Thursday, 23 April 2009

Charles Stross: Accelerando (2005)

Edition: Orbit, 2006

I first read Accelerando soon after it came out, but, although I found it fascinating, I wasn't able to put together a review. It's an incredibly ambitious novel, describing one potential fate of the human race: it aims to be as iconic a part of the science fiction genre as Neuromancer or Snow Crash. The novel is very much in their tradition of speculation about the interaction between computers, human minds, and the universe.

Accelerando follows three main characters, Manfred Macx and his daughter Amber, then her child Sirhan (not forgetting their cat, the most intelligent of all of them) as they explore the developments in computing which Stross suggests will occur during the twenty-first century and beyond. These begin with spectacles which provide a virtual reality overlay on the real world, to implanted computers and networked enhancements to memory and cognition, to the conversion of the solar system itself into a giant molecular computer, in which uploaded post-humans live in simulations. Manfred is pretty recognisable, just beyond the edge of the way that many people live now, with some interesting technological toys and a radical lifestyle (spent registering patents that he makes available for free use and living off favours from those who benefit from them). Amber is stranger, as most of her story takes place as a simulation on a tiny space ship/computer where she is empress over a virtual court based on fifteenth century France. Sirhan is an adolescent who experienced multiple simulated lifetimes as his education yet has not so far decided which gender to be.

While the themes are similar to those explored by Gibson and Stephenson, being a future based on the technology available at the time of writing, I suspect that Accelerando will not prove as influential. Both Neuromancer and Snow Crash proved self-fulfilling prophecies, Neuromancer inspiring developers of the Web and Snow Crash developers of virtual reality environments such as Second Life, the accuracy of their predictions coming as much from this as from authorial prescience. Both novels take place over a fairly short internal timescale, a few weeks during which the IT environment remains effectively static, and this means that they can really serve as models for developers to emulate. Accelerando, as its title indicates, is about the process of change, and this means that the worlds described in it are a moving target, and there is far less space for Stross to go into evocative details.

Apart from the IT, all three books have other things in common. Most obvious is that they all portray the current political realities based around nation states as effectively obsolete. This seemed very far fetched in the mid-eighties, when I first read Neuromancer's suggestion that corporate entities would be the main powers in the world (rather than running things from behind the scene, as has been suggested happened in Bush's America). Stross's post-capitalist world seems more likely now than it did when I first read Accelerando, before the credit crunch. The short sightedness of financial institutions and the consequent loss of trust by their customers, combined with a fairly clear and longstanding inability of governments to understand, legislate and innovate for the Internet seems to me to make the sort of changes that are the background to this novel not just possible but likely. Snow Crash, where the Mafia deliver pizza and Federal organisations are just an embarrassment is obviously satirical and not very likely in the real world; Stross's idea that the Russian Mafia enforce music copyright is less extreme while still satirical.

Any novel which covers three generations is ambitious, and Accelerando also describes a possible ultimate fate of the human race. From a futurological point of view, some aspects are questionable. The timetable, for example, depends on Moore's Law continuing to hold well into the future: it is not a natural law, just an observation, and depends on increasingly fast technological innovation which seems unlikely (at least in the current economic climate). The scenarios which are described in the novel are mostly well known speculation (in particular by Frank Tipler, who is indirectly mentioned through the "Tiplerite" religion, dedicated to bringing about his vision). Stross may well be the first science fiction author to produce a novel which centres around these ideas to this extent: novels dealing with the final destiny of humanity are surprisingly rare in science fiction, except when treated as satire. Accelerando does suffer from one of the major problems of science fiction which deals with big themes: when you have beings who are vastly more intelligent than any human (including the author and his readers), how is it possible to make their actions comprehensible? Stross does this mainly by keeping his narrative centred on those who remain close to baseline human, who stay recognisable to us, even if strange. (I'm not sure the people depicted at the end are quite strange enough, given how different they are to us; they should be more difficult for us to understand than our culture would be to someone from the nineteenth century, and I don't think that they are.)

Accelerando is fairly effective, and manages to remain sufficiently straightforward to be readable right to the end, despite the proliferation of virtual copies, clones and a wide variety of types of post-human with far greater intelligence than those who choose to remain principally flesh and blood, no matter how augmented. There are some lapses of judgement, such as the sudden adoption of an arch tone at the start of the final section. There is perhaps too much explanatory material. Each chapter has a section summarising the present situation, basically a summary of IT developments during a decade of the twenty first century. There is a lengthy, but amusing, FAQ for newly resurrected individuals given in full and taking several pages. And I always find a novel written in the present tense to be constantly mildly irritating. But, considering its ambition, Accelerando is very successful - 8/10.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Michael Chabon: The Yiddish Policemen's Union (2007)

Edition: Fourth Estate, 2007

Alaskan detective Meyer Landsman is a mess, and the country he lives in is a mess. Following the destruction of the fledgling state of Israel by its neighbours in 1948, the southern part of Alaska, around the town of Sitka, is opened up for Jewish settlement by the American government. Now, after sixty years, the federal lease is about to come to an end, and no one knows what is going to happen when it does. When Landsman's marriage breaks up, he moves into a sleazy Sitka hotel, to drink himself to death. A bad day starts when the hotel manager wakes him up because the man in the next room is dead, not from the expected heroin overdose but because he has been shot, execution style. Then Landsman discovers that his ex-wife, also a police officer, is now his boss, and that the corpse is the missing son of the head of an extreme Orthodox sect, before being ordered off the case. In true "maverick cop" style, this just makes him work harder, to find out who doesn't want him to discover the killer, and why.

Chabon's alternate history is interesting, and reasonably believable. I could easily imagine Israel destroyed in 1948, and with a little more effort the choice of Alaska - not then a state of the USA - as an alternative Jewish land makes sense: the territory was under the control of an American federal government sympathetic to the post-war plight of the Jews, and it was not already heavily populated. The sett up feels as though it should be making the ingredients of a farce, butt the novel is not humorous, apart from the odd one-liner and the exaggeration of the maverick stereotype in Landsman: this is not Woody Allen. For a novel which is described as "a homage to 1940s noir", I'd really expect more sharpness.

The Yiddish Policemen's Union is a novel I really expected to enjoy. Other people thought it was really good, I'd enjoyed The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by the same author, and felt that the idea behind the story would make an interesting setting. But in the event I found it heavy going. The depression of the protagonist, the desperate sense of impending doom over the Jews of Sitka, and the nastiness of many of the other characters are all contributing factors, making it hard to enjoy reading the novel. This is not necessarily a reason for not reading, and The Yiddish Policemen's Union is not the first or the most depressing book I have read, by a long shot. The suggestions for why it is hard going could equally well be said of 1984, though the theme of rebellion against authority there works better at holding the reader's interest - Winston is not as clich├ęd a character as Landsman. Perhaps Chabon just struck a chord with me, though I can't see what it would be. I am not, after all, a Jewish policeman investigating the murder of a heroin addict.

Often a book which is difficult to read providers other pleasures, but although it is undoubtedly well written, I did not really feel that I gained much from The Yiddish Policemen's Union. Perhaps if more had been made of the chess playing metaphor, or there had been more humour, I would have enjoyed it more. In the end, I would personally rate The Yiddish Policemen's Union at 6/10.