Science Fiction

The Singularity as Farce

Two novelists produce a cask-strength science-fiction comedy.


The Rapture of the Nerds, by Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross, Tor Books, 352 pages, $24.99.

Whisky connoisseurs will seek out premium, undiluted drinks—marketed as "cask strength"—that combine maximum alcoholic impact with a more intense taste experience. The Rapture of the Nerds is what you get when two novelists set out to write a cask-strength science-fiction comedy.

Rapture, written by the popular writers Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross, is premised on the notion that somewhere around the middle of this century, a "technological singularity" will have occurred, enabling most people on earth to upload themselves to "the cloud," which at this point is a space-based fog of interconnected molecular computing machines built out of the disassembled inner planets (except Earth) and optimized to capture solar energy. This uploading, which gives the novel its title, leaves roughly a billion people on Earth: the ones who choose not to upload (or at least not yet), and who are taking their time figuring out how to handle all the post-singularity technological advances in their terrestrial, body-bound world.

Some of that technology comes from uploaded minds in the cloud, which occasionally "spams Earth's RF spectrum with cataclysmically disruptive technologies that emulsify whole industries, cultures, and spiritual systems." To manage this problem of "godvomit," the world government of the unraptured, unuploaded human beings forms "tech juries" to act as gatekeepers—in effect, to hold a trial for any given technology to decide whether the left-behind embodied humans can handle it.

Which brings us to the book's protagonist, Huw, a temperamentally and technologically conservative Welsh skeptic whose narrative begins just before his application to serve on a tech jury is accepted. The one thing Huw isn't skeptical and pessimistic about is the tech-jury project itself. He's convinced that as a juror he can do his bit to suppress the technological advances flooding his world: "A sane species would ignore these get-evolved-quick schemes, but there's always someone who'll take a bite from the forbidden fruit….Whatever the motive [for the cloud's technology seeding] humanity would be better off if the cloud would evolve into something uninterested in communicating with meat people—or at least smart enough to let well alone….But until that happy day, there's the tech jury service: defending the Earth from the scum of the post-singularity patent office."

Because Doctorow and Stross have crafted Rapture as a comic novel—and, in fact, it is relentlessly hilarious—it is quickly established that literally nothing is going to turn out the way Huw planned. He is infected early on with viral nanomachines of unknown purpose, and he soon finds himself on the run from the bloody-minded presiding judge of the tech jury on which he once served. (In the ecologically conscientious, fossil-fuel-constrained Europe and Asia of the future, "on the run" means "escaping by zeppelin.") As he journeys toward a late-21st-century South Carolina infested by mutant red ants and theocratic human beings, he is abetted in his flight by an anarchic Australian instantiated as a hologram projected by a teapot-shaped portable artificial intelligence. Huw's other companion is Bonnie, his gender-switching love interest. (It's a measure of the in-your-face aggressiveness of Doctorow and Stross's world that the gender-bending aspects of Rapture's plot are its least mind-blowing elements.)

Doctorow (a Canadian) and Stross (a Brit) have imagined a future turn-of-the-century North America dominated by adherents to a chimeric combination of religious fundamentalism and the Objectivist libertarianism of Ayn Rand. This may be a greater hurdle to a Reason reader's suspension of disbelief than uploaded transhuman personalities, but be patient—a cask-strength avatar of the Rand you know shows up near the end to berate one of the book's future American fundamentalists: "Do you call yourself an Objectivist? You aren't fit to shine Alan Greenspan's boots! And what's this I hear about a bizarre superstitious plan to bring about a universal theocracy? Your illogic disgusts me! Feh. You and I, we are going to have an open-minded discussion about the meaning of hypocrisy in the context of rational thought grounded on Aristotelian axioms. Here is a hint: You are going to lose…"

The sojourn to North America takes the reader only to the middle of the book. With no letup of the picaresque elements of the plot, the book evolves into a kind of bildungsroman in which Huw and the reader enter the larger "Cloudmind" of the solar system. (Think of a version of The Matrix in which everyone is Neo.) Zooming out still further, Huw, whose perspective about the transformative aspects of technology has begun to change, faces the prospect of encountering a truly alien galactic civilization—one that has its own jury system, the purpose of which is to decide whether emergent species should be welcomed or exterminated.

If the pace and scale of Rapture seem designed to leave you breathless, then I've managed to communicate to you the book's essential character; Rapture cuts the reader no slack. It expects you to understand terms like "computronium," "tasp," "unobtainium," "extropian," and "light cone" without explanation. Readers steeped in pop culture—especially the subset of pop culture related to science fiction—will catch allusions to Larry Niven, Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams, Doctor Who, and even (per the "scum of the universe" quote) Men in Black. (A tiny minority of these pop-culture references are clearly labeled, including a reference to "Asimov's Third Law" and—joltingly for me—"Godwin's law violations.")

This dense allusiveness raises the question of whether Rapture is accessible to ordinary readers. If you've read Doctorow's fiction before, you're familiar with the rat-tat-tat machine-gun character of his near-future speculations; if you've read Stross's science-fiction novels, you know he's been around the singularity block a few dozen times already. Working together, they've generated a novel that can be challenging even for a weathered science-fiction reader like me. I'd have a hard time recommending Rapture as anyone's introduction to the genre. That said, I think it is about as important a book as a science-fiction comedy can be, and if you have enjoyed Neal Stephenson or Vernor Vinge, you should find this book a hoot.

More than 30 years ago, the novelist and critic Lester Del Rey wrote a review that hammered a John Varley book because it was premised on a wide range of technological advances. A proper science fiction story, Del Rey argued, should be built around a single speculative premise—that faster-than-light travel is possible, say, or that computers can achieve consciousness. Del Rey was wrong, and Doctorow and Stross know why. Like Varley before them, they understand that the future doesn't happen in that one-new-idea-at-a-time way. It throws a bunch of new stuff at us all at once, and the pace at which it's throwing keeps increasing. The Rapture of the Nerds, as funny as it is, reminds us that coping with the future will require us all increasingly to become nerds ourselves. And if you're already on your way to nerd-dom, I'm guessing this potent science-fiction comedy should leave you rapturous.

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  1. if you’ve read Stross’s science-fiction novels, you know he’s been around the singularity block a few dozen times already

    Yeah, the beginning of this sounds very much like Singularity Sky. A ton like it.

    Stross is a damn good writer. Doctorow, I don’t know about.

    1. Doctorow knows how to start a book. The middle and end, not so much.

      It’s like reading a chick-lit version of Neal Stephenson’s work.

      1. I hope you’re not implying that Stephenson knows how to end a book. I wanted to punch him in the twat when I finished Cryptonomicon.

        1. He ends System of the World quite well.

        2. It’s often said that Stephenson doesn’t know how to end a book, but it always strikes me as something that you’re supposed to say. Personally, having read most of his books, I don’t get it.

          1. The Big U is a hilarious mess anyway, so let’s not count it.

            Zodiac has an ending.

            Snow Crash skitters off the page like butter in a too hot skillet. You can sort of infer what happens. A little.

            Diamond Age has an ending, but it’s the abrupt ten year leap forward in an otherwise blow-by-blow Dickensian fictional biography that throws everyone off.

            Cyrptonomicon screeches to a halt. I thought the publisher left out the last 50 pages.

            Anathem has an ending.

            ReadMe is in the backlog pile.

            1. Yeah, maybe it’s actually the middle of Diamond Age that bugs people, and not the ending.

              The ending to Cryptonomicon didn’t bother me. Maybe I need to re-read it so I can be appropriately bothered.

              REAMDE has just been returned to my backlog pile after about 100 pages. I just couldn’t care enough about what was happening to anybody to keep going.

              1. ***SPOILERS***

                After spending dozens of pages on the inefficient economics behind hiking bars of gold out of the jungle, he doesn’t discuss dealing with a river of molten gold. It melted, we won, I’m out. [drop microphone]

                1. ***SPOILERS***

                  After spending hundreds of pages describing a father and son walking through a post-apocalyptic wasteland, avoiding cannibals and searching for food, we never find out what caused the apocalypse.

                  1. Really? That’s what you’re going with? OK.

                  2. Tyrion Lanister dies at the end of Dances with Dragons.

              2. The two books I read of his are Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon.

                both in my opinion do not end.

                Is it ok to say they did not end and i am not bothered by that?

                Note: I also read “in the beginning was the command line” but that really does not have a plot that needs an ending.

            2. The ending of Diamond Age is the worst. Or maybe his editor just made him cut it from the million word novel he likes to write to a tidy 150k and he cut the last 2/3rds of the book. Otherwise its total deus ex machina.

              Anathem was somewhat better the second time through, but, like Diamond Age it felt like he set up the world, had a shitload of fun doing so, then needed a plot to sell all the work he’d done.

              And I write this as a total fanboi whose SQUEE! would be heard in Canada if I ran into him in FL.

              1. “And then dad spent ten years in a sex computer and saved the day.”

                THE END

            3. REAMDE is very different from his other stuff. It’s his take on a page-turner, straight up adventure and fun. And it’s the best damn page-turner ever. Also, it makes you wish someone would make the fictional WOW-like video game that’s a big part of the plot.

              1. mattcid, give Ready Player One a try if you haven’t already. Same sort of WOW game plot.

  2. if you have enjoyed Neal Stephenson or Vernor Vinge, you should find this book a hoot.

    Really? I strongly suspect that it would be more accurate to say

    if you have enjoyed Boingboing or Accelerando, you should find this book a hoot.

    which is to say that I won’t.

    1. Yes. I distinctly smell leftovers Acclerando and Glasshouse.

  3. Cory Doctorow is one of the main reasons I don’t spend much time on BoingBoing. His nonstop brain dead progressivism just makes the place a bit infuriating to visit. I’ve been avoiding Doctorow’s fiction writing because of it.

    1. His characters all behave like progressive archetypes – the good guys are th enew socialist man, the bad guys are Rethuglican corporate raiders.

    2. Agreed. Use to love BoingBoing but I just gave up when the two-minute hate on libertarians, in particular, became a daily occurrence. Doctorow’s non-stop self-promotion on BB didn’t help, either. Oh, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom is now available in Urdu? How wonderful for you, Cory.

    3. I was done with Boing Boing after they had a guest writer question global warming (very mildly) and Docotrow ended his guest stint early and then slagged him for two days. Never going to read another of his books again, and I am disappoint at Stross for working with him.

      1. I will still visit boingboing, occasionally, as Mark Frauenfelder(sp) is nowhere near as hard to the left as Doctorow. I feel like the guy needs a little support there. I used to dump Frauenfelder in with Doctorow, but Mark does have a more nuanced perspective, and he actually makes stuff.

        1. Frauenfelder is the dipwad who thought his kid having nut allergies was an argument against studies that proved parents wildly overestimate the prevalence of nut allergies in children.


          1. Frauenfelder edits Make, so he gets a pass for whatever dispshittery he gets up to on BoingBoing.

            Cory Doctorow can go die in a fire for his ‘make Google a regulated public utility because it’s so important’ and his relentless ‘I hate copyright’ bullshit.

          2. Nobody is perfect. Kind of a theme with me.

            1. My previous comment was in response to SF; for clarification.

              1. I don’t dislike him, but that post was one the nails in BoingBoing’s coffin for me.

          3. Wow, you would think someone that edits Make would understand how the law of large numbers applies to probability.

    4. Someone sent me a link to an article he wrote where he declares the iPad to be the end of civilization… or something.

      If he can’t grasp or accept the basic concept of computers miniaturizing and becoming appliances that the average Joe/Jane buys and does *not* tinker with because they, you know, have actual lives (unlike many geeks) then what interest do I have in his Sci-Fi?

  4. Ugh.

    Everything from the story to the cover art seems to be an attempt to ride on the coattails of Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, both of which are designed to garner acclaim from the “literary fiction” crowd, who normally sneer at “genre fiction”. Unfortunately, Yu’s book and this one are merely Sci-Fi minstrel shows. (Notice, both are “comedies”.)

    1. To be fair, Stross and Doctorow earned their chops long before Yu.

    2. We have wildly divergent opinions of Yu, apparently, to the point that I have to ask if you read it.

  5. You know who else thought of themselves as a nerd?

    1. Dammit, I was just coming on here to make that joke.

      1. Yeah. I bet Godwin thinks that never get old.

    2. Everyone here?

    3. SATAN!?

      What? Wrong reference?

    4. Evil Genius from Time Bandits?

  6. “I think it is about as important a book as a science-fiction comedy can be, and if you have enjoyed Neal Stephenson or Vernor Vinge, you should find this book a hoot.”

    Vinge keeps me turning pages to see what gee whiz thing happens next. His output is WAY to low.

    Stephenson… technically talented writer, Neal is, but the two books I tried to read left me wanting to gnaw my leg off to escape.

    1. Are you from the UK, by chance?

  7. The Singularity as Farce
    Two novelists produce a cask-strength science-fiction comedy.

    Mike Godwin

    Talk about auto-godwinning every one of his threads …

    1. You know who else enjoyed cask-strength science-fiction comedy?

      1. Mohammad?

  8. Click here to login if you just logged in two minutes ago and Reason forgot already.

    1. Does that annoy you? I get the feeling it does.

  9. The singularity is near.

  10. Sounds fun. On the more serious side, though, as I often point out:

    Those of the transhumanist cult seem unable to break away from old SF notions of “robot revolutions”, while overlooking the emergence of a new life-form that is occurring right under our noses.
    Very real evidence indicates the rather imminent implementation of the next, (non-biological) phase of the on-going evolutionary “life” process from what we at present call the Internet.
    It can already be observed as a a work-in-progress. And effectively evolving by a process of self-assembly.
    You may have noticed that we are increasingly, in a sense, “enslaved” by our PCs, mobile phones, their apps and many other trappings of the net. We are already largely dependent upon it for our commerce and industry and there is no turning back.
    We must take seriously the possibility that even the present Internet may already be comparable to a human brain in processing power. And, of course, the degree of interconnection and cross-linking of networks within networks is also growing rapidly.
    The culmination of this exponential growth corresponds to the event that transhumanists inappropriately call “The Singularity” but is more properly regarded as a phase transition of the “life” process.
    The broad evolutionary model that supports this contention is outlined very informally in “The Goldilocks Effect: What Has Serendipity Ever Done For Us?” , a free download in e-book formats from the “Unusual Perspectives” website

  11. What is this all about the science or social studies?

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