Singularity Sky (Eschaton #01) – Charles Stross (2003)
‘The day war was declared, a rain of telephones fell clattering to the cobblestones from the skies above Novy Petrograd.
The Festival had come to Rochard’s World…’
Blurb from the 2005 Orbit paperback edition
Rachel Mansour is a UN diplomat working incognito in an interplanetary Russian-ethnic society based on a historical model of class-structure and aristocratic inherited privilege. Martin Greenfield is also working undercover within the society for a mysterious paymaster called Herman.
At the outset of the novel a presence arrives in orbit over Novy Petrograd on Rochard’s World (part of this Russian new republic) and showers the planet with mobile phones. The bemused natives are told on the phones that The Festival has arrived and that they will grant requests for anything if they can only be entertained.
Barya, the leader of a local revolutionary group, offers to tell The Festival a story in exchange for a cornucopia machine; a device that will produce anything its owner wishes.
Soon, the machine is producing weapons and Barya is outfitting his men for a revolution.
On the homeworld, the Emperor decides to send his fleet to destroy the Festival and quell the insurrection. Martin, who has been waiting for his papers to be processed so that he can work in the flagship’s engine room, is suddenly summoned aboard, as is Rachel, who has abandoned her disguise in order to announce herself as a UN observer and claim a place on the flagship, ostensibly to ensure that that the military of the New Republic do not contravene any of the Eschaton’s laws.
It is only gradually that we realise that the Eschaton is not the ruling body of this interstellar multi-cultural society, but is something else entirely.
Stross succeeds admirably in blending satire, drama, political intrigue and outrageous science fiction concepts in a cleverly constructed novel.
One’s understanding of the history of Humanity’s interstellar cultures is revealed piece by piece and the jigsaw Stross puts together for us is weird, funny, fast paced and politically astute.
As a debut novel it’s not the explosive start one might have expected from Stross who has made a reputation for himself through his short fiction. It is, however, an original and refreshing piece of work, which works well on every level.
Rachel Mansour is an intriguing hero, coping at every turn with the misogynist Victorian fundamentalist attitudes of the men of the New Republic. The Festival is the most intriguing element of the piece however, being a kind of post-human travelling circus which ‘assimilates’ the cultural history of the worlds it visits, often destroying them in the process by swamping the culture with technology it cannot control.
In a surreal moment, a post-human ‘critic’ – downloaded into a fast-grown designer body for the visit – takes Barya on a tour of the country in a motorised Baba Yaga hut-with-chicken-legs in order for him to realise the tragic results of his revolution, and the Festival’s visit.
Oddly, Mansour and Greenfield sit well in a novel peopled with over the top characters, some of whom verge into sublime caricature, such as the ancient and senile Admiral who is summoned from his bed to lead the Fleet since the New Republic are not keen to flout the unwritten rule that admirals never retire.
Most importantly, it’s intelligently written, peppered with wit and the occasional post-modern reference.