At a glance
Singularity Sky is a straight technology-oriented story which starts out grippingly, but then, after the initial third or so, loses its initial captivating power. The book dazzles with many good ideas, but story and character development cannot keep up and somehow get lost in the "information overflow". Although the story cursorily explores a few moral and social questions, no new insights can be gained from reading the book.
I don't recommend reading Singularity Sky, but if you can't resist the lure, try to focus on the firework of ideas to avoid disappointment. If you have gone this far, It might also be a good idea to read the follow-up novel Iron Sunrise to tie up any loose ends (of which there certainly are many).
Human history takes a dramatic turn in the 21st century when the Eschaton evolves, a mysterious entity that one must assume to be some sort of Artificial Intelligence. One day, nine-tenths of the world's population simply disappear while the remaining passengers of spaceship Earth are tumbled into chaos from which they recover only gradually. It is later discovered that the Eschaton has relocated all those billions of people via wormhole to many different planets tens or hundreds of light years away from Earth's solar system. Although the Eschaton never explained its reasons, it gave the involuntary colonists everything necessary for survival on their new home planets.
These discoveries are made hundreds of years in the future, after Earth has recovered from its explosive depopulation and found to a new form of society. Faster-than-light space travel has been discovered, and contact has been made with those of the far-flung colonies that have survived. During the long years of isolation, many distinct societies and political systems have evolved so that nowadays the colonies must be viewed as powers independent from Earth.
One of the ex-colonies is the New Republic. Its militaristic and oppressive government officially rejects all but the most basic technology as dangerous and evil, while allowing governmental bodies such as army and intelligence services to employ high-tech, in order to better control the New Republic's citizens and colonies. The narrative sets in when one of the colony planets, Rochard's World, is contacted by a mysterious but obviously highly technological force that is only known as the Festival. Soon Rochard's World spins out of control (helped along by a revolutionary uprising among the population), and the New Republic's government sees itself forced to counter the takeover of one of its colonies by sending out a fleet of warships from its central world New Muscovy.
Enter Martin Springfield, engineering contractor to the Admiralty (space navy) of the New Republic, whose job is to perform last-minute adjustments to the space drive system of the Lord Vanek, the Admiralty's latest and greatest warship. Also enter Rachel Mansour, United Nations emissary tasked with observing the fleet's wartime operations, and possibly acting as an arbitrator between the enemy forces. After becoming acquainted, both protagonists end up taking the long ride on the Lord Vanek from New Muscovy towards Rochard's World. Around them a story unfolds that is full of conspiracy and secret agendas (some of them their own), while at their destination the long awaited revolution takes place to a different tune than most have expected.
Meanwhile the Eschaton's interest in the affair becomes clear after the battle fleet's secret flight plan is revealed: Using modern space drive technology and relativistic effects, the fleet attempts to "fly back in time" in order to arrive at Rochard's World before the Festival does! This obviously has the potential for violating causality, which is the only thing that the all-powerful Eschaton will not tolerate because it could be used as a weapon against itself...
I mostly read SF that has been written between the 1940's and 1980's, but this time I thought it would be nice to finally read again something written by a modern author. I picked Singularity Sky by Charles Stross because I had seen a couple of rave reviews, and, being a computer'ish person, because I felt the appeal of a story that emphasizes the computer topic.
At the beginning, the story develops very strongly: Stross paints the historical background of what happened to Earth, what the Eschaton might be, how life looks today on Earth, etc., in long and slow strokes. The reader isn't briefed in full at the beginning, rather the details become known bit by bit through conversations, remarks, protagonists' thoughts, etc. This keeps the story interesting and the reader's curiosity remains piqued for more. Of course, one also wants to know more about what will happen between Rachel and Martin, the two main protagonists, whether Vassily (the inexperienced spy) will overcome his stupidity, and what the heck this Festival will turn out to be.
Unfortunately, the gripping power of the story rapidly declines once the Lord Vanek has made its departure. After the initial firework of ideas and character exposé, Stross not only fails to keep up the pace, but actually starts writing a rather boring story. A few of my strongest points:
- At some point the reader realizes that the New Republic really and truly is the Evil And Stupid Empire and that Rachel and Martin are their intellectual and moral superiors. The baddies remain bad and stupid, while the good guys are smart and keep saying "I told you so" at every opportunity - and there are many because so much goes wrong. In other words: No character development! (This is true especially for Vassily the spy who remains so agonizingly stupid that it probably was intended to be funny. I was merely annoyed.)
- Stross tries to dazzle the reader with technobabble. Maybe I still have to learn the slang of modern SF, or I am just too old to understand all the buzzwords, but I feel that there are too many of them, and I am not impressed!
- One of the most annoying and boring things for me were the painstakingly detailed military action scenes on the bridge of the Lord Vanek where you can read dialogue bristling with examples such as this:
Second fusion source, about two M-kilometers above and south of the first. It's tracking on a parallel course. I have a preliminary solution, looks like they're vectoring to pass us at about one-zero-zero K-klicks, decelerating from eight-zero-zero k.p.s. Time to intercept, two K-seconds.
Try to read the dialogue aloud, in a hectic and panicky voice, you might find it amusing. But believe me, after several pages of this the fun definitely evaporates.
- The development of the parallel storyline on Rochard's World never captivated me. There were no interesting characters there: The aliens are too alien, the revolutionary Rubenstein merely becomes a confused and forlorn figure after he is abducted by one of the alien aliens, and I never understood the point of the weird sideline story of the ex-governor turned into a child and accompanied by a sentient hare.
- And lastly, while I'm in slasher mood, a very minor point: The Internet Engineering Task Force taking over the United Nations? From among all the in-jokes, I got at least that one, but let's be honest - this is not entertaining, it's plain silly. Sorry.
And now, after I've worked myself up into a critic's frenzy, back to Earth :-) To re-iterate: Singularity Sky is not actually a bad book, it's just that the execution of story writing and characterization cannot keep up with the author's plethora of good ideas. And that's where my strong reaction probably stems from: I feel so disappointed because of what the book could have been.
One should also keep in mind that there is a follow-up novel Iron Sunrise, which I have not read, but which supposedly takes up the ends left loose in Singularity Sky and might provide a more satistfactory conclusion to the story.
- Singularity Sky
- 337 pages. Ace. ISBN 978-0-441-01197-7
- Iron Sunrise
- 433 pages. Ace. ISBN 978-0-441-01296-1