The two great lies we tell ourselves about the future are that it will be here soon and it will be a clean break. The first is a lie because, the Jonathan Coulton song notwithstanding, the future is already here and has been here for a while. Five years ago, I interviewed one of the authors of Rapture of the Nerds and listened to him explain how the concept of getting lost would soon be a thing of the past. At the time I was fascinated, and slightly stunned (a telephone interview with Charles Stross is like an enthusiastic, avuncular fact rollercoaster. You hold on and make frantic notes) as well as a little doubtful. Everyone I know was pretty good at getting lost, we’d all had years of practice.
I’m writing this in front of my phone. Which is also my clock, my mp3 player, my camera, my other Kindle, my comics collection and my weather service. Not quite two years ago I used that phone to send live audio, photos and text from a comics launch event to one of the websites I work for. Not quite a year ago I used that phone, and a particularly cute pseudo-8mm film camera app, to film sizable portions of a weekend at Disneyland. Not quite three weeks ago, I used that phone to help two friends who’d never visited the city before find a car rental place.
And I don’t get lost anymore.
The future is always here, it’s just a matter of it snapping into focus. So that’s the first lie. The second, the one about it being a clean break, goes hand in hand. Innovation is feral, it’s intellectual weather far more than intellectual tidal movement. There’s no such thing as the moment where someone types the period after THE END and we all file neatly into the next phase of human existence. It happens, all around us, all the time. The Osama Bin Laden kill team were inadvertently tweeted about it in real time but, years later, Reddit attempts to identify the second Boston Marathon bomber through crowdsourcing and utterly fails. The future’s always here and the leading edge is never clean, precise and cyberpunk-y. It’s always in ragged motion.
Which brings us to Huw, who isn’t moving at all. The Singularity, the rapture of the nerds, has hit and humanity has sublimed into a colossal, chaotic utopia of digital personalities orbiting the Earth. The Cloud is home to countless people, and countless copies of those people, all at play in the fields of their imaginations. It’s brilliant, wonderful, the most amazing thing in human history and as far as Huw’s concerned it can get stuffed. His parents both joined it, and he, through a combination of anger at them and a fairly ingrained sense of technophobia, stayed behind in Wales to make pots. Huw’s not especially happy but he isn’t unhappy and he is human, and that counts for a lot, at least as far as Huw’s concerned.
Then he gets called for Jury Duty. You see, the Cloud doesn’t really talk to everyone left behind after the rapture, largely because it’s forgotten how. But from time to time it does like to send down little gifts, piece of obscure technology that will either make everyone’s lives infinitely better or amuse the Cloud through the horror they cause. ‘Jury Service’ means you sit on the board of people who get to decide if the latest surprise from upstairs is dangerous or not. For Huw it also means a long journey across the planet, some increasingly surreal danger, and bicycle theft in ‘Jury Service’, the novella that makes up the opening third of the novel.
This section establishes not just the world but its mercurial, protean nature and the sense of maniacal invention that defines it. In short order we get the newfound horrors of air travel, a biohazard burka, a Djinni-shaped AI and a gloriously, unpleasantly cheerful backpacker called Ade. Huw is bounced from one incident to the other with almost no chance to get his feet under him and the end result feels a little bit like PG Wodehouse with his foot on the accelerator. Huw’s an Arthur Dent-esque figure, perpetually long suffering and perpetually confused but dogged with it, refusing to be broken even as his thin grip on his life weakens. It’s a smart character decision as, just as you start to worry all the novel will be is Huw being dragged past another really fun set of ideas, he gets his feet under him and starts figuring things out. Huw is completely normal, a resolutely unenhanced human and as a result he’s also slightly extraordinary. Oh and he’s Welsh, which also really helps. His inherent Welshness is vital to the payoff to this first novella too, with Huw becoming the literal mouthpiece for the Cloud, a lump of ‘godvomit’ in his stomach and a genetic whistle in his throat. It’s a wonderful moment that embodies so much of the book’s ideas; pragmatism and humanity mixing with genuine wonder, the ragged edge of the future wrapping around Huw’s throat and singing through him. As I said at the start, the future isn’t clean, the future’s already here and as Huw finds out, the future can reach out and grab you any time it wants to. He starts off as a grumpy Welsh potter and finishes as one of the most important people on Earth with a mission, (sort of superpowers) and a partner with an interestingly mercurial approach to gender.
That idea is key to all three sections of the book; change takes place at every level, all the time and the only healthy approach is to embrace it. Huw’s sexual awakening is tied to Huw’s slightly enforced transhumanism both of which are tied to him leaving the country f or Jury Duty which is in turn tied to the party where he meets his boyfriend/girlfriend Bonnie for the first time. Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc, just with a lot more screwball comedy and designer genetics.
That constant change is reflected in the tonal shifts between the three novellas too. ‘Jury Duty’ is frantic, light and fun. ‘Appeals Court’ the second novella is far darker. Huw is dispatched to North Carolina by the Cloud. However, post-ascension America is a nightmare, covered by a hyper-colony of ants that will eat anything they find and slick with petrochemical lakes. The survivors have all got religion to a massive degree and Huw, the ambassador of the Cloud is a godless heathen or a vital commodity depending on who has control of him.
Just as ‘Jury Duty’ is a cheerful sprint through the brave new world, ‘Appeals Court’ is an increasingly frantic battle to escape it. Doctorow and Stross continually unpack the worst excesses of the Christian Right and combine them with the relentless, ragged edge of innovation to create some truly chilling moments. The point where Huw is fed water laced with nano-machines that trigger his pleasure centres and make drinking it a spiritual, tranquilizing experience is one whilst the climax, that sees him used by the Cloud to talk to the ant hyper-colony is the other. It’s a horrifically alien image; the Cloud talking to its insect cousin, the closest thing it has to family on the planet, through a single, terrified Welshman.
In between, it’s clear that if ‘Jury Duty’ was a caper, ‘Appeals Court’ is an unusually nasty action movie. One extreme of the Church wants Huw dead, another wants him to complete his mission for its own political benefit and the tug of war that ensues is one of the most finely balanced, tense sequences of prose I’ve read in a while. Not everyone makes it out alive and the middle third of the book finishes with Huw staggering, for a second time, from the wreckage of a life-changing experience. The future is always now, the future is always constant and Huw is always on the edge of it, whether he wants to be or not. Huw’s a Dent-esque protagonist, perpetually reacting to things happening to him. He exists at the far extreme of the usual ‘protagonist is lens for the audience’ spectrum, so reactive at times that you want to yell at him to get his act together. It’s a difficult element of the novel that the first two novellas sprint past before it can truly register.
‘Parole Board’, the final novella, orbits around this concept. Literally and metaphorically, in fact, as Huw’s mother descends to meatspace, sort-of-kidnaps him and forcibly ascends him to speak at a planning meeting about whether or not everything left on Earth should be shunted over to a simulation whilst their biological bodies are broken down into computronium, the, currently, hypothetical programmable matter that the Cloud uses. Except, of course, that’s not everything that’s going on, because there are the aliens, and Huw’s father who’s working for them and the hundreds of thousands of other Huw’s, one of whom has a very different view of the situation then he does…
‘Parole Board’ is the most ambitious of the novellas and overt science fiction after the caper and action thriller sections that went before it. It’s also, initially, the hardest to like. The initial conceit is such a heavy nod to Douglas Adams that it distracts from the story whilst arriving in the Cloud leads Huw to several long journeys down Exposition Street as well as a needless reappearance by the shrieking Judge Guiliani, a Judge Judy/Rudy Giuliani/Davros mashup introduced in ‘Jury Duty’. Guiliani has an interesting, ambiguous role in ‘Appeals Court’, but her appearance in this third installment comes across as needless symmetry. This is a novel at its strongest when at its most ragged, and her presence smooths over what should be a jagged edge.
The ideas on display here are complex and fascinating, especially the commoditization of processing time and emotional nuance through an infinite panel of app slide bars, but the sheer pace, and density, of the exposition is brutal. One of the sub-plots, concerning a second Instance of Huw that’s been hacked by the opposing side, is particularly bad for this, grinding to a juddering halt as a friendly AI does Economy-Fu to defeat her and explains everything they’re doing in a page long monologue. The sheer amount of invention here is staggering but this is the point where you start to get worn out by the relentless pace of things. Not to mention sick of Huw’s whining. A couple of out of place jokes about organized religion don’t help matters, especially as they obfuscate the central metaphor that transcendence/ascension is a physical extrusion of the ‘religion virus’, just one with very real (or, perhaps more appropriately, very virtual) benefits and consequences.
The first half of ‘Parole Board’, laden down with these two sub-plots, is the hardest section of the novel to get through and it’s the same for Huw. His pathological refusal to learn anything puts him in real trouble and is eroded, ultimately, not just by his mother and boyfriend/girlfriend pointing out how much is depending on him but also by a near-spiritual experience watching TV programs uniquely tuned to his brain for a huge, for him, span of time. It’s only here that we see Huw’s actually on the classic hero’s journey, going out (or in this case up) to the wilderness, finding himself there and gaining knowledge from that fact. He finally learns, he finally changes and accepts that change and in doing so, he finally stops whining, rolls his sleeves up and starts making the most important pots in human history.
The closing sequence is wonderful, managing somehow to be epic, funny and genuinely sweet all at once. Huw and an alien Instance with his father’s face and memories are tasked to decide whether humanity will be destroyed by the Galactic Council or allowed to live by running an insanely detailed simulation of human culture that they will build for a set period of time. Once they’re done, their work will be assessed and the decision made or, to put it another way, Huw gets to make his peace with his dad over the largest train set in the universe. This is the moment where the entire novel could have fallen apart and instead, it’s the moment where it soars. Huw knows the thing he’s talking to isn’t his father in a real sense, but it doesn’t matter. He’s in the Cloud, where time is currency and ideas are language and the conversation he has with his father is revelatory for both of them in a quiet, gentle, uniquely Welsh way. Huw finds not only forgiveness for his parents but a new found respect for the brave new world, and a chance to do something with his life instead of having it done to him. He saves himself from his past and, in doing so, saves everyone else’s future. The last tapered end of the ragged edge of change washes over him and, instead of being swept away by it, he finds something within sight of happiness. Which, of course, leads to one last action sequence and Ayn Rand reincarnated and running around the Valleys, but this is the future, it’s already here and that edge is ragged all the way down.
Rapture of the Nerds is a spiky, frantic sprint through the minds of two of the best writers of their generation. It pulls precisely no punches, gives precisely no damns about that and makes you choose between being carried along with it or watching it pass you by. It’s hard work, but change always is and, much as it hurts, change is always worth it. The ragged edge of the future is here. Grab it.
The amazing alternate covers are from the blog post about the design process you can find here.
Rapture of the Nerds by Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross is out now, Titan Books, £7.99. This review/ interview was posted as part of the Rapture of the Nerds Mind-bending Blog Tour. For more details visit: http://titanbooks.com/blog/rapture-nerds-mind-bending-blog-tour/
The Rapture of the Nerds is peppered with references to pop-culture staples (The Matrix, Doctor Who, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy amongst others). To be in with a chance of winning a SIGNED copy of Rapture of the Nerds tweet the fictions piece of technology that you would most want let loose in the real world @doctorow @cstross @titanbooks #RaptureoftheNerds. The co-authors will vote for their favourite fifteen pieces of tech and each top tweeter will be sentenced to a free copy. The Jury is still out. Good luck.