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Singularity Sky

by Charles Stross

(Orbit, 389 pages, comb-bound A4 proof advance reading copy reviewed; available as hardback priced £12.99, published July 2004. Orbit, £6.99, 389 pages, paperback, first published 2004, this edition published February 2005.)

Review by John Toon

Closed timelike paths, self-replicating artificial systems and a mentally invalid Naval Admiral cover scanwith glass legs jostle for space in this, Charles Stross' debut novel. The action centres around Rochard's World, a provincial world in an interplanetary New Republic modelled along Imperial Russian lines, and begins with a rain of mobile phones -- forbidden technology under the Imperial regime. The source of this electronic bounty is the Festival, an ambiguously motivated alien power that has arrived in orbit and offers material goods -- any material goods imaginable -- in exchange for information. The local dissidents decide to take advantage of the opportunity: in exchange for a cornucopia, the ultimate means of production, they will give the Festival a real-time demonstration of revolutionary theory.

The New Republic's response is predictable enough, but it will take months for their space fleet to get to Rochard's World and tackle the threat the Festival poses, by which time the damage will already be done. Faster-than-light travel is available but inadvisable, since for the last thousand years or so an entity known as the Eschaton -- a human-derived AI from the far future -- has been policing all FTL travel and any other activity that violates causality, usually with extremely disproportionate force, in order to safeguard its own historical existence. The alternative is to use a closed timelike path to send the fleet forward in time as well as across space, then slingshot it back to a point as soon as possible after the Festival arrives. It's an outrageous fudging of causality that could give the New Republic the tactical advantage over the Festival, but will the Eschaton turn a blind eye -- or will it vaporise Rochard's entire solar system just to be on the safe side?

Singularity Sky is full to bursting with ideas, but not many of these ideas translate into thumping SF action. A large part of the book is taken up with proficient but somewhat leisurely space opera as the Imperial fleet loops its way round to Rochard's World, while on board the flagship two external agents -- diplomat Rachel Mansour and engineer Martin Springfield, both from Earth, now a free trade centre run by the United Nations -- philosophise about the consequences of the fleet's mission. The action scenes, when they turn up, are exciting and deftly played, but by and large Martin and Rachel's role in Singularity Sky is to give us an outsider's perspective on the New Republic, and to fill us in on the big ideas that form the backdrop to the main narrative. I was put in mind of David Feintuch's 'Hope' novels; here there's a similar mix of slow and fast story, of shipbound politics and space adventure.

The real fun is to be had on Rochard's World, where the Festival is busy bringing Russian folklore and mythology to life in a misguided attempt to give the community what it wants; where rogue Festival elements such as the murderous Mimes caper across the countryside; and where Burya Rubenstein is trying to mastermind a revolution that is entirely beyond his control, and to justify the wayward behaviour of his peers to the Festival's Critics. There's many a wry smile to be had from the mayhem the Festival causes in its efforts to trade with the locals; top marks for the phrase "the brightly coloured sporks of revolution", and for the novel's surreal prologue. I was also amused by the pastiche of Russian society Stross uses as the basis for the New Republic's colony.

Where Singularity Sky is long on ideas and story, however, it is short on good characters. Rachel and Martin are remarkable only inasmuch as they are the only recognisably "normal" people amid a ship full of military stereotypes -- the businesslike captain, the headstrong Number One, the sneaky secret police agent, the down-to-earth ship's engineer, and a host of Ensign Redshirts. It's a similar story with the revolutionaries -- Rubenstein is notable because he's the one the Festival deals with, but his fellow revolutionaries are utterly interchangeable. The Critics are rather more interesting, but (rightly) not presented as major viewpoint characters. Overall this leaves Singularity Sky lacking a certain sparkle; it's a good novel, but not quite a great novel.

The ending leaves us in no doubt that sequels are in the offing; I look forward to more entertaining space opera, and hope that with time and practice Stross will develop his characters to match his ideas.

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