“Accelerando” by Charles Stross

by Charles Stross
2006, 415 pg

“There is an intrinsic unknowability about the technological singularity. Most writers leave it safely offstage or invent reasons why it doesn’t happen. Not Charles Stross. Accelerando lives up to its name, and is the most unflinching look into radical optimism I’ve seen.” – Vernor Vinge

During winter break I finally read Accelerando.  I say “finally” because this book was first recommended to me in 2009 at the (now defunct) Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute transhumanism club. Accelerando is notable as being perhaps the first novel to have a storyline which traverses directly through a technological singularity.

This novel was a pleasure to read, but I have to admit I was in a state of future shock during almost the entire novel.  Like a roller coaster ride, this type of future shock is pleasurable, although it can get tiring if there is too much. I don’t consider myself one who is easily future shocked – the last time I recall such feelings while reading a novel was when I first read Neuromancer in high school.

Stross describes the novel as an an outcome of working during the heyday of the dot com bubble, when the internet frontier was opening up so quickly that everyone was caught in a rush into the future.  Nearly every aspect of human life was affected by the internet. The fundamental changes the internet made to communication, socialization, economic exchange, gaming, and research all came about in a relatively short period of time. The early internet was characterized by exponential growth, [doubling times on the order of months],  and internet businesses struggled to keep their servers running and many people worked long hours to try to stay ahead of the curve.

It’s hard to narrow down a central theme of this book, but one could say it is an exploration of how the human experience will be changed by the merger of biological and non-biological computational substrates. The novel explores several transhumanist ideas by following three generations of the Macx clan. In the first part of the book, the plot revolves around Manfred Macx in the early decades of the 21st century. Manfred is an entrepreneur who has made a fortune using algorithms to create intellectual property. Like Stross fighting to keep servers running during the dot-com bubble, Manfred is a singulatarian always trying to keep his wearable tech ahead of the curve. His wearable supercomputer develops into a metacortex, which, when stolen by a druggie causes a severe case of memory loss and depersonalization. Smartphones, coupled to the cloud, today constitute a metacortex. Studies show that the human mind doesn’t bother to remember something if it is more efficient just to remember the source information — that is, how to look it up quickly on Google. Thus, we are increasingly reliant on our cell phones to recall information, just as Manfred was dependent on his metacortex to perform his job.

In the second part, his daughter, Amber becomes an indentured astronaut helping mine resources from Jupiter’s moons and harnest energy and rare isotopes from Jupiter’s atmosphere. By Amber’s time, uploading has become common. 

The book introduces a vocabulary for discussing life in the virtual universes that run on advanced computational substrates. Some of the common terms are:

“meat space” – the physical world

“state vectors” – the string of digits which completely specify the connectome and synaptic weights of a person’s brain.

“ghosts” – temporary instantiations of self which are created to carry out a specific task and report back. They can be manipulated, for instance, a ghost may intentionally be made autistic to assist in performing a particular task. Ghosts usually have a temporary lifespan but if they become substantially different may take on a life of their own, and even download into a separate meatspace body.

“somatotype” – the bodily form that one takes on. In cyberspace, one may become a dragon or any other creature. The same term is used when downloading into a different meatspace body.

“Cartesian theatre” – also called the “sensorium”, the field of conscious perception. People may enhance their sensorium to see radio waves or other types of radiation, or to block out certain senses.

“metacortex” – the cloud computational resources which lay outside seat of consciousness. They may be considered as members of the “society of mind” which can take on certain tasks.

“forking” – the splitting of oneself.

“merging” – the merging of two selves into one (mutual consent is required).

“ackles” – (Transliteration of the pronunciation of “ACL”, an initialism for “Access Control List”) refers to the amount of control one has over the virtual environment. Amber has ‘management grade’ ackles in the spacecraft Field Circus, which allow her to control the laws of physics and other core features of the environment.

Since the novel is actually a collection of short stories, descriptions of concepts and characters are sometimes repeated. While noticeable, this doesn’t turn out to be a huge flaw, and may actually assist some readers in keeping track of the story. The book includes a dazzling array of concepts, including uploading, laser-powered spacecraft (starwisps), utility fog, computronium, grey goo, borganisms, decentralized autonomous organization, distributed intelligences,  Matrioshka brains Dyson spheres) ,  space elevators, assemblers, super-Turing oracles, and many other singulatarian and futurist tropes. In fact, it’s hard to come up with a sci-fi concept that does not appear in the novel. The novel implicitly assumes that the reader is familiar with most of these concepts, offering one line explanations at best. None of these concepts were invented by Stross, but rarely have so many concepts been combined into a unified storyline. The following quote captures what Stross achieved:

“Like Bruce Sterling or William Gibson at their best, Stross surfs a wave of ideas and information that seems always on the brink of collapsing into incomprehensibility, but never does—a careening plunge through strangeness in which every page contains something to mess with your head.”—SF Site

Obscure references to computer scientists and physicists are thrown in for good measure to delight the most geekiest of readers. In the lingo of politics, Stross knows how to play to his base. Whether readers completely outside his target audience would enjoy this novel is more uncertain.

Radical optimism?
[Warning: major spoilers in this section]
I am not sure if I agree with the last line Vernor Vinge’s quote. The novel is optimistic in the sense that it envisions a future where humanity survives the singularity, and ‘canned chimps’ are allowed to exist and even thrive in a physical environment situated in what is essentially an O’Neil cylinder. By uploading one’s consciousness, interstellar travel is also possible through the wormhole network.

However, the final chapters of the novel are pessimistic in many respects. Rather than ‘upload heaven’, the end state of the singularity is viewed as a degenerate state. The super-intelligence(s) living in the cloud of nanocomputers that encircle the sun are described as the “Vile Offspring”. The designs and sentience of the Vile Offspring are beyond human comprehension — Stross describes the gulf in cognitive capacity larger as than that between a nematode worm and a human. The Vile Offspring operate under “economics 2.0”, a system that is also beyond human comprehension. We can infer, however, that economics 2.0 still contains competing agents. Because of this competition, agents are compelled to stay close to the sun, where bandwidth is higher. [A more closer rereading probably would yield a more nuanced picture]. In any case, the swarm of nanocomputers collapses into a “degenerate state” which does not grow any further. The transition from a type II civilization to type III (galaxy level) does not take place.

However, the waste heat of type III civilizations are observed in other galaxies.  Stross shows the reader how a type III civilization may be possible. A network of routers, connected by wormholes, allow galactic-level communication between the Matrioshka brains. However, the particular routers explored in the novel are discovered to be largely dormant, in that they only contain confused, outcast agents, such as the vile Wunch. The Wunch try to capture sentient agents, which can be used as currency. The novel does not make normative statements, either implicit or explicit, but the concepts of the “vile offspring” and “sentient beings as currencies” can be interpreted as critiques of capitalism. In this respect, the novel is pessimistic.

A perusal of Stross’s blog confirms this is what he intended:

“We are, in fact, living through the earlier moments of “Accelerando”, because that part of the novel the story “Lobsters” — was set in the predictable near-future. But “Accelerando” as a whole doesn’t seem to be coming true, and a good thing too. In the background of what looks like a Panglossian techno-optimist novel, horrible things are happening. Most of humanity is wiped out, then arbitrarily resurrected in mutilated form by the Vile Offspring. Capitalism eats everything then the logic of competition pushes it so far that merely human entities can no longer compete; we’re a fat, slow-moving, tasty resource — like the dodo. Our narrative perspective, Aineko, is not a talking cat: it’s a vastly superintelligent AI, coolly calculating, that has worked out that human beings are more easily manipulated if they think they’re dealing with a furry toy. The cat body is a sock puppet wielded by an abusive monster.” (read more here)

There is another sense of pessimism in the final chapter. Manfred’s great-grandson Manny and his playmates behave rather horribly towards each other. Stross is clearly pointing out that giving children enormous powers can be dangerous. Less clear is whether the children’s barbaric behaviour is intended as a warning about human nature ala Lord of the Flies.

Overall, the novel strikes a healthy balance between both optimistic and pessimistic ideas about the singularity. This may have been intentional on Stross’s part, since taking a strong stance either way might have turned-off a large subset of potential readers. The collection of people who are interested in transhumanism, the singularity, and futurism contains both optimists and pessimists, as well as large numbers who are unsure.

Further reading
Accelerando technical companion

note: part of this article was incorprated by the author into the article “Accelerando” on H+pedia

Its worth mentioning that as of late, Charlie Stross has become somewhat of a singularity skeptic. His blog post on the subject (Three arguments against the singularity) is worth a read through, and his singularity 1on1 podcast is worth listening to.

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