Fiction Reviews


(2007) Tony Ballantyne, Tor UK, 10.99, pbk, 328pp, ISBN 978-0-330-4-4650-1


Ballantyne's third novel is a continuation of the 'Watcher' series begun in Recursion and continued in Capacity. The action mainly takes place in 2252 where Judy, a former operative of 'social care', following the murder of her twelve cyberspace avatars by the artificial intelligence, Kevin (last volume), is attempting to escape the influence of the Watcher, itself a viral AI from 'outer space', which has increased its hold upon the Earth, not least by releasing the empathy increasing drug MTPH into the air and food supply. Judy is on a spaceship which, like many others fleeing the Watcher's care, is trying to make a life for itself and crew as interstellar traders, many of which are now using software called 'Fair Exchange' to transact their business.  On Earth, the Watcher is under assault by the AI Chris which is using Schroedinger Boxes (and the subsequent Black Velvet Bands) to attack the population). As the growth of the boxes is encouraged by being observed, the Watcher has no choice but to sterilise areas where they appear, including any of the human population that happens to be caught in those areas. Judy, however, it seems is being driven back toward Earth by Chris, and even by the Fair Exchange software, seemingly at the behest of the supposedly vanished mega-corporation DIANA which claims that Judy is their property as they own her genome. The action is intercut with the story of Eva Rye in 2089, she being the first human that the Watcher encountered. Before its influence became global, Eva tried to outrun it by moving to Russia (effectively reduced to the status of a third world country) where she becomes a carer in a commune of disabled people. But the Watcher wants Eva back and is not above using her romantic attachment to an engineer to try to force her back within the sphere of its influence. Somehow it seems that Judy can communicate with Eva through shared memories... There are also sundry diversions into the 2240's outlining the Watcher's battles with Chris and Kevin and, aboard Judy's ship, the robot Constantine who witnessed the birth and death of an AI in an experiment controlled by the Watcher. In other words, there is a lot going on and, sad to say, depending on your point of view, you will not get very far with this book unless you have read the previous volumes. The complexity is such that if you try to just jump into the story with this book, you will quickly become frustrated and lost.

That caveat aside, it has to be said that over all this trilogy has been fascinating, and a very good read too. Despite the huge complexity, everything is cleared up in the end, though the reader will continue to think about aspects of the story long past the last page (I am still contemplating Kevin, who claims not to be an artificial intelligence, months after finishing the book). Ballantyne, on the evidence of these three books, is definitely going to be a talent worth keeping an eye on. Not only is his writing convincing in and of itself, it is greatly to his credit that, in a trilogy with so many twists and turns, time periods and characters, that the reader is never lost, and everything can be readily 'kept straight' despite the complexities. I will be cheerfully looking for further books from Ballantyne and, needless to say, Recursion, Capacity and Divergence are all heartily recommended.

Tony Chester

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