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Jury Service

by Stross & Doctorow

online edition

I don't, as a rule, read much fiction online, but I made an exception for "Jury Service", a free novella at scifi.com by Charles Stross and Cory Doctorow. I've enjoyed Stross's online vitriol for years, and Doctorow is one of the contributors to boingboing.net, an excellent source of cool and interesting links. So I already know they're entertaining and technologically astute, with their fingers on the pulse of something or other, which was enough for me to give their collaboration a try.

I'm not going to use words like "extropian" and "post-Singularity" to describe "Jury Service", because I've never figured out exactly what they mean, and you probably haven't either. Instead, I'll call it one of those post-cyberpunk stories like those of Ken Macleod and Bruce Sterling, where nanotech and smart matter have made pretty much anything possible, but the Earth's still kind of a run-down toilet.

The more adventurous human population has been absorbed into the vaguely benevolent but untrustworthy cybernetic hive-mind that spans the lower solar system. This post-human "metasphere" intermittently spams the Earth with how-to instructions for advanced technology, which may have effects that range from the tremendously beneficial to the end of what currently passes for human civilization. The decisions to allow or ban these new technologies are made by volunteer juries. Our viewpoint character, Huw, has just been selected for jury service; he does his best to serve, despite an itchy technovirus, the apathy of the proletariat, and a couple of truly awful moments on bathroom floors.

The sheer density of sufficiently magical technology is notable. Every other sentence contains a passing reference to configurable rooms, talking teapots, smart clothes, and all kinds of bodymod, which is likely to make the story largely opaque to inexperienced readers of science fiction. It's a common characteristic of this subgenre, but some authors handle it with more grace than others. (Nobody does talking appliances quite like Michael Marshall Smith. If you like this sort of thing, find yourself a copy of his novel Only Forward, which deserves to be vastly better known than it is.) The ubertech factor in "Jury Service" is occasionally so thick that it's difficult to tell whether it's sincere or ironic. I had the same problem with Paul di Filippo's stories in Ribofunk: how do you identify the line between intentional parody and self-parody?

The characters range from cardboard to caricature. I don't mind that too much in a story of this length, particularly since the dialog is generally sharp. The plot is deceptively streamlined. Nobody is to be trusted, of course, and all the plot elements dovetail in a pleasantly paranoid manner.

"Jury Service" isn't especially ground-breaking or meaningful, but it's amusing, with some nifty ideas about the perils of distributed enthusiasm, and a few truly funny visuals. You'll either enjoy it, or give up on it by the third paragraph.

-- Christina Schulman.
Reviewed in
January 2003

online edition
Publisher: SciFi.com
Date: December 2002
Binding: online
Price: free

If you like this book, you will probably also enjoy:

Wil McCarthy: Bloom

Michael Marshall Smith: Only Forward

Bruce Sterling: A Good Old-Fashioned Future
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Jan 2003 / CMS