Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Wireless by Charles Stross

Hard Science Fiction used to be all about wonder and amazement, about pushing the limits of knowledge and expectation. But that's been obsolete for some time; the rump Hard SF that we have these days has been formed by two generations of fannish nitpickers, the failure of the US space program, and an abiding sourness about mankind that has no single source I can detect. But that sourness is definitely real -- serious Hard SF is, more often than not these days, about the extinction of the human race, or the triumph of eusociality, or some other dreary outcome next to which "a boot stomping on a human face forever" is a cheery and optimistic ideal. (At least in Orwell, there are human beings, and what they do matters. In modern Hard SF, human beings are utterly pointless and due for extermination as soon as possible.)

Charles Stross didn't originate that mindset -- Greg Bear has been gleefully slaughtering mankind since the '80s, and Stephen Baxter's books are the purest exemplar of all of the myriad ways in which humanity can be snuffed out -- but he's one of the best writers of the New Gloom, and the kind of writer that crystallizes the obsessions of his generation. And so Wireless, his new collection of SF stories, is a catalog of all of the ways the the cold, remorseless universe is working to screw over humanity, as well as a slim pamphlet of the few possibilities available in that endless murky night.

It opens with "Missile Gap," his magnificent novella from the 2005 Gardner Dozois/SFBC anthology One Million A.D., a story that begins with one of the most expansive, possibility-filled premises SF has ever provided -- that the Earth of 1962, or an exact facsimile thereof, was plated onto an immense Alderson disc among hundreds of millions of other similar-sized worlds -- and then inexorably shuts down all of those possibilities, all the while explaining, in remorseless detail, why humanity is utterly, utterly doomed -- on this Earth as well as every other one that can possibly be conceived. It's a powerful, amazing story -- but it's also black as pitch.

The next story, "Rogue Farm," was from a theme anthology -- Lou Anders' Live Without a Net, which postulated contemporary or near-future worlds without an Internet -- and saw Stross postulate another one of SF's periodic conflicts between unmodified humanity and flashier new variants. In this case, a "farm" is a gestalt entity, on its way to Jupiter's orbit (shades of Varley's "Gotta Sing, Gotta Dance," though without the isolation), though not without some serious destruction to the local English countryside along the way. The unmodified humans, including Stross's old-fashioned farmer protagonist, are not fond of these "farms." So "Rogue Farm" is another "transform or stagnate" story -- like Simak's "Desertion" -- that comes down, as this generation seems to do most often, on the side of stagnation as preferable to transformation; it's an awfully conservative message for a writer usually as cutting-edge and forward-looking.

"A Colder War" is next, and it's one of the great stories of modern SF, a reimagining of Reagan-era brinkmanship using the Cthulhu Mythos and a deep appreciation for the deep games that governments play. It's also one of the very chilliest stories in all of SF, as cold and inimical to life as the Plateau of Leng.

For a few years, the prestigious scientific journal Nature ran very short science fiction stories (they had to fit on a single page of the magazine) under the heading "Futures." Stross was one of those asked to contribute, and his Nature story was "MAXOs," an extended joke on SETI and the Fermi Paradox which I won't spoil here. It's a decent joke, for what it's worth.

"Down on the Farm" is a return to the milieu of Stross's excellent novels The Atrocity Archives and The Jennifer Morgue (and a handful of other stories) -- another tale about Bob Howard, who is something in between an IT support geek and a secret agent for the British government, in a world where Lovecraftian horrors lurk just outside the spaces we know, ready to be summoned by the right mathematical conjurations -- and, as we all know, modern computers do math very very quickly. In this story, Bob has to investigate strange doings at the Laundry's captive, super-secret insane asylum. The Laundry stories are cousins to "A Colder War;" they start from many of the same premises but remain within the happy-ending tradition of genre fiction. That's about as hopeful as Stross's stories get -- that the multiverse is full of tentacled horrors that would be very happy to eat mankind's brains as a snack, but that it may be possibly to avoid them, at least for a little while, if we're very smart and lucky.

Stross occasionally collaborates on stories with other writers, and Wireless has one such story: "Unwirer," which he wrote with Cory Doctorow. It feels more like a Doctorow story than a Stross, with a very strong (even didactic) if-this-goes-on setup; it presupposes that the Internet and similar technologies were essentially outlawed in the US in the late '90s, with the usual result of what happens when you outlaw something. For a story only six years old, it struck me as being very much of its time, and already severely dated (besides being both tendentious and obvious to begin with -- it's grand theme is that information wants to be free and that the Internet is nice). Non-Americans regularly write SFnal versions of the US that I can barely recognize as a twisted version of the country I live in; I suspect my countrymen are just as bad writing about other countries. (Stross is British and Doctorow is Canadian.)

"Snowball's Chance" is a short deal-with-the-devil story with an awful lot of Scots dialect in it; it's amusing but very minor, and doesn't wear out its welcome.

For a change of pace, "Trunk and Disorderly" is a comedy, a translation of P.G. Wodehouse's Jeeves and Wooster characters into what turned out to be a dry run for Stross's novel Saturn's Children. Stross makes his Bertie Wooster manque substantially more competent than the original, and he's too much of a hard SF writer to get as funny as these kind of characters can be, but the story is amusing and at least an order of magnitude less bleak than the others in this collection. (Though that bleakness is still off in the distance; Stross just doesn't seem to be the kind of writer who can do frivolity.) I didn't find it all that funny, though; Stross kept the tone only marginally less serious than his other works, and the Wodehouse influence came across mostly in speech tics and a vague aristocratic flavor. I don't think Stross has the essential affection for dumb aristocrats to do a really good Wodehousian story; it's a very rare feeling in the modern world.

And last in Wireless is a major new novella, "Palimpsest," a Time War story in the tradition of Asimov's The End of Eternity and Leiber's The Big Time and even Robert Silverberg's Up the Line (plus a thousand more). And is it as bleak as the rest? Well, the first mission of all agents of Stasis Control in Stross's telling is to murder their own grandfathers, and another major milestone in their training is when they murder their own two-seconds-shifted selves, so I have to say that there's not much sweetness and light here, either. In this long, long timeline, humanity repeatedly goes extinct -- generally after reverting to a hunter-gatherer level -- and is only saved by Stasis Control seeding a small population a few thousand years in the future from that particular cataclysm. There's no space travel, no singularity, no triumph of Man -- the height of civilization is barely a century above what we have now, and that is achieved regularly, only to be torn down over and over again. (As is depressingly frequent in stories like this, a current bugaboo is raised to the level of eternal inevitability -- thus, here, a "ubiquitous surveillance society" is declared to be the minimum requirement of a true civilization.) Our hero, Pierce, is one of the agents of Stasis Control, and settles into a happy life in an enlightened era far in our future -- until, of course, something unexpected happens, sending him away from that happy life. And, as required in stories about the time police, there's a shadowy enemy, which I will neither confirm nor deny has moles who are, or is itself entirely made up of, secretly rogue Stasis Control agents. "Palimpsests" is a dizzying, widescreen vision of all of the future of a mankind doubly doomed -- by its own limitations, to self-destruct repeatedly over and over and over, and by those damned Cold Equations of the physical universe, which will slaughter any survivors. It's a fine story, but I'm glad that no sharp blades were close to hand when I finished reading it.

If Hard SF ever has any trouble being gloomy enough, there's always the death of the universe, deep in the bag of tricks, to pull out whenever gravitas and depression are needed. And a writer with a Lovecraftian streak, like Stross, doesn't even need to go that far -- world-devouring horrors are always conveniently available in whatever unnatural angles are closest. Stross is without a doubt one of the most inventive and thoughtful writers in the modern SF idiom, and that makes it doubly unfortunate that his output so consistently takes the tone of battling to ever-so-slightly slow down the inevitable fall of night. Wireless collects some of the very best stories in modern SF, by one of the most important writers in the field -- but, collectively, they form a singularity of depression and bleakness from which no optimism can escape.


James Davis Nicoll said...

I don't think hard SF was ever all that common.

two generations of fannish nitpickers [...] and an abiding sourness about mankind that has no single source I can detect.

The nit-picking tends to be selective: trends that might lead people into the sin of optimism are ignored.

It's interesting to read Hal Clement novels set in universes where pretty every planet we see is extremely uninhabitable by human standards, despite which the protagonists are fairly chirpy (except for the Abyormenian in Cycle of Fire, who had an excuse).

Unknown said...

My copy is on its way from Amazon (and will be the first book in a month that I read on paper instead of my ipod).

Stross remains high on my list of favorite writers right now, but I agree about the "sourness" about mankind.

Charlie Stross said...

Would it be a spoiler to say that my agent rilly rilly wants me to write the final two-thirds of the novel of which "Palimpsest" is allegedly the opening sequence?

(Yes, "Wireless" ought to have been sub-titled "Thrilling Future Stories of Gloom and Despair". But I'd like to think I can write happy fun optimistic stuff ... except, er, the evidence to support that opinion seems to be a bit thin on the ground!)

James Davis Nicoll said...

I suspect my countrymen are just as bad writing about other countries.

Let's talk about stories written by Americans, in which the Republic of Quebec is a significant threat to Anglophone North America, which has roughly 40x as many people as Quebec.

Gareth Wilson said...

Nature stopped those back page stories for a while, but now they're in every issue. The writers are rather obscure now.

David Bilek said...

Wireless collects some of the very best stories in modern SF, by one of the most important writers in the field -- but, collectively, they form a singularity of depression and bleakness from which no optimism can escape.

If I hadn't already had this in my Amazon cart I sure would now. What an endorsement!

Andrew: Thanks for this post. Exactly the kind of thing I like, and since AT&T just shut down my Usenet feed I'm flying blind for now.

Steve said...

And the Nature stories are available online if you're coming in via an IP address of a site with the appropriate license....

Nix said...

Am I strange for finding _Palimpsest_ to be optimistic? Hell, it proposes that thanks to our own efforts we'll outlast the Sun many times over!

Stasis's methods are nasty, but its original goal ('stop humanity from dying out even though the universe really wants to kill us accidentally') seems optimistic to me.

(If you want bleak, I'm sorry, Charlie, but you've still got nothing on Peter Watts. Keep trying, though, you'll get there in the end!)

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