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Rapture of the Nerds

In Charles Stross' 'Accelerando,' corporations barter with post-human souls over an intergalactic Internet

By Rick Kleffel

It's far too easy to sit at open-air cafes on Pacific Avenue, enjoying global cuisine while wirelessly surfing the Internet on laptops, and think that it was always this way. But only four years past the iconic 2001, it's clear that we're not embarking on any space odysseys. No, we're living in the cyberpunk world of William Gibson's Neuromancer, which was written on a Hermes manual typewriter. All of which invites the question: Where, in our present, can we find our future?

Try Accelerando by Charles Stross (Ace Books; July 1; $24.95 cloth), a novel that fast-forwards a not-so-average family through three generations and into a future in which humans seem far more alien than any critters from outer space.

Stross is not the first writer to venture down this path. In 1958, Stanislaw Ulam and computer scientist John Von Neumann described "the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue." Then in 1965, Gordon E. Moore, co-founder of Intel, described what is now known as "Moore's Law." This is "the empirical observation that at our rate of technological development, the complexity of an integrated circuit, with respect to minimum component cost, will double in about 24 months." Yes, every year your computer can be twice as fast, if no less expensive. And in 1993, author and mathematician Vernor Vinge foresaw that "within 30 years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly thereafter, the human era will be ended. ... When greater-than-human intelligence drives progress, that progress will be much more rapid." With Moore's law driving technological change, we'll be able to upload our personalities into computers, creating "post-human" intelligences that will in turn be able to design "strongly superhuman" and "weakly godlike" minds. The point when we can upload our minds and begin designing minds we cannot comprehend is the "Singularity," what Stross calls "the Rapture of the Nerds."

As Accelerando begins, Manfred Macx is busy inventing new technologies on a daily basis, his mind split between the confines of his skull and the uncharted wilds of the Internet. This doesn't prevent him from falling for Pamela, a whip-wielding lawyer who spurs him to new heights of invention as well as corresponding emotional depths. Their daughter, Amber, escapes into the solar system as an indentured astronaut. Amber's son, Sirhan, must give up life as a scholarly recluse when the human race is threatened by its own "Vile Offspring," post-humans who no longer need physical bodies. The stage is set for an apocalyptic family reunion.

Stross' problem is to describe that which we cannot by definition understand. His only tool is language, and he uses it with a vengeance. By setting his story in the form of a sprawling multigenerational family saga, he's able to keep an emotional connection while he's slinging more ideas per paragraph than most sci-fi writers fit into an entire novel. This lucky bag of clashing concepts and invented words is kept afloat by an ample sense of humor and the technopoetry of this talented writer.

Stross is certainly not trying to predict the future in Accelerando. Instead, he's using language to describe how we might feel about the future when we get there. Knowing--and unafraid--that information wants to be free, Stross is offering the novel as a download at www.accelerando.org. Readers can luxuriate in the cool wind on a warm night, and read his novel in the glow of their laptops. Or go retro, buy the book, buy into the old economic system and turn the pages as the future whispers on the soft summer breeze.

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From the June 29-July 6, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

Copyright © 2005 Metro Publishing Inc. Maintained by Boulevards New Media.

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