Monday, April 28, 2014

Review of Wireless by Charles Stross

I have come to think of Charles Stross as sci-fi cocaine; for sheer effervescence of imagination, there may be no writer in the field these days who can apply such a jolt.  Lines chopped and cut on a mirror, the stories collected in his 2009 Wireless­—virtually a best of covering works from first decade of the 21 st centurysend the brain reeling into genre candyland.  Freedom inherent to the title, insect overlords, time travel, Lovecraftian aliens, zombies, alternate worlds, pirate internets, f-f-f-f-f-f-f-far future, dwarf mammoths, the occult, spies, sexbots, weed smoking dogs, insane asylums, outer space spam, and much, much more are open to the mix—not always to deep purpose, but at least zing the brain stem for a moment.

Wireless is bookended by two strong novellas.  Missile Gap opens the collection and will appeal to fans of the abstract side of Stross’ Cthulu-minded imagination.  The story begins with humanity realizing that Earth, in either virtual or real form, has been ‘peeled like a grape’ and transferred/transposed onto a disc somewhere in space.  Instead of being globular in shape, the geography of Earth is now laid out like a 2D map. Due to the physics of the disc and lack of proximity, the US and USSR give up the Cold War and look to expand into the unknown territories at the either edge of known reality.  The reason behind the disc, however, is as cheesy as can be. (See here for a longer review.)  Continuing with Cthulu-shaded tensions between the USA and USSR, “The Colder War” focuses on the Iran Contra Scandal.  Likewise a fragmented story, things remain in standard Earth format, however.  Bizarre alien bodies excavated from Antarctic ice in parallel to escalating arms tension in the Middle East, Stross openly attributes the story to Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness.  (Where Stross has such a large number of stories uncollected, it was a bit surprising to see “The Colder War” in Wireless as it was already included in Toast, his first and only other collection.)

Though not directly stated, it’s obvious the horror elements of the Laundry Files series of stories, of which “Down on the Farm” is one, likewise owe something to the neurotic recluse from Providence.  A blender mix of the occult, robot nurses, sci-fi, spell-enhanced chess, and the outright supernatural, Bob Howard examines a case in a mental hospital where not all is as it seems (as if you expected anything different).  Taking the title of the collection to heart, “Unwirer” (a collaborative effort with Cory Doctorow) works with an alternate history wherein network traffic is entirely government monitored.  Combining Doctorow’s Big Brother paranoia and Stross’ ability to string words together, the two dream up a pirate network that is cyberpunk without the noir. 

Nearly impossible to describe, “Rogue Farm” is a piece about post-humans trying to cut it as bio-farmers in futuristic England.  Approached by a group-mind robot at the beginning, trouble brews when the rejected ‘bot literally sets down roots just outside the farmstead.  Building plot coherently, the story will require a re-read, settling into a nice position of eccentric ambiguity.  (See here for the nicely done animated version.)  “Snowball’s Chance” is a one-off deal with the devil in which a thickly-accented Scot gets one over on Satan—and a few pints to boot.  An even briefer one-off, “MAXOS” is a two page joke about galactic wave transmissions.  “Trunk and Disorderly”, an acknowledged experiment in style for Saturn’s Children, is the story of Ralph McDonald and his no-holds-barred tour of our post-singularity universe.  More for laughs and imagination than any meaningful storyline, Stross’ creativity is truly let off the leash (as if it wasn’t in the other stories) to take in the luxuries of the future with a wise-cracking butler at hand.

The bookend at the close of the collection is Palimpsest¸ and is the strongest piece collected.  I read, however, a review on Strange Horizons in which the reviewer called it the “most conventional”.  A highly contentious thought (if the premises of “Down on the Farm”, “Unwirer”, and “Snowball’s Chance” aren’t tried and true, than I don’t know what is), what I found more interesting is that its “conventionality” was viewed as something that made Palimpsest less worthy than the other stories.  Such thoughts lead me to believe the main draw to Stross is the gonzo-ness, the over-the-top imagination, the fist-over-fist wadding of one unpredictable idea after another onto his stories.  I say this because, Palimpsest, despite containing vast quantities of imagination, is the most relevant piece in the collection.  Working from the template of Isaac Asimov’s The End of Eternity, Stross tells his own tale of time traveling and far future humanity, in the process incorporating ideas with more tactility than the genre master’s.  Palimpsest follows the development of Pierce, agent-to-be in Stasis, guardians of humanity through time.  Vignettes on humanity’s futuristic survival confluent with Pierce’s tale, the novella is colorfully salient and focused on the viability of human destiny despite the tangents that manifest. The best story in the collection for its humanist elements, Palimpsest is a superb note to close matters and make it plain Stross is able to channel his quicksilver imagination into terms applicable to the here and now. 

In the end, Wireless is more brain candy from the corner-dealer with the hardest-hitting stuff.  The nine stories selected exhibit the wacky wildness that Stross says in the introduction is “buzzing around in my head”.  Veering away from relevancy and heading to abstract land, the Fermi paradox, secret agents, post-humanism, post-post humanism, and tech that more often strays into fantasy than sci-fi land fill the collection.  A good one-time read, there are few footholds in humanity.  Palimpsest the strongest piece, all others float in a haze of obtuse conceptualization that, if my understanding is correct, is precisely the reason many look to get a noseful of Stross. 

Published between 2000 and 2009, the following are the stories in Wireless:

Introduction by Charles Stross
“Rogue Farm”
“A Colder War”
“Unwirer” (with Cory Doctorow)
“Snowball’s Chance”
“Trunk and Disorderly”

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