Thoughts on Accelerando by Charles Stross

Feb 19 2008 Published by under Science Fiction

Accelerando is one of The Books about the Singularity-- one of the fiction books, that is. Approaching any book on this topic means you suddenly have baggage trailing along with you as tenacious as the Luggage from Discworld. There are some who think about the Singularity with near-religious ferver, looking forward to it in a manner similar to how some other religious fanatics may look forward to the Rapture. It will happen, they think, and it will be wonderful. Meanwhile, there is the backlash of people who see the technolphiliacs waxing eloquent about The Singularity, themselves thinking "what a bunch of geeks with no life and no sense of perspective!" So that any book about the Singularity then is viewed with suspicion.

And it's hard to approach this book without all that baggage in mind. This is a book that's received some glowing reviews (e.g. Cory Doctorow's mini-review on Boing Boing); however, a co-worker of mine also dismissed it with saying about the first chapter or so, "It's like someone put boing boing posts in a blender and published it."

But let's try to leave that aside.

First, the book is in fact a fun and mind-engaging read. Charles Stross is in many ways all over the place with the knowledge and ideas that he throws into this book. Allow me to quote a small section from late in the book:

We've known for most of a century that there's something flaky going on out there, out past the Bootes void-- there are a couple of galacitc superclusters, around which there's something flaky about the cosmic background anisotropy. Most computational processes generate entropy as a by-product, and it looks like something is dumping waste heat into the area from all the galaxies in the region, very evenly spread in a way that mirrors the metal distribution in the galaxies, exept at the very cores. And according to the lobsters, who have been indulging in some very long baseline interferometry, most of the stars in the nearest cluster are redder than expected and metal-depleted. As if someone's been mining them.

I suspect I understand that paragraph more than most people who read the book do. However, as I read this I realized that I wouldn't have fully understood that paragraph until after I'd completed my first year of graduate courses in astronomy when I was working on my PhD. The book is full of ideas-- yes, the wild-eyed technologist's speculations about the future-- but also ideas about current popular culture, literature, history, religion, and psychology. I can only imagine that Charles Stross must be mentally quite hyperactive.

Read on its primary level, the book does what good science fiction does well: take some things that might change technologically in the future, and examine the human reaction to that. This book goes through a huge range of technological evolution, from the "Boing Boing Wet Dream" near future on through the singularity where the "merely" transhuman protagonists of the novel are living on the fringes of the Solar System. In the end, of course, a lot of it ends up being about family rivalries, culture clashes, people's need for total control in personal relationships, and our own ultimate subservience to our housepets. However, unlike a lot of science fiction, this book does not try to rationalize that humans remain pretty much as 20th century humans while the world changes around them. A portion of the book revolves around a starship crew which are all uploaded simulations of people, taking into account the control over the environment such folks would really have. Even early in the book, the question of what really is the identity of Manfred Macx is raised, as he's got so many gadgets helping him think and compute that it becomes clear that the person isn't just the person any more, but is the person plus all of these other "thought" processes.

Let me look at this book on one other level, however. It is, of course fiction. Never mind that there is a certain class of geek out there who seem to view their favorite works of fiction as works of futurism-- real predictions, or perhaps a roadmap, of what will or what ought to happen. Ultimately, this a story, to see how characters react in an interesting situation. But parts of this book may be viewed as an allegory.

Giving a little bit away, what happens a we approach the singularity is that the dominant life form in a solar system in no longer humans, or transhumans, or even posthumans, but <i>corporate instruments</i>. As all the matter in the solar system is converted into "computronium" so that absolutely as much thinking and processing as is physically possible given the energy input of the Sun happens, the world gets taken over by corporations:

"Basically, sufficiently complex resource-allocation algorithms reallocate scarce resources ... and if you don't jump to get out of their way, they'll reallocate you. I think that's what happened inside the Matrioshka brain we ended up in: Judging by the Slug it happens elsewhere, too. You've got to wonder where the builders of that structure came from. And where they went. And whether they realized that the destiny of intelligent tool-using life was to be a stepping-stone in the evolution of corporate instruments."

Mighn't this been an allegory for the present, however? Already we have the concept of an LLC ("Limited Liability Corporation"), the notion that corporations are legally individuals under the law. This gives them, perversely, rights and legal powers. And, powerful they can be. Never mind who's in the right, if you are sued by a gigantic corporation, unless you can find some lawyer to take on your case (perhaps turning it back into a class action lawuit) either for ideological reasons or for hopes of a big payout, you're sunk. Corporations are people. One of the principles of our society is free speech. So, when it comes to, for instance, election reform, many people get angry about campaign donation limitations on the basis that it is limiting your free speech. Corporations, however, tend to have many more resources than the individuals whose speech we really want to protect, and so they end up having a lot of power in the political process.

What's more, they are by their very nature amoral. The "limited liability" means that people inside the corporation don't necessarily have to suffer the results of bad action on the part of the corporation; only the corporation "suffers." But corporations don't worry, as people do, about the morality of their actions, or (for some) about the fates of their immortal souls. While they are run by people, just like any bureaucracy as they get larger there are institutional forces and legal requirements that push corporations to act in certain ways that are deeply amoral. (Cf: Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon and the phrase "increasing shareholder value.")

To what degree have we already, in a sense, reached the singularity, where it's very difficult for any individual to really make a difference? Where corporate instruments— and I'll include in this not just all those evil capitalist companies, but also large corporate structures like labor unions, municipal, state, and national governments, political parties, and even the larger charity and professional organizations— operate in ways that individuals never really would, and that are pressured into doing things that the individuals at the helm perhaps wouldn't really want to do? Perhaps we have already reached the point where the change in society is a bit too much for us all to understand, where we are becoming the societal tools of forces created and run by us but that are in a perverse way no longer entirely under our control.

Interesting speculation, anyway. I don't mean to ask this questions rhetorically, for I don't think the answer to all of them is "yes." But the purpose of good fiction, really, is to entertain, and to get us thinking one way or the other. On these levels, Accelerando succeeds.

Incidentally, Accelerando has been released under a Creative Commons licence; you can download it for free.

One response so far

  • L Riofrio says:

    Hello Dr. Knop: I'm in Marina Del Rey this week for the Dark Matter/Energy conference, and had dinner with Saul. He and others talked about the 10th anniversary of the "accelerating" results. Your name was mentioned and your photo shown with founding members of the Supernova Cosmology Project. Best wishes.