Accellerando (2005) by Charles Stross

Available works by Charles Stross


Deliriously fast-paced space opera that fleshes out the lives of one family caught in the take-off phase of a technological singularity.

Set around 2050, moving rapidly from Earth to the Solar System, only to end up in far away star systems, Accelerando follows the Maxc family as it is caught up in the vertiginous take-off phase of an emerging technological singularity, portrayed as an inevitable and unstoppable process once begun. It won the Locus award for Best SF Novel (2006), and came second for the Hugo award for Best Novel (2006).

The book opens with Manfred Macx helping uploaded sentient lobsters defect from Russia, negotiating safe refuge for them onboard a mining operation in the Asteroid Belt, securing human right for them in the process. Manfred is an accelerationist who has dedicated his life to patenting ideas and giving them away for free to entrepreneurs in the hope that society will fast-forward to the singularity. In the beginning of the book – a Cyberpunk mish-mash of body augmentations, wearables, implants, augmentations and virtual reality – mankind still hasn’t made it to Mars, as nobody can figure out how to make money on it. Not long in though, the Solar System has been colonised, and not long after that, interstellar flights (machine intelligence combined with brain simulations) is a reality. In the span of just a few years, Macx is running thousands of self-governing and self-executing companies.

Things develop so fast that Stross has to resort to using an omniscient narrator to provide regular news-flash updates on humanity’s rapidly changing stages of technological development. Subject to informational overload, where just about every paragraph is bursting at the seams with ideas and concepts that have little instruction on the narrative, the novel adopts the aesthetics of Macx’ accelerationist mantra. It is Silicon Valley speak on steroids where everything is framed in terms of paradigm shifts and revolutions. By the same token, Stross manages to plough through and regurgitate most of his predecessors’ work, whether it is the dying earth concept, technological transcendence, machine intelligence, alien technology or faster-than-light travelling. Just about every sf trope ever thought-up is rammed into the work.

It is easy to write Stross’ humorous account off as fanciful farce. Conceptually, his premise is no different from scenarios imagined by academics such as Oxford University scholar Nick Bostrom though, notably his hugely influential non-fiction book Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies (2014). The laws of exponential growth – a key assumption in all speculation on technological singularities – dictate that the take-off phase rapidly gains in speed. At the inflection point in Stross’ story, the last vestiges of humanity are rapidly dwindling away, humans now merged with machines in al kinds of hybrids, including self conscious human/corporation half-breds. People in the story acknowledge that human history is approaching an end – known as the Discontinuity – and by 2049 humanity is obsolete. Self conscious corporations haven taken over Earth, and while there are still those who insist on their meat bodies, most live as uploaded simulated minds. In quick succession, biology in the Solar System becomes obsolete as well. Machine intelligence transforms dead matter into sentient matter in what is the first step in the colonisation the galaxy. Time loses its meaning, as some uploaded societies still remain synchronised to Earth time, living in 2050, while others experience the thousandth millennium.

At the end of the day though, Accelerando insists on being a traditional family saga of failed marriages, ugly custody battles and intergenerational strife. Macx’s daughter Amber for example is caught between a libertarian father and a control freak of a mother. Like most of her generation, Amber is heavily augmented, with half her wetware running on processors outside of her brain known as the metacortex. Amber’s generation is vastly superior to their parents’, full participants in the economy from early age on. Accelerando is in many ways an allegory of our time of rapidly advancing technological development and rampant neo-liberal capitalism, conceptually similar, yet radically different from more traditional family sagas such as Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks (1901). Summed up Accelerando is Buddenbrooks on steroids.