Review: Accelerando

Charles Stross wrote Accelerando while high on meth, I think. Not only is it densely packed with author-coined terminology loosely based on the underlying technological innovations, but it’s a meandering plotless testament to its own existence.

It follows the trials and tribulations of Manfred Macx and his descendants before, during, and after what we can call a technological singularity, when the pace of progress reaches such a pronounced crescendo, it becomes self-sustaining. Stross’s writing in this novel is both aggressive and clearly supports the implied exponential flood of progress that eventually leads to semi-sentient corporations that trade intellectual property like currency in a vastly projected version of humanity’s current direction.

It’s that aspect that makes Accelerando most engaging. Stross’s game of “What If” is both intense and absurdly optimistic concerning the unstoppable nature of innovation permeating and transforming society. But that’s part of Macx’s character, he pushes these things in places where they’d be most useful, hawking his ideas because he’s a philanthropist who’s abandoned the concept of intellectual property, so he’s purposefully undermining it. In this universe, information wants to be free so badly, a genius can learn to trade ideas as a type of goodwill currency, and it works incredibly well for him.

But it breaks down in stages. The novel was originally written as a series of short stories, and as we watch the generations of Macx’s through the ages, the most potential is reached and wasted in Amber’s Ring Imperium. Stross wants us to believe the richest and most advanced example of humanity can break down into the poorest, and this includes the intellectual capability of Amber herself. He wants us to assume the fruits of humanity’s labor, our own technology and artificially thinking beings, can never be fully embraced by its creators. At one point, Amber is merged with a moonlet worth of computers, allowing her to live lifetimes in moments, making her a semi-goddess. Yet she somehow succumbs to the most ridiculous of human trappings in the end. I’m convinced this is purely because of the segmented nature of how the story was originally written—no clear goal and several intermissions can change an author’s mind.

And I’m not sure Stross knew how to end this novel at all. One aspect he explores is virtual beings and what happens when an entity fragments themselves to complete separate tasks. Manfred Macx has an AI cat named Aineko, you see, and after several upgrades, it’s not only become sentient, but leveraged itself into a meta-god. Like humanity in the end, it forks and while fragment stays to oversee humanity’s last vestiges living among the stars, its other half explores the source of the civilization that created a series of quantum entangled wormholes.

And it all ends with the cat wanting to merge its two halves, promising to leave people alone to reach their own fates. But why? What happened to the expedition? Why did Aineko want to join the expedition when it was technically already there? What were Aineko machinations concerning Macx and his descendants supposed to accomplish? We never learn. The biggest revelation in the novel—the final destiny of the exploratory voyage and its findings—is never actually shared. All we really find out is that humanity is obsolete, but still infesting the galaxy with its own flavor of quirky tenacity. Did we really need an entire novel to come to that conclusion?

I really hope this novel is not indicative of Stross’s writing in general. I liked the pacing, and even though the writing style was incredibly dense, I liked his unapologetic embrace of its necessity to provide the breakneck pace Accelerando demanded. But I can’t support the lazy conclusion or the schizophrenic behavior of the major cast. With no planned sequel, the story simply has too many loose ends justify the convoluted path Stross chose. This novel worked better as a series of short stories, yet even then, needs one more to truly finish the series.