Review: The Rapture of the Nerds

Well, isn’t this bonkers? The Rapture of the Nerds is 330 pages of Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross battering away gleefully at their keyboards about life on and off Earth at the end of the twenty-first century, post-singularity: when most of humanity has uploaded itself to the cloud, with the rest able to modify their bodies and other aspects of their existence at will.

As I read, knowing nothing of its genesis, I formed the impression they wrote alternate scenes and tried to out-bonkers each other. I’ve just found a note from Doctorow saying more or less exactly that. The note also says the novel started life as two novellas, with a third – plus connecting tissue and fixups – bolted on to form the finished work. I didn’t spot that: it doesn’t show.

What does show in my copy, sadly, are an extravagant number of typos. I’m one of those unfortunates for whom typos blink neon on the page, ejecting me from the Cone of Reading back to the humdrum pre-singularity world. Suffice to say they hampered my enjoyment of the book only by delaying it briefly while I ranted to an empty room.

The danger of a post-singularity story lies in the potential for anything to happen. Absolutely anything. It’s all within plausible reach of the premise – maybe with some par-boiling in advance, but not necessarily. Stross and Doctorow get away with it because they know their tech, and their natural audience knows they know their tech. To a certain extent we give them a licence to fool around.

Stross in particular is a dab hand at futurology. Put them both together, bouncing off each other, and you get a riot of ideas and geeky jokes and extrapolations. Gender-swapping on a whim, repeatedly. Technoviruses lurking within the body. Lamps you rub to summon an AI genie. A United States that— oh, but I won’t go any further.

Occasionally they take things a trifle too far: there’s a conceptual overdose, a pile-up of riffs and fancy-dancy verbiage suggesting the pair were having a fraction too much fun on that bit. Push on, and let the bonkers wash over you. The story – for there is a story – is an interesting one. You wouldn’t think that about a plot that kicks off in a patent court, but it’s true.

Trying to summarise Rapture, I keep coming back to the word “panto”. It feels like a post-singularity pantomime, Jack and the Techno-Beanstalk. I’d certainly go to see it. [Chorus: oh no you wouldn’t etc]

BONUS TRUE CELEBRITY STORY: In 1994 Charlie Stross and I worked for the same company, though in different offices. Our paths crossed only once, when he visited my office and taught me how to write UNIX man pages.

BONUS ALSO TRUE NON-CELEBRITY STORY: After that day I wrote exactly zero man pages.

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