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January 2009
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F&SF Bibliography: 1949-1999
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by Chris Moriarty

Saturn's Children, by Charles Stross, Ace, 2008, $24.95.

Singularity's Ring, by Paul Melko, Tor, 2008, $24.95.

Earth Ascendant, by Sean Williams, Ace, 2008, $7.99.

THE WHOLE idea of themed book reviews makes me itchy. And yet…somehow all the best books that hit my mailbox this month seemed to be poking sticks at the same question:

What comes after evolution? What happens to our species when the line on the chart goes vertical and the pace of change outstrips our ability to adapt? Or, put another way: What does the seamy underbelly of Singularity look like?

One of sf's favorite answers to this question has always been The Collective. You know what I'm talking about: the Swarm; the Borg; It; pod people in all their many paper and celluloid iterations (stay tuned for new news about pod people below). Most early sf visions of the collective were cautionary tales—thinly veiled metaphors for fascism, communism, suburbanism, or whatever -ism was the bogeyman of the month. At some point, however, the collective as cautionary tale gave way to an idea of the collective as a natural (perhaps even desirable) future product of human evolution. New Wave Kid that I am, I'm tempted to point to Bruce Sterling's shaper-mechanist stories as the moment when that shift happened. But more likely it was one of those sea changes that sweep through science fiction from time to time, reshaping the imaginary shoreline so gradually and so completely that it takes a concerted effort just to remember the way it used to look.

This change of attitude was accompanied by a parallel change in the real world scientific discipline that most science fiction writers look to for inspiration, as hardware-oriented electrical engineering metaphors gave way to the CS -inflected jargon of software designers. Some of this is just a case of science fiction mindlessly replicating nifty-sounding science factoids. (After all, lately all the cool kids and hot ideas do seem to be moving from the electrical engineering building to the computer science building.) But the three authors reviewed this month put real substance behind the jargon. And the essence of that substance is a shift from envisioning human nature as an EE-style hard drive in a bone box to envisioning it as an open-ended design process…one in which humans can only do their best to stay afloat and catch the cresting wave of evolution.

Unsurprisingly, Stross's Saturn's Children is the most overtly CS-oriented of this month's books. It begins with the reminiscences of an aging female robot named Freya. Humans built Freya's original "template matriarch" to be an artificial female escort. Then they became inconveniently extinct, leaving Freya and her template sisters with nothing but not-so-fond memories and a "yawning hole in the center of our badly designed lives."

The post-human solar system is ruled by a new slave-owning caste of robot Aristos who use human-invented "slave chip" technology to control their less fortunate brethren. While the Aristos party on, the Pink Police hunt down and exterminate outbreaks of "pink goo" (biological replicators). Freya isn't sure how she feels about the Pink Police; after all, slavish adoration of humans is coded into the very core of her soul chip. But when an ambitious Aristo faction hatches the idea of growing its own tame human in order to wield the sledgehammer of Asimov's Laws more effectively, she soon realizes that the resurrection of humanity may be a nightmare instead of a romance.

Saturn's Children is first and foremost a romp: Bruce Sterling meets P. G. Wodehouse in a future full of tongue-in-cheek references to giants of Golden Age space opera. But, as in all of Stross's books, the fun and games play out against a backdrop that flirts with sf's perennial Big Questions. Is Freya merely an appendage of her template mother or a separate and unique being? And if she does possess a self apart from her template, how can she find purpose in a life rendered obsolete by human extinction? By pursuing individual fulfillment? Or by submerging her identity in a larger collective?

Stross, being Stross, comes down pretty strongly on the side of flamboyant individuality—complete with his characteristic open source optimism about the ability of individuals to reboot their lives and reshape their destinies. In this, as in many other regards, the author of Accelerando continues to fly the glorious colors of sf's Golden Age. But though Stross's unabashedly individualist stance may be sf's version of old-fashioned comfort food, there is nothing old-fashioned (or comforting) about his vision of a Tik Tok, robot-eat-robot, clockwork world winding down in the aftermath of humanity's self-inflicted extinction.

If Freya has to face the unnerving idea of life as an unwitting beta release, then Paul Melko's characters face an even stranger dilemma: what's the meaning of life when your entire species is just leftover tech from someone else's Singularity?

Melko's protagonist—a five member "pod person" called Apollo Papadopulos—is born onto a ravaged Earth inhabited only by those left behind after a Singularity Event that is creepily evocative of the mass suicides of Jonestown and Heaven's Gate. When a wired guru tries to kick off a second Rapture, Apollo must struggle to discover his place in the world—and to unravel the core mystery of pod existence.

Melko tells Apollo's tale through a series of deftly handled changes of POV as each pod member adds his or her facet to the composite story. The strength of this book is its laser-tight focus on the character, psychology, and subjective experience of the pod members:

Chemical thoughts pass from hand to hand in our circle, clockwise and counterclockwise, suggestions, lists, afterthoughts. I stand between Moira and Quant, adding what I can. This is our most comfortable thinking position. If we rearrange ourselves, me holding Manuel's hand perhaps, or Moira and Meda together, the thoughts are different. Sometimes this is useful.

Ideas whirl past me and I am only a conduit. Some thoughts are marked by their thinker, so that I know it is Quant who has noted the drop in temperature and the increased wind speed, which causes us to raise the priority of shelter and fire. Consensus forms…. The list passes among us. We reach consensus on decision after decision, faster than I can reason through some of the issues: I add what I can. But I trust the pod. The pod is me.

People often talk about first novels in a condescending "good-enough-for-a-first-effort" tone. But this is a first novel that burns with the raw energy of a writer who's terrified he doesn't have what it takes to keep the reader's eye's glued to the page. The writing is polished and starkly beautiful, and the new images and ideas keep coming at you right up to the last page. Some writers do their best work when they're scared; Paul Melko is obviously one of them.

And besides…no real sf fan can resist a story that includes gems like: "Our hands are cold: we have removed our gloves to think."

The last book in this month's column is Earth Ascendant, the second novel in Sean Williams's remarkable Astropolis series. Words like riveting, gripping, and page-turning get tossed around pretty cavalierly, but they all apply to the Astropolis series. In Earth Ascendant Williams expands on the grand galactic history that he sketched out in Saturn Returns and the superb linked novella Cenotaxis. These books are not without fault (after all, if I build them up too much you'll only be disappointed). But despite their flaws, they have a scope, an intellectual reach, and an intoxicating speculative energy that makes me feel all starry-eyed about the future of science fiction.

In Williams's future, time is the evolutionary jackhammer pounding human nature into a new shape. Once humans were the beneficiaries of a rich pan-galactic civilization held together by virtually immortal collective minds called Forts. But when a tech plague called the Slow Wave ravages the galaxy, the Forts die and humanity is left to its own meager devices. The scattered survivors struggle to keep interstellar civilization afloat, but without the Forts it's a losing battle against time, distance and entropy. And the collapse threatens individuals as well as cultures; most post-humans long ago incorporated some type of Fort-like multiplicity into their own personality architectures and must now "find new ways to survive in a galaxy beset by failing communications and unreliable transport."

Life after the Slow Wave is a cognitive game of Paper, Rock, Scissors in which something's going to get cut, covered, or shattered no matter which choice you make. "We do what we must to survive," one character tells another during a pivotal moment of betrayal. "Remember that and you'll be a lot happier."

The Forts are among the most resonant and thought-provoking creations in recent sf. And if the Forts are a grand sf speculation, then their Frags—the severed, near-autistic survivors of the Slow Wave—are a piece of grand science fiction pathos. They are idiot savants, speaking in shreds and shards of language, quoting poetry, obsessively counting angels on quantum pinheads. Only after encountering a number of Frags did I finally figure out what their oracular utterances reminded me of: AI koans.

Is Williams suggesting a vision of human culture as a kind of vast emergent artificial life form? Is he hinting that the riddles of pre-sentient AI might be symmetrical under rotation with the slow heat death of post-sentient civilization? If so, the hint remains just that: veiled, oblique, open-ended. Williams offers no answers—here or anywhere else in the series.

He walks a fine line here, and reactions to the Astropolis books will probably vary depending on individual readers' tolerance for ambiguity. Personally, I enjoy it. The quest for rigor in sf can all too easily become a fetish for the closed, univalent, airless storyline. Clarity is good to a point, but it's easy to forget that in real science some logic (yes, I really am shameless enough to stoop to the easy pun) is fuzzy.

For those who crave clarity, however, Williams does offer one clear view of humanity's future—albeit a somber one. Throughout the series his characters keep stumbling on grisly pig-piles of corpses. These are the physical remnants of once-mighty Forts: confused frags who panicked when they were severed from their collective brains, failed to take rational survival measures, huddled together, and died blindly seeking communion in the only way still open to them. This macabre image seems to bring us full circle from the collective as bogeyman to the collective as savior. Resistance isn't just futile. Resisting the collective is resisting evolution. And the wages of resisting evolution are extinction.

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