Friday, May 2, 2014

Review of Toast by Charles Stross

For as prolific as Charles Stross has been since the turn of the millennium (literally almost two novels per year and roughly fifty pieces of short fiction in the fourteen years since), there are only two collections in his oeuvre: Toast (2002) and Wireless (2009).  Collecting ten short stories and novelettes published between 1990 and 2000, Toast captures the best of his pre-millennium short fiction.  Though possessing inchoate style (due to dependence on forebears), the flow of ideas is everything Stross would erupt to become.

Singularity in play since the beginning of his career, Stross openly discusses the topic in the collection’s introduction.  However, there is no selection (speaking specifically about the initial publication of Toast and not that which added “Lobsters”) which captures the acceleration of intelligence and technology like Stross’ later works, e.g. Accelerando, Saturn’s Children, Palimpsest, etc.  That being said, almost all of the stories do, in some way, utilize, survey, or hint at the rudiments of singularity.  “Antibodies”, for example, while rooted in dark math, features settings and action sequences that employ devices and motifs readers commonly associate with the movement, up to and including parallel realities.

Dealing specifically with the past, present, and near-future seeds of singularity, there are a handful of stories in Toast which, rather than develop a plot, provide an overview of technological development.  “TOAST: A Con Report” is a literal walk through of a futuristic convention that, in a round about way, describes the evolution of near-future tech.  “Dechlorinating the Moderator” likewise takes a look at a near-future convention and finds Stross theorizing about theories—a dream convention emerging in the glow of pseudo-scholarship.  And lastly “Extracts from the Club Diary” which, through the eyes of a Victorian British coffee club secretary, offers vignettes into how technology developed in the 20th century.  A humorous piece for the manner in which Stross keeps the science coffee-focused, the last vignette, however, drives home the economic and social effects of science.

Stross openly a fan of H.P Lovecraft, there are a couple of stories which beg, borrow, or steal elements of the paranoid recluse’s ideas.  “The Colder War” takes a look at At the Mountains of Madness fifty years later, overlaying an Iran Contra Affair motif. Well-structured and fragmented effectively, Stross shows improving writer-ly chops.  Conversely, “A Boy and His God” is a much weaker piece (perhaps why it was replaced with “Lobsters” in the later edition of Toast?).  An intentionally far-fetched, running-away with a Cthulu alien pet, the story doesn’t amount to much but a little bit of fun.

Toast also contains a few stories which play with ideas more conventional—a contrast made more obvious by the qualities of imagination Stross invests in later work.  “Ship of Fools” is a story about a man who boards a cruise ship to escape the Y2K threat and ends up in the same room as his ex-wife.  Cyberpunk even by Stross’ standards, “Yellow Snow” is the story of a man with (literally) his own personal drug factory.  Thinking to get rich by putting it to use with other available technologies, not everything goes as hoped.  With hints of Philip K. Dick and Alfred Bester, “Bear Trap” is the story of a man caught up in a technological web wherein the difference between psi powers and super-advanced technology is small.  Overwritten, this is not one of the best stories in the collection.  Perhaps the most conventional of them all, “Big Brother Iron” is an open take on Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four in which the autocrat is a bunker-housed computer.  Told through the eyes of a high level government operative, the story never decides whether it wants to parody or expand Orwell’s narrative, and ends up on the fence.

In the end, Toast is a collection of stories that bridge post-cyberpunk to the Accelerated Age.  Many of the stories possessing familiar elements parlayed in conventional motifs, there remain, however, strong hints of the writer Stross would become—i.e. now writing in the vanguard of the movement.  A fizzling imagination spits and sputters throughout the stories, flashes of brilliance appearing intermittently—reality evolving, paranoia fueled, tech drenched imagination that openly admits science is advancing so fast as to obsolete the stories.  Toast may not be Stross’ best work, but, being the first full-length work he published, gives every indication of what he would become.

The following are the contents of the original printing of Toast. (Please note that later editions replaced “A Boy and His God” with “Lobsters” and added an Afterword):

Introduction: “After the Future Imploded” by Charles Stross
“Antibodies “
“Bear Trap”
“Extracts from the Club Diary”
“A Colder War”
“TOAST: A Con Report”
“A Boy and His God”
“Ship of Fools”
“Dechlorinating the Moderator”
“Yellow Snow”
“Big Brother Iron”

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