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This is a potent stew of genres within genres. There are a couple of bone chips, but overall, it's pretty tasty. Stross' talent for sustained techno-babble at out-of-breath speeds is a true savor. For instance, the description of a starship's main drive is a little more idiosyncratic than “Dilithum Crystals”:
At nonrelativistic speeds, Lord Vanek maneuvered by dumping mass into the kernel; complex quantum tunneling interactions—jigger-pokery within the ergosphere—transformed it into raw momentum.
-- Ace mass market edition, ISBN: 0441011799, July 2004, p.81
It starts out pretty scattered with the introduction of quite a few characters on two very opposite worlds. Fortunately, as the novel settles in, most of these characters drop off the track for a manageable ride. At first introduction, Rochard's World is a feudalistic society under the realm of the New Republic , a totalitarian empire that maintains control by outlawing technology. Just as revolution is festering, The Festival, a mysterious, space-traveling entity for most of the story, appears in orbit and starts dropping cell phones like WWII propaganda pamphlets. In exchange for information—“will you entertain us?” (Ibid, p.1) they tease—they grant wishes. The smart rulers, revolutionaries, and peasants ask for a cornucopia, which is a machine that can replicate anything. The dumb ones ask for the fulfillment of their inner-most desires. Overnight, “the streets are paved with infinite riches. It devalues everything” (Ibid, p.319), which causes a singularity, “a sudden overdose of change; immortality, bio-engineering, weakly superhuman AI arbeiters, nanotechnology…” (Ibid, p.296). In visual terms, it's more like Bosch's “The Hay Wain” described by Lewis Carroll on LSD.
As a dedicated stiff-sphinctered right-winger, Emperor Ivan Hasek III of the New Republic declares war. Starships are dispatched from New Prague, on the continent of New Austria, from the planet New Muscovy. On board is an engineer from old Earth with a hidden agenda, a female Earthling who is a diplomat from the UN with a hidden agenda, an underling from New Republic 's secret police with a hidden agenda, plus various Navel officers on deck with hidden agendas. Unfortunately, these space operatic machinations during travel to Rochard's World take up the bulk of the intercut sequences. There is a predictable but satisfactory love bonding between the two Terrans amidst the military shoutings like “big explosion off six M-klicks, bearing six-two by five-nine! . . . I'm getting a particle stream from astern! Bearing one-seven-seven by five, sidescatter, no range yet—“ (Ibid, 190). And, to be fair to Stross, he does explain some of it.
What is fascinating, however, are the entities in and around the Festival. Definitely non-human, it is populated by “datavores” (one of Stross' wonderful terms, I'm assuming) reveling in its complex “infocology”. Camp followers, simply called The Fringe, contain marvelously diabolic creations like Headlaunchers, The Flower Show, and Mimes. A more developed fringeoid group is The Critics. Cthulhu-looking things, they homilfy (my word!) like Yoda and judge worth on purely artistic terms. Then there's The Bouncers, “a big stick and a nasty smile” (Ibid, p.258), who alleviate New Republic's attacking fleet as easy as if it were the common cold. Lastly is the Eschaton. Being the ultimate power in the Universe, it has one of the only overt agendas in the novel: Survive, period.
Conceptually, the future shock of a Singularity is fascinating. For “the Festival . . . drop[s] an entire planetary society, such as it [is], into an informational blender and dial[s] the blades to FAST” (Ibid, p.326), whirling its politics, sociology, and philosophy into data puree. Stross shows the “horrors of unrestricted technology” (Ibid, p.197) while illuminating information's changing essence in all theatres of human ponderances. It is a weapon, a tool, an entity in its own right. And only by accepting this can the basic brilliance of the novel be understood; that “information wants to be free” (Ibid, p.296).