Wireless by Charles Stross (Orbit, 2009)
Reviewed by Martin Lewis
‘Missile Gap’, the novella that opens Wireless, is a pretty good encapsulation of Stross’s concerns as a writer. It takes place in the middle of the Cold War but on an Earth that has been radically altered and flung into another galaxy. The reconstruction of the planet into one flat plate on a vast disc brings with it gravitational changes that render the Space Race dead and flight difficult. These changes allow Stross to play with his love of abandoned engineering projects by introducing, for example, a vast nuclear-powered ekranoplan the size of an aircraft carrier. Piloted by Yuri Gagarin. Carl Sagan also appears as a character and there are many similar winks. So: a big picture hard SF idea, a Twentieth Century alt history, a strong awareness of the history of science fiction, a couple of in-jokes and some cool toys that never were. Like Ken MacLeod, Stross is looking towards the future with nostalgic eyes.
There is more of the same on display throughout Wireless. In fact, ‘Missile Gap’ is something of a retread of ‘A Colder War’, published five years previously. Gagarin and Sagan are replaced by Colonel Oliver North and Stephen Jay Gould, and the missile gap becomes a shoggoth gap, but otherwise they are the same, right down to the infodump chapters presented as classified briefing films with identical security warnings.
‘A Colder War’ is the only story which overlaps with Stross’ previous collection, Toast (2002), and this repetition makes its inclusion a mistake. It also points towards a lack of purpose in a collection which is almost-but-not-quite comprehensive and where Stross unfortunately uses his introduction to pointlessly justify his existence as a short story writer. Obviously the stories collected as the mosaic novel Accelerando (2005) are not reprinted here but only one of his three collaborations with Cory Doctorow appears (‘Unwirer’). Why this one, which feels more Doctorow than Stross in composition? Why include ‘MAXOS’, a joke about extraterrestrial 419 scammers that at three pages is still too long? ‘Down On The Farm’, part of the ongoing Bob Howard series that mashes Lovecraft (him again) with spy versus spy, is great fun – if clunkily structured – but is cut adrift from the rest of its continuity here. The impression is of a writer casting around for any material to hand, that the overriding reason for this collection is that Stross gets jittery if he doesn’t release at least two books a year.
The main selling point of Wireless is ‘Palimpsest’, an unpublished novella. A mix of time travel and deep time future history, it is a powerful piece but sabotaged by an afterword in which Stross makes clear that it should really be a novel, had industry requirements not dictated otherwise. I understand the travails of the jobbing writer – Stross has chronicled them well on his blog – but Wireless is so market-driven that any enjoyment of the stories was overwhelmed by a desire for less haste and graft and more reflection and quality control.
This review originally appeared in Vector #261.