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.

Review: Homeland

Homeland by Cory Doctorow is the sequel to Little Brother, and like its predecessor is not so much a novel as a manifesto for change, for a better world dominated by altruism and individuals, not money and corporations – a bottom-up rather than top-down society.

The book’s been on my to-read pile for a while (I find it hard to read fiction while I’m writing). I enjoyed Little Brother and was looking forward to finding out what happened next in Marcus Yallow’s life – and, indeed, I rattled through its 400-odd pages more quickly than I usually do. Partially, I suspect, because I’m already familiar with a great deal of the technology discussed in the book. Partially, too, because the plot is straightforward and fast-paced.

Where the plot does pause, it’s because Doctorow, through his protagonist Marcus, is climbing on a hobby horse. That sounds pejorative, I know, and I don’t really mean it that way. If you’re familiar with Boing Boing, the blog Doctorow and others write, you’ll know his obsession with cold-brew coffee: an obsession ascribed to Marcus in the book, who leaves no bean unturned in his quest to convert others to the technique – which is described in detail. Similarly, there’s enough technical detail in the book – accurate, not technobabble – to convert the reader to Marcus’s other obsessions, personal security and privacy.

This is the point of the book: to energise and activate its target teen audience (yes, it’s a YA book: deal with it). The plot serves to illustrate the problems and solutions Doctorow wants us to consider, and to adopt, from cold-brew coffee to secure forks of Android to fairer, freer elections.

That’s not to say the plot is irrelevant: it is staggeringly so. In the almost two years since publication its depiction of a militarised, out-of-control police has been shown utterly true in scenes across the United States. And given some of the events in the book it’s hard to believe Homeland was published before Edward Snowden’s revelations of the extent of government surveillance of our activities. Doctorow’s fears, sadly, are all too real.

Talking of reality, one early scene jarred. In a tent at Burning Man surrounded by a dust storm, Marcus chances upon some non-fictional characters: real people, making cameo appearances in the book. Perhaps the target teen audience would like that. Cynical old me found it twee and unnecessary, bordering on laughable. Thankfully any other cameos were disguised.

I enjoy Doctorow’s books: they’re readable, intelligent, and technologically literate. In Homeland he has an important message to communicate, and he communicates it well. But I have to say, no amount of persuasion will get me drinking coffee.