I’ve been on a bit of a Charles Stross binge, reading Wireless, a collection of short stories, and Glasshouse, a novel. 

Stross is… I hope this isn’t insulting to both parties… a sort of  ’00s Larry Niven, someone who values both scientific accuracy and a really big picture.  Wireless showcases “Palimpsest”, which has about the longest timespan in s.f– a trillion years– and simultaneously a narrow space-span; it barely leaves Earth, though Earth itself is moved around quite a bit.  Stross is dubious about interstellar colonization.  Among other things, the story considers how you could extend the planet’s life a couple of orders of magnitude beyond its normal span.  Hint: you’ll need a time machine.

The collection is highly readable, but variable; I liked “Palimpsest” because I’m a sucker for time travel stories.  “Missile Gap” sets up a fascinating situation then kind of throws it away.  There’s a couple stories where Stross strolls around the playgrounds of other writers, such as H.P. Lovecraft and P.G. Wodehouse; these are imaginatively done but such things are, I kind of think, too much of a performance.

Glasshouse starts in one of Stross’s gaudy far-future worlds, with a large chunk of the galaxy linked by wormholes, and nanoduplicating ‘assemblers’ that can not only create just about any object you need, but can rebuild bodies and even edit minds while doing so.

Then it settles for a long stretch into an isolated space habitat where a bunch of mad experimenters are re-creating the Dark Ages, meaning our own era.  This allows some slightly heavy-handed satire: the all-competent commando who’s our protagonist finds himself operating not only with 1950s technology, but in the body of a 1950s housewife. 

The structure of the book fascinates me, because it totally violates David Mamet’s rules for drama.  About a third of the book is rather quiet and slow-paced, as the heroine (as she is at this point) explores the physical and social world she finds herself in and makes contingency plans involving goods available at the local hardware store.  Things get more dire, but there’s no reverses until quite near the end.   Then the Mametian pattern (try something; it fails; barely avoid disaster; repeat) takes over.  The denouement is about two pages long… Stross evidently feels that everything past the climax is pretty much a waste of time.

Not that I’m complaining… I read most of the book in one sitting, so whatever he was doing worked.

I read so little s.f. or even fiction these days that some of the conventions and preoccupations look a little clanky.  I can see why Nick Hornby just couldn’t deal with a Culture novel: the wash of neologisms just swamped him.  In s.f. you are constantly learning about how technologies work, what their social implications are, how people function in the world, and like as not your host is an omnicompetent who’s something of a combination of Einstein and Eisenhower.  It’s not that Stross ignores the human element… much of that slow third of the book, for instance, is about how the heroine feels being shoved back into an antiquarian society defined by rigid social norms.   But the character could as easily have been written by Niven or Heinlein or Anderson or  Asimov, or could save the world in Mass Effect or Half-Life.  (One of the few writers who can do both great s.f. and great characters is Alfred Bester.)

For awhile s.f. seemed to concentrate on the very near future, cyberpunk; Stross restores a sense of grand scale; he wants to go far beyond the Federation Era and think about what humanity will be a billion years from now.  He’s also a socialist, so he doesn’t simply project 20C America into that period… though a certain utilitarian callousness seems to remain, perhaps by now firmly glued to the genre.  The villains always know what to do and the heroes don’t hesitate for long.  Maybe s.f. protagonists should be allowed to just bumble through more often.