The Rapture of the Nerds, the new collaboration between science fiction icons Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross, is a rollicking post-Singularity picaresque. Too obscure? How about this: The Rapture of the Nerds is a bold, imaginative, transhumanist fantasia. Still too obscure?
That’s the trouble with writers like Doctorow and Stross, and books like The Rapture of the Nerds: they’re so smart, so rooted in philosophies and theories outside the mainstream, that describing them in general terms requires a certain finesse. And, likely, a bit of technical background. But where to begin?
These days, large segments of the geek world (of which I count myself a proud member) are obsessed with the intertwining philosophies/theories/predictions of The Singularity and transhumanism. When geeks talk about The Singularity (note: capital T, capital S), they’re not talking about the gravitational or space-time singularity described by Stephen Hawking and Roger Penrose (unless, of course, they are strictly science geeks). Rather, they’re considering the hypothesis of the technological singularity, the point at which artificial intelligence exceeds human intelligence, and begins to reproduce independently of human activity. To wit, the point that smart computers become smarter than their creators, and begin creating subsequent generations of computers smarter than themselves.
Often tied in with The Singularity is the philosophy of transhumanism, which embraces the idea of technological alterations to the human body intended to improve or, ultimately, transcend it altogether. The prospect of uploading human consciousness into a massive amalgam of human and artificial intelligence, for example, merges both transhumanism and The Singularity, a combination often referred to colloquially as “the geek rapture.” This forms the backdrop for Doctorow and Stross’s powerful, thoughtful, frequently hilarious new novel.
The Rapture of the Nerds is set at the end of the 21st century, on a post-Singularity Earth, physically populated by about a billion hominids. Not quite humans, necessarily – most of the residents are tricked out with technological enhancements. Identity, appearance, and gender are malleable. The Earth is surrounded by a dense technological fog made up of shard computers and the uploaded consciousnesses of billions of humans who have left their physical forms behind. In this new world, the cloud-consciousness largely ignores the Earth, and vice versa.
Huw is as defiantly anti-technology as it is possible to be in such an environment: the young Welshman lives in a house stripped even of electricity. Yes, he has an intelligent bicycle, but he has no physical augmentations and spends most of his time at his potting wheel, creating in the old-fashioned way.
In the wake of an epic party, Huw is thrilled to be selected for Tech Jury Service, which rules on the safety and feasibility of new inventions and technologies sent to Earth from the cloud. “He’s been looking forward to this day for months. Soon, he’ll get to say what he thinks about some item of new technology – and they’ll have to listen to him.“
Little does he imagine that his journey to serve on the jury, based in Tripoli, will be the inciting incident for a series of adventures that will see him pursued in the Middle East, cast into service in a Marxist hotel, and face sacrifice by militant Christians in the oil-swamps of the Carolinas. Much of the fun in The Rapture of the Nerds comes from the sheer headlong giddiness of Huw’s odyssey, most of which is completely out of his control. There is a wild joy to Doctorow and Stross’s plotting, and one can almost imagine a game of literary brinksmanship between the collaborators, egging one another on to ever greater flights of fancy.
The novel succeeds, however, because of how richly imagined its worlds are, and how strictly the authors adhere to the realities they’ve created. Doctorow and Stross are rigorous about observing the physical realities that underlie the story, from travel times to gravity. They are most stringent in their treatment of Huw himself. As the world seems to go mad around him, he remains firmly, resolutely human. Even as his appearance (and gender) shifts and sways, as he becomes augmented and, later, stripped, Huw never loses his/her/its fundamental humanity.
The trouble with focusing on subjects like The Singularity and transhumanism in a review is that readers might come away with the idea that the book under consideration is austere or off-putting. When it comes to The Rapture of the Nerds, nothing could be further from the truth. The novel is a thrill ride – an adventure underscored by philosophy, but an adventure first and foremost. Buckle up, kids: it’s a hell of a read.