Thursday, February 24, 2005

'Singularity Sky': Wishes and Warships

“Fertile imagination” would not be the right phrase with which to describe that portion of Charles Stross’s mind with which his readers are most familiar. I am more inclined to use “radioactive mutagenic spawning pit of amusement,” and suspect he would wear this description with pride.

I’ve read, and enjoyed, a number of his stories. But Stross always seems to want to move on to the next story premise in the middle of the one he was writing, so I worried whether his simultaneously heavy, zany, and sometimes macabre style could hold up over the course of an entire novel. It was thus with nervous glee that I picked up ‘Singularity Sky’, his first full-length feature, from my local library.

The novel opens, aptly enough, with high technology raining from the skies on an economically and politically backwater planet, Rochard’s World. It is a dispassionate yet dire threat to the repressive powers that be. Would the long-time would-be revolutionaries obtain fearsome weaponry? Would the big wigs of the old regime even try to maintain the impoverished status quo in light of the inherently prosperous new reality?

The interesting stories that could be told about such a population abound. In fact, stories and other entertainment are the only currency of interest to the interstellar interlopers granting the high-tech wishes, a mysterious entity known as the Festival.

But, perhaps because we have no nanoassemblers which to tempt the author, we never get more than a few outlandish vignettes about those on Rochard’s World. Instead, the novel’s dramatic center of gravity quickly and permanently shifts to somewhere within the Lord Vanek, flagship of a military task force en route to the embroiled planet. Depending on your taste in science fiction, the precise center is either Martin: a civilian contractor who comes aboard with hidden prerogatives, or the miniature black hole that is the ship’s drive kernel.

This is somewhat disappointing, because both planet and starship contain several named characters with whom I was probably expected to take an interest. But most of Stross’s characters lack emotional appeal and become a chore to keep straight. The revolutionaries and their adversaries on Rochard’s World are stereotypical voices in a predictable debate. The Vanek’s crew: empty uniforms wadded up into sweaty ball of intrigue.

There is one important female character, Rachel, who ultimately manages to radiate some warmth and charm, sharing the limelight with Martin and providing some romantic tension.

But before this can happen, she and Martin must burn through a couple layers of identity shielding. They have to have several in order to stand out, since everyone else in the book also seems to have at least one Secret Identity or Great Big Secret. The combined weight of these surprises ultimately becomes rather silly, to the point that the novel’s final revelations made me want to stand up and throw someone a Scooby Snack.

I shouldn’t be so hard on Stross. This was a new format for him, and there were a lot of fun ideas in ‘Singularity Sky’. But this was a book I could, and did, put down. Often. It just seemed like more fun for Stross than for me. Like a three-ring circus, there was more showmanship than I had the attention to be amused by. I found his parallel plot-lines too independent and too lacking in harmony to keep most cliffhangers from turning into offramps. Too much thread, not enough yarn.

And then there’s the fake-out chapter, which I might have been ok with back when I liked Star Trek and its holodeck ‘never happened’ episodes, but truly angered me on this occasion. I won’t reveal the scene here, but after realizing my trust had been betrayed for the sake of a flashy action sequence that could not actually take place within Stross’s chosen plot, I was tempted to put the book down permanently.

Stross also seems determined to make a political statement, but on this occasion lacks the subtlety to work it into the tale in more than the most amateur way. To completely implausible foil characters, Martin and Rachel lecture on the failings of traditional government. Like interstellar hipsters, they teach the squares about the grooviness of techno anarchy and how central control is, like, so 20th century. It’s all so obvious: Rochard’s World is upstate New York. The Festival is Woodstock.

‘Singularity Sky’ is not without its charms, but does not pull itself together into a working whole. Hopefully, Stross will learn to evoke more depth and unity as he continues to stretch his frenetic creativity into novel-length stories. His sequel to this book, ‘Iron Sunrise’, is already out. I’ll look around for it the next time I’m in a Stross mood.

Oh, a few words about the title: Singularity Sky does have something to do with the technological Singularity, but mostly in the sense of sudden abundance changing all the rules, rather than the creation of greater than human intelligence. And the polarized situation on Rochard’s World doesn’t lend itself to drawing intelligent parallels to the consequences of such a Singularity here on earth. But if your favorite kind of singularity is astronomical, you’re in luck: the Lord Vanek's engine room gets plenty of page space.


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