Wednesday, 15 May 2013

The Rapture of the Nerds by Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross

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 (I can’t remember exactly where this is from, but it 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.  

The Rapture of The Nerds, by Cory Doctorow & Charlie Stross. £7.99, 12th April 2013, Titan Books.


About the Reviewer: Craig Leyenaar is completing an MA (Writing) at Warwick University and then will be prostrating himself before the publishing world in hopes of being granted access. His television was taken away at a young age for no good reason, but was soon replaced with books. He has stuck with them ever since and now after twenty years of reading them he finally feels ready to comment. His tastes include everything from China Mieville and M John Harrison to Isaac Asimov and Peter F. Hamilton to David Gemmell and Terry Pratchett to - he better stop there otherwise there won't be room for anything else. 


Charlie Stross said...

I'm pretty sure we came up with the familiars some years before "Zoo City" debuted -- the roots of this project go back to 2002.

Craig Leyenaar said...

Thanks for commenting! Sorry if that was inaccurate. As Zoo City was published several years ago, and has become a rather well known book, it is one I would consider a potential influence on any recently published work if I saw any similarities.

Charlie Stross said...

Cory and I initially wrote this as a novella ("Jury Service") which appeared on in 2003 or 2004 (I forget, and they deleted their fiction website a couple of years ago). Lou Anders, who was then editing ARGOSY magazine, asked us to write a sequel ("Appeals Court"), which he published, combined with "Jury Service", as a chapbook (bundled with ARGOSY issue #3) titled "The Rapture of the Nerds" in, IIRC, 2006. We then fast-forward to 2011, when Cory and I had time to write the second half of the novel that Tor had been asking us to do for about 5 years ...