Friday, February 13, 2009

Book Review: Accelerando

In response to my reading of The Singularity is Near and the opportunity with Darlene the Science Cheerleader to interview Ray Kurzweil, I thought I'd take a look at some Singularity-related science fiction. Charles Stross, a British SF writer, has written several books on this theme, among them Accelerando. This is a wild book, very serious and far-reaching in its implications despite its often-humorous or raucous character interactions. It is also much, much easier to read than Kurzweil's book and provides a dramatic representation of Kurzweil's ideas in everyday lives.

Starting around 2015, we begin with Manfred Macx, a roving hacker and business idea creator, who creates new money-making concepts for others, taking only favors as payment. Manfred is a neo-Marxist who distrusts capitalism and believes that the Singularity is going to create a society of plenty so great that money no longer matters. He follows the credo of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Cory Doctorow, who believe that information should be free. Stross realistically describes the financial difficulties that would arise if our worldwide economic system shifted from an assumption of scarcity and limited resources (which we mediate by using money) to an economy where nanotechnology-based "replicators" make all resources and products free by transmuting elements at the atomic level on an industrial scale. However, I didn't buy Manfred's belief that only a turn to full Marxism could cope with this change in resources.

Manfred's story begins when a group of dissident lobsters contacts him via an electronic package seeking asylum. Lobsters, you say? Right: lobsters. One aspect that is often hyped as part of the Singularity is the ability of computers to "upload" the contents of minds. Theoretically, one could start by uploading simpler minds first, then use what is learned from those uploads to increase computer capabilities, and moving up to faster computational systems. While finding an escape route for the lobsters, Manfred also tries to fight for the civil rights of computerized entities like the lobsters and dodge the IRS, his ex-wife (who works for the IRS), the mafia (who have taken over the music business), and someone who is mailing him dead cats. This is a lot of weirdness, and this is just the first part of the book.

Part two deals with Manfred's daughter Amber, who was born from his ex-wife, who became pregnant after capturing Manfred in a bizarre bondage episode in part one (this book is definitely rated R). Amber is an indentured slave aboard a ship orbiting Jupiter space after running away from her mother. The ship is out in space to use nanotechnology miners to build bases in that part of space. She gradually transforms herself into a queen in Jupiter space, and uses her considerable political powers to send a laser-sail-driven starship to a brown dwarf three light years away. This starship is not occupied by a typical flesh-and-blood crew, but a group of holodeck characters who incorporate uploaded personalities--including Amber and her electronic cat, another recurring character, like the lobsters. These electronic characters reach the brown dwarf, where they find an alien-built router. The remainder of part two deals with these "holodeck" adventures and their eventual return to the solar system.

While all this mostly human-based activity is going on, the computerized world has been busy, too. The super-intelligent computers, using nanotechnology in their own way, are dismantling planets and moons to turn "dumb" matter into matter that can be used for molecular computing. The electronic minds are trading in content and ideas forming "Economy 2.0" and eventually "Economy 3.0." All of this can quickly get over the merely human occupants of the solar system, but that's almost beside the point, as the electronic minds of the inner solar system also become hostile to human life. If there's a dystopian side to the Singularity, this would be it. And all of this takes place within the space of a century, more or less. This is a much different view of progress than some Golden Age SF writers created. Rather than massive changes in humanity and technology taking place over the course of ages, these changes occur in the space of decades or mere years.

To help the reader keep up on what's going on, Stross uses rather amusing omniscient summaries of activities in the humand and computerizeds world on Earth. It combines a little Heinleinesque snark, a little cyberpunk randomness, and a lot of Singularity- or IT-based technobabble. A short sample will suffice:

New Japan is one of the newer human polities in this system, a bunch of nodes physically collocated in the humaniformed spaces of the colony cylinders. Its designers evidently only knew about old Nippon from recordings made back before Earth was dismantled, and worked from a combination of nostalgia-trip videos, Miyazaki movies, and anime culture. Nevertheless, it's the home of numerous human beings--even if they are about as similar to their historical antecedents as New Japan is to its long-gone namesake.


Their grandparents would recognize them, mostly. The ones who are truly beyond the ken of twentieth-century survivors stayed back home in the red-hot clouds of nanocomputers that have replaced the planets that once orbited Earth's sun in stately Copernican harmony. The fast-thinking Matrioshka brains are as incomprehensible to their merely posthuman ancestors as an ICBM to an amoeba--and about as inhabitable.

Part three's human-viewpoint character is Sirhan, the son of Amber and Sadeq, a Shi'ite Muslim cleric who accompanied her on the starship. Sirhan was born while the virtual incarnation of Amber was in transit to the alien router. Amber and Sadeq never married on the starship, while their left-behind selves pushed Sirhan's personality through a series of holodeck-type environments to try to get his childhood "right." As a result of all this, Sirhan has a rather confused and tense relationship with his returned mother.

By part three, the inner solar system has become akin to a Dyson sphere made of "computronium," essentially "dumb" matter that has all been translated into computer surfaces to increase the ability of the computer minds near the Sun to expand their powers. Again there is tension between humans and computers, keeping the conflict moving along.

What I like and respect about Stross's work is his more realistic depiction of the problems of smarter-than-human computers. Ray Kurzweil, the lead prophet of Singularitarianism, is much too optimistic, in my view. But then if everything was an "upside" in the Singularity, there'd be no drama and no story. Stross also manages to strike a nice balance between the human character interactions and the bigger human-computer conflicts, though the human relationships become more and more difficult to sort out and understand as the technology that defines "humanity" changes the very nature of the species. I found the book well worth reading, and look forward to Stross's Singularity Sky.

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