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The dictum ďinformation wants to be freeĒ is holy writ for certain members of the electronic elite. And, as with all expressions of faith, there is a lot of truth to the statement. Bits travel with next to no friction between computers, and the only thing stopping you from copying bits is your sense of ethics and, perhaps, some sort of digital rights management capabilities built into the system.
But what would happen when a closed society, operating with little more than Victorian technology, is encountered by a spacefaring society that offers anything its inhabitants want in return for entertainment? Thatís the question posed by Charles Stross in Singularity Sky. The society in question is the New Republic, a collection of planets inhabited by the descendants of Central European societies who were plucked from an overcrowded Earth by an alien civilization. While many of the unwilling colonists from other parts of the world welcomed the technologies on offer, those of the New Republic did not. At least not for any but the most trusted government agents.
Then along comes the Festival, a civilization that drops wireless phones onto the surface of one of the New Republicís outlying planets. The Festival will provide anything, up to and including cornucopia machines (universal replicators), for the low, low price of a story they hadnít heard before. If the teller knew what to ask for, they could have anything they wanted.
So what the inhabitants of Rochardís World ask for? Many things. The head of a Marxist underground movement, who is aware of technologies available outside the New Republic, knows to ask for a cornucopia machine. Other citizens have their wishes fulfilled and, after a very short time, Rochardís World stops all communication with their New Republic masters. Prompted by this outrage, the New Republic sends a fleet of warships to sort things out. The bookís main character, Martin Springfield, is on board as a contractor in charge of configuring the shipís systems so that the New Republicís strategy can be implemented.
The heroís attachments, goals, and ideals all figure into the story, but Singularity Sky is at heart an allegorical warning for what could happen when the authorities try to stifle the free flow of information. The narrative flows well and, just as William Gibson did with Pattern Recognition, Stross manages to encapsulate an entertaining story in what is, in the end, an idea novel.