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Singularity Sky
Charles Stross
Orbit paperback £6.99

review by Simeon Shoul

Sometime in the mid 21st century humanity gave rise to the Eschaton. Just exactly what the Eschaton is, is not quite clear; the Internet gone sentient and developing delusions of godhood seems the safest bet. Regardless of its nature it promptly begins messing with humanity in the most profoundly disturbing ways. Nine-tenths of the human race is siphoned off Earth in a matter of days and dumped on colony planets over several thousand lightyears of space. Then, in order to protect itself, the Eschaton lays down a strict law: do not mess with my historical time cone, or else.

The thing is, in this universe, the past is not inviolate. The Asimov paradox, apparently, does not hold true. If you go back in time, and kill your own father, you will, in fact, wipe yourself out of existence despite the apparent impossibility of the feat. And the Eschaton, being super-intelligence, has every intention of protecting itself (protecting its 'historical time cone') from such attacks. Thus, it embargoes time travel, and anything that smacks of temporal violation, backing up the proscription with punishments along the lines of ramming 500 km wide asteroids into any violators' home planet...

Fast forward a few hundred years to the planet of Rochard's World, a backwater outpost of the New Republic, which is a profoundly conservative, despotic and tyrannous interstellar empire, one of the various political entities that grew out of the Eschaton's decision to scatter humanity to the winds. To Rochard's World comes The Festival, a space nomad civilisation, given to drifting from one stellar system to another, assimilating information wherever it goes and trading the most advanced technology in exchange.

This does not go down well on Rochard's World. With a social system modelled on Tsarist Russia, and an economy firmly mired in the 19th century (despite being a space-faring empire - yes, it makes no sense, but stick with it, it does work), the planet cannot cope. Things fall apart, and they do so spectacularly. What can the authorities do but scream for help, begging the capital world of the New Republic to send assistance?

This the capital does. They despatch the biggest, meanest fleet of battlewagons, crewed by the hardest, coldest, most ruthlessly professional naval officers that a tyrannical interstellar empire can find. And, to cap it all, they execute an approach manoeuvre that skates perilously close to the edge of time-travel.

This is where the fun starts (as if there wasn't enough going on already). Assigned to the flagship of the fleet is Martin Springfield. He's not a citizen of the New Republic, he's an engineer sent out by the Earth-based shipyard that built the vessel to see that it runs right. At least that's what he seems to be. Also assigned to the flagship is Rachel Mansour, a diplomatic representative of the United Nations, placed on board to monitor any war-crime infractions and assist in negotiations with The Festival. At least, that's what she claims. Also on board are personnel from both the civil and military intelligence branches of the New Republic's security forces who do not believe Springfield and Mansour, and whose manoeuvres to entrap them swerve from the sinister to the farcical.

Taken all in all this is a slightly bizarre, slightly amusing, techno-fest. It skates on a veneer of military and cosmological jargon, and deploys characters who have just enough personality to rescue them from being complete stereotypes, or perhaps parodies of stereotypes is more accurate. It's an easy read, if at times a bit too pleased at its own cleverness. Likely to appeal to fans of Iain M. Banks or Alastair Reynolds, if not quite as assured in its presentation, or as slickly paced, as the works of either of these two more established authors.
Singularity Sky by Charles Stross

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