Rights for Lobsters?

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Review of 'Accelerando', Charles Stross, Orbit £16.99

The opening of Accelerando features Manfred Macx, who spends his time coming up with new ideas. He then copyrights them and signs over the rights to the Free Intellect Foundation. He earns nothing from this but goodwill, so they can be used by anyone. As Macx proceeds around the world, paying for nothing thanks to the grateful people he meets, he is contacted by some lobsters who were uploaded onto the internet as part of an experiment by the Russian government and have evolved into sentient beings. The lobsters want freedom - Macx engineers this, and sends them out into space. The lobsters find something in space and a message comes back, but the only one who understands it is Macx's cat. The story that follows covers several generations of his family and raises a number of questions.

Do the lobsters have rights? If they can evolve sentience what about other artificial intelligences? What if humans could upload your memories, your personality, onto the internet - would it be sentient? What rights would it have? Would it be a separate person? What if you uploaded several versions of yourself? Would they all have rights? If one version committed a crime, would the other versions be liable? What about artificial intelligences - would they have rights?

The question of what makes something a sentient, self-conscious being and what rights they should have is a theme that has been touched on many times in science fiction. Accelerando goes beyond this and looks at the impact of technological change not just on individuals, but on wider society and the economy. It raises a number of bigger questions - for example how copyright laws and commercial confidentiality hold back technological innovation, and limit access to new ideas and technology. In one section Manfred works with an Italian Communist politician to develop 'Economics 1.0', a computer algorithm which uses the massive developments in technology to eliminate scarcity in a number of commodities, therefore eliminating the need for the market to distribute them - it matches resources with demand more efficiently than the market.

Accelerando is a science fiction novel that poses a lot of questions about the society in which we live and its future. Many of them are not really resolved, and as the book moves into the future a number of different problems arise and solutions are tried. It takes up a lot of themes that have been covered many times before, but it is well written and pushes the boundaries a bit. It contains many ideas, some contradictory, some far-fetched and utopian, but that is what science fiction should be about - looking at the future so as to raise questions about the society in which we live now.

If you like science fiction then Charles Stross is definitely an author to read. If you are not sure, in this case an easy solution is at hand - the author has put the entire book online for people to download. So you can either read it all on your computer or at the very least try before you buy. Visit www.accelerando.org.