Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife is a near-term dystopian hard-boiled noir set in the midst of a social apocalypse created by climate change.
In this worBacigalupi’s The Water Knife is a near-term dystopian hard-boiled noir set in the midst of a social apocalypse created by climate change.
In this world, the sub-national government agencies in charge of water have acquired incredible power as the climate has changed—even some military weaponry—and are engaged in something of an intramural war within the United States.
The book intertwines the stories of two major characters and half a dozen minor ones. The chief protagonist is the antihero Angel Velasquez, which the book’s blurb (no spoilers, here) describes as “detective, leg-breaker, assassin and spy”—i.e., a “water knife”. On the other side of the fight is the Phoenix-based Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Lucy Monroe, who has been hardened and embittered by the chaos and death, writing voyeuristic “collapse porn” and pretending she doesn’t care.
The backdrop is the continuing efforts of the Southern Nevada Water Authority (e.g., water for Las Vegas) to control ever larger portions of the water flowing down the southwest side of the continental divide; chiefly along the Colorado River. The opposition is California (“Calies”, the feared but distant power with the most money) and over-the-river folks in Arizona. When something interesting seems to be happening in Phoenix that has the SNWA’s boss worried, Angel Velasquez is sent to investigate and solve any problems.
Arizona is portrayed as in deep trouble. Texas and New Mexico have already collapsed due to “Big Daddy Drought”, with refugees swamping Arizona, which has largely been losing the water wars and seems to be on a fast downward spiral. But perhaps the mystery that has drawn Angel south will change the game. Before the book is over, there will be a number of betrayals and quite a few folks will be dead.
This is an exciting story, well told and timely. The prophetic nature needs to be taken with a grain of salt, however—even if the climate did change this aggressively nasty, there are a few implausibilities here. But they don’t really detract from the drama, so dive in and read. Just make sure you have plenty of cold drinking water on hand, or you could stir up some nightmares.
Much to my disappointment, there is no suggestion on the ‘webs that this has been optioned as a movie. Dunno why — it’s Chinatown meets Mad Max, but with a lot more explosions and mayhem. Stay tuned?
(view spoiler)[ My biggest objection is with the collapse of Texas, and some of the other places that had died:
From page 70:
Phoenix would fall as surely as New Orleans and Miami had done. Just as Houston and San Antonio and Austin had fallen. Just as Jersey Shore had gone under for the last time.
So it should be obvious that “Big Daddy Drought” isn’t going to touch Jersey Shore, New Orleans or Miami. But it also can’t kill Houston or, really, San Antonio or Austin. All of those cities are either right on the ocean’s edge, or at an elevation and distance that mean desalination plants would ameliorate a water crisis, at least for an urban population. I suppose it is plausible that a rise in the ocean level could wipe out Miami and the Jersey Shore, and maybe even Houston, but oddly, New Orleans is safe for a different reason. Rising seas could decimate the current city, but the economic need for a population center at the mouth of the Mississippi River, where it meets the Gulf of Mexico, is so potent that the city would survive that, although might morph into an unrecognizably ugly industrial place with no hint of it’s beautiful past.
“Big Daddy Drought” could easily wipe out what farming is done in west Texas, but that’s already happening. East Texas, over by Louisiana, is a much wetter place—hot and humid, as any visitor to Houston could tell you. If it is in severe chronic drought, then so is the rest of the midwest, and the problem would be much, much bigger than the one Bacigalupi tells.
It is also somewhat bewildering why refugees from a drought would want to head into the other southwestern states. Sure, they might be dumb themselves, but the book has them being escorted by FEMA and other agencies, who would presumably want to herd them to places where water is no longer a critical need, not where it will only get worse.
My other objection is with the arcologies. The general concept is to create a nearly self-sustaining and ecological mega-architecture. Stuff like this is in an early experimental phase, but targets a much lower degree of sophistication than the book’s narrative requires. The most obviously magical ability Bacigalupi creates is that the exterior of the building provides enough solar energy for the needs of the building, it’s operation and occupants.
The hidden magic is in the water and sewage recycling and atmosphere management. For example, if you follow medical scares, you may have seen Legionnaires' disease mentioned quite often recently. The bacteria that causes this disease (as well as its relatives) love our water systems. Anyone who lives where it is mildly humid can tell you horror stories of mold. Now try to imagine a mega-building that attempts to capture and treat almost all of its wastewater and sewage in the basement, and channel the result back upstairs to the occupants and to “condensation-misted vertical farms, leave with hydroponic greenery” [p. 8]. It’s a fantasy that’s easy to imagine, but entails stupendous complexity. If we started putting massive research into the problem of building those things now, they might be ready in a few decades, but there’s no indication we’re going to get them in the next few decades. (hide spoiler)]...more
In the coming years, your job is very likely to evaporate. That might mean now, or it might mean twenty-five or thirty years. But unless you’re extraordinarily unusual, it’ll happen.
I’m going to start by giving a few examples.
Take the profession of accountancy. I’m oversimplifying, but pretty much what an accountant does is match an entity’s financial information to the appropriate laws and rules, and then provide analysis of how well those match up, and maybe fill out some forms. Guess what? There’s nothing in there that a software program couldn’t do. In fact, many people that don’t make a lot of money already use such software to file their taxes, and every year that software gets a little more sophisticated, and a lot of techie folks use software that leaves all the other accountants doing less and less, year by year. The profession of accountant will likely be almost completely extinct within a decade (long before we see those autonomous cars everyone keeps talking about).
Let’s look at a something much tougher, like a barber or hair stylist. The job there is to examine the client’s features, ask questions about what that client wants, and suggest a style that is both feasible and desirous, and then cut hair to that style. Right now, that is about as far from what a computer could do as any profession in existence.
Well, first, speedy dexterity isn’t something that robots are too good at, except when they can be programmed to do precisely the same thing, over and over again, in which case they do much better than meager humans. And comprehension of a complex visual scene is another really tough computational problem. But if you’ve been following the pace of progress, you know that it is only a matter of time before the robots get there.
There’s a video floating around showing robots failing amusingly (but miserably, and with silly music, so we can feel superior!) during a DARPA challenge that folks are getting a kick out of. Recall, however, how very recently the idea of a robot walking around on two feet would have been absurd. Now we laugh because they sometimes fall down while trying to open doors or climb stairs or get into cars. Given the many millions going into research, how long do you think that will last?
A vast database could already be built of head shapes, facial and hair features, just by looking at the treasure trove of images already accessible via the world wide web. AI that learns which of those are considered comical and which attractive would still be a challenge, but is probably an easier task than programming Watson was for IBM. Programming a hair-cutting robot with the knowledge of what set of snips will create the desired look would be even easier, since it could be endlessly simulated purely in virtual space.
Yeah, it will take years before we see this happen, but that just means it will be at the tail end of the tsunami instead of at the beginning, where the accountants are already feeling vulnerable. (This makes me wonder, how many out-of-work accountants will be able to get jobs as hair dressers?)
There are some jobs that, as far as we can tell, are completely out of range of the robots and their AI software, but that number will get smaller and smaller over the decades, as engineers learn to make the software more sophisticated and the hardware it runs on continues to get faster.
The real sweet spot for humans is to be truly creative. That doesn’t mean anyone in a “creative field” gets a pass, however. AI is already composing quotidian music and doing the rote job of journalists. Being really creative means knowing when and how to break the rules in a way that is fundamentally unexpected. A computer never would have created John Cage’s 4’33”, for example.
The work of Thomas Kuhn, whose The Structure of Scientific Revolutions made the word “paradigm” the cliché it is today, illustrates this. Most science, like most creativity, exists within a paradigm that people in the field understand. Most “normal science”, like most normal creativity, doesn’t bust out of that paradigm. Highly sophisticated software can be taught that paradigm, and how to explore its domain, and how to evaluate whether the result of those exploration are consistent with other highly-regarded results.
How this revolution is progressing is what Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future is all about.
Now, you might be skeptical. This does sound, after all, like the Luddite Fallacy, doesn’t it? If you don’t know the term, it refers to the time at the beginning of the industrial revolution when crafts folk that used hand looms to weave cloth tried to keep the innovation machine looms from making them redundant. The “fallacy” part is because there have always been compensatory effects — some people lose their careers, but the gains in technological capacity and productivity make other forms of production possible, employing even more people.
So why is this time so different? Because what the machines are replacing is different.
￼ The simple machines replaced work that was dirty and dangerous. In the past century, more sophisticated machines replaced work that was dull — those robots that bolt together auto bodies, for example, replaced large numbers of men who used to get pretty good wages for doing an unremittingly boring job.
But today, machines are replacing our minds, not our muscles. More importantly, it is very unlikely that some vast new field of economic activity will suddenly appear on the horizon that will employ all of the workers made redundant — once machines are stronger and faster, more accurate and precise, more patient and (at least) as smart, what kind of job would that be?
If you need more convincing, here’s an analogy. Once upon a time, humans used animals to do our brute labor. It actually took thousands of years for us to arrange that, of course. Before we’d invented the wheel, animals could carry stuff on their backs. Reliable wheels were actually quite a stunning leap forward! Eventually, animals could do most of our hardest labor, except where our brains made us more adaptive to change or subtle details.
But think about what happened when we invented the steam engine. The first practical steam engine came along (as a stunning number of other developments) right near the end of the eighteenth century (which is related to those Luddites were rioting a few decades later). Even though it took millennia for us to learn to use animals, in most ways we’d retired them within a century. The key point is that even though those animal muscles could have still been used, there were effectively no jobs for which they were actually better than machines.
That’s where our brains are about now.
Now, there are still people that don’t believe this is going to happen. For example, in the essay How Technology Is Destroying Jobs, a professor of engineering at MIT states:
❝For that reason, Leonard says, it is easier to see how robots could work with humans than on their own in many applications. “People and robots working together can happen much more quickly than robots simply replacing humans,” he says. “That’s not going to happen in my lifetime at a massive scale. The semiautonomous taxi will still have a driver.”❞
Really? By all indications, autonomous vehicles are already safer than human drivers. Although there are still tricky situations where they could make disastrous choices, they’d still probably have a better overall safety record than us, and they’ll be getting better — we won’t, except with their help. So why would that taxi company want to pay to have a more-fallible human sitting there, bored, to second-guess the computer? It is true that people and robots working together can sometimes do better, but in far too many cases that will be a fairly short interim period, until the software engineers understand what humans are contributing and replace those final aspects — economics will create huge incentives to get the human out of the picture.
First, “step up”. Head for higher intellectual ground.
What’s the flaw here? Well, the top of the pyramid would be a great place, but there simply isn’t much room there. The example given is that, instead of using a biochemist to do a preliminary evaluation on a candidate drug, let the computers do it, and have the biochemist “pick up at the point where the math leaves off”. The difficulty is there is already a researcher doing that, and the computers are replacing the dozens of lower-tier chemists that are doing the simpler work. It’s like telling a sous-chef to “step up” and become the restaurant’s chef de cuisine! That might work for a very small number of very talented sous-chefs, but it won’t work on any large scale at all.
Second, “step aside”. Use skills that can’t be codified.
One example used here is even more absurd than the biochemist example: “Apple’s revered designer Jonathan Ive can’t download his taste to a computer.” Obviously, we can’t all be Jony Ive. But what about that accountant that was mentioned at the beginning? Can’t they learn to use personality skills to be better at interacting with the clients? Sure — but won’t all the accountants want that gig? And being the “human face” of the software might be a safe job for quite some time, it does reflect a de-skilling from the original job. This is also the category for those truly creative types that can consistently deliver outside-the-box thinking that the programmers can’t predict, and can’t be found in correlations within huge datasets.
Third, “step in”. Be the person that double-checks the software for mistakes.
An example given here involved mortgage-application evaluation software that rejected former Fed Reserve chief Ben Bernanke’s mortgage application because it couldn’t properly evaluate his career prospects on the lecture circuit. This will be a pretty sweet job category, but it isn’t because the software will continue to make “mistakes”. It’ll be because the software is taught to recognize unusual situations, and automatically funnels them to human assistants. Like the human co-pilot of an semiautonomous taxicab, there will be a lot of financial incentives to make this a very rare job, though.
Fourth, “step narrowly”. Find a sub-sub-sub-speciality that isn’t economical to automate.
The example in the article shows clearly how narrow these opportunities are: imagine being the person who specializes in matching the sellers and buyers of Dunkin’ Donuts franchises! Yeah, all the real estate agents who hate Zillow.com would love to be that guy, or his equivalent. I like my example better: you know all those Craigslist advertisements for “Two Men and a Van” to help you move furniture? The new version of those is going to be the two workers with the robotic stair-climbing mule. They’ll help city dwellers move from apartment to apartment, with one worker upstairs loading the donkey and another downstairs offloading it. It certainly will take a long time for the robotic economy to replace every little niche.
Finally, the fifth strategy is “step forward”. Write the software that puts your friends and neighbors out of work!
Writing this AI will probably be quite the growth industry for years to come. Unfortunately, it’s a pretty specialized type of programming. And even more unfortunately, there are plenty of programmers in other specialties whose jobs are starting to disappear. For example, setting up a website for a company used to be quite a labor-intensive and remunerative gig, but now there are plenty of automated suites that do the lions share of that, leaving only a job for the rarer “stepped-up” or “stepped-in” person to finish the job. There’s going to be plenty of competition in software field, too, as the simpler jobs are automated away.
What you’ve undoubtedly spotted in those five categories is obvious: while there will still be jobs in existence — and even some new ones — the numbers just won’t add up. When tens or hundreds of thousands of people in a field find their jobs being de-skilled or simply eliminated, the competition for those that remain will be nasty. (Which will drive wages down, ironically.)
There’s a lot more in Ford’s book. I really recommend it.
One thing I want to point out that he got somewhat mostly wrong, though, is in his portion on Artificial General Intelligence, or AGI. It is common for non-specialists to engage in inappropriate metaphorical thinking when talking about AI and robots. The overwhelmingly vast majority of AI and robots that we’re seeing, or will see for a long time, is functional AI — it was designed to fulfill a specific productive function. That is radically and fundamentally different than the research going into AGI, which has the goal of creating software that is as flexible and cognitively complex as the human mind — generalized intelligence.
Just because they’re both computer programs doesn’t mean that they have much in common. Both IBM’s Jeopardy-winning Watson and Google’s autonomous driving software are software programs that run on computers, but if you asked Watson to drive your car, or quizzed one of Google cars with a Jeopardy question, you’ll get no satisfaction. That might seem obvious, but far too often the end-product of AGI is magically given all the skills of any software program ever written. Ford, for example, says on page 232, “A thinking machine would, of course, continue to enjoy all the advantages that computers currently have, including the ability to calculate and access information at speeds that would be incomprehensible for us.” You really should pretty much ignore chapter 9.
Chapter 10, on the other hand, is crucial. The coming century is going to be bad enough with all that Climate Change brouhaha, without the world trying to figure out how an economy works without many or most people having jobs. Science fiction authors have been forecasting dystopian futures for a long time (the one lying behind the story in Peter Watts’ Rifters trilogy is especially harrowing), and we’re really going to want to avoid that. You’ll quickly note that raising the minimum wage doesn’t help — in fact, it creates incentives to automate that much more quickly. Plans that provide a guaranteed minimum income make more sense, although anyone familiar with the political climate in the United States won’t give that much chance of happening.
Frankly, I’ve been telling anyone I care about who has kids to make sure they’ve got the know-how and land to garden, but I’m pretty sure I’m considered an alarmist.
The Dog Stars, by Peter Heller, is a fairly recent and marvelous addition to the collection of post-apocalyptic stories. I guess today that’s a prettyThe Dog Stars, by Peter Heller, is a fairly recent and marvelous addition to the collection of post-apocalyptic stories. I guess today that’s a pretty widely ranging subgenera, with zombies or gladiatorial entertainment. The book I always think of first, 1983’s Lucifer’s Hammer, no longer even ranks; and I suppose it’s trans-apocalypse, anyway.
Well, The Dog Stars deserves a place near the top. It is a lyrical and mostly melancholy first-person tale of life after pretty much everyone is gone, in which most of those who are left aren’t folks you really want to be anywhere near.
Okay, I’ll jump straight to the obvious resemblance. Like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Heller eschews conventional punctuation and syntax. That and the subject matter pretty much demand comparison.
I gave McCarthy’s book one star. I hated it — no, I despised it. If you want all the details, check out my review. If there was one thing that bothered me most, it was McCarthy’s dismissal of the importance of scientific plausibility. I mean, if he had gone completely allegorical, I would have pretty happy with the story. But McCarthy is famous for his gritty realism, and to claim that humans have somehow survived when even the fungi and microbes that rot fruit are extinct — WTF? And somehow there’s supposed to be hope or redemption at the end? I’m not going to spend any more effort on the rant, so there it is.
Oh, other than to note that my niece nailed the comparison:
This book is like The Road, if The Road wasn't a gruesome wasteland of despair and had a shred of hope at the end.
(That’s her whole review. She also gave McCarthy’s effort one star. I’m very pleased to be related to her.)
Heller’s book has a global pandemic as it’s backstory. No spoiler there, it’s part of the blurb, and besides it took place nine years before the action starts. Creeping climate change plays a smaller but critical role. But this isn’t a science- or technology-laden book — I’m just quite satisfied that he didn’t mess up the context.
A lot of people complained about the strange syntax of that other book, and I suppose this one could come in for similar distaste, but I didn’t find either one difficult to read or distracting. Heller even provides something of an explanation; the protagonist survived the flu that killed most everyone else, but discovered that his thoughts didn’t cohere as they had before. His prose reflects that, and contributes a bit of stream of consciousness to the narrative. I think it works fine.
What I do recall from The Road is the beauty of McCarthy’s language. No mistake: the guy is a master wordsmith. Well, Heller is no slouch on that, either. He might be talking about the feeling of flying a small plane, his dog, fishing, or the vista of nighttime stars long after the powergrid has failed, and suddenly he grabs your heart and squeezes. Folks here at Goodreads have tagged four dozen or so quotes from this book. The narrator has a gentle, almost childlike, spirit, and the writing reflects that nicely.
I loved the book. But, on reflection, I can’t give it five stars. The flaw that bothers me is a common one, and many might find it trivial, but flawed it is nonetheless.
None of the significant characters in this book are “normal”. Everyone has a superpower, except for those few who represent the pathos of victimhood. Okay, when I say “superpower”, I obviously don’t mean in the comic book sense. But while the protagonist is presented as if he were an Everyman, he actually has an astonishing range of skills that anyone trying to survive the end of the world would die for (quite literally). Expert hunter, fisherman, pilot, carpenter and mechanic. The other major characters: more of the same.
Now, I get that his skill at fishing gives the author the chance to wax lyrical about that, and he does quite nicely. But I would have respected Heller more if instead, perhaps, he had only started fishing after the collapse and struggled with it at the same time he marveled at it, and expressed frustration that he found such beauty so late. I’m sure it’d make the author’s job tougher, but hey — you want that fifth star or not?
In 1977, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle wrote Lucifer's Hammer, a novel dealing with the collapse of civilization after the Earth is hit by a massiIn 1977, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle wrote Lucifer's Hammer, a novel dealing with the collapse of civilization after the Earth is hit by a massive comet.
When it was written, the world’s major anxiety was nuclear weapons: The possibility that the United States and the Soviet Union (with a much smaller role played by China) would annihilate humanity with a massive exchange of explosions and radiation was a pervasive nightmare. Lucifer's Hammer was a clear response to this anxiety. It allowed the authors the chance to explore many of the likely consequences of nuclear war without triggering the enmity of either the “peace-nik” or “warmonger” crowds. Curiously, it wasn’t until several years later that the “nuclear winter” hypothesis made a cometary impact an even more appropriate stand-in for a massive nuclear exchange.
The book also pointed out that “nature” could mete out punishment far in excess of anything humans could inflict on themselves. We’re relative pikers at creating Extinction Level Events.
Flood, by Stephen Baxter, is a well-intentioned effort to replicate this.
Today, climate change is the fear, whose most visible consequence would be rising sea levels. Baxter takes this latter phenomena and extrapolates a runaway “Flood” scenario to make it much, much worse. As with Lucifer's Hammer, each step of the escalating threat is lovingly detailed, and eventually long stretches of time are elided to show the consequences and resolutions of earlier crises. Both books end with elderly survivors watching the youth of a post-apocalyptic generation with hope, despair and affection.
Unfortunately, Baxter didn’t write a very good book.
The book’s strength is, oddly for a “hard” science fiction effort, in the characters. Each is a well crafted and unique personality. Most are personable enough that we care about their fates, sometimes grudgingly, others are distasteful enough that we also care about their fates, although perhaps with animosity. But our affection or disdain won’t last nearly as long as the book — the end simply takes too long to reach. The first half or so moves adequately fast, when the extent of the disaster is still being revealed, but once we are clued in to the world’s ultimate fate... the details of how individuals react are undoubtedly necessary, but not riveting enough to keep things interesting.
For fans of hard science fiction, perhaps the biggest failure of the book is the wholly manufactured crisis. We’ve been told by trustworthy scientists that a major cometary impact is only a matter of time, so Lucifer's Hammer doesn’t take a huge leap of faith. But after billions of years of peacefully waiting in the Earth’s mantle, why would Baxter’s flood decide to bubble up at all, much less now?
For many others, the problem is simply the length of the book — or at least the perceived length. There are many thousand-page books that stay engaging throughout, which is something this five-hundred page novel did not.
My recommendation: If you want the better apocalyptic story, read the thirty-year-old Lucifer's Hammer. If you really want a plausible depiction of how the world might end after this very implausible disaster, then Baxter’s slow novel is serviceable. ...more
Definitely should be read with — and after — the somewhat better The Peace War, which takes place in the same timestream and introduces some elementDefinitely should be read with — and after — the somewhat better The Peace War, which takes place in the same timestream and introduces some elements important to this book. The novella The Ungoverned (online here) connects that earlier book and introduces the central character used here. All three are in the compendium Across Realtime.
This one is a detective story that takes place in the far, far distant future, long after most of humanity has mysteriously disappeared. The surviving remnant isn't quite sure where everyone else has gone, and then a murder throws into serious question what they should collectively do about it.
A pretty clever book. Vinge is old-school SciFi, and his cardboard characters show it.
For those in the San Francisco bay area: Borderlands Bookstore's Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Club met on Sunday, 20 November, 2010, at 6 pm to discuss Marooned in Realtime. ...more
The eighties was a great time for apocalyptic fiction. Reagan came to office in 1981 and was definitely a sabre-rattler. Scifi writers looked at his tThe eighties was a great time for apocalyptic fiction. Reagan came to office in 1981 and was definitely a sabre-rattler. Scifi writers looked at his tough guy act and gazed into their crystal balls at the possible outcomes. Peace breaks out? Meh, not too interesting. But WW3 certainly had possibilities for drama, didn't it?
In The Peace War, Vinge looks at a variation on WW3. Instead of nuclear Armageddon, he has a defense contract discover a miracle technology that effectively gives them ultimate power.
The technology is the "bobble" (think "bottled up in a bubble"). The new masters of the universe can create massive silvery force-field bubbles to seal off any trouble spot — as small as an aircraft or as large as a city — and the problem is gone: poof, and suddenly there's a sphere that is impermeable and irreversible, reflecting all radiation and all force.
Of course, the ante bellum powers-that-be don't want this transfer of control, so the result is still apocalyptic, but with some interesting twists. One is that the trauma causes the population to crash to the extent that the new rulers never get the chance to really set up an all-encompassing administrative state. Some areas are carefully controlled, but others are left effectively outside of any control.
Central coastal California is one of these zones, and it is here that a relic scientist, still dreaming of the old technological glory days and wanting to fight The Authority, stumbles on a child prodigy that might become his apprentice and successor in the fight.
This book is pretty good for its post-semi-apocalypse. Vinge gave some serious thought to which parts of our society's technology would collapse and which stood a chance of surviving. Anyone can question his conclusion, but I like his blend. Cars are gone, since horses can do most of the same stuff with less economic infrastructure. Light bulbs can be replaced by candles and gas lamps. But the highest of the high-tech has no good fallback, and is still useful, right? So you get the curious suggestion that "tinkers" will be creating very advanced electronics and then hauling their products to their customers in a horse-drawn carriage.
Vinge does his usual job of coming up with middling-to-very innovative social and technological conditions for us to ponder. He also does his usual mediocre job of creating his cast of characters. His people are always complex and sympathetic enough to keep us from snickering too loud, but he really doesn't have the chops to develop fully realized humans. The heroes are just too clever and far too lucky, the villains are usually simplistically single-minded and arrogant instead of purely evil, and somehow just the right cast of characters happens to all be in the same place at the same time.
Definitely a fun and pretty quick read, but mostly forgettable. The "bobble" is certainly a memorable scifi concept, though. Proof? I was well over half the way through this book before I hit a scene that made me realize I read it way back when. (I remembered precisely how a character had two fingertips cut off, and how that event would later assist one of the other characters with closure.) The "bobbles" had stuck in my mind, but when I started this re-read I'd simply assumed they'd been use several times as a standard scifi trope.
Finally, this is something of a prequel and companion to both the novella The Ungoverned (available here) and Marooned in Realtime. Both take place in Vinge’s “bobble” universe; the latter book borrows one of the characters from The Peace War and one from The Ungoverned. Among the three works, however, The Peace War is the better book.
Disappointing. Very sparkly, lauded with witticisms and cleverness, but the characters were astonishingly superficial and the plot almost non-existentDisappointing. Very sparkly, lauded with witticisms and cleverness, but the characters were astonishingly superficial and the plot almost non-existent — and what little was there wasn't particularly interesting.
A 3 1/2 star book, downgraded to three because Stross ultimately doesn’t deliver much more than a caffeinated theme park ride of the singularity.
I douA 3 1/2 star book, downgraded to three because Stross ultimately doesn’t deliver much more than a caffeinated theme park ride of the singularity.
I doubt that Accelerando will ever be seen in quite the same way as the early cyberpunk books, but it is certainly similar in its hyperkinetic and chaotic creativity. Stross tosses in a billion and one tasty tidbits of near-future circum-singularity and presses the “Will it Blend?” button.
And, as one would predict, the result is a very intriguing if chunky mess.
For those that aren’t geek-positive, a crucial definition is in order:
A singularity is another name for a black hole: a stellar object so massive that its own gravity compresses it to such density that it, in some sense, “breaks” time and space. Like “infinity”, it is something about which we cannot know. The Technological Singularity (aka “Rapture of the Geeks”, cf.wikipedia) is a metaphorically similar event postulated to be in, perhaps, our somewhat near future. The idea is that we will eventually create artificial intelligence that is beyond our own capabilities, which will then create its own successor (or upgrade itself). Repeat this process, and the result is an exponentially accelerating (ergo, the title) intelligence that quickly grows beyond our control or even our ability to comprehend. We cannot predict anything about our future beyond the emergence of that intelligence: we may be pets or pests.
Accelerando is about the lives of a few individuals just before, during, and for some time after that event.
The nature of the drama means the book is more geeky than even most scifi. But if you can handle the technobabble (and much of it can be elided), this book does a good job of communicating how confusing such an event could easily be. Since these memes will inevitably leak into our nerd-friendly pop culture, it might be an good book for anyone that wants to keep up with the zeitgeist.
And the zeitgeist is important to this book, especially in the early chapters: much of the melodrama is provided by the interactions of rock-star nerds. Stross was obviously conceptualizing the short stories this book came from during the Dot Com boom. The world he depicts is close enough to what seems to be on our horizon that you can almost taste it.
This is both strength and weakness. The opening chapters flirt so closely with plausibility that it pulls the reader in, giving credence to the world he is creating.
But a kind of Zeitgeistian Heisenberg principle is also at work here: the tighter he tries to nail the mood of the time, the more suspect is the trajectory out of that time. Nothing new: the cyberpunk novels of the mid- and late-80s are so infused with the excitement and anxieties of those times that they can be hard to swallow: samurai and keiretsu, gated communities, virtual reality and corporations supplanting governments — where are they now? Similarly, examine much of the scifi of the late sixties and early seventies and it’s all about sex, drugs and the man untrustworthy authority figures.
In twenty years folks will shake their heads at Accelerando and wonder at our obsession with computer technology. He even has his characters examining data from distant galaxies and wondering whether mega-lightyear-spanning civilizations (Kardashev level II or III) are attempting a side-channel timing attack on the virtual machine the universe is being run on. (I mean, c’mon: a timing attack? From inside the VM?) Okay, you don’t actually need to understand any of that jargon; it just means that in order to sustain his extraordinarily high throughput of geek-speak, Stross has to apply human-comprehensible attributes to entities that really should have grown beyond them. [Snide aside: if everyone prayed at once, would that be a DDoS attack on God?]
But ultimately what kicks this book from four stars down to three is that he doesn’t even sensibly apply his own posthuman cognitive technology.
By the middle of the book humans have the ability to instantiate copies of themselves as software to perform menial cognitive tasks, after which those “ghosts” are reintegrated. Shortly thereafter, people can upload themselves completely, leaving the body behind or letting it diverge as a separate individual.
Obviously, with that level of control, there would be no excuse for people to be blindsided by their own subconscious. Any intelligent person would have side-band agents monitoring their neurology (simulated or real); while they might still get irritated at others, for example, they should be able to be explicitly and consciously informed of that irritation before it even propagates to the autonomous nervous system. Losing one’s temper should become an astonishingly rare event among posthuman adults. Yet several of Stross’ central characters are members of a seriously dysfunctional family who are forever angry with one another. While it is easy to imagine posthumans still getting emotional, their AI-mediated self-awareness should dramatically change the experience and processing of affective state.
Accelerando is a good book, but not a great one. However, it does a decent job of illuminating the singularity, a concept that will probably continue to grow in cultural importance, and thus is recommended higher than its fundamental quality would indicate. ...more
Well, I waited too long to write this to remember all the details of my complaints, but this basically felt like a mostly-tolerable first effort.
The nature of the apocalypse is never adequately explained, and while that might be fine in some cases — allegorical, or magical realism, or somesuch — it really didn't work here. There was no hint of out-of-the-ordinary story telling going on until the finale started slipping conveniently over such matters. It seemed like the author simply lacked the discipline to finish the story in a manner consistent with the setup.
The author has enough skill in character development and storytelling that he's certainly worth following, but this volume should have been shelved for a decade and then reconstituted with more mature skill.
A minor point: I do appreciate the author's willingness to entertain tough developments. His use of euthanasia is well done, although the moral quandaries should have been at least alluded to. Dialog isn't necessary — for example a sigh, a delicate silence and a frown would adequately communicate the difficult decisions that the author elided.
Unfortunately, classics in science fiction often don't age well, and this is no exceptionBumped way up the to-be-read shelf because it's being filmed.
Unfortunately, classics in science fiction often don't age well, and this is no exception. Many of the themes where undoubtedly fascinating when this was first published, but there's little in it that remains interesting, much less provocative.
We'll see what they do with it in the movie....more