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Stross fans happy, Doctorow fans less so in collaboration

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The Rapture of the Nerds

By Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross

Tor Books, 352 pages, $29

COLLABORATIONS can be a mixed bag. Two authors for the price of one? Sounds like the best thing since chocolate and vanilla swirl.

But authorial panache doesn't tend to combine so neatly. Stylistically, one flavour is almost certain to dominate.

Likewise in this instance. Cory Doctorow, a Canadian expatriate living in London, writes mostly present-day or near-future science fiction, with recurring themes of class warfare, the importance of open source computing, and universal human rights.

Native Briton Charles Stross tends to far-future, post-singularity narratives of utterly unrecognizable human societies. Doctorow at his best writes 10 minutes into the future while critiquing contemporary events.

Stross is interested in the world after it's changed so radically it's impossible to predict or recognize any aspect of it -- a rough and ready definition of the "technological singularity." There's no way to split the difference between two such disparate oeuvres.

Presumably, author listing was determined strictly alphabetically, as Rapture of the Nerds is about as Strossy as it gets. It describes a world wherein most of humanity has uploaded their consciousnesses to a cloud computing system spread throughout the solar system (the mass ascendance of the technically inclined to life on the Internet is the "rapture" of the title).

Back in the physical world, the novel's hero, Huw, is a comparative Luddite, leading a quiet, technologically limited existence throwing pottery in an isolated cottage. This doesn't last long, however, as he finds himself embroiled in a series of conspiratorial plots that see him shunted back and forth between various parties and enduring everything from alien bodily infestation to near human sacrifice to involuntary gender reassignment surgery.

Rapture of the Nerds is -- like another collaboration, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman's Good Omens -- a sort of absurdist comic novel, if not as funny. As the story goes on, the misfortunes of RotN's protagonist escalate steadily in both degree and implausibility.

Unlike other British comic authors like Pratchett or Douglas Adams, the humour is more slapstick than dry.

The novel is, in point of fact, a "fix-up" of two previous novellas by the authors, rewritten and combined with a new concluding section intended to knit it all together. This, combined with the authors' tag-team approach to plotting, may explain the semi-random nature of the narrative and contrived story resolution at the end.

But such seat-of-the-pants plot development might be forgiven if the story engages the reader. The greater weakness is the passive nature of its hapless hero, who takes very little initiative beyond complaining grumpily at all the terrible things that keep happening to him.

Huw is both cantankerous and pitiably ill-treated. But somehow, while the most fantastic and terrible happenings seem to coalesce around him, he still fails to be either interesting or sympathetic.

Stross has a uniquely skewed view of things, which he showcases even in his more serious works of fiction. He's built up a fan base with his cynical, weird, and sometimes vulgar visions of the future. To that end, his established audience may very well find this new romp right up their alley.

Doctorow fans looking for something along the lines of Makers or Little Brother, however, will be disappointed. Like celery in a beet soup, even the Doctorow bits taste pretty much like Stross.

How the final medley is adjudged thus depends entirely on how the reader feels about the latter author.

Joel Boyce is a Winnipeg writer and teacher.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 8, 2012 J7

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