Book Reviews
11:28 am
Thu September 6, 2012

You Don't Have To Be A 'Nerd,' But It Helps

Originally published on Thu September 6, 2012 1:03 pm

Cranky technophobe Huw is in a bad way. It's centuries into the future, self-aware technology has formed a "singularity" — a floating superbrain cloud in the upper atmosphere — and his parents have already uploaded to it, leaving their bodies behind. Even household items literally have minds of their own. Huw's only consolation is that he has been summoned to a kind of jury duty, evaluating a new technology the superbrain has suggested, so at least he'll have the satisfaction of saying no if he thinks the new machine is too dangerous to let loose on Earth.

But the jury goes awry when Huw finds himself host to a very strange parasite, something political factions would kill him to get their hands on. The conspiracies spiral out, and soon he's named humanity's unwilling ambassador to the data cloud.

Charles Stross and Cory Doctorow are both well-established SF writers with a documented fondness for all things far-future, post-human and cyber. Their award-winning work often explores technology that supersedes the human, governments gone absurd and the complex relationship between the past and the future. They seem well-suited for a novel that's really a conversation about humanity's hopes in a post-human world. Unfortunately, this particular novel-as-conversation seems to be more of a breathless monologue, and the overall effect is that of being trapped in an elevator with an enthusiastic computer science major who has just picked up a minor in philosophy.

In sketching the world as it is for the billion humans hanging behind after the Big Upload, no trope is left unturned. (Cast of thousands in varying stages of post-humanity? Check. Infectious technology? Check. Translating teapots? Check.) Unfortunately, this kitchen-sink approach leads to plot eddies, recurring characters who define diminishing returns and some eyebrow-raising throwaways. (In a world of easy gender-presentation choices, Huw casually refers to himself as a "tranny." At another point, he hitches a ride on a transport powered by "uplifted gibbons" who have "picked up enough Islam" to make replicating a bacon sandwich in the transport galley a nonstarter.)

All Huw wants is to click his heels three times and go home. However, since this is a Doctorow/Stross production, the technological singularity is the heart of the action, and it's only a matter of time before Huw is uploaded but good.

There's something compelling about the idea of turning yourself into the world's fanciest Sim and wandering through a post-human landscape — the cloud — that maintains the same imperfect relationships that occupy so much of our mortal spans. The image has a charming nihilism that sits calmly amid the chaos of the last days. Unfortunately, with Huw, wandering is as far as things go; more placeholder than character, Huw exists to be reluctantly dragged from one set piece to another, to deliver the occasional wry aside, and to have reams of exposition dumped on him — by talking teapots, mad scientists, love interests and parents.

In a concept novel, slightly underbaked characters aren't a damning vice. After all, this is a book in which subplots appear at regular intervals, timed largely to trigger — or interrupt — extended discussions about self-determination in history's biggest chat room. But as it becomes apparent that Huw is the Everyhuman chosen to represent humanity in its darkest hour, the stakes vault higher and higher to try to keep him — and the reader — invested in the outcome.

Which, when it finally comes, feels like a simulation of a satisfying conclusion rather than the real thing.

Genevieve Valentine is the author of Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti.

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