Fiction Reviews

How Noble in Reason

(2006) Alyn Rockwood, A K Peters, 16.95 / US$24.95, hrdbk, 207 pp, ISBN 1-568-81288-4


It is the near future and full-blown artificial intelligence (AI) has just been developed. There are just a handful of these sentiences (that the public knows of). It is a time when AI research is steaming ahead and the implications for society down the line are more than significant and some politicians are getting a little nervous. Then one of the prototype AIs gets wiped by a precise electromagnetic pulse that unfortunately also stops the pacemaker of one of the research staff. Either way, whether or not you consider that AIs can be murdered, this is murder. Someone needs to take the fall and Andy Rasmusson is in the frame. Yet as a leading AI researcher himself he could be too important. Nonetheless it transpires that someone is out to get him...

Alyn Rockwood is a postgraduate mathematician who qualified from Cambridge University (the US one I think and not the UK?). This is though his first fiction book. Furthermore it is A. K. Peters Ltd first book, they normally publish academic and technical fact. So this is a bit of an experiment for both publisher and author. Here both deserve some credit for taking this step, albeit I suspect that they have a professional history that pre-dates this but there is nothing wrong in that. The question is how do their respective contributions to this venture shape up?

First Alyn as a fiction author. The back cover has promo-quotes from Piers Anthony and Rudy Rucker. These clearly signal that How Nobel in Reason is aimed at the SF market. Certainly the idea of AI is an SF trope and the occasional science reference supports that this is the direction the author intends in going. From the reader perspective the seasoned SF aficionado will find the SF content a bit sparse, though there is enough technological content (electronic bugging etc.) to keep the pages turning. Indeed the plot itself develops satisfactorily and comes to a sound conclusion with enough clues dropped along the way to suggest at least part of the ending but not enough to make the thing entirely predictable. So from a first fiction point of view Alyn Rockwood acquits himself well.

From the publisher side, while it is a delight to see a technical and science non-fiction publishing house delve into fiction, and this is to be commended, they do have a problem with the editing (fiction editing is different to non-fiction editing). The biggest comes with the narrative breaks, some of which were missing and one of which should have been a chapter break (there being a gap of a few years in the story between paragraphs). I suspect that the editor was in fact largely proofreading and, of course, there is more to editing than that. Yet once the reader realises this, this glitch is easily accommodated even if it is a little irritating. The real problem the publisher has is deciding to which market they are publishing. Now you don't have to be part of a multi-national publishing outfit to get a lucrative return but you do have to have both a good book and access to the appropriate market. With How Noble in reason they have a reasonable title, but will it appeal to the SF market? Certainly a number of SF readers will get off on this novel but I suspect this particular title's real market will be the techno-thriller one: there's not enough SF to really get the sense-of-wonder juices flowing even if the story cracks a long with ample page-turning drive. If Peters Ltd go paperback with this then I'd personally give more of a market push in the techno-thriller direction though give the SF one a shot too as you never know.

Again, from the author's side I'd decide to whom the book is aimed. If going for the SF market (which is why I presume we have been sent a review copy) I would up the science content and the bigger (not to mention also subtler) implications of it all. Alyn Rockwood's academic knowledge occasionally shines through and the idea of flashing AIs, for example, as a status check is a neat one. (Here perhaps you can tell I'm a bioscientist and not a computer one?) It would have been great if I could have said that this book furthers the direction Gibson went in the 1980s: I cannot, but I have a niggling sense that Alyn Lockwood might perhaps have the potential to do just that(?). Of course currently SF has moved on from the 1980s. Though today (2006) not everything need be as rich as say Charles Stross' Accelerando that takes AI implications to the limit, writers do need to be aware of where currently the genre is at: How Noble in Reason would arguably have caused quite an SF stir had it come out in the late 1970s. Even so the SF-techno-thriller border can work very well (cf. Paul McAuley's Mind's Eye), so who am I to comment.

If you are an SF reader who is also into thrillers then I'm happy to commend Rockwood's first fiction offering. I sincerely hope it will not be his last and I'd certainly be interested if his next offering was further into SF territory with more science and relevance/implications thereof. Nonetheless this first effort could fall between two marketing stools. If it does I hope it does not push the author from having another go.

Jonathan Cowie

A.. K. Peters Ltd's UK distributors are: Transatlantic Publishers Group, London.

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