Singularity Sky – Stross (2003)


200 words a day = 1 novel/year
Mar 27, 2020

Singularity Sky starts out strong, devolves into cliches and ends rather tamely. It has elements of hard science fiction, space military fiction, espionage thriller, a dash of steam punk with a minor sprinkling of erotica and occasional forays into the absurd. Oddly, it is these few, almost psychotic, forays into absurdism where the book is most interesting. Should you read this? Maybe. The milquetoast ending was a strong letdown and the hero and heroine always get off slightly too easily. The espionage bits in the middle are reasonably entertaining. Unfortunately the space warfare bits come off boring though the ideas are creative.

Personal notes: quibbles, notes on style and structure. Some spoilers.​

The opening​

We are asked to create great openings for our books in order to reel the reader in. Singularity Sky has one of the best openings I have read: Telephones fall out of the sky and demand to be entertained. This is one of two forays into absurdity that give the book a unique personality. The other one is at the end.

The danger of such an opening is that some readers might put the book down, mistaking it for some kind of absurdist stream of consciousness nonsense rather than a science fiction story with a more coherent storyline.


The story is interesting where it is absurd. I mentioned the strong (though risky) opening. Towards the end more absurd things are described (a giant talking rabbit for instance) and the story veers towards surrealism with everything being explained by the cornucopia machines (which are the Deus Ex Machina in the book. Need an instigating event: Cornucopia machine. Need to get the heros out of a bind: Cornucopia machine). Sadly the ending doesn’t go anywhere.

Cliche and comedy​

Charles Dickens told us to make ’em laugh and make ’em cry. Comic relief is an effective technique in serious stories. In order to effect much of the comedy Stross draws on the cliche of a superannuated, racist military leader with dementia. The writing seems to be ripped from some nineteenth/twentieth century satire or the other and is decidedly not funny. The descriptions of the empire are decently well done (very steam punk) but very anachronistic: why would some random human colony somewhere be an mishmash of Tasarist and revolutionarist Russia, right down to the names? Why would a decorated military leader of that empire be an exact copy of a satire of an old British admiral?

Head hopping​

It is refreshing to see an established writer ignoring the strictures against head hopping. Points of view are changed frequently and without warning. Most of the book is a demonstration that though head hopping is jarring, it’s ill-effects are overblown.


The amount of exposition in the book is tolerable. The exposition happens at a reasonable time and is just at the limit of being annoying. They are interesting mishmashes of physical terms and do help in world building (they emphasized the size of the ships). On the flip side, removing all the exposition would not harm the story. The expositions are in a narrator voice, so introduce an additional character.


The book does well with descriptions of special relativity and ways to break it (waves hands) with tame black holes but this is a side show, restricted to the expositionary bits and do not prop up the story very much.

The use of menace​

I’m fascinated by fictional scary people (or things or rituals) and how to write them. Two great examples I’ve run across are “The question” in Ian Banks’ Inversions and in “The cleaning” in Hugh Howey. In this story there is a supposedly a scary inquisitor like character, but the rendition is not well done. It’s clear the inquisitor’s minion is comic relief, and that is painted reaonably well, showing the person’s incompetence and the disdain the crew show for him.
There was a thread for this one a while back (2017 to be fair!):
It is refreshing to see an established writer
It was Stross' first published novel (although the two components of what became The Atrocity Archives had been published, separately, in the magazine Spectrum SF, so if he was established (which is doubtful), it would have been as a writer of short stories for magazines.

Anyway, I've just read some of the current** Wikipedia page on the novel, (from "History" onwards). This goes into a great deal of detail about the work's genesis and what Stross was doing and trying to do.

I should have guessed -- because it's something that Stross does with a lot of his Laundry books and stories (i.e. The Laundry Files series and its spin-offs series, Tales of the New Management) -- that what he was doing was taking a work (or body of work) from elsewhere (not only books, and not only fiction) and half-parody and/or satirise them as well as write his own story. In Singularity Sky, as explained in the Wiki article, there are lots of "elsewheres" involved, hence why so much is going on in the writing as much as in the story.

Note that Stross provides "crib sheets" for his novels on his blog (with comments*** allowed at the time, but no longer, and responded to). There is one for Singularity Sky, written in 2013 -- and it can be found here -- but he recommends (quite rightly) reading an earlier one first (found here), as he states
if you want to understand "Singularity Sky" as published, you need to read this earlier piece I wrote (which uses it as a springboard for discussing why I killed off the Eschaton novels after book #2).:

** - I can't recall reading the article -- but that may be because it has changed significantly from when I did perhaps read it.

*** - Warning: Not all the comments are about the theme of any particular blog post: there are endless comments about, to take an example at random, bicycles, which programming languages are "best", and lots of the other hobbyhorses of the commenters.
This is still one of my favourite Charles Stross novels - I think he's at his best when he's a) throwing out wild ideas out like confetti and b) being a bit provocative about genre conventions. The ending itself is a bit of a fizzle, to the extent that I struggle to remember what actually happened. But I LOVED all the stuff with Rachel Mansour's luggage in the third act.