BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

Now, how did THAT happen?

Well, this was an interesting way to start off the new year. As regular readers know, I have read nearly no fiction over the past couple 12-15 years (I can think of maybe 4 titles out of over 700+ books read in that span), and, generally speaking, don't even look at a book if it says “a novel” on the cover. So, I was totally blind-sided by Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross' The Rapture of the Nerds: A tale of the singularity, posthumanity, and awkward social situations, which I recently picked up at the dollar store. There was nothing in the sub-title that made me think this was fiction (although, in reflection, I suppose “awkward social situations” would be a somewhat touchy thing for a non-fiction book), and I had no idea that Doctorow was a scifi author (I was familiar with him as a blogger and tech writer, a voice of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and advocate for “open source” software and Creative Commons licensing). So, I launched into this thinking it was going to be somewhat similar to my recently-reviewed Our Grandchildren Redesigned, with a somewhat different spin (encompassing those “awkward social situations”). But, no. Not that certain aspects of related futurisms aren't thickly woven through the book, but it's a story and very much in the Douglas Adams / Terry Pratchett mold (I have no idea if this is Doctorow's regular mode, but I was frequently reminded of those authors when reading this – even when they weren't being directly referenced).

I must admit, part of me wanted to stop reading with that “ooh, ick - cooties!” reaction (fiction is, after all, something of a Jedi Mind Trick to get you infected with the author's fantasies, and I hate being manipulated like that), but I figured (as it was a pretty quick read – I'm amazed how much the pages fly by in fiction as opposed to the stuff I usually read) that since it was not an uninteresting read (I walked away with at least one “that's a fascinating concept” data point), I'd press on.

Unfortunately, as I've noted before, I have very little experience in reviewing fiction … most of the habits I've built up in non-fiction would no doubt be decried as “spoilers”, so please, if this is an issue for you (and I know from reading the boards over on LibraryThing, there are a LOT of people who get their panties in a wad over the most minimal details being revealed about a novel), just stop reading here and skip down to the end of the review.

Of course, one of those habits is sticking in little slips of paper as bookmarks to get me back to particularly interesting concepts, nice turns of phrase, or significant bits of exposition to flesh out my review. I did manage to stick three of these in here, one early on for a notable rant that I found amusing: “Jesus Buddha humping the corpse of Oliver Cromwell ...” – amusing, if not particularly enlightening in this context. As I noted above, there was at least one blatant nod to Douglas Adams here: “Hyperspace bypasses, Vogon poetry, the heat death of the universe: none of these things feature in the extraordinary situation now pertaining to the end of the world ...”, and I've probably missed numerous other shout-outs (oh, there are Dalek references and Ayn Rand as well). One thing that I'm quite familiar with is the virtual world of Second Life (where I worked in my last full-time job), and there is “Your Second Life” in the book, one quote relating to this that I found hilarious was this snippet: “Architectural hubris is cheap as air in the cloud.” (given that in the waning days of my tenure in SL, I built this Speer-like bit of “architectural hubris”, and I can only imagine what would be possible given near-infinite computing power!

Anyway, to the story outline … the main character is Huw Jones, a Welsh fellow (initially) who is stubbornly clinging on to a “reality-based” lifestyle in an age when significant chunks of the race (including his parents) have “uploaded themselves into the cloud” (something discussed in that book I linked to above) and are living in a virtual reality based on planetary matter reduced to “computronium”, which is formed into Dyson spheres. Here's a chunk of descriptive text:
      The cloud – the diffuse swarm of solar-powered nano-computers hat the singularity built from the bones of the inner solar system (Earth aside) – consists of quadrillions of chunks of raw quantum computing power, each of them powerful enough to run a shard in which thousands of human-scale minds can thrive (or a handful of superhuman ones). Entire small moons and planets were consumed back in the day …
      From the outside, from a terrestrial embodied point of view, the cloud looks like a single entity, a monolithic slab of smartmatter thinking with the the mysterious and esoteric thoughts of an uploaded syncitium of futurist minds, disembodied think-states floating in an abstract neurological void.
      But on the inside, the cloud consists of a myriad of shards separated by light-speed communications links, the homes of hordes of bickering beings who cling to their own individuality as tightly as any mud-grubbing neophobe. ...
Huw is such a “neophobe” that he lives without electricity, and spends much of his time hand-making ceramics. However, he ends up going to a party at an acquaintance's place, and everything goes to heck. He wakes up and finds he's acquired a glowing bio-hazard tattoo (an official warning device), which he has to keep hidden, as he's been called to jury duty in a court in North Africa where extreme technologies are considered – his voice nominally being needed as a neophobe.

Now, while the story unfolds in a reasonably straight line, much of the detail is quite convoluted. Despite Huw's lifestyle, even those who have not “uploaded” have a lot of options, including changing their sexes seemingly on a whim, so a character “Bonnie”, goes from female to male to female to male throughout the book, and Huw spends much of this in a female form. It appears that the whole pretense of the trial is a sham, set up to get Huw in the presence of a particular entity, which manifests as a whistle-like thing that hops down Huw's throat. This is an “ambassador” of some galactic super cloud entity, which has inexplicably chosen him (her?) as the representative of the various manifestations of humanity.

Oh, on the way to the final trial, Huw is captured by some strange Fundy cult in the American south, interfaces with a very odd counter-cult, and gets exposed to a massive ant culture … all on the way to having his/her awareness uploaded against his/her will into the cloud (which he previously described, in the case of his parents, as their “suicide” as the physical brain, etc. gets dematerialized in the process of uploading its encoded information).

Once uploaded he is set into a training phase, and has two years of “subjective time” to learn how to operate in the cloud. Huw – the central one – uses this time to re-create his home in Wales and throw pots. However, there are hundreds of thousands of other “instances”, with the version 639,219 being her main opponent in parts of the book (referred to as the number, as Huw refuses to call her “Huw”) - one who had actually spent those two years learning to be an expert in life in the cloud. Oh, and most of the jurors get a teapot with a genie inside it … Huw's genie is a major factor in helping (sort of) Huw in his/her struggles with 639,219.

Eventually, Huw is set to be tested by the Authority – the galactic entity:
“It calls itself the Authority. It claims it represents a hive-intelligence merged from about 216 intelligent species from the oldest part of the galaxy. It claims that there were once about four orders of magnitude more such species, but the rest were wiped out in vicious, galactic resource wars that only ended with the merger of the remaining combatants into a single entity. Now it patrols the galaxy to ensure that any species that attempt transcendence are fit to join it. If it finds a species wanting, pfft! It takes care of them before they get to be a problem”.
Or, in a later discussion:
It's not about integrating Earth into the cloud, or about some stupid squabble over aesthetics: if the galactic federation finds us Guilty of Being a Potential Nuisance, we don't get a second chance.
Huw's cloud-based Mother is a character who becomes significant once he's uploaded, but his Dad (or a projection of something like his Dad) ends up being the foil (judge?) with whom he has to work a “world building kit”, the results of which will tell the Authority whether or not humanity makes the cut. Huw thinks he's still finishing things up when his Dad says “The objective of the exercise was to procure a representative sample of moves, played by a proficient emissary, and we've now delivered that.”, to which Huw rather desperately responds: “You mean that was it?” … and his Dad explains:
“Son, do you know how long you were in there?” His dad raises an eyebrow. “You spent nearly a million subjective days shoving around sims, and so did the other billion instances of you that came through the door. If a trillion subjective years isn't enough for –”
Leading up to the (rather anti-climactic, given all the chaos preceding it) revelation that Huw/humanity passed the test. Some loose ends get tied up, a lot of others are left hanging, and the book just sort of ends.

OK, safe to come back in if you were waiting for the spoilers to stop.

As I mentioned, I got The Rapture of the Nerds (in the hardcover edition) at the dollar store less than a month ago, so copies might well still be bouncing around that channel. It is still in print in a paperback (and ebook) edition, and at least one web site seems to have the entire book online (thanks to Doctorow's very liberal view of copyright). Used copies of this are available via the on-line new/used vendors for as little a 1¢ (plus shipping) for a “very good” copy.

I must admit that parts of this messed with my mind in a very Philip K. Dick way, so, while I found it an enjoyable read, I also found it somewhat disturbing, but I just don't “do fiction” these days, and I'm pretty sure somebody used to hosting other people's fantasies on their brain systems wouldn't have the same reactions. As it reminded me of the works of a number of authors I quite liked in my fiction-reading past, I guess I'm pretty safe in recommending it, especially as it's quite reasonably available.

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Tags: book review
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