Science Fiction Book Review


(2005) Tony Ballantyne, Tor (UK), £6.99, pbk, 438pp, ISBN 0-330-42700-8
The North American edition came out in January 2007 from Bantam Spectra

This is Ballantyne's second novel and, sadly, I completely missed the first. Once I'd read the first chapter of this book I stopped, went out and hit every bookshop, specialist bookshop, second-hand bookshop and charity shop where I lived, looking for that first book. I mention this for two reasons: one, it's a kind of recommendation in and of itself (the first chapter was well-written enough and the plot intriguing enough to warrent it - and it was clear that one of the second book's characters would appear in a third volume (Divergence), so it seemed reasonable to assume that the first book laid the groundwork for the subsequent volumes), and two, it should go some way to explain any hesitations or 'unknowns' I might come across in this review, since the information I need might have appeared in the first book. Couldn't find it anywhere! Ah well, one day...

So, the situation, as I understand it, is this: sometime in the mid-twenty-first century Earth's computer systems were infested with a virus of (possibly) extraterrestrial origin, and that virus is a god-like intelligence known as the Watcher. It may or may not have dealt with several problems, not least a disease called the White Plague (or Recursion - the title of the first book, but nothing to do with Frank Herbert's book of the same name, er, White Plague, that is, not Recursion); also runaway AI's and three trillion half-formed cloned humans occupying a twenty light year volume of space, also known as the Enemy Domain; and possibly learned from and gained a sense of purpose from a human woman called Eva Rye. Sometime later, in the late 22nd century, Earth went through a stage known as the Transition which appears to have given equal rights to humans, AIs, personality constructs, robots, Von Neumann Machines and Turing Machines. Earth is under the (nominal) control of the Environment Agency (with a very wide definition of what constitutes the 'environment') and its citizens (of all types) are cared for by the operatives of Social Care (with similarly wide definitions of what constitutes 'social' and 'care').

With me so far? Anyway this book is set in two times, 2223 and 2240, where the events of the former are a mystery to a character in the later time period. In 2223 a character called Justinian is sent to a planet called Gateway, mid-way between the Milky Way and M32, which has been visited by 32 AIs, each of which has committed 'suicide' by severing their higher functions within hours of arrival. His job is to find out why. With him he has his, initially nameless, fifteen month old baby and a robot-cum-AI called Leslie. There is also a phenomenon on the planet called Schrödinger boxes which seem to pop in and out of existence as and when they are noticed (i.e. observed). Are they linked to the AIs' suicides and why, out of all humanity, has Justinian been chosen to investigate? In 2240 a Social Care operative called Judy, who is both 'real space' human and has 12 digital personality construct avatars, is investigating a man called Kevin who runs a private network on which he runs illegally obtained personality constructs so that others may torture and rape them (or otherwise have fun). Judy saves a woman called Helen from one of these processing spaces, but in so doing is informed that a murder has been committed and, further, that the murderer is none other than the Watcher! While the investigation into Kevin continues, Judy's attention is drawn to the events of 2223 and the fate of Justinian. Could it be true that Humankind's benefactor really is a murderer and, if so, why?

There is loads more but, hopefully, this brief rundown should have stimulated your appetite to read this book and, like me, seek out both Recursion and, when it comes out, Divergence. In other words, highly recommended.

Tony Chester

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