Reading: Quicksilver and Accelerando

I’ve got two books on the go at the moment (Potter can wait): Neal Stephenson‘s Quicksilver, and Charlie StrossAccelerando. I’ve just about finished the former, and according to Plucker, I’m 46% of the way through the latter – so perhaps some of the opinions expressed below will change…

These are both science fiction works. The first is unusual for sci-fi in that it’s set (mainly) in the seventeenth century; Newton and Liebniz are key (though secondary) characters, and it seems mainly to be about religious tensions (as you’d expect from the setting), the nascent scientific movement, the nature of money and markets, and a very nascent anti-slavery movement, though I’m not sure where that’s going to go. The second is based around the futurism idea of the Singularity, a supposed point in the future where the rate of change of scientific knowledge and human ability goes nonlinear, basically.

Quicksilver is split into three parts. I drank in the first part like nectar, loving every page. It mainly follows one Daniel Waterhouse, puritan and natural philosopher, and is split between an eighteenth century nautical yarn with a few pirates thrown in, and a seventeeth century thread following Daniel’s development, dealings with Newton, the plague, the Great Fire of London, etc.

Come the second part, however, things seemed to get more turgid. This part follows two characters, Jack and Eliza, as they journey from Vienna to Amsterdam (and then, for Jack, to Paris for a while). This whole section seemed less interesting (though was brightened by occasional Liebniz-treats) and in particular this was where I first became aware of Stephenson’s “research notes dumping” technique – for example, a couple of pages describing some mine workings in Saxony – surely well researched and accurate, surely erudite and informative, but not actually at all relevant to the plot. I suspect that this happens in the first part too but I hadn’t noticed – once it had been drawn to my attention, however, I saw it again and again. Coupled with the fact that I really didn’t give a damn about this Jack character (though that diminished later), I found section two mainly dull. Also, I absoluely hated its ending – very low.

Section three has been an improvement, starting to weave the two together, and mainly taking place in Versailles and London high society. It’s been less of a “wow” than section one, but less of a “zzzz” than section two – maybe I’ve been reading it too slowly but it’s not made as big an impression on my mind as either of them… Maybe it’s just slowing down and setting the scene for book two… I’m about forty pages from the end and I think I can see what’s gonna happen. I’ll let you know if I’m horribly disappointed.

Overall, I have really enjoyed it, but my initial enthusiasm at the prospect of three books of Stephenson-goodness has been dampened into hopeful anticipation. I seem to be more of a fan of his later works than a lot of people I know; in particular, I really liked Cryptonomicon. At the time I read it, I was starting to really appreciate novels that made be decode what they were saying, rather than just laying it on a plate for my eyes to slurp up, and as such it was ideal. There’s a lot less of that opacity in Quicksilver, which I found disappointing. I wonder if, when I go back to Cryptonomicon some time, I’ll notice the research note dumping thing as well… :-/

So in summary, no Simon, don’t worry, I’m not going to tell you it’s a must read. But I’m pretty sure I’ll read the other two…

Accelerando is a rather different beast but has, so far, followed a similar pattern… I was utterly (like, seriously, dude) blown away by the first third of so, but now seem to be at a point where things have slowed down, I don’t quite follow what’s happening, and it’s all a bit dull. On the other hand, it’s clear that Something Big is about to happen, so maybe I’ve been lingering for too long in the lull before the storm. I am, after all, less than half-way through the whole book (an in particular, the Singularity doesn’t seem to have occurred yet), so I can’t really give an entire impression, but let me at least lavish extensive praise on part one.

I have no idea when (or even if) I have ever read a book that made my draw drop, made me think “yeah, that’s cool” and generally made me guffaw in public at the audacity and brilliance of the ideas/viewpoints, as this one. One nice thing about using Plucker to read it is the bookmarks. I’ve set 28 so far, almost all of them in the first section of the book. Just things which, when I read them, made me slap my forehead in wowness. Some of them may be seen below.

By the way, I should say at this point that it seems to me that the ideal way to read Accelerando is via Plucker, on a Palm, while travelling round London on the Underground, visiting museums, galleries and a really cute veggie cafe called Beatroot in Soho, with large Sennheiser headphones on, on a few hot sunny days in early July, while in London visiting the Royal Society to help display a piece of futuristic interaction technology. I think these conditions are ideal, and possibly mandatory, for setting up the right mental space for truly appreciating the book. If you can reproduce them, I highly encourage you to do so. ;-)

So what’s it about? Well, bonkers stuff happening with technology in the future at an increasingly fast pace, basically. The first part, the one I’ve loved best, follows one Manfred Macx, “venture altruist” as he skitters about the place being early post-human, with lots of computational widgetry augmenting his senses and consciousness. There’s lots of wacky stuff involving uploaded crustacea, companies written in Python, lawsuit denial-of-service attacks, and some frankly unpleasant sounding sex. The second part (mainly) takes us to Jupiter orbit and then out of the solar system, but I can’t say much here without spoiling, so I won’t. I will say that the second part has been much thinner on ideas, and much more about characters, motivation, and all that boring stuff. ;-) Plus, it had the worst sex scene I’ve read in, well, ever – just horribly embarassing and out of place considering the style of the rest of the book (IMHO).

A major theme seems to be the question of what defines a “person” (whatever we mean by that), legally – it being taken as obvious that this is the only sense that matters (“philosophically” is fine for the debating club, but we’ve got a solar system to run here, people). We have meat humans, augmented humans, uploaded humans, shared-consciousness humans, uploaded non-humans, artificial intelligences, companies which are essentially autonomous models of business practice written in arbitrary Turing-complete languages, and (coming soon!) alien lifeforms. Suddenly there’s no clear way to say “this is a person, that is not” based on, eg, whether they have a brain exhibiting certain electrical behaviour. What are the criteria? It’s all a bit like the perenniel abortion arguments about when does a foetus become a person, but with many more dimensions, many of them artificial. So that’s good.

OK, so, in summary I’ve been really enjoying Accelerando, it’s in a bit of a dip at the moment, but I’m expecting it to pick up. If the second half can regain some of the momentum (and acceleration) of the first third, I’ll be very happy. More news as it breaks, film at eleven.

Now for some choice cuts of Bookmarked Barminess and Neato Ideas to tempt you with:

The planets of the solar system have a combined mass of approximately 2E27 kilograms. Around the world, laboring women produce forty-five thousand babies a day, representing 1E23 MIPS of processing power. Also around the world, fab lines casually churn out thirty million microprocessors a day, representing 1E23 MIPS. In another ten months, most of the MIPS being added to the solar system will be machine-hosted for the first time.

Aineko is more cat than robot, these days, thanks in part to her hobbyist’s interest in feline neuroanatomy. Aineko knows that Manfred is experiencing nameless neurasthenic agonies, but really doesn’t give a shit about that as long as the power supply is clean and there are no intruders. Aineko curls up and joins Manfred in sleep, dreaming of laser-guided mice.

Manfred doesn’t believe in scarcity or zero-sum games or competition – his world is too fast and information-dense to accomodate primate hierarchy games.

(Oh man, I love that last one…)

Gianni is an ex-Marxist, reformed high church Trotskyite clade. He believes in achieving True Communism, which is a state of philosophical grace that requires certain prerequisites like, um, not pissing around with Molotov cocktails and thought police: He wants to make everybody so rich that squabbling over ownership of the means of production makes as much sense as arguing over who gets to sleep in the damp spot at the back of the cave.

Age is a process of closing off opportunities behind you.

“Got cruise speed, ” he says, taciturn, as two tonnes of metal, ceramics and diamond-phase weirdness hurtle toward the surface of Barney at three hundred kilometres per hour.

A religious college in Cairo is considering issues of nanotechnology: If replicators are used to prepare a copy of a strip of bacon, right down to the molecular level, but without it ever being part of a pig, how is it to be treated?

Cheap immortagens, out-of-control personality adjuvants, and a new formal theory of uncertainty have knocked the bottom out of the insurance and underwriting industries. Gambling on a continuation of the worst aspects of the human condition – disease, senescence, and death – looks like a good way to lose money, and a deflationary spiral lasting almost fifty hours has taken down huge swaths of the global stock market. Genius, good looks, and long life are now considered basic rights in the developed world: even the poorest backwaters are feeling extended effects from the commoditization of intelligence.

And that seems as good a place to leave it as any…