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Scratch Monkey by Charles Stross
Review by Steve Sawicki
NESFA Press Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 9781886778955
Date: 18 February 2011 List Price $27.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /

NESFA has released this book in commemoration of Stross being the guest of honor at this year's Boskone. Which, if you don't know, is a large science fiction convention held each February in Boston. This is the first time the novel has been published.

Scratch Monkey is the story of Oshi Adjani, all around trouble shooter for the Superbrights, AI's that essentially run the universe as well as the Dreamtime, which is where all consciousness goes, assuming the right amount of nano-technology has been used, after human death. Oshi has been working for the Superbrights for some time, doing jobs for them that they can't do and generally saving the universe from itself. This time however, things are different. The Superbrights have run into the Ultrabrights, a form of AI super intelligence that is as far above them as they are over humans. And the Ultrabrights want the universe for themselves, along with the Dreamtime. Oshi is thrust into this conflict with one task--stop them. She knows she is expendable and that, the Superbrights that sent her don't care whether she lives or dies. She cares, because the Superbrights have promised her freedom if she succeeds and she would like that very much.

This is a book of large concepts and small violence. The idea of the Superbrights and the Ultrabrights--created intelligences so complex that humans can not understand what they are about--coupled with the idea that consciousness can exist beyond the decay of the body through the use of nanotechnology and a vast, for lack of a better word, wireless network, are, at times difficult to grasp. Yet within this universe Stross has placed his character, Oshi, who is tortured, beaten, abused, repeatedly, in the line of duty. The juxtaposition of one against the other is sometimes very harsh and almost uncomfortable. It is against these two extremes, the vastness of intelligence and the minimalism of human violence against other humans that Stross sets his story. At times it seems almost as if the story is simply a consequence of the concepts.

I won't say that this is a particularly easy book to read. You have to be able to get past the plucking out of eyes and the torture of human beings done on a very personal level. You also have to be willing to return to complex paragraphs in order to try to grasp exactly what Stross may be getting at. Entertaining bedtime reading this is not. Having said that though the book raises intriguing questions about what it means to be human and what it means to be intelligent

As with all NESFA books it is beautifully produced. It is limited to 950 copies. The cover is by Gregory Manchess. If you are a fan of Stross this is a must have. If you are a fan of the kind of science fiction that pushes the questions of existence then this is for you. If you just want to support an excellent small press effort--books done for fans by fans--then you should also buy this book. Highly recommended.

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