Charles Stross,
Singularity Sky
(Ace, 2003)

Singularity Sky is the debut novel from Charles Stross, an author who has already made a name for himself in the short fiction market. His "quirky, inventive, high-bit-rate stories," as editor Gardner Dozois has called them, include "Lobsters," which was a Hugo Award finalist in 2002. Stross has also previously published an online novel titled Scratch Monkey. But Singularity Sky is his first novel in book form and I'm afraid it shows.

In Singularity Sky, Stross tries to do everything at once. He creates the sort of jargon-soaked future that has served him extremely well in his short fiction. But here he has built not just one future society but three, at vastly different technological levels. Parts of this book felt like he wanted it to be a sociological exploration of the sort Ursula K. Le Guin might produce. Other chapters read more like a Steve Stirling/Jerry Pournelle adventure with all the military trappings. And still other sequences struck me as taking a page out of James Morrow's absurdist writing manual. When one character quips, "Exit strategy? We don't need no stinking exit strategy!" -- a bastardized quote from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre by way of Blazing Saddles -- all I could do was wonder what the point was.

A bit of plot line -- advanced technological wonders ranging from telephones to cornucopia machines capable of granting every peasant's wishes have been dropped into the laps of the people of Rochard's World, an outpost of the New Republic's empire. Anarchy ensues, but it's not the sort of revolution that the political underground on Rochard's World has ever envisioned. Meanwhile back on the New Republican home world, the military sets out to quash this threat to their empire using any means necessary. And a couple of Earth natives, both with secret agendas, are swept up in the campaign to return Rochard's World to its backward way of life.

Perhaps all of this could have come together through a strong central character. But here again Singularity Sky lacks focus as Stross has chosen to tell the story in episodic form. Martin Springfield and Rachel Mansour alternately take the lead for future Earth. Burya Rubenstein is the revolutionary who occupies center stage when the tale shifts to the tumultuous events taking place on Rochard's World. And Sister Seventh, a vaguely walrus-like alien, is our viewpoint character for the advanced society wreaking technological havoc on this New Republican backwater.

Charles Stross is obviously a man with plenty of ideas and a stylistic palette that would make many writers envious. But he needs to rein in his talents somewhat if he's going to produce novels of real significance. Singularity Sky shows he has the capability to be one of science fiction's better writers. It also shows that thus far he lacks the subtlety.

- Rambles
written by Gregg Thurlbeck
published 27 December 2003

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