Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Singularity Sky

When I wrote about Altered Carbon, I observed that much of science fiction is more concerned with creating an interesting setting than it is with plot and character. Unfortunately, Charles Stross' Singularity Sky is a fine example of such a story. It's set in the future, hundred years after an Artificial Intelligence named Eschaton has scattered humanity across the universe, and across time. One of the outer planets inhabited by the New Republic, a government modeled on Tsarist Russia that's determinedly anti-technology (except on military matters), has visitors called the Festival. It's not clear exactly what the Festival is, but it wants to be entertained and in exchange is willing to give forbidden technology (including devices that essentially can make anything anyone wants) to anyone who asks for it. The planet's military is summarily destroyed when it decides to attack the Festival, and its government is quickly overcome by revolution from its peasants. In comes the New Republic's main military force from the main world, determined to retake its planet. Along for the ride are two Earthers, a U.N. diplomat (Rachel) serving as an observer, and an engineer (Martin) for the company who sold the New Republic the flagship of its fleet. They of course hit it off, and moreover, both have hidden agendas.

Stross believes the story is more interesting for dropping you in the middle of things, then explaining things as you go along. While that can sometimes work, here it doesn't. At the start of a chapter 120 or so pages in is a 2-page discussion of Eschaton, what happened when it appeared, etc., which belonged as a prologue, just to give the reader context. Unfortunately, Stross may be correct for putting it so much later because the story is so straightforward and predictable without such artificial complications. The romance between Rachel and Martin doesn't seem believable, the stupidity of the New Republic forces creates no mystery about the outcome, and so forth. What takes place on the Festival-occupied planet is somewhat interesting, but it becomes tedious after a while, once the revolution has taken place and the fate of peasants who are overwhelmed by too much at once becomes apparent.

The concept of the Eschaton, a near-god determined to protect its own existence, was moderately interesting, but what Stross did with it in this story was rather disappointing. Rating: 3/10.