Book #23: Toast, by Charles Stross

I’ve got a bit of a backlog to post about; after returning from New Haven I went fairly heads-down at work doing something I rarely get to do anymore: be a full time engineer. Much of my time at Network Clarity is spent doing a variety of things, as often happens to founders at startup companies – a bit of sales here, a bit of dev management there, throw in some financing activity occasionally, documentation, internal IT tasks, product management, and very occasionally, I work on some aspects of the product itself.

So I’ve been writing code and thoroughly enjoying myself, mostly because it’s a change of pace. This has meant less writing of late, but I certainly do have things to write about. At the moment, I want to comment on Stross’s story collection, Toast. Stross is quickly becoming one of my favorite contemporary science fiction authors, combining as he does an intense geek sensibility with some fairly serious physics and a keen political eye. The real gem in Toast is “Big Brother Iron,” a truly amazing look at the world of Orwell’s 1984 in its third generation of Party leadership and well into the computer age. The story is far more than just entertainment; Stross continues Orwell’s story in a way that perhaps Orwell himself would not have been capable, given his relative lack of scientific sophistication. In the world of Big Brother Iron, the third generation of leadership has rotted from the inside, with Inner Party members (and many of the technologists upon whom the Inner Party now depends) belonging to a shadowy “Organization” which is little more than an organized crime family. Faced with the choice of continuing the ideological purity of the first and second generations of Party leadership, or working seriously to change their society, many in the Inner Party have chosen a third path – lives of quiet corruption and luxury. This softening and corruption has also led to a far more robust Resistance than existed during Orwell’s depiction of the “young” Oceania and Party, and predictably the Resistance and Organization vie for control over power (each to their own ends) by jockeying for control over technology – over information itself. Given that I was reading Larry Lessig concurrently, I didn’t know whether to be amused or frightened.

Other stories well worth reading in this collection are “Antibodies” and the whimsically caffeinated “Extracts from the Club Diary.” Not all of the stories are up to Stross’s current standards, but this is worth owning simply for “Big Brother Iron.”

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