Stross, Charles: Singularity Sky

Fasten your seatbelts, it’s a wild ride

I’ve always read across the whole gamut of speculative fiction but my relationship with the ‘hard’ SF end of the spectrum is complicated by my inability to fully comprehend the science bits. I’m hard wired for languages, history (social and political) and the like. This is neither boast nor apology, but statement of fact. I simply cannot get on with SF spun off the collision of high-end maths, physics and philosophy. As a result, my reading has always tended towards the ray-guns and rocket-ships. But I still do want something with more depth and ideas than ‘full speed ahead, Ensign Expendable, and damn the photon torpedoes!’ I just don’t want the sensation of bleeding from the ears when abstrusities involving ‘quantum’ start my brain melting.

On the ray-guns and rocket-ships level, Singularity Sky works extremely well. We are in the far future, after a mysterious entity called the Eschaton scattered humanity to the far stars in the mid-21st century, resulting in the kind of Ruritanian space regimes we all know and love. Earth on the other hand has achieved post-governmental enlightenment, life-extension procedures and a host of snazzy technologies. When the New Republic colony planet of Rochard’s World comes under attack, gadget-rich Earth secret agents are sent to frustrate the dangerous plottings of the aforementioned Ruritanian spacers. The Eschaton imposes few rules but it does absolutely forbid mucking about with causality. That’s not enough to deter the New Republicans who think they have found a loophole (or should we call that a wormhole) big enough to fly their space fleet through and thus anticipate the attack. In their quest to stop the violation of the Eschaton’s historic light cone, our hero and heroine are pursued by counter-spies, there are deceptions and narrow escapes and the action moves along at a cracking pace.

Only it’s not nearly that simple. Rochard’s World isn’t under attack by a conventional enemy. It’s playing host to The Festival, when phones rain from the sky asking anyone who picks up for entertainment and promising anything the populace might wish for in return. Given the New Republic has ruthlessly suppressed technology and free thinking of all kinds, it turns out they can wish for a lot. And The Festival delivers, until the people of Rochard’s World learn just what it means to be careful what you wish for. That’s not the half of their troubles either. Where The Festival goes, The Critics follow, along with The Bouncers and scariest of all, The Fringe. If you’re at all uneasy about white faced clowns and mimes, just remember, you’ve been warned.

The Festival is an infovore. It wants to gain and disseminate ideas, to prompt thought and discussion. So does this book. It positively hums with ideas, from intelligent yet intelligible exploration of technical aspects of space flight and the like, through deeper and wider considerations of freedom of thought and speech, the collision of ideals with both uncomfortable realities and the bone-headed intransigence of the mass of humanity, to meditations on how a human-centred view of the universe isn’t necessarily much use faced with alien intelligences. To save this all from becoming too serious, there’s a gleeful thread of humour that works both in the context of the book and not infrequently as satire on our own time and space.

Speculative fiction is above all else a literature of ideas. This is exactly the kind of SF I love to read and I heartily recommend it.

This review originally appeared in The Alien Online.

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