Wireless by Charles Stross
Reviewed by Nader Elhefnawy
04 September 2009
Charles Stross's new short story collection Wireless, subtitled The Essential Collection, opens with a brief introduction of a sort that seems to have become almost customary for collections of short fiction by prominent authors: an explanation of the commercial disincentives to writing short fiction (as in Bruce Holland Rogers's introduction to David D. Levine's Space Magic last year), as well as the less tangible but very real reasons why they go on writing short fiction anyway. Well worth a look from those interested in the issue, it offers a bit of genre history as well as autobiography regarding that medium's interest, pleasures, and satisfactions, though the main draw here is, of course, the nine stories Wireless gathers together between its covers.
The first is the Locus Award-winning novella "Missile Gap" (freely available here at Subterranean Press Magazine), in which an unknown alien intelligence "peels off" the Earth's surface in the middle of the Cuban Missile Crisis and lays it out on a gigantic disc along with innumerable other sentient cultures, leaving humanity to try and cope with the new circumstances, and resolve the mystery.
The anachronisms—historical figures in odd meetings far out of place, the technological might-have-beens of a Space Age that never was—supply a good bit of the fun, like Yuri Gagarin captaining a giant nuclear-powered ekranoplan across an alien ocean. Nonetheless, this is much more than an exercise in clever juxtapositions, the grand-scale play with astrophysics and evolution producing a conceptually rich tale.
"A Colder War" (freely available here at Infinity Plus) and "Down on the Farm," are both espionage-meets-Cthulhu tales. "A Colder War" rewrites the Iran-Contra affair with the premises of H. P. Lovecraft's "At the Mountains of Madness," while "Down on the Farm" continues the adventures of "Bob Howard," the agent of the "Laundry" ("that branch of the British secret state tasked with defending the realm from the scum of the multi-verse using the tools of applied computational demonology") known to Stross's fans from The Atrocity Archives and The Jennifer Morgue. In its historical setting and cameo appearances by well known real-life figures, and its edge-of-apocalypse premise, "A Colder War" invites comparison with "Gap," but focuses on an entertaining riff on Lovecraft and the international politics of the 1980s rather than the sorts of speculations that dominated that story. "Down on the Farm," while adequate as a self-contained story (if more impressive on the level of idea and world development than plot), works mainly by deepening that narrative universe through an exploration of a particular corner of it, the Laundry's internally run mental hospital.
Perhaps the most surprising of Stross's looks backward is "Unwirer," which Stross cowrote with Cory Doctorow, in an "experiment in weblog mediated collaborative fiction." The premise is that preposterously tight telecommunications regulation in the United States created a situation in which "open Internet access is as illegal as cannabis." In exploring the theme "Unwirer" harkens back to '80s-style cyberpunk in its feel, invoking the contact between high-tech and low life as it was often imagined before the Internet became mundane, an affectation that can now appear as quaintly historical as steampunk. (While certainly reflecting one of Stross's major concerns—the encroachment of the surveillance state, a subject which he frequently and articulately tackles on his blog, Charlie's Diary—I have to say that the prose itself made me think more of Doctorow tales like "When SysAdmins Ruled the Earth.")
Stross turns from visions of the past as it might have been to the future in "Rogue Farm," set in rural Britain in the second half of the twenty-first century, which finds a farmer coping with the now routine headache of a posthuman squatter that might incinerate a good part of his acreage in the course of taking off for Jupiter. While there are hints of a grand drama here, this is in the main a slice of "pre-post-industrial life," carried by the sheer strangeness of its high-tech variation on a mundane situation.
"Trunk and Disorderly," the other big singularity-themed tale, could hardly be more different in its recounting of the adventures of aristocrat Ralph MacDonald Suzuki as he tears around the solar system in the twenty-sixth century, coping with an assortment of personal crises (from looking after his sister's pet dwarf mammoth to the scheming of a Martian vizier), with "Miss Feng" playing Jeeves to his Bertie Wooster. In its depiction of decadent posthuman aristocrats entertaining themselves with the mind-bogglingly exorbitant luxuries and amusements available to them in circumstances where money and technology are not an object, it reminded me of Michael Moorcock's "Dancers at the End of Time" sequence—and also of Stross's recent Hugo nominee, Saturn's Children, for which this was a test run.
The three other pieces are a bit more wide-ranging in content. The brief "MAXOS"—in the style of a Letter to Nature, and published in the "Futures" section of that magazine—offers a take on the well-known Nigerian Mafia scam (at least one example of which is probably sitting in your e-mail box as you read this) as a possible solution to the Fermi Paradox. "Snowball's Chance," which Stross describes as a "traditional Pact with the Devil story," is in fact a brilliant twist on it. Turning around the familiar Faustian bargain in a multiplicity of ways, it benefits not only from the possibilities of its setting (a futuristic Scotland that freezes as only an orbital sunshield saves most of the rest of the planet from scorching weather), but that particularly rare element in such stories—a well worked-out bit of theological metaphysics to elevate the story above the level of mere morality tale.
Finally there is the last and longest piece in the collection, the previously unpublished "Palimpset." In its future the cult-like organization Stasis Control pursues a strategy of sustaining humanity's existence across the eons not by expanding through space, but by engineering the solar system so as to extend the conditions in which life can continue on Earth by orders of magnitude, a process aided by a mastery of time travel. The emphasis on time travel, time paradoxes, and outer space action in a milieu where humanity has not vanished from time and space in "the Great Upload," the progressions and regressions of the species across a Stapledonian time scale, is attractively reminiscent of an older style of science fiction writing, but not a simple resort to a "retro" approach. However, it is Stross's most "conventional piece" in another sense, in the tightness of its focus on its protagonist Agent Pierce inside of a fast-paced adventure tale.
Wireless is not quite the comprehensive overview of Stross's career implied by "The Essential Collection" (in the way that, for instance, Bruce Sterling's recent Ascendancies offers). It consists wholly of work written from 1998 (and published from 2000) on, and leaves out substantial parts of his short fiction corpus—for instance, it does not include any of the stories that eventually comprised Accelerando, such as 2001's Hugo-nominated and widely anthologized "Lobsters."
However, it gives a reader new to Stross a good sense of his major interests, themes, and concerns—in particular the gonzo alternate history, the Singularity-oriented speculations, and the homages to earlier literary figures in and out of science fiction, as well as the density and extravagance of his concepts—as well as a fair bit of his writing at its best, and often, its most accessible. This makes Wireless a logical introduction to Stross's work, as well as deserving of a look from confirmed fans interested in a handy collection of his short fiction over the last decade.