November 21st, 2009
(This review contains only negligible spoilers).
I just finished reading Accelerando by Charles Stross. It’s a masterpiece of hard science fiction, and I highly recommend it.
Vernor Vinge coined the term Singularity when he observed that no author could write realistically about smarter-than-human intelligences. Literature allows you to realize characters who are stronger or more outgoing, but the intelligence of their plans is limited by your ability to think of them. Superintelligences must be kept off screen or in some infant stage. Considering the likelihood of superhuman intelligence in our relatively near future, this makes writing really hard sci-fi a difficult endeavor. Vinge blurbs on the back cover of the book “There is an intrinsic unknowability about the technological singularity. Most writers leave it safely offstage or invent reasons why it doesn’t happen”, which applies to his own work as well. In comparison Stross’s Accelerando dives in headfirst, with mainstream (post)human civilization becoming essentially incomprehensible by the middle of the book.
Of course any real superintelligences still have to be kept off screen, and so the story follows characters who for one reason or another have been left behind by the tsunami of increasing intelligence. This creates the interesting effect that despite inhabitating lives stranger (and more probable) than those in the vast majority of sci-fi, the characters’s situations manage to feel very backwater. It’s as if you were following a family of Amish throughout the industrial and information revolutions, but more significant.
At a few points I grew dissapointed as it seemed Stross’s literary ambitions may have overcame him, with superintelligences mysteriously on our level, but by the end it all makes fair sense through one route or the other. I would have enjoyed those sections more if I knew that to begin with. There were also a small handful of differences between my own best estimates and the world of Accelerando. The Singularity is a tad on the slow side, and there always remain a number of independent, comparably powerful entities. This is probably my largest contention (it seems more likely for a single superintelligence to achieve dominance at some point), but there might not be much of a story if this were otherwise. There’s also no significant mention of emotional engineering, ala David Pearce’s Hedonistic Imperative or Nick Bostrom’s Letter From Utopia. A more sociological than technological point, but people are pretty nonchalant about creating and deleting copies of themselves. I care more about expectation of experience than identity, but as a preferential utilitarian I can get along just fine with those who think otherwise, as long as they don’t force that choice on others.
When I first heard about this book, the take-away message was the great density of concepts. The book is packed with advanced technological proposals, internet subculture references, unusual vocabulary, economics, neuroscience, history…it goes on. However Accelerando is much more readable than this would suggest, and most of the references are tangential, perfect understanding not required. The few times a concept is critical he takes a moment to explain it, and those interested can hunt down referenes on the net (try doing that 10 or 15 years ago). I’m admittedly not bleeding-edge (cutting maybe?) on speculative technology, but to the limits of my knowledge all the ideas are presented in a sober, best-guess fashion. To load the book with so many ideas takes quite an intellect or a great deal of work, and most likely both. Stross took 5 years to write this and has an impressive background, with degrees in pharmacy and computer science, and those who’ve known (biblical sense) WoW might be interested to learn he came up with death knights, back in the day.
The best and favorite thing I can say about this book is that it is mind boggling. A common criticism of sci-fi is that it takes one idea and places it in an otherwise changed world. Accelerando is just the opposite, which includes just about every feasible proposal and then mixes them in with additional ideas about their interaction. This allows for very unique and interesting turns of plot, and the book tends to put the reader in a constant state of future shock, continuing for 400 pages, even while in the relative backwater I mentioned above. The density of information and references adds to this effect nicely. The human mind suffers from the conjunction fallacy, and we’re more likely to put belief in speculation that is more specific, such as the setting of a book. Despite this I think Accelerando is excellent for improving our sense of the future, by reminding us that the future isn’t going to be one or a few new ideas, it’s going to be a great number of them, all interacting and creating ever newer ones. There are three meanings to the Singularity, one of which is that without intelligence enhancement, really understanding the world is something you’d have to entrust to others. It’s one thing to read about that kind of future but another to catch a glimpse of it, and that’s something that Accelerando provides.
Vinge also calls Accelerando “the most sustained and unflinching look into radical optimism I’ve seen”. While our own future could be much better, this really is a pretty optimistic book, which I like as I’m generally an optimist myself. It also presents some very possible dangers and threats. The future could be better than we’re physically capable of imagining, but there are thousands of ways it could go badly and it’d be worth it (understatement) to prevent those outcomes. The future may be incomprehensible, but for now we’re still in control, and still the most intelligent life on this planet. Let’s make the most of that, because it’s not going to last.