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Enraptured by Nerds'

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Novel offers satiric look at post-Singularity society

When speculative fiction is at its best, it transcends genre. It becomes a literature of ideas, and if it those ideas are presented in the context of good storytelling, so much the better. Bringing together thoughtful, polished prose and well-developed and fully-realized characters makes for an outstanding foundation upon which to build a vision of the future, be it a millennium away or merely years.

'The Rapture of the Nerds' (Tor; $24.99), co-authored by Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross, serves as a first-rate example of just how great and how much fun the literature of speculation can be.

'Rapture' takes place just a few decades into our subjective future, but it is a world bearing little resemblance to our own. In this world, the Technological Singularity has taken place, leading to the incarnation of a solar system-spanning superintelligence. This meta-mind is the final resting place of billions of human beings who have 'emigrated' that is, they've uploaded themselves into the cloud of molecular machinery that makes up this uber-consciousness.

However, there are still a billion people living on Earth, occupying what is colloquially known as 'meatspace.' For the most part, the ascended pay little mind to the goings-on in the place of their birth, but occasionally, bits and pieces of potentially disruptive technology find their way into the hands of the Earthbound.

Those remaining protect themselves the only way they can: by meticulously inspecting these new technologies and determining whether they are safe for general consumption. These Tech Juries are random humans, chosen more or less arbitrarily, who are tasked with deciding if mankind can ultimately be trusted.

Huw Jones is an angry Welshman who hates technology and other people about equally, finds himself assigned to jury duty. This task one for which he has been dreaming quickly turns out to be a nightmare. A series of increasingly implausible happenings plunge Huw right into the middle of a conspiracy or conspiracies involving the legal system, the government, gender-swapping double agents, Kiwis, technoviruses, the Cloud, hillbilly fundamentalists and perhaps the fate of humanity itself.

Doctorow and Stross have created an Everyman in Huw, a back-to-the-land technophobe who serves as a surprisingly effective proxy for the reader. His throwback attitudes meshed with an inconsistent relationship to technology mirrors our current cultural dealings with exponential tech advances in many ways. Throw in the exploration of a post-Singularity societal shift and the theological ramifications of an afterlife that comes not from God, but from a system-sized quantum supercomputer and you've got a book that seems like it should be far too heady to be this much fun.

On the flip side, the sting of satire is rarely absent for long. Few institutions are left unscathed; government, corporate culture and theology all take their hits (the book's vision of post-Singularity America is particularly biting). Pop culture references abound as well nods and winks are tossed to sci-fi touchstones such as 'The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy,' 'Dr. Who' and 'The Matrix.'

The danger with a collaborative work such is this one is the potential for stylistic dissonance. However, Doctorow and Stross strike a delicate balance, each bringing distinct stylistic choices to the table without ever superseding or overwhelming the other. The two complement one another nicely.

That said, 'Rapture' isn't necessarily an easy read. The story hits the ground running and rarely lets up, somehow managing to be frenetic and fluid all at once. Doctorow and Stross are bold in their linguistic creativity, unafraid to tweak syntax or hybridize words. They challenge the reader in most senses of the word intellectually, emotionally, artistically, you name it. Once you accept the story on their terms, however, you can't help but be drawn in almost immediately.

'The Rapture of the Nerds' is a marvelous piece of sci-fi, speculating on the 'what if?' questions we can see approaching in the distance. It's a wonderfully-rendered vision; a universe fully realized.

Good fiction makes you stop and think. Great fiction makes you stop and keep thinking.

I'm still thinking about 'The Rapture of the Nerds.'

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