I just read Charles Stross's latest tour de force, "Halo," in the June Asimov's. Stross continues to amaze and impress me.

Back when we started SH, I put together a list of my favorite short-fiction sf authors, to give some idea of the kind of thing I was looking for. I was a little distressed to note that almost all of them were people I'd been reading for at least ten years; I went through a moment of concern that I just didn't like the work of newer writers, before realizing that in fact I was simply way out of touch with the field. So I've been delighted over the past couple years to encounter various superb new-to-me voices; several of my current favorite authors are people I'd never heard of two years ago. And Charles Stross is definitely on that list.

Stross's recent stories, published in Asimov's over the past couple years, have focused on an Extropian-style near-future near-utopia. The protagonist of some of those stories, Manfred Macx, makes a living by having brilliant ideas (for technologies and business models and various other things) and giving them away to other people to implement; in return for his generosity and in an attempt to foster further good ideas from him, other people give him vast quantities of free goods and services. It's all very open-source and post-capitalist. One of those stories, "Lobsters," is on this year's Hugo ballot and can be read for free online at the Asimov's site by following that link. Sample paragraph:

In IP geek circles, Manfred is legendary; he's the guy who patented the business practice of moving your e-business somewhere with a slack intellectual property regime in order to evade licensing encumbrances. He's the guy who patented using genetic algorithms to patent everything they can permutate from an initial description of a problem domain—not just a better mousetrap, but the set of all possible better mousetraps. Roughly a third of his inventions are legal, a third are illegal, and the remainder are legal but will become illegal as soon as the legislatosaurus wakes up, smells the coffee, and panics. There are patent attorneys in Reno who swear that Manfred Macx is a pseudo, a net alias fronting for a bunch of crazed anonymous hackers armed with the Genetic Algorithm That Ate Calcutta: a kind of Serdar Argic of intellectual property, or maybe another Bourbaki maths borg.

These stories have a higher fascinating-ideas-per-paragraph ratio than anything I've seen in sf short of perhaps Greg Egan, and they're funny to boot. I don't necessarily believe this wildly optimistic view of the future (though I should note that a non-geek would probably find it wildly pessimistic), but I find it fascinating and entertaining. And what I realized halfway through this latest story is that Stross is showing us, over the course of a series of stories, what a Vingean Singularity looks like from the inside. Which, given that part of the point of the Singularity is that it transforms humanity and life as we know it beyond the comprehension of us on the near side of the Singularity, is a pretty neat trick.

If that paragraph and the one I quoted from the story don't make any sense to you, you've run into what I consider the biggest problem with Stross's work: it's not what you'd call accessible to people who aren't part of the core audience for it. People who read slashdot regularly will probably love his stories; people who aren't intimately familiar with the current state of online geek culture will probably find them impenetrable. Sometimes this inaccessibility takes the form of in-jokes; the "Serdar Argic" line above is a reference to a ridiculously prolific Usenet poster (possibly a bot) from the early '90s; anyone who wasn't reading Usenet in '93-'94 or so may have no idea what that's about. In other cases, it's offhand terminology—terms like "borg," "firewall," "neurotransmitter," and "post-industrialist" are slung about with abandon. Example dialogue from "Lobsters" (Manfred is talking with a KGB AI that's just called him on a disposable telephone):

"You taught yourself [English] just so you could talk to me?"

"Da, was easy: spawn billion-node neural network and download Tellytubbies and Sesame Street at maximum speed. Pardon excuse entropy overlay of bad grammar: am afraid of digital fingerprints steganographically masked into my-our tutorials."

I don't quite know what to say about the accessibility issue. These stories are not likely to bring a wider range of people into sf; they're almost designed to be impenetrable to people not familiar with the very latest of sf genre conventions. On the other hand, for people who do have the right background, the stories are a hell of a lot of fun.

Anyway, I just ordered a copy of Stross's first short story collection, Toast: And Other Rusted Futures, from Wildside Press. Looking forward to reading it.

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