Fiction Reviews

The Demi-Monde: Winter

(2011) Rod Rees, Quercus, £14.99, trdpbk, xxii + 522pp, ISBN 978-1-849-16303-3

It is 2018 only a few years into the future and British (who else) research has developed quantum computing and its first major application: a computer simulated world called Demi-Monde.  The technology is not (yet) openly available and the first to apply it are the military: in this case the US military.  They use Demi-Monde as a virtual battle ground to train troops.  However, because the US has in recent decades seen its military engagements to be asymmetric (a technically strong US against a technically weak opposition albeit with considerable local knowledge and native support) so Demi-Monde is used to train soldiers to fight in such arenas. The world of Demi-Monde is circular, some 30 or so miles across, and divided into sectors that are in effect mini-states with characteristics of various real nations.  To ensure that Demi-Monde provides an asymmetric battle environment, the technology of Demi-Monde inhabitants' cultures are loosely based on 19th century scientific understanding. Yet the simulation must have been allowed to run a number of (simulated) years (it is the year 1004 in Demi-Monde) and so there are some differences with the real 19th century that are largely of a steampunk nature. For instance, there are steamers that are steam-driven loose equivalents to military tanks and armoured cars.

The Demi-Monde inhabitants are sentient and think that they and their world is real (a bit like the artificial inhabitants of Greg Egan's Permutation City (1994)) and so have developed philosophies to account for what they consider to be life, the universe and everything.

To give 'Real World' training soldiers a degree of familiarity, yet at the same time a clear sense of being in a foreign place, there are parodies of the real world such as: the Awful Tower instead of the Eiffel Tower; Real World attitudes and religions, for example, the principal religion of the matriarchal sector (the Coven) is 'HerEticalism'; and in this sector people's sexual orientation is commonly 'LessBien', a play on the Demi-Monde word 'MostBien' and a corruption of the 'Real World' term 'lesbien'. There are in fact numerous such terms but thankfully Rees has given us 12-page appendix summarising it all.

To spice matters up, and to ensure that there is a genuinely hostile environment in which for soldiers to train, among Demi-Monde's inhabitants are artificial reconstructs (dupes) of a score or so megalomaniacs including Heydrich, Beria, Torquemada, and Robespierre. If that were not enough, the entire population is somewhat stressed by having to include in their diet a small (but regular) quantity of blood but the Demi-Monde's own artificial inhabitants (Dupes) do not have blood and cannot bleed. Blood instead is allocated in rations proportional to a sector's population through Blood Banks and is commonly consumed as a weak and alcoholic solution called 'Solution'. Blood therefore becomes a resource for which to compete (fight). However while Dupes cannot bleed, humans from the Real World, in Demi-Monde can bleed and are known as (commonly thought only legendary) Daemons.

Much of all of the above comes out of just the novel's first few chapters, so you can see that Rees' Demi-Monde: Winter is a novel that is based on a richly crafted world. The story itself concerns the US President's daughter who had visited Demi-Monde but been captured by the SS (Soldiers of Spiritualism that are loosely based on the WWII SS). Unfortunately, you simply cannot unplug someone from Demi-Monde as they will die: humans from the Real World (Daemons) have to leave Demi-Monde through specific portals. Another problem is that if you die in Demi-Monde then the shock kills you in the Real World. (Both points the author cites but just a little too briefly.) Much is also provided to the reader through short info-dumps in the form of short notes at the beginning of each chapter. This could be seen as being a weakness of the novel as the general writers' rule is to 'show' not 'tell', however such is the richness of the Demi-Monde world that such info-dumps are necessary.

And so jazz singer Ella Thomas is recruited by the US military to enter Demi-Monde through a computer back door as a black (Shade) singer to rescue the President's daughter…

Now if all the above seems a little chaotic, let me assure you that it is not: it is just that the author has created an artificial world of sufficient complexity so as to engender belief in it by both his characters and the novel's readers. Furthermore, Rod Rees' writing style is easy on the eye.  The only criticism here (and it is not really a negative criticism) is that the story bounds along by-passing boring bits by turning to a different character's perspective elsewhere, but because of this it does not always flow quite as easily as it might. Here, though, the benefits of skipping along and the info dumps distinctly outweigh the potential downside of the alternative in that the book, already over 500 pages long, would be even longer if some stylistic shortcuts were not made. A further benefit is that the novel is a proverbial page-turner which is surely something to which most debut authors aspire.

It is not for me to give you spoilers, suffice to say that Demi-Monde: Winter will be followed by Demi-Monde: Spring, Summer and Autumn. While this first novel does have a distinct ending there is clearly much more material to explore both in plot, the exploration of the Demi-Monde world, and importantly in SFnal terms.

I am very confident, having read Winter, that the author can deliver fulfilling sequels both in terms of exploring Demi-Monde (in this first novel we do not go everywhere in this Demi-Monde construct) and also in terms of plot (and here I would like to learn more of Demi-Monde's first uses).  However the science fiction dimension to this first novel is not nearly as strongly presented as are these other two aspects of exploration and plot.  Now, in the real 'Real World' we have for the past half decade been seeing papers in journals like Science and Nature that relate to various aspects of quantum computing. So in the real world we should expect the first actual quantum computer in a matter of decades with commercial rollout shortly after that. Yet Demi-Monde: Winter is only set a few years into the future and they already have a proto-type quantum computer application.  This means that in Rees' fictional novel Real World both military research into quantum computing must already be decades ahead of our own civilian research and also very covert.  This has social, political and a raft of other implications for potential plot development and its SFnal aspects.  The set up we are given also suggests that Demi-Monde type technology might be about to go public and have further applications.  Here there are further theoretical implications for the potential for the complete downloading (and separation) of a human personality into an artificial world, hence a kind of immortality which in turn has its own commercial, let alone ethical implications as to what is in effect virtual cloning.  Then there are the theoretical implications for some of the Real World visitors (Daemons) to Demi-Monde to have superpowers: indeed Ella already does have a superpower of a kind in that she has the ability to know the innermost secrets of any Demi-Monde native resident (Dupe) she touches. (She is considered a clairvoyant.)  Finally, there are clear implications as to the Dupes' relationship with the Real World, the way they can theoretically perceive things and the possibility for extrapolation (such as to interact with other aspects of cyberspace). Seasoned SF readers finishing Demi-Monde:Winter will have much to think about.  All of which, if not explored in this quadrilogy, clearly demonstrates that there is the potential for hard-SF further work.  In short, there are tremendous possibilities for the author to explore above and beyond the construct of Demi-Monde itself, and I sincerely hope Rod Rees does for more of the same simply will not do given the expectation he raises with this first novel: he really needs to go to the next level (forgive the computer gaming term).

To sum up, Demi-Monde: Winter is a magnificent debut novel, a first step, that fires the imagination in the way that only truly good SF can.

Yes, in case you had not already guessed, I did rather like it.

Jonathan Cowie

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