on 16 May 2013
Well, I'm a big fan of both Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross and so really looked forward to this book, hoping it would be the best of both of them: Stross's sense of humour and Doctorow's awesome futurology - for instance.
I have in the past several times sat down and read both of these authors' books in a single sitting, being unable to put it down. Sadly with this, it was quite the opposite, I kept finding displacement activities in order NOT to read it. It took more than a week.
I like the whole concept of 'The Cloud', Charles Stross has covered it before of course, but I don't think it was done enough justice here. You don't get the feeling that it's huge, or a revolution in any way. The story told is all quite parochial, and involves only a few quite random characters, many of whom don't really add to the story.
My biggest problem is actually the randomness, it seems like the story changed direction on a whim, with no real progression. At times it felt like the plot was just pinballing around. Lots of interesting philosophical points were raised, but then dropped almost immediately without being exploited.
I won't give it away, but the ending was a complete anti-climax, lots of loose ends and no real build up and release of tension.
I couldn't help comparing it to a book I read a long time ago: "Job" by Robert Heinlein. In that the protagonist also suffered a series of trials as he was whisked along at the whim of others into new and challenging environments.
It didn't stand up well against that 30 year old barely sci-fi book by a borderline nazi, and that makes me sad in so many ways.
Huw is a technophobe, for reasons that become understandable part way though this book. However, he lives post-Singularity. Machine intelligence has fed on itself, starting a chain reaction which has boosted our creations into supergeniuses. Many humans have chosen to have themselves "uploaded" into the virtual world inhabited by the AIs, replacing flesh and blood with simulated instances of themselves. Immortality is promised. So Huw's is a hard position to sustain, but he manages, removing the wiring from his house and making pots for a living - until the day he is summoned for jury service, to help rule on whether a stray piece of technology downloaded from the godlike "cloud" can be permitted on Earth.
This is, of course, only the start of a series of fast moving and deeply convoluted adventures for Huw, featuring religious fanatics, a holographic djinn, Bonnie, his gender-shifting love interest - and that's only the start. It's rather as if Douglas Adams had torn up the first draft of Hitchhiker because it wasn't nearly weird enough. There are lots of allusions to coding, there's lots of metaphorical stuff about the cloud's hive-mind and ant-colonies, and comparisons between the great "uploading" and the so called "rapture" predicted by some sects. It's the sort of book that feels at times like it's trying to twist out of your hands. I wish that, like the AIs described herein, I could slow time (or rather, think faster) when necessary to allow me to absorb events. Indeed, the sheer density of ideas and events may be this book's main (only) flaw - especially in the third quarter, there at times the story completely lost me: most of it made sense in the end, but not all.
I think that Stross and Doctorrow do just about manage to tame their dragon of a narrative and bring it to a graceful landing, with Earth saved (of course Earth was at risk - where would the fun be otherwise?) through humanity not force: but they come within a whisker of burning down the town first - as it were.
on 14 January 2013
I thought that Charlie Stross was like Christopher Lee: incapable of error. Oh how wrong I was.
Revisiting what used to be an old theme of his - The Singularity - and in collaboration with Cory Doctorow, who is one of the great up and coming writers (supposedly - I've not read any of his solo stuff), this should have been not just entertaining but a good read too. Unfortunately it ain't. While it's chock-full of ideas, they're not used well, being just splattered onto the page with apparently little concern for the results, amongst cartoon-like one-dimensional supporting characters and leading to slapstick results. I came very close to not finishing the book.
On the plus side, much of the writing is tight, clear and inventive, as you would expect from two established professionals, but that can't lift a badly plotted story. Not recommended, not even as a legal free download.
on 21 September 2016
This is really poor stuff from two authors who have proven repeatedly to be able to write cracking books. Stross' fantastic Laundry Files series is going from strength to strength, so I can only urge you to go read that instead.
If your inner Imp of the Perverse persuades you to ignore this review, then brace yourself for an overly-indulgent barrel of tripe, stuffed full of nerdy/geeky pop-culture references and a plot (generous use of the term here) that bounces all over the place. I was left gnashing my teeth in frustration, as the story suffers from a distinct lack of world-building, any problem is resolved by vague hand-waving (or amazing unmentioned factors appearing) and the characters completely fail to engage.
If I have to summarise, it just seems too packed full of ideas, many of which are interesting but none of which are fleshed out fully. With a brisk and merciless edit, this could have made a good short story or novella. Perhaps the authors can salvage some of the better ideas from this car-crash of a book, and re-use them to better effect elsewhere. (Just as I am re-purposing my copy as fire-lighting material, which the book's main character in his Luddite incarnation would no doubt approve).
It's incredibly frustrating for the reader - you can recognise a bit of Stross here, a bit of Doctorow there, but the sum of the parts comes across like tiresome fan fiction written by someone with only a fraction of these authors' skill. Who is drunk. And who comes across as a bit too smug for their own good.
I hope the authors had a good time writing the book, because I certainly didn't reading the damnable thing. Burn before reading.
on 5 July 2016
The Rapture of the Nerds owes a lot to the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: a misanthropic everyman protagonist, an episodic structure with an anarchic disregard for plot, and unfortunately an overdone finale.
Compiled from two short novellas and a lengthy chunk of new material, it's the opening sections that are the most fun. Huw is a technophobic Welshman who spends his days spinning pots while much of humanity has ascended to an interplanetary collective consciousness. The new posthuman race can't leave well enough alone and insists on bombarding its lessers with incomprehensible revelations that could turn out to be anything from cosmic practical jokes to physics breakthroughs, and perhaps both at the same time. Huw cons his way onto one of the juries responsible for evaluating a new innovation, stumbles into a multifactional anarcho-conspiracist fiasco that defies description, and tries to find his way back to an ordinary, sane, human life.
In true Adams-esque fashion, it's really just an excuse to ping-pong between colourful settings and characters that make a coy commentary on our relationship with science and technology. Whereas Hitchhiker's dealt in science fiction cliches and high-brow metaphysics, Rapture is focused on present-day internet culture, body modification, science fetishism and our timeless need for self-improvement. Wild new ideas are introduced casually and without un-needed explanation; the Huws of this world will grok the meaning from context, while others will reach for their tablets and look up hot new concepts in human evolution.
It's at once thought provoking and deeply amusing, and brings its ideas to life through the bureaucratic structures and modestly unhinged characters who alternately pursue, ensnare and rescue Huw. There's little regard for conventional ideas about plot and character development in this part of the book, with one particularly farcical section seeing the hapless misanthrope frogmarched into and gallantly extracted from the same impending doom three times.
Unfortunately the new material, comprising about half the book, just isn't fun. Characters lose their personalities and distinctive voices altogether, and events begin to revolve almost exclusively around the mechanics of the new posthuman scenario, throwing up double-crosses and betrayals-but-not which frequently need pages of tedious exposition to untangle. There are some cute ideas here, and some honest efforts towards character development, but they don't come together into either a meaningful whole or (more appropriately) a series of engaging vignettes. It's a downhill slide towards a conclusion that is heinously predictable and rote.
I can't be too down on the book given that the opening two novellas are so enjoyable, and they're sufficiently self-contained that I can just ignore (or cut off...) the back half. Don't say I didn't warn you though.
on 15 April 2013
The Rapture of the Nerds is a tale of the singularity, posthumanity, and awkward social situations. So obviously there was going to be a lot going on between the covers of this book. I'm not convinced I got every joke or all the science, but I really enjoyed hurtling along with Huw as he fell into one disastrous situation after another.
At the end of the 21st century Huw is one of the relatively few humans still living on Earth. He's a self-confessed, and proud, technophobe, happiest throwing pots the old-fashioned way in his 19th century terraced house. He's gone so far as to eschew electricity, although his push bike has a few more features than perhaps strictly necessary. His parents have long uploaded themselves to the cloud, along with most everyone else. Huw's determined to stay where he is, avoiding unnecessary technology as much as possible. He's thrilled to have been selected for tech jury service; not only can he fend off some useless innovation but he also gets to travel to Libya, and he's pretty excited about that.
Unfortunately for Huw, some joker has scrawled a biohazard symbol on his forehead at Sandra's party the night before. At least he hopes it was just a joke, although the itching and shifting symbol leave him a bit perturbed. Anyway, he has to start his trip in full-on biohazard gear, which leaves him none too thrilled. The journey is not exactly plush, the hotel is even worse, and he meets some seriously annoying people. Still, it'll all be worth it once jury service starts - right? It's not long before Huw's paranoia starts to twitch, and the thing about paranoia is that it doesn't mean they are not out to get you. Before long Huw is in deep deep trouble with just about everyone - he's being chased by various 'authorities', 'helped' by an assorted group of people with their own agendas, subject to physical depredations and seriously confused. Oh, and something is after his body. And something else would like his mind.
Huw is thrown from one dire situation to another, frequently captured, desperate, and rarely in charge of his own destiny for more than a moment. Everyone around wants something from him, the best he can do is figure out who is the least likely to kill him at any given time. He spends quite a lot of the book as a passive figure - stuff is done to him - but later on he gets to make some choices for himself. Not that they always work out all that well, but at least he had a go. It seems that he is far more important than he ever thought, the fate of the earth is on him, whether he likes it or not. Mostly he does not.
The book contains lots of ideas, about the future of the planet and humans, technology, alternative consciousness, and loads more. It deals with all these big ideas in a light-hearted, almost farcical way. Anything that can go wrong, does. This could be irritating, but actually I thought it worked. The story just keeps ploughing along at a fair old lick, dragging the reader along with it. I found it very entertaining, and felt an awful lot of sympathy for Huw and his predicament. He is given a proper character, we get to know him pretty well. Most of the other people are either more transient or simply unknowable in their shifting allegiances and priorities. But, even amid all the chaos there is still space for some very human relationships. Huw finds a little romance, and finally deals with his relationship with his parents. All whilst trying to save his home. Can't be bad!
on 9 August 2013
I'd been hearing good things about Stross for a few years but had never got around to reading anything by him, and I'd heard good things about Doctorow's Little Brother, so when this book presented itself I thought I could kill two birds with one stone, so to speak. Sadly, this was a mistake.
It took me a long, long time to finish this, mainly because the story just did not get moving until two thirds of the way through. Many, many times I picked this up but could only read a couple of pages before feeling sleepy or wanting to throw the book in the corner of the room.
I got the feeling the two writers had a whale of time concocting this pigpen of a book. They probably LOLed themselves silly emailing chapters back and forth, trying to impress each other, trying to make each other laugh, trying to see how extreme they could be.
The story, such as it is, once you strip away the pointless cyber-tech journalese, the clumsy references and criticism of modern society, and the arch drollness - oh, and if you can skip the first two thirds of the book which are quite ridiculous - is rather basic.
A hundred years from now the majority of the human population has transferred itself into the cloud (yes, just like the cloud storage people use now) which, for power, actually needs to consume planets. Huw is one of a small number of people left on earth. His parents long since left him for the cloud. He is chosen to represent the earth, to argue the case for the human population, when aliens come along looking to wipe us out because they think, given time, we'll cause trouble.
The plot, though, however interesting it might be - and, personally, I thought the plot was something that had been covered a few times in other, better books - is completely secondary to the style of the novel.
I dare say some reader will absolutely love this. They'll lap it up, savouring every reference, every neologism, every bizarre twist and turn. Frankly, sadly, it really just left me cold.
on 5 January 2014
I have read and enjoyed a few Stross books before, but never any by Doctorow, so was looking forward to this one.
Huw is infected with a technovirus, and his hope to be part of a tech jury defending against the singularity patent office is cut short. He is dragged over to America, which has a really odd version of the church there, and returns to the jury knowing he is the last hope for the universe.
It is packed full of ideas, from parallel memories, uploaded humans, gender changes and a mix of sophisticated tech and steampunk tech. All good stuff, or so you would think, but the characters and the plot really didn't work for me. Some of the time I wasn't completely sure what was going on, and I didn't really get the whole point of it in the end.
on 25 June 2015
A well written book with interesting concepts too. A bit of a sideways look at all the singularity / rapture novels out there - very much what I expected from these authors, and I was not disappointed.
on 8 May 2013
The singularity has arrived and it's...strangely familiar. In this post-singularity world, Huw Jones wakes up after a rough night at a friend's house and stumbles downstairs for an awkward encounter with the woman he met the previous night, Bonnie. All relatively normal. With a twist. The house can alter its structure to match the whims of the owner and Bonnie the woman is now Bonnie the man. A self-declared technophobe, Huw finds this all a little much, and makes his excuses. All is not lost as he finds a jury duty notice - he has been selected to join one of the juries that make decisions on new technology sent from off-world. The solar system is slowly being eaten by the Cloud, a vast array of tiny machines amalgamated into a vast computer (of sorts) that is the new home for humanity. And they still like sending spam emails. A pair of kids with brains modified to Einstein levels of brilliance have built something and it's up to Huw and his fellow jurors to decide whether or not it's legal, in a courtroom familiar to anyone who has seen any pseudo-courtroom reality television series. Then things get really strange as Huw finds he has been infected with a techno-virus - an ambassador from the cloud, which he is chosen to host due to him being accustomed to pronouncing the rather difficult glottals of his native Welsh tongue - and is forced to go on the run.
The world Huw moves through is a hyper-extended version of our own; the singularity may have brought technological advancement bordering on the magical, but people are still people. Doctorow and Stross take current trends and extend them and then extend them a little more to hyperbolic extremes in a satirical examination of our current world. Pop-up ads now appear projected into your vision and the search for efficient ad-buster software is still as difficult as ever. Facebook is still around, but only in America where access sees Huw inundated with several million friend requests within the space of seconds. After a journey on the required airship (because those are still cool, right?) Huw lands in America which has become a shoot-first, ask-questions-later, ultra-fundamentalist country full of xenophobic rednecks who secretly harbour an obsession with sexual deviance. Oh yes, and you need a tank and an armoured suit to walk outside as a hyper-colony of ants has taken over the landmass of the USA. There is a little bit of cultural smugness in the portrayal of the various nations' futures as only the UK has remained essentially the same, while the Middle East and America appear more as recidivist caricatures of themselves.
Rapture of the Nerds is incredibly fast-paced; in fact, I've never read anything that races along quite at this speed. Every paragraph contains a new idea, or a weird twist on something familiar. There is a slight sense of `ticking the boxes' of geek-cool as they lift ideas from various sources such as familiars from Lauren Beukes' Zoo City, uplifted gibbons a la David Brin and talking crows (can't remember exactly where this is from, but felt familiar). The book is full of nods and references to SF/F staples such as The Matrix, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Doctor Who, World of Warcraft, etc. In this it is reminiscent of Ernest Cline's Ready Player One, in that half the fun is searching for all these little mentions. This is a book for a specific audience and plays to that strength as many things are skimmed over that could have been developed and explained in great depth.
This may be a structural commentary on the way we use technology especially the internet, in that we consume information very shallowly as we race around from page to page. This idea that we are misusing, or at the very least under-using, the power of the internet may be one of the major themes in this book. One of the sections I found rather telling was near the end (no spoilers): "[...] the unlimited, unconstrained world of imagination, and we build a world of animated gifs, stupid sight gags, lame van-art avatars, stupid "playful environments, and brain-dead flame wars augmented by animated emoticons that allowed participants to express their hackneyed ad-hominems, concern-trollery, and Godwin's law violations through the media of cartoon animals and oversized animated genitals. [...] Give humanity a truly unlimited field, and it would fill it with Happy Meal toys and holographic sport-star, collectible trading card game art."
Due to the skimming nature of the story, the characters aren't fully developed, they are fully secondary to the plot and the ideas the authors wish to explore. To be honest, too much character development isn't strictly necessary; Huw is the generic `everyman' or I should say `everyperson', who experiences his new world for us, so we don't need a long history or motivations for every single thing. However, it is his relationship with Bonnie (who becomes one of the other main characters) that feels a little flat because of this. The fluid nature of her gender could have made for some very interesting interactions between her and Huw as he is still attracted to her despite her briefly being a man. However, throughout the novel this is never explored as whenever they interact it is always as man and woman. And due to various noticeable shifts, this feels like a conscious decision by the authors to back away from this particular issue.
Despite a rather muddled ending, this is a book that sticks with you after you finish. I found myself mulling over many of the ideas and images thrown around so haphazardly for some time afterward as it takes some time to process them all. It is a fun ride and you will often feel like you are just a spectator as these two authors take you on a wild journey through their version of the fractured future. I would recommend it to those who like their speculative fiction to be both familiar and not so serious.