunctional and idiosyncratic Macx family, created to serve the plot.

Originally published as separate installments in Asimov’s SF magazine, Accelerando deals with the subject of the technological singularity head on. Each of the three parts of the novel roughly covers the periods before, during and after the “rapture of the nerds” as Stross puts it, spanning a total time period of approximately 200 to 300 years and beginning in turn of the 21st century Amsterdam. There Manfred Macx, a serial entrepreneur who patents ideas and signs over the rights to the public domain, eschewing cash and living on the goodwill of numerous benefactors, works on his latest project: mining a comet to construct a self-replicating robot factory.

It’s a zany life of fast, fast change that Macx lives, “fifteen minutes into everyone else’s future”. He’s human, but bandwidth is as essential to his existence as air and water, his memory prostheses and offsite storage archives as much him as the brain tissue in his skull. He’s the guru of the digerati elite, to whom innovation is the only commodity of any value, and head visionary of the post-scarcity economy that would make capitalism and nation-states obsolete. His unmanned factory-on-a-comet scheme is only the tip of the iceberg: it turns out that running them requires a very special kind of software, in fact runaway simulations of lobster brains that are the result of early upload experiments. This leads Macx and his associates to the challenge of establishing legal rights for sentient software which they realize is the inevitable end state of all minds. The whole thing though is merely a stepping stone in uncovering the mystery of what appears to be an alien communications network that ties the entire universe together using a series of wormholes.

The ideas come fast and furious in this book. Some of them seem to be included purely to shock and amuse: conventional sex involves no exchange of bodily fluids or even skin-to-skin contact but instead requires paraphernalia including latex, leather, electrodes and vasodilators; the mafia buys the Copyright Control Association of America and all of its intellectual property, heavily depreciated by rampant piracy, in an effort to go legit. Others are genuinely interesting: rapid change makes a mockery of legal systems that simply cannot adapt quickly enough, eventually becoming off-the-shelf purchases that can be tailored to individual needs; lawsuits at a rate of one every sixteen seconds are used as a denial of service attack against nested networks of corporations.

Things get even stranger when the action moves away from Earth. As the singularity gets underway, planets and moons are dismantled with delightful abandon, their raw materials processed into computronium, the most computationally-efficient arrangement of matter, to feed the demand for ever more processing power. Eventually all of the mass in the solar system is converted into what Stross calls a Matrioshka-brain, multiple concentric Dyson spheres of computronium designed to convert all of the sun’s energy into processors and memory storage. Finally, Macx’s descendants discover that the history of the singularity on Earth is one that has been repeated for every civilization that ever arose in the universe and that the world of the true posthumans has no place for the originals, however amplified and enhanced.

There are flashes of insight and originality in the book. Stross proposes a novel solution to the Fermi paradox, arguing that the super-intelligences of the post-singularity era require high bandwidth and constant communication with their peers in order to survive, dissuading them from interstellar travel (though it’s not clear why they couldn’t send less intelligent probes to explore space for them). The realization that sentient software, used to the infinitely mutable universe of cyberspace, would feel claustrophobic when embodied in meatspace struck me as perfectly true.

Unfortunately, there are many flaws as well. The characters are emotionally unengaging, their interactions and motivations trite and unconvincing. Their petty grudges and lovers’ spats seem more appropriate for a soap opera than an epic science fiction novel. These may, as Aineko, the enigmatic and weakly-Godlike entity that started life as Manfred Macx’s pet robot cat, suggests, be evidence of the characters’ failure to transcend their humanity. But the less charitable may interpret it as evidence of Stross’ failings as a writer. In that regard, one could also criticize the infestations of snark: “Remember, dose MP3s, dey bad for you [sic] health!” goes a Mafioso.

The ideas flow fast and with manic energy, but the book never pauses long enough to examine any of them at length and one suspects that some do not stand up to close examination. For example, the Matrix-style sword fight in the simulated court of Charles IX is purportedly lethal, but surely the Field Circus has sufficient onboard storage to store backup copies of its crew and resurrect them as necessary?

The posthuman entities trade frantically with one another through Economy 2.0 which, says Stross, is utterly incomprehensible to minds that are still recognizably human. This smacks of philosophical laziness. As Vernor Vinge writes, “… it is hard to see how the universe could generate any problems not capable of being comprehended by us, apart from existence. There could be things our minds aren’t big enough to grasp, ideas we don’t have the memory to hold the parts of; there could be Powers capable of thinking faster than we do; but those are the differences between a computer with 16 megs of RAM and 4K, or between a Pentium and a 8086. A qualitative difference would be that between any computer and a wristwatch. To believe that there is such a difference above us is purely a matter of belief. Act on it if you wish; I find myself believing that no Power could do something which a liberal-minded cosmopolitan could not understand, given time and data.” In the same way, the financial wizardry of City and Wall Street professionals seems arcane at first glance to mere mortals, but even concepts like the CDOs that are at the heart of today’s subprime mortgage crisis are understandable through sufficient effort. Why should Economy 2.0 be categorically different?

Most of all however, this book lacks a soul. Stross has a lot to say about the singularity and the breadth of his ideas is astonishing. His extrapolation of the future is full of realistic details that could only have come from thorough research and a deep interest in the subject. But what he does not say is equally telling. What does Charles Stross feel about the impending singularity? We do not know. Manfred Macx was the first to envision the entire solar system converted to smart matter, yet in the end, schemes against the Vile Offspring that are the product of the singularity he helped bring about. What does Macx feel about that? We do not know either. These questions are obvious and the answers are needed to understand what the singularity means for us humans. Are we to resign ourselves to being nothing more than midwives to posthumans who we cannot identify with and will one day render us irrelevant? Yet these questions are not even asked. For these reasons, the book might as well be written entirely in the style of the factoid vignettes interspersed through it, as a dispassionate textbook of future history.

As a showcase of what could very well be and of the possibilities of near future technology, Accelerando is unbeatable. As a novel, it is deeply unsatisfying.

[The book is available for free download, perhaps in keeping with the principles of Manfred Macx, at the author’s website.]

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