Fiction Reviews


Capacity

(2005) Tony Ballantyne, Tor, 6.99, pbk, 438 pp, ISBN 978-0-330-42700-5
The North American edition came out in January 2007 from Bantam Spectra

 

OK, our Tony has been banging on about Tony Ballantyne and Capacity, so I simply had to see what all the fuss was about.

It is the 23rd century and humanity has reached the stars as well as having developed cyberspace and artificial intelligence (AI). All this happened following a key transition event (vaguely reminiscent as a mild form of Vernor Vinge's 'singularity'). Then, when a women is kidnapped and scanned so that her cybercopies can be tortured for sadistic pleasure in cyberspace, social care operative Judy (and the cyberspace copies of herself) is (are) tasked to track down the criminals.

Meanwhile an expedition to a world orbiting a star on the very edge of our neighbouring galaxy is having problems. Every AI exploring that world has downgraded itself to that of a simple intelligence. Justinian Sibelius has been sent with another expedition to find out why?

Overseeing all of this is an immensely powerful AI called the Watcher. The Watcher is said to have originally sprung into existence around the time of the transition event when the grid/internet became sufficiently complex, or could it be that the grid became sufficiently developed for a program (unwittingly downloaded as radio astronomy data) to manifest itself on Earth as the AI? Either way the Watcher wants to find out about its origins but at the same time Justinian and Judy wonder what exactly are the Watcher's motives with regards humankind: is its care that benevolent?

Tony Ballantyne lets seasoned hard SF and fans of cyberpunk have it with both barrels in a zero compromise, take no prisoners, novel. Richly plotted and drawing upon many SF tropes, Capacity is so epic in ambition and scope that the unprepared reader might be excused a passing sense of vertigo: it is not an easy read for those new to SF, but the corollary to this is that it will delight many seasoned buffs. The surprising thing, given that this is only the author's second novel, is that it succeeds so well. Indeed his first book is part of the same series as Capacity but it is not necessary to read the first, Recursion, (I did not) as Capacity can be enjoyed in its own right. Tony Ballantyne has set a high bar for himself and it will be most interesting to see how he shapes up in the years to come.

Jonathan Cowie


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