I’ve noticed that there’s some Net buzz building around Charles Stross, author of this 2003 sci-fi novel, which is pretty good, but I bet he can do better. [Update: Devin Dawson provides a link to Stross’ blog, and Kellan Elliott-McCrea to A Colder War, a nifty online novelette].

Flavor · Far-flung interstellar human civilization, FTL travel reasonably practical, instant communication-at-a-distance possible but very expensive, time-travel possible but forbidden by God-like offstage entity; outlying planet in a minor, technology-averse Russian-flavored fascist empire gets a visit from surprising outworlders; story mostly from the POV of two secret agents from Earth, one from each gender.

What’s Good · The people are interesting. The extrapolation/projections of technology and history are thought-provoking and not at all implausible. The opening sentence goes The day war was declared, a rain of telephones fell clattering to the cobblestones from the skies about Novy Petrograd.

The atmospherics are really very good; maybe not quite at the Gibson level, but we have convincing interstellar escape vehicles, battle-cruiser command decks, revolutionary headquarters, jail cells, and fleet actions.

The vignette of the Grand-duke-turned-child on the run, with his animated-stuffed-animal retainers and “Mime” enemies, is really first-class.

The history of the future includes the IETF taking over the UN, and this (apparently) being considered a good thing.

What’s Bad · The romance element is entirely inevitable and predictable, hey, here’s this male intelligence agent and this female intelligence agent, they work for different agencies, they are Thrown Together By Circumstance, whatever.

The language suffers from being way too Y2K; just one among many examples is “What part of XXX don’t you understand?”; For any value of XXX this is going to be puzzling by, say, 2010.

But the worst thing is the plot; a sloppy, incoherent, sprawling mess; it lacks consistency, plausibility, and flow. This could have been fixed in two ways: first, throwing away a hundred pages or two (starting with the endless setup and execution of the Imperial Fleet Action, which could have been replaced with a paragraph saying, more or less “They were never heard from again”). Alternatively, turning this book into a thousand-page monster with space to delve into making the fleet action a little less one-sided, and the genuinely interesting activities of the Critics and the Mimes.

The Lensman Factor · I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that Mr. Stross, like me, enjoyed E.E. Smith’s seminal “Lensman” series of space operas (see here and here). I mean, what’s not to like about vast armadas of incredibly advanced steel and silicon blasting each other out of space via action-at-a-distance? Many living sci-fi authors have had a hand at this kind of space opera; the most successful, to my mind, being the first fifty pages of Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s The Mote in God’s Eye, and Joe Haldeman in The Forever War.

But I must say that the Imperial Fleet Action that I kvetched about above is awfully fucking well-done and I enjoyed every page; it’s just that it’s totally irrelevant to the interesting parts of Singularity Sky.

Pretty Good, Really · I will now track down and read the rest of Mr. Stross’ œuvre, and I would kind of hope to encounter a frank piece of homage to E.E. Smith therein, and if not, well, he should write one.


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January 29, 2005
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