Charles Stross is the hottest new name in science-fiction just now. He resonates with the internet geeks in a big way, and his newest novel contains cover blurbs from the leading authors and editors in the field praising him. "Where Charles Stross goes today, the rest of science fiction will follow tomorrow," according to Gardner Dozois.
So I looked forward with a great deal of enthusiasm to this novel, since it has been nominated for a Hugo. I have mixed feelings about it, I find. It is indeed, as the jacket blurbs, "A carnival of ideas disguised as a space opera." There aretwo problems: most of the ideas are pretty familiar ones, and the large cast (as you must have in a space opera) flash on and off stage before I really got to know or very much care about any of them.
Some of the problem is that Stross is trying for satire. Satire is a dangerous and risky proposition; it is all too easy to wind up with slapstick where you meant to have irony. The basic story is about a future where Humanity has been forcibly scattered into many colonies, mostly on habitable worlds, given the means to communicate at ftl speeds and the means to travel somewhat less quickly, but also given a Set of Rules by an alien superpower called The Eschaton. Rule number 1 is no causal violations i.e.,time travel. We are using the latest scientific speculation here, with a 'way to do time travel' taken right out the latest physics journals. Stross info-dumps smoothly, explaining how this all works.
In the New Republic, Humanity has chosen to return to a harsher, drabber age, with a Tzarist governmental structure and much repression. One of the New Republic's colony worlds is visited by the Festival, an alien and marvelous group dedicated to communication and freedom of information. The colony world goes into an economic and political Singularity (which reads remarkably like a revolution), and the New Republic sends its fleet out to settle things down. Since this is a satire, the New Republic puts the fleet in charge of a senile Admiral. Several of the scenes meant to be riotously funny involve the man's pathetic delusions; I guess senility seems like a real laugh when you're under 30.
Our hero and heroine are agents for various groups from Earth who are trying to manipulate the colony worlds so as to avoid nasty repercussions from The Eschaton (like wiping out a set of worlds including those for some parsecs around the New Republic) because the New Republic plans to bend Rule Number 1 in their struggle against the Festival.
The Festival is a fascinating and exceedingly clever bit of invention. I found the Critics and the Bouncers particularly charming. When the Festival was on scene, this book was terrific; unfortunately we have to read through Martin and Rachel's attempts at spying to get to the good bits. Stross also sneaks in homage to various other authors and mythos here: the most notable is his exceedingly clever play on Terry Pratchett's Luggage.
Singularity Sky is worth reading, but in my opinion, a bit over-praised.
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