Anyone familiar with the science-fiction novels of Charles Stross (SINGULARITY SKY, ACCELERANDO and others) or the Internet-based journalism (and sometime fiction, like LITTLE BROTHER) of Cory Doctorow know that they are two innovative and intensely creative writers. So the thought of these two combing forces for a science fiction novel is, to say the least, alluring.
THE RAPTURE OF THE NERDS, the result of this combination, is brimming over with thought-provoking and often hilariously satiric futuristic concepts. It is also, however, an often frustrating and infuriating reading experience.
Set in the near-end of the 21st century, Welshman Huw Jones is one of the billion or so humans still living on planet Earth. The others have discarded their bodies (or “meatbags,” one of several such references sprinkled throughout the story) and have uploaded their consciousness to the cloud hovering just above the planet in sort of an inner solar system. To amuse themselves, residents of the cloud often send disruptive technology to Earth. So a Technical Jury is often convened to determine if the newfound technology is a boon to the evolution of humanity, or something to avoid at all costs.
One morning, Huw receives a summons to serve on the Tech Jury and reluctantly sets off for New Libya to fulfill his civic duty. Not long after the court session begins, the small device being examined forces its way into Huw’s body, instantly transforming him into a receptor (or “ambassador”) of transmissions from the ultraintelligent cloud residents. Fearing for Huw’s safety, a few of his friends abduct him and whisk him away to a remote and ultraevangelical area in southern America.
But just as Huw’s identity and location is revealed, his gender is transformed and then he is forcibly uploaded into the cloud. There he learns that a group of cloud residents are plotting to destroy the Earth after first uploading whatever minds and consciousnesses they find useful. Suddenly, Huw is called upon to argue for the defense of his home planet.
The best of such collaborative fiction manages to meld the styles of the two authors. Here, unfortunately, the two men’s styles and techniques stand in stark contrast. The first half — with its obsession on the aftermath of the theorized singularity, its cynical view of humanity’s future, and its post-cyberpunk gonzo style — is clearly the work of Stross. Then it feels like the narrative is handed over completely to Doctorow in the second half, where the story becomes a sort of back-and-forth, philosophically based video game of debate and strategy.
Along the way, countless amounts of ideas and events are casually inferred and tossed out like handfuls of confetti, where they sparkle for a few brief seconds before falling to the ground.
It’s fun for a while, but soon, Huw becomes less a character and more like a helpless shuttlecock whacked back and forth over the net of Earth and the elevated cloud. Without a well-defined lead player to determine the events, as well as direct our sympathies, it all quickly becomes a mess of background noise competing for our attention. Perhaps most disappointing is that, with the possible exception of the notion of the off-planet cloud and its god-like citizens — a sort of false rapture, as viewed by the evangelical Southerners — the novel rehashes concepts in previous works of both authors and breaks no new ground.
For the moment, curious readers would do much better sticking to the individual works of both of these writers. Let’s hope that if Stross and Doctorow decide to give it another go together, they’ve reached the point where they write with each other, and no longer at each other. —Alan Cranis