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Book Review: Wireless by Charles Stross

# Genre: Anthology/Collection, Near Future, Space Opera
# Hardcover: 368 pages
# Publisher: Ace Hardcover (July 7, 2009)
# ISBN-10: 0441017193
# ISBN-13: 978-0441017195
# Author Website: Charlie’s Place

“This is not fiction. This is a sequence of concepts that I am transferring into your conscious awareness via the medium of words, some of which may be false. Danger: here be epistemological dragons…”

In this way, Charles Stross introduces his new collection, a nine story anthology that is at times challenging, at others confusing, but is always entertaining.

The Earth of the Cold War is transported to a giant disc, millions of years into the future in “Missile Gap”. But even as the US and Soviet Union continue their nuclear dance, there is a third-party wholly unknown to either. Stross explores the impulse of man to destroy himself, and the need for species to protect themselves from what they see as a threat. There is a great deal if irony in this far future tale. Some readers will notice a similarity in the world-building to Eric Brown’s Helix. This story is fertile ground for a great video game, providing both alternate history and far future space exploration all in one strange and astonishing package.

“Rogue Farm” postulates an Earth where human biology is no longer any sort of barrier. The protagonists of the tale are unusual in that they prefer to be old school, using technology to farm the land, rather than turning themselves into the farm. The story becomes an utterly different and unusual exploration of identity.

Stross returns to Cold War history as the starting point for “A Colder War”. The story is a bleak tale, more a horror story than an alternate history tale. Stross creatively mixes writing that is like a script and standard narrative writing (something he does in several stories in this collection) to tell the story of Roger Jourgensen, a spy – but of the bureaucratic kind. He provides the government insiders perspective as he watches the world die.

“MAXOS” is written as if it were a scientific article about mankind’s first contact with an alien civilization. Though short, this humorous tale left me doubled-over in laughter.

“Down on the Farm” was a piece Stross wrote for the website Tor.com – which is still available for free reading. The story is a tale of Bob Howard, British spy and wizardly (though often bureaucratically hog-tied) version of James Bond that is the star of Stross’ and The Jennifer Morgue. In this story, Howard is sent to check up on the Funny Farm, the place where some of the less fortunate spies are sent to recover their wits after especially disturbing missions. Of course, nothing is ever so simple for poor Bob. Stross’ blending of math and magic, plus a little technology makes for a creative urban fantasy. With the addition of the spy element, the end result is an action-packed story that is for those readers who preferred Roger Moore to Sean Connery.

Cory Doctorow co-wrote “Unwirer” with Stross. As any reader familiar with Doctorow might expect, the tale is about a United States in which wireless connectivity is an illegal act, and the protagonist is one of those people who try to subvert the government’s control by providing free, wireless connectivity. The story is effective, if a bit overladen with technical jargon that only computer geeks will get.

In “Snowball’s Chance”, a less than savory Scottish man gets a chance to have a wish fulfilled by the Devil. But although the devil thinks he is getter the better end of this deal, turns out that Faust just wasn’t as smart as Davy. This tale is a clever flipping of the Faust archetype.

“Trunk and Disorderly” is what Stross calls a “test run” for the Hugo nominated Saturn’s Children. The tale is about Ralphie, a spoiled adrenaline junkie who must save his robot girlfriend from having her head sliced off in a sick far-future reenactment of the The Arabian Nights. The story posits a humorous, hedonistic society of people with little morals and no sense. In a way, it’s a British writer’s somewhat subtle way of poking fun at the society of the 19th century English aristocracy. Funny characters, such as the drunk mammoth, the all-capable robot servitor, the men of Ralphie’s Club – both robotic and “squishie” make this space adventure tale a riotous romp.

The complicated time travel story of “Palimpsest” takes a lot of concentration to read. Stross’s narrative follows Pierce, a recruit to the Stasis, a time-traveling agency that helps humanity survive every extinction by “Reseeding” the formerly dead Earth with hunter-gatherer societies. This allows humanity to survive through time without, always returning to a technological civilization until some event renders Earth extinct. But Pierce is special, and an attempted assassination makes him of particular interest to Internal Affairs of the Stasis. This story is exceptionally complicated, especially as it travels in time and also integrates such concepts as the multiverse and singularities. It was occasionally hard to follow, but Pierce is an interesting character and the plot moves quickly so its complexity does not detract from the enjoyment.

Stross “transfers concepts” in the most unusual and appealing ways. This author is wonderfully fun to read, and I highly recommend this collection.

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