I finally figured out that I like Charles Stross better when he’s being funny than when he’s being preachy. His short fiction collection Wireless offers both. My favorite entries were “Rogue Farm” and “Trunk and Disorderly.” The former is a sly future backwoods noir that almost lives up to its killer opening:
It was a bright, cool March morning: mare’s trails trailed across the southeastern sky toward the rising sun. Joe shivered slightly in the driver’s seat as he twisted the starter handle on the old front-loader he used to muck out the barn. Like its owner, the ancient Massey Ferguson had seen better days; but it had survived worse abuse than Joe routinely handed out. The diesel clattered, spat out a gobbet of thick blue smoke, and chattered to itself dyspeptically. His mind as blank as the sky above, Joe slid the tractor into gear, raised the front scoop, and began turning it toward the open doors of the barn — just in time to see an itinerant farm coming down the road.
“Trunk and Disorderly” catapults a Bertie Wooster figure into interplanetary intrigue studded with broad jokes: a Dalek-resembling character who barks words like “Inebriate,” or, when randy, “Inseminate”; a high-tech take on Marvel Comics’ Silver Surfer; and a villain with full-on James Bond-style expository megalomania. There’s also a bad-tempered, often drunken, pachyderm. Stross sustains the tone throughout the piece, and if it doesn’t approach the droll heights of Woodhouse’s comedies of manners, it delivers far more raygun-blazing action.
Least successful for me was “Unwirer,” a cautionary fable about the consequences of restrictions on information flow, co-authored with Cory Doctorow.
Fans of The Atrocity Archive and The Jennifer Morgue will be pleased by the inclusion of a story featuring their protagonist Bob Howard; I thought it was the most successful (and least one-note) of the shorter pieces in in Stross’s spy+otherwordly horrors milieu. Similar in background but darker in tone are “Missile Gap” and “A Colder War.”
The collection also features a brief joke piece that enjoy the unusual distinction of originally being published by Nature, “Snowball’s Chance,” a deal-with-the-Devil story that manages to be funny and preachy, and Palimpsest, a time-travel novella of daunting complexity, and perhaps the most epic scope — spanning literally trillions of years — of any piece of short fiction I’ve read. It requires a fairly high degree of tolerance for adjoining sentences with various powers of ten, like “‘Over the two and and a half million epochs accessible to s — each of which lasts for a million years — we shall have reseeded starter populations nearly twenty-one million times, with an average extinction period of sixty-nine thousand years,'” not to mention drastic shifts in narrative perspective. And some preachy bits, despite which I liked it more than not.
needs more demons? too close to call.