Wireless by Charles Stross

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Wireless by Charles Stross

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Category: Short Stories
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Becky Hazlett
Reviewed by Becky Hazlett
Summary: An inventive and atmospheric collection of science-fiction short stories. Will need to engage brain!
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 368 Date: July 2009
Publisher: Orbit
ISBN: 978-1841497716

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In his introduction, Stross explains that one of the reasons he likes writing shorts stories is because they are the ideal format in which to focus on a particular concept of the future and play around with it. It doesn't matter so much if the idea doesn't ultimately work because neither the reader nor the author has invested in it the way they would in a novel. Wireless then, is something of an experiment. Stross employs many different styles, tackles many different subjects and is very skilful at creating mood. His stories are a strange blend of the technical and the archaic.

Stross never starts a story with an explanation of what past events have conspired to come up with that particular version of the future, as that would spoil the fun of working it out for ourselves. Missile Gap, for example, is disorientating at first; something cataclysmic has happened to planet Earth as we know it but, what exactly, and how? Only gradually is this information revealed by hints and clues which the reader must piece together. Stross draws the mystery out until the suspense will pretty much kill you and you'll have to concentrate too, as the idea behind it is a complex one. That's not to say it will only appeal as a mental exercise though; the characters are well drawn (as much as they can be within the format) and it's quite creepy. A Colder War - in which the Russians acquire something very nasty to use as a weapon against the West - is similarly mysterious and intriguing (and even more disturbing). This one is, as you might guess, heavy on the politics; however, it also contains elements of the supernatural.

The most off-putting thing about Wireless is the pseudo scientific or technical language (especially in the very short Maxos which seems to be something of an esoteric joke). I know that it's a necessary evil in Science Fiction but there's so much of it and it's so complicated that the meaning is a bit vague, generating more of an impression than a clear description of what's going on. It's almost a tease (in fact, I suspect that's Stross' intention throughout) and rather frustrating in Down at the Farm - a story that proposes a relationship between mathematics and magic.

Stross' concepts of the future are very inventive and imaginative, some are downright weird, but others such as Unwirer, have a more obvious, closer relation to the present; this one explores the implications of Government imposed internet and technology restrictions, and is very convincing as an alternative future.

No Science-fiction short story collection would be complete without a tale of time travel and Palimpsest is that on a grand scale. The details were incomprehensible to me, I'll admit it, but the basic idea behind it was an intriguing one and I admire the scope and vision.

Stross does the Big Ideas and is good at conveying the Big Picture but, I think he is at his best when he focuses on a few individuals within a particular setting, as he does in Rogue Farm and Snowball's Chance, the two standout stories in this collection. In the former, human beings can change themselves with the use of advanced technology and bioengineering, and some have altered beyond recognition. There is a distinct lack of boundaries or control in their society; the self is no longer a coherent or strictly defined whole. But, there are people who resist this culture and cling to their humanity and they seem rather primitive in comparison. Such an impression is enforced by the strange colloquial speech Stross gives them. There is almost no omniscient explanation at all which alienates the reader, which it's obviously meant to do and is entirely appropriate to the sort of future envisioned here. It's not so much about what actually happens in the story but the interesting little background details, such as the tiny self-replicating police bots leftover from a previous age, which builds up an impression. Snowball's Chance is about a man meeting the devil and is more satisfying as a story. It too has a great setting; a warm pub in an icy Scotland, during the aftermath of global warming.

Trunk and Disorderly is the odd one out in this collection as it is a humorous account of a society almost exclusively composed of robots who have assumed the aristocratic speech and behaviour of humans from a by gone age. It follows the jolly escapades of Ralph, his butler, and his drinking chums.

Mostly, the future is an unsettling and alien (pun intended) place. There is nothing particularly comforting about any of these futures and I never got the feeling that I would like to live in one of them, as I do with Neal Asher's Polity, but I enjoyed dipping into them!

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

I will certainly be checking out Stoss' novel The Jennifer Morgue if only to see how such an inventive writer develops his ideas in the longer format.

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Buy Wireless by Charles Stross at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Wireless by Charles Stross at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy Wireless by Charles Stross at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Wireless by Charles Stross at Amazon.com.


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