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Tuesday 1 March 2005

Surprised by Stross

by Russell Letson

When I got the invitation from Locus World Headquarters to write a few words about Charles Stross, I started listing (in alphabetical order) some of the adjectives I associate with his work: extravagant, extreme, exuberant, inventive, outrageous, rigorous, surprising, witty. Perhaps the most important of these are inventive and surprising, which may be the reason I keep Stross in the same mental drawer as Neal Asher, Ken MacLeod, Wil McCarthy, and Neal Stephenson (to name only a handful of relatively recent favorites). Even though these writers are not much alike in sensibility, politics, or thematics, I look forward to all their books with the same degree of eagerness because they are likely to deliver a jolt of that inventiveness and surprise that I crave.

I first encountered Stross in a typescript copy of Singularity Sky (thus no plot previews or cover blurbs to condition my reactions or spoil the surprises) and was immediately grabbed by the rain of intelligent phones, by the bottomless bags of tricks provided by the post-human Festival and its parasitic Fringe, and by the delightfully dangerous strings of unintended consequences and unforeseen implications that come from getting what you ask for instead of what you think you want. Of course, foreseeing the unforeseen consequences and implications of technology is a major job of SF, but when the technologies encompass the might-as-well-be-magic of nanotech, AI, post-humanity, and the Eschaton, the possibilities cover a lot of territory and invite really impressive special effects.

When I thought I had Stross safely filed in the Big Think/Big Effects/New Space Opera drawer, he produced Iron Sunrise, which uses the Eschaton milieu to generate a different flavor of story, a kind of murder-mystery/intrigue-thriller, almost a chamber work by comparison (though, to be sure, with a world-wrecking McGuffin and a bracing dose of magical technologies). And now in The Family Trade (reviewed elsewhere in this issue), he has changed up again, this time reducing the enabling devices themselves to a bare minimum (parallel worlds and an accidental elite able to traverse them) and wringing from them an impressive range of implications and adventure possibilities.

I might not have been as surprised at this flexibility had I been following the short fiction he has been producing in the UK since 1987 or the Accelerando cycle more recently unfolding in Asimov's. Charles Stross is no one-trick, post-human, deep-space, nanotech pony, but one of those writers whose fundamental gift seems to be the application of analytical intelligence to a body of story possibilities. And that intelligence is closely coupled to a taste for the baroque, the grotesque, the wild, the wooly, and the grimly funny, that produces those particularly Strossian pleasures of surprise and invention. Now I have to backtrack and read The Atrocity Archives, Toast, and the other pieces that I have missed, to see just how many other tricks Stross can pull off. After the Cthulhu-meets-Ollie-North/alternate-history/Clancyoid-thriller chimaera of "A Colder War" (available on-line at, I should not be surprised to be surprised again, repeatedly and to my continuing delight.

— Russell Letson

This essay is a supplement to Locus Magazine, January 2005

Russell Letson is a regular book reviewer for Locus Magazine. You can visit his website at

© 2005 by Locus Publications. All rights reserved.