The day war was declared, a rain of telephones fell clattering to the cobblestones from the skies above Novy Petrograd. Some of them had half-melted from the heat of re-entry; others pinged and ticked, cooling rapidly in the postdawn chill. A inquisitive pigeon hopped close, head cocked to one side; it pecked at the shiny case of one such device, then fluttered away in alarm when it beeped. A tinny voice spoke: "Hello? Will you entertain us?" (1)
Charles Stross's reputation for excellent short stories made his first novel one of the most anticipated of 2004. Singularity Sky has been nominated for a Hugo Award, and both James Patrick Kelly and Gardner Dozois placed Stross on the "cutting edge of science fiction."
What's happening on the cutting edge, then, circa 2004?
Humanity and post-humanity have spread throughout the cosmos. We've actually had a little help from the Eschaton, the godlike being(s) into whom we will eventually evolve. They've travelled from the future and occasionally make their presence known, largely by their efforts to ensure they will come into being.
The various cultures that have developed in colonized systems vary wildly. In the New Republic, an autocratic collection of worlds, the government strictly limits access to technology and communication with the rest of humanity. Suddenly, their colony on Rochard's World receives a visit from an alien entity calling itself "the Festival," which possesses very advanced technology, and uses it to fulfil the desires of the colonists-- for motives of the Festival's own. The New Republican homeworld takes this as a declaration of war.
Two Terrans travel with the warships to Rochard's World. Martin Springfield, engineer, has been contracted to make some alterations to the fleet. Rachel Mansour, diplomat, represents the United Nations. Neither understands the Festival, but both believe that the New Republic's Navy doesn't have a prayer. Both, however, have ulterior motives which bind them to the voyage, even when it appears to be a suicide mission.
The Festival, meanwhile, has wrought significant changes to the colony, which we see through the eyes of a revolutionary, a de-aged official, an alien Critic, and an anthropomorphic bunny rabbit. The Festival's influence has made Rochard's World a strange land indeed. Like Midas's touch, their bequests do not always work out for the best; one New Republic peasant wishes for a literal goose that lays golden eggs; he dies horribly, as the creature is, of course, radioactive.
Will nanotech destroy science-fiction? No, but it has changed it. Stross weaves old space opera conventions with new technologies into a highly entertaining story. While the voice is Stross's own, the novel's satire recalls some of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.'s early novels. The blend does not always satisfy. While the New Republic's technological restrictions result in a society where the conventions of space opera become entirely reasonable, its autocratic nature makes it something of a Straw Man for Stross's satiric wit. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the reaction of Vassily, a minor official, to the events on Rochard's World. Stross could have made his point without turning this character into quite such a two-dimensional twit.
The other characters-- even the intentional stereotypes-- he generally handles well. I found myself sympathizing with the novel's protagonists, even before I understood their motives.
The book starts to disassemble in the last fifty pages. After pages of leaving us breathless, Stross devotes too much time to straightforward exposition, political pontification, and one too many nerdish inside jokes. Of course, the heavy use of speculative technology, earlier in the novel, without explanation, presents another problem; I'm left wondering if portions of the book would make any sense to those who don't read SF. I suppose being on the "cutting edge" inevitably limits one's audience.
Overall, however, Singularity Sky delivers what science fiction fans seek. The book includes high adventure, grounded speculation, and the play of ideas. Stross earns his reputation as a writer to watch.
A variation of this review, by this author, first appeared at www.bureau42.com