Reality 36 by Guy Haley
I suppose, when you want to construct a new universe, you’re forced to start with people. It’s only fair some humans should get a look in. Then you think about augmenting some of them. This could be genetic — parents designing their offspring to be in whoever’s image they thought most desirable. Or, perhaps, just designing for effect, regardless of appearance. Then we could have various degrees of cloning so that our humans could avoid problems of defective organs by being able to whip one up in a petrie dish. Or you could go the whole hog (metaphorically speaking, of course, even though pigs are supposedly genetically close to humanity) and clone more or less a whole body. Yet this is not necessarily good enough. At the end of the day, humans are all soft tissue and relatively fragile bones. How much more secure you might feel if you became a cyborg. All this improvement is going to depend on a lot of high-powered computer technology, so let’s create different levels of AI from the barely sentient to the clever ones. This is, of course, the tried and tested trope of the singularity where we potentially get what, to mere humans, would appear superintelligence in all parts of this system — that’s not counting the possibility of uplifting animals to some level of awareness. There will also be political strains as different groups may view the others as threats to their continued existence if not prosperity. If there’s actual conflict, the original humans are merely cannon-fodder and unlikely to survive in numbers.
As a final touch, we have a mirror to Iain M Bank’s Surface Detail in which real-world societies have created virtual realities. In the Bank’s use of this possibility, there are virtual Heavens and Hells. Guy Haley has us take an interest in Reality 36 (Angry Robot, 2011), one of the many worlds created for use by virtual gamers, but later given protected status. Morally, it doesn’t do to create “people” whose only function is to be victims for human game-players intent on exterminating them. So real humans have been barred from the virtual worlds, each of which is allowed to develop along the lines laid down in the original specifications. There’s supposedly an academic team (including AIs) monitoring what goes on in the servers and on the virtual worlds, with a policing agency charged with enforcing the rules of human non-interference.
Against this background, it would be possible to produce many different types of drama from relatively small scale to major action across both real and virtual worlds but, intrinsically, they would all be the same story exploring what this “world” considers a person, what level of rights each type of person will enjoy, and how the different types interact. Guiding us through this terrain are two different types of person. Richards is a class 5 AI who’s fascinated by the use of his powers as a detective. When he manifests, it’s as a 1930‘s PI and he has honed his skills to maximise his investigative abilities. He has also made a friend of Otto Klein, a military cyborg who, when not working as a stalking horse for Richards, freelances as “muscle” although he’s rather more than that. We start off with Richards doing his best to capture a particularly elusive criminal only to find this is a feint to lure Klein into a trap. In a separate narrative thread, Veronique Valdaire finds her relatively quiet academic world disturbed when her boss disappears.
The common denominator proves to be the events occurring in the titular Reality 36 and the adjacent areas of the servers. This means we switch up the scale fairly dramatically when the two major narrative threads converge and pitch our warriors into battle both on the real Earth and in the aforementioned reality. As we might predict, this is all a preliminary skirmish to what could prove to be a major war between the persons who believe they are the most superior and the rest.
I get the idea of an AI. Back in the 1970s and 80s, I spent a considerable amount of time working on expert systems so I understand the problems in what would need to be done to create an autonomous machine. I’ve also read a significant number of SF books about making them and fighting them. But I don’t get where all the code comes from to make each person in a virtual reality autonomous. In other books, people upload digital versions of themselves into these gaming or other realities. Assuming enough bandwidth and online memory capacity, large numbers of “people” can therefore exist in these machine-supported environments. But Guy Haley assumes humans have been prevented from jacking into these worlds, leaving only the machine-generated people behind. So are we supposed to assume the AIs replicate smaller versions of themselves to populate these worlds? Or does each “individual” somehow evolve from a non-sentient piece of code? Take Ulgan the merchant in Reality 36 as an example of this problem. He certainly seems to act and react as an archetypal lazy but greedy person. It would be not unreasonable for such a being to be given protected legal status. But what about an orc or some other mythological creature with a language and culture? What would the criteria be for deciding whether such a being should be protected?
You may wonder why I’m focussing on these issues. The answer lies in two of the important characters. Zhang Qifang was the leading light in establishing a legal framework of machine-intelligence rights, and Hughie at Eupol Central is a stickler for enforcing the rules. A little more work explaining the relationship between the different levels of internet, how the interfaces work, and how the laws define the different classes of person would be appreciated. I also note that an atomic bomb is dropped on a part of London during this book and there’s hardly a second thought about it. While I personally would not mind seeing London removed from the map in current reality, a few words referring to the consequences would give the fictional event a little more substance and credibility.
This is not to say there are major flaws in this book. But I prefer things to be neat and tidy and, although this is an excellent attempt, I feel the creativity is a little superficial. That said, I found reading this book highly enjoyable. There’s a certain restrained exuberance at work and, despite the problems, I was pulled through to the end. I wanted to know how it would be left. Guy Haley is a journalist and editor making the transition into fiction and he gives himself a challenge. It’s always difficult to make a reader care about an AI as a hero, but Richards (aka Lazarus) does manage to come back from wherever AIs might go when existence ceases courtesy of a little back-up storage and the work of some enterprising forensic autopsy experts. I found him likeable. Similarly, Otto Klein has various physical problems and is not invulnerable. We get a sense he could die during some of his escapades. So Reality 36 is a good read, full of incident and building to a not unpredictable cliffhanger. It’s definitely worth picking up. The sequel, for those of you who want to join me in following their adventures, is called Omega Point.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.