Thursday, October 17, 2013

Throwback Thursday - The Rapture of the Nerds

Absurdly surreal, and surreally absurd, The Rapture of the Nerds: A Tale of the Singularity, Posthumanity, and Awkward Social Situations is a challenging book to summarize. A collaborative effort between digital-era demigod Cory Doctorow and science fiction juggernaut Charles Stross, the novel is, at times, humorously poignant; at others, more humorously profane. It is a farcical caricature of an impossible future, populated by the warped result of modern humankind's metaphysical spaghettification after passing through the pinpoint opening of the Technological Singularity. Though clearly meant to be a comical look at technologically advanced humanity pushed to every extreme, it may also just as soon be prophetic. 

The concept of the Singularity is difficult to comprehend, not for its content but rather its import. It is by its very definition unknowable, or at least the moment at which the unknowable trumps all. There's simply no telling what life beyond the event horizon will entail, and it's into this gap that the acid trip nightmare of The Rapture of the Nerds is thrust. Resonating throughout the length of the novel is a palpable sense of “Why not?”, as the transhuman race—or rather what’s left of it, after billions have transcended into the networked nanocloud that has usurped much of the solar system—eke out varying forms of existences in what can only be described as a partially successful post-apocalyptic world. Holographic genies, inflatable buildings, biohackers, churches of sexual perversion, vending machine gender re-assignments—all this and more await the reader who braves this ridiculously ingenious romp through futurity.

In the aftermath of a friend’s party, protagonist Huw Jones awakens to a roaring hangover, in a bathtub that almost certainly wasn’t a bathtub when he passed out. A neo-Luddite of the highest order, Jones lives in a home without electricity at a time when others live in houses that rearrange themselves on a regular basis. Much of the night before is a blur, and aside from the unexpected bathroom Huw is surprised to find a fresh tattoo he doesn’t remember wanting, and before his first cup of coffee discovers that the woman he spent the evening flirting with is now a man. On the heels of this illustrious introduction Jones receives word, much to his excitement, that he’s finally been selected for jury duty—an opportunity to reject one of the many suggestions beamed down to Earth from the cloud, and a chance to speak his principled mind in general. It soon becomes apparent, however, that jury duty will be one of the last things Jones ever looks forward to.

The story picks up quickly from there, and the authors seem content to maintain a harried pace throughout the remainder of the novel. From the object of his jury’s attention to the mystery of the tattoo stems a mad dash in which Jones is torn between escaping various nefarious forces and running toward the completion of a mission for which he would never have signed up—had he been given any say in the matter, that is.  In the end, the relentlessly insane future of humanity may well depend on the actions of its least willing participant.

The Rapture of the Nerds is a perfect novel for its time, as humanity collectively nears the precipice from which we will inevitably leap into the unforeseeable future.  While the authors do, at times, explore the philosophical quandaries which surround the topics of transhumanism and the Singularity, the story focuses more on the titular “awkward social situations” to great amusement, and no small amount of perplexity. Peppered with pop-cultural references and cyberpunk jargon sure to please numerous subsets of the scifi community, and with prose crafted of jagged conceptual clusters which flow poetically, if jarringly, with all the graceful fluidity of an avalanche, the novel may not necessarily be the best choice for the uninitiated reader’s first foray into the genre. However, when all’s said and done, even those least familiar with science fiction—but possessed of a taste for the ridiculous and borderline-obscene—should find The Rapture of the Nerds to be a fulfilling and amusing excursion into one of literature’s most absurd futures yet.

This review originally appeared elsewhere in October of 2012

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