Singularity Sky by Charles M. Stross
Ace Books HCVR: ISBN 0441010725 PubDate: 08/05/03
Review by Paul Giguere
320 pgs. List price $24
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The space opera novel is, arguably, king of the science fiction sub-genre right now. Peter Hamilton, Ken MacLeod, Alastair Reynolds, and Karl Schroeder (along with some of less recent masters such as Iain Banks and Vernor Vinge) have carved out a niche for themselves by creating literate science fiction that also offers space battles, lots of high/super-tech goodies, and a sense-of-wonder on a cosmic scale. Many readers (myself included) have become quite comfortable and satisfied with this menu of offerings. Sometimes though, a new writer appears on the scene that challenges the status quo and proceeds to offer us something that pushes the genre forward into new territory. Charles Stross is such a writer and Singularity Sky is such a novel.
The New Republic, a collection of backwater, technologically ignorant, planets is under attack… so to speak. Aliens calling themselves the Festival are showering the planets of the New Republic with phones that grant wishes to anyone who picks one up in exchange for information (or entertainment as the Festival calls it). Some people ask for food, some for money, others ask for machines that will help them create more wish-granting phones. The New Republic has outlawed technology except for space warfare (indeed, they have the ability to travel back in time) and views the Festival as a threat to their dominance over the populace and a course or anarchy. Intent on putting a stop to the Festival, the Republic decides to launch an preemptive attack by sending warships back in time to a point just before the first Festival ship shows up in orbit over one of the colony planets. In order to accomplish this feat, the Republic reluctantly enlists the aid of an engineer, Martin Springfield, from the distant, highly technologically sophisticated (and to the Republic, highly distasteful) Earth. Martin, who is also operating as a spy for a behind-the-scenes group on Earth, is accompanied by fellow Earther U.N. diplomat/spy, Rachel Mansour. Although working for different entities, Martin and Rachel share a common goal, diffuse the crisis peacefully or prevent the New Republic from launching their attack.
Singularity Sky is many things. It is a political commentary, a spy vs. spy tale, and an adventure story all rolled into one. Stross keeps the story moving along briskly while still remaining true to the various themes upon which he bases his story. Singularity Sky is fast-paced, the characters are engaging and fun, and the sometimes tongue-in-cheek plot keeps you guessing as to the outcome.
Primarily known for his superb short-stories, Stross’ first novel clearly demonstrates that he is a new force on the space opera scene. If I had to make a comparison, I would say Singularity Sky is a cross between Vernor Vinge (at his most space operatic) and Jack Vance (at his most humorous and satiric), a delightful combination. We haven’t heard the last from Stross the novel writer, and hopefully we won’t have to wait too long for his next venture into long-fiction. Stross is definitely on my to-read list.