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.